An Olfactory Artist Makes Truly Personalized Perfumes And Fragrances

Of all the senses, smell is perhaps the most mysterious. Experienced in the present, yet indelibly connected to our past, it is as timeless as it is ephemeral. Imagine a perfume specifically designed by a master perfumer to conjure up your favorite memories—be they an evening walk among blooming jasmine, a bitter coffee your father favored, or all of the above.

“To have a custom perfume made is a true luxury and ultimate pleasure,” says Brooklyn-based bespoke perfumer and olfactory artist Marissa Zappas. “It is my job to take pleasure seriously.” A classically trained dancer with a master’s degree in anthropology, she followed her lifelong obsession with perfume to study under renowned perfumer Olivier Gillotin of Givaudan (Polo Red, Tobacco Vanille, Higher) in New York. “There’s something really valuable in the knowledge and wisdom that gets passed down,” she says. Zappas credits Gillotin for teaching her that for a perfumer, scents are memories. “There is something profound about seeing one’s self reflected in art, especially when that art is evocative of spirit, is invisible, and encapsulates the most important memories of a lifetime.”

Marissa Zappas in her Brooklyn laboratory
Marissa Zappas in her Brooklyn laboratory.

It’s a sentiment that has roots in the 18th century, when personal perfumers were de rigueur at Versailles, and were responsible for scenting wigs, garters, and gloves, as well as the décolletage. The relationships formed were sacred, and fragrance formulations kept under lock and key.

“I want to bring back this highly personalized and intimate approach to fragrance in 2021 where commercial fragrances are dominant and often redundant,” Zappas says. The California native brings her highly tailored approach to both men and women, and also to the home: Room sprays and oil blends for cold-air diffusers are on the bespoke menu as well.

Oil blends for cold-air diffusers.
Oil blends for cold-air diffusers

Over the course of a commission with her, the client is intimately involved in the creative process, which Zappas describes as being “satisfying, beautiful, and personal.” “One of the many definitions of perfume is [that] it’s something to be forgotten, and then remembered,” Zappas says. As a modern-day memory finder, Zappas gently prods each client’s unique scent memories to construct a personalized narrative composed of diverse aromas. “I become attached to each perfume and each person throughout this process, because you really learn a lot about people hearing their scent memories,” she says.

One of her clients had dear memories of growing up riding horses in Pennsylvania, so Zappas included notes of hay and soft leather, as well as some classic animalic notes. She also had nostalgia for Choward’s Violet candies, so Zappas centered the perfume on a sweet Parma violet accord (from Parma, Italy). “There are ways of constructing and tailoring a fragrance very specifically and thoughtfully to an individual, and this, as well as getting to know them in the process, is my favorite part,” she says. In this case, the final perfume had a soft musk and leather base, a Parma violet heart (the main body of the fragrance), and some ethereal top notes. The client, a writer/director, loved the final creation, which arrived in an Italian white painted glass bottle. “I could literally smell how much you care about what you do!” she texted Zappas.

“I understand my clients’ scent preferences, which can be difficult because there’s no language for smell,” Zappas explains. “We use more subjective words to describe scent, like tastes and emotions.”

Zappas’ process goes even deeper than learning a client’s favorite fragrances. Her subsequent questions delve into intention, emotion, and practicality. Then, working from her Brooklyn laboratory, she creates the first tester, or “mod.” Working from feedback with two or three additional mods, Zappas concocts the final product: a perfume that is an entirely unique fragrance, just like those made for Marie Antoinette in Versailles’ la cour parfumée. “Each client owns their formula, so I cannot reproduce it” for anyone else, she says. Ever.

Among the custom offerings are room sprays, fragrances for men and women
Among the custom offerings are room sprays, fragrances for men and women.

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