The Austin Chronicle

The Good Eye: Perfume Is a Country

June 6, 2014, Columns

When I first discovered that perfume is a place, I was in a particularly dark one myself – and cold, too. March in Chicago bears no resemblance to March in Austin, and I was waiting out a toxic living situation while rain and snow duked it out outside my window. In perfume, I discovered imaginary and infinitely portable countries. A single whiff of perfume can wrap you in whisper-thin warmth, throw a calming breeze against your skin, or open up a magic door to private, labyrinthine gardens. It can even be a home.

That's a lot of geography for a couple of milliliters of fragrance molecules suspended in alcohol, but it makes sense given the role of scent in our brains. The olfactory bulb, which organizes sensory data collected through the nose, is closely linked to emotion and memory in the hippocampus and amygdala. Evolutionarily speaking, our sense of smell is part of a reward-and-punishment system that links pleasant scents to good stuff like food and sex, and unpleasant scents to potentially harmful stuff, like rotten food or bacteria-laden feces. Scent is the body's way of creating an instant memory stamp for an experience. This mnemonic function means smell plays a crucial role in learning, too; it's one of only two parts of the brain that continue to manufacture new brain cells throughout adult life. Smell is so important to mood, in fact, that antidepressant studies are conducted on lab rats whose olfactory bulbs have been removed. Apparently, living without smell looks a whole lot like living with depression.

So in dark times, hitting the bottle – the perfume bottle, that is – is a pretty good instinct. Haunting high-end department stores, lurking in Sephora, and eventually ordering samples from niche websites like Lucky Scent and The Perfumed Court, I began tickling those fresh brain cells, teaching them to play new olfactory tunes. I learned to distinguish individual notes, like vetiver, a fresh, earthy grass native to India; frangipani, the night-blooming flower with an edge of bubblegum sweetness; sour-sweet neroli, from the bitter orange tree. Through perfume, I escaped from that apartment into Fendi Theorema, an abandoned cabin in the woods that you take shelter in during a rainstorm; Annick Goutal's Songes, a tropical garden on a humid night; and best of all, Chanel's 31 Rue Cambon, an Upper East Side flat lavishly furnished with oriental rugs, leather armchairs, and a few small but priceless Old Masters. They were all wonderful, but none of them smelled like Austin.

Thanks to Krista Lacey of Roux St. James and Jessica Hannah of J. Hannah Co., that's changing. Both Austinites are devotees of a burgeoning natural perfume movement that values the warmth, depth, and variety of natural ingredients over the synthetics used in commercial perfumes. Together, they bring two distinct approaches to the local perfume landscape that are as unique and imaginative as the city itself.

Krista Lacey's Roux St. James perfumes, available at Blackmail on South Congress, are inspired by everything from Greek philosophy to famous paintings to her close friends. Lacey, who used to design commercial spaces as part of her job, is well aware of the link between perfume and environment. "If you're going to be busy, you should have a nice place to work in," she explains. "When I started thinking about perfume, it was kind of the same thing. We're all so busy, we're so caught up. Perfume is about taking a moment for yourself, having that moment of reflection, of memory."

Lacey's own home is furnished with antiques and vintage circus posters, and her love of nostalgia is reflected in the gorgeously detailed Roux St. James packaging. The bottles are adorned with black sealing wax and come nestled in book-like boxes tied with black ribbons. For Lacey, the multi-sensory experience is important. "You're opening that ribbon, and you're thinking, what's inside? Then you read the story, and you're drawn in more, and then you smell the scent. I wanted to create a layered experience."

Jessica Hannah of J. Hannah Co. crafts a different sort of experience for her clients. Hannah, who studied with natural perfumery guru Mandy Aftel, specializes in workshops and individual client blending sessions. A recent Chicago transplant (we bonded over the chilly springs) with a background in performance art, she views scent-building as a conversation in which the client discovers what he or she needs at that particular moment.

As my own blending session begins, the conversation does, too. While I sniff at tiny vials of essential oil, Hannah gives me a fascinating mini-lesson on each. She introduces me to benzoin, a resin that smells a little like maple syrup and a little like cough medicine; discusses the cooling, peppermint-like properties of vetiver; and even takes me through the stinkier, more exotic animalic scents. Castoreum, which comes from the scent glands near a badger's anus, she laughingly but accurately describes as "leathery butt."

There is no butt, leathery or otherwise, in the perfume I took home that day – and the goal, for Hannah, is always to send clients home with something after the first session – but it is still something of a surprise. The gentle rose that forms the heart of the fragrance gets a spicy tingle from a dash of cinnamon and a rounded, almost plummy cardamom note that I was unexpectedly drawn to during the session. Amber sweetens the scent, vetiver grounds it, and somewhere in the background lurks a hint of tobacco. There is indeed something Texas-y about that union of ladylike rose and spicy woods – like a Southern belle standing next to a smoking campfire. Maybe next time, I'll try for Barton Springs.

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