I’ve never been a ‘girly’ girl.
In childhood I was the short-haired, freckle-faced tomboy who climbed trees, rode bikes with the neighborhood boys and went out for track, not cheerleading. As an adult, I don’t read fashion magazines or follow trends. I abhor shopping. My one concession to make-up is lipstick and I keep my nails blunt and unpolished.
So you can imagine how perplexed I was, some years ago, to find myself sliding, almost despite myself, down the fragrant rabbit hole into the world of perfume obsession.
Wait, I remember thinking. This is so girly. It’s not like me at all! What on earth has come over me? But I couldn’t stop.
It was like a fever. A journey of discovery. A secret that I didn’t want to confess for fear people would think me shallow and silly. I still don’t talk about it much outside of those who share my obsession. I’ve learned to beware of the overly bright smiles, quizzical looks, lets-humor-her nods and slow backing away at cocktail parties.
But I don’t mind admitting it here. My name is Denise, and I’m a perfumista.
I refuse to say how many bottles are in my collection. The bald truth is that I’ve got so many I have a hard time keeping track. But I cherish each one and I’m conversant on notes you’ve probably never heard of: galbanum, petitgrain, oud, indole. When I bring out my perfumes - often for curious friends – I feel like Gollum caressing his precioussssss. It is both a source of pleasure and shame for me that I covet and lust after these perfumes with the same intensity of the dragon Smaug lolling atop his gold treasure.
Perfume is a simple fix of pleasure in a world that grows ever more complex and dark.To put it in words that any three-year-old can understand, perfume makes me happy.
How did I get here?
Well, my mother was a French-Russian émigrée who always kept a shelf of perfumes in the bathroom. As a kid, they were a source of endless mystery and exoticism to me. Many an afternoon, I would take each bottle down with great reverence, examining its curves and labels, then spritz and dab to my heart’s content.
So, from an early age, perfume imprinted on me. I was curious about smells and found I had a good – and sensitive nose. At 16, I was bewitched by a boy who wore Aramis and followed him around like a heartsick puppy just to sniff him. I always wore perfume too, but in a haphazard way: Anais Anais because I’d smelled it on a girl in an Amsterdam hostel; Grey Flannel, a (gasp!) men’s cologne, because it smelled good on a boy I knew; Chanel No. 5 and Cristalle as hand-me-downs from my mother; Halston and Obsession and Fendi because they were popular at college and later.
But it wasn’t until I found a bottle of Donna Karan’s Chaos at the Goodwill some years back that I embarked on studying perfume as an art form. Spraying a bit on, I found it too spicy and rich. Back home, the smell wafting from my wrist intrigued me so I googled it and was shocked to find that Chaos was discontinued, highly sought after and fetching hundreds of dollars on ebay.
So I ran back and bought it, but instead of selling it, I grew to love it and avidly researched the notes to see why this mysterious perfume with notes of oud, cardamom, cinnamon, lavender, wood and incense had captivated so many people.
That plunged me into the online world of perfume blogs and encyclopedic review sites like Basenotes.net. The more I researched and learned about perfume, the more captivated I became by its art. Here was something that engaged me both intellectually and sensually. Not only that, but there were sites online where I could buy tiny samples of rare, niche, discontinued and vintage perfumes and experience the world’s great classic perfumes — or the newest niche offerings—without breaking the bank.
When I sat down to write Damage Control, I decided to make my protagonist Maggie Silver a budding perfumista.
So imagine my surprise when a bit of research showed that crime writers as far back as the late 1920s had done the same thing. Authors such as S.S. Dine, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming and Ruth Rendell have all written magnificently about perfume. (And then of course there’s the novel Perfume, which I highly recommend.
For a while, I was devastated. My clever little plot twist was anything but. But eventually I got over it. If so many authors have done it, they must be on to something good. Besides, everyone tells their tale a different way. My plot, my voice, my denouement, would all be different.
And so I relaxed. And I kept sniffing, and writing about my perfume.
Eventually, the Los Angeles Times Magazine gave me a monthly column in which to muse about the world of perfume – for which I’m extremely grateful.
I’ve found a wonderful community of kindred spirits online and in real life. In fact, several other Mommies and me meet regularly outside my son’s middle school an hour before classes let out. There in my family mini-van, we open vials and huff and roll our eyes with pleasure as we pass around the Carons, Guerlains, Diors, Chanels, Serge Lutens, Dawn Spencer Hurwitzes and other treasures that we’ve stumbled across.
Lord knows what the neighbors, joggers and dog-walkers think. I fully expect to see a policeman peering into the window one day, asking us what kind of drugs we’re doing.
“Here,” I’ll say, handing him a vial of Creed’s Russian Leather. Or maybe Gendarme by Carriere.
“What do you think?” I’ll ask. “Is it you?”
Denise Hamilton writes the nationally best-selling Eve Diamond crime novels featuring a reporter who solves murders in contemporary multicultural Los Angeles. Hamilton is also an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Cosmopolitan, Der Spiegel and New Times. She writes a monthly perfume column for the Los Angeles Times called Uncommon Scents.