If someone held me down and drowned me in a vat of Cool Water by Davidoff, that fresh masculine scent that somehow evokes a deep-reaching lake, the '90s, and passionate but inept sex, I'd die happy. That's how attached I was, how fond I remain, of my first perfume. And that's not just a strange quirk of my brain; according to Rachel Herz, author of The Scent of Desire, that odor takes on personal significance when it becomes connected to something that has meaning after occurrence and fragrance combine, nerve connections form in the brain that intertwine the two.
So, scent and memory are definitely connected. We all have moments of recalling personal moments or eras through the unpredictable but vivid past telescope of scent (The Remembrance of Lost Time, etc.) – not only through the domestic or playground smells that surrounded us, but also thanks to the bottled perfumes and colognes we bought at drug stores and department stores with our own young money. I remember every fragrance I've ever bought, and why I bought it, and they're not just scents to me; they're deep-brain-diving molecules that dredge up memories, fully intact.
There's a magically ritualistic element to perfume, too. After all, a bottle of perfume can be so much more expensive than any other beauty item you purchase once you start caring about such things. So it seems mysterious and alluring and significant, and the stories you tell yourself about why a particular perfume is the right one for you are so deeply personal despite the item's mass-market production. They have to be; you're committing maybe a hundred hot ones and a year to smelling in one very particular way.
For me, that decision to acquire and wear a scent had nothing to do with marketing – it wasn't the makeup-free beauty of youthful Kate Moss I aspired to, for example – and only very little to do with technical aspects like sillage and heart notes. Each perfume differed significantly for me, of course, both in its actual fragrance profile, and in my reasons for buying it, but it all came down to emotional factors like my relationships with other people, self-differentiation, reward. In fact, I would be game to suggest that many women have similar emotional or situational trajectories associated with their chosen fragrances through the years. From wanting to smell like your first love to fitting in and breaking away from the crowd, there are some universal elements of what we love about buyable scents.
Here's my life in six perfumes, accompanied by the emotional timbre of each decision.
Being someone's baby: Cool Water by Davidoff
I fell in love when I was 15, wholly and quickly, with a girl who seemed to know everything. I wanted to do everything she did: I listened to the bands she liked, bought a guitar, and planned to be in a band. Kept apart by homophobic, strict parents, we were destined for a drawn-out end and a rocky relationship.
But at the time, I wanted to recapture everything about her when we weren't physically together. The most potent way to do this was to recreate her smell, as far as I could: Wrigley's Extra chewing gum in Berry, Herbal Essences, and Cool Water. The gum lost its taste quickly, the shampoo dried out my hair, but Cool Water stayed with me, long after the relationship ended.
I'd never bought such an expensive item before—I don't think I was even interested in beauty or fashion at the time—but there was little decision-making to do. Unlike later purchases, which I would mull over and delay until I could well afford the expenditure, and was sure I loved the fragrance enough to wear it every day for a year or so, this was an easy thing to choose. Once I bought it, I'd spritz myself every day, bathing in the scent of infatuation, relishing how grown-up and autonomous it made me feel.
Cool Water, created in 1988, is one of perfume critic Luca Turin's five-star fragrances, which may surprise those who regard it as a cliché. It has, after all, adorned many an adolescent neck and spawned countless copycats—you only need to look at the drugstore shelves to see a plethora of products, from scent to soap, in blue bottles decorated with marine symbols. Still, for me, it really is the original: the one that started my lifelong love of fragrance.
Wanna be like that girl: Baby Doll by Yves Saint Laurent
Baby Doll by Yves Saint Laurent is sweet, fruity, and powdery frippery that smells as pink as it looks. As aggressively girly as the post–riot grrrl Lolita looks that '90s teenagers donned, it had no pretenses. Uncomplicated and sharp, like vodka with sugary grapefruit, it tells you everything you need to know on first sniff.
The story of this one is almost as impersonal as my love of Cool Water was intimate. I bought Baby Doll literally because of a girl I didn't know. At my high school, one of the least trendy of the private girls' institutions in eastern Melbourne, Australia, sporty insouciance was the cool norm—and glamour was rare. So the girl who arrived one day, with red-painted lips, and a pale-white, powdered face framed by a perfectly smooth russet bob, was always like a spotlight drifting through the darkness. I passed by her locker one afternoon and heard a fellow student ask her if she was wearing Baby Doll. I didn't even hear her say "yes" or "no"; I went to the department store and bought it anyway.
Never, though, did I finish the bottle. Its brash femininity, though appealing, just wasn't me. I needed the lesson, though. It was OK to try out an aspirational version of myself, even if only to find out it doesn't fit.
Like the other girls: Romance by Ralph Lauren
The pale pink liquid in Romance's rectangular bottle might suggest a similar story to my flirtation with Baby Doll. And that's not too far from the truth; my infatuation with the fragrance reflects a similar teenaged yearning to somehow be someone else. More specifically, it spoke to my wish to be like everybody else, rather than the weird outcast I felt myself to be.
