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The Uncommon Perfumers

By Renée Batchelor

Maison 21G displays the individual scents that can either be worn individually or blended together to create a customised scent in the brand’s scent workshops.
 
Courtesy of Maison 21G
Maison 21G displays the individual scents that can either be worn individually or blended together to create a customised scent in the brand’s scent workshops.

The act of perfuming is one of the most personal steps in any grooming ritual. Dropped, rubbed on or sprayed against the skin, perfume is both ephemeral and everlasting. Similarly, our reaction to scents is always instinctual. Beyond the pretty bottles and advertising campaigns, a scent either resonates with an individual or it doesn’t. It’s the reason that many of us return to the same fragrances and even seek out discontinued ones that we have formed an attachment to. Perfume is a comforter, mood-lifter and individual signature all at once.

When it comes to the art of fragrance, perfumers have begun to explore new ways of doing things. Gone are the days where smell-a-like scents, boasting the usual fruity-floral notes would sell simply based on an advertising campaign or celebrity spokesperson. As consumers become increasingly sophisticated and discerning, they demand more unique scent compositions, unconventional notes and even the prerogative to create their own bespoke fragrances. Beyond that, the idea of exploring the sense of smell — and even combining it with the other senses like touch and sight — is pushing the perimeters of what a fragrance can and should be able to do.

The Cult Perfumery

Katherine Ang. Styled by Gregory WooClockwise from top left: D.S. & Durga scents in Amber Teutonic, candle in Big Sur After Rain, I Don’t Know What, Radio Bombay and Cowboy Grass.
Clockwise from top left: D.S. & Durga scents in Amber Teutonic, candle in Big Sur After Rain, I Don’t Know What, Radio Bombay and Cowboy Grass.

The idea of a cult perfumery is not new, but as the numbers of boutique fragrance brands increase, so does the need for greater differentiation in the market. The Brooklyn-based brand D.S. & Durga brings a unique point of view thanks to the unconventional approach by its co-founders, a husband-and-wife team. Kavi Moltz, a trained architect, is in charge of the visual language of the brand, while David Moltz, who is also a musician and artist, is the perfumer. First, the brand focuses on its shelf (and Instagram) appeal, using clean labels and eye-pleasing typography on sleek, minimalist fragrance bottles as well as whimsical drawings on its candles. The brand also takes inspiration from a host of quirky and varied reference points like albums, literature, locations and even strangely specific but familiar scenarios, like the candle Concrete After Lightning, which captures the smell of pavement after the rain.

Next, the brand offers out-of-the-box fragrance concepts. Though David is not trained in perfumery, part of the brand’s charm is his unconventional nose and unusual compositions. Standout scents include Coriander — which captures the love-it-or-hate-it appeal of the herb and Mississippi Medicine — a blend of various woods and aldehydes inspired by Native American tribal rituals. David started tinkering with different scents and according to Kavi, a lot of what he does, beyond having a good nose, is merely practising and research. She also credits his obsessive personality for nailing the kind of outré scents the brand is particularly known for. On the earlier scents, Kavi says, “They’re a little bit more rustic, a little bit more extreme... and kind of crazy at times. And then, as [the brand] grew, we wanted to round out the collection and make things that were for a broader audience with more universal fragrances.” She also says that some customers are simply drawn to the names of its scents. “I do think a few of our fragrances sell just because of the names, like Mississippi Medicine or Burning Barbershop or Cowboy Grass.”

Courtesy of D.S. & DurgaLeft: Co-founder Kavi Moltz, a trained architect, is in charge of the visual aspects of the brand. Right: David Moltz, the brand’s perfumer, is not formally trained but has learned perfumery through his own practicing and research.
Left: Co-founder Kavi Moltz, a trained architect, is in charge of the visual aspects of the brand. Right: David Moltz, the brand’s perfumer, is not formally trained but has learned perfumery through his own practicing and research.

Kavi is proud that the brand is both perfumer- and designer- owned, pointing out that this is not common in many brands which usually get larger fragrance houses to “create” their scents on the side. Everything is done in-house, with the scents formulated in Brooklyn by David, and then bottled in the Bronx. “Some of the benefits of a small perfumery is that we can do things on our own schedule — we don’t have to launch a scent unless we feel it’s ready. And we only put out things when we feel like we’ve perfected, tested and are happy with it,” says Kavi. And while it has been around since 2007 and grown a following, D.S. & Durga is still finding a new audience. “We offer that sense of discovery of finding something that is unique and not so commercial. Our customer is someone who is looking for something different.”

The Woman Who Paints With Fragrances

The first time we saw Joa Kim’s fragrances we also smelled them. Large abstract pieces painted with acrylic paints, these “release” an embedded scent when they are lightly rubbed. Kim, a senior perfumer at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), is based in Singapore. Her foray into scented paintings was kind of a natural progression. “I have been a perfumer for more than 20 years. As part of my creative process, I naturally imagine scent as a visual field in various ways. It’s also how I think through the thousands of ingredients when I create a fragrance. Over the past few years, I started painting as a hobby. One morning, I was overcome with a strong feeling and imagination of scent while I was colouring my painting. At that moment, my curiosity was piqued as to how I could combine fragrance and visuals together,” says Kim.

Courtesy of Joa Kim“Pool with Her” (2019) has notes of swimming pool, ozone and marine.
“Pool with Her” (2019) has notes of swimming pool, ozone and marine.

