ALKEMIA PERFUMES REVIEW
I know zilch about perfumes, but I want to learn. None of my relatives ever wore a signature fragrance, since we all get headaches easily. I've read the Perfume 101 articles and watched the YouTube tutorials, but that's about as helpful as reading music journalism without having heard the music. Instead of struggling through a foreign language at my local perfume counter, I turned to an indie shop out of Massachusetts called Alkemia. Cruelty-free, vegan makers of perfume oils, they've achieved cult status with their Etsy store. You can order a sample pack of 5 for $10, and since each scent is described in detail on the site using standard industry parlance, it is a good foundation for any perfume education. I ordered two packs, and they threw in one sample for free; here is what I learned.
I've graded each on a scale from 1 (worst thing ever) to 10 (signature fragrance). By the time the samples arrived, I'd forgotten their descriptions on the website; so I held off reading them until after I wrote my own impressions. My husband gave his impressions too; he grew up around perfume wearers but is no more educated than me.
Grade: 8.5 Results: good longevity; dries down nicely; interesting and mellow, but zingy.
From the site: "A salacious yet aristocratically complex paradox of flowering basil, Irish linen, spilled absinthe, rare high altitude lavender, precious Japanese incense woods, dried lilies, fine cognac, a small provocation of leather, sandalwood, oakmoss, guaiac wood, ambergris, smoked vanilla beans, a risqué hint of opium, a whiff of pipe tobacco, patchouli, clove, and musk."
First impression: fresh and complex. Green, grassy and piney; lemony and peppery; cardamom and cumin; a bit soapy. Genderless but maybe leaning feminine. Something papery. Sweet undertones that you don’t notice at first. A touch of hookah pipe in an eco clothing boutique. A weightless hint of unsmoked vanilla tobacco. Does it really recall Oscar Wilde’s writing? Sho' nuff. While it isn't a sexy-lady scent, it's certainly not a turn-off; it's more the fragrance of a cool aunt or a keen observer. I like this one a lot.
Husband's take: says it’s interesting, like crushed orchids; metallic floral with chlorophyl; and a scent like saffron. He likes it.
4 hours later: it's dried down a little more soapy, maybe even powdery. Still a balance of warm and cool, nongendered, mild, a little strange. It has steadily reminded me of greyish purple. The low-key sweetness remains, tempered by soapiness; still a little herbal (maybe peppery?), and body-y (like skin; is that musk?). It's lost its "green"-ness. I'm still able to smell it just fine. No headache. I'm still liking this one, it's a miracle.
5 hours later: almost gone but can still smell it; smells good, mellow-sweet.
I wear it again and still like it; I visit my mom, she says my deodorant smells great. Is that a compliment or not?
2. LA SIRENA
Grade: 7 Results: poor longevity; less mermaid, more mer-hussy. In a good way.
From the site: "A mesmerizing spell of oceanic aquatics, saline seaweeds, and garlands of fresh Tiare flowers offered to the sea. Hauntingly elusive."
First impression: This is the first one I try when the samples arrive, and I am so excited I throw scientific rigor out the window and forget to write anything down. Most importantly yes, a mermaid might conceivably smell this way. It’s also a familiar scent, very adult and feminine. Like a free-spirited divorcee who knows how to give a good massage and always keeps gum in her purse to share. Or more specifically like Bonnie, my bff's chainsmoking babysitter who always wore her sandy blond perm in a banana clip, and whose running commentary on the Maury Povich show introduced us to the concepts of fidelity and paternity. But it also smells a bit cloying. Poor longevity. This one's just a maybe.
Husband's take: “Add some cigarettes and booze and that’s one trashy lady!" he proclaims enthusiastically. Sex immediately follows. Interpret that as you like.
I try it again a few weeks later, unannounced, and this time the Husband remarks that I smell like an old lady (sex does not follow). I agree— though maybe more old-fashioned (1970s-80s) than old-ladyish. I still think it’s nice, but nothing special.
3. ALL HALLOW'S EVE
Grade: 3 Results: it might be nice as a scented candle but NOT a perfume; scent goes well with coffee; has caused unfortunate host-rejects-perfume syndrome.
From the site: "A scent of magic, mystery, remembrance, childhood nostalgia, and sweet blessings for darker times - bourbon vanilla, tonka, black licorice, star anise, roasted marshmallows, hazel, coriander, pale amber, cardamom, smoked benzoin, sweet myrrh, and woodsmoke whisping on autumn air."
First impression: strongest notes are molten candy corn, smokey wood chips. Smells like the color amber. Not sexy or feminine, more like candied tree stumps. It might be nice as an incense or candle but it just isn’t a personal fragrance. If I'd smelled it without the exuberantly nostalgic association of Halloween, I'd think of… popcorn at a roller disco? Roasted marshmallows and something romantically tragic? A small town carnival? It's tough to imagine the type of person who’d wear this as “their scent." The gooey sweet really carries; it’s not a bright enveloping sweet like I’m used to in perfume, more caramelized, lurking.
