Open a jar of Givenchy's Skin Drink and inhale. It's one of the most wonderful scents I've ever smelled, the fragrance of a newborn mixed with the scent of a flower still in half bud. It's an all-but-invisible scent, as beautiful as it is translucently unpalpable. I call Françoise Donche, Givenchy's olfactologist in Paris, and ask, "C'mon, tell me — who is this?" After a bit, she does. The scent of this cream was created by a perfumer named Pierre Bourdon.
Bourdon is a legend (he created Kouros for Yves Saint Laurent, Cool Water for Davidoff and Dolce Vita for Dior), and this brilliant Bourdon perfume hidden in a skin cream reveals an open industry secret: many of the best scents today are not going into perfume but into skin-care products. For Skin Drink, he proposed the scent of a vine leaf. Givenchy loved the idea. But Bourdon didn't distill vine leaves. Instead, like Seurat, who dappled his canvas with hundreds of colored points that the eye read as a woman in a park on a Sunday, Bourdon mixed synthetic molecules and natural materials — and your nose smells vine leaf.
A few (very few) skin products do just smell of their ingredients. I really like Naturopathica's Environmental Defense Mask as an exfoliator, but it's the smell of this stuff that knocks you over, a totally awesome sour-cherry smoothie. Naturopathica claims that you're smelling the product unembellished. I'm skeptical, frankly, but it lists cherry purée, pineapple enzymes, red wine, wild-cherry-bark extract and jasmine alcohol among the ingredients, so I'll take the company at its word.
That said, 99 percent of skin care is about creating a scent. And many take it as seriously as Givenchy. Red Flower, the cult store in SoHo, offers gels and creams, but what it really offers is olfactory travel: the weird scent of Yuzu Mimosa Sea Algae Wash, for example, is the sento (public bath) near my old apartment in Tokyo. Fresh creates skin-care scents that are so beautiful they shame most perfume counters. The scent of its Rice Dry Oil is gorgeously succulent. So good, in fact, it's like using Meryl Streep in a tiny supporting role.
C.O. Bigelow's Lemon Body Cream, Laura Mercier's Crème Brûlée Honey Bath and Jaqua's Buttercream Frosting Lotion are products that are arguably for the most part about their scents, and Norma Kamali's Olive Only Soap takes its profoundly strange, smoky aroma from the olive oil in it. 100% Pure Juicy Body Scrub is 100 percent natural and 100 percent terrific smelling. Leonor Greyl makes the chicest hair products around, and the banana scent in its terrific hair wash milk is hilariously — and perfectly — at odds with the strange luxury of the product.
The smart money knows that smell is integral to our experience of the product but not always as a beautiful scent. Take Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream, the old faithful orangy goop you love. Smell it: medicinal, thick, almost smoky. For its new iteration, the Eight Hour Cream Hand Treatment, Arden changed the color (it's white) and texture (to be fast absorbing) but didn't dare change that smell. Dr. Hauschka's Rosemary Body Oil smells of ginger scrubs in Indonesian spas and herbs from Provençal markets. Take away the scent, and you erase worlds, cultures, memories. I even love the neutral "cream" scents from Clarins: the smell of my mom, of her skin, of comfort, of warm cotton towels and moisture.
When Sarah Kugelman created her new skin-care line, Skyn Iceland, she asked her perfumer, Iren Vincze of Belmay, for a fragrance for her core products: Glacial Face Wash Cleanser, the Oxygen Infusion Night Cream and the Cool Detox Face Mask. "I wanted the smell of purity, freshness, water — the smell of a glacier," says Kugelman, who explicitly took mint off the table. "A lot of people associate cool-fresh with mint," she says, "and I wanted more cold water." The project's code name was "chill."
Vincze, extraordinarily, went by herself to Iceland to smell the cool air, the ocean, the volcanic rock. She returned home and started in. It was a tough project. The Icelandic mineral water that Kugelman had used was infused with angelica archangelica and contained calcium, copper, gold and silver, and it didn't smell good. To mask these odors, Vincze started with a "nature identical" — a molecule synthesized in a lab but completely identical to one found in natural angelica seed with its light, peppery note. She mated it with aldehyde C-10, another nature identical found in oranges. She welded on white lavender essential oil and (for smoothness and a nourishing feeling) a nature identical of orris butter, a synthetic scent of heliotrope, and another called santalol, used in scents with sandalwood. She finished with cyclamen and a mix of synthetic molecules creating an apple scent for sparkle, on top. The Skyn Iceland scent is ingenious: marvelously unplaceable, no flowers, fruit or wood — no familiar landmarks at all; clean, pure and smoothly rich as white silk.
It's so good, in fact, that Skyn Iceland will soon bring out its first perfume, inspired by that same Icelandic glacier.