Welcome to our brand new series, ‘My Life in Perfume‘. We’re asking our favourite fragrance fans to reveal all – from their first perfume purchase to their signature aroma; here are their scent stories…
Suzy Nightingale is a Jasmine Award-winning fragrance writer with a life-long love of perfume. Nobody can entirely distil the essence of scent into words quite as beautifully and evocatively as she. Whenever we read any of Suzy’s writing, we immediately fall in love with whatever fragrance she’s talking about. Suzy has written for many publications over the years, most prominently Fragrantica and The Perfume Society; she also features on the Outspoken Beauty podcast where, once again, she transports us to beautifully scented worlds with her words.
“I write about invisible things…”
I’ve been writing professionally for many years. I was thinking about this the other day, and terrifyingly, I think I first got paid for an article about beauty and fragrance when I worked at a magazine in Brighton about 15 years ago. I fell into writing about fragrance; it’s something I already loved. I was a writer, and I studied English Literature, so words have always been my thing, and I find it much easier to express myself in writing than anything else. So, it seemed natural to express things about something I love in writing, but I didn’t really know where to put that writing, other than the little magazine I was writing for, and they didn’t want perfume articles all the time; they wanted things about the local skate park and different gigs that were being put on etc. But I just wanted to write about perfume.
I started creating my own fragrances called Beyond the Pale; I bought probably really shoddy perfume oils and mixed them. As it turns out, I’m a bad perfumer, but I just enjoyed describing the fragrances. I made them sound really good! I had a little website and everything – it’s probably still there in the ether somewhere.
I’ve just always loved writing about perfume, and it turns out that other people like reading it. I started writing regularly for Fragrantica because they liked my fragrance descriptions for my own collection. They asked me to write a couple of pieces for them. I was working in retail at the time, so it was much nicer to write about perfume. Then they wanted more pieces, and I started writing for a few other people, and then Jo Fairley said she was starting a magazine called The Scented Letter and would I like to write for it – I thought well, yes, I would, so I quit my job in retail.
I work part-time at The Perfume Society because it’s always been really important to me that I write for a variety of people. I like having different areas and different aspects of my voice that I can explore in writing that I can’t always do in one place. I wanted to keep my independence that way, which is also scary because you know what it’s like when you’re a writer, you don’t know, you might get ten jobs one week and nothing for the next month. But I kind of enjoy that as well.
1. My First Perfume
It was quite an event. We used to go on perfume shopping holidays, my mum and me because she was into perfume in a big way. We would go to Jersey because it was tax-free, exclusively so she could stock up on perfume. From a very young age, I was ushered into these amazing, independent, little old perfumeries and this department store called de Gruchy. I think it’s still there, and it was so hilarious then, stuck in the 1960s, and I think a lot of the staff had probably been there since then. It was a comforting place to go, and I just loved it; it felt like the biggest shop in the world. It was glamorous and exciting, and I remember being eye-level with the counters just looking in wonder at all of these things. The first perfume I chose for myself, age 10, was Coco Chanel.
I knew it wasn’t meant for me, and I was asked again and again if I was sure that’s what I wanted because my mum said she’d buy me anything I wanted – and that’s what I wanted. So, she bought me a little bottle of Coco, and I remember the saleswoman; her eyebrows could not have been any higher. I sprayed it on myself and walked out, and I remember we went in another shop, and someone said, “oh, someone in here smells amazing”, and everyone was putting their wrists up saying, “is it me, is it me?”, it was like some fairy story where I’d found the glass slipper that fitted. I went, “it’s me”, and they all looked at me like, no, it isn’t – this bratty child who’s in here – and then I put my wrist out, and they realised it was. I just thought this is amazing; people stop you and ask what you’re wearing and have conversations about what it smells like. That was it for me; I was in. That was the slippery slope.
2. My First Perfume Purchase
Because budget was an issue, I would look around Boots and Superdrug, but the first perfume I bought must have been Body Shop White Musk, back when they came in those little glass bottles with a dabber. I remember going into the Body Shop with my friends – it was just wall-to-wall teenage girls of a weekend, messing up the shelves, and we’d cover ourselves in everything. I liked many of the fragrances – I went through a Dewberry phase, which we don’t talk about. Well, I once dropped a bottle of Dewberry on my bedroom floor, and my bedroom smells like Dewberry for about the next five years. But White Musk, I still think is a great fragrance.
3. When I Realised Perfume Is Art
Dizng! by L’Artisan Parfumeur. I think this was my first introduction to niche perfume. I got a L’Artisan Parfumeur catalogue through the post – I’d sent off for it, that’s how long ago this was. It was very basic, just printed with the names of the perfumes and the descriptions. There were no photographs, just illustrations. I loved the descriptions, and I’d not smelled any of them before, so I sent off for some samples of Mure et Musc and Tea for Two. Looking back, they’re probably the easiest L’Artisan perfumes to start with if you’re not used to niche, but I just thought they were so interesting. I liked the notes in them – I’d not seen tea in a perfume before. Later, I fell in love with Dzing!, which properly blew my mind. It was the first really weird perfume that I’d smelled and wanted to wear because you’ve got those leathery, saddle-like, horsey notes, and then you’ve got toffee and caramel and candy floss. Who puts those things together in a perfume?!
There was something so odd about it but addictive, and I just had to keep sniffing myself. Eventually, I got it, and I thought this has been worth waiting for – that ‘aha moment’ when you just get it. It showed that my taste was developing. It’s a bit like the first time you try
blue cheese or something, and you think, oh, that’s disgusting, how can people eat this, and then in later years you’re gobbling it up and can’t get enough of it. I realised that your taste in perfume could change, and you shouldn’t just write something off the first time you smell it. Dzing! really changed my mind about perfume.
