“An Artist’s Introduction to the Fine-Fragrance Landscape of Esxence” by Catherine Haley Epstein

I am a conceptual artist who began using scent in my practice ten years ago. By conceptual artist, I mean that I use any medium whatsoever to engage in questions I am asking in the studio. Alongside paintings, drawings and sculpture I use scent, words and photographs to obsessively make sense of things. Last fall, I was asked to be on a panel about scent and writing at the Society of Illustrators in New York City. Someone in the audience liked what I had to say, and generously invited me to participate in a workshop on art and fragrance. This time the panel was out of the country, in Milan, Italy at a conference of elite perfumery called Esxence. This conference and its ethos is so far from the bowels of my studio, that like a respectable, risk-taking artist I said “yes”.  Thus, in April, I embarked on my mission to understand and distill the art of fine fragrance.

On my first day in Milan, the walk to the Esxence event was filled with the scent of wet air. Mostly wet cement, which in a city is either a symbol of renewal by way of construction, or cheap fixes. As I neared the conference, I could start to smell a massive shout of perfumes, where my joy in smelling the quotidian morphed into the fear of flying. The duty free never ceases to repulse me, despite my love of fragrance. It’s something about the mix of scents—each trying to scream louder than the others for attention—that overwhelms.

As you approach the conference venue you must walk down a wide stone walkway with strange low-lipped stairs, meant for cars to drive down for loading and unloading. Trying carefully not to trip, I eagerly entered my very first fragrance fair. Mind you this is not a simple fair of craft and artisan designers, this is meant to be the best fragrances, the limited edition, the artistic and the trés luxe. The walkway narrows to a dark entrance, surrounded by a gaggle of smokers. Now my nose is battling the duty-free aroma and the smokers’ exhaust, and I am thrown back in time to when smoking was allowed on planes, and my confused college days where somehow cigarettes made perfect sense the night before a triathlon.

Upon entering I dropped my coat in the coat check and began to wander in the dimly lit space with black walls and ceilings. While I was ready to browse and maybe shop, I learned immediately that the vendors were there to make distribution and shop deals, as well as garner press, and not to sell to consumers. My “speaker” status announced on my badge was not interesting to them. I carried on, smelling things when I could, ducking behind what looked like important conversations, and attempting to understand why and how these fragrances were artistic, and possibly better than the masstige and mass market fragrances available.

“70 percent of what’s here is shit!”

Since 2009 perfume companies have convened in Milan at the Esxence event to share their most exclusive and artistic fragrances created to date. This portion of the market is called “niche” or “indie” or “artistic” depending on who you speak with. While it prides itself on the art aspect of the presentations, it is, without a doubt, a slice of luxury commodities from all corners of the world.

The cacophony of smells and all things fancy set the stage for a variety of issues that were discussed on panels and privately. The niche/artistic/indie fragrance family, a subcategory of the twenty-nine billion dollar worldwide perfume market, is having growing pains. When change is afoot, there is always discomfort. At Esxence, the discomfort came in many guises.

“Seventy percent of what’s here is shit!” declared one well-known, traditionally taught perfumer, and self-described “hedonist, wine connoisseur, and talented cook, with a passion for antiques.” On another panel, a self-taught, former actor, now perfumer and land steward announced, “We’ve forgotten how to smell!”, and all the products here are helping to “disguise the fact that we are truly animals…” On another panel, the disrespect for self-taught perfumers was palpable, and for this I, as a fragrance-world outsider, was disappointed.

Creativity is about breaking stereotypes, and demands acts of defiance. It would have been nice to see some truly experimental scents in action at this gathering. Why didn’t someone create an imaginary landscape of scents meant to be revealed throughout the venue or on a walk? Why wasn’t there a row of carrot and bread smells front and center? Why couldn’t the vendors be there without the packaging, where the scent is experienced anonymously? Instead there were the usual suspects of scent (e.g. citrus, floral, oriental, woody) where money and consumer expectations take the driver’s seat.

