5 perfumes for: a Desert Sun-seeker


Like many kids — including, currently, my daughter — in elementary school, I dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. We lived in Steeltown, Central Canada, but my parents humored me by giving me books on whales and sharks. Then, when I was ten, we moved to the Pacific Northwest, to live within walking distance of the ocean, and my mother realized humoring me now was going to involve keeping tanks full of weird, wet, smelly sea things in our laundry room. She was a good sport about it. Eventually, I went away to do half my double major in biology as an undergraduate and in the meantime, my parents had moved to the other coast. I spent two university summers living with them, working for an Atlantic fish conservation agency, and those months spent in hip-waders, prying errant eels out of fish ladders and tagging traps, cured me of the childhood career dream. But my love affair with the ocean has not wavered. 

For a while after I left home, then, I was suspicious of any vacation destination or employment opportunity that lacked access to saltwater. Once I was married, though, my husband coaxed me into moving to Alberta. After I got over the nosebleeds, I found I enjoyed the famed high blue skies of the west, and day-trips to the badlands to the north and in Montana suddenly appealed. Again, I started reading, desert stories like The English Patient and Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines, books about Mexico, Wilfred Thesiger, the Battle of the Little Bighorn and, oddly, Los Alamos. The reading led inevitably to vacation plans and traveling, trips to New Mexico, North Africa and to the arid edge of the South American altiplano. Like Kevin, I had discovered a love for the extremes of landscape: the big, gray, changeable ocean with its winds of salt and sweet-sour rot, and, on the other hand, the dry lands with, as Harriet Doerr wrote, "the width of the sky, the depth of the stars, the air like new wine, the harsh noons and long, slow dusks" (from Stones for Ibarra). That air like new wine sets a high bar for any perfume meant to evoke the desert, but I have a few favorites in the genre, listed below. If, like me, you've been living well below the freezing mark since early December, then perhaps you'll comment with your sun-bleached recommendations and we can all bask in imagined warmth together.

Tauer Perfumes L'air du Désert Marocain: How on earth did we get this far at Now Smell This with no full review of this fragrance, the archetype of the great indie scent? Oh well, here's Tania Sanchez's review from Perfumes: The Guide, which Robin wisely posted before. I've not much to add to Tania's description, except my agreement. I tend to forget about the sweetness of this, as the cedar in it fairly crackles. Kevin likes Naomi Goodsir Bois d'Ascese to accompany reading Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, while my pick is L'air. Kerosene's wonderfully named Copper Skies is another seared amber for desert dreamers.1

Juniper Ridge San Jacinto Trail Crew and Bar Soap

Juniper Ridge San Jacinto Trail Crew and Bar Soap: In 2012, Juniper Ridge introduced a trio of "Backpacker's Colognes" to their soap, tea, incense and home fragrance line-up. Since then, they've apparently added three colognes and deleted two, and while the current four can't avoid smelling just a wee bit same-y, they are all valiant, literal efforts at conveying wilderness using entirely all-natural, hand-gathered ingredients. (My favorite is Caruthers Canyon.) I've been annoyed, though, that Juniper Ridge hasn't chosen its San Jacinto scent — bright with notes of white sage, black pepper and oiled leather — to highlight as a personal fragrance. And now the company appears to have (temporarily?) discontinued the other San Jacinto products. Here's hoping subsequent harvests will bring them back.2

Ralph Lauren Pure Turquoise: The description for Pure Turquoise felt ominous to me, particularly the notes of "dewy cassis", "vanilla bourbon", "polished amber" and rum, which clashed with the imagery they were using. The notes sounded like a sweet and safe mall fragrance, and not like something that was supposed to evoke the American Southwest. But seeing as birch, lily and patchouli were also listed, I thought I'd give Pure Turquoise a try. And it turns out to be surprisingly weird.3 The sweetness of the vanilla and rum is mostly up-front instead of in the base notes, which is disorienting, as if you've walked into the perfume through the wrong door. Competing early with the vanilla and some clean white florals there is a sharp green and succulent top note, vaguely like Windex, which could be the blackcurrant bud and/or leaf— although most reviewers on the fragrance forums and sales sites seem to feel quite confident it is the listed "cactus flower", or simply cactus, which I find amusing. The heart note is a quiet, herbal-tinted lily-of-valley. Overall, it is much airier and more zen than I expected and smells a bit synthetic, but in an interesting way. Since I bought it, I've frequently wondered whether I actually like it... but seeing as I've used up most of a bottle trying to decide, I guess I do. 

