The Art of Scent in Los Angeles

A nonprofit in Los Angeles opens the door on the secretive world of perfuming.

The smells of Los Angeles’ Koreatown—a bustling, crowded, and gritty enclave just east of downtown—aren’t particularly pleasant. K-Town, as Angelenos lovingly call it, conjures odors from loose asphalt, car exhaust, and cigarette smoke from teenagers skateboarding down uneven sidewalks. It’s not exactly a place you’d want to breathe in deeply.

But that’s just what Saskia Wilson-Brown wants visitors to do at her Institute for Art and Olfaction (IAO), a nonprofit located off of Vermont Avenue in K-Town that’s focused on making the art of perfumery accessible to the public. Wilson-Brown thought the area was the perfect contrast to perfume’s entrenched history with luxury, and that basing her institute there could expose a wider audience to the industry.

“The whole point is that we’re open and give access,” says Wilson-Brown. Where perfuming is concerned, “there’s that sense of exclusion, and a sense that some kid from South Central [L.A.] can’t do this. And that’s really endemic to our perception of perfume,” she says.

Wilson-Brown experienced the impenetrable world of perfuming firsthand. A distribution consultant who became disillusioned with working in the film industry, she decided to try perfumery, but had a hard time breaking in.

“I wanted to learn, and I couldn’t learn, and I couldn’t find access,” she says. “It’s an extremely secretive industry. People have their formulas and they keep holding on to those; they don’t share them. I mean, I understand why—it’s a business model; I get it. It’s just a very closed industry.”

It always has been, explains Avery Gilbert, a scent psychologist who consults for the fragrance industry and is on the IAO’s board of advisors.

The roots of modern perfumery can be traced to the Renaissance in Europe. Early perfumers were often members of guilds; their clients were royalty and the wealthy class. “It was kind of an esoteric base of knowledge that was held by very few people, often handed down through families and family businesses,” says Gilbert, who’s also the author of What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

The sheer cost and number of materials required to make perfume also limited access. “The materials were hugely expensive, because, [for example,] you take hundreds of pounds of rose petals to produce a few drops of rose oil and so forth,” says Gilbert. Variables like weather and commerce also affected the quantity and quality of supplies.

The development of organic chemistry in Germany in the 19th century introduced synthesized fragrance molecules—and new aromas—to the industry, and that “changed the face of things,” according to Gilbert. In terms of sourcing materials, synthetics were more reliable and pure than natural ingredients. “Until then, every perfume ingredient had been an actual material [that] either came from barks or flowers or fruits or animals,” he says.

Perfumery then started to grow into a more steady and viable business industry—but “there wasn’t really a do-it-yourself body of knowledge available,” says Gilbert.

Ultimately, the Internet led to a stronger sense of awareness of, and accessibility to, perfuming. “People started dabbling themselves,” says Gilbert, and bloggers wrote about their scent-making trials. “That brought the whole commentary on perfume to a public level. You weren’t just reading about it in the women’s books—in Cosmo[politan] and Vanity Fair, whatever—you were reading about it online, with personal voices.”

But the aspiring perfumer still faces obstacles when it comes to knowing what to buy and how to blend, and “the good materials remain costly,” according to Gilbert. Plus, if a small businessperson wants to sell her product, she must navigate a web of regulations. “It’s a swamp of information,” says Wilson-Brown.

She saw her Institute for Art and Olfaction—which celebrated its two-year anniversary this month—as a way to get materials and information out to everyone at an affordable cost.

The IAO holds about two sessions a week: an open instructive class for beginners, and a less formal group session—dubbed the “Smelly Vials Perfume Club”—for those who feel advanced enough to blend without extra guidance.

The wall of the Institute for Art and Olfaction. Photo by Chau Tu

While the IAO’s students are typically artists of some sort—including individual perfumers, stylists, and designers—from time to time, scientists also enroll in classes. “We’ve gotten quite a few scientists from the [perfume] industry coming through who want to actually make stuff and sort of experience what these molecules actually mean for the ‘artist’—[that is], the perfumer,” says Wilson-Brown. For a chemist in a perfume house, she says, “you’re just massaging molecules all day, and you don’t really have any relation to the end product.”

Kendra Gaeta, a creative business consultant, is the first to show up for the advanced session one day in late November. She’s been attending the IAO since July and says she sees the institute as “an opportunity to access a variety of materials that laypeople would just know nothing about.”

Gaeta is working on a personal collection of scents inspired by her home state of California. “This is the most creatively satisfying thing I do in a week. I love it,” she says.

