On Finding Fragrances

finished bottle of Hedonist by Viktoria Minya

A bottle of Hedonist by Viktoria Minya, a birthday gift from my boyfriend a few years back. It's way too dramatic for daytime, but somehow I was still able to finish it. All that's left now are the sparkles, and I'm not really sure what to do with the bottle - I don't have room to keep empties hanging around, even the pretty ones like this. I probably won't repurchase - I'd like to make room for something new, perhaps a bottle of her Hedonist Cassis.

There once was a time when it was fashionable to adopt a "signature scent" - that one perfume that defines you and tells the world who you are. But in today's fragrance market, there are so many creative scents to choose from, it hardly makes sense to limit yourself.

I buy three or four full-sized bottles each year, and even that is probably too much. Although I wear fragrance daily, I still have a hard time getting through my collection - it's growing faster than I can deplete it. It's very rare for me to finish a bottle completely. How much harder would it be if I were a full-time fragrance reviewer?

Luckily, we live in an age with options. As much as I don't envy all the choices they have to make, I am so grateful for all of my favorite perfume bloggers. These writers have turned me on to houses and creators and whole artisanal movements in the fragrance world that I never would have known about if I'd just stuck to department store makeup counters. Here are my favorites:

That said, my skin is persnickety: a lot of scents that seem to wear well on others just turn to powder on me. So I never, ever buy anything that I haven't tested first (with a few exceptions, which I'll explain later).

I used to rely on the aforementioned department stores to inform all of my perfume choices. I still do, to some extent, but I've broadened my horizons beyond Macy's and Nordstrom. Whenever I travel, I look for higher end stores like Saks, Barneys, Neiman Marcus or Bergdorf Goodman, for some variety. I don't love the selection at Sephora, but I still check it often - every once in a while, a gem pops up. Diptyque has boutiques in major cities around the United States. Check some of these places out, let their experts guide you.

My favorite boutique is probably the Frederic Malle store on Greenwich Avenue in New York City. It's very small, very intimate, but every time I've been in, the staff there have been endlessly patient in helping me figure out what I like, and what works best on my skin and for my lifestyle. So whenever work takes me to NYC, I go back (for the record, my top pick is Lys Mediterranee, with Lipstick Rose running a close second).

If travel isn't an option, and you want to sample from an even broader selection, check out Luckyscent.com. They have a couple of retail stores in the Los Angeles area, with scent bars I've yet to visit, but they also have a really generous online sampling program. Join their mailing list - they only send emails a few times a month, and some months they offer interesting sample packs: groups of samples from a specific perfume house, with a specific theme, or just a bunch of new releases.

Banana Vanille sample vial

A recent sample of Comptoir Sud Pacifique's Vanille Banane. I will definitely not be buying this for summer. I had high hopes of being spirited away to a tropical paradise with this one, but it has so many problems: sharp and alcoholic on the initial sniff, only the faintest hint of banana on the skin, then a drydown to vanilla that, while pleasant, lasted for less than half an hour. No orange, no rum. No throw whatsoever. There's just no 'there' there.

Luckyscent carries thousands of fragrances, from hundreds of brands, and I've found very few that they don't also sell samples for. Their sample vials are 0.7ml (enough for two test applications, unless you like to swim in fragrance, which I sometimes do), and they cost between $3-$5 each - more than reasonable if you want to check out a few perfumes before you invest in a full bottle. I sometimes wonder at the cost effectiveness of packaging and labeling all those samples, but then I realize that I wouldn't purchase nearly as many full-sized bottles if the samples weren't available. The Luckyscent site is also fun for exploring - I love looking at their bestseller and category lists.

Given all that, I'm still much more likely to buy if I have the option of getting a smaller bottle. It's a good thing we have options there, too: I'm talking about decants.

Decants are repackaged fragrances. The handful of decant services I shop with rely on a network of resellers who hand pour fragrances from their original bottles into anything from a 1ml sample vial to a 30ml spray bottle.

My two favorite decant sites are The Perfumed Court and Surrender to Chance. Both have good selections and turnaround times. I have a slight preference for STC because I find the site a little easier to navigate. Last year, their Retro section helped me find a few interesting things: Electric Youth Cologne by Debbie Gibson, from Revlon (which may just be awful because it's from a 20+ year old bottle, or maybe it was always that sour) and Laura Ashley No. 1.

decants photos

A few of the smaller bottles I've purchased, fragrances I like but not enough to go for the full monty: Guerlain Samsara, Hermes Equipage, and the more recent Jo Malone Poppy and Barley

The Laura Ashley was a pleasant surprise. It's probably what the kids today would call basic - nothing experimental about it, just a subtle floral with a base of sandalwood and musk. It might be the cinnamon and basil that take some of the sweetness out of what could otherwise be a cloying scent - it doesn't smell like your standard fruity floral. It's got a little bit of throw, but not enough to be obnoxious. If I worked in an office, this is what I'd wear every day. (Note: the sample I got last year from STC was from an original 1981 bottle; I purchased a full-sized bottle of the 2012 reformulation, but if there's a significant difference between the two, my nose cannot detect it.)

About those exceptions - there are a very few bottles that I re-purchase regularly, and they're from Guerlain.

Guerlain comes out with a new addition to their Aqua Allegoria line every (northern hemisphere) spring. My favorite is 2007's Mandarin Basilic - I wear it all summer long, so I end up going through a bottle every year. I'm familiar enough with the formula to know that I'll love anything with a citrus note, so I've also gotten Pamplelune and Limon Verde without testing beforehand. I'm less certain about their florals - I might take a pass on this year's Rosa Rossa.

So if you're thinking about moving beyond your signature scent and trying something new, I hope this gives you some directions to look in. And I apologize in advance for all the too-many-wonderful-things you'll find.

Tags:   Fragrance   Comptoir Sud Pacifique   Diptyque   Frederic Malle   Guerlain   Laura Ashley   Viktoria Minya