An underground scene exists for everything these days, and the perfume world is no exception. A cult obsessives (many with blogs, obviously) pore over packaging, complexity and "sillage." (Which, I learned, is the trail left behind by a scent — as in, if you're in an elevator and you notice some girl reeks, you'd say her perfume has maximum sillage.) The appeal of niche perfume transcends the scent itself — it's about smelling like no one else, and knowing that you own a product made in a small, hand-crafted batch using real botanicals and essences rather than the phthalates and synthetic chemicals found in mainstream perfumes. So, onto the sniff test!
Behold: The BuzzFeed Perfume Sampling Party
None of us are perfume connoisseurs — I'm probably the only tester in the bunch who could tell you what "sillage" means because I was tasked with writing this post. So we judged each scent with our visceral reactions. Like normal people instead of perfume people. And we agreed surprisingly easily: any exclamation of "pretty!" was a thumbs up. Any crinkling of the nose followed by a "hmmm..." or an outright "ew" was usually a mutually agreed upon thumbs down.
Our novice noses were fatigued by the end, but we all walked away with some favorites that we'd consider committing to. Here they are:
About the Company: Based in a Brooklyn studio, the fragrances are crafted in small batches and bottled by hand by Anne McClain, a perfumist with a classical education in modern perfumery techniques. MCMC carries what might be the most fittingly Brooklyn artisanal grooming product ever: Dude No. 1 Beard Oil. All of the perfumes we sampled were delicate and wearable.
Our Favorite: Maine
What Our Testers Said: "This makes me want to put a note in a bottle and toss it into the ocean."
"Crisp and elegant."
The Runner-Up: Kept
What Our Testers Said: "My mouth is watering."
"It's sweet but there's a sexy musky undertone."
We Were Torn By: Hunter
What Our Testers Said: "This smells like dirt."
"Makes me think of the woods."
"I think this is what Katniss' braid would smell like."
2. Perfumes by Ineke
About the Company: Ineke Ruhland is a classically-trained perfumer who moved to Europe to seek a career in the perfume industry. Now she creates what she calls on her website "perfume stories" in her independent studio in San Francisco.
Our Favorite: Balmy Days and Sundays, which comes in a glass spray bottle from Ineke's website for $88.
What Our Testers Said:
"It's flowery but not overpowering."
"Makes me feel like I'm lying in a meadow of baby's breath."
The Runner-Up: Chemical Bonding
What Our Testers Said: "Just like a spicy tangerine."
"It reminds me of sparkling sweet tea at first, but then I get hints of clove."
We Were Torn By: Derring-do (masculine-leaning unisex)
What Our Testers Said: "I would buy this for my boyfriend."
"It smells like my first love, coming home from the military."
"The freshness in this is what makes it unisex."
3. Patch NYC
About the Company: Two hatmakers started Patch NYC, which has evolved into a full lifestyle brand comprised of vintage-inspired home décor and fashion accessories. Their perfumes are all oil-based balms made from jojoba and beeswax that come in adorable little jars.
Our Favorite: Serpent solid perfume, $22 from the Patch NYC website.
What Our Testers Said: "At first it smells like geraniums, and then you start to smell an herb garden. Am I imagining hints of parsley??"
"I'm allergic to most perfumes, but I can actually wear this because it's oil-based."
The Runner-Up: Ship solid perfume, also $22.
What Our Testers Said: "It smells manly, but then there's a powdery trail."
"This is so subtle, it's really the non-perfume-wearer's perfume."
4. Lulu Beauty
About the Company: Julie Wray started Lulu Beauty in Seattle seven years ago. She sells her scents on Etsy but also owns a boutique in Seattle where she also sells shoes and fashion accessories. As someone who sells Eyes Wide Shut face masks and a perfume inspired by 50 Shades of Grey, you can bet all of these scents have lusty overtones.
Our Favorite: She Belongs There, $38 for a purse-sized perfume oil roll-on
What Our Testers Said: "I want to take a bubble bath in this."
"This is my idea of what a guy would want a girl to smell like. It's kind of smoky and sexy."
About the Company: BYREDO is a mysterious perfume label started by Ben Gorham in Stockholm. The packaging and the aura have an avant-garde 1920's vibe.
Our Favorite: Seven Veils, $145 for a 50ml bottle of eau de parfum.
What Our Testers Said: "Smells like someone I'd be friends with."
"Exotic and bohemian. It really does smell like a gypsy's scarf."
We Were Torn By: Bal D'afrique, also $145 for a 50ml bottle.
What Our Testers Said: "Too sticky sweet."
"Whoa, this smells exactly like mangos!!"
"OMG, this so accurately smells like mangos. I want to smell this all day."
6. Tsi-La, Organic Perfumes
About the Company: All of Tsi-La's products are completely natural and organic, concocted from pure essential oils, active plant botanicals, and exotic butters. They carry a few unisex perfumes, as well as oils that come with a roll-on applicator. Their tagline — "spread joy, be beautiful, feel passion" — enhances the brand's Lilith Fair vibe.
Our Favorite: Fleur Sauvage, in a perfume oil base, $44 from Tsi-La.
What Our Testers Said: "It smells kind of like baby powder. You could wear this everyday."
"This smells like sap from a tree."
"I feel like this is what Pam from The Office smells like."
7. Poison Apple Apothecary
About the Company: Poison Apple sells Victorian-inspired perfume oils and "embalming creams." The fragrance titles and the packaging conjure mental images of dark candlelit rooms, leatherbound books of witch spells, and lonely tea parties. Think gothic Alice in Wonderland.
Our Favorite: Ghost of the Knoxville Girl, $15 for a 5ml bottle of perfume oil.
What Our Testers Said: "Given the name, I thought it would smell like an unshowered goth chick. But it's actually really fresh."
"Really strong at first, but then fades down to a nice powdery scent of daisies."
We Were Torn By: Cheshire moon, $25 for a 10ml bottle of perfume oil.
What Our Testers Said: "Kinda synthetic."
"This smells exactly like maraschino cherries."
About the Company: A purveyor of strange and unique fragrances, many of which are unisex, this boutique label is based in Portland, Oregon. Many of the scents are musky and animalian, while the minimalist bottles would look amazing on any vanity. Given the descriptions, these were by far the most esoteric scents we tested. One perfume tells you what an "explorer's hideaway" would smell like, while another captures the essence of "fog-caked needle." (No, we don't know what that means, either.)
Our Favorite: Eki, request to buy it here.
What Our Testers Said: "Smells powdery."
"Wait...I think this smells like grape Bubble Yum?"
The Runner-Up: Vikt, $115 for a 115ml, esprit de parfum (masculine-leaning unisex)
What Our Testers Said: "This pretty much nails down what having sex in the woods smells like."
"This would smell hot on a guy."
9. For Strange Women
About the company: This quirky artisanal perfume comes from the Kansas City studio of Jill McKeever, who blends botanical essences with ethereal concepts. One of her scents captures "the sweet, slightly musky smell of a kitty who went out for a winter walk and came back with chimney smoke and brisk air lingering in his fur."
We Were Torn By:Moss and Ivy, $40 for a 7.3ml bottle of perfume oil.
What Our Testers Said: "This is really odd."
"It smells like soil and just... earth."
"Is this supposed to be perfume?"