Parfumerie Generale Djhenné

Parfumerie Generale Djhenné: Continuing with the theme of press releases careening about, the promotional material for Djhenné mentioned a lush oasis and greenery, but also warm sand and shadows protecting from scorching heat, maybe on a river delta in Mali. The notes included lavender, spearmint, seringa blossom, a few of the famous Pierre Guillaume cereal notes, (likely) henna and a "blond leather" note, seemingly composed of cedar, myrrh and cocoa absolute. The result of all this is a perfume that smells dry, powdery and smooth, oddly like a handful of very fine white sand. Highly recommended, and one of my clear favorites from this line.

L'Artisan Parfumer Timbuktu: So here is another Mali-inspired scent. Before she reconsidered and became fond of it, Robin wrote that she found it "smelled mostly of patchouli mixed with something sour and sweaty". Immediately, a familiar line bubbled out of me: "But that is what I love about it!" Of course, Timbuktu is much spicier and smokier than this description implies, with a sneaky sillage that wafts up exotically just when you thought it was done, now smelling of vetiver, now of jasmine. Mostly, though, it is just wonderful. 

1. From the Kerosene website, it looks like owner/perfumer John Pegg has changed to a standardized bottle for all his scents, which is a terrible shame. The original Copper Skies bottle was my favorite of the line, and very appropriate for the juice inside. 

2. On the subject of home-to-body fragrance prayers, my other fond and unlikely wish is for the incense company Nippon Kodo to release an Eau de Toilette of their "Santa Fe Breeze" scent, with notes of cranberry, piñon, cactus and green chili.

3. Which is no doubt why it was quickly discontinued. Bottles are regularly available at most discounters.

Note: top image is desert [cropped] by Wolfgang Staudt at flickr; some rights reserved.

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  1. egabbert says:

    Wow, Pure Turquoise sounds so interesting! Love the “wrong door” metaphor.

    YSL Nu is another incense that I think works well as a “desert sun” scent.

    • Erin says:

      It *is* interesting, I think. And I suddenly had this intense reaction to your comment where I was suddenly sure I’d seen a movie called “The Wrong Door”, which I vaguely remembered was like Gilliam’s “Brazil”. (A clue there: nothing is like “Brazil”!) But then I realized I’d seen an episode of a BBC show of the same name, which was terrible. Or maybe I was thinking of “The Wrong Box” with Michael Caine. Sorry, digressive brain.

      Nu is a wonderful suggestion. There is something about the texture (but not the notes) of Nu that cues me to relate it to Kenzo Air, which was another scent I thought of including in this list.

      • nozknoz says:

        Brazil is one of my all-time favs!

      • egabbert says:

        There is also a “classic” and bizarre 70s porn movie called “The Green Door” :)

  2. james1051 says:

    From your list, I really like Djhenne. Doesn’t get much love online.

    • Erin says:

      I haven’t seen too many reviews, it’s true. Octavian of the sadly defunct 1000 fragrances blog loved it, though.

  3. Abyss says:

    I won’t go into the details, but a couple of years ago I narrowly avoided living in a desert nation which, in retrospect, was undoubtedly a good thing.
    How about OJ Ta’if to accompany idealised desert fantasies?

    • Erin says:

      I once had a similar close call. (For all that it’s neither the ocean nor the desert, I like living back in southwestern Ontario.) I won’t try to pry the details out of you, but I’m sure yours is a good story.

      I’ve been frantically digging around for my travel spray of Ta’if the last few days, and can’t find it. It’s so lovely! My system for storing decants and such is terrible.

      • nozknoz says:

        That’s the trouble with decants – they tend to go off with the missing left socks. ;-)

        • Erin says:

          One of these days, I’m going to get one of those toolboxes with all the separate compartments. For either the decants, or the socks. ;)

      • Abyss says:

        My system of storing samples is basically “try your best to squeeze it into the overflowing drawer”.

        • Erin says:

          Our systems are largely the same! Mine is “separate almost completely randomly into Ziploc bags and then squeeze the bags into overflowing boxes”.

  4. springpansy says:

    I really did not like Djhenne though I wanted to. I find it acidic, though strangely, it smells like something there is a fragrance underneath all that acid that I would love. I think L’air du Desert Marocain is brilliant but tough (for me) to wear as it comes off quite strong on me.

    My choice for a desert scent would have to be LesNez Let Me Play the Lion. Dusty, woody, dry incense, a bit scorched, veeeeery slightly sweet, fairly ethereal, so evocative – it’s a fascinating high desert fragrance for me.

    • Erin says:

      Springpansy, sorry, my evil mobile posted my reply to you as a new comment. So it’s down below, under austenfan’s comment.

