Scents & Sensibility
The nose knows what it knows
Lady Katherine worked at Essense for 3 summers, 1999-2001, while she was in college. Now a hip young adult with her own home in New Orleans, she’s pursued a successful career in marketing. Lady Katherine visited the "new" Essense Parfumerie at Rock Ridge Farm last June. We fondly reminisced about her summers making perfume for Essense customers on Martha's Vineyard. Ruggles & I thought it could be interesting to interview Lady Katherine to reflect on her past Essense experiences and talk about perfume from "the other side of the bar."
Essense: If we define "gestalt" as an organized whole—the summer job being more than the sum of all its parts—how do you remember your summer job as an apprenticing young perfumer at Essense?
Lady Katherine: It didn’t feel like just a summer job. I felt like I had the privilege to go somewhere everyday and create things that had never been created before.
Essense: Walking into Essense today, what fragrance labels/names "called" to you immediately? What scents did you instantaneously gravitate towards, like old friends?
Lady Katherine: Well Gardenia Soft is always THE first. Which is funny, you know, because I have it at home…but I still want to say “hello.” Walking in, and seeing them ALL, it’s like a group of old friends you haven’t seen in a while. It’s like: “Hi everyone…how’ya doing? Oh look…we have some new members.” (Ha, ha.) It’s like my perfume support group.
Essense: How do you think perfume, in terms of the sense of smell, and the art of scent, has translated into the rest of your life?
Lady Katherine: Letting something speak to you viscerally and learning to listen to that is something I can’t imagine I’d have learned anywhere else. Like um… when you’re blending a perfume for somebody, and they know only vaguely what they're "looking" for, but I'd have to navigate the perfume bars, to fill in all the sensory elements, put all the "notes" into a bottle to create an entire perfume, really an entire mood.
I guess making perfume…activated my instincts a little more. It taught me to "go by feel." I fancy myself a good cook for example and when people ask me HOW I cook, I tell them I cook the way I perfume. When making a perfume, I learned how to listen to the bottles talking to me. When I helped customers make a perfume, they could often explain what they wanted, but I learned to translate that into a scent by "listening" to the bottles of scent themselves.
Customers might create a personal fragrance, get maybe like 85%, but that last little piece, that very last note to complete the circle, was still a mystery. It had to be just right, to make the fragrance complete… this is when I would let the scents themselves "talk" to me, almost as if they’d call out. The way I’d describe the feeling is: there’s something missing to make this perfect… what is it? And then, um… Orange Blossom yells out: it’s me, it’s me! (Hahahaha… laughs) I learned to listen to those creative instincts when making perfume, and that was training to be attuned to my own creative instincts in other areas of my life.
Essense was/is TOTALLY unique. There are other places that’ll make ya a bath gel that smells like, uh, you know… peach or over-the-top lilac blossoms. (Haha) But after working at Essense, when I’ve gone into those places, there’s NONE of the MAGIC. Essense IS part magical mood. Other places have none of the science and the art of potion making. Other places might make you feel hurried, like you're in an airport… like, "carry on by!" That's not the way perfumes are made...
In most retail establishments, it’s process versus product. At Essense you get both... an elaborate magical process, to be enjoyed and remembered, and a good product, that smells great, feels great, is for your skin, and fabulously uplifting for your psyche.
Essense: How important is smell, either to you, or to human-kind?
Lady Katherine: Well, for me, smell is VERY important. If somebody smells offensive, then I don’t want tot do business with them, and I certainly don’t want to sleep with them.
Essense: (Hahaha….) Will you elaborate on that, please? What does the smell of another person tell you, either as a perfumer or as a normal person going about your daily life?
Lady Katherine: It has to do with basics of hygiene, but it’s also chemistry. AS in… "does mine work with yours?" And… it can even be like… TRUST. If somebody smells a certain way you’re more prone to trust them.
Essense: Why or how is that? Trust? Is trust linked to smell by memory? Is trust linked to memory?
Lady Katherine: Well, yes…but if you meet somebody with guns all a’blazing in some cheap dollar-store perfume, you’re like “what are you hiding?” Yah…when loud perfume is covering up, or assaulting the room, you wonder “what are you covering up?” It’s like the scentual version of “the loud talker.”
Being a perfumer is sort of like being a bartender. You learn everything about people. You learn their life stories: joy; sadness; sickness; what they’re going through; what brought them (into Essense); why they’re taking this time for luxury? Have they made perfume for themselves, or as a gift? By helping the customers during their perfuming process, you send them away with something that is both uniquely theirs and uniquely yours—as in something that you’ve given to them. And… you can be part of their celebration, like about somebody’s wedding. Or, part of their healing, like a after a big romantic break-up. Or, you can be part of their moving on, to bigger and better things in their own lives.
I remember all the teenaged customers that always wanted their perfume to be “Sexy-Sexy,” or the married ladies who’d been with the same men for decades and wanted perfume to make them feel desirable again. Then there were the newly married honeymooning couples that spent HOURS at the Essense bar, touching and sniffing each other. (Hahahaha) …maybe they needed less help? The time for those experiences is recorded in perfume, and on the perfume recipe cards for perpetuity. Those transitions, or those moments of life are captured, via scent. THOSE people have THOSE memories always. That’s the way I always felt about it… you know.
Essense: What other thoughts would you share with Essense and Essense customers today?
Lady Katherine: You know, you don’t have a whole lot of experiences in life where you’re encouraged to take time and think about yourself. At Essense you sit, and think, and smell; you take time; you wait to see/smell which scents work with your own body chemistry. It’s just SO FUN to make something; it's a chance to describe yourself in a positive, fun, memorable way, with a custom potion that you can wear.
Tamsan & Ruggles
Tamsan is a practicing perfumer of 30 years, as well as a sidewalk social scientist with an actual Master's Degree in Behavioral Science from The University of Chicago. Because the sense of smell is closely linked to memory and emotion, the art and science of perfume is very psychological. Ruggles is also a sidewalk social scientist, a rescue-poodle with dubious urban-feral origins. Abandoned on the streets and left to starve, Ruggles has a Master's Degree from The School of Life, but he's a philosophical-poodle who's maintained a very good sense of humor. Both are relocated from major urban centers. For nearly 50 years, Tamsan lived in the cities of: Chicago, St. Paul, Manhattan, Indianapolis, Berkeley, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Providence, and San Diego. Together, they now blog about life's sensory and fragrant spectacles from more bucolic surroundings. More specifically, Tamsan blogs about olfactory mysteries and miracles; Ruggles prefers to comment on anything edible or odoriferous...
ESSENSE PARFUMERIE at Rock Ridge Farm is located a 6 minute drive from Meredith Village on the OTHER side of Lake Waukewan along the far end of scenic Waukewan Road bordering The Snake River, just over The Snake River Bridge.
The Snake River in summer and winter.