Fragrances From The Spice Trail

I spent much of last year traveling and researching the way spices and other aromatics are grown. My pursuit took me to the clove gardens in Indonesia, cumin fields in India, and the cassia cinnamon groves in Vietnam. The word ‘spice’ contains the same root as the word ’special,’ and I wanted to discover how these unique fragrant plants are transformed into essences and used in perfumery.

The journey was full of revelations. I learned, for instance, that processing clove essence involves not the buds of the tree, the familiar cloves of mulled wine and gingerbread, but rather the stems and leaves. All parts of the clove tree contain essential oil with varying scent profiles. The leaves release sweet-smelling essence, but the one derived from the stems has a smoky, woody accent.

One of my favorite examples of the use of clove is Frédéric Malle’s Noir Epices. The composition is based on a warm citrus accord, but clove, along with cinnamon, nutmeg, and black pepper, gives it a rich character. Perfumer Michel Roudnitska resisted the temptation to sweeten the blend, allowing the dry woody nuances of the spices to stand unvarnished. The result is luminous and multifaceted.

Cumin is a spice strongly associated with the cooking of the Indian subcontinent, and it’s widely grown for both culinary and cosmetic uses. Raw cumin smells animalic and musky, but as anyone who has toasted cumin seeds knows, when warmed over fire, the spice’s scent changes dramatically. It becomes caramelized and nutty. Recently, toasted cumin essence has become part of the perfumer’s palette, and in Hermès’s Epice Marine it adds a savory twist to the earthy vetiver and citrus cologne. The lemony cardamom, another favorite Indian spice, adds its shimmering top note, while the mellow cedarwood serves as a polished backdrop. In the meantime, the dark note of cumin glows seductively.

Traveling along the spice route, I kept coming across cassia cinnamon. It’s a different botanical from the “true” Ceylon cinnamon, and while cassia’s scent is sweeter and less complex, it plays an important role in perfumery. It adds a vivid explosion of fiery sweetness to any blend, even in small amounts. I particularly like the way cassia cinnamon inflects Dior’s Spice Blend, a fragrance inspired by Bay Rum lotion. Several spices are woven through this elegant composition, such as ginger, black pepper, and vanilla, but it’s the kiss of cinnamon that gives it a delicious, familiar touch. Spice Blend invites one to take a deep inhale and think of all things warm and comforting.

What are your favorite spices and spice perfumes?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin



  • Marsi: Fascinating travels. When I was a moody teenager, I’d sometimes smoke a clove cigarette. They tasted awful to me, but the smell was so beautiful. I hadn’t thought of that in decades until you mentioned cloves.

    My favorite spices are cardamom, saffron, and cumin. I love Persian and Indian cuisine.

    I wonder if L’Artisan still makes Safran Troublant? Such an odd, but delicious one. I have about a third of a bottle left. July 3, 2023 at 9:27am Reply

    • Pat Borow: I remember those clove cigarettes. They were popular at 70’s rock concerts. It was as if one of those could scent a stadium! July 3, 2023 at 10:01am Reply

    • Bexca: Safran Troublant has been discontinued. However, it was originally a limited edition and someone requested Dawn Spencer Hurwitz make something similar so she’d never have to be without it, so Cimabue from DSH is similar. July 3, 2023 at 10:55am Reply

      • Nina Z: Cimabue is a gorgeous saffron fragrance! I don’t think it smells that similar to Safran Troublant, which is a rose and saffron combination, but it is a gorgeous spicy fragrance. July 3, 2023 at 12:37pm Reply

    • maja: I love Noir Epices, such a masterpiece. Another clove I love is Etro Magot, there is something comforting about it.
      As for the cumin, probably Rose 31.
      Cinnamon is one of the notes I love in desserts but not so much in a perfume. L de Lolita is pretty nice but I don’t wear it often.

