I have been known to change my mind. Still, as far as my love of autumnal perfumes goes, it seems I am as constant as the northern star. I kept thinking of fragrances to include in this post and then realizing, blast, I'd already listed them the last time I covered fall favorites for Now Smell This in 2009. A few of the previous ten are my all-time, all-year darlings, but the fall always casts them in a particularly poignant and profound light for me. As October starts, I often think of lines from John Cheever: "and who, after all these centuries, can describe the fineness of an autumn day?" (via The Stories of John Cheever). He gives it a shot anyway:
The clear and searching sweep of sun on the lawns was like a climax of the year's lights. Leaves were burning somewhere, and the smoke smelled, with all its ammoniac acidity, of beginnings. The boundless blue air was stretched over the zenith like the skin of a drum.
That ammoniac acidity has always given me pause — ammonia is alkaline, isn't it? — but the sky and the sun and the lawns are all perfectly right. And then, using his characteristic contrast of the ecstatic and the everyday, he deflates that golden description with: "It was the day to canvass for infectious hepatitis." Well, of course it was! For autumn is not only the season of reflection and melancholy, a time to moon about in cable-knit sweaters through the mists of the dying year. It is also a practical season, a time to make school lunches and Halloween costumes, to bustle along the sidewalks through gusty breezes on charitable errands. As Cheever wrote, beginnings are in the air.
So okay, you say... begin already, please! As I rounded up the usual suspects three years ago, the following list includes some of my favorite newer scents. (Surely my "Best of 2012" picks will be predictable enough to excuse a spoiler.) There are a few of my old standbys that got missed last time, too.
Aedes de Venustas Signature: Rhubarb is a spring plant — isn't it? (My grasp on horticulture is even more tenuous than my understanding of chemistry.) A grating of tangy rhubarb is often used to offset the sweetness of pretty spring bouquets like Byredo La Tulipe and Hermessence Rose Ikebana. And yet, there is something about the alarming greenness of this Eau de Parfum, set against the flint gray of the vetiver incense at its base, which clearly says: "Fall". Much tarter and less woody than perfumer Bernard Duchaufour's previous run at the ruby stalk (Comme des Garçons Series 5, Sherbet: Rhubarb), Aedes de Venustas's rhubarb is amped up with tomato leaf and red currant to create a stark, vivid, virile fragrance. I like it very much and might have to buy a bottle for far, far too much money.
Neela Vermeire Creations Trayee: This is another Duchaufour creation and it reminds me of L'Artisan Timbuktu, my last great favorite from his earlier period. Trayee is a powerfully dreamy fragrance, which shares Timbuktu's trick of conjuring swirling smoke. If I focus, I can pick out scents from the note list — ginger heat, piney green, some sourness from the patchouli and bitterness from the oakmoss, a little amber sweetness — but the impression at a distance is striking and abstract. Bonus: if somebody asks what that gorgeous smell is, you can truthfully report it's probably "ganja effects". I like to do this at work.
Hermès Concentré d’Orange Verte: This is the 2004 flanker to the 1979 Françoise Caron classic — still bitter-fresh, still green, still great. One of the few citruses with enough classic chypre backbone (oakmoss, patchouli) to stand up to cooler temperatures.
By Kilian Sweet Redemption: With the notable exception of L'Artisan's Fleur d'Oranger, I tend to ignore the lighter, lace-work orange blossom soliflores. A sure way to get me interested in a fragrance is to add some weird camphorous ingredients that will likely drive off the rest of your customers, and this is what perfumer Calice Becker has done with Sweet Redemption. The scent is certainly quite sweet and the floral opening is warmer and more conventionally pretty than in some darker orange blossom perfumes, like the recent L'Artisan Parfumeur Séville à l’Aube (Duchaufour again, created for Denyse Beaulieu) or my beloved Hermès 24, Faubourg. But something — the myrrh? the broom flower? the orange leaf absolute? — gives Sweet Redemption a vaguely bitter and mentholated radiance, a strange, cold smell some have called "moth balls". If it bothers you, don't stand close to me on the subway.
Etat Libre d'Orange Encens et Bubblegum: Working a similar juxtaposition between girly sweet and austerely cool, Encens et Bubblegum is perhaps not a crowd pleaser. The average fun-lover will likely be put off by the peppery wisp of incense ash running throughout the thing and I know at least two serious perfumistas who found the rest — a big, creamy peach-and-raspberry-tinged rose — "nauseating". It's worth conquering fruitphobia for the odd silly-solemn whole, though, especially as the sillage is beautiful in crisp weather; the impact in the air seems to suggest that perfumer Antoine Masiondieu was inspired by fleshier classics of the fruit-flowers-incense genre, like Guerlain Mitsouko or Parfums de Nicolaï Sacrebleu.
Arquiste Parfumeur Anima Dulcis: Speaking of the sacred and profane, I should mention Anima Dulcis by perfumers Rodrigo Flores-Roux and Yann Vasnier, from Carlos Huber's new Arquiste line. In her review, Victoria at Bois de Jasmin wrote this veered into "chocolate incense territory", a very uncharted territory indeed. While this is definitely a gourmand perfume, the sweetness and richness is nicely balanced by bitter animalic notes and the roasted woodiness of the spices (chile, cinnamon). It seems a simple scent in some ways, but it must have been tricky to get the weight right: it is creamy and full-bodied, but not too heavy, somewhat in the manner of Fendi Theorema.
Donna Karan Gold Eau de Parfum: Another Flores-Roux and Vasnier gem from 2006, sadly already discontinued, this burnished beauty is like an Old Master still-life of lilies: the white petals creamy in their last glory and already edged with rust, poised in brown-black varnish. The amber, equally dry and rich, makes the Eau de Parfum concentration ideal for fall.
Ys Uzac Podhadka: In my opinion, if you are going to be striding about the desolate heath, like the tragic hero/ine of a Brontë sister or Hardy novel, you had best do it in Christian Dior Eau Noire. But some find the immortelle in Eau Noire a bit much: somebody once described it to me as "curried lavender ice cream", which sounds like one of those Asian flavors that should not be a flavor. If you agree with that assessment, there are two good options: a) the lovely autumnal chypre of Annick Goutal Eau de Monsieur, just brushed with the maple sugar of immortelle; b) even lower on the sweetness scale, the new Podhadka, mainly a blonde tobacco scent, fresh as mowed grass and light — unfortunately, so light that it is almost vanishingly faint on me. This is a sprayer, not a dabber.
Acqua di Parma Iris Nobile Eau de Parfum: I managed to buy a discounted limited edition version of this one, and though I am not a packaging hound, the violet box with cream silk interior and bottle decorated with orange-gold iris petals gives the whole thing the feel of a gift left by fall fairies, nestled in greenery in the middle of a sun-dappled glen. The impression is furthered by the fragrance itself, an earthy, yet delicate floral chypre.
Cire Trudon Roi Soleil: This is a room spray, but it seems a waste to use it merely to scent your house. Besides, whose home lives up to the inspiration for the fragrance, the Palace at Versailles? Meant to evoke the beeswaxed floors, manicured gardens and light from the golden chandeliers in the Mirror Gallery, this smells as plump and polished as a chestnut, and is a perfect personal fragrance for the last warm days of autumn.