While perfume as an artisanal practice has an ancient history, perfume as an art medium or “niche” has a tiny history. The conference founder led an informed discussion about the perception of niche fragrance in larger audiences throughout the world, and admitted that in fact there are no values of artistic or niche fragrance that seem to persuade or inspire consumers. In this sense, he is learning the same thing as artists. The values of the artist and their studio are rarely, if ever, transferred to and appreciated by the masses. The business of art is ultimately about consumption, not creation: people see and appreciate only the anointed, vetted and previously approved art without a bother on the how or why something was created.

That said, these days creation is the most exciting corner of the perfume market for the masses. If search patterns on Google are an indicator, 12.1 percent of 82 thousand searches a month around the topic of perfume are “how to make perfume?” versus only 210 searches asking “what is a niche fragrance?”. In other words, people want to create their own thing versus learning about the skill and finesse of what it takes to make a fine perfume.

An image of the artist’s scent studio with glass bottles and beakers on shelves. By Catherine Haley Epstein.

Esxence keeps the growing trend of handmade, artist-driven perfumery close to their community by hosting a booth for The Institute for Art and Olfaction, an American non-profit that caters to the DIY movement and making perfume materials and classes accessible to the public. The non-profit also provides annual awards that elevate the DIY and attempt to bring order and hierarchy to a rather messy landscape. Depending on who you ask, awards can be merely a badge of mediocrity, or a stamp of approval and much-needed source of pride for an independent artist.

Art is not luxury

It was only the day I arrived at Esxence, after weeks of preparations for my talk I was to give on art and scent from an American perspective, that I realized the word artistici (artistic) in Italian is synonymous with luxury. The word luxury comes from the Latin word luxus meaning “excess”. For me art is never a luxury, but a necessary means to expanding our understanding of the world. I had to adjust some of my talk, though I left in the point that art comes from chaos, it’s not respectful to history and is simply translation.

I’m rather defensive about the use of the word art to support one’s own agenda of recognition and branding. If something is to be called art, there needs to be a lot more rigorous dialogue than there currently is. There is nothing wrong with the commercial aspects of art or beautiful things, I just feel there is some missing parts to this equation of a purportedly innovative scent landscape. There’s an opportunity to educate, refine and innovate, though I don’t quite see that this is going on. Art is not luxury. Though luxury can be art, they mustn’t be confused, and one mustn’t use art to elevate the work they are doing, without really caring or knowing what art is.

Another issue feeding the growing pains of this art form is that there are no parameters for which to judge a perfume as artistic or not. One could say you know it when you smell it, though it’s far more complex than that. Normally in the arts you have a small group of intellectuals born out of a medium that set up aesthetic rules for judging it. Historically aesthetic philosophers found scent too elusive to critique. I think we are equipped technologically and intellectually to assess scent and whether it’s art or not, we just need to boldly map out the parameters through the aforementioned rigorous dialogue. Historically scents are judged on things like sillage. Sillage is a French word for “wake” and describes how far the scent is thrown into the atmosphere as you walk by. Which, by the way, is not necessarily a good thing. Who wants to be a walking air freshener? Or perfumes are judged on how long they stay on the skin. Again, who wants to necessarily have skin stained with scent? What about the beauty of a fleeting scent, or one that you must get very close to in order to experience? The opposite of sillage may prove the wave of the future for luxurious smells.

The head scientist at Givaudan is throwing his hat in the ring by creating measurements to judge scent. He suggests the molecular weight of a fragrance could possibly stand as a litmus to its artistic merits. I read his white paper, and while I appreciate the attempt, I found the analogies to art history to be incorrect, and know that historically a work of art has not been judged by the quality of the pencil or material used in the drawing. Unless it was an assessment of the wealth of the patron (lapis for example used in a painting was considered impressive financially, not artistically). His thinking could be refined, and indeed be an interesting lens to review and critique scent.

