A Journey Through Scent

Explore five fragrances featured in an immersive exhibition, which allows you to see, hear and feel scents from pioneering perfumers

© Laziz Hamani

The Japanese tradition of todo – translating to ‘the way of fragrance’ – has for centuries encouraged an unusual interchange: to listen to smell. Of the other senses, as early as 1928, the scientist and surface physicist H. Devaux had ‘The First Photographs of Smell’ published as a visualisation of camphor and lily. Now, an exhibition at London’s Somerset House, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, invites audiences to take part in an olfactory journey allowing you to see, hear and feel scents.

In the East Wing Galleries, installations in this exhibition highlight ten pioneering perfumers and a respective fragrance from each, drawing on their inspirations and core ideas. Carefully chosen by coordinators Claire Catterall, senior curator at Somerset House, and fragrance writer Lizzie Ostrom, these scents have been much celebrated over the past two decades. Here, we look at five fragrances featured in the show. 

Comme des Garçons 2 – Mark Buxton

After entering perfumery through an unusual route (a game show) Derby-born perfumer Mark Buxton has established himself as a leader in creating iconoclastic fragrance. His 1999 scent Comme des Garçons 2 is one of these. Intended to capture the smell of Japanese calligraphy ink, called sumi, and counterbalanced with more natural notes including magnolia and cedarwood, Buxton’s eau de parfum would become a signature scent for Rei Kawakubo’s fashion label.

© Kim Keever, Courtesy Waterhouse & Dodd

Dark Ride – Killian Wells

In 2015, perfumer Killian Wells modelled a scent on a commonplace smell: chlorinated water. In doing so, he created a fragrance for Los Angeles-based perfumery Xyrena that would be underscored by hints of mildew that nodded at one of its original inspirations, the Pirates of the Caribbean log flume. Dark Ride – a sensory simulation of a water theme park – was born.

L’Air du Désert Marocain – Andy Tauer

Cumin, coriander, petitgrain, rock rose, jasmine. These are the notes at the centre of Swiss perfumer Andy Tauer’s L’Air du Désert Marocain, developed in 2005 for Tauer perfumes. Thinking fondly of a night in Marrakech, Morroco, Tauer imagined this unisex eau de toilette as something that resonated with the Sahara Desert – dry and heady.

Iris © Givaudan

 Charcoal – Lyn Harris

Placing importance on raw materials and sourcing her ingredients from places including the Island of Reunion and Haiti, British perfumer Lyn Harris developed her 2016 fragrance, Charcoal, with the earth in mind. A training background in the traditional methods of perfume making, Harris, founder of fragrance atelier Perfumer H, matches notes of cade with juniper, patchouli and frankincense, to name a few. The result is a composition remnant of hot smoke and time spent in Scotland with her grandfather.

Molecule 01 – Geza Schoen

In Geza Schoen’s Molecule 01 is focused on a single aroma-molecule, called Iso E Super. The success of the fragrance – launched in 2007 for the Berlin-based perfumer’s label Escentric Molecules – has been its ability not to dominate its wearer but to meld with their natural pheromones, taking on its own identity. Simple in its make-up and widely known for its subtly, Molecule 01 is defiantly contemporary. 

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is on show at Somerset House until 23 September

Radical Fragrance

For Geza Schoen, founder of the cult fragrance label Escentric Molecules, blurring the boundaries between art and chemistry is key to innovation

Geza Schoen, the 48-year-old German founder of the cult fragrance label Escentric Molecules, does not talk much like a traditional perfumer. He dispenses with the airy, time-worn Proustian associations when describing scents, preferring to talk about the molecular components instead, and sounding more like a chemist in the process. One in particular, an aroma chemical called Iso E Super – which was developed in a laboratory in 1973 and appears in the background of many great perfumes – would become the genesis of the minimalist Escentric 01 and Molecule 01: fragrances launched by Schoen in 2006. “When I smelled Iso E Super for the first time I noticed why I had preferences for certain fragrances: they all contained a big chunk of it,” exclaims Schoen, who recalls giving the scent to a friend to wear in the 1990s that resulted in women chasing him down the street. “That’s when I realised it had a super power.”

Schoen’s idea was to propose two fragrances in homage: one with an unprecedented 65 per cent of the molecule blended with a handful of other notes, and the second even more radical interpretation to contain only the molecule in its purest form. Though his unique proposition was initially met with resistance, it soon became a word-of-mouth phenomenon on account of its animalic, woody, velvety and sensual qualities. “Molecule 01 is to perfume what Bauhaus is to Baroque,” says Schoen of his decision to challenge the traditional scent paradigm of combining synthetics with natural products, by simplifying the process to just one ingredient. “I wanted something cleaner.” 

Schoen has made a habit of always thinking outside the box, saying, “For me it’s natural to do things differently.” Born and raised in Kassel to parents who were both teachers, Schoen’s fascination with smell began when he was a teenager; he would get samples of perfume in the post, writing to fragrance companies asking them to send him their wares. By the age of 16, he could identify hundreds of different perfumes. “The sense of smell is still the most important sense we have, and the most fascinating.” Starting out training and working at the international fragrance manufacturers Haarmann & Reimer (now Symrise) for 12 years, he left after becoming disillusioned with how corporate the industry had become. He moved to London in 2001 to create a scent, Wode, for the London design duo, Boudicca.

The fragrance came in two versions: Scent and Paint, with the latter packaged in a silver spray-paint can that doused the wearer in a deep blue pigment similar to that which the ancient British queen, Boudicca, wore into battle. This was the start of a number of esoteric projects Schoen has worked on that push the boundaries of what can be achieved with fragrance, like Paper Passion – a scent that smells like a Steidl book and comes packaged in one. He has also conceived a series of fragrances made in tribute to smart women called ‘The Beautiful Mind’, and worked with artists such as Wolfgang Georgsdorf, for whom he made 64 odours for Smeller – an ‘olfactory organ’ that spectators can play like a piano to make aromascapes. 

But it’s with Escentric Molecules that the fullest expression of his scent philosophy remains, that of stripping things back “so that it’s very plain and very linear but it still smells great”. With its minimal packaging and unisex fragrances, Escentric Molecules is a modern concept that resonates with the times. “I think gendered fragrances are outdated,” he declares. “These days, people are changing their fragrances as often as they would change their jeans or their sneakers.” While scent 02 starred ambroxan (a key ingredient of ambergris), and for 03 the centrepiece was vetiver, Schoen recently launched series 04 with the sheer sandalwood molecule Javanol at its heart. He speaks of its “psychedelic freshness, as if liquid metal grapefruit peel was poured over a bed of velvety cream-coloured roses.” He amplified the fizzy grapefruit top notes in Escentric 04 with pink pepper and juniper, for an extra shot of freshness with a rose core, and base notes of balsamic ingredients. According to Schoen, using Javanol was challenging because “more than any other chemical I’ve used before, it gave direction to where the fragrance had to develop into.”

More than 10 years since launching his brand, Schoen is still enjoying playing at the boundaries between art and chemistry. “It wasn’t really my goal to change the perfume world,” he says. “I just wanted to make a fragrance for myself and my friends to wear.”

The Escentric Molecules 04 collection launches 25 April 2017

This article is taken from Port issue 20. To subscribe, click here.

Lead photography by Giles Revell