Perfume comes from the Latin word per fumem which translates to - “by means of smoke” and in its name it may reflect the origins of perfume referring to incense that was used in religious ceremonies in Ancient Egypt. Many ancient cultures such as the Romans relished scents as well and used them in religious ceremonies to scent themselves and their belongings. The art of perfume went out of favor in Europe with the fall of Rome and yet it continued to flourish in the Mideast, India, and China. The art of making perfume fortunately made its way back to Europe via trade, as hopeful medicinal cures. Though not effective, they did help mask foul odors.

The continuation of aromatizing tangibles led to the birth of the perfume industry when a glove maker from the Provençal town of Grasse, France sent a pair of scented gloves to Catherine de’ Medici, the then Queen of France. The idyllic climate and location of Grasse lend itself naturally to growth of aromatic flowers such as: May Rose and Jasmine which are both found in Chanel No. 5. It was in 1921 when Coco Chanel launched this fragrance and it continues to be considered the most successful fragrance of all time. Since then, there’s been a plethora of perfumes created, and today the fragrance market is saturated. Toward the end of the twentieth century Thierry Mugler launched Angel which included the first successful edible note of chocolate in a fragrance. We have seen the rise and fall of the celebrity fragrance. We no longer care to identify with a celebrity but rather we create our own persona - our own brand which is exemplified with our social media presence. So, why not create your own fragrance?

Bespoke perfume

Meet international Fragrance Designer Sue Phillips - owner and founder of Scenterprises and the Scentarium in TriBeCa. Sue is a New Yorker, though originally from South Africa. She came to New York with the intention of pursuing a career in acting but soon after changed courses when she realized that New York already had its fair share of unemployed actors, and she landed a job at Elizabeth Arden as training director. It was at Elizabeth Arden where she found her passion in the world of fragrances. Later, she became Marketing Director of Lancôme, Fragrance Magie Noire, and Trèsor, and Vice President of Fragrance Marketing for Tiffany & Company. Sue’s role at Tiffany was crucial in the creation, development and launch of Tiffany’s first perfume. After leaving Tiffany’s, she embarked on her consulting career and her company Scenterprises.

There are no women who do not like perfume, there are women who have not found their scent.

(Marilyn Monroe)

Prior to the pandemic I usually interviewed in person, yet now it is over the phone. Sue and I would have met at her charming Scentarium in TriBeCa where she normally meets clients and holds bridal shower parties and team building workshops. In the interim, Sue is meeting with clients through video consultations after they first take her scent personality quiz. She is also offering kits so one can create a fragrance in their own home which sounds like fun.

During our chat Sue explained to me that perfume is for our total enjoyment. It gives us an instant boost of self-confidence. Smell is one of the strongest senses we have, and it connects us to memory and to emotion. Fragrance, music, and color share a similar language. For example, fragrance is made up of what is referred to as notes and harmonies, and we may describe it as bright or dull. We should not take our sense of smell or taste for granted as there are illnesses that can make them go away such as the current Coronavirus, and yet happily I’ve read that this ability to smell and taste returns. Sue went over the eight main olfactory families with me and they are: citrus, floral, fruity, oriental, chypres, woodsy, fougéres and animals. Not surprising, with the heightened awareness of the importance of hygiene upon request Sue has made hand sanitizers for some of her clients. Clients have also expressed an interest in scents that express positivity. During our chat I learned that perfume is no longer a woman’s domain - men want it too. Right now, there’s a lot of interest in oud and rose scents.

I asked if there were any changes she would like to see in her industry; she remarked that packaging needs to be rethought that there’s just too much of it and that packaging needs to be easy to open and considerate to the environment. Instead, the industry should focus their spending on quality ingredients rather than superfluous packaging or cheap synthetic ingredients. This is important for consumers to be aware of as we can easily get swayed by fancy packaging.

This June, Sue is launching her book Scentually You! The Power of Perfume, from the Bedroom to the Boardroom, published by Central Park South Publishing. Book-signings are scheduled for the fall at the Player’s Club in New York and the following year around Valentine’s Day at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park, New York. I could spend all day learning more from Sue about perfume from its history, and ingredients to the future of fragrance.

A scent can make us feel transported without having to go away and it also acts as a time machine, beckoning memories, and for a fleeting moment it takes us back to that time. Next time, whether you smell cut grass, or the aromas of a sauce cooking on the stove, or a spritz of your favorite scent, pause and savor the moment with gratitude to all the small joys of everyday life.