If there is anything better than discovering unusual scents, it is mixing your own. I was pretty excited when I saw that the Department of Curiosities (a combination storefront/workshop/event space run by designers and all-around wonderful women Jamie Hayes and Gerry Quinton) here in Chicago was hosting a fragrance workshop.
The event description for the “The Fundamentals of Fragrance” said we would blend raw resins and woods to “to make an ancient fragrance.” Tanja Buhler, who I’d met before at a party Jamie hosted, would be leading the workshop. We’d had a fascinating and informative discussion about perfumes—she has a background in beauty and fragrance, and helped Merz Apothecary open a new and expanded perfume section. Sign me up.
Upon arrival, the big table in the main room had been set up with large glass vessels labeled with the name of the essences inside. After some cocktails and chat, Tanja gave a brief introduction to the history of fragrance, explaining that originally resins and woods to burned to create scent (the word “perfume” derives from the Latin words “per fumus,” or “through smoke”). Frankincense and myrrh of course are some of the most ancient fragrances known to man, and she showed us two different kinds of the former, one of which is more medicinal and can be ingested
After that Tanja instructed us to put on our new silk eyemasks (available as part of Department of Curiosities’ decadent and gorgeous lingerie line), and sightlessly go around the table to slowly breathe in the scents inside without looking at the labels, allowing ourselves to register our impressions and reactions. Some were recognizable, like fir and cedar. But others were more mysterious. One essence, which turned out to be spikenard Himalaya, had a strong note of cocoa. Another, cajeput, had an almost confectionary smell, like an old-fashioned candy store. I asked Tanja where she sourced them from, and she told me someone local actually makes them for her.
After some more (sighted) sniffing, we were instructed to choose three fragrances, from which we would create our perfume. I decided to go with my gut and chose camphor, cajeput, and myrhh (although I was also tempted by cedarwood and cypress). Other attendees had different systems. One woman chose scents from each of the three different continents represented by the offerings, an “around the world” approach.
Creating a fragrance this way is almost an interesting psychological test. What does it say about you if you gravitate more toward the heavy scent of fir alpine, for example, over the more delicate balsam of Peru? Individual formulations seem to reflect some mysterious, barely-grasped truth about our essential selves.
If that is the case, mine surprised me a little bit. I usually love woodsy scents, and mine turned out surprisingly green (although it gets woodier on the dry-down). As I mentioned in my post about Coriander, in the past I haven’t cared much for green scents, but that seems to be changing. Does that reflect some sort of shift within my inner being? Or is it a momentary or seasonal preference? I think this is part of the reason I am so intrigued by perfumes. They seem to tell us something about ourselves.
Tanja invited us to name our fragrances. I chose L’Hiver, because even though mine smelled green, it reminded me of a forest path in the snow. So perhaps it is more accurately Vert en l’Hiver (please excuse my incomplete knowledge of French). I’ve been wearing it on special occasions as it is extremely unlikely I will ever be able to create the same scent again. That is perhaps also what I love about perfume–its ephemeral quality reflects our own impermanence.