After playing the field during my teens and early 20s—dallying with all the Ralphs and Hugos and Georgios at my local Macy’s—I finally settled on cologne around the time I met my wife. For the last decade or so, I’ve been a Bulgari Guy. And for a while I figured I’d stay a Bulgari Guy until they stop selling the stuff I like.
My cologne-selection process was not rigorous or scientific. I’d picked up department store samples, smelled them, and gone with one I liked. The Bulgari I chose seem to garner a lot of compliments, my wife dug it when we started dating, and that was that. Like Ed Norton talking about his Ikea sofa in Fight Club, I felt like no matter what else happened, when it came to cologne, at least I had that sliver of my life sorted out.
A recent visit to my hometown in Michigan changed my mind.
When I was a kid, my dad wore a custom fragrance he’d had made after Dunhill stopped producing his favorite scent. During my trip home, I found an empty bottle of his old Dunhill-inspired stuff and, giving it a sniff, I was catapulted back to my youth. Long-dormant memories of family trips and holidays stacked up in my head like spewed playing cards.
I have two young sons of my own now, and I realized the stuff I wear will soon be imprinted on their little psyches and inextricably wrapped up in their childhood memories.
Considering my scent’s significance, the way I went about choosing it seemed too half-assed.
And so now, as I sit in Julia Zangrilli’s Brooklyn perfume studio, sniffing the various wood or amber scents that may become the base notes of my custom-made fragrance, I’m taking the process pretty seriously.
Zangrilli has straight black hair that she wears down, framing her face. Her perfume studio, Nova, occupies the second floor of a 1920s-era Brownstone. All around us, brushed-steel carts and bookshelves are loaded with glass bottles and vials of pellucid liquids. If that makes the space sound like a chemistry lab, it’s not. The room’s parquet floors, original millwork, and abundant wall art make it feel more like a boudoir than a laboratory.
When I’d first taken a seat in front of her glass-topped desk, Zangrilli had said, “Tell me what your intention is for this fragrance.” I must have looked lost, because she’d added, “Are you trying to attract others, or to be more approachable at work? Or is it to help you feel zoned out on the weekends?”
This felt like a question for a guy who would wear different colognes for different occasions, and I told her that wasn’t me. I went into the stuff about my dad’s scent and my own kids, and my hope for cologne I could feel comfortable wearing in any setting—formal or casual.
She’d considered this. “OK, give me some words that describe how you see yourself,” she’d said. “Sporty? Intense? Playful? Laid back?” She had added that I could also throw out words that described my ideal scent. Even if I were shopping for cologne in a department store, she said these sorts of exercises would be helpful. “Once you know your intention and the tone you’re going for, your instincts will have a place to go as you’re smelling,” she said.
Along with my nose, she said I could also follow a cologne’s marketing cues. If I were looking for something cool and fresh, it would probably come packaged in a clear or blue-hued bottle, and its ads would feature men on boats or around water. On the other hand, if the cologne’s ad used brown or gold tones and depicted a guy in a tux, that’s would likely be a richer, warmer scent.
The words I’d come up with were “outdoorsy,” “natural,” “subtle,” and “warm.” Armed with this info, Zangrilli had gone about selecting a dozen or so “base notes” from her shelves. “These are the foundation, or filler,” she explained, adding that we could pick one or combine several.
Now, one after another, she dips small strips of paper into the various bottles she’d chosen and passes them to me across her desk. As she hands them over, she tells me their names. Woody Amber. Cedar Vetiver. Balsamic Smoke.
“Fragrance is an emotional experience,” she says. “Go with your instincts.” If I like something, even a little bit, she tells me to place it on a silver platter sitting in front of me on her desk. If I don’t like it, I should toss it in a small discard bowl.
After half an hour and a dozen different base notes, we end up with an assortment of woods, firs, ambers, and something called “Clary Sage.” This last is an herby scent that I tell Zangrilli reminds me of my grandmother, in a good way.
“Clary Sage was used in a lot of classic colognes and perfumes,” she says, nodding. She suggests we include it as a “warming” note and as an homage to my grandmother.
Once we have these base notes, she secures their strips using a large paper clasp and has me sniff them in combination. Again, I’m instructed to just throw out whatever thoughts come to mind. After a few focused whiffs, I tell her it smells too much like smoke to me. “Like a charred log,” I say.
She pulls out one of the strips, and while I like the resulting scent combination better, I tell her it now smells too formal for me. She clips off part of the Clary Sage strip, explaining that this will tone it down.
When I’m satisfied, we move on to my fragrance’s “middle” and “top” notes. Scents derived from grasses, herbs, flowers, and spices are variously sampled, added, adjusted, and subtracted. Coriander is a keeper, while pink and black peppercorns are deemed too poignant. Petit-Grain—an oil extracted from a kind of orange tree—is an instant hit. I mention that my wife likes Tea Tree-scented products, and Zangrilli goes about mixing some up by diluting pure tea tree oil with alcohol and water.
Eventually, after we’ve homed in on a combination I like, she spends some time on her computer constructing a chemical formula that will assure the components I’ve selected are balanced and harmonious. She then carefully weighs and combines the various oils and plant essences in a small vile, and sprays the result onto my wrist. “Your skin and its natural oils are an ingredient,” she explains. “Something that smells deep or intense on you might smell light on someone else.”
We wait a few minutes for the newly sprayed scent to mellow and mix with my body’s chemistry, but after a few sniffs we decide it smells too “unisex-y.” Zangrilli adds some “rich wood,” which seems to deepen the fragrance while also rounding off its sharper corners. After more tweaking, we finally land on a scent I feel great about. It’s warm and fresh, natural but also cosmopolitan.
“Yeah, I’m really liking this,” Zangrilli says, sniffing the crook of my arm for the fourth or fifth time. “This is nice.”
She mixes a two-ounce portion for me to take home, and I leave Nova’s studio praying that my wife will like my bespoke scent more than my old Bulgari. I’m not optimistic. I’ve been wearing the Bulgari all eight years that we’ve been together, and she’s always told me she loves it.
A few hours and several sniffs later, my wife is hugging me and burying her nose in my chest. “I loooove it,” she says. More hugs and nose-buryings ensue. Hopefully when my kids smell this stuff in 30 years, the memories they have are happy ones.
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