  5. morgana says:

    I also vote for Let me play the lion, and El Attarine is nothing but Sun. Diptyque L’Eau Trois is not exactly the desert, but it is the coastal Southern Europe in summer which is rather dry and sunny. But I also want to bring up the retired Aveda Dune Primrose Desert Pure-fume; have you tried it? It is quite amazing how this thing works in extremely high temperatures with no moisture whatsoever. When I can’t possibly imagine wearing any fragrance, Dune Primrose is at home and it shines.

    • Omega says:

      Never heard of this one, sounds interesting…may have to check it out.

      • morgana says:

        I guess for me there are fragrances that “recreate” the desert, and those that “work” in the desert (I am not saying that there is necessarily a hard divide between the two). But if you get to Dune Primrose (it can still be found super cheap on the internet, but be aware that it has a very delicate scent), I recommend to try it on one of those “real desert” days. It is cute that the box explains that they captured the smells of the rare desert flowers of the American southwest after the rainstorms of 1998 (don’t we need one of those right now?!).

    • Erin says:

      I did see Aveda Dune Primrose mentioned during my research for this post. Unfortunately, I’ve never tried it, but it sounds quite lovely. I hate how Aveda is always sticking “Pure” into other words for their line names, but I can personally vouch for their Pure-formance for Men fragrance, a great spicy citrus-vetiver, and all organic, which is tricky.

  6. Omega says:

    I live in the desert..I like scents that smell of the ocean…but don’t like aquatics much, if that makes sense! lol. Hard to find a good, ocean scent. It doesn’t have to be a perfume, it can be a room spray, whatever. Though, I find most aquatic room sprays/candles nauseating, for the most part. So far, an ocean scent I like is Azur by Thymes. The line just says ‘ocean’ to me..but it doesn’t have that funk that I find in a lot of aquatics. The perfume is ok but I prefer the lotion and other products in the line.

    I am wearing Dune today..which does remind me of the dry, desert sand… only with aldehydes:).

    • thegoddessrena says:

      The best ocean scent is Greenwitch from Roxana Illuminated Perfumes, probably because it’s made with actual seaweed

      • Omega says:

        I will have to ck that out, thanks!

    • Erin says:

      I’ll have to try Azur, thanks.

      Dune is a funny one: many people get pure desert from it, like the Sahara, but I believe it was originally supposed to evoke seaside sand dunes… hence the ozone/aquatic notes. The old Dune ads all had people in bathing suits and little glimpses of the sea in the background. I suppose many beaches combine the appeal of desert and saltwater together, and particularly beaches in places like Aruba, the Skeleton Coast, Morocco, etc. Maybe explains why I LOVE Dune.

      • Omega says:

        I didn’t know that about the ads, interesting!

  7. songeuse says:

    Dune by Dior is always the first one I think of when I think of deserts… although admittedly that might be partially because of the name and the look of the bottle/packaging! I think the Guide has an interesting description of it as possibly the “bleakest beauty in all of perfumery.”

    • Erin says:

      Well, as in my comment above, I do definitely love Dune (and its packaging, which fits the juice so well) and I have always associated it at least with sand, like most people. And it fits what could reasonably be described as bleak landscapes.

  8. austenfan says:

    What a perfectly lovely post, thank you.

    Though I lived in the Sonoran Desert for 6 months I don’t remember any smells at all. So I find it hard to associate desert and perfume. I got very fond of the stunning sunsets while I was there, and I must admit not really minding not having to endure the dreary grey Dutch winter weather.
    From the perfumes you mentioned I am only familiar with L’ Air, which I admire more than I like. Timbuktu I sniffed once, rather a long time ago, and dismissed it then. It’s clearly time to revisit.

    And I too miss 1000 fragrances.

    • Erin says:

      Thanks for your kind thanks!

      Yes, I can imagine the Sonoran would make quite a contrast with the Netherlands. Toronto, where I live, is a rather grey place, too, certainly now, and often through much of the year. Despite my dreams of a Southwestern holiday home, I rather like living in a grey place — it gives you a bit of a neutral canvas to work against. I wonder if I’d get even less done than I do now if I just gawked at the dawns and sunsets all the time!

      And I miss Octavian’s wild enthusiasm.

  9. Erin says:

    Acidic! Hmm, I don’t get that. Could it be the traditional aromatic elements up top — the lavender, the spearmint– I wonder? There is something very smooth and rich and definitely not acidic in the base which I love, which I assumed was the cocoa absolute.

    It’s been a very long while since I sampled LMPL, must try it again.

    • springpansy says:

      I know – it’s very weird that I get that acidic note. Could certainly be my nose. OR maybe a bad sample? I think I will re-try with a fresh sample just out of curiosity. Anyway, thanks for your lovely post about desert fragrances – I enjoyed it.

