The sniff test: How to pick a perfume for someone

The sniff test: How to pick a perfume for someone
Scent Bar in West Los Angeles specializes in niche, artisanal and hard-to-find perfumes. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Is it possible to pick a perfume for someone? Should you even attempt such a personal gift? If the recipient likes fragrance or is interested in scent, the answer is a resounding yes. And we've got some tips and guidelines for shopping. For starters, try to get the names of perfumes the giftee has enjoyed in the past. This allows a sales associate at a perfume counter or a specialist perfume shop to spot trends and patterns and determine whether the recipient favors florals, fresh clean scents, classic French, spicy warm or meditative incense perfumes.

Thinking about Chanel No. 5? "I'd suggest a much more obscure scent called Bruce Oldfield, which tells an equally glamorous story but in such a different way," says Steven Gontarski of Scent Bar, a parfumerie on Beverly Boulevard that specializes in niche, artisanal and hard-to-find perfumes.

By contrast, fans of Issey Miyake's L'Eau d'Issey might like Amyris Femme by Maison Francis Kurkdjian or Un Bateau Pour Capri by Eau d'Italie, two other clean, sheer florals. Love Opium? Try Padparadscha by Satellite or Bois Bourbon by Decennial.

"If the person likes spicy, amber fragrances, [what we'd call Oriental], then I might suggest Chergui by Serge Lutens or Anne Pliska as a starting-off point," Gontarski says. But if they gravitate toward green, fresh, herbal fragrances, "I'd suggest Tokyo Bloom by the Different Co., Trefle Pur by Atelier Cologne or Play Green by Comme des Garcons."


One crowd-pleaser for women, Gontarski says, is Keiko Mecheri's Peau de Peche — a soft, understated but gorgeous peach scent, while men gravitate to Endymion by the 130-year-old British firm Penhaligon's. With its airy mix of citrus, spices, herbs and vetiver, Endymion is a fairly safe choice and a winner.

At Santa Maria Novella, an Italian parfumerie in West Hollywood that features more than 50 classic Italian fragrances, manager Angela Young says that SMN's Rose and its powdery Melograno are popular gifts when buying for older women.

"When someone comes in, we usually ask them if the person likes citrus, floral or more warm, spicy scents," Young explains.

Based on the answer, they might recommend SMN's signature cologne (bergamot, orange blossom and bitter orange), the floral Angel of Florence (rose, gardenia, melon and vanilla) or Potpourri (herbs and spices).

For those who might appreciate a modern twist on classic French perfumery, Frederic Malle's Portrait of a Lady and Carnal Flower are good choices, says Anthony de La Cruz, manager of the fragrance counter at Barney's Beverly Hills.

And if the recipient wants this season's hottest new perfume, De La Cruz recommends Plastique by X-Ray Profumo (Barbie doll heads and florals); Santal Majuscule by Serge Lutens (creamy spiced fruit and sandalwood); Black Saffron by Byredo and Seville A L'Aube by L'Artisan (orange blossom, lavender, incense, beeswax).

If your giftee eschews the heavy musky scents of yesteryear, new, minimalist "skin scents" such as Molecule 01 by Escentric Molecule and Not a Perfume by Juliette Has a Gun smell fresh, airy and pleasing.

"As minimal as they are, they get a lot of compliments and are unisex, modern and perhaps the least risky choice for a scent gift," says Gontarski.

Hamilton writes award-winning crime novels and muses about perfume for The Times.