Your First Time – First Perfume Awakening

Your first time – What did that look like? What did that feel like? The first perfume you smelled that gave you that “ohmy” moment?

My aunt let me do my internship with her at the end of college – she was in the same profession. She lived in a clifftop house outside of Aptos, California. Well, she didn’t live there most of the time. She lived on their boat in Santa Cruz because they were thinking of selling the house and taking off on their boat for a year or ten.

She was impossibly sophisticated to me – smart, witty, married three times, drove her Mercedes like a madwoman (some mental driving game about never hitting the brakes until she got to San Jose) over the mountain every workday morning – and I wanted to be just like her, minus the Pond’s Cold Cream she put on her face every night – that wasn’t something i wanted to do at all. She introduced me to artichokes and fresh shrimp scampi sauteed in butter and garlic.

And perfume.

While I loved scent, all the aromas that came from my mom’s kitchen and the farm – hay, timothy hay, the air after a rain or a lightning storm – I’d only had one perfume, the one my BFF who worked at the drugstore bought and convinced me I needed. Stephen B was a serious musk bomb, which I really didn’t know until March sent me some a few years ago when I talked about wanting to smell it again.  Sultry?  Maybe.  Slutty?  Probably.  Transcendent?  Not for me.

Aunt Nelda liked her perfume, but just one at a time, she wasn’t a perfume slut or anything horrible like that! She told me it was this wonderful perfume, not sold just anywhere, Estee Lauder’s Private Collection, and it was her signature scent. This was 1979, and EL Private Collection had been introduced in 1973. She brought out the magic bottle to a little farmgirl who had never been in a department store bigger than J.C. Penney, and let me sniff.

It was my first time, and it was magic. While I knew about perfume in theory, everything I had smelled up until then was drugstore stuff  – it either smelled good or didn’t –  and I just didn’t get why I’d want to spend my money on it. This – now, this was special, wasn’t it? It smelled like nothing else I had known in my short little life. It was rich, sharp, a little weird and completely grown up. Classified as a green floral, it had notes of honeysuckle, jasmine, lime blossom (linden), orange blossom, green notes, chrysanthemum, mignonette, rose, ylang, coriander, amber, musk, heliotrope, sandalwood.wood.

I knew nothing about notes or classifications, and I didn’t care. I wanted that perfume because I knew the moment I put it on, I wouldn’t be 19 anymore. I’d be grown and witty and smart and marriedthreetimes with a Mercedes and a great job and a house overlooking the ocean and maybe even have written a book like Aunt Nelda did. Because if I could smell like that, how could you not be all of those things?

Of course I had no idea where I could buy this exclusive and rare perfume.  This was pre-Google, and embarrassment prevented me from asking her, and proper upbringing stopped me from trying to get a little to take home with me.  My parents would have skinned me alive if they knew I’d ever asked anyone to give me something.  Wonder why that is?  I still carry it through my life, never asking for anything.  I guess because we were poor and proud, they didn’t want us little scrawny urchins embarrassing them by begging for things we couldn’t afford.  Well, that’s a whole other post or therapy session.

About two years later, after graduation and my first year on a job in a teeny town, I moved to a city? well, big town. But it had a Macy’s and cosmetics counters and Estee Lauder! I almost threw myself at that counter, my eyes scanning for that perfume. I didn’t see it. Private Collection, do you suppose that meant it was locked up somewhere in the back, only for women who passed some test of being worthy? The salesperson finally noted my shy, but pleading eye rolling and asked if she could help me. I told her what I wanted, she bent over and reached into some magic place in the cabinet and pulled out the little 1 ounce bottle.

Oh, yeah!!! Spending a day’s wages (maybe two?) on a perfume wasn’t the smart thing to do, but it was essential if I was going to reach my personal goal of wittysmartmarriedthreetimesmercedesgreatjobhouseoverlookingocean&author.

Private Collection was so not me at 21 years old, and I never really grew into it, but it still holds a soft spot in my heart because it was The First Time. The first time a perfume spoke to me about who I dreamed about being, wafting by on  expensive, luxurious and smart tendrils. That was magic, and I got it – I knew why women wore perfume and would spend their last bit of mad money or even grocery money for a scent. Once I knew it was possible for a smell inside a bottle to bring out a facet of who I was or wanted to be, the love affair was on and never ended.

