February 2011

Image: Uncommon Scents Love Nose Best

Perfumes that whisper of romance and swagger with seduction cinch a va-va-voom Valentine’s Day   by DENISE HAMILTON


If there are fragrances for every mood and occasion, are there also scents that kindle desire? The interaction of scent and attraction is mysterious, as it is based on individual memory, stimuli and aesthetics. If anyone truly found the aromatic key to seduction, his or her success would outdo Mark Zuckerberg’s.

And science is doing its part: A 1994 study by the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago revealed that men were most aroused by odors of lavender, pumpkin pie, donuts and black licorice. But that study was confined to 31 medical students. Maybe they were just hungry and remembering the girl next door who baked cupcakes.

Really though, what’s a woman to do—dust her cleavage with a glazed donut and stuff black Twizzlers in her pockets?

The answer is simple: Wear whatever makes you feel attractive and confident, and you’ll project that appeal. Still, a first date might be the wrong time to road test Tauer’s Incense Extrême, the nuclear tuberose of Givenchy’s Amarige or the tea and black rubber of Bulgari Black. On the other hand, if your beau is a meditative gardener who drives race cars, layering these might fire up his libido.

If the way to a man’s heart really is through his stomach, we cannot discount vanilla fragrances. There are dozens, from drugstore to niche, but Lavanila Laboratories’ Pure Vanilla—widely available at malls—evokes a bakery filled with angel cakes and sugar cookies.

For more complex gourmands, try Keiko Mecheri’s Loukhoum, named for the powdery Middle Eastern sweet; Montale’s Chocolate Greedy; and Ava Luxe’s Madeline, with its waft of snickerdoodles on a snowy afternoon.

Let’s hedge our bets on that study, shall we? Tilda Swinton’s Like This, by État Libre d’Orange, has a spicy pumpkin note. Anise pops up in Guerlain’s iconic L’Heure Bleue and Caron’s Eau de Réglisse. For a triple whammy of vanilla, anise and lavender, there’s By Kilian’s Taste of Heaven. Jo Malone Vanilla & Anise Cologne is exactly that, and Lolita Lempicka is a plush take on those notes as well.

For fairy-tale romantic symbolism, it’s hard to beat Creed’s Fleurissimo, a bespoke fragrance Prince Rainier of Monaco commissioned as a wedding gift for Grace Kelly. Decades passed before Fleurissimo was available to us hoi polloi, but its white florals set against cool greens still evoke a bridal bouquet fit for a princess.

By contrast, YSL Paris, Agent Provocateur and Guerlain’s Rose Barbare bloom in lush crimson, evoking the long-stemmed red roses with velvety petals that serve to mark Valentine’s Day.

Some are notable simply for being utterly beautiful: Boucheron’s abstract florals envelop like woven petals; Sacrebleu by Parfums de Nicolai seduces with anise, vanilla, fruit and violets; Serge Lutens Bois de Violette is a demure maiden following a floral trail into a plum orchard of shimmering twilight woods; and Chanel’s sandalwood-spiked Bois des Iles is the Rolls-Royce of romance, with a price tag to match.

The spicy amber musk of Frédéric Malle’s Musc Ravageur bridges that all-too familiar gulf between a romantic candlelit evening and the tangled sheets of the morning after.

And with that, we slip on six-inch stilettos and stride boldly into the boudoir. Many perfumes boast romantic or sexy names (Allure, Precious Heart, Passion, Sunset Heat), but smoldering Orientals like Shalimar, Opium, Obsession, Black Cashmere and Poison conjure velvet curtains, silk sheets, flushed skin and dripping candles.

A spicy amber musk bridges that all too familiar gulf between a romantic candlelit evening and the tangled sheets of the morning after.

The ubiquitous and inexpensive Tabu, created in 1932 by Jean Carles for the then Spanish firm Dana, was said to be popular with prostitutes to entice customers and mask brothel smells.

Scents with dirty or animalic notes are also sexy. Why else would classic French perfumes include civet (from the perineal gland of a civet cat); indole (a fecal note found in jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom); ambergris (a stomach secretion of whales) and musk (harvested from a gland near the rear end of the Tibetan musk deer). Today’s perfume industry uses mostly synthetics, but animalic notes still grace classics like Joy and Bal à Versailles.

Trawl the Internet, and you’ll find fragrances said to contain human sex pheromones—chemicals found in sweat that are said to attract the opposite gender— though no scientific studies have proved this in humans.

In the interest of research, I procured a bottle of Jōvan’s discontinued Andron for Women—“scientifically created to attract man” with the pheromone androstenol. My husband’s reaction: Meh. I sampled Marilyn Miglin’s 1978 Pheromone for women and found it an acrid and overhyped floral.

As for men’s fragrances—sorry, dudes, your Sex Panther Cologne isn’t going to make her swoon. A Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation study in 1997, three years after the first, found that women were most aroused by odors of citrus, baby powder and licorice.

Take that with a grain of salt, guys, and be sure to test the Different Company’s Sel de Vétiver and Lalique’s Encre Noire, both of which smell subtly sexy on a man. So do notes of dirty floral, smoky incense, crisp citrus, boozy tobacco and so many others. Online sites like the Perfumed Court offer sampler packs to learn what most flips your kilt.

If you’re stumped for a gift, there’s always Dawn Spencer Hurwitz’s gourmandy St. Valentine, with notes of violet, musk, roses, vanilla and chocolate. That’s a handful of presents all wrapped into one.