Conversation with: Saskia Wilson-Brown


Back in December I sat down over Skype and a cup of tea with Saskia Wilson-Brown, founder of the Institute for Art and Olfaction. In 2014 they launched the Art and Olfaction Awards, which I’ve followed keenly from the very beginning, a yearly awards designed to help celebrate excellence in independent and artisan perfumery. This year, apart from the two original categories INDEPENDENT AWARD and the ARTISAN AWARD they’ve now included the SADAKICHI AWARD FOR EXPERIMENTAL SCENT aimed at honoring the work of those who engage with scent outside of the realm of commercial perfumery. The following is a transcript of our talk, which touches upon the benefits to the perfumer of submitting their work in the awards, what the judges look for in a winning composition to the future of the Art and Olfaction Awards.

H2S: I read in your manifesto that the purpose of the IAO is to build public education programs around the olfactory arts; building cross-genre collaborations with experts and the public (love this!); and also (and I contemplated on this quite a bit) that having the IAO in LA provides the motivation to look westward to Asia, southward to Latin America inward to ourselves and upwards to outer space, all important requirements I think for a well-rounded perfumer.  But WHY? What was your personal impulse for starting this journey, what made you think, yeah, LA needs an olfactory school like the IAO?

Saskia Wilson-Brown: Very simple answers with some complicated implications: LA because I live here, and it’s an interesting place. The perception that people have of LA is Beverly Hills, Hollywood… That’s not the LA I know. Los Angeles is really best understood as a Latin American city. It’s extremely sprawling, not exactly pretty, and the extremes are sometimes apparent, the rich are so much flashier and the poor people so much more destitute. But, on the flip side, everyone still has to co-exist in this teeming mass of humanity, this city that’s slightly falling apart. Even though LA has an elite, there is an egalitarian feeling. We’re all on the same freeways, in the same traffic, eating food at the same run-down strip malls. It’s fascinating. For me, LA was an interesting place for this enterprise because it makes even the fanciest people feel slightly disheveled. I see it as somehow contrary to how the perfume world likes to be perceived: The exclusivity, the luxury, the industry secrets, the intransigent divide between the people who make, and the people who buy.

Also, California is a place people come to in order to do something: This creates an openness to ideas, to experimentation, that for various reasons feels strongest on the West Coast of the US. This is an interesting context for the institute. I chose to start he IAO because I wanted to learn, and I couldn’t find a context within which to learn that wouldn’t be wildly interruptive to my life. Selfishly, I wanted to create a structure in which people like me could learn in a way that was more accessible, more relaxed and easy going. My main interest was (and still is) to allow artists and ‘outsiders’ access to the medium, as an arts practice – not as an industry track.

H2S: What do the judges look for in a winning composition?

Saskia Wilson-Brown: The judges have very specific judging parameters, which each judge perforce ends up interpreting in their own way. We try to keep it as specific as possible, however, because we want to make sure it’s fair. The four parameters are:

– FIRST IMPRESSIONS: How do you judge the scent in your first instance of experiencing it? Is it positive? Is it disruptive? Do you like it?

– THE WEAR DOWN: How do you feel about the scent as it evolves?

– THE INTENTIONALITY: This is one that is really important, that demonstrates mastery. If you set an intention to create a scent — for example, Paris in the rain — but you create a scent that has really nothing to do with rain or Paris, well then it shows that you’re not really completely in control of your materials, in a way. Of course, we allow for some degree of interpretiveness, but intentionality is a big one.

– X FACTOR: There’s always going to be a scent that’s, you know, technically not all that great but somehow it grabs you! It has something that’s special even though you can’t quite figure out what it is. This is the point where the judges get to advocate for something they really enjoy.

H2S: Saskia, I’m in my second year of perfume training right now and let me tell you that following a brief has got to be the hardest part of making a perfume!

Saskia Wilson-Brown: Isn’t it, though?! It think that’s a very fair statement. Because you have to know your materials in order to convey the specific idea. And there’s so much interpretation in perfumery – and also on the part of those who are smelling it, people will get what they get out of it. So yeah, it’s extremely hard.

H2S: What are the three biggest benefits for an up-and-coming perfumer to submit their creation and enter the awards? I followed your first year intensely, saw Yosh win and have no idea how her career changed after winning because I thought she was pretty well known even before the Awards.

Saskia Wilson-Brown: To be honest I can’t really answer that, I mean, I have my own philosophical issues with competition, so there’s this part of me that’s like… jeez… Why are we doing this? Why are we putting more competitiveness in a field that’s already so competitive! We decided to do the awards nonetheless, because we thought it would create a space in which to advocate for people who are really unknown, whose work is excellent but weren’t getting seen because maybe their packaging isn’t that great, or maybe they had no budget for marketing, or maybe they are just underground. A person who comes to mind in the first year of the Awards is Amber Jobin, with John Frum (the perfume). Amber is the perfumer for Aether Arts Perfume, a perfumer from Boulder Colorado, and I would say she’s an artisan perfumer to the extreme. Her marketing is low on the gloss factor, she does her own thing, marches to the beat of her own drummer, and I suspect does it mostly for her own pleasure. And, with that, the judges felt that her composition was hands down one of the best. Would she have gotten that much attention without a little push from a panel of people judging the scent completely anonymously, completely divorced from packaging and marketing? I don’t know. She probably would have, eventually: Talent does have a way of rising. But I thought… Well, here’s an example of the awards succeeding at what they were set up for. Bring smaller artisan and independent labels to some sort of prominence, at least within our community. As we gain more reach with time, the impact will also be bigger.

H2S: I see the Art and Olfaction Awards teaming up with Esxence Milan — which is great news for us here in Europe — so, what’s behind the decision?  Why bring the imprint overseas?