Aunt Nelda died in the 1990s. She had juvenile diabetes, was on dialysis for the last few years of her life, and I never stopped adoring her. She did sell the house overlooking the ocean, and they sailed for maybe a year before an unfortunate robbery in the Truk Islands spooked them bad enough to sell the boat and come back home.

I’m not sure I will ever be as witty, brave or smart as her, but I have been married three times, I do drive a Mercedes, but I’m still missing my house overlooking the ocean (Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica is where I’m thinking that should be!), and a couple of other things.

This morning I put on Private Collection and the magic of scent brought her back to me. Just a little.

What was your first time?  When did the magic grab you?  Giveaway (posting last week’s winners in a separate post, so look for that) is Cb I Hate Perfume 7 Billion Hearts sample. Just drop a comment to be entered!

  • Cheryl says:

    For me it happened less than a year ago, and it was Serge Lutens’ Jeux de Peau. It’s led me to where I am today, which is stalking perfume blogs.

  • unseencenser says:

    I think I’ve had a series of “first times”, but here’s one I really remember:

    The year I was divorced, absolutely one of the most miserable times in my life, I had a bottle of Cool Water Woman. My ex hadn’t loved perfumes; she didn’t rabidly dislike them either, but she really didn’t care for anything I liked to smell. Well, that year I wore Cool Water every day, and ate tomatoes (she hated, and hates, tomatoes. I assume she was savaged by tomatoes as a child). I bloomed into a full-bore workaholic that year, and had some of the best work experiences of my life even as my personal life was absolutely destroyed.

    I can’t wear Cool Water any more – it was really a miserable year – but I still love the scent, I don’t care what Chandler Burr says, and to me it still smells like independence, however unwanted, and more than a slight bit of freedom – which never seems welcome but always pays off in the end.

  • Joan says:

    That was charming, Patty! So much fun to read!

    My first perfume memory was of a tiny, thumb-sized Hello Kitty perfume my mom bought me when I was 4. I used to fill it up with water when it came down to the last drop so I’d get more perfume.

    Another fond memory is of my grandmother’s freesia perfumes. I think she also had Madame Rochas.

    I used to have a plastic pony that was supposed to smell like iris, but in fact it smelled just like Joy.

  • TaffyJ says:

    These stories are all so wonderful! Loved Patty’s article.

    I don’t have a definite memory of when scent became important. I remember reading that John Lennon wore patchouli oil, so I wore that for a number of years.

    I too had a beloved Aunt, who was fond of perfume. My Aunt Mary was a character; fun, always laughing and flirtatious as hell. In her earlier years, while showing off her lovely gams, she wore L’Air du Temps; later, covered up but still sexy, she wore White Diamonds because…don’t you know…diamonds are a girl’s best friend. There were other fragrances in her life, but I associate those two with her.

  • PattyS says:

    Heavens, I had an Aunt Nelda too! She passed away last November at the age of 97. Her favorite fragrances were Charlie and Sweet Honesty, both of which smelled terrific on her.

    My awakening wasn’t all that earth-shattering; the fragrance had nothing to do with an idealized self. However, I discovered it at a time when I had given up on perfume. Everything I tried that I thought I’d like went “off” on me (the citrus and greens turned sour, and the “fresh” musks made me smell like a box of Tide – turns out I was wearing everything that was totally wrong for my skin). I thought perfume wasn’t for me, and then I happened upon Crabtree & Evelyn’s Wisteria. After spritzing I couldn’t stop smelling myself. It was the first bottle I’d bought in a long time, and started me on the path that led to perfumista-hood.

  • Patty says:

    I have LOVED reading everyone’s stories! It’s been one of those weeks, and I can’t seem to get time to reply to each of you, but thank you for sharing them. They all touched me. It’s so personal, isn’t it? And we all wind up really vulnerable when we talk about that time, revealing parts of ourselves, hopes and dreams, fantasies of who we wanted to be. But scent has so much power behind it, that it never feels scary when you can wrap scent around your story.

