Edinburgh, where I live, bore the nickname Auld Reekie thanks to the cacophony of smells filling (some say poisoning) the air. Depending on whom you ask these included the tang of coal fires (mmm, yes!), the stench of excrement rising off the Nor Loch before it was drained to create Princes Street Gardens, or the unmistakable scent of fermenting grains from the city’s local whisky distilleries. And let us not forget ancient sanitation and plumbing, which ensured our forebears were rarely less than … ripe.
These days the air is far sweeter – literally sweet. The other day the scent of hot caramel nuts chased me down Lothian Road, though I couldn’t spot a street vendor anywhere so goodness knows who’s to blame for that food craving. More often, my nostrils are teased by a distinctly marine tang wafting in off the Firth of Forth, reminding me of our proximity to the sea.
The only time Edinburgh really stinks is during August, when the streets are clogged with performers and tourists who have gone too long between baths, and one is forever dashing between subterranean venues reeking of centuries’ old mould and heaving humanity.
Every city has its olfactory signature – and probably every neighbourhood. Whenever I smell diesel fuel I am transported to Padova, in northern Italy, and there’s nothing like the pong of a certain glaringly yellow mustard to conjure Manhattan hot dog vendors. I’m not alone in associating smells with sites. When I emailed a friend back home asking him to label the scent of New York, he wrote: “There are so many different odours coming from multiple places at the same time that it’s hard to say. It all smells like something specific. I would say that is almost one of our hallmarks – smelling fried chicken, tacos, pizza, roti and spice cake within two blocks of Second Avenue.”
A pal in Amsterdam says her city smells of “canal water (which I find sweet though others do not), hot syrup and cannabis.” My Berlin bestie writes that his city smells of Linden trees (lime): “As in Unter den Linden, the boulevard from Brandenburg Gate to Alexanderplatz.” And my woman in Paris says the French capital smells of “Metro, boulangeries, lots of La vie est belle!”
Though advertisements would have you believe that every perfume is created with sex in mind, that’s nonsense. A great many are deliberately and exquisitely crafted to evoke locations – with all their assocations. What follows are some notable “city-inspired” scents and their main notes (as described by their manufacturers – these are not reviews). Apologies if I’ve missed out your favourite metropolis (feel free to notify us in the comments). Here’s hoping you’re inspired to head off on a sniffing journey – after all, it’s a damned sight less expensive than your plane fare.
Commes des Garcons’ Incense line contains both Avignon (it reeks of frankincense and is an absolute favourite of mine) and Kyoto. Avignon’s notes are: Roman chamomile, cistus oil, elemi, incense, vanilla, patchouli, palisander (rosewood), ambrette seeds (a woody, musky note). Kyoto’s notes are: incense, cypress oil, coffee, teak wood, vetiver, patchouli, amber, everlasting flower (aka immortelle, which has a slightly spicy, slightly sweet scent), Virginian cedar.
L’Artisan Parfumeur makes one of my top go-to-smells, Timbuktu (£60), named for the city in Mali. It was crafted by the great Bertrand Duchaufour. Notes include: green mango, pink pepper berries, cardamom, karo karounde flower, smokey incense of papyrus wood, patchouli, myrrh and vetiver. It has great sillage and always, always garners compliments.
Duchaufour is also the talent behind the same company’s Dzonghka – named for a region in Bhutan between India and China. Notes include: lychee, cardamom, peony, iris, tea leaves (think chai), cypriol (Indian papyrus), leather and incense.
Launched in 1970, and still very old school – in a good way – according to the perfume chat rooms, Royal Copenhagen Cologne (£21.99) is a chypre whose notes are: aldhydes, lime, lavender, bergamot, cardamom, lemon, carnation, patchouli, orris root, jasmine, vetiver, cedar, rose, honey, tonka bean, amber, musk, oakmoss, vanilla, heliotrope and tobacco.
Given that France is the home of perfume – at least in the western tradition – it’s only fitting that there should be a great many fragrances named for the City of Lights. Some of those include:
YSL’s Paris (£55) by Sophia Grojsman (circa 1983) is very rosy, with added creamy violets, mimosa and geranium. Wear it for a while and you’ll detect sandalwood, bergamot, hawthorn, iris, amber and musk as well.
San Francisco-based Ineke makes Field Notes from Paris (£79.47), designed to convey “sweet-scented Paris afternoons and life measured out in coffee spoons”. Notes are: coriander seed, orange, bergamot, tobacco flower and leaf, patchouli, cedar, tonka bean, leather, beeswax and vanilla.
