Many of us grew up in post-independence Jamaica with popular flavors assorted such as Khus Khus, Cacique, Brut de Fabergé and Old Spice. And there was also Aqua Velva, a fragrance that aired a clever ad in Spanish on Jamaican JBC TV, calling for legislation to protect women from men who wore Aqua Velva!
My first encounter with fine perfumes was in the late 1970s on a trip to Haiti when I came across Christian Dior, Monsieur Linvin and Givenchy perfumes for $10 each in duty free shops at the airport. of Port-au-Prince.
Since then, some interesting scents have been on my radar, and I remember browsing perfume stores once in Tokyo, Japan in the 1990s while on a Japansplash tour with Stitchie and Buju Banton. Banton bought Davidoff’s Cool Water in the pretty blue bottle, which was new at the time. Stitchie opted for a Japanese scent. I discovered a local cologne right there called Zephyr by Shisheido, which is the only scent I used for many years until it was discontinued by the manufacturer over 10 years ago. I have been able to find it online from time to time, and bought the last bottle I could find on eBay only a few months ago.
So I was intrigued when my travels took me to the south of France last month, and I discovered that I could create my own perfume in a lab. I was in Nice, near a town called Grasse, where most of France’s fine perfumes are produced. The mild Mediterranean climate of the Maritime Alps triggers a profusion of exotic flowers, and the extracts of these flowers are used in the secret formula of many precious perfumes and colognes. I had visited Grasse several years ago, where I had long conversations with a “Nose” who is a professional trained in the art of creating perfumes. “Nez” in French means nose, and these experts must study for seven years to obtain professional certification. France is, of course, the world’s leading producer of fine fragrances, and a wide range of expert noses are needed to maintain this global edge. France also produces the world’s most popular fragrance product, Channel No. 5, a consistent bestseller for decades in a multi-billion dollar industry.
I have scheduled a session for a Thursday afternoon with perfumer Sasha Leroux. I arrived early at the studio in a quiet part of town that was only a twelve minute walk from my hotel. I was greeted enthusiastically with a glass of champagne and invited to take a seat. We chatted briefly and within minutes five more participants arrived from Germany, Saudi Arabia and Texas. The first half hour was spent learning about how perfumes are made, their origins in ancient Egypt, the role flowers play in making perfumes, and the different types and strengths of perfumes. We’re also enlightened to some of the unusual and nasty ingredients that are sometimes added to the formula to create the perfect balance: ingredients like whale vomit and deer testicles to create musk and secretions from the civet, a small mammal nocturnal. The group burst into laughter when Madame Leroux explained that part of France’s dominance in the perfume industry was due to the fact that the kings of France did not like to bathe, so perfumes became an element essential to the attraction for the nobility to visit the royal palace. !
We are now ready to create. Sasha guides us through a number of olfactory families of fragrances, including bergamot, green tea, black currant, spice, vanilla and pepper. Some are warm and woody, some sweet and spicy, and some floral and fresh. Each work table is equipped with a panoply of numbered perfumes, mixing bottles, measuring devices, coffee beans to clear your nostrils regularly, and a formula card to carefully record each ingredient. We go through and select three notes that we like the most (top notes, middle notes and base notes). Based on the individual choices, we get orientation cards, and then the real work begins, chemistry lesson style, adding very specific amounts of various ingredients to the master mix. It takes about 30-40 minutes to mix about eight to 12 elixirs to bring together each individual magic potion. I immediately love my final blend of crisp, clean citrus orange lime, spice and white florals, with a hint of sandalwood, vanilla and pepper. It’s perfect, and I call it Chez David. But not everyone is satisfied with the result of their product. Gisela from Germany thought her creation was too floral, and with Sasha’s help she spent another 20 minutes lowering the volume of the top notes, finally bringing it to a happy place. At the end of the exercise, everyone was thrilled that, through diligence, we had created our own unique fragrance.
Sasha pointed out that the scents would take on exciting new twists a few days after the blend had settled down and mellow. She also informed us that the best way to spray is on the back of the neck, near the hairline, as the scents cling to the hair more firmly than they do to the skin. Before dispersing, the formula for each creation is stored in a computer so participants can re-order and have their fragrances shipped months or years later, depending on their choice. The fragrances were then placed in fancy bottles and beautifully packaged with Sasha’s personalized elegance. I guess my perfume was really a perfume of distinction, because I wore it in Montego Bay recently at the launch of Reggae Sumfest, and a stranger from a radio station who clearly knows a lot about perfumes approached and asked me what I was wearing. “My own perfume,” I declared. But my response was followed by that questioning look as I was curiously scrutinized.
But back to France. “So Sasha, tell me, when is a French designer going to create a breathtaking fragrance mixing world-fashionable Jamaican ganja or cannabis, lavender and lemongrass?”
There was a long thoughtful pause, then a measured response as if the question triggered a trigger.
“You never, ever know. Perfume, like clothing, follows fashion, and the next season can always bring big surprises.