Perfumes that don’t inspire: A Tale

My mom currently lives on the small island of Dutch Harbor (think “The Deadliest Catch”), and came to us fresh off her annual month-long European tour. During her visit, I took her shopping at the Perfume House in Portland. She’s just beginning to really get interested in perfume, and I thought it’d be fun for her to explore PH’s massive collection.

I had given her a copy of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide (Turin & Sanchez), and also printed her out an excel spreadsheet with The Guide entries sorted by star rating. “Think about the five-star perfumes first,” was my advice. Seems like a good place to start, right?

In previous entries, I’ve mentioned that she wore muguet, patchouli, and vetiver oils in my early years, in addition to a few well-known classics. She like the smell of these things, and wore them on the scale of decades, but I don’t think she ever loved a perfume.

I say this based on the first 30 minutes of our PH pilgrimage.

Tracey, the lovely daughter-in-law of the Perfume House proprietor, greeted us on our arrival. I introduced my mom, and left them to it… I did this because my mother is highly succeptible to the influence of my taste, and I wanted her to find something to love, free of anyone else’s preference (I mean, she was in good hands—you know that this particular SA is not going to show you dreck).

After a half hour of exploring on my own (Habanita! Annick Goutal! L’Artisan’s entire represented range!) I walked back to where the two were hovering over a line-up of eight or so perfumes… Feau d’Absinthe, Caron, the rest are a blur. “Have you tried anything on skin yet?” I ask.

No. This is nice, I kind of like this one too. Feau on one wrist, then the Caron on the other. I like this one better than this one, but they’re all nice.


In front of her lay a number of beautiful fragrances, any of which would be a dream purchase for someone… but she didn’t have The Look. Perfumistas know The Look. It’s a feverish, rabid excitement that lights up the eyes and declares, “I think I’m in love!” It’s sometimes followed by a verbal declaration, “SQUEE!”

Taking mom’s hand I excused us for a breath of fresh air outside.

“What did you tell her you liked?”

“Vetiver, woods, that sort of thing. No florals!”

“Have you been reading the guide? Are you telling her the notes you think you like based on what you’ve been reading?”

“… yes.”

“Okay, we’re going back in, and we’re going to start from scratch.”

We re-directed the search: Sweet, woody-roses, if you please. Heavy on the sweets.

Over the period of the next hour, she had covered every square inch of her person (and I really mean every inch—it was a long ride home, let me tell you), and was languishing over the decision between Montale’s Chocolate Greedy and Aoud Red Flowers. She had a frenzied look, and begged for my help deciding which one of her long-lost children she should leave behind.

I had a trick up my sleeve. A well known, oft used perfumista trick.

“The oud line runs $210 to $235, while the others run about $130.”

Chocolate Greedy it is.

There’s a type of fragrance that does not inspire you to want to smell other perfumes, and I always think of Givenchy Very Irresistible; a few years ago, it was my un-inspired almost purchase. When you’re not yet a perfumista, but looking for a new fragrance, you might encounter something that… smells kind of nice, I’m sure this could be my scent for a couple years, is this a little screechy? With my mom, she was smelling quality compositions, but they weren’t doing it for her. She wasn’t, at first, inspired to continue sniffing, because she didn’t know what a perfume could be.

For me, the perfume that began my obsession was a cheapie: Stella McCarthy Stella. That salty-musky-rosy juice perked up my nose to the idea that perfume could be really enjoyable. Even blissful. The 30 bottles after it came in quick succession, and I finally feel like I’m settling down… decants, splits, samples are my staples now.

Not everyone can eat at a 5-star restaurant every night, have box seats at the symphony, or own a Rubens; but almost anyone can afford the little piece of paradise that is perfume.

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