So you want to...splash around in the sea without ever getting wet? We've got you.
Dear Dry Downers,
Hello! Welcome to a new edition of The Six (though this time we have eight picks — we got into this one, what can we say?), in which we each pick three scents around a theme and sort of...go where the wind takes us. Today, in honor of the dog days of Summer, we are discussing the world of AQUATIC PERFUMERY. There is a huge corner of perfumery dedicated to making you smell as if you just emerged from the ocean, or glopped on sunscreen, or brushed up against whale vomit (yes, really). Summer is really the best time to play around with aquatics, because a) they smell like going on vacation even when you cannot and b) they will make people think you just returned from some sandy locale when really you spent the entire day inside in your underwear next to the A/C blast-stream trying to regain your sense of equilibrium after daring to go outside for a beverage (or maybe that’s just us). OK, GET FISHY.
Also, this newsletter is going out to all our subscribers (HELLO!). But earlier this year, we started a subscription service, which comes with personal perfume recs, access to our perfume diary, access to the full archive, and other goodies along the way. You can check that whole situation out here.
As always, thank you all for reading and supporting The Dry Down. You smell amazing.
XO R and H
At the Beach 1966 isn’t really an aquatic; it’s a sunscreen. Christopher Brosius created a “North Atlantic accord” specifically for this perfume - driftwood and wet sand, seashells and boardwalk - but the primary note, as he says in his description, is Coppertone 1967. Whether or not you like this perfume will be mostly determined by whether or not you carry any affection for the smell of, or the memories associated with, sunscreen. I love it because to me the smell of sunscreen is the starting pistol for summer, the meaning of the whole season. At the Beach 1966 smells like a public beach on a hot summer holiday, the lazy, anxious Monday of a three day weekend. It smells like crowding into a car with too many snacks and too many repurposed bathroom towels, when a group of city friends make their way to a beach with little idea of what one is supposed actually do there, a confused and pinterest-cobbled selection of accessories and hope thrown into the backseat, supposedly ready for the sand. These plans never quite work out the way one intends. The beach in reality is always grimier and more logistically awkward than expected. Sand is treacherous, exhausting to walk in, hard to successfully lie down on, and the running around in water yelling ecstatically that people seem to do on the beach is a fifteen minute activity at most. All of summer is like this, really, a demand for very specific joys, splashed across the imagination in bright and large-printed images that, in action, prove difficult to achieve in any satisfying way. This scent smells like the day-to-day longing and minor key failure that grazes its way across the summer, the sweaty parties in a friend-of-a-friend’s backyard, the outdoor part of a bar in Brooklyn on early Friday afternoons, the heat haze shimmering over the center of the road. But mostly it smells like sunscreen. As the name implies, there’s also something more glamorous about it than the experience of sunscreen most of us have. There’s a surprising creaminess to it that pumps up the femme glamour you didn’t quite realize lurked in sunscreen, and pulls you back to this sort of unattainable beach fantasy, large beach hats and expensive bikinis and gold jewelry against tan skin. But it smells just as much like the reality of sunscreen, like driving home at the end of that holiday Monday, in that same car with the same friends and the wreckage of the same towels and snacks and water bottles in the backseat, coated with persistent sand and feeling stoned somehow just from the beach itself, that time in the late afternoon when a summer day is more than the sum of its parts, all its bright colors and heat exhaustion and not-quite-there plans aligning to a lazy sleepy satisfaction that smells like melted sunscreen.
The first time I ever smelled ambergris, I gagged. This is not unusual. Ambergris, in its pure form, is not a pleasing material. It is, after all, calcified sperm whale vomit (or excrement -- it can emerge from both ends!), a gelatinous matter expelled from the animal’s gastrointestinal tract that takes about twenty years to harden and become valuable, in which time it accretes all kinds of oceanic stank. By the time a hunk of ambergris washes up on the shore, it smells not just fecal but also almost sickeningly sweet (a bit like rotted banana), salty and briny (like dill pickle juice), and animalic (like the beaks of crushed up little squids and the spines of other invertebrates). And strangely, this lump of biological...stuff, which can be brown, or white, or grey (thus the origin of the name, “grey amber,”) is worth thousands of dollars. In 2015, a two-pound slab of ambergris found off the coast of Wales sold to a bidder for £11,000. Eleven. Thousand. Pounds. If you care to know so much more than you ever thought possible about why and when and how sperm whale manure became so valuable, I urge you to read Christopher Kemp’s book Floating Gold: A Natural (and Unnatural) History of Ambergris, which contains such colorful sentences as “ambergris begins its long journey in darkness, beneath several tons of seawater, in the warm and cavernous hindgut of a sperm whale.” The book features a cast of colorful characters who spend their careers trawling the ocean for chunks of upchuck, which, well, everyone has their own calling in this one wild and precious life.