  10. thegoddessrena says:

    My favorite desert scent is Durango from EnVoyage. It somehow manages to smell like Santa Fe AND convey big bright spacious skies. Amazing. I’m also fond of Dzhari with it’s date and clay notes.

    • Erin says:

      Durango’s a great name. I’ll have to try it! And date and clay – that sounds fascinating. I love date notes in perfumery.

  11. AnnS says:

    Hi Erin – the only deserts I’ve ever been in are “high desert” like in eastern Washington or Oregon. Less sand, more scrub. My good friend would always describe the silvery green view of the vegetation from a distance: “velvet mountain”. So I always imagine so much fresh air and whipped greens when I think of vast deserty spaces. Timbuktu is wonderful, but it has a wet component (the vetiver?) that off-sets the dry for me, so I don’t think of desert per-se. I don’t wear it nearly enough – it smells like sunshine to me. The fragrance I can think that most smells like the scrubby, veggie high deserts is Miller Harris Fleurs de Sel. I get so much sage and dirt/spice, and “wind” out of that one – not too much beach as you’d think from the name, etc. I’ve often thought it was FBW, but then I can hardly imagine wearing it enough. I’d love if my house smelled like that though! The other fragrances I think of with “hot dust” smells are one of the Beihl Parfumkunstewerke (sp?) – I can’t remember which one – I think an “eo” one – but it has a chalky, dusty component. Have you ever smelled that smell when it rains on really hot ground? Something like that.

    • Erin says:

      Ah, your silvery green scrub-land comments make me think of one of Kevin’s favorite landscapes that he mentions in the article I linked – the “high desert” parts of Greece. I went to Greece about ten years ago, and remember very well the whipped greens, sage and chalky, dusty ground you write about. (Although most of Washington and Oregon that I’ve done is low-lying and soggy. We did do the Cascades one September, though, and I remember at least Winthrop being fairly dry.)

      Kevin suggested Aesop Mystra for that landscape. Fleur de Sel is an interesting pick, though — should go dig up my sample.

      • AnnS says:

        Erin: It’s funny that you mention Greece, b/c I was going to mention it too! But I thought I should “stick to the subject” and not go all Mediterranean. I was there in college (a million years ago) for a semester abroad, back when I was planning to be an archaeologist. The first time I smelled Fleurs de Sel, I thought specifically of Greece, but it works for that “high desert” climate/flora too. It’s the sage. How funny.

  12. nozknoz says:

    Nothing beats Tauer LdDM, but PG Cozé would also be good to have riding shotgun.

    • Erin says:

      Cozé is a great scent to have riding shotgun.

  13. perthgirl says:

    Great post Erin. Though isolated, I’m lucky enough to live in a place that’s a relatively short drive to each ocean, desert, and the divine Australian bush (I think the smell of lemon scented gums is one of the best smells in the world!)
    Though it’s not evocative of ‘my’ desert, I love Canyon Dreams by Keiko Mecheri Bespoke. It has that slightly sweet yet dry, hot air feel to it that I love about Lddm. Maybe also Sahara Noir for that same dryness.

    • Erin says:

      I’ve always wanted to go to Perth specifically, and Australia in general. The lemon-scented gums give me another reason!

      Canyon Dreams is one I know I’ve sampled, at MiN New York, I think, but my brain refuses to conjure it up for some reason. I love the name! Will have to try it again, because your description sounds heavenly. Mecheri also has Sedona Blue, which I wanted to try again before I wrote this post, but didn’t get the chance…

      • perthgirl says:

        It really is a beautiful corner of the world over here- i highly recommend a visit! ;-) maybe not exactly this time of the year though unless you like it really hot- but our beaches are some of the best in the world! :)

  14. kindcrow says:

    I’ve been to Caruthers Canyon, so I had to sample that one. The Juniper Rigde colognes that I tried would work better as home fragrances than personal fragrances, IMO. One of them smelled a bit like urine — I would not use that one on my body or in my home :-)

    Some deserts, like Death Valley and Joshua Tree and parts of Arizona, are not very fragrant to me, but that’s OK — they are beautiful. The deserts in the Great Basin can smell sagey, which I love. I enjoyed Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey. My husband gave it to me for my 20th birthday.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Erin says:

      I suspect that Caruthers Canyon was your urine culprit! It seems the most pungent to me, which was why I liked it, but I can see others not appreciating the pungency. But perhaps it was Big Sur? I agree with you that the Backpackers cologenes are all a bit “brown”, as Luca Turin would call it, being all natural fragrances aimed more at “realism”, rather than abstraction, and might be generally better as home fragrance. I haven’t tried the Cabin Sprays, but maybe should.