  • maggiecat says:

    What wonderful stories! I enjoyed reading them, and wish I had an equally wonderful one to offer. While I always loved scents, my first “adult” love was Estee Lauder’s Aliage. I was a college student on Christmas vacation, sniffed the scent and fell in love – bought the cologne and a candle. Oddly, my memory of the scent does not jibe with the scent today at all – did it change or did I? But that was the first time I knew the feeling of being recklessly in love with a scent. Not the last though…

  • Nancy says:

    First real perfume I fell in love with was years ago. A girlfriend and I were walking down 5th Ave. and in front of Tiffany’s was a fella who had a tiny table set up with miniatures of perfume. My girlfriend homed in on Chanel 5. I sniffed a tiny bottle of something I never heard of, PASSION and had to have it. I said where is this from and his eyes darting looking for the police because reflecting back in time, these perfumes must have “fallen off a truck”. He said, “Ah, from places like across the street. Years later and having only the empty bottle of PASSION and knowing it wasn’t Eliz Taylor’s Passion — eww I read that there was a lawsuit of sorts involving PASSION….Then I found out that my little bottle of Passion was out there and found it, guess where: across the St. from TIffany’s at Bergdorfs. Annick Goutal’s. Then I discovered Berdorf’s perfumes…

    Thank you for your write up and a trip down memory lane 🙂

  • Musette says:

    I was the advertising manager for Marshall Fields – one of my accounts was Cosmetics – this was back when Marshall Field’s was still Marshall Field & Company (and all that entailed) – and can you believe it? I thought next to nothing about perfume. Except…except for my also-love of Estee Lauder Private Collection. That was a relevatory scent! Love at first sniff.

    xoxo :Devil:

  • Eva S says:

    When I was a teenager I had some bottles of perfumes (Pleasures among others) that didn’t move me very much. Then at university I once went to a perfume-store. I saw a bottle of L’Heure Bleue and vaguely new it for a classic, but when I sniffed it I didn’t like it. Next to it was a bottle called Mitsouko and the japanese-sounding name intrigued me. I sniffed it and- oh my!
    I imediately bought the bottle (not cheap for a university student) and wore Mitsouko exclusively for almost a decade.

  • Teri says:

    As the daughter and granddaughter of perfumistas on my mother’s side, I honestly cannot remember a time when I wasn’t aware of scent. My earliest memory involves the scented handkerchief that my grandmother always kept in her apron pocket. As a toddler, learning to stand up and walk, that apron made a handy thing to grab, and my little nose was right on the level with the pocket.

    My granddad made a trip to Paris once a year for business and always brought every female in the family a bottle of French perfume. They had perfumes specifically for children, usually a simple floral of some type. I can remember an apple blossom scent that I particularly liked. I couldn’t read French then, but I wish I had saved those bottles until I could. Looking back, I’d give anything to know what they were.

    So it’s hard to say exactly when I began choosing scent for myself, or began noticing it for the infinite possibilities it could represent. But I do remember my first ‘adult’ scent. It was Miss Dior and a 16h birthday present. It was the first non-floral scent I’d ever owned. And it was every bit as momentous in my young life as had been the occasion of my elevation from the ‘children’s table’ to the ‘adult table’ the Thanksgiving of my 15th year.

    Clearly I had a way to go before I was Chanel, Guerlain or Caron material, but this was…….a DIOR! Little girls didn’t wear Diors; women did. I’m positive I didn’t appear any different to those around me, but I could swear I held myself just a little bit prouder wearing that Miss Dior.

    LOVED the story of your aunt. Every woman should have an elegant, soigne, older female relative with a sense of adventure and mystery to mentor their journey into womanhood.

  • Julie says:

    What a wonderful story. I wish I had a significant ohmy moment like that, but I don’t. My mom rarely wore perfume and my Grandma wore Chantilly – we still give her some every year for Christmas, but I don’t recall any particular fascination with it. One fond scented memory is going to Hawaii as a child (my Dad is from there) and getting smelly souvenirs- these tacky cheap little plumeria or white ginger perfumes in a plastic case with a little plastic flower – seemed so exotic at the time.

    Thanks so much for the draw – that CBIHP sounds yummy.

  • Samantha says:

    The first perfume that I really loved was Tea for Two……it was so interesting and amazing compared to the Love’s Baby Soft and Charlie I’d grown up smelling!

