I’d always rather have an olfactory memory of a place than a postcard. The smells of cities, county sides, festivals, rivers, airports, tunnels and ports carry more visceral immediacy than an image. In my mind, Switzerland is the warm, metallic, woody smell of a 1970s sleeper car; Seattle a scent of ocean and wet chill; I remember Johannesburg as our car with the window open and scent flooding in from the city. It is no wonder that places, in so many forms, have been turned into perfumes. Below, some of my favorites.
You Or Someone Like You by Etat Libre d’Orange: Los Angeles
First, full disclosure, I was the creative director collaborating with the ingenious perfumer Caroline Sabas, who created this fragrance. The founder of the niche Parisian collection Etat Libre d’Orange had read my novel (after which the scent is named), which centers on an Englishwoman married to an American movie exec living in Los Angeles, and asked if I’d direct a scent based on it. L.A. is a state of mind. I’ve lived here for a few years now. I know the studios, the Hills. Caroline and I created the perfume my fictional character would wear if she were real, driving through the fresh, impossibly cobalt sky on Mulholland, the sharp desert chill of an L.A. evening, the breeze along green vines climbing the walls. A state of mind can have a perfume as well.
Kyoto by Comme des Garcons: Japanese Shinto Temple
Kyoto is not the scent of the Japanese city. Instead, perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour crafted an olfactory soundtrack of a much more specific place, one of the ancient Shinto temples, which are woven into Kyoto’s hidden passageways. It is, of course, a scent of dark, ancient wood soaked and cured and washed in centuries of incense—the white smoke of myrrhs and resins and charred woods curling itself up to heaven—the scent of stillness and of anxious peace and palpable thought and murmured chanting. One picks up the scent of a cinder, just extinguished but still smoldering from its heat, and massive tree trunks that hold up the graceful black roof. It is one of the greatest perfumes of its kind in history.
Eau de Lierre by Diptyque: English countryside
By contrast, the ingenious olfactory watercolorist Fabrice Pellegrin created a place that is as calm as Duchaufour’s Kyoto, but as richly scented as Polge’s Deauville. Imagine kneeling down in your garden, by an old farmhouse, perhaps, leaning over to turn on the garden hose, and you almost brush up against the dark green ivy on the old wall. The sun has heated the ivy just a bit, as well as the air, and the humidity, the pebbles, the earth, and the dark, thick, chlorophyll green of ivy comes together in an instant to form Eau de Lierre. Lierre means ivy in French, but the scent is just as exact as a piece of stone wall in Yorkshire or the ivy-covered brick house I grew up in outside of Washington, D.C. The deep genius of this perfume is that the place is so perfectly precise and the place can be anywhere this dark green beauty might be found.
Paris-Deauville by Chanel: French seaside
With the spectacularly wonderful Paris-Deauville, Chanel’s perfumer Olivier Polge brings to mind the summer sky’s bright, vivid blues, the almost blinding billowing whites of the towering clouds illuminated by a sun that is also heating the flowers along the streets, pushing out their amplified floralcy. There is the lipstick of passing women—one is careful to be chic on the Deauville beach—and the fruit from the market. I’m not sure how one conjures the scent of a sparkle on ocean water, but Polge has, and with it he has created in Paris-Deauville, the most exciting perfume in decades. It’s an invisible destination you can wear.
Batucada by l’Artisan Parfumeur: Brazil’s Carnival
A batucada is both an African-influenced Brazilian samba and the beat that accompanies and carries the dance. The beat is extraordinarily fast, almost frenzied compared to slower sambas, and when I first heard the batucada in Salvador, Bahia, I feared for the Carnival dancers in the humid heat. But they have a trick. The dancers subtly economize on movement, and so the eye travels across the school of them, movement awash with extraordinary energy. The perfumers—the Brazilian Elisabeth Maier and the French Karine Vinchon-Spehner—have created a fragrance that envelopes you in the experience: the scent of the limes and mint, the fermented sugarcane of cachaça and the heated, crushed ylang-ylang and tiaré blossoms along Salvador’s stone streets.