It’s the season to indulge in the first notes of autumn perfumes. This past week, I’ve dug out the duvet, smelled wood smoke in the air again for the first time in months and lusted after Tuscan porcini and the luxury of Bronte pistachio from Sicily. I’ve also been inspired to create what I hope my future clientele will adopt and make a favourite among their autumn perfumes.
The first days of autumn proper have now descended on my Mediterranean island home. Usually this time of year, around mid October, the first really devastating weather hits the islands. As I write, I am flinging open doors and starting the big dry out after a weekend of violent thunder storms.
While these are less than welcome signs of autumn, I do feel inwardly pleased that we’ve a seasonal change. After months of relentless heat, I can indulge again a different perfumery palette. I feast on warming spices and plummet the deep dark moody depths of oud and tobacco notes. Both now have their day as I use them to dirty up Bulgarian Rosa damascena, taunting it to become a sultry provocateur shaking off its light summer airiness.
I do feel that botanicals have the edge in autumn into winter perfumery. While synthetic perfumes may sparkle and radiate with their cocktail of molecules, they tend to turn to nature when it comes to earthier, deeper, warming base notes. The challenge the botanical perfumer has is in perfecting summer’s scents and marine notes, but even here we have our answers. I wrote about the difference between naturals and predominantly synthetic perfumes in my post 10 things to know about natural perfumes before you buy. They do present a paradigm shift but one that let’s you experience perfume in a more intimate, personal way.
Which gets me back to my passion for autumn’s offering. Most of the autumn perfume notes I describe here take time to appreciate. We will each experience them intimately in a way unique to our own skin biomes. Smelled alone, unloved, and not enveloping other note companions they may seem bold, harsh and unruly. They are mainly base notes, so they work their magic over time, evolving in synergy with heart and top notes – if the right choices are made.
I find they are aptly suited to autumnal nights, whether you’re in need of sustenance battling the elements or curled up with a glass of something warming in hand. I urge you to seek them out this fall and savour them slowly, letting their embers burn long after the flames of top and heart notes have gone.
Our Choice Notes for Autumn Perfumes
Rarely does anyone get to really smell pear. I can’t remember the last time I found a perfect, ready-to-eat pear in the shops. They are mostly bullet hard and by the time they ripen are rotten inside. They need leaving on the tree to absorb late early autumn rays to ripen as nature intended. I have found an amazing pear for perfumery however whose scent seems almost edible; a ripe, sweet juicy pear with a crisp mellow yellow greenness.
Noted perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena in his short journal The Diary of a Nose talks of trying to harness a pear note and seeing it elude him at times. As a perfume buyer, you will rarely come across pear mentioned apart from in some celebrity branded fruity-floral fragrances.
However, it need not be made cloying with the right accompanying notes. My pear liquid has immense tenacity, and is more a heart to base note. It mellows to a warmth glow that I find akin to late October sun that exudes just enough warmth to warm fallen leaves releasing their burnt aroma. I include it in Devoto, the third of my Sicily Quartet EPD.
Fig can be only a synthetic note. Its natural extract eludes the botanical perfumer. That doesn’t mean it can’t be created as a’fantasy’ note using other botanicals. Fig to my mind is caramel stickiness with a sweetness reminding one of hot leather combined with burnt jam. A fig that dwells in cooler months and bears more than a passing resemblance to dried figs which appear in festive fare. I did once make fig jam and found it too sweet to eat. It thickened into a fig balsam cum tar sealing itself into the preserving jar. This is the fig fantasy I love to create.
Fig lends an erotic sensuality to perfume through its very name. It is the second fruit mentioned in the Bible as its leaves were those that covered man’s nudity in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps on account of its association with the forbidden and its hint of promiscuity, most perfume brands have a fig fragrance to their name.
A good overview of the various merits of many fig perfumes is by fragrance reviewer, blogger and journalist Victoria Frovlova on her blog Bois de Jasmine. Of her review list, I would choose, if using non 100% botanicals, Figue Amère by Miller Harris (2002), and also Jean-Claude Ellena’s Un Jardin en Méditerranée by Hermes (2003). The latter might be a green fig citrus interpretation but let’s not forget, citrus is actually a winter harvest, so equally appropriate. I am biased as the fig originated in the Mediterranean and Middle East and therefore is close to my own perfume-creating heart.
Spices are duty bound to make their presence felt in autumn perfumes. Many spices are considered top notes, but cardamom has natural longevity and impact that lets it dwell in the twilight zone crossing those invisible note borders. It can last from start to finish if used in anything other than trace amounts in a perfume. Cardamom is my go-to as I feel it has a warmth that straddles floral, animalic and leather fragrances when pared with care. It can settle as easily next to a rose as to styrax and in both incarnations plays a perfect role as a late autumn into winter note. Its yin yang between green sweet lightness and darker, smooth moodiness is echoed in these comments on Voyage d’Hermes, in which as many say cardamon plays a base note as those who say it scintillates from first spray. I use green cardamom in Devoto to darken an otherwise lighter floral perfume.
