Welcome to another installment of The Six, in which we each (Rachel and Helena) recommend three fragrances loosely connected by a theme. This week, we were feeling wintery, and so decided to dig into amber and incense perfumes. Amber is an elusive ingredient, in that it smells like vanilla sometimes and like charred barbecue at others, and it has become a diffuse buzzword in the industry when perfumers want to market their scents as rich and opulent without ever really saying what they actually smell like. But pure amber -- melted down petrified tree sap, basically -- is intoxicating, and that’s why it appears so often as the base in compositions. It is like a pool of honey that other ingredients cling to, and in doing so, offer up their best selves to the sticky embrace. Incense, on the other hand, is a sharp note, herbaceous and pungent. It smells like the holidays, like sitting in Sunday Mass, like ancient churches. But it can also be refreshing and bewitching and sexy in its own right without always smelling like a baptism. So, join us as we dive into these two notes and explore why we keep reaching for them when it turns cold.
To begin with, a confession: for most of my life, my reference point for amber was Jurassic Park. All I knew about the hardened tree resin (which is all that amber, the rock, is; it’s just pine sap, dried out and fossilized over many millions of years) was that in the Triassic period some (fictional) mosquitos carrying Brontosaurus blood in their bellies flew into some sticky pitch of the extinct Pinus succinifera tree (or some other ancient conifer) and got stuck there, and bingo: Dino DNA. Laura Dern seemed very interested in this magical yellow rock that contained the traces of our primordial past when humans were still made of diffuse star stuff, and so of course I had to have it too. Every time my school would go on a field trip to the Natural History Museum (which you do often if you grow up in the American Southwest, a rich area for digging up trilobites and other paleozoic oddities) I would score a little hunk from the gift shop. If I got really lucky, I got a nugget with a bit of insect remnants inside -- the tiniest filament of a wing, or a single antenna. I remember in middle school I wore a hippie-ish amber amulet on a silver chain, which I often held up to the light in class when I was bored and which I considered to the be height of fashion at the time (did I mention I am from the desert?).
I had no idea as a child that what I considered essentially a novelty gemstone -- and an affordable one at that, as anyone who has set out planning to buy their mother diamond earrings and ended up with rustic amber studs can attest -- had a history -- not quite stretching back to the dinosaurs, but certainly almost to the beginning of recorded mythology. The Greeks believed that amber was the product of extreme grief. As the story goes, the Heliades (aka the “children of the Sun” or the seven nymph daughters of Helios and Clymene) watched one day as their boastful, beloved brother Phaethon flew a horse-drawn chariot into the sun in order to prove once and for all to his naysaying friends that he was Helios’ son (almost all Greek myths are dripping with daddy issues). The flight did not go well. The horses spooked, the Earth froze to ice, the chariot burned up. In order to stave off an even bigger celestial disaster, Zeus struck Phaethon down from the sky with a lightning bolt, sort of like cutting off a gangrenous leg to save a life. But the Heliades didn’t see Phaethon as an expendable limb. They wept for his hubris, and for his charred heart, and for all the days he would never get to see. They cried and cried, keeping vigil over the place where his body fell, sob sisters making an endless show of their pain. At some point, the gods could no longer stand the whimpering; maybe the noise was keeping them up at night, maybe it was making them feel guilty for murdering a youth in his prime. In any case, they shut the sisters up by turning them into trees, and their tears calcified into amber droplets.
Today, amber is found everywhere, spread out among the continents. There’s Baltic amber, which is golden and clear, like fine honeycomb. There’s Mexican amber, which is cloudier and more streaky. There’s translucent African amber, and deep brown Chinese amber, and blood red amber from Sicily. It is almost as if the sisters’ tears formed oceans, and the seas carried their hardened sadness to every corner of the earth.
This type of amber, the golden solidified tree tears, is not actually a perfume ingredient. The category of perfumes known as “ambers” are really rich mixtures of labdanum, benzoin, vanilla, and any other semi-sweet rich ingredient that makes a scent smell like a home being staged for sale, like those big 8-wick candles at Pottery Barn that you never buy because they belong to a different kind of life.
This perfume claims to contain “grey amber absolute,” which might mean ambergris and it might mean nothing. But it smells like a face frozen while weeping; like longterm melancholy, like a deep, dark well. It’s a haunted amber, an amber that has flown too close to the sun and returned smoky and singed and gasping. It’s sensual, in the way that a really good cry is sensual, that cleansing cathartic wail that comes from the core.