The Koreatown space is mainly a one-room workshop, with one long metal table lined up against a blackboard wall. A large white cupboard in the corner of the room contains hundreds of tiny vials of liquid scents, with labels featuring familiar names like lavender to the less obvious “benzoylacetate” (which smells like banana flavoring).

Students dive into the cupboard like a treasure trove. “The collection of materials is dizzying,” says Gaeta.

Wilson-Brown sets beginners up with a blank worksheet, droppers, and small plastic cups, while students in the advanced classes might bring boxed kits of materials they’ve curated over time.

And then it often comes down to pure trial and error. Participants are encouraged to mix drops from various vials and take note of each mixture on their worksheets, deciding what they like and don’t like.

“Inherently, perfumery is experimentation,” says Wilson-Brown. “Everybody I know, from people who work in the big houses to beginner perfumers, all work in that way. They just have to experiment.”

IAO participants begin learning how to make fragrances by mixing molecules and compounds, experimenting drop by drop. Photo by Chau Tu

At the most basic level, perfumes are mixtures of aromatic compounds, originating from plant, animal, or petroleum bases, according to Ashley Eden Kessler, who just finished a perfume residency at the IAO (she points out that animal products have been widely replaced by synthetic reconstitutions). They’re often diluted with ethanol and water to control the strength of the smell. Eau du parfums, for example, are the least diluted; fragrance molecules compose roughly 18-25 percent of the mixture. Eau de toilettes range from 10-15 percent dilution, and eau de cologne from 6-8 percent. But “there is no absolute industry standard,” Kessler writes in an email.

Traditionally, perfumers build their fragrances to contain three levels, or “notes”: top, middle, and base. The top note usually hits the nose first, but the scent generally doesn’t last very long because its constituent molecules evaporate quickly; an example of that might be menthol. Middle notes—rose is one—aren’t necessarily sensed right away but linger longer than top notes. Finally, a base note, such as vanilla, will last the longest in a fragrance.

More experienced students at the IAO learn to combine various notes to create accords, which are blends of molecules that produce a unique olfactory effect. “It’s kind of like a chord in music made up of different single notes,” Christina Agapakis, a biologist at Ginkgo Bioworks (a company that uses bioengineering to make perfume ingredients), writes in an email. For instance, one accord might summon the smell of jasmine, even though it’s composed of several different aromatic compounds.

Once students develop accords, they can draw on them for future scents. “It’s sort of like a fluency in the materials,” says Wilson-Brown.

Participants during a Smelly Vials Perfume club session at the IAO in November. Photo by Saskia Wilson-Brown

Aside from offering hands-on courses, the IAO also collaborates periodically on art installations with other groups. One recent project with the local Hammer Museum entailed recreating an early 20th-century art performance by an art critic named Sadakichi Hartmann, who attempted to use scents to evoke a trip from New York to Kyoto. (Watch the SciFri video above for more on the installation.)

“We sort of took his structure and reinterpreted it,” says Wilson-Brown. The updated version invited audiences on an imaginary journey from L.A. to Tokyo, releasing smells reminiscent of various steps along the way, such as a ride to the airport on the SuperShuttle.

While the ethos at the IAO is artistic, Wilson-Brown has recently started incorporating science-based lectures into its offerings. “A big challenge and a big goal is to incorporate as much science as we possibly can,” she says, because such information can be hard to parse for a layperson. The first of those lectures—taught by Agapakis, about the biochemistry of scent—took place this month to a sold out crowd.

“For me, the science is a really important part of understanding and appreciating fragrance,” writes Agapakis. “I think knowing about how plants have evolved to produce so many different molecules, how their enzymes work, and how we can extract and synthesize new scents is really fascinating and adds an interesting dimension to the experience of smelling the perfume.”

It’s groundbreaking to have a perfume institute that’s far from the usual fragrance centers such as those in New York City and Paris, says Gilbert, the scent psychologist. “I like that it’s getting out there,” he says, “and there’s a lot of creative people in Southern California.”

Wilson-Brown couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I ask her what Los Angeles smells like to her.

“There’s all this natural salvia,” she says. “There’s a lot of greenery despite the dryness. But it’s dusty.” An aroma called Texas cedar captures the odor of concrete, she muses, and a scent called cade elicits the city’s burnt undertones. The air, meanwhile, carries a marine note, and the city’s neon lights are evocative of rhubarb.

She smiles affectionately. “L.A. actually smells amazing.”


With additional reporting by Julie Leibach

This article was updated on March 12, 2015 to reflect the following change: The company Ginkgo Bioworks mostly makes perfume ingredients, not full perfumes, as originally stated. 

Meet the Writer

About Chau Tu

Chau Tu is an associate editor at Slate Plus. She was formerly Science Friday’s story producer/reporter.