Our sense of smell is the most evocative power we possess. A familiar fragrance can conjure up memories in ways that merely seeing or hearing can’t - it's got that je ne sais quoi quality that brings you instantly to the scene of the crime. The smell of Horlicks is for me, oddly, inextricably linked to The Hobbit, thanks to the fact my father used to read it to me as a child over a hot mug of that malty bedtime drink. When I lift the lid of a tin of Horlicks powder, I am immediately transported to old Bilbo Baggins and his band of dwarves. Seriously, Horlicks just is The Hobbit.
And so it is with a person’s perfume. As you get to know someone their scent becomes slowly entwined with the very essence of their being. We’ve all had that uncanny experience of walking past a stranger who uses the same fragrance as your best friend or grandma - a sudden flash of familiarity is just as quickly replaced with a disarming sense of mistaken identity. A person and their perfume are bound together as one in the mind: the perfume becomes the wearer and the wearer the perfume.
The Internet informs me that the word perfume is derived from the Latin per fumus, ‘through smoke’, relating to its ritualistic origins of burning incense and herbs. Of course I read that and thought jackpot! How beautifully poetic! But on second thoughts, that’s the exact opposite of what it should stand for. Perfume isn’t a smoke screen, disguising the wearer - I think of it more as a distillation of self. And you need to make sure to bottle yourself correctly, if you see what I mean.
With this in mind, when I fancied a change and chose not to restock my old faithful Etra by Etro eau de toilette when it ran out, I knew it would be an Extremely Important Task finding a new signature scent that I could stand side by side with for the next few years.
Charged with such a personal quest, sometimes it’s good to stick with what you know - there’s an alarmingly wide array of fragrances out there to choose from (case in point: the new Justin Bieber offering). Returning home to the familial bosom, I raided my mother’s dressing table and quickly made her room smell like a hot-boxed bordello spraying and sniffing all the scents she had collected over the years. Just when I thought I was going to pass out from the fumes I picked up Shaal Nur by Etro (what can I say, we’re an Etro family). Smoky and spicy, like an intense, exotic incense with undertones of vanilla and rosemary– that is how I want to smell on wintery nights spent sheltering from the cold. And, of course, it reminds me of my Mum, which gives it a particularly comforting potency.
But what about for day? Shaal Nur’s slow-burning spiciness is strictly an evening affair. After being urged by a colleague to try Diptyque’s Philosykos, a fig-based perfume that she swears by, I skipped off to Liberty’s perfume hall to give it a sniff. And ten minutes later, I skipped out again, fifty quid poorer and one new signature scent richer. It is so very lovely. The first few minutes smell smooth and sweet on the skin, and then the fig notes mellow into what I can only describe as a damp forest, all leafy and luscious. Inhaling it fully, there’s a sudden pang in my stomach that makes me think of home. Not in a warm and nostalgic way like Shaal Nur, but more a feeling of deep solidity and stableness. I know – who would have thought a perfume could give you all that? I’m sold.
P.S. If you’re thinking of buying a new perfume, then I can heartily recommend the ever-enjoyable fragrance review blog Now Smell This to help you along the way.