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Bespoke Perfumery and the Evolution of the Indie Perfumer

 For American Perfumer
Bespoke Perfumery and the Evolution of the Indie Perfumer
Sarah Horowitz-Thran

Dave said I could pick any topic I wanted to write about for this piece.   Lots of creative freedom… and what came to mind?  Nothing.

Well, maybe not ‘nothing’ – but I’m not sure if you want to hear about my crazy day to day, work, kids, when will Game of Thrones come back (April 2019 FYI)…  You get the idea.

“Give me a topic!”  I thought, looking for more specific direction.  And, as I had minored in my whole life and then fully mastered in college…  procrastination set in.

I cannot tell you how many bottles I filled, how any times I walked to the back of the office (or to the refrigerator!) looking for inspiration, or just an escape from my computer…

Finally, I talked about it to a dear friend and fellow fragrance lover.  I asked what she would like to hear me write about.  And when she said it, all I could think was “WELL, OBVIOUSLY”.

Bespoke Perfumery.  My first and truest love in this field, the practice that first captured my interest and then, my life.  The collaborative act of co-creating a fragrance for another human being; the emotional and spiritual journey you take together olfactively.  And I realized that each Fragrance Journey, the creative process of developing a perfume for one based on their most intimate memories, fears, desires, and emotions – and translating this and capturing the essence of who they are and what they love into a bottle – this is both vulnerable and empowering simultaneously.  To wear your custom scent is to be naked before the world.

As I started to think about this, I realized how truly this act, in many ways for many of us who were at the forefront of this artisan perfumery wave, was the gateway drug.

I found Perfumery on a fall day like any other day.  I was in Boston, walking Newbury Street in between classes, and I stopped into a store called Essence.  Enya was playing, crystals were laced around the bottles on the bar, and I was asked if I wanted to be anointed.  It was my life before that day, and my life after that day.  I was engulfed in this new world, the sensuality of it, the intimate nature of it.  I had found an art form that allowed me to ask a perfect stranger about their deepest thought and childhood memories, all while I smelled their skin.  Are you kidding me?  I had found my CALLING.

As it turns out, I had also found my people.  Fellow fragrance lovers on both sides of that blending bar.  Dawn Spencer-Hurwitz, Akuura Kulak, Paula Rigby, my oldest and dearest friend from NY joined me there (& who is also still perfuming), Mark Enos, Ida Miester on the receiving end, waxing poetic even then.  It was this exploration, the deep dive I did on my own in gathering everything I could find to read on perfumery, and the blends I was collaborating on each day I came to work, each day anew, each day striking some cord, some joy in a customer – I was hooked for life.

I see now with the clarity of hindsight how this space – ESSENCE – this incubator allowed us - babies, really – the freedom to play and to create.  And to see how far we could go.  Yosh started at an Essense in Colorado.  Many of us started playing in these arenas as it was the first access to our materials.  The Body Shop perhaps opened the door – we just ran through it.

I remember when I moved to California and was creating custom blends out of my tool box from Sears in 1994 that people thought (including my ever-supportive parents) that I was crazy.  When I would meet people and introduce myself as a Perfumer, they had no idea what I was talking about. 

Then, something happened.  After years and years of being an olfactive artist, I started to hear a rumbling, which has now become a roar.  In 1999 I met Mandy Aftel, who is still one of my dearest friends and whom inspires me daily.  We were two crafters in a sea of fragrance industry elite – and we understood each other while we stood by each other, and although our mediums differed, our hearts were aligned.

In the years that followed I had apprentices that came and went – but never truly left me.  Many ended up following their own fragrance dreams, Ashley Eden Kessler, Marlene Stang, Deb Piver, Yvettra Grantham to name a few.

In 2012 Saskia Wilson-Brown founded the IAO here in Los Angeles.  I have the honor of serving as a founding Board Member, and at the very first awards, was thrilled to give the first Artisan Award.  I remember clearly, as I looked out at a sea of faces that has multiplied greatly in the years since, that I felt that I had been speaking an alien language for my entire adult life, and that I had finally found my tribe that spoke in the same tongue.  I feel that now, in this very moment that I type these words, that you, if you are here on this site and have gotten this far into my stream of consciousness, you speak my language too.  That we are all finding each other, and how very lucky we are for it.

And that Independent American Perfumery is only just at its beginning.

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