The smoky aromas of bonfires, roasted chestnuts, frankincense and lapsang souchong tea are among the most complex, and I know quite a few individuals who fantasise about a fragrance that smells like a charcoal-grilled steak. There is a difference, however, between enjoying a scent in its proper context – charred ribeye at a barbecue or burning leaves in an autumnal park – and wearing a fragrance that reprises such odours. For this reason, the perfumery interpretations of smoke tend to blend it into a more familiar setting of woods, spices and resins.
One of the best introductions to a smoky perfume is L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Passage d’Enfer (£105 for 100ml EDT). Perfumer Olivia Giacobetti is known for her ability to create olfactory watercolours – airy, transparent compositions. Passage d’Enfer combines lilies and incense, filling the spaces between the white, cool petals with smoke. Giacobetti’s touch is light, and the perfume remains soft and radiant, from the smoky opening to the vanilla- and cedarwood-accented drydown.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another delicate and smoky perfume created by Giacobetti – for Hôtel Costes in Paris. Capturing the idea of woods and velvet, the perfumer composed a sandalwood and rose fragrance laced with incense. Hôtel Costes Splash (€110 for 125ml EDT) proves that smoke can be glamorous as well as intriguing.
Smoky nuances in perfumery aren’t new, and classics like Chanel’s Cuir de Russie (£150 for 75ml EDP), Guerlain’s Shalimar (£99 for 90ml EDP) or Molinard’s Habanita (€94 for 75ml EDP) have flirted with the smouldering inflections of frankincense, benzoin or amber. What makes the modern smoky fragrances different is their boldness. Naomi Goodsir’s Bois d'Ascèse (€140 for 50ml EDP) doesn’t hold back on dramatic materials like birch tar, leather and incense, and the effect is striking. The fragrance smells smoky, but it’s so cleverly balanced that wearing it is no different from enjoying a classical woody oriental blend, albeit one with more verve.
Those who indeed want to smell of charcoal and tar can have their wish granted by Comme des Garçons’ Black (£80 for 100ml EDT). The name doesn’t lie. It’s a dark perfume that evokes charred woods, crushed black pepper and tanned leather. The first time I wore it, I was shocked, because I didn’t expect such an explosive effect – and so much smoke out of a bottle. The fragrance turned out to be addictive, however, and I’ve grown to enjoy the potent opening and the unexpectedly tender and warm drydown. It transpired that perfumer Guillaume Flavigny used a gingerbread accent to round out the edges of Black, thus making smoke smell sweet.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.