Kim’s process is innovative, thanks to her access to raw materials and inherent knowledge on the composition of ingredients. “Once my curiosity started, I began to use raw materials, inserting them directly into the colour pigment. This was followed by many experiments, mistakes, and tries. Interestingly, the three main components of perfume are oil, water and alcohol. This is exactly the same as paints. They have interesting behaviours when they meet each other, and I manipulate this on the canvas,” says Kim. Her experimentation led her to realising that as the fragrance evaporated, so did the scent embedded in her paintings. “Even though I use ‘bigger’ molecules and materials like musk, wood and amber, I found that it would only last six months. With further experimentation, I began to use a novel IFF technology that captures fragrance for an extended duration that can only be activated by a gentle touch.”

Courtesy of Joa KimLeft: Joa Kim’s paintings each come with a customised scent. “Circle - Euphoria” (2019) is scented with rose, hashish, patchouli and spices. Right: “Circle - Shavasana” (2019) has a scent created from mandarin, tuberose and sandalwood.
Left: Joa Kim’s paintings each come with a customised scent. “Circle - Euphoria” (2019) is scented with rose, hashish, patchouli and spices. Right: “Circle - Shavasana” (2019) has a scent created from mandarin, tuberose and sandalwood.

After many trials, she finally succeeded in 2019 — her paintings can now last years if they are preserved in a good condition. However, Kim does not plan to sell them at the moment. The best way to experience these scented paintings? “Enjoy the painting as it is and get closer and closer to it visually. Then, gently touch the surface with a handkerchief. Finally, go back and see the painting while smelling the handkerchief, combining the visual field with that of scent. It’s an amazing experience,” she says. Not only are the paintings created and conceptualised by her, the scents are as well. She does not use readymade or existing scents but creates completely new ones. So involved and intertwined are the visual and olfactory aspects of her artistic process that she is also unable to consciously separate which part starts first. “This is an intensively intuitive and emotional process. It’s interesting that you asked which one comes first. Honestly, I don’t know,” says Kim.

The Bespoke Perfume Store

Maison 21G is a labour of love of its founder and CEO Johanna Monange. Tucked away in a shophouse in Duxton Hill, the store offers bespoke perfumery workshops as well as the customisation of scents, using cutting-edge technology to dispense and blend these creations. The store has a machine called “La Source” that dispenses pre-crafted capsules into perfume bottles with exacting precision in under 30 seconds, thus making bespoke perfumery accessible to the perfume-loving public. “We worked very hard on this revolutionary machine with Singapore Polytechnic and Flex International for over three years. La Source is created and patented by Maison 21G and there is no other brand on the market that currently makes bespoke fragrances on demand in such a technologically advanced, yet simple manner,” says Monange.

Courtesy of Maison 21GMaison 21G displays the individual scents that can either be worn individually or blended together to create a customised scent in the brand’s scent workshops.
Maison 21G displays the individual scents that can either be worn individually or blended together to create a customised scent in the brand’s scent workshops.

Monange, a French-born former perfumer, worked previously at IFF and Firmenich and has over 20 years of experience in perfumery. After years of creating perfumes for other houses, many of which failed to excite her, she dreamt of bringing the lab experience of perfumery to the consumer. She explains that the name for her store comes from the popular belief that the soul weighs 21 grams. “I want to revive perfumery by bringing the soul it has long needed back into the scents we create through an immersive experience. Customers can develop their fragrances for any different mood or intimate desire they may have without being afraid to let loose and explore. Developing your very own perfume should be expressive, informative and evoke discussion amongst friends.” The store has since expanded to a second outlet in Sydney.

Those who seek a hands-on experience can book an in-store workshop where they can smell various notes in person and be guided on how to blend them. Each note is dropped in by pipette and weighed according to advised proportions in a formula created by the experts at Maison 21G. All the individual notes are not raw ingredients per se, but rather a simple blend created around a note, like ginger or vanilla, that has been crafted by various perfumers who were commissioned by Monange. “Pure, natural ingredients are like human beings, they are beautiful but they have a lot of faults. I need the perfumers to make it beautiful so it’s true to nature, as the essential oils are a bit crude,” says Monange. While the scents created can sometimes be a bit intense depending on the notes you’ve selected, Monange insists that there are no wrong or bad blends as everything has been designed to mix together. Sometimes, it is a matter of adjusting the proportions. The small bottle sizes of 25ml also means that once you’ve finished the first bottle, you can continue refining your creation over time. After blending their fragrance, customers can then have the name of their creation printed on a label in store, with their formulas saved should they wish to repurchase them.

Courtesy of Maison 21GBell jars on display invite visitors to sample the fragrance blends.
Bell jars on display invite visitors to sample the fragrance blends.

Those who want to buy their scents online can also take a personality and scent test to select their preferences, based on parameters like gender, scent family and mood. The fragrances can then be formulated for them by Maison 21G and shipped, or they can choose to buy readymade solo scents like Almond Absolute and Cannabis Cloud that are exclusive to the brand. The most surprising thing about Maison 21G is the price point, with a small 25ml bottle retailing for just $80. “The industry is selling perfumes at far too expensive prices. I have cut the intermediaries and have taken the creation of the nose and given it straight to you,” says Monange.