Suzanne's Perfume Journal

When JoanElaine asked me if I’d like to participate in the O’ Tannenbaum project—in which we were asked to review three woody fragrances as a way of celebrating Christmas—I quite merrily said yes, more excited about creating a symbolic tree than putting up a real one. In fact, I rarely do put one up: my favorite way of decorating is to go out into the woods and gather white pine boughs, which I arrange in antique whiskey crocks, accenting them with a few small colored balls, using the remaining sprigs to line my drysink and a few other odd things that are made more pretty by the white pine’s long, soft needles. Always a bit of sap leaks from the branches, and I have to carefully scrape it off of the wood of the drysink or the bottom of a decorative bowl, but it never seems to damage anything, and the scent is irresistible. I once made the mistake of sharing photos of my decorations with someone who said my arrangement in the whiskey crock resembled Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, and though he didn’t mean it as a compliment, it made me love it all the more. I often feel like Charlie Brown at Christmas—one part of me a bit isolated and withdrawn because it is such a prefabricated holiday, an agreement to jump through so many hoops. But the other side of me likes its quiet rituals, the glow of Christmas lights against the dark winter sky, and knowing that my nieces will be here Christmas night, their laughter ringing in my kitchen, one of them pressing up against me at the stove, asking me how much flour to mix with water when making gravy, the other helping me at the end of the meal, when it’s that magical time to transform confectionery sugar, vanilla and heavy cream into homemade whipped cream for the pies. They are grown-up now (both of them in college) but for a few hours they will be all ears and eyes, reveling in simple transformations, allowing me to remember those fleetingly precious moments when they were little girls and I was able to stand at the center of their world.

Christmas at its best involves traditions that connect us to our pasts, to the people and places who were once the focus of our worlds and helped shape us; quiet pauses that ground us in the present, allowing us to retreat from the forward hustle-and-bustle of life to appreciate those who share our lives now; and goodwill prayers, hopes and deeds that have the intent of expanding and bettering our worlds in the future. If I were Charlie Brown’s friend Linus (and I am rarely as good as he, but what the heck), this is what I would remind him that Christmas is all about—and then I’d spray three fragrances on his little tree as a way of anchoring these thoughts. And while these fragrances might not add up to the picture of the perfect Christmas tree—one that smells of pine pitch and hot Christmas lights and icy tinsel—my hope is that they might form a blanket of comfort, hope and cheer that props up a flimsy, leaning trunk, making it tall and steady enough to whisper confidently in one’s ear, “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.”

Sonoma Scent Studio Champagne de Bois. This creation of California-based, indie perfumer Laurie Erickson marries aldehydes to sandalwood in such a way that perfume lovers often find comparisons in it to some of their favorite Chanel fragrances (particularly Chanel Bois des Îles). Yet make no mistake about it, Erickson’s unique, outdoorsy signature is on this perfume, and her use of labdanum and vetiver in Champagne de Bois have a way of combining with the sandalwood to make me think of bayberries. All together, the sparkly waxiness of the aldehydes, the light spiciness of clove, the creamy sweetness of sandalwood, and the woody-balsamic character of the labdanum and vetiver conspire to produce the scent of a pure bayberry candle—the kind my grandmother used to burn when we went to her house for Christmas. She also kept a pewter candelabra that held nine slender bayberry candles on her baby-grand piano, and when she died it was passed down to me; I still have one of its original candles remaining. Champagne de Bois is my scent of Christmases past; it fills me with reverence and, at the same time, makes me feel much like a candle: glowing and festive in a Pagan kind of way (which my grandmother would have approved of).

Donna Karan Black Cashmere. I’ve never been able to describe this fragrance to my satisfaction, but its combination of exotic wood, Ethiopian incense and inky saffron is both resolute and stilling. In its opening stages of wear, I always think I detect something that smells a bit like dark Jamaican rum, and the way it combines with the spices and the hint of vanilla in Black Cashmere’s amber base, I can almost imagine myself sitting down to a glass of eggnog, albeit one more heavily spiked with rum than cream. (Or to be exact: eggnog the way the late, great jazz musician Charles Mingus used to make it. “Mingus’s holiday eggnog was a concoction so delicious and mind-blowing, you would do anything to make sure that you saw him at Christmas,” Janet Coleman wrote in her book about the man.) The mind-blowing part of Black Cashmere, however, is not its sock-it-to-ya top-notes stage: it’s what happens some ten minutes later when the wood and incense develop. The incense of Black Cashmere is not like the incense of Catholic churches: it is a drier, quieter, Zen-like take on incense that has a calming influence on the fragrance and an expansive effect on the mind—and when I’m in that state of mind, I’m not lost to nostalgia, I’m not thinking of the future, I am grounded in the here and now. Black Cashmere is the fragrance I’ll wear on Christmas Day this year because it is a beautiful reminder that life is lived in the present—and in the physical presence of others (which, in this age of the Internet, is something I tend to forget).

La Via del Profumo Oud Caravan. Oud is the Arabic word for wood—and Oud Caravan is very much an Arabian style of perfume, making it an odd choice for inclusion in an essay about woody fragrances and Christmas. In truth, I don’t detect much that is woody in this, the first version of Oud Caravan (a fragrance that is a work-in-progress; you can read about it here). It’s actually more of a leathery oud fragrance, with attendant whiffs of scent elements that recall dried animal-dung, smoke of the kind that issues from low-banked fires, and something medicinally green that is barely there—a phantom element. Oud Caravan is my one small link to a world I know little of: a world I like to dream about precisely because it is so different from my own. It’s true that people are the same no matter where you go, but it’s the cultural differences that make our global society vibrant and interesting. I’m the kind of person who would like to see our cultural differences respected and allowed to flourish and evolve with the culture itself. So while Oud Caravan might seem to make a rather retro statement—a scent that speaks romantically of Arabia’s past—for me it represents a fragrant wish for the future: of a day when goods and services cross borders (bringing prosperity to a wider number of people) but governments don’t. That’s the kind of caravan I will dream about now and in Christmases ahead.

Whatever holiday you celebrate this time of year, here’s wishing you one that is peaceful and joyous. And for more offerings from the O’Tannenbaum joint blogging project, please visit my fellow bloggers, below. (A big thank you to JoanElaine and Krista for inviting me to participate!)

O Tannenbaum!

A Celebration of Perfumes Highlighting Woody Notes

(Joint Blogging Project)

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December 21, 2011: