A month or so ago, a friend and I were talking about perfume at the gym. A petite blonde standing nearby overheard us, came up and introduced herself as a perfumer, specializing in custom blends.
I don’t think of my city as particularly perfume-conscious. That is surprising, as the American South is so linked with images of belles in hoop skirts with their gentleman callers, but the fact is that at least half the people here are from somewhere else, and the natives tend to be low-key about what they wear, whether that be clothing, shoes or scent (TV’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta” notwithstanding).
So I went to see the perfumer, Susan, at her studio last week. Her company, Blend Custom Parfum Studio, does bespoke perfumes for individuals, bridal parties -- imagine having your own bride’s blend! -- couples, gifts, and so on. This was my first sight of a real perfume organ, and I thought “I could easily live here.”
Susan trained for this profession in Grasse, at Galimar, one of the oldest perfumeries. She took me through the process of creating a custom fragrance by making me a sample of my own.
In creating a perfume for someone, the perfumer must be able to size up the client quickly. Sometimes, there are surprises, she explained -- like a hard-driving career woman who comes in asking for a come-hither oriental as a signature scent. It’s a delicate process. “Scent tells the truth,” she said; very succinct. And very accurate.
If you were to make a list of all the perfumes you loved most when in middle and high school, often there will be enough similarities between them to identify your fragrance “family.” Mine turned out to be Chypre, so that’s where we started. Susan uses an interesting proprietary system, designed by Galimar, in which the client sniffs from a collection of fourteen essences, eliminating them one by one until a favorite appears (three of them, in my case, as I simply can’t be monogamous when it comes to fragrance). Anyway, she explained as we talked that, for most people, perfume is about an individual style, the creation of an image, your persona.
We talked a bit about the modern fragrance “climate” -- the big-business, overwhelming celebrity scents and the modern no-perfume movement, which I believe are linked, as she worked. She’d hand me bottles of blends and essences to evaluate, combining them on scent strips for me to try. Her Grasse training emphasizes the base notes, which I thought was interesting, especially in comparison to the way mainstream scents are sold now, like everything else, instant. Five seconds, a quick sniff from a card, no time (or need) for the scent to develop; what you smell is what you get. What she does is very different.
I’m wondering if we perfume devotees, with our large collections, are really looking for that sense of identity in a bottle.
If I read about the newest Parfumerie Generale or Amouge and immediately start examining the “notes,” what am I really doing? For example, I don’t particularly like lily for my own wearing, and, even though I can tell a great lily-based scent from a thoughtless knockoff, I wouldn’t choose to wear it. It’s easy enough to say “I don’t like it, that’s all” but what does that really mean? Does it mean I had a bad encounter with a bouquet of Stargazers as a child, or what? Conversely, if I adore the earthy essence of iris root, what might be the source of that feeling? Good memories, perhaps, of planting bulbs with a mother, or grandmother, long ago? This, I think, is what custom perfuming is really all about; the winnowing and choosing and winnowing and choosing until you arrive at...you. The uniqueness of your own life’s experience.
So I’m smelling a bit of my custom blend, an EDP, right now. Perfume takes about two weeks to fully “meld,” Susan explained, but I’m in that vial even now. Here's the Chypre quality I love, with smooth, greenish heart notes, but, more important, I’m thinking “I could wear this anywhere.” To the office or gym or theatre, to places I’d usually think twice about wearing fragrance at all, because this one seems to be emanating from my own skin, as natural as breath.
As the fragrance industry splits like an amoeba between the mainstream/celeb and the niche/exclusive -- it seems that there is more of a divide between them than ever before -- perhaps this kind of perfumery will step forward.
In the never-ending battle of Art vs. Commerce, this is the Art part.
The photo is of Susan Sexton, perfumer.
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