With names like "At The Beach 1966", "Burning Leaves", and "In The Summer Kitchen" you might have guessed that Christopher Brosius is not your average perfumer. His company name, CB I Hate Perfume, drives the point home. Why does this perfumer hate perfume? Brosius attributes this quip to the days of his youth, when he used to be a New York City taxi driver. Indeed, his time during and after his studies at Columbia University included a range of experiences that cultivated his dynamic personality and, though some part of it surely is innate, his profound relationship with scent. Brosius has been described as "one of the most innovative perfumers in the 21st Century" and below, he shares his thoughts on perfume, scent, headspace, and memory. To get the full effect, we encourage you to seek out his scents because until you smell "At The Beach 1966", well, you won't quite have been there.
I remember reading a passage in Warhol's diary about how he'd manipulated his scent exactly every three months so that he could control his own nostalgia. Warhol was on a mission to make his remembrance more acute. When reading your notes on perfume, I thought about Warhol. You said, "Scent is the record of your own special life – it’s your experience. My mission is to capture that experience. " Capturing scent seems to be the commonality in Warhol's pursuit and your own. In Warhol's case, though, he was attempting to manipulate his own record by doing so in advance. Your pursuit, to capture something so personal, hidden in the memories of each individual person, must present a much different set of challenges. How do you locate these ‘records’ if they are, as you say, so personal?
Interesting. I’ve never read the Warhol diaries – I can respect his style but frankly I’ve never been interested. But your word “manipulation” is a curious one to me. I suppose it’s as with any kind of art or design – a matter of intention. Warhol’s does appear to me as well to be trying to create a sense of comfort by manipulating future emotion. I find that a little fear-based…
Mine on the other hand is to delve into the past and while there to certainly capture pleasant sensation but also sometimes to confront and come to terms with the unpleasant – if that’s where my clients care to go and some do. There’s often that “needle-hook of experience” in olfactory memory which isn’t always kind or happy.
Getting at memory can be tricky. In some respects smell memory can be very easy to access – the whole reason we can remember at all or feel emotion in the first place is because we can smell. So there’s always an instant gut reaction good or bad. Getting people to verbally reveal these scent preferences however is not nearly so easy. Everyone is happy to tell their favorite color food or music but favorite smells (or even repellant) and harder to access – this is because those preferences reveal who we really are. And that’s often big stuff.
So when I work with private clients I suppose there’s a bit of psychology involved. I have to make them feel comfortable to trust me with some very private information in many cases. But since I have a great deal of experience with this, I can pretty easily read their emotional reactions to scents as well – it’s all pretty much there in the look on their faces. It’s not always important for me to understand why certain scents spark repulsion or fear but it is necessary for me to watch for those scents that inspire the opposite. There’s a certain expression people get when smelling certain of my scents that clearly indicates this smell is IMPORTANT to them. Both ends of the spectrum have to be respected.
But in general, when I work to capture particular odors or olfactory experiences it’s the same as with any other art – and why this why I think that perfume at it’s best IS an art. I have to explore and interpret my own experience and express it in a way that’s somehow accessible to others. The language of scent is always deeply personal and totally private and is perpetually interpreted differently by every single person on earth. However it can still be a shared experience and that’s what makes perfume such a profound and magical art.
Fortunately I seem to have the inherent knack for picking up on and capturing scents that really speak to people. They’re rarely “perfume” as it’s been understood (up till recently), but mine can touch people in a way that even the most beautiful classically composed perfume can’t.
When you embark on capturing a scent, you employ a technique that you refer to as ‘headspace’. Does this involve analyzing everyday scents that may or may not contribute to the ‘record’? For example, when I wore your ‘At The Beach 1966’ I thought it smelled a bit like sweat and Coppertone. These two vague notions really made me feel like I was there, At The Beach in 1966, but they are not scents typically found in perfume. I guess I’m wondering if headspace has anything to do with this and whether I was right in smelling those things…
I think this is where we get to two key themes that are important to me in my work w scent – observation & reflection. The “record” as you well put it is generally extremely complex & very, very subtle when it comes to smell. The coppertone on it’s own has a particular effect but in order to really hit you where you live, it has to have a very carefully crafted context.
So before I really get to the lab, I have to spend a lot of time reflecting on the tiny pieces of the mosaic that makes up a true & complete olfactory experience. Some of these pieces (dust, mildew & sweat are good examples) aren’t pretty but then much of life isn’t. But it is real and those little “nasty” bits are crucial to reality.
Once I figure out everything that I think is important to capturing a particular olfactory experience, then sometimes I will have things “headspaced” – or analysed to find out what molecules are going on in discreet odors. Incidentally this is a useful tool but the technology can’t yet automatically produce a completely true & recognizable smell – a perfumer still has to do quite a bit of tweaking to bring the scent to life.
But part of the process of mastering perfumery is to rely less & less on the machinery and more & more on what the nose tells you. One reason it takes so bloody long to become a true perfumer is that there are a kabillion aromachemicals & fragrance materials and it takes ages to be able to recognize them individually and spot them in the smells one encounters. So at this point in my career, it’s a lot easier for me to smell something, understand what makes it smell that way and recreate it without rushing to headspace. In a lot of cases, I can now make odors myself. But in today’s age of instant gratification, this is a part of the process that not many can understand as necessary and even fewer are willing to put up with to become perfumers themselves.
And since I’m self-taught, this has taken me a LOT longer to figure out than trained colleagues. It took me five years to really complete the smell of new falling Snow and that was the result of an accident when I happened to smell a totally unrelated substance one afternoon and realized that was the missing piece. A truly accurate Dandelion took much less time but was still the result of a lot of trial & error not to mention smelling a lot of dandelions…
But to be able to make these connections, perfumers have to have brains that are wired slightly differently from the majority. We have to be able to remember smells that we encountered previously and sometimes FAR in the past. I am given to understand that this capacity is very rare – probably this is why there are so few true perfumers on the planet and why they tend to be from families that have produced perfumers for generations.
So in essence I’m kind of a freak of nature – a natural born Nose. I have not only the necessary genetic and biological makeup but that special kind of vision & creativity that can go beyond the mere technical. (And I have to say it took me years to figure that out and I still probably wouldn’t have know it had it not been for someone who was interviewing me back in 2000)
Now to get back to your own reaction to “at the beach 1966”. Is there “coppertone”? Yes. Is there the smell of sweat? No not really but there are things that lead the nose in that direction. People often smell things in my perfume that simply aren’t there. But that’s as it should be and goes back to that “language of scent” thing I mentioned earlier. The perfume has to spark an emotional response – that’s how the brain works – and with that emotion comes memory. Even if the scent isn’t exactly what you recall, memory naturally fills in the blanks with those elements (like sweat) that add up to the experience you had yourself.
So whatever people are reminded of when they smell anything, whatever they think they’re smelling whether it matches the name on the bottle or not, they’re always absolutely right.