My mother is the first person I knew who had a signature scent. Her favorite perfume was Wind Song by Prince Matchabelli, which she saved for special occasions like a dinner date with my dad or a Friday night get-together with her girlfriends. She’d take the delicate glass vial off her dresser and release two small spritzes near her neck, on either side of her pendant necklace. Then she bustled through the house, leaving a glamorous-smelling wake behind her—the French call this perfume trail sillage—and the air was tinged with fruity florals, musk, and amber.
Since my mom only wore perfume when she dressed up, I’ve always associated the smell of it with glamour and sophistication. To eight-year-old me, her signature scent was impossibly adult. Now, all it takes is one whiff of Wind Song to remind me of my mom. That’s because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area closely linked to memory.
I love the idea of a signature scent. In fact, I just started “dating” a new perfume (Tom Ford’s Black Orchid), and I have high hopes that he’s The One—but my track record isn’t so great. Every love affair I have with a perfume unfolds the same way: I discover a new scent and become infatuated with it, wear it every single day and use half the bottle, then grow tired of it and scamper off in search of something new.
So, I spoke with Alexandra Balahoutis, an expert perfumer and founder of Strange Invisible Perfumes. Through her deep expertise in the fragrance field, she’s discovered what she considers her signature scents: SIP’s Dimanche and Aquarian Rose. Here she shares her insider tips on discovering that special smell that speaks to you.
Know what you like. Wise words to keep in mind while browsing and sniffing: “When you have to ask yourself too many times if you love something, you probably don’t,” advises Balahoutis. “When you truly love the smell or taste of something, you usually know straight away.” However, she admits you can grow to love certain smells, so do keep an open mind.
Read up on perfumery. Try to get familiar with different ingredients and sample the ones that really resonate with you. Specialty stores like the Aroma Workshop in Chicago (or the pop-up Selfridges in London hosted this year) invite customers to sniff dozens of scents and compile their own unique fragrance, while expert perfumers stand by to point out which notes pair well together. For an even deeper dive, we recommend reading The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell.
Be discerning where you shop. To find a scent off the beaten path, head to specialty perfume shops that carry a wider selection of more unusual perfumes. For example, in Los Angeles, LuckyScent carries hard-to-find niche brands. Another tip: “Avoid duty-free carts at all costs!” says Balahoutis, which are known for hawking widely manufactured name-brand scents.
Look for a scent compatible with your other products. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for a trend in which people no longer bathe or wear deodorant,” says Balahoutis, but she recommends using products with natural aromas, such as lavender or citrus, that won’t clash with your perfume. Unscented soap is also an option.
Have fun with it. “Perfume is like fashion,” says Balahoutis. “You might love something that isn’t you in every situation...but in the right moment, it’s just the thing to boost your mood and confidence.” She compares certain perfumes to a delicacy that you don’t eat everyday, “but when you do, it reinforces that it’s a special occasion.”
And once you’ve found your signature scent...
Be careful how much you apply. You can be much more liberal when applying botanical fragrances, as they are less overbearing, advises Balahoutis. But with synthetic scents, tread lightly.
Spritz throughout the day. If you have a long day ahead of you, pack a small atomizer so can refresh as needed.
Prevent fragrance fatigue. Even If you do think you’ve found your signature, it’s important to break up your nose’s perception by wearing something different, or skipping perfume altogether, once or twice a week. This will keep the scent smelling fresh to you and keep you from burning out on your new fave.