Colder nights lend themselves to a tipple of something warming. Whisky for some, but cognac is my preference. It is a double-distilled type of brandy made from specific white grape variety which is then aged for a minimum of two years in Limousin or Tronçais oak barrels. All this goes then into the cognac steam-distilled essential oil. The white cognac lends of course a booziness to a perfume, but it also helps the natural perfumer add the sparkle and lightness that botanicals are often criticised for not incorporating. I find my Cognac, with its tart wine notes superb at rounding out woods and tobacco.
I use Virginian tobacco absolute as a star base player in Eresia, which is a raunchy rose EDP. The tobacco I use has a scent that reminds me of the heavy tarry, wood, oil rope aroma of The Victory, Lord Nelson’s flagship. I visited it as a child on numerous school trips and more recently took my son to see it. Down below decks, the aroma envelops you. I think it’s apt that tobacco has this self-same scent as it is by ship that those first bundles would have arrived in Europe. Tobacco can be used both subtly and less so. Try Etat Libre d’Orange’s Jasmine & Cigarettes, which smells like a cold ashtray; and for a more mellow tobacco mixed with a medley of resins, incense and woods, Tom Ford’s Tobacco Oud. Also, seek out Papillon Artisan Perfumery whose Liz Moores has an incredible tobacco in Tobacco Rose. She uses a far greater percentage of naturals, around 50:50 to synthetics.
With natural perfumers limited by ever more restrictions being placed on oakmoss due to its allergen potential, I have looked to other mosses to replace it. Cedarmoss, however, shines in its own right and need not play second fiddle to oakmoss and it is to my mind the absolute first choice in a perfume designed for autumn. My supplier describes it so eloquently: “Cedarmoss to my nose is the embodiment of walking in my local park on one cold October’s afternoon. Cold air, bare trees, leaves clumped together on the floor emitting an earthy, seaweed, and distinct vegetative dampness. The aftermath of the bonfire from the night before, charred wood, ashes, leather, moss, hay and tobacco nuances all flooding the crisp, cold, autumn air.” It can be found in Parfums Clandestins’ Illecito EDP which is a jasmine-suede perfume.
Woods present another restricted genre of ingredients and I have already reformulated Eresia EPD as rosewood was placed again on the CITES list – even my supplier wasn’t in the know on this. Guaiac wood, which is also present in Eresia, lends a gentle caramel smokiness with a hint of vanilla. It is superb in orientals and rich florals and rounds out harsher base notes like tobacco and oud. Its linalool content also ensures its marries well with rose and citrus notes. It may not be a power-packed note like a tobacco or oud, but you’d notice if it were missing as it has a partnering role that helps remove the jarring that can occur as a botanical evolves. Explore wood notes when you buy autumn perfumes and train your nose to discover their genres. Sustainable sandalwood is always a good fallback in the base but intelligent use of other less common woods can really distinguish an indie or botanical perfume from the norm out there.
No perfumery brand would be without an oud these days. I’ve written extensively on oud notes in botanical perfumes before. So, I will just say here don’t be put off because you feel that oud has had its day as a ‘fad’ in perfumery or that it is too masculine or heavily middle eastern for your tastes. The white oud that I chose for Eresia is like the umami scent of fallen, partly rotting wood covered with a mossy lichen. A pleasant enveloping warmth that exudes an waft of porcini funghi along with a rosy note. It is incredible in rich florals and orientals and blends well with all other woods, resins and tobacco.
Hay is such a comforting note with its mustiness and warmth redolent of barns in mid summer. The hay absolute that I use in Illecito brings those elements of summer into winter with a honey-like sweetness, a core note of coumarin and a tenacity that secures it a masterful role in the base. This is not a light and airy hay but one that seduces you and makes you relax. Imagine your feet up around an autumn fireplace, that mug of hot chocolate in your hand, wrapped in a blanket dug out from the chest for its first airing since the winter before. That is how the best hay notes should be sensed.
As a child, I had no idea what myrrh was and pondered it every time I had some lowly part in the school nativity play. We grow up knowing of myrrh’s mystery but little of how it smells. Myrrh is less common a note than its relative frankincense and yet I feel it has more to offer and can be more sustainable to source, if one digs deep into its provenance.
I am currently using Somalian myrrh which is an aromatic resin of deep amber to red hues. It exudes a sticky, almost liquorice sweetness alongside a tinge of bitterness. Frankincense is always sweeter than myrrh, which needs careful handling to ensure it adds to not distracts from a perfume’s overall theme. Again, it is a resin that reminds one of open fires as in its solid form it would be burned as an incense and in religious rituals. I forgot to say that I get drifts of myrrh wafting from the open door when I pass by the huge Catholic church near my village home in Malta.
I hope this round up of notes to seek out in autumn perfumes autumn has given you some new ideas, and has challenged you to train your nose as you spritz before you buy.
Photo credit: Siim Lukka on Unsplash