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An Epic Scent

Reflections on jasmine perfume and its enduring potency.

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“I AM CONVINCED that recounting helps us to remember,” my scribbled translation reads. “It allows us to keep alive the memory of past events by tying them one by one to the thread of our lives, so that everything returns to be part of the journey … To recount also, sometimes, helps us to forget.”

The words, buried within an old notebook, are from “Le Ali Della Nostra Libertà” (The Wings of Our Freedom), an Italian novella gifted to me on my 25th birthday, five months after I’d moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Legnaro, a small agricultural town just outside of Padua, Italy, an hour from Venice. The benefactor was the book’s author, Nicola, and his inscription offers: Un piccolo auguro per … una buona vita (A small wish … for a good life).

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The same notebook recalls that this May birthday was besieged by thunderstorms, which I chose to define as auspicious — and that five days before I had finished reading “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins. A self-proclaimed “epic,” the cult novel aligns the ambrosial scent of jasmine with mythical love and immortality by way of a blue perfume bottle embossed with the image of the hedonistic, goat-horned Greek god Pan.

It is only now, reflecting upon my ensuing obsession with jasmine perfume, revisiting the life chapters archived within their expressions, that I recognize the significant intersection of these two books (and moments). They arguably prove the hypothesis: It is often the retelling of events that helps us perceive their cause and effect, their intertwining threads.

That Robbins chose jasmine perfume as his immortality elixir is characteristic of the ironic, pot-stirring author. Yes, jasmine is the flower of love and a traditional symbol of seduction, but its redolent signature is a heady riot of decay and delight — magnetic to many, repulsive to others. Even within the perfume industry, this notoriously animalic compound is controversial.

Former New York Times scent critic and author of “The Perfect Scent,” Chandler Burr, takes the dissenting side, declaring: “I really dislike most jasmine fragrances. The reason is that I don’t like indoles. I find them strikingly unpleasant. They’re dirty, but not dirty in a sweaty way or a grimy way. I find them very off-putting, dark, and disconcerting.”

Jasmine is the flower of love, but its redolent signature is a heady riot of decay and delight — magnetic to many, repulsive to others.

This disquietude, represented by slightly overripe, subjectively fetid notes — the indoles to which Burr refers — strikes at the heart of my enduring infatuation. Jasmine is an intoxicating embodiment of life’s ephemerality; that it often carries with it a whiff of decomposition poignantly highlights the gravity of the here and now. Industry statistics take my side. Jasmine is documented as the first plant cultivated expressly for perfume, as early as the first millennium B.C. in Egypt. And the pungent white flower is said to be a principal ingredient of more than 80% of all women’s fragrances, including the world’s most popular perfume: Chanel N°5.

Created in 1921 using grandiflorum jasmine from Southern France, N°5 possesses a jasmine heart with an unprecedentedly high concentration of natural jasmine. The iconic fragrance also preceded jasmine perfumes as we know them today. “From a historical point of view, N°5 is quite important,” Chanel’s in-house perfumer Olivier Polge explains. “Back in the nineteenth century, jasmine was extracted with waxes, and it had a more animalic scent. N°5 was created at that time when perfumers were first able to create beautiful and delicate floral scents using new extraction techniques, but N°5 is really a bouquet of flowers. It has been created in such a way that jasmine is not clearly recognizable. I think that’s what makes it interesting. There is something that you cannot explain with N°5, which makes it richer in our imagination, more mysterious.” Polge also ascribes this inscrutable quality to jasmine itself, stating, “Jasmine is one of the most complex scents. In some sense, you could even say that jasmine is a fragrance by itself.”

The jasmine employed in N°5 is exclusively grown in the fields of Grasse, France — farmed for generations by the Mul family, now in partnership with Chanel — and famously possesses a green tea note that Polge assigns to its place of origin. “Grandiflorum jasmine from Grasse is not the same as the grandiflorum that is grown, for example, in Egypt. You realize that the difference in scent must be the result of the fields, and the soil, and the climate. There is something mild in the climate of the French Riviera that, I think, explains the softness of the Grasse jasmine. It is greener, fresher, more delicate, where the jasmine from Egypt is more fruity. The same jasmine from India will have certain stronger animalic notes. And there is the original jasmine — sambac jasmine — which is grown in India and has an orange flower facet.”


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Jasmine is also cultivated in Italy, Mexico, China, and beyond, with each crop possessing its own unique balance of the flower’s innate lusty, fruity, green, floral, honey, sweet, untamed aspects. This particular character indelibly prints its stamp on the moments it accompanies. As Polge concludes, “The sense of smell is the most intuitive, the most subjective, and therefore it is very much linked to everything that surrounds a scent. It states and gets affected by your moods. So more than anything else, scent very much influences the person who wears it.”

