You know you’re in the right kind of restaurant when it smells like your abuelita’s kitchen, and you would know you were walking into your second-grade best friends’ house with your eyes blindfolded. From the agua de colonia that would get splashed on your neck every morning before school to your mom’s fancy going-out bottle of Opium, scent is the sense that is perhaps most closely tied to memory – and bottled in the form of perfume.
Niche perfumers are smaller brands – releasing only a handful of smells, or focusing on a particular theme or set of materials as they work. Wearing their work can be a great way to find something unique or exciting – but at prices per bottle often coming in at more than $100, and perfumer descriptions reading a little more like poetry than anything else, it can be intimidating to get started.
This is where samples come in: Many of these smaller brands, as well as larger retailers, offer samples for about the cost of a cup of coffee. You can team up with a group of friends and order a set, or read through descriptions to figure out which ones you have the best odds of liking. A sample is usually big enough for several wears, so you can get a good idea of whether or not you might want to invest in the perfume later on – or just order another sample to wear every once in a while.
Most perfumers, in addition to more flowery product descriptions, will also include “notes,” which come down to the individual “flavors” that make up the fragrance. Some will be familiar (vanilla, rose, sage), others probably less so (labdanum or oud, anyone?). After some time (most of which you’ll spend smelling a lot of stuff!), you’ll be able to identify which notes you like, and which ones are an immediate “nope.”
A quick note on gender and perfumes – it’s pretty much bullshit. All the perfumes in the list below are designed to be unisex, and even if you’re not sure if you can pull off a rose or a leather, the best way to know is to try it out. So, without too much further ado, here’s a list of six Latin and Latin American fragrance houses from around the world.
Arquiste's Flor y Canto
Arquiste is the perfumery project of Carlos Huber, a CDMX-born New Yorker. Flor y Canto is meant to evoke the smells of Aztec holy days – all copal and cempazuchitl and big, heady flowers. Its website even includes bibliography, so you can read the same sources the team did when it researched this fragrance.
FRASSAÏ's Verano Porteño
With inspiration taken from a walk around Buenos Aires in the summer, Verano Porteño is what it says on the tin: a bright, sunny (citrusy) smell held down by a light jasmine. FRASSAÏ, which has the additional distinction of being woman-owned, has its only boutique in Buenos Aires, so you can almost picture summer air sweeping into the shop to inspire the perfume.
L’Aromatica's Big Sur
L’Aromatica is a perfume and cosmetics brand that is extremely Californian. Founder Loreto Remsing was born in Chile, but has lived in California for most of her life, and Big Sur is the result of a lifetime of breathing in salt air and beachside plants. The perfume also includes a California Bay Leaf tincture, making it sage-y and sweet. L’Aromatica also bases most of its smells on the principles of aromatherapy, and prides itself on using largely all-natural and vegan ingredients. If you like Big Sur as a perfume, you can also order the bath salts, for an extra dose of relaxation.
Xinu, which means “nose” in Otomi, is a company dedicated to making scents that celebrate the botanical riches of Latin America. Every part of the perfume they make is beautifully curated – from the gorgeous wood-and-glass bottles to its packaging, to its online presence – and most especially the fragrances themselves. Monstera is classified as a “green” perfume, which is what it sounds like: something that smells vegetal, like plants stretching up to the sun.
Perfumer Mauricio Garcia’s path as a perfumer began “in his Abuela’s small, yet flourishing garden in foggy South San Francisco,” and since then, he has combined the witchy and the wild into making perfumes that carry in them not only the promise of beautiful scents, but also the intentionality of magic. Ceremonia smells like incense and roses, and is meant to cast a protective circle around the wearer.
Fueguia 1833's Ballena de la Pampa
A whale, resting on the tall grasses of the Argentine Pampas. That’s the image that animates this perfume from Fueguia 1833, a company that takes its inspiration from the wilds of Patagonia. Ambergris – an ingredient found in whale barf – is one of the weirdest scents in perfumery and it’s expensive and hard to come by. It might sound gross, but when aged a little, it will take on a smell that is at once marine and earthy. This fragrance has balanced out the whale with tobacco and hay notes, making for an absolutely weird scent experience.