March 12th: My first meeting with Kilian Hennessy, heir to the long line of Cognac makers, grandson to the founder of the LVMH group, and perfumer since 2007, is a sensual therapy session. I’m seated on a black velvet divan in his Art Deco boutique on Washington Street, answering questions as rapidly as he fields them. What do I remember about my first perfume? What smells do I find addictive? How do they make me feel physically and emotionally? He scribbles in his leather-bound notebook after each reply.
We’re not unearthing the scent of memories from my subconscious for nothing. Kilian is using the intel he gathers today—the first of four sessions—to craft a unique, made-to-measure fragrance, just for me.
“Perfume is a strong element of identity,” he tells me. “It says who you are.” But at $35,000, the price tag alone makes me want to lie down on the couch. What started as a request from long-time clients has grown into an incredibly expensive, completely custom endeavor that can take up to four or five months. During that time, Kilian consults with several different perfumers with niche specialties, from masculine scents to flowers. He keeps over 200 notes in his Paris lab, and like a mad scientist, goes through dozens to determine which he believes will work for my new signature perfume.
It’s a collaborative effort, and one that requires trial and error to determine what the customer really wants. “Very often, because we don’t have a common vocabulary amongst individuals to describe a scent, words have a poor meaning or sometimes the wrong meaning,” Kilian explains. “My work is to translate these words into ingredients that I know you will like.” Because of the huge time commitment, he can only take on four bespoke fragrance clients per year.
April 17th: Entering Kilian’s boutique one month later, I see a bottle of Calyx, my favorite perfume, sitting beside 19 mini apothecary bottles, each labeled with typewritten letters. “I brought everything we talked about,” he says as we sit down. He opens the first bottle, dips an elongated stick inside and hands it to me. I inhale deeply. It’s honeysuckle, sweet and familiar. Next up is crisp, clean grapefruit. I wonder if I’ll get points for being able to decipher each scent.
He asks me to put the two sticks together to gauge my reaction—the blending session has begun. “What we’re creating is a melody, a harmony of smells,” Kilian says. “I’m interested in inventing an emotion for you. There’s no right or wrong answer.” Yet nothing is striking an immediate emotional cord. While every scent here is one I mentioned as pleasing, refreshing, or alluring to me during our last session, I’m almost surprised that I’m not having a strong positive reaction to each of the vials. Lotus is too light and powdery. Key lime, too tart. Rose somehow smells like marijuana, but freesia and gardenia are both soothing. After the fourteenth sample I’m dizzy and a little frustrated. Nothing is shouting, “this is me!”
As we eliminate the no’s—magnolia, rose, blood orange—Kilian explains his process.
“A great perfume is always a careful blend of natural essential oils and synthetic ingredients. These scents exist in nature, but not in oils—we have to replicate them. The magnolia is an example of a flower with a scent we can’t extract through the classic processes. We use a technology called Headspace to recompose the scent through the analysis of all the molecule odorants released by the flower.”
I learn top notes can stay for two minutes on your skin while hard notes can last five hours. After the winning scents are blended, our next goal will be to see how the perfume wears: What evaporates, what clings to me, and if I like the way they smell on both my skin and my clothing.
June 23rd: My third session is a quick one—just 15 minutes. Kilian has six bottles, each containing a scent he’s created based on what I liked last time around. Bottles one through five are the oils he’s replicated (grapefruit, freesia, honeysuckle, gardenia, and orange). The most interesting and my favorite is bottle number six, labeled BD 6/8: lily of the valley accord with cyclamen, rose, freesia, and grapefruit. It’s beautiful and original, yet familiar. This is what will be tweaked to become the final product.
“I worked first on your base, which is the main scent you will feel comfortable wearing—a general impression of the olfactory cloud you would like to wear,” Kilian explains. “It’s really a scented version of you: classic and elegant, crisp and intense, but it also offers a soft side.”
I take the bottles with me and for the next two weeks I wear each fragrance for two or three days, testing to see how long the notes stay on me, and if their intensity is strong enough. When I report back, we find that I like stronger scents than Kilian initially thought.
July 15th: The next batch of bottles arrives in the mail. Five more options, each a slight variation on the blend in BD 6/8. I’m able to sort through them quickly, with Goldilocks-like precision: This one is too flowery; this one much too strong. This one is too light, but this one doesn’t last long enough. One of them, though, is just right.
August 14th: I enter the boutique for my final meeting with Kilian, anxious to see what he’s concocted yet worried that I might not like it—there is no “do over” with an experience this custom. He hands me a bottle of my personalized perfume. It comes with a crystal carafe handmade by Saint Louis, and a signature Kilian black lacquer box containing six perfume flacons, two travel sprays, and a refillable flacon with a personalized, engraved gold plaque. We’ve branded mine A. Lux, a play on Alix, my name.
“I added grapefruit for the top notes for a feeling of freshness. Gardenia is present as is a touch of freesia,” he says. “The rest of the oils are built on floral and transparent notes, which are fresh and bring light and movement to a composition.”
I spray the final product on my wrist and clothing and am intoxicated by the scent of everything I love, distilled. It’s decadent and rich—a crisp, liquid interpretation of several flowers. Knowing that no one else in the world has this fragrance, I feel full of possibilities.
He tells me the idea is to build new memories with this perfume. “It’s also the perfect companion and shield. It acts as a weapon of seduction,” he says. “Having an olfactory identity that’s unique to you, that no one else will ever have, that no matter where you go in the world people smell that scent and know that it only belongs to you, is the greatest luxury ever.”
Image Credit: Courtesy Kilian Hennessy