On a drizzly April evening in Los Angeles, the Institute for Art and Olfaction hosted its first Annual Awards ceremony, bringing together a diverse crowd to honor excellence, innovation, and creativity within a world of perfumery that thrives beyond the confines of the industry. Held at the Goethe-Institut, the sold-out event united independent and artisanal perfumers from around the globe for an evening that, rather than simply dishing out congratulatory honors, spoke to notions of community, interdisciplinarity, and the sharing of knowledge. As founder and executive director Saskia Wilson-Brown made clear, this event was “less about competition and more about curation”—a way to “shine the spotlight on independent and artisan perfumery’s most outstanding creators.” Yet, implicit within the event was the inadvertent and tacit validation of the Institute’s own fruitful efficacy.
Entry Banner (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Formed in October 2012, the Institute for Art and Olfaction was devised with convergence and cultural programming in mind—a way to explore the role and purpose of perfumery “within the context of the broader contemporary arts landscape.” Since that time, the Institute has helped to expand the world of perfumery far beyond the realm of business and mass-market production, adopting creative expression as a means to build critical bridges between cultural, historical, anthropological, and scientific research.
Saskia Wilson-Brown at the Institute's Workspace (image courtesy of the IAO)
In a town that’s no stranger to glitzy, grandiose award ceremonies, the Art and Olfaction Awards curtailed any pretension through an irreverent light-heartedness. The atmosphere was amiable, and an on-stage drummer who issued drum rolls for each award presented rendered the ceremony playful. Furthermore, the award itself was that of a quirky golden pear—the design pitched perfectly between elegant and hilarious. As perfumer, Sarah Horowitz-Thran would later note, this was probably the first time in the city’s history of award ceremonies in which “when someone asks you what you’re wearing, they don’t mean your outfit.” With nineteen finalists and just four awards given, the competition was tight, yet geniality reigned throughout. It was as if that tired platitude, “everyone’s a winner,” was granted real legitimacy by design.
The Golden Pears (image courtesy of the IAO)
With award categories split between “Independent” and “Artisan,” the Institute provided a helpful delineation to guide submissions. The independent category reflected smaller, privately held companies in which a central figure—the perfumer or creative director—played a crucial and largely hands-on role. Conversely, the artisan category pertained to companies helmed by the perfumer, in which they handled all production, marketing, and general labor alone. Whereas the independent entry might see wider distribution and a larger production, the artisan entry was designated as an autonomous affair. Despite this difference, both categories carried the same refrain: that creative, expressive perfumery is alive and well outside of the precincts of the corporate world of mass-production.
Bruno Fazzolari (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Finalist's Table (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Finalist's Table (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Prior to the ceremony, guests congregated in the foyer to sample the finalist’s scents, learning about the compositions and designs from the perfumers themselves. Also present was L’Artisan Perfumeur, discussing their recent Explosions d’Émotion line as well as celebrating the 20[SUP]th[/SUP] anniversary of Premier Figuier. In addition, they offered a special sneak preview to their upcoming Spring additions: the Duchaufour penned Haute Voltige, Rappelle-Toi, and Onde Sensuelle. (I won’t say too much about these just yet, but they’re crisp and bright and will be out in May.) The space was filled with pefumers, suppliers, writers, and distributors, but also scholars, musicians, filmmakers, and various other creatives. And when the clock hit 8pm the main screening room was opened up, the crowd took their seats, and the ceremony began.
Guests sampling the fragrances (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Chatting with perfumers (image courtesy of Steven Rimlinger)
Saskia opened the ceremony by reiterating the prevalence of curation over competition, and acknowledging Bruno Fazzolarri (himself a finalist with the fantastic, smoky Lampblack) for the initial inspiration of celebrating non-mainstream and art-centric perfumery. Thanking the event’s sponsors and introducing the house drummer, Tom, she then turned the podium over to the Institute’s current Perfumer in Residence, Ashley Eden Kessler, who provided further insight into the organization’s activities and workshops.
Laura and Yvettra from Scent Bar judging preliminary submissions (image courtesy of IAO)
Steven and Laura from Scent Bar judging preliminary submissions (image courtesy of IAO)
Next, submissions manager Ilene Hoffman described the judging process, noting that more than 100 submissions were received—impressive for an inaugural event. Explaining that the submissions were judged completely blind and in multiple passes, Hoffman emphasized that the goal was to focus on the product itself and to grant every entry the best possible chance of advancing to the finals. In the same blinkered manner, Christophe Laudamiel, Luca Turin, Mandy Aftel, Sarah Horowitz-Thran, and Stefan Sagmeister were responsible for choosing the winners, and it was noted that many of the final scores were exceptionally close. Next, LuckyScent owners Franco Wright and Adam Eastwood took the stage to introduce the categories, stopping first to acknowledge the impressive community that the Institute has formed in its relatively short life. Citing competition judge and designer Stefan Sagmeister’s statement that “Now is better,” Wright and Eastwood articulated the vibrancy and creativity of independent perfumery, and its place as an industry alternative.
The finalists and the crowd(image courtesy of NK Artography)
Saskia watching the presentations (image courtesy of NK Artography)
The first award in the “artisan” category, presented by Hank Jenkins, horticulturalist and curator at The Plant Provocateur, went to Calling All Angels by April Aromatics—an all-natural incense fragrance with a notably gourmand vanilla. Three years in the making, the perfume merges bold and ashy notes with a spicy sweetness, producing a perfectly balanced and technically astounding juxtaposition of dark and light. The second award, presented by Sarah Horowitz-Thran, went to Aether Arts’ John Frum— a buoyant, tropical fruit scent structured around a central note of Kava Kava over a traditional fougere base. While accepting her award, perfumer Amber Jobin made sure to thank perfume bloggers for their support, implying the kind of communication network through which many independent perfumers gain recognition.