  • Tom says:

    I think it started with my parents, but I do remember the first bottle I bought. I got some cash for one of my early teen birthdays and rode my bike (seemingly forever as a kid but it couldn’t have been ten miles round trip) to the Steigers at the new mall and bought a bottle of Eau Sauvage. I still wear it.

  • My first perfume memory was my uncle’s Jacomo Eau Cendrée. It was the late 70’s and I remember the deep mossy smell of this and the mysterious bottle. It didn’t even look like a bottle. It was a perfect cube, half of it would come off exposing the cap. Black and a deep shade of orange, almost brown. Minimal in the 70’s. The scent itself had nothing minimal. Big, dark and masculine, extremely warm. This perfume was haunting me for years. I could find rare bottles of this on eBay at crazy prices. I finally got a reasonably priced one a few years ago and last year a lifetime supply for next to nothing. The topnotes are gone but this perfume was all about the moss drydown and I thoroughly enjoy it today.

    Thank you for the trip down memory lane.

  • jen says:

    I was casual friends with a bad boy who was involved with a married woman. In a small town! He told me about her perfume, Casaque. I got some in a curio shop in a Mexican border town that carried French perfume. Love at first smell and I have hunted it down for years and still love it.

  • Sam says:

    What a glorious story–and an extraordinary aunt! How perfect that, of course, this incredible woman was the one to open your eyes (nose? mind?) to the wonders of perfume.

    I didn’t experience the same Aha! moment in terms of perfume; I’d always loved scents and coveted yummy-smelling things, including bottles of 4711 that seemed to lie around our house, my mother’s fragile bottle of Tatiana by DvF and vat of Opium, tubs of Jean Nate–I wasn’t discerning! I ended up with bottles of this and that through high school, but it wasn’t till college that a roommate introduced me to a fragrance that stood up and shouted “Sophisticated!” to me. (The very fact that it was shouting should have told me something about my notion of sophisticated–but that’s another story.) That fragrance was Paco Rabanne Calandre. Its strange metallic green vibe was utterly foreign to me, and when I wore it, I felt all grown up. Loved it for a year or two, then let it go as I discovered new perfumes. I tried Calandre again a few years ago and couldn’t wear it. But boy did I think it was something when I was 17!

  • My first time . . . my godmother, tall, blonde, elegant beyond the conceptions of a young child, had a dresser top full of fancy bottles. Hedwiga, we called her Aunt Hattie, came from immigrant, poor polish folk who were trying to escape the communists when they came to the U.S. She, my Mom, and my Aunt Agnes grew up together. Back then, during the depression, people friended for life. She married my Uncle Frank, a sicilian immigrant, as a teen.They had 2 sons, and though he was a truck driver, he took her to Rome and Paris twice. She had all the finest things, and being a small child, I was always in awe of her. Cant say I remember all the fumes, but I think she should have been mother to at least one girl. She would dab me with My Sin or L’Origan whenever we visited. Still love L’Origan and wear it at times, just to remember her. I thank her for poking her red lacquered fingernail into my back, throughout my childhood and into my teens, and reminding me to stand up straight; cause to this day, I have never had a backache, and good posture has been a blessing.

    I think I got my love of beautiful and exotic things from her. These memories, are bringing me a tear, and feel very much like they were yesterday. BTW, my mom wore only Arpege that my dad would bring her from New York where he worked.

  • FragrantWitch says:

    What a wonderfully written post, Patty! I was right there sniffing your glamorous aunt’s perfume and ASPIRING.
    My first time was Shalimar. I was 15 and in Jordan Marsh with my mom and grandmother, mooching about the cosmetic department as you do. I wandered over to the fragrance counter and sniffed this and that until one scent stopped me in my tracks-the label said Shalimar. I spritzed and a whole future spread before me. The scent was warm, grown-up and seductive and I knew I instinctively it was a woman’s scent not a girl’s. Yet…it haunted me all through Jordan Marsh that afternoon until I had to go back and spray again. Even more fabulous- this is who I could be, or at least one of the ‘mes’ I could be. At that meant there were other mes in other bottles…Amazing. I had babysitting money that I had left at home so I begged my mom for the 15.95 for the special offer Shalimar and went home a happy person, clutching my first step into my future to my chest. I grew into Shalimar eventually an it is still one of my holy grails. A first love that lasted.