A few months back I was browsing the internet, reading about perfume (what else?) when I remembered Luca Turin’s blog post about ordering a bespoke scent from Dominique Dubrana’s website, AbdesSalaam Attar Perfumes.
I loved Turin’s retelling, from mockery of a custom-made perfume (like having a book written only for you) to the direction he ultimately took: throwing in the notes of a beloved vintage Lelong, curious whether the result would somehow point in the same direction. Turin’s a fan of Dubrana’s work, and admired the process, particularly that Dubrana asked him nothing about himself and just got on with it. The result was a success.
In a moment of weakness, I decided to do the same. I am, for the record, not the sort of person who’d spend $250 on a whim, not even for a perfumer I admire a great deal. I have bills to pay and if I have extra cash sitting around I’ll spend it on something more urgent than a crap-shoot vanity scent. Which, in the moment, made the idea even more compelling; why not? Why couldn’t I, on rare occasion, be the impulsive spendthrift, rather than following my usual dull borderline CPA-level cost-benefit approach to life?
So I filled out the form (link here) which contains a minimum of information and groups your choice of notes into different categories like a menu, without much in the way of guidance. I didn’t sit there and ponder my choices – the point was to be swept up in the moment. I found myself being drawn to particular notes that are almost always attractive to me, and also make me think of Italy.
As an American, I have the humorous and likely universal experience when traveling to Europe of marveling at how old everything is. A hundred-year old house in the US is old; 200 years is bordering on ancient. In Rome, or Paris, or London, “ancient” is a completely different thing. For all I know, a hundred-year-old dwelling in those cities doesn’t even exist downtown, unless it’s in an area deliberately (or accidentally) razed and rebuilt.
So, back to my perfume quest – I found myself selecting notes that I hoped would conjure what Italy smells like to me – like dirt and dust (in the best ways), and polish on old wood and stone, like candles in the duomos I visited. And finally, like orange – a hat-tip to the tiny bottle of Arancia Dolce I bought at i Profumi di Firenze in Florence years ago, after a few hours of smelling everything they had, in ecstasy, at what turned out to be the stealthy beginning of my perfume obsession.
I didn’t write down what notes I’d selected, and there wasn’t a place to write down anything else, either – any hopes or dreams or whatnot. I picked honey, beeswax, smoke, orange, and some resins, poked the submit button and hoped Luca Turin’s assumption – that they’d get back to you for further tweaking if your combination of notes sounded terrible – was correct.
I got a generic confirmation email that my order had been placed. I replied with cheerful thanks and an offer to stand by for any questions. A few weeks later I got a hurried email from Dubrana himself that he’d been traveling, and then ill, and he apologized for the delay. I replied that I didn’t have a timeframe in mind (I didn’t), and that I hoped the resulting fragrance would make me think of my joyous time traveling in Italy (also true), and not to worry, and was there anything else he needed to know?
In the crazed run-up to the holidays I got an email regarding shipping which I promptly forgot about, and then a few days later, the bottle itself arrived.
And it’s lovely. It reminds me of Mecca Balsam, which I adore; not a huge surprise considering the notes I picked. But instead of Mecca Balsam’s sweetness it’s smoky, and the oranges at the top are a delight. I wish the orange stuck around longer, although I’m hardly surprised that it doesn’t; oranges never seem to. The drydown, hours later, is a quiet haze of earth and snuffed candle.
Ultimately I like it better as a room spray than a personal fragrance, which makes sense given my scent-memories’ basis in the physical spaces I visited. Like everything else I’ve tried from Dubrana, the scent lasts forever. And so now, improbably, I can walk into my small, cozy living room in suburban Washington, D.C. and spend a moment basking in the smell of a villa in Italy.