As for its use in perfume, like all animal-derived materials, it isn’t as popular, or even as legal, as it once was. It is illegal to possess and trade ambergris in Australia and the United States, which is fine with most perfumers, as they have long replaced its use as a fixative with an aromachemical called ambroxan, which is far less volatile but still mimics the fatty, alkaline odor of the real thing. A lot of perfumers do still keep a tiny tin of authentic ambergris in their organs, if only for shock value (the first time I smelled it, it was because a perfumer I was interviewing pushed a battered tin container, about the size of a pot of Carmex, under a table to me as if he was slipping me drugs; after retching into my coffee, I think I would have preferred the drugs). You won’t really find it too much in new compositions. I’d argue that’s a good thing. Some people think ambergris smells sublime, at least when mixed with other ingredients. I think that no matter what you do with it, it still retains the sour tang of spoiled milk, or, if you want to get very graphic about it, the semen of a quite unhealthy person. Is it even an aquatic smell? That’s debatable. It hails from the seas, and to the seas it shall return. But it doesn’t smell like the waves. It smells like death under the waves, like unwelcome submersion. It smells to me like the last sigh of a giant beast, the mortal release of sinking to the bottom of the muck. Strangelove’s Silence The Sea is a new-ish perfume that uses an overload of real ambergris (ethically harvested, they claim, but I’m not sure how they got around regulations tbh) and it costs $500 and I have tried to wear a sample of it three times and I truly cannot stomach it. I do think it’s worth telling you about this scent, because as a composition it is challenging and dangerous and weird as fuck, and it might wake up your synapses. It is not for me, but it is the purest evocation of a whale carcass I can imagine, and that might be an aromatic idea that appeals to you! You might feel the need to smell something ancient and aching and sagging and seasick. So, this is how you can do that.
Amouage is weird, and they just keep getting weirder. A brand that made their name making heady, expensive oud and rose scents, and which still - between their outrageous prices and their old-fashioned ornate bottles - summons up the expectation of perfumes for rich grandmas, something that smells like a fur coat and a dying bouquet of long-stemmed flowers.
But their recent new scents have been quirkier and younger than that, much too initially off-putting for a wealthy grey-haired grande dame (or at least a very unexpected choice for one). While I admit I love a fancy grandma scent, and that I love some of Amouage’s fancy grandma scents in particular, I also love their strange new experiments. Beach Hut Woman’s name is deceptive. “Beach hut” sounds like a place to buy pina coladas in plastic cups, a palm-overhung stretch of sand in some tropical vacation paradise. But the scent is nearly the opposite. Amouage intended Beach Hut Woman to smell “like a deserted beach in winter,” and that’s a fairly accurate description, although it takes a while for all of the bleak, enjoyably lonely notes to arrive. Imagine the kind of beach town that does have pina coladas in plastic cups in the summer, now empty of everyone but a few unfriendly residents in the offseason, the kind of grey place to which you could drive out alone, park your car, and take a long walk about your feelings. While marine notes lurk at its edges and form sort of a frame for the rest of the scent, what dominates the fragrance is a huge driftwood note, the smell of a bonfire on a beach in winter. It smells like saltwater and like charred wood, like the burning leaves and fireplace scent that sometimes inexplicably wafts across the air around dusk in summer in a city where there couldn’t possibly be a bonfire anywhere nearby. A beach bonfire in winter is one of the best versions of the beach. A whiff of it in summer carries all the longing for cold weather that we can only feel when we’re as far from cold weather as possible. It smells like blankets that have been sleeping unused in the back of a car for months, re-discovered, carried out to the deserted dunes, like the crackle of sooty sparks rising into steely air, like the good, full-mouth comfort of intentional loneliness. In summer when everything is dripping with satiation and skin and primary colors, when everything yells about crowds and public joy and mandatory fun, the flinty moodiness of this beach perfume is a balm, a reminder of other, less obvious comforts, of the beach that will still be there when everyone has gone home for the season. If I could rename this, I would call it Goth Beach.
