It's a quiet Wednesday night in Chinatown, but the lights are still on inside the Institute for Art and Olfaction, where founder Saskia Wilson-Brown is leaning over an electric scale, using a pipette to fill a vial with diluted aroma molecules.
On one wall of the large, white studio space, several hundred small bottles of these concentrated fragrances are arranged in alphabetical order on shelves — cade, dirt, frankincense, lemongrass, passion fruit — along with some more exotic scents such as ebanol and things that end in “ide.”
Students participating in the night's open-session class are free to select from any of these to create their own scents or just to experiment and have some fun. Wilson-Brown has created one of the few places in the country where anyone can learn about the history and process of perfumery, a science she says is inaccurately seen as elite.
“The Internet has changed that,” she says, adding that though Indian sandalwood, jasmine and ambergris are expensive, and becoming an official “nose” requires schooling and apprenticeships, literally anyone can work with the same components and, with the right combination of patience and a sense of adventure, concoct their own scents.
Wilson-Brown, who has a master’s degree in art, was miserable working in television and set up the IAO as a nonprofit. “I was interested in science, art and education, but it was almost a political decision, too,” she says. “I thought that the exclusivity of such an industry was part of everything that’s wrong with the world.”
She explains that most scents are employed in the “functional” world of fragrance: soaps, air fresheners, toiletries and cleaning products. Even leather can have a smell added to make sure consumers feel like they’re getting what they paid for.
The “fine” world is the luxury one of fancy bottles, department stores, fashion labels and celebrity branding; everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Justin Bieber has had at least one proprietary fragrance. Using a movie metaphor, Wilson-Brown pits the “Hollywood” world of fragrance against the “independent film” side, where small companies attempt to establish a foothold in a market that’s worth billions.
You'll seldom see science students more excited than those at the Institute for Art and Olfaction. They chat happily amongst themselves as they pick component bottles from the shelf and then use pipettes to transfer five or six drops into a series of tiny vials.
Soon there’s symmetry on the two large stainless steel worktables, as each student lines up her vials, each with its own pipette so there's no mixing, plus a sheet of labels, a bushel of sense strips (blotter-paper sticks) and a stack of small plastic tubs ready to be filled with a few drops of this and a few drops of that.
There’s no magic formula, though. Components are labeled T, M or B for Top, Middle or Bottom (a sliding scale that indicates how quickly specific smells or notes are discernible and how long they last), but aside from Wilson-Brown's kind suggestions and some measuring crib notes on the chalk board, students are encouraged to experiment and, well, follow their noses.
The most vital piece of equipment is the blending sheet, a simple grid that lists the base components that were chosen and how many drops of each were put into the tub. The magic comes — ideally — when someone creates a new “blend” she likes. Then, to create a full vial, she'll look at the components and multiply the number of drops initially used of each by six. One of tonight’s students already has her own box of vials — known as a perfumer’s “organ” — and many of her cohorts are working with multiple vials and complicated blending sheets.
On this particularly evening, students include an artist looking to create the smell of fresh-from-the-ATM dollar bills (Wilson-Brown consults a binder of blending sheets for that) and two guys who want to start a cologne-based range of candles aimed at men. In the midst of a eureka moment, one of them exclaims, “Honey is a game changer!”
Wilson-Brown suggests to one student who picked a number of fruit scents and is only getting a bubblegum smell that he should “tone the apple right down,” and the room slowly quiets as everyone concentrates — and smells.
As an article in The Atlantic recently noted, there's a limited vocabulary for aromas. In describing what we smell, we often use words associated with food, cocktails, coffee and wine. “In many ways, every note you describe when tasting wine is similar to describing the notes of perfume,” Wilson-Brown says.
Occasionally people take their sense strips out into the crisp night air to smell or simply to refresh their nostrils. Wilson-Brown pops out for a cigarette. “Many perfumiers smoke, believe it or not. The business is mainly based in France, after all,” she half-jokes.
She and several others make up the Smelly Vials Perfume Club, the Institute’s “in-house punk perfume crew,” who collaborate on art projects; upcoming ones include helping prepare a South American–based quest to communicate via smell with an invasive species of beavers, and a European movie screening based around a scented film from the 1950s.
Most recently they worked for six months with the Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles on Phantosmia, a Halloween scavenger hunt around L.A. named for an olfactory hallucination. (The event was so popular that another is taking place on Thursday, Dec. 10.) At each location, participants would open one of 13 vials and smell, say, exhaust fumes where Thelma Todd died, cigars at Orson Welles’ favorite restaurant, gardenia perfume at the Hollywood sign where Peg Entwistle jumped to her death — and other aromas that were less pleasant.
When class is over, Saskia collects the tubs and empties the contents into a large gas can that, despite being marked with a biohazard sign, has the word “millefleurs” written on the label. “Perfumiers all use that term for this. It means ‘a thousand flowers,'” she explains, offering a whiff of the contents. Let's just say it isn't a fragrance you'll find on shelves anytime soon.
The second Phantosmia event takes place on Thu., Dec. 10, 6:30-8:30 p.m.; meet at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, 932 Chung King Road, Chinatown; (213) 616-1744, artandolfaction.com. For more info on upcoming open sessions visit artandolfaction.com/calendar.