45 minutes later: Oh God I am liking this less and less. I want to scream at my own scent to leave me the hell alone! This perfume is like every elaborate Halloween costume you ever wore that was super cool until novelty wore off, about twenty minutes in, and you had to spend the next six hours cursing the Halloween prison of your own making as you chafed against the awkward armholes in your cardboard box or stood up all night so your body paint wouldn't transfer onto someone's sofa. This scent's thematic accuracy is actually quite impressive.
1 hour 40 minutes after application: I’m washing it off! Now! Only the powdery caramel scent is left on my skin and towels, faint but not faint enough. I'm guessing this perfume would have lasted 3 hours total. Conclusion: I'd enjoy this scent in a coffee shop or someone else's living room. If I were Sandra Bullock in Practical Magic, this scent might remind me of aunt Dianne Wiest's Victorian bedroom. It would not be good in the bathroom, though; it’s the kind of sweet scent that might mingle sickeningly with turd smell rather than combat it.
3.5 hours after application: IT'S STILL THERE. Maybe it’s longer wearing than i thought. At no point has it given me a headache.
*Nota bene: I will later identify this horribly cloying, murky-sweet note as amber, I hate it and unfortunately my body chemistry amplifies it in any perfume.
Grade: 8 Results: sexy, sweet, green and fresh
From the site: "Dalliance is a delightfully unique summer blend of garden fresh English cucumbers, barely ripened figs, iced black Pekoe tea, and cool aquatics. As languidly sensuous as a slow flirtation on a shady porch swing, tantalizing as a gentle breeze across naked skin on a hot summer night. Specially blended for hot weather or for wearing in environments where the temperature will be over 80 degrees F."
First impression: it’s supposed to be for “summer romances,” so formulated for 80+ degree weather, but it’s a cold dreary day here. Even so it evokes the cool, deeply intense freshness of an inland lake; greens, cucumbers, the understated sweetness of clover and lemonade; surprisingly elegant undertones of bubblegum. Maybe some faint white floral? I like this one a lot, even though it’s almost too sharp and strong. It reminds me of white cotton tennis pullovers, mint juleps (even without the minty smell), brunching on a fancy patio while people play croquet. If this perfume were edible it would make a great cocktail with gin and soda. It's the sexiest of the scents so far, not in a red-roses-and-heaving-bosoms way, more nonchalantly seductive.
Trial two: I re-apply three hours later and do a work out video to simulate summertime heat. The scent pairs nicely with “warm body chemistry,” i.e. copious sweat. It still smells cool, sweet and cucumbery.
Husband's take: Wanders into the living room to ask what all that stomping noise was about. Says I smells good. Would not or could not elaborate.
4 hours after applying it shower-fresh, post work out: the scent is still barely there, and still smells very nice. The dry-down scent is the same as when freshly applied, just fainter; maybe a little sweeter or with more white floral.
5. SOGNI D'ORO Grade: 8 Results: Possible headaches, but a beautiful scent. Good longevity.
From the site: "The cleanly seductive scent of fresh, cotton bed linens strewn with fresh lotus petals combined with the elusive, delicate, sexiness of warm skin musk and a sheer antique linen nightgown."
First impression: NICE. This is classically perfume-y in a good way. Feminine, romantic. Warm, but fresh like linen or white cotton (reminds me of Gweneth Paltrow's ad campaign for Estee Lauder's Pure White Linen, which I never smelled). Honeysuckle and cut grass. The high note is golden, heady, intoxicating and clear, but not piercing or overpowering. Maybe some orange or other citrus? Mayyyyybe vanilla? I can’t detect what it is, but something is smoothing out the scent and grounding it. After a moment of wear I start to smell something faintly spicy. I try to imagine sleep and dreams, like the name, but instead this evokes being awake in a summer field. I read the online description and try to detect "skin musk" and "lotus petals" but I don't know what those are supposed to smell like.
Husband's take: he likes the scent but reports a nauseating “throat feel” right after the initial sniff. I suspect that’s because he bent down to smell it straight from scrambling eggs and got a head rush standing back up. I've also applied it a bit too strong.
1 hour later: The scent is still nice, the dry-down is same as the initial application just less strong.
3 hours later: it's almost gone (but I did wash my face so it might have come off a little). I like it so I reapply it fresh. Husband remarks the scent is too aggressive, hard to ignore, and might be giving him a headache. I don't want that to be true, so I suspect he just has one of his frequent computer fatigue headaches. I admit, it is rather aggressively floral. On the plus side he no longer thinks it has a nauseating “throat feel." He waffles between liking it, then not. Since I've applied kind of a lot, I rinse my wrists with water before going out. At midnight (six hours later) I am still getting whiffs of it, and I still like it. No headaches for me.
