September 2010

Embracing Chaos


The path to perfume obsession is marked by scent, not sensibility

Photo: Advertising Archives

Late at night, while my family sleeps, I often slip out of bed, switch on the computer, fetch the glass vials hidden in my closet and line them up, greedy with anticipation.

The scene is set: In only the flickering light of my monitor, I pass through electronic portals to meet others like me. I bring a vial to my nose, and immediately I’m transported to a dazzling olfactory world.

I am a secret perfumista.

It’s not something I tell people. It’s not even something I wholly understand—this obsession that has taken root and, ahem, flowered. After all, my hands are full balancing motherhood and writing mystery novels. I don’t splurge on designer purses, shoes or makeup. Nor do I have enough disposable income to indulge my hobby to the hilt.

Yet here I sit, surrounded by bottles and samples, bidding on obscure vintages like En Avion by Caron or Jean Patou’s Moment Suprême; swapping niche fragrances with like-minded perfume nuts from Singapore to Latvia; researching ambergris and castoreum; and dropping words like animalic, sillage and indolic into everyday conversation (For the curious, “animalic” refers to bodily and animal smells, “sillage” is the scent trail we leave behind and “indolic” describes a molecule in both human feces and white flowers such as jasmine. Jean Patou’s perfume classic Joy is quite indolic, for example.)

How did I get here? The answer, like the denouement of a novel, reaches back into childhood and foreshadows a trigger event years later.

My mother was French and White Russian, you see, and some of my earliest and most precious memories are of spritzing on her Madame Rochas, Chanel No. 5, Rive Gauche, Je Reviens and Bellodgia while striking poses in the mirror.

Scent was my portal into a vanished world of European glamour, where women in draping gowns waltzed through the night with tuxedo-clad men. This was clearly where I belonged, but some tragic twist of fate had instead plunked me in the San Fernando Valley.

Fragrance was an important accessory throughout high school and college: Fendi, Halston, Anaïs Anaïs, Estée Lauder Private Collection, Chanel Cristalle, Tatiana and Calvin Klein’s Obsession. But my Road to Damascus moment came much later—and not in some Paris boutique while on a whirlwind book tour.

I saw the light at a thrift store. I haunt them the way ghosts haunt graveyards. And one day, amid the jumble of cheap jewelry and sunglasses, a Donna Karan perfume box caught my eye. It was called Chaos. The tapered bottle evoked a sliver of ice. I spritzed; the clerk wrinkled her nose and muttered, “Too strong.”

My first thought was of church incense: smoky, sweet, musky, strong and spicy. Too exotic, I thought. Plus, $29.95 was pretty steep for a thrift store. But the scent lingered, changing with time into a subtle waft of cinnamon, cardamom, musk and lavender. Chaos was complex, piquant, challenging. It conjured Asian bazaars, aromatic oils, harems, Arabian genies in lamps.

“Scent was my portal into a vanished world of European glamour, where women in gowns waltzed through the night with tuxedo-clad men.”

On impulse, I went home and Googled Chaos, which led me to the motherlode of perfume sites— Apparently, Chaos was “discontinued and highly sought after,” going for up to $400 on eBay. (DK has since rereleased it, but the cognoscenti still pine for the original.)

Being shallow and superficial, I suddenly liked it a lot more. And when I raced back to buy it, it was with the thought of selling it on eBay.

Instead, each morning I sprayed my pulse points and placed it thoughtfully back on my bureau. I’d never owned such an expensive scent. It made me feel decadent, spoiled, rich as a duchess. But its musky, animalic quality also vaguely unsettled me.

Looking up the notes, I saw that Chaos contained sandalwood, cardamom, cinnamon, padukwood, agarwood, saffron, clove, amber, musk, sage, lavender, chamomile and coriander. I began to think about my motivation: Did I merely want to swan about wearing a fragrance that cost about as much as a new computer? Or was it something deeper?

I began to experiment with perfumes I’d dismissed before as too spicy, heavy and rich. This led me to Shalimar, Amouage and the Montale Aouds, which introduced me to artisanal perfumers Serge Lutens, Andy Tauer and Annick Goutal and the joys of swapping fragrances on And this, ultimately, helped me rediscover and appreciate anew the classic French perfume houses of my youth.

Was I tempted to sell the Chaos? No. The money wouldn’t change my life, but the sheer sensual pleasure and intellectual journey it sparked has. For me, it’s far more than perfume. It has become a symbol—a glass edifice to the extremely personal nature of smell and the brain’s role in telling us what we like and what we don’t—and why.

Chaos was my golden chariot ride into the strange and obsessive world of the trip down the rabbit hole. I haven’t looked back.

DENISE HAMILTON, a crime novelist and closet sniffarella, pleaded the Fifth when asked to reveal the size of her perfume collection.