Sally Schneider/Improvised Life

Deciphering the fragrance notes in a perfume is akin to listening, with your nose of course, but then other, more mysterious body receptors. It is incredibly fun, as though diving into ancient languages which you have only to use your senses to hear.

About a year ago, I fell into the rabbit-hole of Twisted Lily, a fragrance boutique in Brooklyn that features 600+ offerings, for which they will happily sell $4 samples. Culling them by the “fragrance notes selector”, I order 5 or so scents at a time to sample.

I spray some onto cut pieces of paper labeled with each scent and sniff, returning to them again and again, listening, deciphering…

Sally Schneider/Improvised Life

I compare what my senses tell me with the alluring descriptions that drew me to them, which I compile and print out.

Improvised Life/Sally Schneider


Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that perfume descriptions have become increasingly overwritten, cosmic, poetic, florid, and often silly, always offering an impossibly transporting experience.

Read before bed, they serve as the perfect adult fairy-tale…


Take this the description of Aqua Universalis by Maison Francis Kurkdjian:

A fragrance that is quite simply luminous. Bergamot and lemon intertwine to create a sense of searing brilliance from the first moments of this remarkable scent. A bouquet of white flowers softens the bright lights of Aqua Universalis’ initial moments and adds a doubly romantic element. Lily of the valley is as regal and lush as a well established affair, while mock orange provides a clear-cut insouciance, synonymous with the blushing pleasures of flirtation. A forest of softly lit, sun-dappled woods exudes a dewy freshness, as if the moss and leaves growing amidst this arboretum are little animals, aglow with their own musky odor. Aqua Universalis is an exquisitely fresh, musky and floral eau de toilette, that is as endlessly applicable as its name implies. The slightly more feminine option of Kurkdjian’s waters, this effervescent fragrance is as effortlessly chic as a perfectly tailored white shirt. This lightweight wonder will keep you wrapt in it’s winning embrace.


Sunny Side Up promises to transport you to the beach:

 Jasmine lactone apes a creamy pool of sunscreen lusciously hand-spread out from the center of one’s sunkissed back until shoulders, arms, back of neck, every mound and bone and curve has been massaged into a state of SPF protected relaxation. 


Commes des Garcons

Over years Commes des Garcons has described the various offerings in its Olfactory Library with restraint and a fair amount of accuracy, until the recent launch of its new perfume, Concrete (which comes in a hand-made concrete flacon):

An exploration of destruction, construction and creation.

DESTRUCTION: The richness of Sandalwood is shattered to reveal its very essence, a radically new scent emerging from its fractured form. CONSTRUCTION: New contrasts are created through familiar fabrics. Industrial synthetics pierce natural familiarity; artificial Rose oxide distorts an opulent woody overdose. CREATION: Layers of resinous warmth are lacquered with metallic seams, built upon a foundation of Comme des Garcons’ spice signature.


Recently, as I was marveling at the overheated descriptions that rarely matched the samples I received, the New Yorker’s The Smells of Capitalism: The Smells of Five Franchises flew into my inbox. Katie Fricas descriptions of Staples, Target, Subway, Bed Bath & Beyond, and 7-Eleven are spot-on. 7-Eleven is my favorite as it identifies the aromas I’ve had no words for when I wandered through looking for a bathroom during road trips.

Katie Fricas for The New Yorker


Fricas positively nails the Staples’ experience:

Katie Fricas for The New Yorker


No doubt the very smart and independent pig Olivia’s concoction, Fussy, is right up my ally.

Olivia Goes to Venice by Ian Falconer



Fussy from Olivia Goes to Venice, found in the Marcus Garvey Park Little Free Library. 

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2 replies on “Listening to Scents, Falling Asleep to Their Descriptions, Laughing

  1. Check out
    PERFUMES The guide
    by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

    A totally fun read.

    Reviews of current perfumes – insightful and hysterical.

  2. Oh I love this rabbit hole. The Emperor of Scent threatened me with an expensive ordering habit, I like your approach!

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