Whenever my mom was busy, say, tending to the garden—which really meant weeding for hours, because isn’t that all gardening is?—I’d sneak into her bedroom. There, upon a shelf, lived a row of glass bottles of honey-hued elixirs—fancy, feminine, adult eaux de parfum, like Chanel, Lancôme, and, okay, Cool Water (a department store gift set constant since 1996). One spritz, to a nine-year-old, was never enough, the stealth mission blown by the olfactory assault of the saccharine cloud in my wake.
Those were the mass-manufactured perfumes of yore. These days unlikely suspects, wafts of freshly baked doughnuts or salty air from Elliott Bay hanging in early morning fog, can inspire an inventive perfumer. Beyond solely making something smell good, Seattle’s indie scentmakers are storytellers, harmonic translators, and alchemists of the odd.
Natural fragrances, often heavy on the lavender and patchouli, bear a pretty folksy reputation. But for James Elliott of Filigree it’s less folk and more alternative rock and dream pop of the ’80s and ’90s. The local fragrance craftsman possesses a neurological condition known as synesthesia, allowing him to render music into aroma and vice versa.
“I had this weird thing happen,” says Elliott. “I was listening to music, but my nose was coming into play.” Filigree perfumes can start with such sounds as the pummeling rush of the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and meld into notes of wood, spice, and roses.
Meanwhile, JT Siems is a history nerd and former high school English teacher whose Immortal Perfumes begin with a character or story. That might mean recreating the “feeling of sitting in a library” or imagining what someone like Marie Antoinette would wear—“sometimes I find textual evidence about what they actually did wear.”
One, named Weird Sister, references the witches from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth; after some toiling, no doubt, it smells of earth, ash, wormwood, and apricot.
Then, look to Blackbird’s Nicole Miller, who blends abstract scents reminiscent of ink on paper, burnt rubber, bananas, and “plasticky cream” into refined perfumes that are as idiosyncratic as they are pleasant.
For me, these are tinctures that will decorate my dresser. I’ll dab on something redolent of dulcet vocals or English prose.
And then dab on a bit more because old habits die hard.
Get a Whiff
Three distinct perfumes with three distinct styles.
Pamplemousse, $50 Grapefruit, like most things, just sounds better in French. The citrusy, honey-sweet scent, though, is universally understood: tart yet light, and goes well with your favorite LaCroix. immortalperfumes.com
Hallow, $88 This Blackbird eau de parfum is quite the misnomer: The aroma is full of warmth—amber, frankincense, the starkness of a hot, ancient sun. blackbirdballard.com
Sixteen Days, $79 Inspired by a song of the same name from gothic dream pop collective This Mortal Coil, this tincture is evocative of storm clouds and haunting three-minute crescendos. filigree.co