I get a lot of inquiries from journalists, various kinds of artists and reality television producers asking if they could “follow me around for a while to see my process”. I turn them all down with varying degrees of politeness because, well, frankly there is nothing to “see”.
Very much like Olfactory Response itself, the method by which I go about creating a scent, however complex, happens pretty much entirely inside my own head. And it’s taken me YEARS to understand and realize that a very great deal of what goes on in there is entirely unique.
First of all, I can remember very specific odors in extraordinary detail pretty much indefinitely. Moreover, I can conjure the memory of these odors exactly and at will. I have it on excellent authority from several researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center that this is a very rare capacity. Many people can imagine the smell of Apple, (which is also a taste by the way which I understand makes it easier) hardly anyone but I can conjure the precise odor of Just Sharpened Pencil On Freshly Mimeographed Paper On Rainy Fall Day At Dalmatia Elementary School 1969 – let alone reproduce such a smell so exactly that it might bring my former classmates to tears even now.
Not only does my brain hold exact memory of all the smells I’ve encountered in my life, it also automatically records every new accord and raw material I develop or approve for use in my work. At present, there are THOUSANDS of catalogued ingredients I can choose from. Now, I can pull olfactory records instantly from the archive in my head for consideration whereas it can take a day or two to gather them from real physical storage to actually smell them.
Secondly, I can mentally and very accurately forecast how the perceived odor of any given substance will change at various levels of concentration. This is a very useful ability to have when dealing with a great many aroma materials both Natural and Synthetic which are often quite overpowering and utterly unintelligible in their pure state.
For example, at full strength a particular olfactory compound may clear the room when initially opened, yet I can tell if I drop the concentration a certain amount, I have a gorgeous delicious butterscotch. I know if I drop it a bit further, I have Shortbread, further still, I get Pancakes and at an even lower level, I have that perfect Ice Cream Cone I was searching for. By altering the concentration slightly, I can even differentiate between Sugar Cone and Waffle Cone and other people will immediately recognize it as such. Again, I am told this ability is both unique and uncanny.
Thirdly and largely because of the two previously mentioned strange abilities, I can imagine discrete odors and know what will happen when I combine and arrange them while adjusting their concentrations – entirely in my head without even opening a bottle or picking up a pipette. Often when I appear distracted and am staring vacantly at a blank wall for hours on end, I am in fact designing some new smell. While there is actually a great deal of work going on, you can understand how this would hardly make for riveting television…
The last and perhaps strangest quality my brains possesses is its Synesthesia. This means that input from one of the senses is experienced and interpreted by one or more of the others. I am told this is an EXTREMELY rare condition – perhaps one in a hundred thousand or even a million depending on the research – although I’ve met at least a dozen other genuine synesthetes in my time. My own synesthesia takes many forms (which is supposedly SUPER rare – usually people have just one) but the most useful to my work is that I often experience odors in terms of sound, vision and texture as well as smell.
Unpleasant odors often manifest to me as having a whining buzz and a prickly, sharp feeling. The more awful the smell, the louder it sounds and the pricklier it feels. On the other hand, smells I find myself loving can come with the sound of tinkling crystal bells or a pleasant cello hum, beautiful shapes with shifting vibrant colors and soft velvety textures.
Thanks to my synesthesia, I can tell instantly if a perfume is not properly composed. One sniff and it instantly fractures into several disparate parts which obviously (at least to me) do NOT go together in any pleasurable way. Between ourselves, this is one major reason I do not rush right out to smell the work of the growing number of DIY “niche” perfumers – this experience is NOT fun for me at all.
On the other hand, my synesthetic response is VERY handy particularly when I’m working on a very complex abstract olfactory composition. At first, ingredient has its own unique shape, color, sound and feel and these shift and change as I combine them drop by drop. As I add materials to the compound and begin to blend, I know by these shifts if there’s an edge that needs smoothing, a shape that needs molding, a color that needs blending or a sound that could be tuned. And suddenly, the whole business snaps together into a beautiful form that hums and glows in space.
