Mandy Aftel says the idea for her perfume Sepia came while she was driving through ghost towns in California’s gold rush country. “I was struck by their desolate splendor…the beauty of ruins and old buildings and the countryside,” says Aftel, a niche perfumer based in Berkeley.
Sepia opens with notes of mandarin and blood cedarwood, moves into coffee, cocoa, and pink lotus, and culminates with musky flowering tobacco, ambergris (an intestinal by-product of sperm whales), and cèpe (porcini mushroom). You can almost see faded wooden structures baking in the sun as they release scent ghosts of yesteryear.
Many of today’s perfumers seek to capture the essence of place with the fidelity of Ansel Adams. From forests to beaches, from an entire city to one building, the alchemical wizards of scent are concocting fragrances that conjure locations throughout the West.
Many “perfumes of place” aren’t mall scents from multinationals like Lancôme or Coty; they’re small-batch fragrances made by independent perfumers who, in their aesthetics, align more with craft brewers and artisanal bakers and cheese makers. Franco Wright, cofounder of Scent Bar, a Los Angeles store specializing in niche perfumes, says that both perfumers and customers are drawn to fragrances that trigger memories of place. “We’re seeing more of this trend,” he says. “When we smell something familiar that brings to mind a location, there’s an instant connection…. Consumers become increasingly curious about how these elements are realized in fragrance form.”
In Portland, world-renowned Powell’s Books introduced an eponymous unisex fragrance last fall that it described as smelling like secret libraries, ancient scrolls, and “cognac swilled by philosopher-kings.” The scent, made for Powell’s by Demeter Fragrance Library, was already sold out by January. It plays off the fact that wood-based paper emits a faint vanilla as chemicals break down.
Perfumes of place sit at an intriguing crossroads of art, commerce, psychology, and synesthesia. A 2014 Hammer Museum show teamed Saskia Wilson-Brown of the Los Angeles–based Institute for Art and Olfaction with perfumers and sound architects to create an immersive olfactory trip from LAX to Tokyo. Blindfolded participants sat in chairs as various fragrances and ambient music simulated the voyage’s scents and sounds.
Upscale Le Labo, a former indie perfumer now owned by the Estée Lauder Companies, has capitalized on the trend with its City Exclusives line. The San Francisco–inspired scent, Limette 37, features lime, bergamot, jasmine, petitgrain, clove, vetiver, and tonka bean, while Los Angeles’s Musc 25 smells of soft, creamy musk, ambergris, patchouli, rose, amber, and vetiver. Because the scent of a city is subjective, niche perfumer Gallivant’s fragrance Los Angeles takes a different approach, embracing aromatic clary sage, eucalyptus, heavy narcissus and tuberose, and a smoky wood base.
Beverly Hills perfumer Keiko Mecheri brings her cross-cultural sensibility (born in Japan, studied in Europe, lives in California) to her creations Mulholland and Canyon Dreams. A Blvd. Called Sunset, by A Lab on Fire in collaboration with Maurice Roucel, is a toast to L.A.’s iconic thoroughfare, with citrus, almond, and marine-inflected notes and lashings of leather that invoke the city’s biker and metal clubs. For those looking for something less, well, ripe, a popular subgenre of forest fragrances favors pines over punk. Farther north, Sonoma Scent Studio (Pacific Forest), RoseBud Perfume Lab in Chico (Shasta Essence), and Oakland-based Juniper Ridge (Sierra Forest) all deliver the Platonic essence of wilderness in a bottle, sans ticks and sunburn.
And my, doesn’t the West smell lovely.•