In a recent article New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman wrote about sound in architecture and how invasive noise is now the scourge of cities whereas “during the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities.”
The article was an important reminder of the role of the senses in our designed environment. Which brings us to pleasant smells and the work of Sarah Horowitz-Thran.
Horowitz-Thran is a perfumer who has been creating custom fragrances for individual clients for more than 20 years.
DnA wanted to find out more about the art and craft of making personalized fragrances, and sat down with her in the Westlake Village office of her company, Sarah Horowitz Parfums.
DnA: How did you get started designing fragrances?
SH: I fell in love with the process during my freshman year of college. When I moved to California in 1994, I founded my own business doing custom fragrance, and it’s taken me in a lot of different directions. I’ve done ready-to-wear collections. I do private label collections. It’s got a lot of different aspects but it always comes back to creating fragrances.
DnA: Can we talk about this desk we’re sitting at? Are these bottles all elements that you would make a perfume out of?
SH: Yes. This is called a fragrance organ. This one has over 300 materials. There’s some essential oils here, some resins, some absolutes, and then quite a few fragrance or synthetic materials as well. That’s the palate a perfumer uses to create a fragrance.
DnA: Could you name a few of these? What are your go-tos?
SH: I’ll just pull what I’m looking at right now. Bergamot is a green orange from Southern Italy. It’s too bitter to eat but they use it in perfumery and to make Earl Gray tea. It’s a top note, the very first thing you smell when you’re experiencing a fragrance. Middle notes, in general, are the heart, soul, or bouquet of a fragrance. That’s where you find your florals. Jasmine is my favorite.
And then the base note of a fragrance is the foundation of a fragrance. If we were talking about music, that’s the drums and percussion, that’s the rhythm of your scent. It lasts the longest on your skin, and it is predominantly made up of things like woods and resins.
DnA: Are there trends in perfumes? Will different kinds of notes become popular?
SH: Yes, just like any other art form, just like in fashion. Through the ’40s, ’50s, into the ’60s you had orientals, which means heavy in the base note. Youth Dew and Shalimar were popular. Those are the warm resins and they led to the patchouli craze in the ’60s. That’s a very earthy fragrance.
The ’80s had power fragrances, like Giorgio. It’s the olfactive equivalent of shoulder pads and big hair. The response to that in the ’90s was something like CK1, unisex, linear and clean. Then the fashion moved toward gourmand, very vanilla fragrances. In the early 2000s you saw soloflors, like gardenia or tuberose single florals, and now you’re seeing the rise of more artisanal, independent fragrances. Oud, which comes from the agarwood tree, has been on trend for quite a few years now.
DnA: How do you work with a client to create a bespoke fragrance?
SH: It’s a process. We’ll start out talking generally about perfume and then I get into their personal history — where they were born, where they grew up, if they have siblings, if their mother cooked, if she wore fragrance, if their father wore fragrance or if he smoked a pipe. I ask if they’ve worn fragrance in the past, what their favorite color is, their favorite textures against their skin, their favorite time of day. The answers trigger specific fragrances for me, and by the time we’re finished talking we’ve got 50 or 60 notes down on the fragrance organ. I categorize everything into top notes, middle notes and base notes, and they smell through them.
For the second round I have them close their eyes, so that what we’re left with at the end is ingredients that they’ve chosen and responded to in an olfactive positive way. I know how to balance the materials, so I write a formula and blend it in a beaker and then try it on their skin. We do a couple of different rounds until we get it absolutely right. Once they approve their formula, we keep it on file so they can reorder it any time.
DnA: Going through the course of a day, are you unusually sensitive to smells because of the work that you do?
SH: My husband would tell you it’s like living with a bloodhound. I can smell other people’s perfumes, or what they ate for dinner or any of those types of things.
DnA: What do you think is the ultimate impact or purpose of finding the “right” fragrance?
SH: Finding the fragrance that really speaks to you is empowering. It means you know who you are and what you love and it expresses that to the world. It’s sort of the invisible calling card; it’s a very sensual, powerful tool.