I can remember the first bottle of something smelly that was to become mine. It was some kind of aftershave in a light brown bottle, plastic, and I knew immediately it was the cheaper, knock-off version of a scent I’d more than likely would have referred to as “cologne.” I don’t remember the name precisely, but if my memory hasn’t completely left me, it was some sort of cowboy or rustic man type of scent.

And it was horrible.

I was a teenager and I was starting to shave and my mother packaged this up for me for Christmas. And while I have no doubt violated the rule for which this served as an excellent example, it taught me that buying gifts of a personal nature, such as how you’re going to smell, is best left up to the person wearing it. (And not your mother.)

I know, my mom was very thoughtful. But the experience didn’t scare me away from wearing scents. It also probably didn’t help. My dad was the one in the house that applied something. For so many years it was just one thing, Polo, in the green bottle. Polo was there for the long haul, after his shorter affair with Aramis. (And I can remember that in the 1970s, when I was younger, and both my parents had less resources to spend on how they smelled, it was Old Spice.) My dad, I thought, smelled good, or at least the trail of him, the one he’d left going down the staircase before going off to work, before I’d even woken up. The aftershock of scent he left behind probably inspired me to want to wear something myself.

It was never Polo. (I didn’t want to smell like my father; I was my own Crumb.) My mother insisted I never wear it, because after so many years, she’d grown sick of it. “Anything but Polo.”

I get it, not everyone wears a fragrance. It’s not everyone’s thing. Some people don’t want to be like my dad, leaving a trail of what Ralph Lauren wanted to smell like, around the office. But for me, smells are so interesting and intriguing. That’s not to say that I think all smells are good smells. But I do tend to think that I may have a higher sensitivity to smells and as a type of sensory experience, I like smelling good things.

For some, it’s touching interesting things, or seeing beautiful colors, or tasting different textures. (These all sound good to me, to be honest, and perhaps I’m glutton for indulging all of my senses.) In the end, a quality scent—something that doesn’t offend you—can trigger a substantial range of emotions. Smells for me can transport me to different places or time and that sensation of mental transportation is… fun.


So in choosing to wear a scent, I don’t want to offend others. (And true confession, there have been times I have overdone it. There was an incident in high school. I wanted to smell good and I’d brought a sample to class and applied it in class. It wasn’t something I was used to, and in fact, it was a woman’s perfume, and I wasn’t used to the strength of a parfum compared to, say, after shave. The Spanish class soon became overwhelmed with my application of that scent and I had to leave, so embarrassed, trying to rub it off with wet tissues. And more recently, I am sure there’s been a day (or two) that I may have offended others with too many spritzes of one scent, or another.)

I want to experience the scent myself. Maybe it’s selfish, but I picked these scents and I want to get a whiff from time to time.

And I think it adds a dimension to my being. Just the same as how you prepare yourself for the day, your clothes, your hairstyle, all of that. I hope people who look at me aren’t offended. And I hope people who can smell me aren’t offended either. Just enough, perhaps, that when you’re close, you notice. And smile.

Department Store Finds

By the time I was a high school senior, I’d discovered several scents (I’ll generalize here and call these things, no matter they fall into any class, from after shave to perfume, the same, a scent) and had determined at least a couple resonated with me. Dior’s Fahrenheit was one. All the cool kids were wearing Calvin Klein’s Obsession, or Davidoff’s Cool Water. I’d like a Chanel scent, but the Fahrenheit was one that I’d determined was mine. I’d discovered it, I liked it, and I boldly wore it.

The bottle was cool too.

The whole interest in scents continued in college, except now it seemed there were a lot more options. I tried different things and began to really notice other guys wearing scents as well. After college, I met a gentleman and he had two scents that I thought were obscenely indulgent: Versace Blue Jeans and Cartier Pascha. These weren’t as easy to find at your typical mall department store. And I wondered why they seemed more interesting. Sadly, they were all more expensive.

Not Satisfied

So having something to spray on you during all these years was relegated to special occasions. A date? Or Sunday at church. When I got dressed up for something, I’d go looking for a bottle. But then I asked myself a question. Why limit yourself. Why not everyday? And why not more than one bottle?

I know what you may be thinking. In life, we have constraints and have to control ourselves. This hobby might get expensive, and had my goals really changed? What changed was the decision that smelling good was something I wanted to do, it was becoming a part of my personality, my persona, my personal culture. I guess I liked the reactions I’d get, someone smiling, and telling me I smelled good.

It wasn’t vanity, all I’d done was buy something and spray it.

It was knowing that my choice may have added a little joy to someone else’s day’s experience. They’d walk past and go, “oh, that was nice.”

Yeah, I am not sure I was buying it either. It isn’t about being altruistic and leaving a trail of good smells behind you for the benefit of others. I just loved scents. It took me awhile to be comfortable with this. That it wasn’t too weird to like good smells.

