What Does Big Sur Smell Like? The Appeal of a Niche Regional Fragrance Name

If Tuscany is too played out, how about Ojai or Williamsburg?

In a 2016 New Yorker essay, author and travel writer Jason Wilson explores how an Italian region was transformed into a "shorthand for a certain kind of bourgeois luxury and good taste." He’s referring to Tuscany, the best-selling memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, and its subsequent adaptation into a big-studio romantic comedy. The book and movie’s success established "Tuscan" as a mainstream marketing adjective and winking cultural signifier. In the article, Wilson points to everything from bathroom tiles to pasta entrées to dog food; in the early aughts, if a product could be Tuscan-ified, rest assured it would be.

It has been two decades, give or take, since the book was published and the Diane Lane–led movie hit the silver screen. Today, Tuscany, as an aesthetic marker, feels a generation behind, a stale descriptor past its prime. (If anything, the Amalfi Coast replaced Tuscany as the elevated Italian geo-reference some years ago.) In recent years, the most in-the-know regional references have gone micro: the more specific, the more effective. This is especially true for candles and fragrances marketed toward millennials and younger Gen Xers.

The appeal of these clued-in references is easy to see: the more niche the name, the cooler the product feels.

"The thing about fragrance is that it’s more evocative and emotional—it’s what I call our Proustian narrative," Andrew Goetz of skincare line Malin & Goetz told me a few years ago for a story on luxury hand soap. And in 2023, the go-to narrative of many fragrance companies includes highly specific geo-references.

Start with California, arguably the glossiest American state with a deep history of sun and surf, power and pleasure. (And gold.) It’s ripe for aspirational reference. The Los Angeles–based P.F. Candle Co. produces Ojai Lavender, a nod to the sleepy Ventura County city that’s been a choice destination for hip urban dwellers looking for desert-adjacent tranquility and a chill place to do hallucinogens. (Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop has an official Ojai travel guide.) Continuing on the inland California theme, Ben Gorham’s beloved Swedish brand Byredo sells Mojave Ghost perfume, a woody composition inspired by what it calls "the soulful beauty" of the expansive Mojave Desert. The Brooklyn-based D.S. & Durga, founded by an architect and a musician, has a Big Sur After The Rain scented candle. All three locales have reputations as relaxing weekend getaways for aesthetically inclined Californians.

New Yorkers, you have not been forgotten. When superstar Drake released his first line of scented candles in 2020, one was named Williamsburg Sleepover, a wink to a corner of Brooklyn that the New York Times once called "one of the hippest neighborhoods in America." The Williamsburg reference came years too late for the Toronto rapper to seem clued-in, but the sentiment was there. When fragrance company Joya released a grass-scented candle, it called out Central Park by name. The upstart label Boy Smells sells LES scented candles, referencing the loud downtown Manhattan neighborhood largely populated by twenty-somethings. One could assume it’s only a matter of time before an even younger company releases a scent named Dimes Square or perhaps takes it one step further, Clandestino.

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In some cases, the scent details may take a back seat to the namesake. On paper, the LES candle reads as a haphazard jumble of notes—rice powder, peach blossom, cedar—that are "much like the bodega and wholesale food suppliers synonymous with the area," according to the product description. What? Look, it’s all marketing; we’ve all got jobs to do. But it’s fascinating to watch a crop of younger companies revisit the familiar Tuscan-ified approach, instead opting for hyper-specific references that wink at their target audience. (Although Tuscany isn’t wholly forgotten just yet, at least not by the Instagram-heavy brand Flamingo Estate.)

The appeal of these clued-in references is easy to see: the more niche the name, the cooler the product feels. Do you want a candle that says Los Angeles or one that says Silver Lake? It’s the played out radio band versus the buzzy underground one. Besides, if you’re buying a candle online without being able to smell it, let’s get real: you’re mostly paying for the reference.

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Top photos courtesy of Boy Smells, Byredo, and Better World Fragrance House.

A version of this article was originally published on Bulletin.

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