I often put on Mahler, the Second symphony in particular, when I have to do a lot of writing in a short period of time, or when I’m writing something new and overreaching that I’m not very sure of yet. This piece of music is useful for this type of writing because of the wild builds and frenzies in it, the kind of thing that sneaks up on me and then takes over. I can't type fast enough to keep up with it and therefore I can’t stop to think of what might be wrong with what I’m saying. It overwhelms the doubts, the know-better impulses that if they could would talk me out of ever writing anything. I stop thinking about what I shouldn’t say; ideally I stop thinking of myself at all. The music crashes in, huge, ridiculous, and obliterating, the cold-air rush of abandoning oneself, of giving one’s ego over to something faceless, larger than the small worries of praise or failure, manners or logic.
This sort of unchecked wildness, this relief of surrender to the uncaring elements, may have been what Mahler was after when he retreated to a small hut in the Tyrolean mountains, behind which a towering rock-face soars into steel-colored air. He composed his Second symphony and much of his Third here. What comes through most strongly to me in each of those is the deep thrill of seeking out that which is most frightening, hoping that that fear, like an electric shock or a plunge into cold water, might jolt one awake again, up out of the self and the ego, errands and daily life, into something grander beyond. It is the sound of wanting what is dangerous and uncaring, the desire to be crushed by some greater force, swept away into oblivion. I imagine Mahler walking outside and looking up at that mountain with the sick, heart-racing image of that the towering cliff collapsing, wiping away the house and the body beneath it, as though they had never been there. The music is wild with the hope of that obliteration, that grand nothingness.
Amber Teutonic, one of D.S. & Durga's two new amber scents, seeks to catch this faraway wildness in scent. As indicated by the name, it is inspired by Mahler's composing huts in the Tyrol, or really the landscape around them. It opens with a burst of pine and scorched wood, like waking up on a cold morning alone in a small room in the middle of the mountains. The scent doesn't actually contain any amber, which was the project of these scents - to recreate and capture the idea of amber without using amber itself as a note. This seems a little pointless, but I have to admit it's very successful here in underlining amber's growing warmth, like a fireplace being coaxed over the course of a cold day into a blaze, so that it’s finally warm just as the sun goes down. It opens as the addictive jolt of going outside without a coat in the winter, and then it melts down into the warmth of a small heated room inside a much bigger and colder landscape, a blazing fire the only bright thing for miles around. It whispers, from opening to base, about the enveloping forest just beyond. As is appropriate to something made in tribute to Mahler, it lasts a long time too, and is quite strong. Its overwhelming grandeur undoes the self in a chilly swoon, all cliff-face and pine tree and heavy grey sky.
The Amber Room is one of history’s great mysteries, the stuff of Dan Brown novels, or films that star a stubbled, gruffly handsome actor as a professor-turned-explorer looking for an artifact that he has only read about in antique texts with gilded edges. But unlike the Holy Grail, which may or may not have been invented by bored and bubonic Arthurian storytellers, the Amber Room absolutely existed; we have the receipts, and also the photographs (the original room was in tact right up until World War II). But where it is now is the big question. For those who haven’t heard of it, a brief summary: over the course of two decades at the beginning of the 18th century, a group of sculptors and artisans working in Germany labored to finish the finishings for an epic, ornate gilded room, one like the world had never seen before. The room contained 13,000 pounds of amber resin, carved and inlaid into baroque shapes on the walls. The profligate man who commissioned this ostentatious craft project was the King of Prussia, Fredrick William I, who wanted it for his own palace in Berlin. He had it installed, but he did not live with it long. Peter the Great visited him from Russia not long after the room was completed, and casually mentioned liking the colors in the Amber Room. Immediately, as a show of good will (or the ultimate power move, you decide), Fredrick had his people disassemble the entire room and haul it up north, where it sat in gleaming glory for over a hundred years as a meditative space inside the Catherine Palace, the rococo summer home for Tsarinas.
Flash forward to WWII: the Germans invade Russia, with the specific instructions to loot or destroy all precious art and architecture they can. The Nazis had their eyes set on the Amber Room especially, because they were resentful that it had ever left Germany to begin with. The curators of the Catherine Palace tried to hide the Amber Room behind wallpaper (the amber had become too brittle to move; also someone please make the Oscar-bait film about the curators trying to hide an ENTIRE ROOM) but the Germans found it anyway, and began what must have been an incredibly messy 36-hour destruction process, where soldiers took sledgehammers to the walls. They then shipped the shattered amber back to Königsberg in boxes, where the Castle Museum re-assembled it as if from a Lego kit, and displayed it for two years before putting it into cold storage.
When the Allied bombs hit Königsberg and leveled most buildings, the Amber Room also disappeared. Vanished. And no one knows where it is!!! Some say it still sits in a well-guarded basement, waiting. Some say it departed on a war submarine that was torpedoed, and now six tons of precious amber are resting on the bottom of the ocean. There are investigative journalists who have devoted their whole careers to looking for it (to no avail). What we do know is that there is a “curse” associated with the room, which is that anyone who ever touched it met some untimely end. The German curator in Konigsberg who put the room into crates? Died of typhus. A Russian KGB officer who talked to the press about the room? Died in a crash. A famous German “Amber Room Hunter” who claimed to be close to finding the treasure? Murdered in a forest! I may be putting my own life in danger by even typing this right now.