Oud is a product of struggle and duress

Just as when I visit art fairs, at Esxence I looked for the patterns, and checked the pulse broadly to see what trends were afloat. There were two major repeating impressions: outrageous amounts of two or three synthetic ingredients: Oud Synth (woody, amber, vetiver), Ambroxan (woody, amber, nut), and possibly Timbersilk (woody, amber, warm), and the use of art as a veil to cover the usual suspects of compositions and ingredients.

The Ambroxan and oud rush was in probably 70 percent of the booths, usually called a “black rose”, a “bomb” or “dark (insert thing)”. These scents were generally packaged in a black bottle amidst the white bottles that were the more anemic or complex florals. These scents with oud, ambroxan and/or timbersilk are meant to be broody/moody/sexy—like a statement necklace that is big and sometimes questionable in taste. These ingredients can last on your skin for hours and not change course—they stay the same prickly smell. By prickly I mean they have that mothball type of effect where they shoot straight to the back of your throat, announcing their presence with a boom. I think the trend might be to persuade the Arab client, as there is a love of oud in that culture and it’s slipped into the Western scent dialogue a few years ago. It’s no longer specific and special, it was everywhere at the conference.

The market for fragrance is high in Arab countries, where the after-dinner sharing of fine fragrances and incense is a custom for the elite. Oud (the real stuff, not the Oud Synth referred to above) has historically been burned as an incense, though it is becoming more and more scarce due to the fact that it is over harvested, and truly rare. Oud comes from agarwood, which is formed when the aquilaria tree becomes infected with a mold. The resin from the infection bears the gorgeous fruit of a somber, delicious scent. The scent is called oud. Like many things in nature, such as the best wines born from grapes on rocky mountainsides, the oud is a product of struggle and duress.

Fragrances with oud combinations are like the CK One of the 90s in the United States—an easy scent fixed to the audience’s expectation. In reality though it’s like a Giorgio Beverly Hills or a Poison, where each oud perfume from this new synthetic material should come with warning signs to not wear in confined public spaces such as airplanes, trains, buses or restaurants.

Smells like concepts stored in a knot

The second repeated pattern of perfumes is what I call “Artish”. This is where the perfume bottles are designed by artists, or the bottles are set up artfully, but the interpretation of the fragrance is the usual output (e.g. floral, green, amber mixes). One booth even named each scent by a type of artist, e.g. “painter”, “musician”, “writer”. The writer scent was way too buttoned up by the way, it smelled clean, green and pleasant. Honestly, a writer smells like concepts stored in a knot, which I imagine would not translate neatly into a portable scent.

I did meet some diamonds in the rough landscape that included artisans or artists honestly using scent as a medium of translation. Translating their ideas and questions, creating new ways of perceiving things. One who takes his perspective from the gilded robes of the pope to his own uniquely jeweled perspective on home and body scents. Another who has years of experience exploring consumer perspectives, and who has a highly collaborative creative process for developing his scents. Another who is determined to redirect our noses to the landscape while educating on preservation and returning to our human natures. And lastly, one whose project is a lifetime celebration of a delicate Mediterranean fruit, where an homage to the fruit comes in all different sizes and states of ripeness.

I predict the growing pains from the old guard, new guard and DIY of the niche fragrance landscape will yield exciting results. And despite the disrespect given to self-taught perfumers, I think people will begin to understand and appreciate that if you are self-taught, what’s driving you is the necessity to do it. Nothing more and nothing less. Creativity happens when you break things, when you throw the baby out with the bathwater, and you chart new courses. Art does not come from systemic thinking; it comes from chaos. There will always be conflict in scent, and it’s up to the leaders of this space, makers and consumers to embrace the contradictions. We humans will forever be adamant about story telling with scent in a land of impossible speech.

—About the Author—

Catherine Haley Epstein is an award-winning writer, artist and scent maker based in Portland, Oregon. She has exhibited her work throughout the US and abroad, conducts workshops on the use of scent in creative practices, and advises companies on scent-related projects. Find her essays at MINDMARROW, and in Temporary Art Review. Her artwork and other information can be found at CatherineHaleyEpstein.com.