What does a waterfall smell like? Depends on where you are, I suppose. In Hawaii, waterfalls smell like frangipani and algae. In Yellowstone, they smell like sulfur and wet earth. In upstate New York, they smell like fried food and oyster shells. In the mind of perfumer Jacques Cavallier, they smell like cantaloupe. In 1992, the Japanese designer Issey Miyake wanted to launch his first scent, and gave Cavallier the instruction to evoke waterfall mist, as cool and clear as dribblings from a mountain spring. The designer himself is an arch minimalist, and wanted his fragrance to be linear and architectural; his aim was to shave as much frosting off the top of a perfume as one could and still have a department store hit. What Cavallier came up with was...not really the assignment. These days, there are plenty of fragrances that are so minimal as to be almost non-existent (Byredo x Off White’s new collab Elevator Music is basically plain perfumer’s alcohol with a few drops of iris oil in it), but in the 1990s, perfumers had a very different idea of what constituted a pared down scentscape. It makes sense -- we were coming off of a decade of noxious white floral bombs like Poison and Ysatis, so really any scent that didn’t stink up an entire elevator counted as low-key. The nineties version of an understated neutral, in terms of perfume anyway, was calone, a new aromachemical that smelled of iced honeydew drizzled with a bit of chlorine. In the nineties, calone was in everything “marine”: Acqua di Gio, Cool Water, Issey. It is still all over the place -- if you have ever purchased a blue hand soap from the drugstore that comes in “Tranquil Spa” fragrance or something like it, then you’ve encountered calone. It is probably the most successful “aquatic” chemical ever created, in industry terms, which is ultimately very silly as it doesn’t really smell like anything having to do with water. Instead, it mimics oversized fruits. And Cavalier used an overdose of it. When Issey debuted, it became immediately iconic, not because it slipped into the background as the transparent beige scent that the designer thought he wanted, but because you could recognize it from twenty feet away. My mother wore Issey for a time, and I remember going up to her vanity and spending three minutes at a time huffing the scent out of its slender, frosted bottle, because it was so zany, and because I knew it didn’t exist anywhere else in nature. Even as a nine year old, I understood that Issey was close to a waterfall as I was to being a grown woman, but the perfume made me smile. It still does.
Beach scents, much like the beach, are rarely elegant. The beach is an activity dead-set against elegance, especially in the way people in New York approach it. The beaches here are disgusting, and to go to the beach anywhere closer than the Hamptons is to subsume oneself into an acceptance of total, joyful filth. The sand is gross, the water is gross, the people around you are gross. This is the appeal of the summer beach, and to some degree the summer itself, too, though. In summer, on the beach, we get to do away with our collective delusion that hygiene is real or effective, to shake off the fears of getting dirty and admit that we already are, all the time. For a few hours this is a gift, an easing of worries and of pretenses. Summer allows us to reveal the filth that was there all along.
But there is another idea of the beach, and of summer, that to me at least has always only ever been imaginary, one in which the beach is in fact synonymous with elegance, cleanliness, and ease. This image of gracious beach-going is the promise of places in the world that can only be bought with money, where the beaches require permits and passwords, where everyone wears miraculously unwrinkled linen and carries cocktails in real actual glasses - made of glass! - right onto the sand, a place where everyone has the means to actually banish dirt, rather than just collectively ignore it, an echelon of living at which cleanliness is finally in fact possible.
In my limited experience of these kinds of beaches, they aren’t actually fun. The promise of places like the Hamptons and Lake Como and private island getaways is that everything will be easy, that all effort and sweat is wiped away, but in reality this mandated appearance of ease is stifling and exhausting. Everyone is watching everyone else to see who will break, who will expend energy or get dirt on their clothes.
