Start Making Scents

A nose is a nose is a nose . . .

When you're sniffing around a perfumer's house, your descriptions of smells had better be particular, so here:

The backyard is lilacs before, as opposed to after, a quick afternoon rain in Colorado. The kitchen is cloves with a faint note of rosemary. The perfumer herself, Kerry Ott, does not smell one way or the other. She is neutral. Later I will find out that her personal smell can be experienced only from within centimeters of her throat, an oddly intimate experience, and it is a good, peppery, tree-like smell, in no way like a flower garden. But Ott doesn't offer her neck to just anyone.

We descend to the basement workshop, which consists of a table, glass beakers and droppers, and a few narrow shelves lined with bottles of essential oils and synthetic scents.

Kerry Ott, ahead by  a nose.
John Johnson
Kerry Ott, ahead by a nose.

"Smell this," she says, passing an open bottle below my nose.

Whoa! It's a wake-up smell. Be specific -- it's...

"Cut grass," she says. "Melon. Water. Sea Water."

Oh, wow!

"I used to do that," she says. "When I started this hobby, or whatever you want to call it, my friends and I would buy little bottles of oil and mix them together and go, wow, berry! But actually, more often we would go eeew, gross. Or huh -- what is that? I sat around and played and blended for years. More and more, people would smell me and say, hey, what is that? Can you make me one?"

But Ott played around for twenty years before the day three weeks ago when she finally stopped being a banker and became an Internet perfume alchemist. On that date, customers could at last log on to her Web site,, fill out personality profiles and order custom fragrances based on their psychological makeup.

"So," she says, handing over a small, brown-glass bottle with a cryptic label reading #119, "here's yours."

I'm afraid this won't go well. Because, to put it bluntly, I think other people's perfumes smell like bug spray, I have never considered applying scent to myself. The more "natural" smells -- patchouli, essential oil of rose -- remind me, in a negative way, of Haight-Ashbury. There are only two aromas I have ever loved enough to want to dab behind my ears: my dad's beef bourguignon and a certain northwest Denver green chile. I wanted to, but I didn't.

Very little of this information came out in the personality profile that I completed last week. As far as I can tell, that profile also established, through a series of on-a-scale-of-one-to-ten questions, that I'm a cranky and complex personality -- spontaneous yet list-making, outgoing yet reclusive, love risk yet long for order -- on the slobby end of casual and have not used makeup in at least ten years. I didn't plan to wear the perfume at all, since I was sure it would be just like everyone else's. Fume-y.

But when I open 119, I find it nothing of the sort. It is neither stenchy nor girly nor reminiscent of a Grateful Dead show.

"I was headed for a spicy green fragrance," Ott explains. "A citrus, spicy note, not as sharp and clean as orange, tangerine or lime. And geranium, which has a nice, spicy smell -- without clove, cinnamon or pepper, but a green, spicy citrus blend."

What 119 actually smells like is a startling observation. Maybe, I bet you weren't expecting this! Or Oh, I'm the class clown, all right, but I have hidden depths. Something about 119 makes me feel protective, as in You don't like it? Tough.

But that's because 119 is me, according to Kerry Ott. And how does she know this?


"I was senior vice president at Boulder Valley Credit Union, and I was good at it," Ott remembers. "I liked it, I rose to a senior position, and I did it for seventeen years. But three years ago, my brother-in-law died unexpectedly and it hit me in a funny way. It sounds obvious, but I saw that life is short. I stopped wanting to wake up in the morning if I wasn't going to do something I really wanted to do. Except I didn't know what that was."

For a while, she worked for high-tech companies, jobs that had their entertaining moments, if you didn't count the "nerve-racking volatility." Meanwhile, she continued mixing custom perfumes for her friends, just as she had for decades.

But it didn't occur to Ott to turn this talent into a career until a Nordstrom personal shopper got close enough to smell Ott's sister, and to ask her where she could get some of that custom perfume. As Ott thought about the money that flows through a place like Nordstrom, she sensed possibilities. So she went back down to her basement lab and, for the first time, sat there thinking like a businesswoman.

"I'd always mixed these perfumes drop by drop, smelling as I went along," she says. "I saw that if I did my business that way I would be extremely limited in the amount of volume I could do. And then I realized that a good database could help me. It could figure out a lot about the customer, determine that what she wanted, say, was a fresh floral perfume with a note of rose, backed up by tuberose and ylang-ylang, and in what proportions."

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