Since the time of the ancient Greeks, people have wanted to smell like the ocean. Archaeologists have found archaic perfume vessels from around 550 B.C. that are shaped like the mythological sirens of the sea, the idea being that fragrance could be so alluring it might cause a shipwreck.
The modern zeal for aquatic scents began in the 1980s, when a briny Neptunian aroma chemical called calone became popular at fragrance houses. By the ’90s, minimalist seaweed smells were all the rage: CK1, Acqua di Gio and L’Eau d’Issey were among the most popular scents of the decade, all with shimmering nautical notes: sea grass, cold melon, pulverized oyster shells. Suddenly everybody wanted to smell as if they had just emerged from a kelp forest, bathed clean by the waters.
The trend even made its way into an 1992 episode of “Seinfeld” in which Kramer comes up with one of his signature big ideas. He tells Jerry he wants to “make a cologne that smells like the beach.” Even Jerry admits that this isn’t his worst scheme. Unfortunately, by the end of the episode Calvin Klein runs with Kramer’s idea and makes millions.
In 1996, the Italian house Profumum Roma introduced Acqua di Sale, a scent that gave one’s skin the smell of having been immersed in saline. It became something of an instant classic, and you can catch breezes of it across Europe to this day; on a hot day in Rome, the scent of conch and hot sand fills cafes.
Just as the tide comes and goes in waves, so fragrance trends dissipate and return anew. This summer, we’re experiencing another high tide of aquatic scents. Below, five new fragrances inspired by coral reefs and blue depths.
Silence the Sea, Strangelove NYC
Most sea scents rely on a gloss of coconut-y sweetness to mask any tangy undertones, but not this new perfume from the niche house Strangelove NYC, which does not shy away from its pungent ambergris heart. Ambergris, for the uninitiated, is a waxy secretion from the bile duct of a whale, the result of indigestible matter like eel beaks. It smells like no other substance on earth: ancient, musty, almost feral, like being inside an underwater cavern. Silence the Sea ($ 475) rounds out its edges with oud and tuberose, but make no mistake: This is a perfume for the adventurous, who are not afraid to waft a little crustacean funk in public.
Costarela, Carner Barcelona
Costarela ($ 120), from the Catalonian house founded by Sara Carner, relies on a fizzy top note of bergamot and a buttery hint of saffron on top of a marine base, creating a kind of wearable boating cocktail. This is truly a beach scent in that it suggests the comprehensive sunbathing experience: a dash of sunscreen, an amber-y glug of tanning oil, the citrus from a margarita and the mineral zing of saltwater. A base of cedarwood is meant to mimic the smell of old ships, if that’s your kind of thing.
Marinis, Santa Eulalia
Think of this one as a mojito enjoyed with an ocean view. Another coastal scent from northern Spain, it hails from Santa Eulalia, a fourth-generation fashion retailer on Barcelona’s tony Passeig de Gràcia, open since 1843. Its new line of scents started to pop up in the United States only in the last year. Marinis ($ 165) is the seafaring perfume of the bunch, with herbal notes of mint, frozen grapes and bay leaves.
Sea Foam, Art de Parfum
Art de Parfum is a new perfume house in London, though many of its scents were developed in and around the South of France, where the water becomes silky and warm at the height of summer. Sea Foam ($ 138.21) smells like a stay in Cap d’Antibes. The sandalwood and salt combine to hint of fresh brioche, and heavy doses of fig and seaweed deliver a refreshing snap of green.
Mémoires de Mustique, Eight & Bob
Eight & Bob is technically a reintroduction, as far as fragrance houses go. The first iteration began in the late 1930s, when a self-taught perfumer named Albert Fouquet encountered a young John F. Kennedy on vacation on the Côte d’Azur. Kennedy apparently fell for Mr. Fouquet’s signature cologne, and the perfumer sent him eight samples (and an extra for Kennedy’s brother Robert — thus the name). The scent spread through the celebrity crowd, and soon Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and others were wearing the cologne. Mr. Fouquet died in 1939 in a car accident, but his family butler carried on the legacy, shipping bottles to the United States inside books to evade Nazi interception. (Side note: Someone should make this story into a movie.)
In the aughts, the house was restored to life with a riff on the original formula and has since released six additional scents, including Mémoires de Mustique ($ 145) a tropical homage to an island beach, with watery neroli, bitter oranges and a creamy layer of jasmine. It smells a bit like fancy sunscreen if it were applied in a cottage garden not too far from the sea.