None of us will likely smell the original Soir de Paris (Evening in Paris) (£46,94) developed by Bourjois in 1928. Though it was one of the house’s most successful fragrances, it all but disappeared in 1969. After the company changed hands a few times, the perfume was reformulated in 1992 by Francois Demachy and Jacques Polge. Notes include: bergamot, apricot, peach, violet, green notes, rose Damascene, jasmine, heliotrope, ylang-ylang, lily of the valley, orris, amber, musk, sandalwood, vanilla.
Boadicea the Victorious (http://www.boadiceaperfume.com), a luxury brand based in London, benefited from a huge PR boost when Michelle Obama bought three of its fragrances while visiting Harrods. It does a line of scents named after London neighbourhoods. Bayswater, for example, includes notes of coriander, nutmeg, rose, sandalwood, leather, agarwood, bois de gaiac (wood used to help fix vanilla and sandalwood notes) and benzoin. Its King’s Road scent includes: black pepper, rosewood, saffron, rose, iris, oud, moss, patchouli, amber and sandalwood.
Sticking with London, and returning to Commes des Garcons, Serpentine comes in a bottle bearing Tracey Emin’s scrawl, and was designed by Christian Astuguevielle and Émilie Copperman for the eponymous Big Smoke gallery. The company insists the notes are: grass, leaves, pollen (galbanum, iris leaf), oxygen (aldehyde, ozone), asphalt (black musk, nutmeg), labdanum, smoked cedar “with a little bit of pollution” (benzoin, juniper wood, guaiac wood).
Tom Ford’s London (£142) is his tribute to the British city he calls “rich, elegant and urbane”. Notes include: Madagascan black pepper, saffron, cardamom, coriander seed, cumin, coffee, Egyptian geranium, jasmine, frankincense, cistus, oud, musk, birch, cedar and balsam torchwood. (Have no fear: John Barrowman doesn’t arrive to carry your bottle out to the car.)
One of my favourite places, Berlin, has inspired perfume makers as well. La Fille de Berlin is from Serge Lutens, and composed by Christopher Sheldrake. Denyse Beaulieu interviewed him for her blog Grain De Musc, and pointed out that it’s a warm scent with a blood note that she described as “like a raw ruby on a Valkyrie’s helmet … there’s this current of cold, metallic blood notes … fire, smoke, and a slope of incense: blood-like, cold, metallic, almost like raw meat”.
Wait, don’t run away. Notes include rose, violet, pink and black pepper and musk, and LuckyScent.com says: “The model is obviously a creature of the decadent 1920s … Here, the [rose] is expressed at its richest … so true to the flower no rose lover should be without it.”
April Aromatics makes Unter den Linden, with notes of linden blossom, mimosa, honey, bergamot and magnolia. From Berlin-based Frau Tonis (www.frau-tonis-parfum.com) comes Linde Berlin, also inspired by the famous boulevard. Notes are lime blossom, lime tree leaves, cucumber, honey and mimosa. It’s called “verdant, treacly, floral”. Its Berlin Summer – “tangy, fresh” – contains grapefruit, orange, lime, lemon, moss, Melissa and peppermint. And its Eau de Berlin (confession: I wear this ALL the time – it’s light, bright and blooming gorgeous without being the least bit fussy), contains violet leaves, fern, verbena, moss, lemon and green notes.
No “nosy” tour of cities would be complete without a trip back – in spirit at any rate – to my hometown, New York. Frau Tonis does a cologne by this name containing bergamot, lavender, moss, musk and cedar wood.
Parfums du Nicolai has won plaudits for its New York cologne, created by Patricia Nicolai herself. Notes include bergamot, Sicilian lemon, cloves, thyme, cinnamon, black pepper, pimento, oak moss, vetiver and amber. It’s been called “mellow, polished, complex and seductive”.
The company Bond No 9 (www.bondno9.com) is entirely dedicated to fragrances designed to capture corners of the greater metropolitan area and you lose days of your life exploring the city using its range as your map. The sniff-a-thon would take you everywhere from Park Avenue to Riverside Drive, Central Park West to Madison Square Park. One of its most famous and best loved scents is Chinatown, with notes of peach blossom, gardenia, tuberose, patchouli and cardamom. It has a line dedicated to New York beaches, and even created a fragrance paying tribute to one of New York’s most famous residents (though not a native), Andy Warhol.
So close your eyes, spin the globe, and stick out your finger – wherever it lands, chances are you’ll arrive someplace that’s been the inspiration for a fragrance with a helluva story to tell.