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

Start Making Scents

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.

"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."

After that, the challenge became how to find out enough about a customer, in a short amount of time, that the database would indicate what to mix up.

"I already knew that certain types of people liked certain fragrances," she says, "and it's not what you think, either. A quiet, homebody type likes oriental, spicy, warm, more intense blends. An extrovert likes fresher, lighter, fruity, floral smells. And then I found a large body of research work on the psychology of fragrance. A lot of it was done for businesses -- if Proctor and Gamble is about to introduce a new detergent, it has to be satisfied that it smells right, whatever right may be. But I also stumbled onto some German research and it was a gold mine. My premise was validated."

To back it up, though, Ott wrote her own questionnaire and gave it out to three hundred friends and acquaintances. Some of the questions were directly related to scent, asking one's preference for various smells, from "linen drying in the sun" to "cotton candy at the fair." In other places, you were to agree or disagree with such statements as "An orderly life is the key to happiness" and "I admire people with good manners." Ott wound up eliminating some questions because they got the same answer every time. If there's someone who does not like the way the world smells after a rain shower, for example, Ott didn't find her. "And everyone picked the same multiple-choice answer to the question about what is drop-dead sexy for evening," she recalls. "It was always black and slinky. That didn't tell me anything."

Because she knew the people in her informal study, Ott was able to compare their image of themselves to how she saw them. "I'd be reading these things and be very surprised," she recalls. "But the way I look at it, I just want the information. I'm not judgmental."

Not all the time, anyway. For the record, Ott states categorically that the perfume known as Tabu smells awful, even though her grandmother wore it; and that many of the perfumes you smell in glossy magazines have a note of "bug spray" about them.

"Actually, it's a salicylate accord," she explains. "It's very famous, used in a lot of very popular fragrances and, frankly, I will never use that accord. How can I, in good conscience, make a perfume that stinks?"

Finally, and most important, "I absolutely detest smelling a person after they've left the room, or before they come in," she says. "It's offensive and intrusive. Or when you give someone a hug and then you smell like them. Only people whom you let into your personal space should smell your fragrance. A hug is okay. For a handshake I prefer not to get a big blast. The whole thing should be mostly subconscious, because that's how the sense of smell works.

"For instance," she adds, "when I smell dill and vinegar, I think August in North Dakota, overflowing garden, picklesGrandma! And if they blindfolded me in a room full of children, I could smell my own kids right away, and not because of their shampoo or anything, but because everyone has their own smell. That's why the huge marketing that goes into most perfume does nothing for me. What are you buying, an image or a smell? I think you should get to buy the smell."

Consultants she talked to agreed -- they thought Internet surfers would want to take the test and buy the scent, preferably by means of a catchy handle. Perhaps! But Ott was not selling myperfume, or even herperfume, and so she chose Eleuria, an obscure Greek word coined to describe the smoke rising from an oracle. After that, she set a price -- between $90 and $500, depending on the concentration and quantity -- and created a money-back guarantee. Her virtual doors opened for business on May 2, and there was a nice rush just before Mother's Day. So far, she has made 118 bottles of custom fragrance -- 119 if you count mine.

"Only one was for a man," she says. "I called it D&D, for dirt and diesel. It doesn't literally smell that way, but he grew up on a farm and his most evocative memory is the smells of plowing, the tractor and the earth, and I found that out. He likes it. He wears it."

Still sniffing 119 -- and so, myself -- I call a few of Ott's other clients. Do they wear their perfumes?

"I do, and I'm not a real fragrance person," says Mandy Dikkens of Boulder. "I mean, we've all gotten in the elevator and gone, All right, who's wearing Obsession? Who did it? But what Kerry made smells great -- earthy, musky, some kind of orange? A lot of people comment on it and I get to say, Oh, I had it made,' which feels very exclusive."

"It fits me," agrees Joan Denz, who is Ott's mother-in-law and a perfume collector from way back. "Sure, my bathroom's full of 'em, so I know what I'm talking about. Kerry knows a lot about me. She knows I'm not terribly extroverted or showy. I'm not the hearts and flowers and lilacs type. What she made was spicy, oriental, musky -- but not that awful musk they used to wear to cover the smell of marijuana. There's even a little carnation in there.

"It's so perfect that I'm rationing it out, drop by drop. And if I had to give it a name," she decides, "I'd call it me."


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