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That smell is so you

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

January 09, 2003|James Verini | Special to The Times

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.

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