Which brings me back to the beginning of my tale and the bells of mortality that had started to tinkle in my quarter-century-old brain, setting off my search for the ultimate jasmine perfume. This pursuit has both taken and followed me around the world — from London, where Etat Libre d'Orange’s philosophical Jasmin et Cigarette defined a bifurcated life and love; to Brooklyn, where Nasomatto’s hazy, now out-of-production Nuda characterized barely contained, intoxicating chaos; to Shanghai, where Santa Maria Novella’s nectar-like Gelsomino narrated the city’s complexities; to Rome, where sunset walks along the Tiber led me to Bruno Acampora’s hauntingly nostalgic Jasmin T; to Portland, where Serge Lutens’ stunning, seditious A la nuit embodied the dissolution of illusions. With each new chapter, a new olfactory soundtrack emerges. Here are a few leading contenders for the next one.

Conceptual

Savage Jasmine by Sana Jardin is a raw, rebellious bouquet of jasmine, clove, musk, and tobacco that gets extra points for being clean, sustainable, and produced by a socially conscious fragrance house that actively empowers women. Petit Fracas by Robert Piguet doesn’t even bother to reference traditional florals, instead pairing its jasmine with a decadent mix of musk, sandalwood, and chocolate. By contrast, Baghari by Robert Piguet takes a dreamy yet equally contemplative angle, uniting its floral heart with spice and warmth, while Pheromone by Marilyn Miglin presents a magnetic, boldly indolic jasmine accentuated by a recipe from Egypt’s third dynasty.

Complex

Le Gemme Gyan by Bulgari blends jasmine sambac and Indonesian patchouli into a transcendent, wholly addictive elixir harbored in an allegorical sapphire-blue bottle. Black Jasmin by Amaffi offers a signature fragrance as rarified as the house that creates it, blending its central jasmine note with vanilla and a powerful hit of labdanum — an ancient, intriguing resin that demands self-possession. Equally inscrutable, Yasminale N°1 by Henry Jacques asserts a penchant for bodacious opulence that is equal parts floral, sweet, and woody — and discloses its creator’s obsession with scarcity and perfection.

Effervescent

Jasmin des Anges by Dior is an intoxicating drive through the French Riviera on a sunny day, passing the jasmine fields of Grasse, where the white flower is just beginning to bloom, and sweet fruit lingers in the sea breeze. Le Jour Se Lève by Louis Vuitton invites you to a bubbly celebration of sun-drenched, languid days, bursting with ripe mandarin and jasmine sambac — punctuated by black currant. Jazmin Yucatan by D.S. & Durga is a slightly more verdant alternative to its Mediterranean counterparts, with its high-spirited Mexican jasmine serving up a greener, yet still simmering floral.


Timeless

N°5 by Chanel is, as Chanel’s in-house perfumer Olivier Polge states, very rich and very complex, with an extravagant floral essence of rosa centifolia and grandiflorum jasmine, offset by an abstract quality that invites personal interpretation. N°5 L’EAU by Chanel beautifully maintains its predecessor’s signature but with a fresher, brighter, more casual attitude. Understated yet distinct, Jasmin 17 by Le Labo is entirely free of indoles yet warmed by a hint of musk, sandalwood, and vanilla that give it an ageless aura.


Enigmatic

Jasmin de HJ by Henry Jacques is a veritable jasmine bomb uniting Egyptian jasmine and Indian jasmine in an accessible yet memorable fragrance that revels in the white floral’s shape-shifting qualities. While understated in its seduction, Fleur Narcotique by EX NIHILO balances its flowery femininity with revolutionary woody undertones. Whereas Durga by D.S. & Durga doesn’t even play at tradition: It’s technically a tuberose scent, but its enveloping essence reveals a hearty dose of jasmine sambac, which tenderly harmonizes its profound bouquet of floral absolutes.

Erin Dixon’s Jasmine Perfume Picks

Conceptual

Complex

  • Black Jasmin by Amaffi

    Jasmine, vanilla, and a powerful hit of labdanum — an ancient, intriguing resin that demands self-possession.

Effervescent

Timeless

  • N°5 by Chanel

    Very rich and very complex, with an extravagant floral essence of rosa centifolia and grandiflorum jasmine.

  • Jasmin 17 by Le Labo

    Understated yet distinct, entirely free of indoles yet warmed by a hint of musk, sandalwood, and vanilla that give an ageless aura.

  • N°5 L’EAU by Chanel

    Beautifully maintaining its predecessor’s signature but with a fresher, brighter, more casual attitude.

  • N°5 by Chanel

    Very rich and very complex, with an extravagant floral essence of rosa centifolia and grandiflorum jasmine.

  • N°5 L’EAU by Chanel

    Beautifully maintaining its predecessor’s signature but with a fresher, brighter, more casual attitude.

  • Jasmin 17 by Le Labo

    Understated yet distinct, entirely free of indoles yet warmed by a hint of musk, sandalwood, and vanilla that give an ageless aura.

Enigmatic

Our Contributors

Erin Dixon Writer

Erin Dixon is the editorial director for Departures Studio84. As a writer, editor, and creative consultant, she collaborates with international publishers and global brands spanning fashion, beauty, art, and culture. She previously served as the managing editor of the arts and culture journal Dossier.

Mariana Rodrigues Illustrator

Mariana Rodrigues’ rich and magical illustrations are inspired by her love of nature. She creates worlds of fantasy, with different gardens, surreal forms, and real and imagined plants and animals. By deconstructing things and reassembling them, Rodrigues is able to create intensely intricate and symmetrical patterns.

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