Sweet smell of you

Celebrity fragrances have dominated the more than $30 billion global fragrance market in recent years as consumers, both male and female, swoon over scents by Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez, Derek Jeter, Sean “Diddy” Combs and all-time best-seller, Elizabeth Taylor.

But a recent study from the research company Euromonitor shows signs of a backlash. Though introductions of celebrity fragrances remain strong (Kim Kardashian, Eva Longoria Parker, Kanye West and Fergie are expected 2010 entrants), consumers are becoming increasingly frustrated by all the celeb scents. Unlike classic perfumes that remain in favor for decades, most celebrity fragrances have a short shelf life, leading to multiple introductions in a small span of time and subsequently, an oversaturated market.

As consumers grow weary of supporting the scents celebrities like, there’s a chance they just may decide to invest in what they like. After all, if Reese Witherspoon can create a scent based on the magnolia tree of her youth, why shouldn’t the average consumer do the same?

Several years ago, Atlanta native Susan Sexton made it her mission to make sure they do. At Blend, Sexton guides clients through the process of building a custom fragrance, based on their likes and lifestyle. “This system was created ... so anyone could come in and make a celebrity fragrance,” Sexton said.

Last fall, even Leonardo DiCaprio popped into a branch of Galimard, the French company that designed the proprietary system used by Sexton and her partner Dottie Cesario, to create a signature scent.

Sexton agreed to walk me through the process, which began with a conversation about my fragrance likes. I confess to being a perfume junkie (last count 20-plus bottles) but my seasonal favorites are For Her by Narciso Rodriguez in warmer months and Angel by Thierry Mugler in cooler climates. Turns out the scents have some overlap. Both feature vanilla, musk and peach, says Sexton, a former advertising executive who spends about 10 days each month at Galimard in Grasse, France, re-energizing her passion for fragrance.

Scent was first used to mask the stench of gloves made from animal hide, Sexton said. It evolved into the current art form practiced by a few talented “noses” who are able to distinguish some 5,000 scents as well as understand the chemistry behind them.

In the studio, I become my own nose, which is a bit literal for someone who was called “ski slope” by grammar school meanies. Sexton insists her role is to serve only as a guide and stop any mistakes before they happen.

My first task is to sniff 14 vials representing the standard fragrance families and choose the one I most prefer. I end up selecting a spicy oriental comparable to Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium (a high school favorite). We also talk about my lifestyle and hometown for clues to other scents I may like.

Next we move to the Organ, a display of 137 essences including classics such as jasmine and bergamot along with more contemporary scents such as bamboo, pomegranate and English Tea.

Composing a scent begins in reverse of the way you smell it. You start with the bass notes, which are the heavier scents that stay with you the longest, then move to the heart, which lasts from two to four hours. This is the perfume’s melody, Sexton said, and the place where a perfume designer can be most creative. Last come the top notes, the essences you smell in the first spritz of a fragrance, which last about 20 to 30 minutes.

Sexton pulls a few likely candidates for my bass notes. I end up selecting Oriental sandalwood, Oriental amber, patchouli and vanilla. Once they are blended in the proper proportions (Sexton decides that part, but I do some pouring), we test it with a scent strip.

To add the heart, Sexton asks me where I want the scent to go. I draw a blank. “Do you like to swim?” she asks. “Nope,” I say, thinking she means in a pool. Turns out she means the ocean, which I love, so we add essences of ocean, along with Lily of the Valley and Ylang Ylang. The ocean notes take the scent in a different, fresher direction, but I like it.

Sexton says it’s time for a break so we head outside to smell the current formula in fresh air. I like it so much, I don’t want to change it, but while Sexton described it as “round,” a term that means it has no rough edges, she also says it isn’t finished. It needs top notes, which proves to be the hardest part of the process. I’m so afraid of destroying what I’ve created that it takes forever for me to choose clove, bergamot fruits and Secret de Parfumeur as the final notes.

In the end, the scent I create smells very much like me. While many people make the mistake of choosing scents that their friends or favorite celebrities wear or rule out a certain class of fragrance they’ve never even tried, the custom process forces you to rely only on what smells good to you, making the end result most likely a winner.

Sexton keeps each client’s formula on file for future tweaks or refills and offers services to couples (think complementary scents like the Beckhams), brides and businesses. With prices ranging from $50 for group events to $500 for a full signature line of scented products (including talc, lotion, aftershave, etc.) the luxury of having your own scent isn’t cheap, but it is well worth it. No one else can own it, and while that might kill J. Lo’s Glow, it makes me feel pretty special.