Photo: Model outline: Guy Aroch, all still
lifes: Steven Krause

 

It’s not hard to come up with a reason to linger at the Four Seasons
Resort on Maui’s Wailea Beach: white sand fine as face powder; poolside
mango smoothies; and the occasional sight of Pierce Brosnan gliding to
shore on a paddleboard with mesmerizing precision. Still, some people
who come here couldn’t care less about such frivolous distractions.
They’re here for the scent. Not in the naturewalk sense, either—they
come specifically to inhale the sandalwood, maile vine, and jasmine in
Palena’ole, a custom-blend eau that hovers in an all but subliminal
nimbus around the entire property. (The local breezes, though lovely,
smell primarily of nice, plain beach air; the hotel augments Mother
Nature with discreetly hidden electronic diffusers.)

Jane Hendler, cofounder of the Carmel, California, niche perfumery
Ajne Rare and Precious, and the creator of Palena’ole, says flying
halfway across the Pacific (or farther) just to experience a fragrance
isn’t all that strange. Not among her devotees. “One of our clients has
a spray for her pillow and one for her sheets, perfumes for each of
the seasons, and a minifridge in her bathroom in which to store them,
so they feel cool on her skin,” Hendler says. “But that’s nothing. One
man told us he had a dedicated fragrance room with more than 1,000
bottles. Another customer buys a new bottle of our Savoir—that’s
$180—once a month. I’m not complaining, but it’s, like, what, are you drinking
it?”

If Hendler stirred up a potable version, they just might. A new
class of fragrance consumer is mushrooming faster than you can say
World Wide Web”: perfume fanatics, supersniffers who collect, study,
debate, and review every eau they can get their hands on. They seek out
esoteric notes, celebrate superior drydowns, host sniffing parties,
and swap samples of their latest discoveries. Perfumers—once an
anonymous breed tucked away behind the billboards and beribboned boxes
of fragrance marketing campaigns—are their Picassos. Bergdorf’s beauty
floor is their MoMA.

“They’re like wine lovers, cheese lovers, car enthusiasts,” says Ron
Robinson, the owner of Apothia, the beauty boutique at L.A.’s
celeb-beloved Fred Segal—and the innovator behind its culty, eponymous
fragrance collection. “They love anything that’s going on,
olfactorywise.” Selling to them requires more than waving a scent strip
under their ultraattenuated noses. “This isn’t like trying to explain
the difference between grapefruit and patchouli,” he says. “They want to
know the nuances: Does grapefruit come into play in the beginning or
end? What is the balance?”

The answer to the obvious question—if fragrance has been around for
centuries, why now?—is the same reason a million other seemingly unique
hobbyists suddenly belong to 10,000-member fan clubs: the Internet. On
blogs like Nowsmellthis, BoisdeJasmin, PerfumePosse, and countless
others, previously isolated fragrance freaks have found a buzzing
community. “That started a whole new culture,” Robin son says. “Like a
book club, you get new perspectives.You increase your knowledge.”
Knowledge they have in spades. The blogosphere is equally atwitter about
the appointment of Thierry Wasser, Guerlain’s new nez, as it
is about, say, the recent, unexpected reappearance of a little known
Chanel juice called Beige (launched by Coco along with Rouge and Bleue
back in 1929, but apparently not forgotten).

The Web also provides common ground for an obsession that
nonsniffers might regard as, er, unusual. When a writer on Nowsmellthis
conducted an experiment to see how much perfume he owned, spritz for
spritz, he figured that, at 735 sprays per 50 milliliter bottle, his
relatively conservative 27-bottle stash was enough to provide 14.5
years of daily doses. “When I first did these calculations, I spent
several days in a semidepressed state,” he writes. “How could I resist
buying more perfumes?” His online cohorts were quick to assuage his
guilt—27? Next to nothing. Think of what footwear fanatics spend on a
bunch of meaningless shoes!—and the conversation quickly
turned to how to best array the bottles you have, while continuing to
purchase more. One said her 190-plus bottles were in the fridge, while
“hundreds of samples and decants are in drawers in my bedroom,
organized in alphabetical and size groups.”

For some fragrance fanatics, scent is simply the sense with which
they compute everyday life; its impact on their experiences—processed
in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory bank, and the amygdala, its
emotional control panel—more instinctual than intellectual. A nostalgic
70-year-old commissioned Jane Hendler to re-create the discontinued
dews of her youth, including one that, “when she wore it down the
street, made men turn their heads and follow follow her,” Hendler says.
Robinson remembers the Bay Rum his grandfather wore in the ’50s and
recalls meeting his wife while wearing the British brand Czech &
Speake. (Apothia still sells it.) Others just seem to have been gifted
with superior sniffers. Why else can certain noses discern Arpege
versus Armani on a morning subway commute, while others detect little
more than eau de B.O.? Hendler says scent immediately shifts her to the
right brain, into a spacey, creative mode. “Some people get almost
high. They find it transporting, disorienting. They could drive right
off the curb,” she says. “That’s what they love about it.”