      Your journeys sound amazing as usual. ❤️ July 3, 2023 at 11:04am Reply

      • maja: Sorry for replying where I wasn’t supposed to. 🙂 July 3, 2023 at 11:05am Reply

  • Tara C: My favorite is Noir Épices too. :-). Guerlain Lui also has a nice spice note. July 3, 2023 at 10:31am Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you so much for a wonderful tour of the spices, a favorite is cardamom like in Voyage, pink pepper, so popular I can’t pick a single example as it seems to be in every other perfume and cinnamon like Diptyque l’Eau and Molto Missoni which is also my prettiest bottle. July 3, 2023 at 10:36am Reply

  • Maya: For me cumin is the ultimate cooking spice. However -until recently- I had a difficult time when it appeared in perfume. Something changed in me lately and I find that I like it. In Dyptique’s eau Capital it is wonderful as well as In Sisley’s eau de Soir. July 3, 2023 at 10:50am Reply

  • Hamamelis: Fenugreek, saffron, cardamon, cumin and black cumin (nigella sativa) are my favourite spices. My favourite spice perfumes are Neela Vermeire Trayee and l’Artisan Safrant Troublant. Thank you for the interesting post! July 3, 2023 at 11:46am Reply

  • Kimberly: Victoria, I enjoy reading about your exotic travels. How fascinating to discover the origins of all the spices that we take for granted.

    There is a book called ‘How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World’ by Majorie Priceman. I read the book with my children years ago. Then we made an apple pie.

    You could write a book titled ‘How to Make a Perfume and See the World. July 3, 2023 at 1:51pm Reply

  • Sarah Brooks: Thank you for sharing your insights with us! It’s always so inspiring to read about your travels and what you’ve learned. In terms of spicy perfumes, one of my very favorites is Hermès Poivre Samarcande with its cumin, pepper, cedar and oak … love it. July 3, 2023 at 3:50pm Reply

  • Sam: I adore spices both in perfume and in cooking. Lately I’ve been putting nutmeg in everything, including my blueberry pie and yesterday, my graham cracker crust. My favorite spicy perfumes include Neela Vermeire Trayee, Shiseido Feminite du Bois, Serge Lutens Bois Oriental. Oh, and Serge Lutens Rousse. Also, my mother’s beloved CK Obsession. Thank you for this lovely blend of information and travel writing. July 3, 2023 at 5:13pm Reply

  • Danica: Kenzo Jungle!!! Still gorgeous and today it smells new and fresh in the context of what’s out there. July 3, 2023 at 7:23pm Reply

  • Celeste A. Church: I agree with Kenzie Jungle L’Eliphant….the craziest, loudest, most beautiful spice scent I’ve ever smelled. I just went and put some on! July 3, 2023 at 7:59pm Reply

  • Deanna: Could we include Femme here?
    On account of the cumin.
    So beautiful, but perhaps because it’s cheap and easily available it’s somewhat ignored. July 4, 2023 at 6:30am Reply

  • Nina Zolotow: I love spicy fragrances in general because I find them very uplifting, especially when the weather is very dreary. Probably my favorite spice in perfume is clove (how sad it is restricted now, particularly for carnation perfumes, which I love). I also like cinnamon.

    If I’m honest with myself, I’d say my favorite spicy perfume is one no one ever talks about: Eau Lente from Diptyque. It’s a total spice bomb softened with an opoponax base, which is a little powdery but not amber-y. I also like L’Eau and L’Eau de L’Eau from Diptyque for lighter, more sheer spiciness, like in the summer.

    I wish I had some Caron Poivre–have tested it only–which is an amazing spice fragrance with both pepper and clove. Just had to put a word in for that classic!

    My favorite cinnamon accented fragrance is Fate Woman from Amouage. July 4, 2023 at 5:56pm Reply

  • Muzo: I want to spell some forgotten formulas as Ambre de Crabtree and Evelyn, Cinnabar de Estee Lauder, Youth Dew de meme maison,Must de Cartier, Ambre et Vanille de L’Occitane ,Bewerly Hills de Gale Hayman etc July 5, 2023 at 10:25am Reply

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