4. My All-Time Favourite Perfume
The one I always go back to is Ormonde Woman by Ormonde Jane. It’s another fragrance that is really weird – it’s like being in a forest, but it feels like a haunted forest. It feels spacious. I think that’s the first perfume I loved that really felt structured, but with a space inside it, and it’s the one I’ve been stopped most often, people always ask what I’m wearing.
I’d also say Dior’s Diorling. It’s something I go back to a lot, and I feel like it’s often overlooked in their collection. It’s a shame because the contrast of radiant spring-like jasmine and cut grass notes contrasted with the supple leather and smokiness of the dry down is quite extraordinary. It feels properly grown-up, but still quite naughty – like you’ve escaped a party at an old English mansion and have run out to explore the garden and surreptitiously smoke a cigarette while still clutching your Champagne glass and flirting outrageously with the host.
5. My Most Sentimental Perfume
Momentum by Bentley. Because that’s what my dad wore, my stepdad, I spray that on his cardigan, and I wear it when I want to feel in his presence. That really means a lot to me because it was the first perfume that he wore all the time, and we’d have conversations about it. He loved it, and I took it to him in hospital after he’d had a stroke. He’d asked for it because he said everything there smelled of disinfectant, and he didn’t smell like himself, and he wanted to feel like himself. The nurses would come in the room and say, “oh, it smells lovely in here”, because obviously, a lot of hospitals don’t smell nice, and the staff smell a lot of things that aren’t pleasant. You could see them stop in their tracks. They’re rushed off their feet, and they’re running around with clipboards, being buzzed all the time. But they would actually stop in his room and just have a moment of connecting with him as a human being rather than a patient. He loved that, and I loved the fact that I could do that for him by giving him that fragrance, so it brings back, yes, some sad memories. But mostly happy memories of his presence and him getting what I was doing, him realising that fragrance didn’t just have to be for women, that a man could enjoy fragrance, and enjoy talking about it too.
6. My Everyday Perfume
Miller Harris is a brand I go back to again and again just because I think they’re so diverse. There’s something for everyone, you’ve got your easy-breezy fragrances, and you’ve got your earthy, dark, dirty fragrances. I love L’Air de Rien, that’s probably in my top ten fragrances of all time. I also love Vetiver Insolent – I think Mathieu Nardin is a brilliant perfumer. It smells of dry crackly leaves to me; it drags you down in a really good way. It’s woody but cool, and there’s a mistiness about it. It really takes me to a different place, and it takes me on a journey. Vetiver Insolent was the first vetiver fragrance I’d smelled that made me go, “oh my god, that’s amazing. I must have that immediately”. There’s just something about how it works on my skin – the way it changes slightly; I don’t know. I’d say it’s one of their more linear fragrances, actually, but the vanilla in the dry down is really toasty and dark. Everything about it’s dark, but it doesn’t feel heavy or oppressive. I find it really calming. It’s like a really good friend putting their hands on your shoulders and saying: “just slow down, we’re just going to sit you down, get you a cup of tea, just stop and have a moment”. it’s an intervention
I think Miller Harris really gets the best out of the perfumers they work with. I think they really challenge them by working with them in a different way. They don’t just send them a brief and say, “make it like this and have it ready for tomorrow” they work with perfumers, getting them to use notes that they’ve never used before, abstractly thinking about things. I think perfumers really enjoy that challenge as well, and it’s something that they, I imagine, rarely get.
I like the fact that they mix this artistic and aesthetic way of thinking about perfume, but they make it really wearable. That’s so important because there are an awful lot of artistic brands out there who I think are doing amazing things. Still, I don’t necessarily want to wear their fragrances because they’re just too challenging or they’re too alternative. Yes, sometimes I like that. But a lot of the time, we just want to smell good, don’t we? You don’t necessarily want to be challenged every day.
7. My Perfume Collection
I haven’t counted for a very, very long time. I mean, it’s several hundred. But I don’t have them all in one place. One day I want to be a proper grown-up and have them all displayed in glass cabinets, and I want to do that thing where people have gorgeous dressing tables with mirrored trays filled with their week’s selection of fragrances, but I’m just not that organised. I’m afraid. I should be like that, but I’m not.
I like to keep a large collection, not just because I like having lots of bottles, yes, some of the bottles I do like, and some of them I will always have in my collection and replenish. But I do like them as a sort of reference library. I always think of them as books, in the sense that you don’t only have books that you’re currently reading in your house. I like having many books around because I think of them as friends, and sometimes I want to pick up a book, open it at a chapter, be immediately immersed in that world again, and be reminded of that journey I went on. I think the same about fragrance sometimes – I like having it around just so that I can spray it, and whilst I might not wear these fragrances all the time, I want to be able to reacquaint myself with some of the characters that live in my fragrance boxes.
7. My Favourite Fragrance Brands
Miller Harris definitely, they’ve got a huge collection, and I think it’s unusual for a brand to have such a huge range, yet pretty much all of them are great and are things I would wear. I’ve never really come across a house like that before.
Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle is another I love. I think everything they bring out is great, and even if I wouldn’t wear it, I thoroughly admire it and think it’s brilliantly done.
I also really enjoy Anima Vinci. They’re really interesting and again have a lot of very different fragrances that are all really well done. Like Miller Harris, I appreciate how they work with perfumers – I like the relationship they have with them and how they bring out the best in them.