“It would be wonderful to have an orchestra follow us around all day
and play a movie soundtrack to match our mood,” says Tania Sanchez,
who, along with her fragrance (and life) partner, perfume critic Luca
Turin, wrote the 2008 scent fanatic bible, Perfumes: The Guide (Viking).
“Wearing perfume is a little bit like that. It scores the day. It
makes breathing, ordinarily a purely functional thing, bring a little
bit of beauty into you with each breath.”

Sanchez is the perfect example of an Internet-enabled scenthead. When
she stumbled upon the fragrance boards at Makeupalley.com, she had
just a small collection. Now she owns some 2,500. (Of course, she’s
quick to point out, “I needed them to write the book!”)

“The thing about perfume is that, for most of us who like it, it’s
been difficult to tell anybody why,” Sanchez says. “Thanks to the
Crayola box, you’ve got these weird 11-year-olds who know the
difference between burnt sienna and raw umber. But they don’t know if
something smells like fennel as opposed to, say, oak moss. One of the
joys of getting online was getting this vocabulary and being able to
talk about something you really love, finally, with other people.” With
Turin, Sanchez developed one of the most distinctive voices in
fragrance writing. In Perfumes: The Guide, which rates some
1,500 juices on a five-star scale, one celebrity fragrance is
categorized as an “evil tuberose,” a “hair-singeing horror, probably
first rejected for use as industrial drain cleaner.” The five-star
Prescriptives Calyx, on the other hand, is compared to “a perfectly
tuned choir out of which you cannot distinguishany individual voice.”

“Most of us get on this journey saying, I’m going to buy one perfume
and wear it forever. I just have to find The One,” she says. “But it’s
not like polygamy if you happen to buy multiples. You start to buy
more, and then suddenly it’s hard to be in denial… you’re a
collector.” Obsessionwise, though, Sanchez has nothing on “the Karens.”

As the organizers of Sniffapalooza, a sort of online fragrance fan
club whose members meet for in-person sniffing expeditions everywhere
from New York to Paris to Florence, Karen Dubin and Karen Adams are two
of the most visible leaders of the eauosphere. Dubin’s collection (“I
stopped counting at 350, and that was years ago,” she says) is
currently unavailable for viewing, due to an apartment renovation.
Instead, she suggests meeting at Aedes de Venustas, a gilded fragrance
boîte on Christopher Street in Manhattan that looks straight out of a
Victorian Gothic novel, and which stocks hundreds of smallish,
artisanal fragrance brands from around the globe. “That’s kind of like
seeing my collection,” says Dubin. “I own almost everything in there
anyway.” (This is not hyperbole.)

The Karens are sort of an odd couple. Dubin, a casting director for
commercials, is a petite, type-A New Yorker who talks a mile a minute.
Adams, who lives in Connecticut and works in her husband’s dental
practice, is tall and as mild-mannered as her partner is verbose. They
have different tastes in sniffs, too: Dubin falls for anything vetiver;
Adams is addicted to post-hippie patchoulis. What they have in common,
however, is a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of and unquenchable
curiosity about scent. Their short list of Aedes favorites is anything
but; the highlights include L’Artisan Parfumeur’s Pouivre Piquant
(“purifying, powdery, cleansing”) and Parfums DelRae’s Bois de Paradis
(“like candlelight on skin”).

Sniffapalooza started six years ago when Dubin organized a Bergdorf
binge for three online friends. Now its network is 500,000 strong.
Believers fly in from Germany, Switzerland, and France for
Sniffapalooza events. And while the Karens started out politely asking
perfumers and fragrance companies for face time and products, now the
industry comes to them. On their last major tour, in Florence, Adams
says, “we got the royal treatment”: breakfast at Ferragamo’s
residential palace; chocolate mint tipples and an all-access tour at
Santa Maria Novella, Catherine de’Medici’s favorite farmacia;
iris-infused chocolates at the farm that produces powdery bulbs for the
boutique brand i Profumi de Firenze; and a custom-blending lesson with
celebrated Italian blender Laura Tonnato.

