Unexpected Scents

My photo of a snow-covered roof and ristra (dried chile pods) here in Santa Fe.

It’s cold here, and we’ve had some lovely snow.  I was walking along in the sunlight, getting a bit of fresh morning air, and the most interesting, delightful combination of smells wafted over me – that frosty, icy smell of a cold day, combined unexpectedly in the moment with the smell of hot roofing tar. My guess is someone was fixing a roof nearby.  Anyway, it was swoon-worthy, so much more interesting and enjoyable than the hot-tar smell would have been in warmer weather, in my opinion.

That got me to thinking about birch tar and weird adjacent/combination notes in perfumery – there’s Bulgari Black with its rubber and tea, and that even more outré rubber-tar-gasoline Santa Maria Novella from eons ago … Nostalgia?  And other unusual combinations from years past, often leathers.  There’s Knize Ten, a very dark leather with a strawberry on top, and also the first time I ever smelled vintage Jolie Madame which was shocking to me, so much darker than I expected, that combination of extreme leather and creamy florals, although the fact that my bottles were old might have magnified the leather at the expense of the floral notes.

That led me to thinking about unexpected juxtapositions in perfumery, like in Tom’s recent post on Angel.  I’m assuming most people aren’t getting what I get from Angel; Tom’s right that I once described it as “choco-vomit,” because the patchouli in Angel smells so sour and bitter to my nose. But I can’t deny that it’s an interesting combination, that baking cocoa and patchouli.  I still don’t like it, never did, but obviously many, many people do.

Perfumes can be novel but also deeply familiar – like CB I Hate Perfumes Memory of Kindness with its tomato leaf, or Black March with its frosty earth, or some of Christopher Brosius’ other “virtual reality” scents.  They call up memories — they’re weird because they evoke something specific and familiar, conjured out of scent; out of thin air, so to speak.  They’re not weird like hot tar/cold air, or patchouli/chocolate.  In contrast, the tomato-leaf note in DKNY New York is just … oddly out of place to my nose, with its cool-water-ozone-floral backdrop, like a tomato plant in an office building.

Mitsouko is manifestly odd, but odd all in one fell swoop – there’s not a single unexpected note sticking out of that golden, furry orb.  In contrast, there’s the weirdness of the mint-herbal note in dirty ol’ Diorella — Chandler Burr described it as a fur coat rubbed with mint toothpaste. When I first smelled it, I didn’t know what to expect, but I didn’t expect that!  (Tania Sanchez compared it to Vietnamese beef salad.) And I adore the surprise of sweaty notes in “nice” places they don’t obviously belong; in a men’s cologne they’re just a shorthand for sexy, but in Lutens’ Fleurs d’Oranger and Vero Kern’s Rubj they’re so much more arresting — what is that doing there?

Is there a fragrance with an unexpected combination of notes (maybe just unexpected to you) that has captivated you?

(home page image: Rafael Guajardo via Pexels)

  • Portia says:

    Sorry I’m late to the party March.
    I find mint in any perfume a happy surprise zinger. If mint is in a note list I’ll often try something just to see how they’ve blended it in.
    I know it’s an old trope but whenever Ylang and Coconut are in a perfume it gives me a shiver of excitement.
    Remember in the 1990s when everyone was making perfumes meant to evoke water? That was fascinating and weird to me. the resurgence of aquatics in this century has been really fun to watch and sniff, especially salt water.
    There is one really weird combo that I love, Cafe Tuberose by Atelier Cologne. Coffee and tuberose = bloody weird, very more-ish.
    Portia xx

  • rosarita says:

    The only thing I can think of is SL Gris Clair, that morphs from cool to warm, back and forth, all day. Cool lavender and warm Tonka. I really love it but have to be in the mood for it. Reminds me a bit of having Pink Floyd playing in the background all day.

    • March says:

      It DOES, back and forth! Is this my all-purpose fragrance improver? It may be… regardless, those Lutens fragrances are a treasure.

      • rosarita says:

        I recall that one of your all purpose fragrance improves was Passage d’Enfer. I’ve kept a bottle on hand for years, just for that use.

  • Tom says:

    I love those stop-short moments when you’re outside and something like that happens. I mentioned one on another comment; driving through Brentwood with the top down and catching a whiff of the bowers of mint someone had growing in their front yard. Stopped me short with a combination of “whaaaa?” and “squeee!!”

    I second Tara’s mention of TC- so many of SL’s openings back in the day were like that. Grabbed you by the hair and shoved your face in that weird, dissonant opening.

    Nostalgia was a great one that I never bought- it had zero lasting power on me (as do most SMN’s) so I stick to the pot pourri. When it loses its charge for the house I put it in the car’s ashtray.