Sometimes, this synesthetic experience can be so sudden and so stunning, it names the scent I’m working on. My white flower archetype, Cradle of Light, is a perfect example. While the precise synesthetic experience I have when I smell it is as indescribable as a dream, I could sum it up most clearly by saying it’s like the birth of a new star – a cloud of whirling colors coalesce and explode into a brilliant orb shining and pulsing against the velvety blue-black of space…
And my own CB MUSK is, to me, always like a wide soft skin-colored organza ribbon unfurling and floating behind everyone who wears it. Lovely imagery and a gorgeous effect, I can tell you, but hardly conveyable to the outside world. Even with a HUGE special effects budget, the experience simply isn’t the same. This is how synesthesia works.
So back to my “process”. What is it exactly?
Well, it works more or less like this:
1. I have an idea for a scent. This idea can be sparked by my imagination – like from a book I’ve read or a movie I’ve watched – or it can come from something or someplace I’ve actually smelled at some point in my life. But in either case, the idea generally springs to mind fully formed in extraordinary detail. One of my minor olfactory gifts is to understand the necessary olfactory context for a smell which gives it a POWERFUL reality.
2. I think about the aroma materials I’d need to capture the smell I have in mind. I’ll take through the vast olfactory catalogue in my head and then ask one of my assistants to prepare sample bottles from the physical material storage room we have here.
3. Once physical samples have been assembled, I give them a quick smell through, discard anything I think isn’t relevant and then arrange the rest in a particular order. This order is usually determined by a) quantity and b) volatility: i.e. how much of the material might be needed and how quickly it will hit the nose.
4. At this stage, the internal process seriously kicks in. I spend time, mediating on each ingredient and imagine how best they can be arranged and combined to perfectly capture the smell I’m after. With simpler smells or accords that have a handful of ingredients, it’s fairly straight forward for me. But for extremely complex “perfume” type compositions with dozens and dozens of ingredients, individual materials might arrange themselves into blends within blends within blends. This kind of “mental perfumery” can take days, weeks, months, even YEARS before its complete. Meanwhile, I am going through my day, getting stuff done, working on other projects creative or otherwise and trying to spend as much time as possible with friends and family. Blessedly, the people who know me well are accustomed to my breaking off halfway through a sentence to stare off into the middle distance or jumping up from a seemingly relaxed position to rush off and make notes. They have come to realize all too well that on some level in the background, I am always at work on some new smell.
5. Once I have a VERY clear idea in my head as to how all these various ingredients are going to go together, I sit down at my desk, line up the bottles, grab a flock of pipettes and start blending drop by drop; all the while making METICULOUS notes at every step. Twenty-five years ago, I worked for two months on my first perfume, Fresh Water, and it took one hundred and twenty-five variations to get it right. But now, I find the majority of the work happens entirely in my head for whatever length of time, and when I finally sit down at my desk to blend, I have exactly what I want in three or four goes. Often, these days, I have it perfectly on the first go and the following three are just to prove to myself that I got it in One. Do Not Ask Me Why – my opium smoke perfume – happened exactly like that as did my new upcoming Falling Snow.
I think it should be clear now why my “process” isn’t really suitable for Public Viewing and General Observation. Apart from watching me staring into space or wandering about bumping into furniture, there truly isn’t anything to “see”. Even when I get down to actually blending, watching me drip drops into vials is tedious at best.
And this should also explain why I am able to design smells and compose genuine perfume with absolutely no formal training whatsoever – as well as why I refuse to teach or apprentice other would-be perfumers. The fundamental tools and methods by which I have always been able to make perfume were never something I learned: they were what I was born with and cannot be otherwise acquired or taught.
When I’ve described my peculiar way of going about making “perfume” – particularly to perfumers who’ve been formally trained – it seems to astound and often terrify. I admit that, even to me, it’s unsettling and uncanny. I’d been making actual perfume for eight years before I was told – by Michael Edwards, the world’s foremost authority on perfume and its history – that I was that rarest of creatures: a Natural Born Nose. And it was another six before I discovered I was synesthetic and what goes on in my brain is extraordinary and unique.
Frankly, I’m still not certain I’ve fully processed everythingIve come to understand about my unique Nose and the brain it’s attached to. I try not to think about it too much and just get on with what I can and want to do – which now and always has simply been to create scents that make people feel good.