The Nose Knows

A New York City custom perfume-making adventure sends me into olfactory overload.

They say the average human nose can identify hundreds of different smells. Unfortunately, sitting here in the lobby of a posh Manhattan hotel sniffing custom perfume ingredients alongside my wife, I’m afraid my unsophisticated schnoz has gone into olfactory overload after sampling just a dozen exotic scents.

Luckily, my spouse’s petite proboscis is still going strong as we work our way through a table full of proprietary perfume blends with the help of internationally-known fragrance consultant Sue Phillips. It’s all part of her unique “Perfume Studio” process that allows anyone—man or woman—to create their own distinctive fragrance.

What makes this experience so extraordinary is the fact that the finished product my wife takes home will be utterly unique. In a world where thousands of people wear “signature” scents with pretentious names hawked by a never-ending parade of minor celebrities, Phillips’ process results in a fragrance that is truly one-of-a-kind.

The portable Perfume Studio kit developed by Phillips’ long time associate, London-based master perfumer Robin Taylor, also streamlines the process of creating a bespoke fragrance, which can often involve sampling hundreds of separate ingredients over a period of several months and set you back as much as $40,000. By contrast, Phillips’ olfactory adventure takes you from start to finish in about 90 minutes and costs a small fraction of that amount.

Phillips began our session with a questionnaire she uses to help her get a feel for her client’s lifestyle and personality. She then went on to describe what goes into assembling an individual fragrance, including explaining the key concept of top, middle, and base notes that cause the scent to change from the moment you apply it.

From there we dove into the deep end of the perfume pool. One by one, Phillips dipped thin blotter strips into the small vials containing the system’s 18 proprietary fragrance blends and passed them around for us to sniff. Periodically she offered us a small dish of coffee beans meant to help cleanse our olfactory palettes though, in my case, I’m not sure it helped.

After about an hour, my wife managed to narrow down the choices to her four favorites (Fresh Floral, Spicy, Balsamic, and Green). By sniffing those blotter strips together, we began to get the first hint of what the finished product might smell like.

Phillips then began the custom-blending process, with my wife offering feedback on the formulation until both pronounced it perfect. The result was then decanted into a purse-sized spray bottle and its ingredients and proportions recorded so it could be recreated when it comes time for a refill.

Despite the fact that my nose was barely able to keep up, the process was actually a lot of fun. Which makes me think I might even want to create my own signature scent next time I’m in New York. In fact, I already have a suitably pretentious name picked out: I think I’ll call it Xtrordinary.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Sue Phillips has helped introduce new fragrances for some of the biggest names in the business, including Lancôme, Tiffany & Co., and Diane von Furstenberg.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Master perfumers start by learning the smells of about 400 individual fragrance ingredients, but can go on to distinguish as many as 2,000 different scents. There are reports that some celebrated “noses” can identify as many as 100 ingredients in any given fragrance.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Unlikely signature scents hawked by celebrities include “Moi” by Miss Piggy and “Kiss Her” by—yep, you guessed it—the rock band Kiss. Yeesh!

The Facts
Name: Sue Phillips/Scenterprises Ltd.
Location: New York City
Phone: 212-876-2984

My Advice

  • While the price tag for this one-on-one custom perfume session isn’t exactly cheap, don’t let that put you off. The cost is comparable to other equally extraordinary experiences I’ve written about, and the pleasant memories will return every time you use your signature fragrance. Also keep in mind the fact that the finished product is a top-quality full strength perfume instead of some watered-down eau de toilette.
  • Because all 18 Perfume Studio blends are meant to go together, your signature scent can contain as few as two blends or as many as a dozen. Phillips says the average number is between four and six, but the only real limits are your imagination.
  • While the one-on-one experience is undeniably cool, Phillips can scale up the process to make it available to groups including bridal/baby showers, charity functions, and business meetings.
  • Thanks to the portability of her Perfume Studio kit, Phillips can bring her moveable fragrance feast to you. While she’s based in Manhattan, she’s willing to travel to a client’s home, business, or event anywhere in the world for the right price.
  • Remember that Phillips’ system can be used to create custom fragrances for both women and men. It’s even possible to create a unisex scent that can be worn, say, by both a bride and groom on their wedding day.