Amber Russe smells like what the Amber Room might have smelled like when it was new, after its long caravan to St. Petersburg. It’s amber (again, not the rock, but the melange of syrupy basenotes that gird its undercarriage) and pungent black tea, the sort of tea that might have occupied the same shipping routes that brought the amber to Germany from the East, and from Germany to the summer palace. It’s opulent and boozy and rich and makes you feel like a three-act opera. It might also be cursed! You’ll have to wear it and find out.
If you are dating someone and you want to buy them a perfume but aren't sure what to buy them: Buy them this. If you have a friend who wants to get into perfume and isn’t sure where to start and you want to get them a holiday gift, or a gift for any occasion at all: Buy them this. If you’d like to start giving fragrances as gifts but don’t know where or how to start: Give people this.
There are more specific, easier, and more personalized options, sure, ones tailored to people’s memories of you and your memories of them, to the feelings that drew you to them or the smells you’ve shared with them. All of this is long-hand emotional gift-giving math that you could work out if you wanted to. But also, you could just buy them Ambre Sultan.
I have yet to meet a person on whom Ambre Sultan does not smell like a dream, and not only like a dream, but like who they wish they were - on people who want more assertive, it smells bold and commanding, and on people who want to be prettier it flirts and curls and flutters. It smells like home, or it smells like ambition, depending in which direction your day's heart is pointed. It is among the most wearable perfumes I have ever encountered, but wearable in a way that means neither boring nor small.
What it really smells like, to me anyway, and in one way or another on each of the at least a dozen people I have smelled it on, is a thing on which almost everyone can agree: It smells like the end of a party when all the superfluous people have gone home. It’s late at night, and there are empty glasses everywhere. Everyone who's still there has taken off their shoes. Maybe everyone is gently gossiping about the other people who've already left. Maybe everyone is sitting on the floor, or maybe everyone is crowded into the kitchen. The night unravels between words and low-lit faces, and the onward march of one day into the next is briefly persuaded to relent. It is that rare time when a party feels like something old and human and certain, as though my little windowless kitchen, with people squeezing their butts up onto the few inches of counter-space and into the leaning angle between the stove and the trash can, somehow reached all the way back to ancient notions of the guest law, minor kings throwing their homes open to travelers, wine and soft pillows and lamplight, pleasing to the gods.
Anyway, this scent is full of very heavy notes - patchouli, amber, coriander, benzoin, vanilla - that somehow don't feel heavy at all. Rather it smells like velvet, a pillow-soft landing that probably has to do with the sandalwood in it as much as the amber. It smells like someone telling you you're beautiful, and you believing them. It smells like exactly the compliment you hoped to hear, offered without you having to ask for it.
Its name perhaps wants to imply the weight of royalty, like many perfumes with their endlessly questionable label copy. It maybe intended to sound like a scent that a magisterial lord would wear while gazing over his vast kingdom. But instead it smells like someone in an old myth welcoming in weary, grateful strangers as though they were their own family, the particular ability that power has to turn to softness, the luxury of graciousness. It is grand, and it wears its grandness lightly. It is a scent with nothing to prove.
I feel like we’ve talked about Avignon in The Dry Down before, in fact I’m sure of it, because it is the perfect incense perfume, and so has become our shared shorthand for what people mean when they say they want to smell like Sunday Mass. I think I referenced it in a prior letter when writing about Sarah Jessica Parker, because she admitted once to the New York Times that Avignon was one of the three scents she layers to create her intoxicating signature blend that apparently smells like heaven itself (the other ingredients are drugstore Bonne Bell Musk and an Egyptian oil she buys on the street and will never share the source of). I have never forgotten that detail. That little aside in a bigger story was the reason I bought my first bottle of Avignon, which felt blessedly affordable as far as designer scents go. It’s only $95! (See, this is what perfume writing does to warp your brain; you start to see $100 as a steal).
I think the real reason we keep bringing this perfume up over and over in these virtual pages is that it is divine. Divine in that it smells absolutely beautiful, and divine in that it stretches toward religious ceremony. Avignon is part of a five perfume set that CDG released in 2002, ostensibly to honor the way religion smells in different cities around the world, and it is by far the breakout hit of the bunch. The others are Kyoto (Japan; teak and cypress), Jaisalmer (India; cardamom and cinnamon), Ouarzazate (Morocco; nutmeg and vanilla), and Zagorsk (Russia; pine and violets). These are all interesting and well-considered scents. You can try them all, if you wish, in a very pricy discovery set (or ask for them for the holidays from someone who owes you a luxurious favor).
