Books editor Claire Mabey reviews Ex Libris, an Aotearoa-made essential oil perfume designed to replicate the scent of well-loved books.
What does an old book smell like? Do I even like that smell? And do I want to smell like that smell: old, and like books? These were the questions that came to mind when I heard about Ex Libris, the Aotearoa-made essential oil that promises to transport you to “a cosy room with flickering firelight playing over well-thumbed books and leather-bound classics …”
I also found myself considering one Carrie Bradshaw who, in the first Sex and the City movie, snorts deeply at her stack of New York City library books while her enormous husband lies next to her in bed, sniggering about how she must be the only person left who goes to the library. What was Carrie smelling exactly? Why did it comfort her so? And why was Big such a dick about it?
In preparation for this review, I fossicked through my own shelves and pulled out the oldest books I have. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1953 edition) reminded me of opening a cupboard in a large archive like The National Library of New Zealand, or a legal office from the 80s stuffed with manila envelopes. A little musty but modernly so: there’s an organised flavour. The Poetical Works of William Coleridge (unsure how old but maybe 1920s) was more powerful. It smelled like the back of a cave: cold, dark, dry but with the memory of damp. As You Like It by Shakespeare (1953 edition) sat somewhere in between: bouncier, with the tang of degrading chemicals, possibly from the paper or the ink or some hidden glue. I nosed around the stack of them too. With all books combined I got something like stale air spiked with Knight’s Castile soap, but not unpleasant. Like an old lump of charcoal that’s been blasted by strong sea breeze, sprinkled with patchouli, pissed on by menthol cigarettes, then locked in a cupboard.
Armed with such olfactory preparation I spent the day wearing Ex Libris, and wafting it around the house, to figure out whether I would want me and my surroundings to smell like we’ve just been retrieved from the bowels of the Turnbull Library.
Ten out of ten. Ex Libris arrived in a box the size and appearance of an olde worlde book. I was sold as soon as I laid eyes on it. It had a pleasing emerald green cover embossed with a pretty botanical pattern on the front. The edges are deep, gold and textured to resemble pages. The lettering on the cover is also gold and frilly and it says “Method Distillation of Books | Ex Libris | From New Zealand” then in fine print it says “A blend for book lovers” | “100 % pure essential oils and plant extracts”.
The spine (also embossed) bears the “title” (Ex Libris) and “authors” (J. Morrison & R. Moreira). The back cover gives the above-mentioned, lyrical promises of finding a “library in a bottle” and finding yourself “surrounded by doors to other worlds, hidden in dusty pages and faded print.” I did immediately think of dust allergies and squinting but also found myself more than willing to buy into the fantasy.
When I opened the box and saw the tube of perfume nestled inside more pretty green botanical paper I experienced an innocent sort of childish delight. It’s all very lovely, and dinky. The cardboard tube repeats the style of packaging from the box but with some extra product info (“Vegan friendly. Scientifically tested.”) and a QR code (too futuristic for the overall design) so you can visit the website of the makers, beessentialoils.nz. There was a cute little round sticker over the seal saying “Packed and checked by Rafa. Ngā mihi nui.”
Once you pull the top off the tube you finally get to the perfume. A small essential oil bottle with the same gold and green branding on the sticker, and a big, white lid. The white lid jarred against the fantasy of an old, far-from-plastic library, but a minor detail.
On an initial sniff of the open bottle I did find that my eyes watered and my nostrils quailed. Ex Libris is very strong in its undiluted form (which to be fair you are warned about on the bottle). Initial notes were tea tree mixed with olive leaf mixed with something I couldn’t put my finger on. Possibly a harmless variety of mould.
It was quite hard to shake Ex Libris free from the bottle. I soon learned I was being too gentle, thinking the oil would drip nicely out. But you need get aggressive and really shake it free. I mixed one drop of Ex Libris with three drops of sweet almond oil on my right wrist; then mixed one drop of Ex Libris with some odourless body lotion on the left. I also shook a few drops of Ex Libris into my essential oil diffuser (the kind where you have water up top in a bowl, candle underneath).
My right wrist (with the almond oil mixer) was initially sharper than my left (the body lotion mixer). But the scent did settle quickly onto my skin producing a calmer, lighter, more sandalwoody aroma than pure Ex Libris from the bottle.
After an hour the tea tree / menthol notes were quite strong. I put my nose back into the Coleridge to compare. There was definitely a similarity between how I smelled and how the book smelled: though the Coleridge was deeper, smokier and somehow sweeter.
The lounge where the essential oil burner was firing off has a faint but pleasant smell reminiscent of frankincense and candle smoke. So, churchy. Which is appropriate given bibles are old books and there are a lot of them.
By the afternoon Ex Libris had mellowed nicely. My right wrist was by now quite vague while my left was still going strong. Perhaps the oil mixer absorbs faster than the lotion? The deepening aroma was welcome and could almost be called floral. I wasn’t thinking about firelight on leather-bounds, but when I did sniff my wrist I enjoyed it, almost getting old rose, even a whiff of feijoa (the skin).
By evening, my left wrist reminded me of a medicinal herb garden with a touch of cigar smoke and drop of pure alcohol, which lends itself to a fantasy of a whisky-soaked, mahogany-coated, Agatha Christie-esque office-library. My partner commented that the house “smells nice”.
Based on the packaging alone I do think that “the booklover in your life” would love to receive Ex Libris. They could use the beautiful book-box for trinkets and other such magpie purposes. The product is clearly and cleverly designed for gifting and when bibliophiles are a pain in the ass to buy for (I know because I am one and my family feel they have to steer clear from books) Ex Libris presents an ideal opportunity just in time for Christmas.
I personally wouldn’t use Ex Libris as a perfume, but would happily slosh it into the essential oil burner to infuse my house with the menthol-smoke-dust-sandalwood-church-book scent, which is warm and, dare I say it, cosy.
Ex Libris can be purchased online at beessentialoils.nz or from independent bookshops across Aotearoa.