Inside the World of Fragrance Enhancers
Turning up the dial on your favorite scents starts here.
Growing up, I believed that perfume left no space for subtlety. At church, it always felt like there was a silent, stiff competition for the strongest fragrance. Arriving to Sunday morning service felt like walking into a wall of floral and saccharine fumes. It was so strong that by the time I got back home, the smell lingered on my hair. Today, my taste tend to veer on the understated side, so at the bottom of a Fragrantica wormhole, I was intrigued to learn that a perfume can exist with no notes at all. Enter D.S. & Durga’s best-selling eau de parfum I Don’t Know What. As its name suggests, it’s an entrancing, airy aroma that has a certain "je ne sais quoi." Though it can certainly be worn on its own, it was a first-of-its-kind fragrance enhancer. The ladies at my church could have absolutely used a spritz of this.
Fragrance enhancers give a name to a fragrance phenomenon that has been around for a while—scents designed to draw out the best qualities of other scents. The goal isn't to make a fragrance stronger, but to “brighten it, lengthen it, make it rounder, more radiant, and have sillage," David Seth Moltz, co-founder of D.S. & Durga, tells Coveteur.
When we checked in with Kimberly Waters, owner of Harlem perfumery Muse: Modern Urban Sensory Experiences, she shared that she sometimes reaches for rose water to give her fragrances a boost of freshness. This spritz enhances the fragrance, but it’s not necessarily a fragrance enhancer per se. Fragrance enhancers are essentially transparent scents that Moltz likens to “a building with only structure, no interior.” Instead, the wearer fills the void by layering the enhancer with a raw oil or a fragrance of their choosing. While these transparent scents can be worn on their own, Waters explains that the airier notes make them ideal for layering. “You can build it up to your liking or spray something on it that can build up the scent,” she adds.
For the record, I Don’t Know What isn’t a new release and most fragrance fanatics have had it in their rotation since it debuted in 2018. Nonetheless, the idea of a fragrance enhancer feels very now. But even as a beauty fanatic who doesn’t have a robust fragrance collection (my scent of choice is health food store), the idea of a fragrance enhancer is so of the moment to me. It taps into the loudest voices in beauty today: the beauty chameleons and the "clean girls."
On its own, it’s lightweight and diffusive. When spritzed over something else, it makes the perfume experience more expansive and personal. Moltz compared his vision for fragrance enhancers to a synthesizer—in the ‘60s, he explained, the analogue synthesizer was intimidating and inaccessible to most musicians. Then, when engineer Robert Moog created a more compact synth that looked like a piano, it was everywhere. “If you look at a perfumer’s organ on the wall, it’s indecipherable to most people. That’s what an analogue synthesizer looked like in the ’60s,” he explains. “I have this idea of putting a [metaphorical] keyboard on to the perfume organ and the everyday perfume enthusiast, which would be the piano player, would be able to create fragrances a little bit easier.”
Transparency is a hot commodity for a fragrance right now. There’s been much ado about the #CleanGirlAesthetic that has taken over our TikTok feeds—someone who eschews weighty foundations in favor of lightweight skin tints and opts for rosy lip stains and clear balms instead of bold matte lipsticks. The understated emptiness of an enhancer is tailor-made for this approach to beauty. And though some have labeled #CleanGirlAesthetic makeup as uninclusive and even appropriative, fragrance levels the playing field.
While D.S. & Durga was first to coin the term "fragrance enhancer," fragrances with ambiguity have deep roots. In 2006, Escentric Molecules launched Molecule 01, a single-note fragrance that features only Iso E. Super—a lightweight, woodsy aroma that is the main note in I Don't Know What—and adapts when it comes in contact with body heat. In 2016, Margiela launched their now-discontinued fragrance Filters’ Blur and Glow. They were fragrance primers (which function similarly to makeup primers, with the intention of boosting longevity), but they doubled as enhancers. When used as a base under one of Margiela's Replica fragrances, it brought vibrancy and depth to each scent and made the experience more customizable.
Ahead, Moltz and Waters talk through transparent fragrances and enhancers that belong in your rotation.
The second addition to D.S. & Durga's lineup of fragrance enhancers melds with other fragrances to create a dewy, floral aroma with an added undercurrent of musk. Moltz says that, like I Don't Know What, Crystal Pistil is a step towards his master plan for enhancers. “I have big long-term plans for people to be able to augment and change their fragrances in a very clear, easy way that’s never really been done before,” he says. “I think this is the genesis of that.”
Molecule 01 is a classic that Waters has been wearing on-and-off for years. "When I first started wearing it, people would tell me that it’s a fragrance that people won’t smell on you, but they will smell it when you walk by," she says. "This is a fragrance that you can’t really define. It creates itself when you wear it and when you layer it. How it smells on me may be different from how it smells on you, so I like the notion of something that has a blank slate and you create the element that makes the scent eccentric to you.”
Whenever customers at Muse ask for transparent, layer-friendly fragrances, she directs them to London-based perfumer Maya Njie's eponymous brand. "I would tell [customers] to start with this entire collection," she says. "Her fragrances have an airiness about them and they’re very buildable.”
With a top note of pepper, ORB_ITAL was designed to soften other scents that it comes into contact with. “This entire line is a similar concept to Escentric Molecules," Waters adds. "It’s something that’s very buildable, where people can’t really pinpoint what you’re wearing because it’s different on every single person. It was unique at the time.”
The idea for I Don't Know What came to Moltz while he was wearing raw oils. Though fragrant, they don’t actually perform like perfumes would. “They’re muddy and when you mix them together they have no structure,” he explains. The idea for a fragrance enhancer was rooted in giving these oils structure. "I thought, what if I made something that was empty and had no heart and no notes? Something that was just a structure that I would add all of the most radiant, beautiful, modern materials to and create spatial relationships?’” Over the six months to one year that it took to develop, the key, he says, was creating a fragrance that didn’t get in the way of what it was trying to enhance.
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