Second trial, days later: I apply a much smaller amount this time. It smells nice, not too aggressive but definitely still present; I get whiffs when I move my arms around. This time it seems more shower-fresh, but in a warm sunny way. Husband steps out of the subway, hugs me and this time says, “Ooh, you smell good. Better than me.” While that's presently a low bar, gone is his headache and throat feel. An hour later he still likes it.
I've worn it several times since with no problems for either of us.
6. BOHÉMIENS EN VOYAGE
Grade: 6.5 or 7 Results: warm, pleasant
From the site: "A hint of wilderness and a free spirited wildness that will never be caged. Indian tobacco leaf, dried orris roots, freshly cut hay, sultry golden amber, rock rose, the subtle muskiness of sun warmed skin and buckskin suede, and a sweet kiss of wild sugar cane."
First impression: sugary, a hint of licorice (which I generally loathe but didn't mind here), a whiff of grass. A base of coffee with a little toasty marshmallow, tobacco, leather and cardamom. Maybe some sweet clover? It's a warm, robust personal scent, not terribly strong, sexy or feminine, but it probably wouldn’t work for a man. It’s like a wearable version of what All Hallow’s Eve was trying to be.
Husband's take: he tries it on and it smells a little grassier on him. I don't recall his verdict. A few days later I try it on without telling him it was the same one he wore, and he says he likes it. He doesn't seem super into it though.
3 hours after my first application: still smelling nice, more on the sugar/coffee side. It wears nicely.
7 hours after applying: it’s still barely there. Still smells sweet and mellow.
Second trial: it doesn’t smell grassy or green to me anymore. Mostly sweet and leathery. After a full day I like it, but I’m not in love.
I don't know what amber is supposed to smell like, but I've deduced by now that it's the sweet, cloying element common to All Hallow’s Eve and Bohémiens en Voyage (and later The Yellow Book and maybe 1891) that turns me off. Unfortunately it also seems to be amplified by my body chemistry. Amber fits in well in this perfume but it's not my cup of tea.
Grade: 7.5 Results: fruity, super-girly, tropical
From the site: "In 1891, after a wintery Paris evening discussing the legend of Salome, Oscar Wilde locked himself in his room with a blank notebook and began writing his legendary play Salomé. A few hours later, with much of the text already written, he went out to a nearby café and, needing inspiration, asked the leader of the orchestra to play some music which might evoke "a woman dancing in her bare feet in the blood of a man she has craved for and slain." If the notes of this lost melody were perfume.... A seductively inspiring arrangement to pique the lustful imagination. An overture of not so innocent magnolia underscored with a sly caress of Queen of the Night, a fulsomeness of nubile black grapes and plums, skin musk bathed in spilled cognac, and ruthless twist of bitter orange, blended with an ancient Arabian love philtre of crushed vanilla and tonka bean, mysore sandalwood, vetiver, cedar, and red oud."
First impression: tropical, fruity, floral (but not rosy). It's neither bright and sharp nor thick and cloying, but warm and energetic. Smells like yellow, orange and pink. There are hints of ocean aquatics, and a faint trace of tobacco, vanilla, and spice is all I can detect of the "Arabian love philtre.” This is so pleasant and simple it may be a good candidate for layering. But I think of Salomé (Oscar Wilde's femme fatale) as being a sultry, violent woman, calculating yet out of control. And the only possible way this scent could embody Salomé is if she had seduced the King by wearing a “sexy bumble bee” costume and performed the Dance of the Seven Veils to "All About That Bass" with a duck-face and flippy hair. Instead it makes me think of a young hippie Goldie Hawn roller skating on the boardwalk.
Husband's take: "That is... really girly."
2 hours later: faded quite a bit but still present. Still smells nice, less tropical and floral, more sweet.
6-7 hours after application: The scent is basically gone, and I didn’t notice when exactly it faded. Looking at the website's description, I realize I have no idea what tonka or oud smell like. Or vetiver. Perhaps they’re what makes the fruity floral seem mellow and warm instead of lunar and sparkling.
Grade: 7.5 Results: inexplicably flip-flops between fresh / soapy / masculine, and cotton candy
From the site: "Based on a 19th century recipe for a fine gentleman's cologne. A delightful anachronism of French lavender buds, mandarin peel, lime leaves, bergamot, bay leaves, coriander, clove, nutmeg, ginger flower, pink pepper, elegant white carnations, heirloom tree rose, opium tar accord, and woody amber resin nestled in an embrace of precious oriental incense woods."
First-first impression: when the samples arrive in the mail I rip into the package, toss him the 1891, he puts it on, "likes it," and we pay no attention to the nuances of why.