    CB I Hate Perfume has some scents that I find almost disturbing. MoK, Burning Leaves, (can’t think of the others) feel almost like CB got into my head somehow and is bottling my own memories. Got into my head in a way that he should have brought candy and told me I’m pretty. It doesn’t go with this post, but I will always love his musk- dirty little berries doing dirty little things. May have to go dig that one out right now…

    • Musette says:

      OMG, TOM! That’s… um… (fans herself). Okay, carry on.


    • March says:

      I love that CB musk! You’re right, juxtaposed with some of his other scents, it seems especially … filthy. In the best way. Yes, how pleasing SL was back in the day, grabbing us by the scruff of the neck and saying “pay attention.”

  • Eldarwen22 says:

    The first one was Chanel Cuir de Russie edt and the 2nd one was Mitsouko. I was in the beginning stages of being a perfumeista and so used to floral and foody stuff.

  • Musette says:

    Ha!! I love the living sin out of Diorella – and I love it because I simply cannot parse it – at. all. Ditto Mitsouko. I had never thought about it until I read this review but it is absolute perfection in its oddness. I don’t even bother trying to parse that one – I just put it on and thank Floyd it exists.

    Btw, I absolutely LOVE the new iteration of Diorella. It has this screechy note that goes well with the original-adjacent notes and that scrreeeeech is definitely a ‘go big or go home’ vibe that works – and sings to my vicious little soul.


    • March says:

      LOVE your description of new Diorella — I can hear it screeeeeeching from here! Anything to get us through this winter, right?

  • VerbenaLuvvr says:

    Yesterday I wore Les Amoureux de Peynet by Molinard. To me it’s like stuffing my head into a brown paper sack. But brown paper sack odor reminds me of the smell of my grandfather’s house and so it makes me happy.

  • cinnamon says:

    That’s an interesting thought — the tar being ‘easier’ in cold weather. I love birch tar as a note — love creosote being used as a wood preservative on sheds, etc. Used to go into the old shed simply to sniff. I really wish we had access to CBIHP here. I think I once inquired about shipping and it was silly money.

    • March says:

      Does Patty have it? Pretty sure they ship globally… I would love your thoughts on the line, even if it’s that they’re “meh” and hand tilting back and forth. There are flat roofs here on adobe homes; hot tar in summer is everywhere. Hot tar in winter really threw me off.

  • Tiara says:

    Violets and Rainwater stops me dead. Not sure what it is I’m remembering, but it hits me hard at that initial blast. Seeing your picture with the clear sky and that Albuquerque blue, oh my. I need to get back there.

    • March says:

      That is … one of my favorite things about fragrance. The way it transports you, whether you understand what’s happening or not. I suspect I have a similar relationship with En Passant — it breaks my heart into pieces, but I don’t know “why,” and that is okay.

    • Musette says:

      Tiara, I am in thrall to V&R, always. I liken it to finding a pot of overturned violets after a rainstorm in midtown NY – for a moment you are awash in grief over the sight of the overturned pot… then you realize if you just pick the damb pot up, put the dirt back in… the violets will be fine. And so will you.


  • MMKinPA says:

    My favorite “weird” perfume in my collection is SJP Covet. Lemon, lavender, dark chocolate in the top notes. Very odd yet I love it.

    • March says:

      Another perfect example! I didn’t love Covet, but I respected it — it could have been trite, or insipid, and it was absolutely not. It was clearly made by/for someone who cared about fragrance.

  • Christina Goebel says:

    Sometimes fragrances substitute a metaphor into your scent memory. Maison Margiela’s Replica By the Fireplace reminds me of copaiba and guaiacwood essential oils, both of which I own. I never associated either of those oils with the scent of fire. However, the substitution works. It’s not the most pleasing substitute, either. I still prefer a burning incense note, but I wear By the Fireplace and will probably finish my travel spray because it evokes the scent memory it targets.

  • KimB says:

    Guerlain L’Heure Bleue in the summer heat. On my skin no soft powdery florals and vanilla, just straight up, sock it to you anise and orange blossom. Heaven!!!
    Oh how I dread reformulation of this beauty….

    • March says:

      I wish I got what you’re getting, although it’s always a treat to try a fragrance like that in a season/climate that seems less the obvious one. Scents that seem like they’d strangle you in warmer weather can prove strange and wonderful.

  • Sarah B Patton says:

    I get a whiff of a greasy fast food joint when I smell Hermes Merveilles. I don’t like it!

    • March says:

      I know exactly the moment you’re talking about, I think it’s the salty ambergris which has this fatty aspect. To some people it’s pleasant; to other people it’s rancid and greasy.

  • Tara C says:

    I’ve always loved the wintergreen camphoraceous blast on the opening of SL Tubéreuse Criminelle. Pure magic!