Why the Prettiest Scents Contain the Ugliest Things

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Photo: Martin Scott Powell/North Sea Air

Your favorite perfume may contain notes of beaver butt. It’s a not-so-hidden secret in the fragrance industry that many of the world’s most lauded scents don’t just contain hand-picked flowers, but often other unusual notes like whale vomit (allegedly, in Chanel No. 5) or deer musk. According to perfumer David Moltz of the indie cult perfume line, D.S. & Durga, it’s these “off notes” that truly make a fragrance smell beautiful — and more real. Here, Moltz explains how “off notes” were essential in creating White Peacock Lily, one of the most beautiful scents of all time, and why baloney proved to be a breakthrough scent.

When you’re creating a perfume, is beauty an intended goal?
I want people to like the perfume creations and for them to be approachable. Sometimes I have bizarre ideas, but I don’t want the perfumes to be like unwearable art pieces.

One of my biggest struggles is playing down realism of a scent to make it beautiful. Sometimes, I’ll create a scent and I’ll be like, I nailed it! It smells exactly like what I was going for. But it will smell so real, that it can be harsh and intense, I’ll need to round it out. I try to round things out so it becomes more wearable and still makes a statement.

So it sounds like you equate beauty with wearability for perfume?
No, not always. There are plenty of wearable scents that smell god-awful. Bud Light is drinkable, but is it beautiful? I wouldn’t equate wearability to beauty.

In a perfume, there always has to be a balance between inspiration and wearability. For me, I need the scent’s inspiration to be very clear — and match it exactly. But for example — let’s say the scent inspiration is an old, rusty nail. That may not be beautiful. But if it’s a rusty old nail in a piece of wood attached to an old building where they make pipe tobacco — the nail adds realism, and the combined story could be beautiful.

What do you think is the most beautiful fragrance you’ve created?
Our White Peacock Lily — I wear it all the time. It’s so singular and it smells like an actual, real lily. But what makes it beautiful are the odd notes inside it. I first started by making this lily accord. White Peacock Lily was based on Charles Tomlinson Griffes and a celtic poem that begins with, “Float over white peacock lily and the pale fog in the distance.”

The original lily accord I made was great. It smelled soapy, like laundry detergent, and my wife loved it. But then I bought a bunch of lilies and realized that what I made wasn’t what lilies truly smell like. I realized there’s something in real lilies that smells like ham or baloney. That’s what makes the flower real. The main chemical in cloves is eugenol. Variations of eugenol have a smoky, porky quality to them — kind of like a rotten melon note with a wet, unctuous element. So after two weeks of tinkering, I added those clovey notes in — and it was only then that I had the most strikingly beautiful lily scent.

So the key to making the scent beautiful were these “off” notes?
I always talk about this circle of beauty in fragrance. The most beautiful smells are always next to the most disgusting ones. Scents like fecal, moth balls, or rot — all those smells exist in small amounts in some of the most beautiful flowers. The flower is trying to attract insects and that’s why these disgusting scents exist. If you take those “weird” notes out of the flower, it smells flat and one-dimensional. For example, the note of indole [present in fecal matter] that a lot of perfumers talk about, is important to making something smell like jasmine. Now when I smell indole by itself, it smells good to me. It grows on you in the weirdest way.

So there are off notes in florals — what about in citrus or other fragrance families?
They’re still plants. For example, with citrus — really good mandarin has this note that smells like clams. Woods break down into vanilla, smoke, earth, and musk. If you think of fern needles, sometimes the pines in the fir do not smell desirable by themselves.

On the other side, what do you think makes a scent ugly?
I think about things that are overdone and frequently mass market — with scents like cotton candy. When you smell them, they’re so bracing, jarring, and cloying, they’ve lost their beauty. It’s like in Hollywood, some of the most beautiful people get plastic surgery and you’re like, I can’t believe you ruined your face!