Second-first impression (this time on me): So fresh and so clean, clean! This is soapy and zesty, like a clean-shaven man. Lemon, vanilla, herbal scents, maybe a little cardamom and cumin. Orange? Cognac? I like it a lot; it’s not very feminine, but still smells sexy. It has an underlying spice and warmth anchoring the fresh zesty part.
Husband's take: An hour after application I duck out of the rain to meet him for lunch and thrust my perfumed wrist in his face. "Cotton candy,” he declares. “Are you sure?!” He sniffs periodically throughout lunch and confirms the single overpowering note of cotton candy. He adds, it reminds him of something outdoorsy and waxy, probably citronella candles. He is shocked to find out it is the same 1891 that he’d worn, and I'm disappointed that my sexy cologne illusion is shattered. It smells much warmer and sweeter by this time to me, as well. Body chemistry, I guess.
6 hours after application: it's still barely there. Smells pleasant, grassy sweet and fresh but very light.
Second trial: I love it when freshly applied, it wears all right for an hour, but overall it isn't for me. Husband says it's all right but he doesn't love it. He has never tried it again as a cologne.
Grade: 7 Results: Recalls the halcyon days of Moesha.
From the website: "Sun warmed beach sand, Atlantic ocean breezes, the saline-aquatic scent of drying sea water on skin, and the faintest hints of tanning oil and seaweed."
First impression: Smells like soapy cologne, very cool and aquatic. I don’t remember how ck1 or Eternity actually smelled, but the ad for this fragrance would definitely be a huge black and white billboard of young horse-like models writhing in some shadowy beach cove, looking half sedated and upset with beach grime and stringy hair smooshed against their puffy open lips. I try to translate this image into an actual scent description, but I come up with a partly cloudy forecast and the color turquoise. There's salt, dried grass, and something that reminds me of aftershave. I can’t detect any floral, but it has that same lunar heady effect as honeysuckle or “white florals.” Something windy. I actually like this scent, but for somebody else. Does it actually smell like a sandscape? I don't know because I can't stop associating it with wealthy ‘90s teenagers at the mall.
Husband's take: he thinks this is one of the top contenders.
4.5 hours later: The smell is still very much present, still distinct and cool. It's less aquatic and salty, and it's acquired a spiciness.
Second trial: Eh. I get the same impressions, but I've decided this scent just isn't for me.
10. THE YELLOW BOOK
Grade: 2 (maybe a 5-6 for those who don't hate amber like me). Results: smells like amber and coffee
From the website: "A licentious concoction of dry amber, blonde tobacco, naughtily spiced aldehydes, the leather binding of erotic novels, dark chilis provocatively soaked in spiced rum, saffron, white coffee, yuzu, peppered benzoin, and drop of wild honey."
First impression: It has amber, I don't like it. My body chemistry strikes again, causing the leathery, musty notes to disappear. I'm too unenthused to suss out the subtle notes before checking the website's description. Suddenly the tobacco and coffee are obvious as day (white coffee though, what is that?), and maybe honey. Possibly rum. But I don’t know what aldehydes smell like or what makes them naughty, nor benzoin, nor yuzu. Saffron and rum soaked chilies both sound amazing but I can't detect them at all. Putting my personal dislike of amber aside, this is what I imagine Buffy and friends drinking lattes in Giles' library might smell like, or perhaps eating pastries on a leather couch in a Portland coffee shop. I decide not to test the longevity.
Grade: 1 Result: mildew, disgruntlement
From the website: "The essence of raw lust. An erotic, primal blend of carnal animal-safe civet, black musk, and raw oud. This is a dirty, earthy, animalistic scent that is not for everyone. It is designed to work with your own pheromone chemistry to sexualize your natural skin musks. Lascivius can also be gently layered with perfumes that are 'too sweet' to damp down the sweetness. Oud in particular is a morphing element that slowly develops over 5 to 15 minutes on the skin and on many people will continue to morph over the course of several hours. It can also be used as a smoke-free alternative to incense."
Smells like mildew and nothing else. No special sex chemistry happened. I will dab this on the clean laundry of my enemies to drive them slowly insane.
Husband's take: "There's something wrong with the laundry." Just kidding. He said I smelled like mildew.
SANDSCAPE + LA SIRENA: A generic department store perfume smell. Still old fashioned.
SANDSCAPE + SALOMÉ: I like this all right, it's a little better than previous combo.
About a year before this experiment I'd ordered another sample pack from Alkemia but neglected to write anything down or do any research. However I recall that Madame X, La Belle Époque, Neroli, and Mist Becoming Rain were really lovely, though the first two both dried down too sweet (and now I know why-- amber and my body chemistry). My final advice to anyone learning about perfumes is to write down your impressions-- all of them, no matter how odd or silly. As for myself, I'll be buying the full bottles of Wilde and Sogni d'Oro.