Continued from Part 2 of a series where I talk about perfume and smells.
My first bottle of perfume was Lavandula by Penhaligon’s. Penhaligon’s is a niche perfume house from London that happened to have just one little counter in all of Malaysia, where I was living in my early 20s. It was located in a department store, of course. I had found out about Penhaligon’s from a perfume blog and braved my way there. The very nice, and refreshingly non-pushy sales assistant offered a few of the popular scents for me to sniff at. I sampled a few on blotters, but ended up leaving with only a generous spritz of Lavandula on my left forearm. Never buy on the spot. Always test on skin first.
For the rest of the day I couldn’t stop sniffing my arm. Lavandula opens with a blast of herbaceous greens and freshly ground pepper. A refreshing eye-opener. Then it segues into a fresh, clean lavender, ultimately drying down to a powdery musk and vanilla. To me, it smells nothing short of clean and comforting 1. I went back the very next weekend and dropped a fraction of my month’s pay on a full bottle. Excited and giddy at my first fragrant purchase, I carried it home in its little paper bag like a precious baby.
Lavender has a special place in my heart, not because it’s a traditional note used in masculine perfumery – my father to my memory did not wear lavender. It was because my mother loved it. You would find lavender essential oils in our ceramic aromatherapy diffuser, lavender scented sachets for drawers (scented beads, not the real dried stuff), and bars of gifted lavender soap from Crabtree & Evelyn, which were fancy by our middle-class Malaysian standards. We just couldn’t get enough of the stuff, and I grew familiar with the smell of lavender.
You should also know that I did not grow up anywhere remotely near Europe, where lavender is native to. I grew up in Melaka, a tiny city in peninsular Malaysia where lavender has never been an offering of our humid, tropical climate. Yet, in my household, it was a familiar and coveted scent.
Scents can form powerful memory associations 2. While lavender reminded me of home and comfort, Penhaligon’s Lavandula eventually became associated with that particular phase in life when I wore it. I was 23 and stuck at a dead-end job with no future in sight. I was in a relationship that while it was loving, had deep-rooted issues that I’ve recognized too late as red flags. As a form of escapism, I indulged in little joys in life such as wearing the only perfume I owned. Now, when I smell Lavandula, I am reminded of those feelings from that time. The last time I smelled it about a year ago, I felt a small wave of melancholy. It wasn’t the best of times despite the loveliness of the fragrance that perfumed it, and definitely not one that I need to be reminded of. So I gave away my first love of a perfume to a friend, the bottle more than half full.
I eventually left the city and relationship, which was a long and difficult process, but ultimately the right choice. I took a short sabbatical in New York City, where I discovered my second love, Chergui by Serge Lutens 3 at a perfume store in Nolita. Chergui was the first perfume that elicited what Denyse Beaulieu calls the “Moan” out of me 4. But could not afford to buy it at that time.
Months later, I found my way to Singapore for what turned out to be my favorite job where I still am residing now. Today, you will see a full bottle of Serge Lutens’ Chergui proudly sitting on my dresser amongst various decants 5. I smelled it again in Singapore and was again convinced that it was meant to be. It’s a beautiful honeyed tobacco – slightly soapy, but far from clean. Chergui is dark, complex, and independent. A perfect scent for a new start.
End of Part 3. Read Part 4.
“She even uses the word “Moan” (the capital is hers) to reflect her joy at discovering the right combination of ingredients for the new perfume”. Quote from Quill and Quire. The book mentioned is ‘The Perfume Lover’ by Denyse Beaulieu. ↩