By Amy McBean
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Photo Credit: Roksolana Zasiadko
Upon learning I had the opportunity to make a custom perfume, I was thrilled. We singers can eschew perfume for years, but I do love natural scents, and am always keeping an eye out for fun things to do with girlfriends.
My fussy nose and I were set loose on two bespoke perfumers in New York City: Julianne Zaleta of Alchemologie Natural Perfumes in her atelier in Park Slope, Brooklyn; and Sue Phillips of Scenterprises in her underground Tribeca Scentarium.
Julianne Zaleta, of Alchemologie Natural Perfumes
To step into Alchemologie is to enter an apothecary of herbs with fresh flowers and greens. Tiny bottles on tiered shelves were layered in what I later learned was called the perfumer’s scent organ – one of the industry’s many nods to music. Zaleta’s website promises “finest grade all-natural ingredients”. At Alchemologie, Zaleta instructs you on building the perfume chords from the bottom up, and visitors may add the drops themselves.
Sue Phillips, Founder & President of Scenterprises
To enter the Scentarium, one follows narrow stairs down to a sort of curiosity shop, filled with perfumery books and bottles, and is greeted with strains of baroque music, champagne, and strawberries. Bordering part of a round table strewn with silk rose petals, were 18 bottles containing what I later learned were the perfumer’s prepared blends. In the Scentarium, Phillips uses ”highest quality naturals and one or two synthetics”, introduces top blends first, and later combines your final choices for you.
While the two experiences were different, both were a vivid reminder that scent is more than a physical memento, and how it’s connected to memory. At both Alchemologie and Scentarium, you can create a perfume that is uniquely your own.
“The thing I like doing the most are these consultations where I help people make their own perfume” -Julianne Zaleta
Beginning our afternoon in Park Slope, Zaleta explained some basics of perfuming, and how to wrap my mind around using the brain to smell. “The important thing to remember is that you smell with your brain,” she said. “Your nose is just the apparatus, so it’s not important to keep wafting it. You can waft it. Release it. Contemplate it. You can always smell it again.”
She introduced me to ancient resins, balsams, roots and grasses. We wafted, released, and contemplated. And built a bottom chord, drop by drop. Between each drop, we shook the vial to blend the notes. And talked about the scent-memory connection.
She was spending time with more brides, she told me, because of this connection. “They’ve been coming in and making a perfume that they don’t wear until their wedding day. And when they wear it afterwards, it reminds them of the day – and of me – because they remember making it with me,” she said with a smile. “‘You’re so much a part of our wedding,’ they tell me.”
This made sense. At my friend Penny’s wedding, I told Zaleta, we both wore her mother’s tea rose perfume. I will forever connect tea rose to that day.
“I’m really into fougères – I just fell in love with that combination and I’ve been teaching it some of my studio classes.” -Julianne Zaleta
Some of the middle notes were flowers, natural isolates, and spices. I kept returning to jasmine. “Jasmine has a lot of indole in it“, Zaleta said. “Indole is the molecule of decay. The jasmine flower is so fragile that when it’s blooming, it’s already dying – so it’s decaying.” When a rose smells beautiful in a vase, she explained, it’s also dying. “There’s that little bit of indole in there, and as human beings, as animals, we find it ravishing.”
The sense heightening stories continued. “Clary sage is a strange oil,” she said. “It does interesting things with a perfume. It kind of ages it. Makes it a little bit musty. It’s what’s used to make vermouth.”
She told me about a shapeshifter of a molecule found in violets, and I was transported to a Harry Potter potions class – then led through even headier notes of citruses and greens.
Peru balsam, labdanum, and tobacco made up the final bottom chord of my perfume; then apricot, jasmine and clary sage made up the middle; and rosewood, black pepper, and yuzu in the top.
“Sometimes they name themselves,” Zaleta had told me. Upon leaving the studio, I received some sad news. So I gave my perfume a name as cheerful and friendly as Peru balsam, in memory of a beautiful person: “Gambol.”
The Scentarium is located on a charming Tribeca street next to a flower shop
At the Scentarium with Phillips, a visiting couple from New Hampshire kindly allowed me to crash their visit. A scent personality quiz told us which olfactory families we were drawn to. Mine were Chypre (French for Cyprus – of citrus and other Mediterranean materials), Woody (such as sandalwood or patchouli), and Fougère (French from the word fern – blends of things like lavender and oakmoss).
At the round table, Phillips introduced her various blends, beginning with top notes on the left, like Citrus, Green, Herbal, and Aldehydic.
Aldehydic was one of the few synthetic blends in her studio, she told us, and came with a story about Coco Chanel. In 1920 Chanel wanted to capture a new modern scent, and had asked the perfumer Ernest Beaux of Grasse, France, to present her with choices. Among those samples, Chanel selected the fifth as matching her vision. But when he smelled it, the perfumer thought it was not what he’d prepared. He returned to the lab, and it was determined that too much Aldehyde had been added in error. That mistake, Phillips told us, became Chanel No. 5. “You should expect to see an enormous celebration in 2020,” she said, “when Chanel No. 5 turns 100.”
There was a wide selection of Florals for her middle blends, such as Fresh, Rose, Floral, Heady, and Gentle. “Forty percent of my clients are men,” Phillips said. “It’s interesting that many American men steer away from florals. They think it’s the preserve of women. Many European men love florals.”
The Fruity blend smelled sweet, like candy – “A lot are from Hawaii,” she told us. “They have such beautiful, luscious, edible notes.” And then she let us smell blends like Tonic Sport, Spicy, Balsamic, Musky, Woody, Amber, and Mossy.
I selected Green; Gentle Floral containing freesia; Spicy that included cinnamon, coriander, cumin and nutmeg; and Woody, containing oud – a resin from the agar tree, and particularly popular in the Middle East, she said.
The Scentarium blends cover the standard olfactive palette – each is a perfume you can wear on its own – and you can combine them
Phillips told us the word “perfume” comes from Latin “through smoke,” with origins in ancient Egyptian rituals. In sacrifices to the gods, woods were burned, and scents wafted through the smoke. Incense rituals swept through the ages, then in 17th Century France, leather tanners of Grasse faced a problem. “The chemicals they used to soften the leather had a harsh smell,” she said. From “beautiful fields in Grasse, of lavender, myrtle, and other florals,” she told us “they discovered how to extract oils from these flowers to overcome the pungent odor.” Ultimately, perfume became a new industry, and Grasse is still considered the home of perfume.
Grasse now beckons, and I am plotting to visit the French Riviera. But to make a perfume here in New York – Who to invite? And to which studio?
After musing over memories shared with me by the perfumers – and shameless borrowing of personalities from the latest season of The Bachelor – To Alchemologie, I’d likely bring a Raven – someone who would enjoy the aesthetics of gardening. And to the Scentarium, I think I’d bring a Corrine – someone who would appreciate mink and pearls.