Saskia Wilson-Brown: Well, I was raised internationally, and you know, one of the dangers of doing anything in California is that you risk becoming a little provincial. I think that the independent/artisan perfume scene in California and the US is really strong, but I also think it’s important to have a global competition. It think without it you’re not getting a fair assessment of what’s out there, you’re not competing *for real*. So, Dr. Claus Noppeney who’s a professor in Bern, Switzerland actually suggested and initiated the partnership on our behalf. To me it will ensure that the competition does have a global reach and does represent the world of independent perfumery. So it’s strategic in that sense. Also, the team at Esxence is just wonderful. We’re honored that they would consider working with us.

H2S: What do you see as changing in the world of perfumery? (or) What do you see as one of the biggest influencers of change for the perfumer of the future?

Saskia Wilson-Brown: Frankly, the internet! For one you get more access to people in the community, you get access to more and more materials on a smaller scale, you get access to knowledge-sharing environments. But the materials are key: We now have companies selling small amounts of aroma molecules, I don’t imagine this was happening to such a large degree in the past! I mean seriously, can you imagine calling up a multi-national supplier and asking for .5 oz of Ethyl 2 Methyl Butyrate? Like, seriously that would never have happened back in ’92! It’s like what you’re doing with Her Two Scents, you’re sharing information about materials on a very technical level, your impressions, and being open about learning. You wouldn’t have been able to get access to that before.

H2S: Los Angeles!  We all think we know it so well because of T.V. And movies, but to know a city viscerally is to know it by nose, by the smell.  How would you describe the smell of your city to someone completely foreign to it; what 3 notes best represent LA and why?  

Saskia Wilson-Brown: It’s a hard question! Because, well, there are the literal smells of LA which are dry, yet oceanic, there’s a lot of Salvia here, and mainly it’s a dusty, dry city. So in that regard something like Norlimbanol. But the thing about LA that always stuck with me, and this has nothing to do with smell directly but it relates, for example to the feeling you get when you land at LAX that you’ve landed in a 3rd World airport. It’s a mess! Then you get outside the terminal and there’s this dryness in the air, but then you also get buffeted with the smell of the ocean (which is not far from the airport at all). And the first thing you see leaving the airport are all these huge light sculptures in super bright colors. They have all these beautiful lights, outside the terminals, and suddenly … you’re in LA. So to me the smell of LA is the smell of bright colored neons, and this smell is Rhubafuran, to me: A high octane, rhubarb smell. That’s the smell that reminds me of the glamor of LA.

H2S: I thought for sure you were going to pull out a list of naturals, but I was NOT expecting you to give me aroma chemicals!

Saskia Wilson-Brown: Are you kidding me, LA is all about aroma chemicals! If I had to give you naturals only I’d say salvia or cedarwood, cause cedar smells dry to me, but to me it’s all about Norlimbanol, Rhubafuran, Calone… Or any of those intense aroma chemicals.

H2S: Where do you see the Art and Olfaction Awards in 10 years time?

Saskia Wilson- Brown: This year was only our second year [she laughs] but over the course of time I hope these awards will come to mean something. The thing I’m really aiming for is that as we grow our impact and while retaining our sense of humour and relaxed approach. I have zero interest in creating a snobby, exclusionary, red carpet, sort of affair, that’s not what I’m about. So, I’m hoping to keep the sense of community, to take it down a notch and relax.

H2S: You said you started out wanting to learn perfumery. What education element do you find missing for the perfumer wanting to take the leap from hobbyist to professional?

Saskia Wilson-Brown: Wow! So much. Especially here in Los Angeles. I would never consider myself a perfumer because there’s so much technical knowledge that you find a hard time finding access to, and I’m largely self-taught (and still learning!) Again, the internet here is key, but I think that that technical knowledge — you know, regulations – are hard to process. For a lot of perfumers who are starting small and then hoping to expand, there is a sort of leap at some point in terms of your production. I mean, you could make 500 bottles at home, but at some point, you’re going to have to team up with a perfume house. And that leap is one that has not been bridged yet – or at least not in a way that’s helpful or accessible for independent perfumers. But I understand it from the perfume house point of view as well: I’ve had many conversations with Sherri Sebastian and Mike Zarkades at Fragrance West- who are extremely sympathetic to independent perfumers. Sherri, in fact, has her own line (Sebastian Signs) in addition to working with Fragrance West. There are minimums, cost considerations, formulation issues, health and safety issues… A lot could be resolved if perfumers had better understanding of the regulations.

So that’s the biggest challenge I see for small pefumers. I guess surpassing that challenge would represent crossing the bridge from the hobbyist to what the industry perceives as a professional perfumer.

What I’m getting at here is that what’s missing is a systematic structure for sharing international perfume regulations. It could even be a publicly accessible software – a place artisan perfumers could plug in their formulas and red flags pop up: Too much coumarin in your formula. That oak moss will be a problem in Europe. Etc.

In any case, I don’t know if the IAO will be the organization to provide that structure—I barely understand it myself, even with gentle teaching from Sherri Sebastian, Mike Zarkades, Mandy Aftel, Sarah Horowitz-Thran, Brent Leonesio, Josh Meyer, Ashley Eden Kessler and the many other perfumers we’ve worked with. But I do know that if we could help pry open the door to even a fraction of the knowledge base, the only huge challenge that would remain for small perfumers would be in exceeding themselves at the art of making interesting smells (and maybe – in some instances – recognizing how much further they still have to go!) I do know that you need to know the rules, if you want to go big, and you need to know the rules before you can change them.

Heart felt thanks from Her Two Scents to Saskia Wilson-Brown for generously sharing her time and insights for this interview and for giving us indie and artisan perfumers something to aim for in our future.