Dispatches from Clue Perfumery's debut.
I understand the bias implicit in making this claim, but I truly do think there is something special about the creative landscape of Chicago. Be it the liminal nature of the flyover states, or the implicit disregard it receives from the creative class attending their art schools that treats it as their stepping stool to the bohemian cookie jar only found by doubling their rent and moving to New York, one gets the sense that those who have made Chicago their home for an extended period do so out of love.
For this reason, I feel uniquely called to support and uplift what jewels rise from the community of winter-hardened aesthetes and perfume collectors I have happily made my home among. And following the trail of one of the season’s most talked-about thé dansants, that most recent debutante is Clue Perfumery, the collaborative effort of perfumer Laura Oberwetter, designer Caleb Vanden Boom, and too many other Midwestern creatives to name sufficiently. Even as I currently write in exile from the scented catacombs of South Carolina’s candle boutiques, what seemed to be at least six different groups of my friends had united at this opening party, around the larger-than-life-size replica sculpture of their perfume bottle, to witness the debut of three scents: Warm Bulb, Morel Map, and With the Candlestick.
And what sort of perfume critic, nay Chicagoan, would I be if I were to not help you dear reader discern between them? In all seriousness, I think what I have seen and smelled so far from Clue, both in a strictly olfactory sense and in the degree of warmth with which the city has received these delicately scented clouds, proves this debut will be one to remember. Between the scented drink pairings, the astoundingly consistent branding, and the curated internet presence, Clue feels less like the myopic voice of a burgeoning auteur and more like a combined theoretical exercise in whimsy, curiosity, nostalgia, sculpture, graphic design, and community. It is amusingly ironic to me that the eponymous game of Clue is an excuse to ask the question “Who did it?” and the house of Clue is an exercise in proving that no one and everyone did at the same time.
Warm Bulb, or: White Light/White Heat
Perhaps the most generalized and duplicitous scent from their collection, Warm Bulb is an effort to conjure the scent of heat. Beginning with an opening of bitter black pepper somewhat characteristic of all three scents in the collection, it shortly gives way to a piquant sort of tobacco, tempered with herbal immortelle. This scent never quite seemed to settle on my skin, continually evolving from spicy to warm to dry. It is predominantly a strange sort of experimental vanilla. I am reminded of attempts to transcribe the oft-coveted scent of old books, which often arrives at a similar withered sort of vanillic sweetness. To my nose, the distinct and short-lived life stages of this perfume start at stuffy pepper, pass through an effervescent sort of immortelle soda, and then settle into a mix of mellow tobacco, yielding to the final creamy echoes of sandalwood and a fuzzy sort of amber and vanilla accord common to many crowd-pleasing perfumes. In general, I find — with one key exception — that Clue’s most abstract and provocative accords are top notes, so the wearer gets to experience an element of experimentalism at the moment of application, followed by a more wearable experience into the drydown. Regardless, Warm Bulb emits a fuzzy sort of radiance and is sure to please recreational bibliophiles and lapsed academics alike.
Morel Map, or: Spilling a bottle of Charlie Blue on the Cold Wet Soil Somewhere Between Milwaukee and Madison Townships
If Warm Bulb is Clue’s most abstract scent, gesturing more towards ideas of heat and vague sensations of comfort, Morel Map is its foil — speaking directly to the land and one’s present environment. Inspired by the hunt for morel mushrooms, an alien sort of veined fungi common to the perfumer’s native Wisconsin, Oberwetter describes the perfume as an “olfactory guide.” In this sense, I see the purpose of Morel Map to conjure not the mushrooms themselves, but the situation upon which they were recalled in memory.
In character, Morel Map opens peppery, bitter, and almost culinarily green. Birch leaf and currant conjure a similar juicy-green effect to tomato leaf. References might be Diptyque’s Venise, which combines the greenery of L’ombre Dans L’eau with a vibrant Italian basil. Into the drydown, however, Morel turns moister, developing into an earthen heart of galbanum and a vague sort of mushroom accord. In my experiments in perfumery, I have found violet leaf to be an extremely delicate material to employ in composition — it is deceiving how such delicate and powdery flowers yield such a commanding and rank essence. Used in Morel, however, it lends robustness to galbanum, which can often run powdery and almost cosmetic when used on its own. The mushroom accord itself is one that acts subtly, rather than taking center stage. It feels more savory than anything, lending to the overall feeling I get from Morel Map: of sustenance. The largest transformation here happens as the drydown concludes, where a far more classical oakmoss clings to the skin for hours, evoking the likes of 70s pharmacy classics like Charlie Blue and similar homages such as Marissa Zappas’ newest, Maggie the Cat is Alive! I'm Alive! In all, Morel Map traverses a landscape from green to dirty to refined. Perfect for wearing your best opera gown to run through the forest barefoot, dragging forest debris and precious little mushrooms in your wake.
With the Candlestick, or: Drawn to the Blood
It was no surprise that of Clue’s three debut scents, With the Candlestick was my favorite. As a professed fan of smoky fragrances, churchy olfactory aesthetics, and incense, I felt immediately drawn towards the perfume’s copy, even before smelling. Oberwetter describes this as a perfume about communion. Mixing a tongue-in-cheek sense of dramatics, Clue utilizes one of the most common phrases from its namesake game and turns it into a declarative statement without a subject. There is now only action — a bold array of intense smells that mirror a child’s hyperbolic vision. Oberwetter writes on Instagram:
While working on Candlestick, I was thinking a lot about how taking communion feels to a child. How that eerie overwhelm is heightened by language about "drinking the blood and eating the body.” By isolating and amplifying these religious traditions out of context, we get a distorted sensory portrait that feels closer to what a child would see or what a film would show.
The predominant players here are sticky-sweet cherry wine, frankincense, cinnamon, and an extinguished candle accord that into the drydown becomes so photorealistic it genuinely makes me jealous of Oberwetter’s skill as a nose. Candlestick is perhaps the most linear of the triad, but still manages to stick to my skin for a number of hours. Balancing smoky and sweet, this perfume is Tom Ford’s Lost Cherry if the girl who spent far too much money to wear it actually went to Latin Mass instead of just pretending on Twitter — a smoky, sweet, and ceremonial delight to wear. 🌀