Los Angeles Times, January 9, 2003

By James Verini

For those unwilling to settle for bottled scents that just anyone can buy, personal perfumers concoct custom mixes of fragrances and oils.

Catherine de Medici had one. So did Napoleon. Cleopatra may have been the first.

No, we’re not talking about wigs or syphilitic infections. We’re talking about personal perfumers — the rare souls whose vocation is the creation of scents (they usually prefer that you call them scents) for individuals. Louis XIV, who changed scents several times a day, never went anywhere without his.

But this isn’t 17th century France, and perfumes and colognes are no longer the luxury they once were. Anyone can walk into the mall and buy a bottle of Michael Kors or find a $10 Calvin Klein knockoff in a pharmacy.

To the bearers of the great tradition of personal parfumerie, however, that is just the problem. To these olfactory artists, these nasal alchemists, there is no higher expression than one’s odor, and there is nothing worse than smelling undistinctive. Or, as boutique-owner and licensed perfumer Viktoria Fisch put it, “The worst thing in the world is to think that you’re forgettable — and what better than to be remembered for what you smell like?”

Fisch has a point. Who wouldn’t want their very own smell? There is something undeniably appealing about having an unforgettable odor, assuming it’s a good one. And if she’s looking for people trying to be remembered in odd ways, she’s certainly in the right city.

One of a handful of personal perfumers working in Los Angeles, she designs scents in her Ebba boutique on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. Fisch shared her thoughts on the art as she designed a scent for a new client, Alexandra Kolendrianos. She had gotten through a long series of questions that included Alexandra’s favorite types of music (cool jazz), her ideal date (candlelight dinner in a gazebo), her favorite Olympic sport (pairs figure skating), and of course her astrological sign (Capricorn). She had decided that in Alexandra’s answers, “romance seems to be the thing that comes to mind.” But that was not all: “A lot of time what we want with our fragrances is to be powerful. And what I’m sensing from you is that you want to be powerful. But you don’t want to be mistaken for a man.”

Now Fisch was waving bottles of essential oils and fragrances under the client’s nose to get her reactions. (An essential oil is the extract of a single flower, plant or herb; fragrances are chemical compounds). She had started with a field of 70, which she would narrow down to three. So far, violet and lily of the valley were in the lead, and lavender was out. Between scents, Alexandra would take a whiff from a small vial of coffee grounds — as a sort of palate cleanser for the nose.

Like most perfumers, Fisch is quick to point out that the olfactory sense is the sense most closely connected with memory — whether of one’s current life, or, if you like, something before that. “You like violet so much because you’re a Capricorn,” Fisch said. “A Capricorn is an old soul. From the earth. Very Victorian. You have that feel about you — Guinevere, or a queen of some kind.”

Eventually Fisch and Alexandra decided on a combination of violet, water lily, linden blossom, and a touch of muguet — for the power note. A 1-ounce bottle will cost anywhere from $14 to $125, depending on the oils and fragrances chosen.

“She wants something kind of showstopper-y, but without being revolting,” Fisch said. The two tentative names being batted around for the new scent are Lexi’s Loves and Ode to Alexandra.

Such analysis is common among perfumers. Sarah Horowitz, arguably the best known perfumer in Los Angeles, runs her company, Creative Scentualization, out of a Malibu guest house overlooking the Pacific, and describes herself as a “liaison between clients and their dream fragrances.” She uses the phrase “fragrance journey” a lot. In fact, she has the phrase trademarked. And she prefers that it be capitalized in print.

“The Fragrance Journey is very intimate and personal,” she said. “The gift of scent, throughout history, is the highest gift one can give. It was always reserved for the kings, queens and the gods…. In ancient times, the scent of something became known as the highest part of it — its essence, its spirit. That’s the idea I want you to go into the Fragrance Journey with, and that’s what I want you to take out of it. I ask, ‘Now who are you and what do you love — about you?’ ”

Horowitz’s Fragrance Journeys usually take about 90 minutes, they cost $500, and they get you a quarter ounce of pure oil, 1 ounce of spray, a bath gel and a body lotion. She keeps about 300 oils and fragrances on hand, and when in New York and London to see clients, she travels with a custom-made “fragrance organ” that holds 100. She prefers that clients name their scents themselves, and she requires written permission if a client’s friend or relative wants a bottle of the original scent. Horowitz has been on more than 2,000 Fragrance Journeys, and in that stretch, she claims, she’s encountered three people for whom she couldn’t make scents.

“Almost always during a fragrance journey, someone will smell something and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s the lawn in my mother’s yard,’ or ‘That’s the ocean when I was 16 and had my first kiss.’ ” Occasionally clients will have negative memory reactions. People who went to Catholic school are sometimes repulsed by frankincense, she said. “Like, ‘Oh my God, a nun hit me with a ruler.’ ”

“More people cry than you would expect,” she added.

Where Horowitz and Fisch are willing to make scents for anyone with a few hundred extra dollars and a free hour, John Steele, an aromatic consultant, does not have a store or a Web site. He conducts much of his business out of a health food restaurant in the Valley, and he does not seek out clients. They are brought to him by a higher force, he feels.

“I believe that the souls of the plants I work with bring me into contact with the people I’m supposed to work with,” he said. Steele, who, in addition to being a perfumer, is also an aroma- therapist, a lecturer and part-time archeologist, an ethnobotanist (one who studies the use of plant life in cultures), a student of shamanistic healing and a general historian of smells, believes that scents shouldn’t be worn just for decoration.

“Fragrance is a transformational tool,” he said. “I ask people, ‘What do you want to be fragrant for? What do you want transformational assistance with?’ They say, ‘I’m sad. I want to be more sexy. Or I want to be more creative. I want to quit being a lawyer and become a carpenter — what can you give me for that?’ ”

Is there a scent that can transform a lawyer into a carpenter? Yes, yes there is.

“Boronia,” Steele said without a moment’s hesitation. “It is said to have the power to crystallize creative thought.”

Steele travels to Asia and Africa frequently for his company, Lifetree Aromatix, a wholesale supplier of rare and exotic floral essences, and he has a catalog of hundreds of scents for the individual or business, each with its own specific healing power and history. Recently he developed a scent he called Mango, which is not made from mango, for the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Miami. (He also wears it out.)

But what he’s most interested in is helping people with their auras. This is a hard task now that everyone wears deodorant and auras can’t be smelled as easily they once were. “Shamanistic healers can smell people’s auras,” he explained. Could he smell people’s auras right now? “To some degree — what I do is feel the aura. Full body intuition. We live in an age in which we’re not encouraged to believe the intuition of our noses. But in all ancient cultures they shook hands and smelled each other. Then it was a way of knowing. ‘The nose knows.”Follow your nose.’ These are old truths.”