Esquire (USA)

sci-fi colognes

A cold night. HOT METAL. A motorcycle ride on an empty track. Today’s most exciting colognes evoke a whole lot more than flowers and fireplaces.


YOU KNOW THE FEELING OF DRAGGING YOUR FEET across a carpet and then touching a metal surface. (Zap!) But can you identify what static electricit­y smells like? What about a summer lightning storm, or the sensation of being cold, like really freezing? Your nose is powerful—our olfactory system can identify 10,000 or more scents, and scent memory is typically stronger than visual memory—but can it smell the unsmellabl­e?

The latest frontier in cologne making is what you might call conceptual scents. H24, the new men’s cologne from Hermès, includes notes of clary sage and rosewood—not surprising for a fresh, botanical fragrance. But there’s something else in there: sclarene, a scent molecule that evokes warm metal. Or, for Hermès perfumer Christine Nagel, something even more specific: the “very hot metal iron—the mix of the steam and the heat” in her grandmothe­r’s seamstress workshop. An esoteric note like this would usually be a barely identifiab­le background player. But in H24, Nagel increased the concentrat­ion of sclarene to bring it front and center. The effect is a buzzy, vibrating metallic quality in an otherwise green-smelling cologne.

“The way we smell lights up different parts of our brain— some things are going to make your mouth water, some things make you pucker your lips, and some things make you grit your teeth,” says perfumer and D. S. & Durga cofounder David Seth Moltz. Notes like sclarene and the electric-smelling Violiff, which he uses in his Vio-Volta scent, exist because they force those physical responses and arouse scent memories. Take ozones, a category of molecules that smell like air. “Using ozones is how you trick the nose into sensing space,” says Moltz, who deployed heavy doses in D.S. & Durga’s Bowmakers cologne and Concrete After Lightning candle. “They can give the impression you’re warm in the sun or cold at night.”

Smelling something intangible like warmth or cold can be hard to wrap your head around, but in perfumery it’s more about crafting a narrative than mimicking a real thing. “Most of these isolated molecules just smell weird,” says perfumer Josh Meyer, founder of Imaginary Authors, who uses a rubberysme­lling styrax—derived from an Indonesian tree resin—to call to mind asphalt in his cologne the Cobra & the Canary. But if you mix them right, he says, “you can absolutely create a wearable scent with unwearable concepts.” You might not want to smell exactly like a racetrack, but you may want to smell as if you just rode in on a motorcycle.

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