The Sniffas (as Hendler calls fragrance disciples) aren’t just along
for the ride, either. “They do their research,” says Robert Gerstner,
the co-owner of Aedes de Venustas. “They have color-coded lists,
spreadsheets—pages and pages of everything they plan to smell at each
stop. They’re not going home saying, ‘Oh, I forgot to smell this one!’ ”

The Karens insist that, to Sniffas, perfumery is as an art, without
distinctions of high and low—whether the box is emblazoned with
interlocking Cs or bears Hilary Duff’s face. “We’re not snobs,”
Dubin says, vehemently. “We want to smell everything from Wal-Mart to
Bergdorf.” Still, it doesn’t take long on the fragrance blogs to figure
out that, in their world, professing to love something that’s readily
available on any old department store counter is considered vaguely
lazy, gauche—not unlike bringing a bottle of Trader Joe’s
cheap-and-cheerful Charles Shaw to an oenophile’s tasting party. Sniffas
want to know the story behind a perfume. They want concept, insight.
“Sniffas want the most sophisticated, the most complex fragrance,”
Hendler says. “Ingredients like oris root and agarwood, which are rich,
deep, more of an acquired taste—like a great, big cabernet.”

Buzzworthy ingredients woo them, too: guyac wood, sampac wood, and
rare sandalwoods. (Yes, they know the difference.) Recent It
Ingredients have included yuzu, lychee, guava, and, oddly, salt. “If
someone says it’s rhubarb and rubber, I wanna smell it!” Dubin says.

Sanchez has a name for those who demand the weird and wacky: stage
fivers. “Every fanatic goes through a stage where they’re desperate to
find really strange stuff,” she says. “It applies to all types
ofconnoisseurs—it’s like people who need to climb over dusty boxes and
use a password to get into a restaurant.” A former stage fiver, Sanchez
has evolved to stage six, that of the equal opportunity connoisseur.
“If you can’t see that Stetson is a really great fragrance because it
costs $12 at the drugstore, then that’s a problem,” she says.

Still, with increased awareness has come a ravenous demand for the
new and the now. Niche perfumery is up 60 percent since 2005, despite
the fact that the niche prices start at roughly $100 for 50
milliliters, while the average cost of a scent that size is $31.

This is good news for businesses like Apothia and Aedes, which have
specialized in smaller brands since their inception. But Robinson
appreciates the boom for more than just its bottom line: He sees it as a
chance for perfumery—not just sales imagery—to take center stage. Ad
campaigns that tell you little more than “you’re going to look like
this model on the side of this bus” are, he says, “a disservice to the
customer. They tell you nothing about how beautiful the process of
creating a scent really is.” Robinson is working on an eau that
celebrates his 30 years at Fred Segal. His brief to his perfumer, he
says, includes “coming to work early in the morning in the ’70s when
the gardeners were watering all of the flowers on the side of the
building. It smelled so fresh. And in an alleyway in the back, there
was this whiff of pot: Rock stars were always dropping by the fabric
store next door to get supplies for their costumes.” The fact that the
architecture of a scent can layer his memories, creating something with
a beginning, middle, and end—“that’s pretty cool,” Robinson says. “But
it takes a certain kind of person to appreciate it.”

HOW TO BECOME AN EAU AFICIONADO

Learn the Lexicon
Brush up on heart notes and
drydowns at Basenotes.net, a virtual scent encyclopedia, or
OsMoz.com, an exhaustive online directory operated by the French
fragrance firm Firmenich. If your nose can’t tell osmanthus from
olibanum, educate it: Look for individual essential oils at your local
health food store. “Once you’ve smelled the root of an iris, you’ll
know when you smell it again,” says Apothia’s Ron Robinson.

Shop Like An Expert
Most fragrance boutiques and
luxury department stores hand-spray samples upon request. Tania Sanchez
suggests toting your own empty glass vials—if they run out of sample
sizes, you’ve got your own. Aedes.com and Luckyscent.com sell hundreds
of one-ounce samples for only a small shipping charge. And when you’re
ready to invest, Sephora’s newest gadget, the Scentsa Fragrance Finder,
takes the guesswork out of selection by searching by favorite note or
fragrance category.

Hit the Road
Sniffapalooza isn’t the only game
in—er, out of—town. In Paris, Perfume Paths offers tours of Serge
Lutens’ atelier and Guerlain’s gilded, glorious Champs Élysées boutique
and spa. In London, Perfume Pilgrims explores the city’s scent-lover
spots, from secret incense shops to age-old apothecaries.

Enroll Now
Cinquieme Sens, a 32-year-old French
olfactory institute that once trained only professionals, opens a
Manhattan outpost this fall. Choose a two-day course on fragrance
traditions and techniques or a daylong “discovery” class specifically
for the lay enthusiast.



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