One of the things about perfume, though, is that it allows one to dwell in pure fantasy, to never trespass across the line where an experience becomes real enough that you have to confront its flaws. The reality of a sailboat cruise on the French Riviera would likely be at best unpleasant, unable to live up to its big promises and full of the type of people who can afford to take sailboat cruises on the French Riviera. But a perfume like Cap d’Antibes delivers only the fantasy of it, the way it might look in your mind or in a movie. This perfume smells the way you might imagine a perfect July or August day on a beautiful sailboat off the coast of Europe in the languid grandeur of a past decade would have smelled, all elegance and grace, sun and sand, violet and mint and cedar. It smells like carelessness, like unwrinkled white linen and gentle breezes, like drinking a cocktail on the deck of a beautiful boat at sunset with far-off mountains melting into the view and salt air sliding into dusk, the surface of the world as smooth as glass, as welcoming as an open door.
There are scents that start to stand in for cities over time; no matter where you wear them, you are always halfway in that other place. If you wear 24 Faubourg, for instance, even in rural Montana, you are choosing to put Paris on your body. If you wear Santal 33, you are trying to smell like New York City, and there’s no way around it. Love it or hate it, Santal, with its unmistakable woody sauna cloud, is unique everywhere else and a full-on cliché here, which is just about as New York as something can be. Acqua di Sale, which has been around for 22 years now, is 100% pure Rome in high Cancer season, melted down and shoved into a bottle. I’ve only been to Rome once in my life, but my sense memory is still strong enough to know that this is exactly what this perfume is. For starters, it comes from the city: the scent was one of the first perfumes that the Roman perfume house Profumum made, back in 1996. The company was technically relaunching at the time, because the real story of Profumum has centuries-deep Italian roots, all the way back to a tiny town in Molise called Sant Elena Sannita, where a young man named Celestino Durante learned the trade of knife-griding (most people in Sant Elena were knife grinders). After WWII, he and his wife Luisa wanted to dream bigger, so they packed up for Rome and started selling shaving soaps and colognes on a tiny alley off a piazza. Two generations later, their grandchildren decided to take over the family business and rebranded it, making the fragrances less about the artisanal and more about the artistic. I’m obsessed with pretty much every fragrance Profumum makes (if you are looking to smell like fresh-spun cotton candy, do wear Confetto; it’s perfect), but I think that Acqua is the heart of what they do. It is also their most successful scent -- in Rome during the summer, you will be hard-pressed to walk down a street and not catch a whiff of it. It permeates the travertine. One perfume store owner told me that when he goes to Rome, he notices that “every handsome waiter in every cafe is wearing Acqua like it’s part of the uniform.” He also added that a lot of the time these waiters are shirtless, in case that’s a detail you need.
Acqua di Sale is a foolproof, effortlessly wearable aquatic -- I never say this about any scent, but I can all but guarantee that it works on every single person. It is ageless, genderless, maybe even indifferent to us — much like the ocean itself. If you need notes: it smells like salt and a little bit of coconut, like slathering on Hawaiian Tropic and then letting most of it wash away in the sea. It has no fishy funk, no brackish kelp. It’s just...sun and saltwater. It’s the way your hair smells after you emerge from the waves, the gritty rim of a frozen boat drink, the sweat that lopes down your back on the hottest day of the year. To call it summer in a bottle is to undersell it -- it is Italian twilight in a bottle. I kept thinking while reading Call Me By Your Name that Oliver must have smelled of Acqua, though of course that novel is set before this scent ever existed. Maybe in a way, one conjured the other. Acqua di Sale is the quickest way to mentally travel to a place where they serve cold melon wrapped in cured meat, where people cool off from the swelter in wishing fountains, where locals walk by ancient structures every day and sometimes forget to look up.
Boszporusz (Nishane) - HF
I write about Nishane, a lot I realize - I believe I’ve already recommended something like three of their fragrances in past Dry Downs - and there are a couple reasons for that. One is simple sentimental attachment. We tend to be unreasonably attached to the first things we loved and the first people who ever welcomed us, even if they are not the best things we loved and even if what we were welcomed to was not as good as numerous other welcomes that followed. I got to perfume late, and not in the traditional way - I remember smelling my mom’s perfume bottles on her dresser and trying out scents on occasion as a teenager, but none of it stuck and it always felt like it was for someone else. I was at the end of my twenties before I started experimenting with fragrance at all, before I realized that samples were an available thing and therefore perfume could be a small experimental joy rather than some expensive feminine ritual that I had to get right on the first try. Because I got to perfume so late, I started with niche and indie scents - big brand name perfumes, the famous ones, the ubiquitous ones, are where I am still learning and still least familiar. Nishane was one of the first perfume brands I ever tried, and their scents felt strange and personal, beautiful but unconcerned with beauty, achingly sentimental without being cheesy, and never quite what I expected.