      Edward Abbey is one of those writers I have always meant to read at length, and never managed to do so. I owned a copy of the Monkey Wrench Gang at one point, but it sounds like Desert Solitaire would be a better bet to start. Kind of fun that it was a gift from hubby – wasn’t Abbey known for having five or six wives and some rather interesting views on women?

      • kindcrow says:

        He was my boyfriend at the time. He was sure to let me know, both verbally and in a sweet inscription in the book, that he hoped that I would be able to see past some of Ed’s sexist and racist remarks and still enjoy the book. We had only been together for a few months and he did not want to offend me :-) Unlike Ed, my husband is a feminist.

  15. megank4 says:

    Coyote by Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab- The warmth of doeskin, dry plains grasses and soft, dusty woods warmed by amber and a downy, gentle coat of deep musk.

    • megank4 says:

      Oh, and Tombstone, also by BPAL – A rugged, warm blend of vanilla, balsam and sassafras layered over Virginia cedar.

    • Erin says:

      I’m going to be incredibly boring and clichéd and say I never try the BPAL stuff because I can’t keep track of it. But that description of Coyote is fantastic! Also, “sassafras” has got to be one of my favorite words, and a great smell, to boot.

  16. Merlin says:

    Erin, I consider myself a landscape coward!

    LDDM is a hauntingly beautiful perfume, but it evokes such wide open spaces that I cannot help but find it solitary and somewhat melancholic. As if all that space makes me, in contrast, very very small!

    I prefer Lonestar Memories, with its more human sweetness, and evocation of a fire.

    Terre de Hermes, despite its salty mineral vibe, also strikes me as homely – as if I and my friends are sunning on hot boulders somewhere – free, but not alone, if that makes sense!

    • Erin says:

      Oh, I can see melancholy. And I can understand feeling “small” in that way – not cowardly, probably, you just have good, safe genetic inheritance. Wide, open spaces can be harsh, dangerous places! Oddly, many of the perfumes I really love I would consider melancholy, so it must be a style that appeals to me. I’m not a gently sad, very serious or troubled but thoughtful person, though. Whenever I get described by others — without my permission!! — I find the adjective “perky” inevitably comes up, which is tough but fair.

      Lonestar Memories is wonderful and I completely agree with your description of it as a more human, ’round the campfire scent. I just got the Tauer Discovery set, and will have to put some LM on when I get home.

      • Merlin says:

        Yip, ‘good, safe genetic inheritance’ – I like it. Lets go with that one!

        Sometimes fumes work cos they match with a person’s character, but sometimes because they complement it, I suppose? I think of Marocain Pour Elle as being a Betty Boop scent – and I love it because it brings out a kind of sleeper cell in my personality, lol!

        Perky is fantastic, a personality with spring is the very best type:)

        • Merlin says:

          I also only have a sample of LM but it readied me for other smokey scents like Nostalgia (barbecue smoke and gasoline) and CDG Black (Barbecue smoke and spice).

  17. patuxxa says:

    Timbuktu is one of my favorite perfumes ever, and I also love L’Air du Desert Marocain though not quite so fiercely. They both give me a sense of crisp air, dry rocks, clear skies.

    I guess that means I have to go find a bottle of RL Pure Turquoise now :-)

    • Erin says:

      Pure Turquoise is quite different from both L’air and Timbuktu. It doesn’t have the earthy notes of either, and despite the press material calling it “rich and opulent”, it fades to a just slightly metallic (or ozonic?) skin scent rather quickly, after the sharper start. It’s definitely crisp, and it’s interesting — it’s just a different style from the other two.

      I should warn you, too, that the standard, non-parfum RL bottle is quite astoundingly cheap, and while it initially looks fine, my cap collapsed into about four different plastic parts the third time I used it. Juice recommended, packaging definitely not.

  18. Marsha says:

    These reviews couldn’t be more timely for me. We’ve been having (by Florida standards) a cold snap. Between the chill in the air, and the crispness of the stars, I’ve been dreaming of New Mexico. There was a beautiful smell of the piñon pine from the mountains that would drift down to the desert. I think one of the Tauer fragrances might be what I’m searching for.

    • Erin says:

      Yes, by Toronto standards, we are also having a cold snap: for the last four days, it’s been between -2 and -11 Fahrenheit actual temperature, -23 F with the wind chill. But we’re more used to that than those in Florida! And whatever the weather, I can always understand why anyone would be dreaming of the Land of Enchantment. Both L’air and Lonestar Memories are both wonderful choices for your dreams.

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