According to scent stylist Ashley Kessler, the ancient Egyptians believed smell contained the "essence of a soul." Which makes me wonder: Why are perfumes today mass-produced, commercially marketed and packaged in uniform, glittery bottles?
Entrepreneur Nicole Winnaman and celebrity perfumer Sarah Horowitz have answered the question with Original Scent, one of several local businesses that specialize in custom fragrance.
I recently visited Original Scent, located at Winnaman's Pasadena lifestyle store Nikki West, to meet with Kessler, a senior scent stylist. I discovered that building a scent profile is in fact a journey of the soul — one that left me saying goodbye to perfume headaches and pastel bottles forever.
In a roughly one-hour appointment, Kessler gave me a brief overview of the history of perfume before asking me a series of personal questions. It was like the best first date I have ever had. Over a cup of coffee and with a background of soothing music, I was asked about my favorite time of day, season, place, mood and childhood memories.
We talked about whether I was a perfume monogamist or someone who played the field, wearing different scents to reflect my mood, wardrobe or the current season. And at the end of the date, I walked away with something much better than a free meal.
I learned about myself through what I liked and didn't like and soon began the first of two rounds of scent testing. From a shelf holding around 100 bottles, Kessler pulled a selection of ingredients based on our conversation.
"Scent recognition is in the same spot of the brain as emotion and sensuality. It is intensely personal in terms of memory and life experience," she said as she lined up the bottles.
The customer's gut reactions determine which scents make the first round. What I hated went back on the shelf — sweet vanilla, patchouli, grapefruit. What I liked stayed and was categorized by the "note." As I soon learned, the language of perfume is the same as music.
"We talk about creating a chorus using top notes, middle notes and bass notes, based on the volatility and heaviness of the scent molecules. Top notes are lighter, fresher and fruitier. They come on intensely, but are fleeting and may disappear from a fragrance in as soon as 15 minutes," Kessler explained. My picks included apple, lychee and eucalyptus.
At the heart of the fragrance are the heavier, middle notes, which last one to three hours on the skin and tend to be floral. I chose fresh cut freesia and gardenia, flowers that my parents grew at our first home. The deepest, longest lasting smells are the bass notes such as woods, musk, resin or patchouli.
For the second round of scent testing, I closed my eyes and walked through sets of related smells, narrowing my preferences without the bias of seeing the label on the bottle. The result was a blend of "green" and "watery" notes reminiscent of my favorite beach in Maui, summer fruits and day trips to Malibu.
"Your scent is your sensory trademark. It's what people remember you by. It can define someone's complete aura," Winnaman told me. "We get to know you to understand what makes you happy."
Horowitz developed this process more than 20 years ago, and so far no one has returned his or her final product, Winnaman said. As I ordered my new scent in a shampoo and conditioner (you can turn also turn it into a perfume, cologne, body oil, laundry detergent, body scrub, lotion, massage oil or candle), I can see why that is the case. Original Scent, for me, provided a way to resolve the battle between maintaining individuality and following the latest trends.