Boszporusz opens with the smell of a summer morning. It smells like waking up in a hotel on impossibly crisp, impossibly white sheets in a faraway place. The marine notes that arrive almost immediately after the freshness of the opening heighten that sense of being on vacation. If you looked out your window, you would see water flowing through a city below your window. I have never been to the Boszporusz, the strait of water that cuts through Istanbul and separates its European side from its Asian one, but I have longingly poured over travel articles and hotel websites showing photo after photo of it, and my idea of this wildly significant piece of water is heavily romanticized in the languages by which vacations are sold - slow-moving boats with polished wood benches and white cushions and sails and people lounging in easy, elegant outfits, breezes lifting the smell of a crowded, ancient city across the water. Within this bracingly aquatic scent, floral and even gourmand notes appear and disappear playfully; the scents of food and flowers shimmering down to the water, the smells of all the life that goes on loudly below a window with a view of the sea. Unlike most aquatic scents, Nishane is, after the cold-water splash of the opening, wonderfully not clean. It is at once the fantasy of vacation, and the fragrant squalor of city life, mixed together and carried out across the water to mingle with the cool sea air on a hot day in summer.
Sel Marin (Heeley) -- RS
Last week, I went out to the Hamptons for one night. This was only the second time I have been out to that flush stretch of Long Island, and I cannot say that on either occasion I have felt like the place was meant for me. Both times, I went on the invitation of older friends who either owned a house or had grandfathered into the use of one, friends who hail from a very different New York from a very different era, when writers made enough money to splurge on beach shacks and then squat in them all summer long, typing next to a fan and a bowl of ice cubes. Now, even owning a tiny square of land on the peninsula is impossible, and I don’t really know any of my peers who would want to; the friends I have who do have enough resources to fling at property (lol can you imagine) are moving upstate, to rural thickets where they have to install their own septic systems. The Hamptons seems to me like a place where all the people in New York that I never cross paths with in he city congregate at once, and it’s alienating, to say the least. For one thing, you cannot buy an iced coffee that costs less than $6. There is also no real place in East Hampton to linger, except for an overcrowded Starbucks. It’s all shops that sell $500 linen dresses with tassels on them (my boyfriend said that it was like the small Oregon town from Wild, Wild, Country, but where everyone was wearing blue and cream instead of magenta). This all said, we had a lovely time, because we spent most of it at the beach, which was blissfully sparse and quiet. The beach near where we stayed was called Georgica, which also happens to be the beach closest to Grey Gardens. The water in the Atlantic was glassy and cool, and the sand was so hot that it lightly toasted the balls of our feet. We spent hours splashing around in the shallows, trying to body surf on foamy little waves but never really succeeding. It had been over a year since I’d been in an ocean, and it turns out I really needed it.
I grew up in a landlocked place, and so until I was an adult, my main attitude towards the ocean was fear. I worried about sharks, shadows, the depths I couldn’t see. But now, I approach every time I get to dive in as a chance to embrace the unknown. And maybe that this is why aquatic scents are so perennially popular -- they smell like mystery, like admitting how little we will ever know in this life. You cannot wear a seafoam scent and feel elegant or accomplished -- not in the way that a tuberose immediately heightens the day -- you always feel a little messy, a little dizzy, a little bit like you are treading water. That is why I find the status-anxiety of everyone in the Hamptons to be so disarming. Don’t you all know that the ocean knows more than you ever will? How can you stare out at the infinite horizon and still feel like a master of the universe? I’ll never understand it. What I do understand is Sel Marin, which is, to me, the most accurate distillation of the actual ocean that I have ever smelled. Unlike other aquatics that either smell sweaty or fruity or like SPF 50, this one smells like seaweed and ozone, and that’s it. There is something hungry swimming underneath its surface. Don’t be afraid.