April Aromatics' Tanja Bochnig (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Aether Arts' Amber Jobin (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Next, sculptor and manager of Los Angeles’ Scent Bar, Steven Gontarski, presented the first “independent” award to Neela Vermeire’s Ashoka—a scent best described as a kinetic, smoky wall of fig and woody florals. The final award, presented by Aromatic Historian and USC Professor of Religion, James McHugh, went to Yosh’s König—a fragrance in which a prominent, crisp apple is tastefully paired with a smoky vetiver to a brisk and refreshing effect.
Yosh Han with award (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Steven Gontarski accepts on Neela Vermeire's behalf (image courtesy of NK Artography)
With the awards presented, Kóan Jeff Baysa—physician, curator, writer, critic, and CSO of the Institute, gave closing remarks. Baysa disclosed an astonishing list of the groundbreaking interdisciplinary research that the Institute is currently engaging, such as working with cancer-sniffing dogs, the furthering of Alzheimer’s and PTSD treatment programs in addition to a number of other projects merging science, history, art, and community together. This final speech drove home the significance of Saskia’s assertion that the Institute’s work is not just about fragrance, but also “an energy of benevolence and generosity.” And at this point, the ceremony came to a close, with attendees and participants returning to the foyer for photographs before braving the drizzle for an after-party at The Standard on Sunset Strip.
Saskia and the finalists (image courtesy of NK Artography)
The winners (image courtesy of NK Artography)
It was clear that the significance of this event surpassed mere awards—even the recognition of an art movement as counter to the fragrance industry. More than anything, this was an event that reflected the virtues of community and the exchange of ideas across disciplines with a love of fragrance as a unifier. The Awards showcased the imaginative connections that perfume can make when the context is freed from that of mass-production and commodity. While the finalists and winners all raised the bar with their contributions, it was the nature of event itself that left the greatest impression.
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As there were so many strong entries—many of which I think Basenoters would be interested in learning more about—I wanted to compile and share some brief notes and thoughts on the finalists.
Finalists (image courtesy of NK Artography)
Sampling fragrances with due diligence is often a challenge at events such as this largely due to the amount of people buzzing around, but also because smelling and evaluating nineteen consecutive fragrances in a short stretch of time (with a cold, no less) is madness. In fact, attempting to do so only made me appreciate the judges’ efforts even more. To combat this, I arrived thirty minutes early and worked my way through the finalists’ entries several times, scribbling down notes and new observations with each pass. While I wouldn’t consider this process even remotely adequate for purposes of writing reviews, it did allow me the chance to get a rudimentary sense of what each scent was doing and to gain a general overview of the final contenders.
In general, I was very impressed by the variety and quality of everything on the table, which spoke, once more, to the notion of curation rather than competition. The line-up presented a real spectrum ranging from crisp florals, to rich gourmands, to jammy fruits, to fresh aromatics, to the avant-garde. There was a real confidence to these scents, and many struck me as having a clear perspective as to who their audience might be. Whereas some whispered and others shouted their intentions, they all succeeded in communicating their goals. Given this, here is a brief uncritical survey of what was on offer.
From the artisan group, Blackbird by Olympic Orchids was a moody, dark berry that was elevated by vivid coniferous notes. It’s unmistakably fruity but sidesteps “cloying” with skill. Golden Hour by Artemisia Natural Perfumes struck me as honeyed floriental with a buttery tuberose juxtaposed against a vibrant spring floral. Magnolia Esxentialis by Italian perfumer, Cristiano Canali appeared as a complex, yet delicate floral incense with some subtle woody facets. Bruno Fazzolari’s Lampblack absolutely spoke my language with tarry, citrus and spiced vetiver notes over a textured, ashy backdrop. Vesper, by MIKMOI, served up an almost candied grass effect over a fascinating layer of resins and light suede (it's actually a Lillet aperitif accord). Sensei by Polish perfumer, Piotr Czarnecki, struck me as spicy, peppery gourmand with a unique approach to concentrations. Imaginary Authors’ Mosaic offered a bright, slightly soapy-clean take on the refreshing white floral genre whereas Owl by Sweet Anthem Perfumes provided a warmer, woodsier, spiced affair with an elusive floral streak.
In the independent grouping, Blood Sweat Tears by Atelier de Geste appealed to my own preferences for smoky profiles, but added a borderline industrial note that really made it stand out. Christopher Street by Charenton Macerations, also played a smoky hand against a mélange of fruity, citric notes. Jardin Mystique by Friedemodin offered a crisp, wild floral, whereas Feu Follet by the same brand felt more like a bodied oriental crossed with vibrant green spices. Fragrance Republic’s FR!01/02 appeared as a delicate, diaphanous floral composition whereas Hayari Perfume’s Only for Her went in the other direction, typifying the big floriental with a whack of vanilla sweetness. Last, Fragrance DuBois’s Sahraa Oud offered a slight boozy twist on the refined, rich oud genre.
Although I had my favorites (Lampblack, Vesper, Blood Sweat Tears), many of these scents exemplify the exciting paths that independent perfumery is taking, and I look forward to spending more time with them in the near future.