In our late teens, my peers favored more-sophisticated sensory romances; all my college classes were tinged with Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle and Chance, romantic florals that were legato to the staccato of the cheaper, harsher potions we'd worn at high school. In a way, Romance was only a pretender to this adult throne. With classic, elegant rose in its top note, it did project a nearness to traditional womanhood. But, of course, being near isn't being there yet. If my choice of this fragrance reflects any kind of romance, it's that of me and other girls. Indeed, Luca Turin describes Romance in his and Tania Sanchez's Perfumes: The A–Z Guide as being "for the kind of young women who get their hair cut precisely the same as their friends." That was what I wanted to be: the same as other girls, and Romance gave me the chance to dream that I was.
Dark and free: Alien by Thierry Mugler
Halfway through college, I started working in an upmarket clothing store. It was a strange time: always broke from giving into my cravings for the expensive, avant garde clothes I was selling. I was no longer obsessed with my dream of communal womanhood, so Romance no longer cut it.
Working in a clothing store was also my introduction to girls who were nothing like me: visual, artistic girls for whom fashion and beauty were ways of playing as well as expressing themselves. Girls who did drugs and ran dance parties and spoke in a kind of charming cant with each other. I loved them all. One of them, Amelia, told me she was getting rid of a bunch of perfumes: did I want one? Among the bottles she laid on the shop desk was Thierry Mugler's Alien in its striking purple bottle, like a tapered spaceship carved from amethyst. Out of its companions, with their ho-hum plainly prismatic or spherical bottles, gold knobs and amber tints, it stood out like an artifact from The Fifth Element's version of the future. I reached for it immediately.
Although I didn't know anything much about perfume at the time, there was a definite discord at the heart of Alien that I loved. But it's no surprise that Thierry Mugler's greatest fragrance success, and arguably masterpiece, is the polarizing Angel: an OTT sweet floral with a patchouli core that has led blog reviewers to compare the fragrance with weed, shit, armpits, and death. Alien had a similar disorienting effect: first, cloying woody jasmine, like walking into an aging theatre actress's dressing room – and then beautifully, richly vanillic. But it was more upfront about its oddness: I mean, which girls are buying a fragrance called Alien without wanting to admit they're at least a little off-centre?
It was something I would never have bought for myself, but it was like wearing someone else's cast-off clothes: utterly fun, and free.
Standing on my own: Comme des Garçons 2
Now we come to the embarrassing part: the era of my life where I started to feel like I was quite an interesting person, with cool and interesting taste in fragrance. Seriously! I'm not even going to lie about it. Alien left me with a taste for things that weren't quite like others, so I was intrigued by the Comme des Garçons line of perfumes. Perfume notes of leather and ancient-sounding woods were by no means new to perfumery, but they were new and appealing to me. I wanted something that was the opposite of the pink, fruity, and floral concoctions I'd formerly been spraying on my body.
CdG2 was also the first fragrance I bought as a result of a protracted research process. By this, I don't mean scientific research; I just mean I went to the department store essentially once a week to smell all the CdG fragrances until I found one I liked. And even when I decided that CdG2 was the one for me, with its inky, smoky smell, I tried it on so many times I'm sure the store attendant was sick of my anxious face. But I had to be sure. This was the first time I was going to buy something that was all me: not something I bought because of someone else. Eventually, of course, I bought it and loved it and even when I met other people who wore it, I didn't care.
Obsession for Me: Amber Absolute by Tom Ford Private Blend
The more I learned about fragrance, through books like Turin and Sanchez's Perfumes, online review forums and even the fragrance notes by boutique labels that catered to the increasingly sophisticated knowledge of its buyer base, the more I got caught up in the perfume world.
As I read more about perfume history, I became fascinated by the natural ingredients that were historically used in fragrance. Most compelling was ambergris, the gorgeous name itself hearkening to a different time, and its source—the intestine of a sperm whale—perpetually reminding me of the hauntingly beautiful Matthew Barney film Drawing Restraint 9, set on a Japanese whaling ship.
In modern perfumes, ambergris generally appears in a synthetic form, ideally recreating the animalic, marine smell of the original substance. I wanted to find the amber perfume that would be best for me; something that would cling to my dry skin whether other perfumes drifted off quickly. When Tom Ford release his range of Private Blend scents, I delighted in his (now discontinued) Amber Absolute—laughably expensive at $210, but a sinfully rich and vanilla-laden amber in a neatly seductive topaz bottle worthy of a plinth.
In buying this perfume, I was not only selecting something I thought smelled amazingly good, but also affirming that I was OK with smelling dramatic and historical – like an Elizabethan banquet who's gone to Bergdorf's – on a daily basis.
It's a lot of money to smell like a fancy feast. Am I worth it? I don't know. But do I like it? You bet.
Top image via DeCe/Shutterstock.