Recommended Scents

There are a lot of places today to find out about scents. I don’t feel weird anymore having this affinity to things that smell good. I’ve watched YouTube videos, read scent blogs, and read reviews. It’s a thing. And I’m not ashamed to having fallen into it.

I am not really interested in doing full-on reviews of scents; instead, I’d like to share a few that really stand out to me that maybe, just maybe, you’d like to try.

  • Ouds - I pronounce this without trying to sound pretentious, as “ewww-d,” and the derivation of this scent may make you actually say “eww.” Real oud comes from a fungus growing inside wood. Oud is a class of scent, and sometimes it’s used alone, or in combination with other scents. Fragrances that use real oud tend to be expensive, but the chemical copies aren’t necessarily bad. The first oud I encountered was a big one, and it was expensive. I still have the bottle (and it isn’t done.) Francis Kurdjian’s original Oud was my first experience and I was hooked. It was otherworldly and had, for me, a rather formal sense about it. It wasn’t an everyday scent, instead, you’d save it for dressing up, or wearing that velvet dinner jacket. I’ve also liked those from Tom Ford, such as the Oud Fleur, which combines to main scents together (oud with rose).
  • Hermès Jardin de Monsieur Li - I am sure mostly women wear this, but for me, it’s very unisex. This series by Hermès (with other gardens) isn’t overly aggressive. But this one in particular transports me (not necessarily to an oriental garden). When I need to feel calm or too many things are going on, this one grounds me. Inhale slowly and deeply. The world will be alright.
  • Etat Libre d’Orange is a boutique house based in Paris and has all matter of weird and bizarre scents (and descriptions). My favorite is the Son of God, and the sweet note and tropical and lime notes take me far away. It doesn’t linger long, which is a shame, but at the time of application, it’s a real treat.
  • A-Men by Mugler - So I have the original one, which has notes of chocolate in it, but there are now several variations which, as I’ve read, have some positive reviews. These are unique and strong fragrances so be careful, just a couple spritzes will do. I tend to think of these as fall and winter scents. Very unique.
  • John Varvatos (Original, for men) - Like Fahrenheit for Men, this one was something I’d found perusing the counter at a department store, soon after working in Virginia. It probably had just come out. I’ve bought a bottle probably three times, and while I don’t routinely wear it anymore, I still have a weakness for its blend. Some of his relaunches are good too.

Taming a Luxury

So I know it’s a luxury to be able to pursue a hobby like this, at least for most. Of all the issues in the world, how we smell probably won’t rank at the top of anyone’s list. And with anything, you could potentially go overboard.

But all these years I’ve learned a lot about what goes into these things and the science and art that’s required to produce beautiful, beguiling and ultimately interesting smells. And I’m glad I’ve taken the time. Exploring this world doesn’t have to be prohibitively expensive to be enjoyable. Start with something new. Take some sniffs. Get a sample. Get some opinions. Then commit for awhile. Try adding scent as a new dimension to who you are. Just be sure you like it, and those you’re closest to, can stand it.

Getting to choose what we smell like, considering the sources for so many scents can come from all over the world, is indeed a luxury. But no more so than an extra pair of shoes, a decorative hat, or yet another windbreaker.

Then there was Florence

When I traveled to Florence, Italy, staying in the hills above the city, with a great view of the Duomo, I kept noticing these large bottles of scents with sticks in the bottles—they were scent diffusers. I’d seen them before, here stateside, but these weren’t the same. The bottles were giant, compared to the ones you’d find here, and they were appropriately sized for scenting large spaces. The reeds coming out were big. And the scents were, well, extraordinary.

The most famous brand at the time, it seemed, was Dr. Vranjes. In my last trip to Florence in the summer of 2018, other brands seem to be in higher fashion, such as Aqua Flor. One step into their shop overwhelmed my travel companion. He couldn’t stand it for more than five minutes. “I have to get out of here.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s too much, I’m overwhelmed. I’ll meet you back outside when you’re done.”

photo of an Aqua Flor diffuser

Of course, I was overwhelmed too, in a good way. I couldn’t get enough, they all smelled so good. I took a chance with one of their stronger concoctions, Porpora. (It’s also the name of a composer of vocal music, so I thought there was a little synergy there.) The scent is soaked up into the reeds and then air passing by helps spread the scent into the room. So, in a way, these diffusers help scent an entire room. And by placing a different diffuser in different rooms, you can experience a cavalcade of different scents as you move about your home.

John in Florence at the Aqua Flor store.
The author, who found the Aqua Flor store by nose first; the large diffuser outside leads you to the entrance to the store. They also sell parfum and scented soaps.

I am biased; I think the brands native to Florence are special, but if you can no doubt get started by exploring some options here stateside. I know these are expensive, but the good ones last for some time and the refills make the whole enterprise more affordable over time.