A few days ago I discovered something new about smell — something that is helping to inform the way I compose bespoke and signature fragrances. I realised that a scent is not something that can ever stand alone.

There are three attributes to a scent. First, the scent’s actual smell. Second, where it comes from — what emits the odoriferous notes. Third, the receiver of the scent — when an environmental smell or a scent that has been applied to the skin reaches a person taking in a breath of air.

Recognising these three attributes foregrounds the ongoing interplay between who we perceive ourselves to be and how observers perceive us to be. A concept I’ve been passionately researching in the realm of scent is individuation. The principle of individuation “describes the manner in which a thing is identified as distinguished from other things”.

The concept has been applied in philosophy (Nietzsche), psychology (Freud and Jung) and, increasingly, even in modern marketing. Think of Coca-Cola’s “share” campaign in which we see Dan have his very own printed bottle, or Chloe, or Lerato. I have a friend who owns an advertising agency and used his wife’s name: Tab! In modern medicine, when couples marry, they are encouraged to meet with a genetic counsellor to get the lay of their DNA land as it collides.

The closest we’ve come to the world of fashion and individuation colliding is in the bygone era of bespoke Savile Row tailors. Your suit perfectly stitched to accommodate long arms or broad shoulders, and your pockets seamed to fit your lifestyle. In the beauty industry — and fragrance within that — perfumers are champing at the bit to offer distinct personalised fragrances. A way to solve the scentmaker’s creative puzzle of another person’s skin — using individual answers, rather than marketing statistics, or focus group decisions.

A scent for the individual
Imagine a world where the “X-factor” we want to express need not be muted by the powdery sweetness of needing to be so many things to so many people. The introduction of technology is ushering in mass customisation, but somehow the algorithms and the research parameters must also take account of real individuation — because we are human.

There has to be something in the personalised that is more than just “mass customisation” that satisfies us. So I can advise a private bespoke client who definitively wants to find their perfectly matched scent for their skin type, personality, wardrobe and lifestyle.

One of my clients, however, was far more interested in an off-the-shelf perfume product because she knows herself so well that she would never commit to one single scent. I found her an interesting case study and mused  on how I would tackle such a client, should she embark on the signature fragrance journey with me.

I think the crux of it is that we are all searching for meaning, in everyday things. We want to live more consciously, no matter our age, with more thought that goes into what we receive, who we are, and what we emit. And by feeling that we are being spoken to in a personal way, by having something customised for us and being able to express ourselves, it makes us heard, and we feel that we are understood.

Tammy Frazer wrote a weekly column for the Mail & Guardian. These are her words.

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