As featured by Adam Hurley in SPY.
Perfume is French even if it isn’t. Cologne feels Parisien even though it takes its name from a German city where an Italian invented the 2% to 4% oil to alcohol and water mix. Blame the Sun King for the Versailles vibe. Louis XIV loved a floral spritz even more than he loved a failed foreign war. 300 years after his death, his scent lingers, which is why a certain kind of American man views anything coming off an olfactory production line with skepticism.
It feels Old World. It feels decadent – and not in a good way.
It’s probably not a coincidence that Old Spice, the most popular scented product in line in America, has very few European ingredients. It’s a trade wind rushing up from the Caribbean, carrying nutmeg, star anise, aldehydes, and lemon. It smells American, but only in the sense that it’s familiar. It does not smell of America itself, the land or the crops. No terroir.
As it happens, few common scents are sourced within the borders of the United States. Cologne does not feel as American as deodorant, for example, because it isn’t. But that’s starting to change as a generation of scent crafters experiments with new ingredients and new ways of positioning themselves in a $8.1 billion market driven by impulse and emotion. What does it mean to smell American? Perfumers are starting to not only ask the question, but provide the sort of answers worth purchasing.
Oakland-based Juniper Ridge, which uses exclusively plants native to the American West, provides the simplest answer in the form of locally sourced ingredients. But many perfumers are dubious about an approach that limits the brand’s ability to be as precise when painting an olfactory picture. For most perfumers, it’s not just about sourcing ingredients. It’s about evocation.
“Would you ask an American painter to only paint using American Pigments?” asks Nick Arauz, CEO of Caswell-Massey, a US-founded and based luxury fine fragrance brand. “Would you ask an American musician to only play instruments made in America?”
Of course not. That sounds off.
“It’s an ’emotional’ request, a desire to smell something that evokes or represents something that feels familiar,” says NYC-based perfumer Carlos Huber, founder of Arquiste Parfumeur. Arauz reframes the question. “When you recognize perfumery as fine art and the perfumer as an artist, it becomes clear that you don’t need to use 100% American raw materials to make a great American Perfume.”
It’s about evocation. The forested west. The vast northern plains. The coastal wetlands. Americanness can be derived from chemistry and juxtaposition. The best rose comes from France, Turkey, or Bulgaria; primo vetiver is Haitian and Indian; ylang-ylang has to be sourced from Asia and Australia. But together they can become deeply American.
That idea has always been at the heart of the Caswell-Massey business, which was founded in 1752. Some ingredients are imported, but the ethos is profoundly not. It’s an immigrant-founded American fragrance and personal goods company with a hero scent, “Number Six,” that has been worn by everyone from “Buffalo Bill” Cody to John Barrymore to John Adams to George Washington. The first president gave it to visiting dignitaries.
“Our first influencer,” Arauz jokes without really joking.
At the time, Number Six was meant to be the American answer to the beloved German scent Farina Eau de Cologne (1709). Number Six had a unique aromatic profile and incorporated ingredients native to New England, plus more wild animalic notes of musk, ambergris, and civet. “The scent was created to capture the spirit of adventure and exploration and hope, which was strong at the founding of the country and remains strong today.”
The scent leans heavily toward what Robert Frost described as “lovely, dark and deep.”
“America has so much diversity in pine, cedar, sagebrush, and fir,” Arauz explains. “These notes are synonymous with many great American fragrances, capturing the outdoors but also having some really nice balance with green and floral notes in the best extractions.”
The forest pricks the sense. The West is different. It’s a gust. It can be harder to capture.
Ask Huber what how to bottle the deserts, the mountains, and the montane and ideas spew out. A Mexican-born naturalized American citizen, Huber is sentimental about his adopted country. He’s also a historian of a kind. In September, Huber and Arquiste will launch a candle, Santa Ynez General, that is supposed to evoke a very specific place at a very specific time. The place: Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos, CA. The time: October, 1886.
“The 5 p.m. stagecoach from Santa Barbara arrives with a clatter of hoofbeats, raising a rich, dusky scent from the baking earth,” Huber narrates. “Passengers arrive weary yet beguiled by the heady bouquet of the Santa Ynez Mountains: sweet artemisia and bitter chapparal sage on the sunny ridges, aromatic fennel and herbal bay laurel in the canyon bottoms. Now resting on the Tavern’s veranda, the passengers watch as the lowering sun burnishes the golden hills spooling out before them, their scent of curing hay and buckwheat carried aloft by the faintest Pacific zephyr.”
All of that in a single whiff.
It’s all in keeping with Huber’s very specific approach to bringing scents back home. He underscores personal nostalgia.
“I try not to stir politics or tribalism or nationalism,” he says. “I focus on the individual experience: What’s your American experience? Because the beauty of the United States is that it’s a union, hence, the sum of many parts: cultures, experiences, scents, and flavors.”
The difficulty is often in isolating those parts and distilling them. New technologies help.
Nature-identical molecules, pioneered by NYC-based company International Flavors & Fragrances, allow perfumers to produce ingredients that could never be produced using conventional methods. Consider an orchid with a beautiful scent that only grows an inch or two per year or an endangered species of plant growing at Yellowstone that is threatened by climate change. Consider the snow leopard. Consider the lobster.
Arauz has embraced the new tech to create Caswell-Massey’s scents, including “Yellowstone.” He thinks of high-quality synthetics as an opportunity for storytelling. And he’s not alone.
Demeter Fragrance Library in Great Neck, NY which sells over 300 one-note wonders including “Tootsie Roll,” “Play-Doh,” “Pizza,” “Cannabis Flower,” and “Baby Powder, uses match molecules to hit otherwise unreachable notes.
“We capture the air around the object in a vacuum, then use gas chromatography to create a chemical fingerprint and recreate that fingerprint with materials acceptable for use on the skin,” Crames explains. Aside from personal wear and gifts, Demeter’s scents are often commonly used to establish ambiance at parties and corporate events, as well as in nursing homes for dementia patients (for nostalgic recollection), or to programs that support the hearing impaired (to embolden other senses).
The personal is rendered in precise terms. Nostalgia is about the details. Tootsie rolls are nothing if not American. Tootsie Rolls do not smell French. Neither does “Yellowstone” or an Old West saloon.
America is hard to distill. Many have tried. What perfumers are finding as they strip Old World accents from their smells, is that the whole can only be understood as a sum of parts and the parts must be bottled separately. The beauty of this is that it creates a multiplicity of choices. Self determination. Nothing more American than that.
St. Johns Bay Rum Cologne
St Johns prides itself in its US-sourced raw materials, as well as its “Fishpot-wave” bottles, which are woven in the Virgin Islands. Bay Rum is its most iconic scent, a cinnamon, sandalwood, and spicy clove mélange that pairs as smoothly with skin as real Bay Rum pairs with St Thomas, St Johns, and the likes.