But really all you need to rescue from that set is Avignon, which is meant to evoke a Gothic Catholic cathedral in rural France. Also: it is insanely great. And almost overwhelming, in that it is a hit of pure sacramental incense, like sticking your nose into the Pope’s vestments. The note that makes this perfume so pristine is a rare tree oil called elemi. You probably don’t think a lot about elemi (and why would you, it’s a rare tree oil) but it is exactly the essence you are thinking about when you crave the scent of ritualistic anointment. More than frankincense, more than myrrh, elemi oil the singular tangy, smoky, almost clove-like odor that can send a person straight into a holy place. And Avignon is overloaded with it.
We often get asked at the DD how “to smell like an old church,” which seems like it should not be such a strong a bodily desire. For one thing, organized religion carries with it so much heaviness. But perhaps we get this request so much because people crave the comforting scents of religious ceremonials, but want them unburdened from the rest of the pomp and strictures. They want to experience the sacred and the profane at the same time, on their collarbones. Or perhaps they just have fond memories of the smells that come with inherited traditions. I have conflicted feelings about whether or not I am making my late Jewish grandparents proud, but I will always, always love the smells of fresh challah bread and the orange-rind sweetness of the temple during Sukkot. Those scents are in my veins, and in my grandmother’s veins, and in her grandmother’s veins. Avignon, too, smells like a long lineage, like the precious oil squeezed from the bark of a branching family tree.
I realize I wrote about a L'Artisan perfume in my last diary, but I want to talk about this one because it takes such an unusual approach to incense, and because I am constantly looking for scents that smell like a cathedral.
This summer, my mom and I drove to a small town in France during a heatwave. The town was the kind of place that stakes its tourist reputation on one very picturesque square, the rest of the place a maze of post offices and pharmacies and parking lots, punctuated endlessly by signs pointing back toward that main square. All of it was boiled under a relentless sun, without a spot of shade, the kind of bright heat that seems to shrink the buildings beneath it and drain them of their color. Highly touristed spots in the busy season all have the exact same weather. It’s a particular beating sun under which it hurts to squint into the light, an aggressively inhospitable quality of outdoors that seems intent on reminding you that nowhere here is home to you, that nothing here wants you, and that you should not even consider trying to relax and enjoy yourself.
I was very jet-lagged and sick with minor food poisoning but had resolutely agreed to go on a day of tourist-y activities. I regretted this promise almost immediately, with the whole indignant slogging circumference of my inconvenient body. The town square was just as un-welcoming as every picturesque town square is on a day like this, squaring its shoulders to people like us who had arrived, vulture-like, to peck at its guidebook page beauty. But there was, blessedly, a church. I mumbled something about wanting to look at the architecture and almost sprinted inside.
People don’t talk enough about how cathedrals innovated air conditioning, and still do a better job at it centuries later than even a suburban mall or a movie theater. The church was huge, sprawling up and out, a monument to a god who couldn't possibly be interested in this tiny wine-country summer-home vacation town. The size of the church in comparison to the size of the town seemed like a joke, or like something from an alien world, crashed into the ground and rooted in place where it had landed. But more than anything else, it was so cool. The gigantic, sloping rock walls seemed to lay their hands on anyone who passed inside. It felt like the exact opposite of that squinting-tourist weather. Even though the doors were flung open to the same sunlight that had fried me like a bug under a magnifying glass just moments ago, inside the climate was so soothing, I wanted to lie down on the floor. If the feeling of finally doing and being done with something you have been anxiously putting off for weeks could be sculpted into a place, it would have been this cathedral, with its pale walls turned slightly green by the reflection of the trees and lake through the sunlight beyond the doors. Even in the middle of the day, incense was burning, and yet the heavy air was equally as cool as the walls. The whole place smelled like smoke, but the smoke smelled clean and ancient and slow, like not having to smile or talk to anyone for a whole long day.
Passage D'Enfer smells like this cathedral. It is a startlingly smoky fragrance. It smells like being in the middle of a fire. Yet at the same time, with notes of aloe and white lily laced through it, it is darkly cooling, a breath of smoky fresh air. Cathedrals like the one into which I escaped were supposed to, by the fact of their architecture, invite a sloughing off of the everyday, the selfish, the petty, gossip and the rent and complaints and flatteries and losses, turning oneself instead to a higher concern. They were meant to lift their congregants out of the grossness of the mortal body. Perhaps the attraction of religion is merely that it offers relief from ourselves. All the impatience, the demands, the sweat, the one thing after another that torment us every day are dissolved; here we can believe that there is something more, a buoyant world to which to aspire. This perfume smells like a cathedral’s cool walls and incense in the middle of a summer day, burning away the old, the petty, the used-up, leaping above the suffocating weather of our everyday worries.