One night, Christopher Brosius was home watching a movie. He’d rented Le Testament d’Orphée, the last film made by Jean Cocteau. The story line features the poet-director himself rising from the dead and retracing abstract moments from his past. The film resonated with Brosius. After developing a reputation over nearly two decades as the perfume world’s Willy Wonka for his vast and odd library of fragrances—Black Leather Jacket, Doll’s Head, Ginger Ale 2006, to name a few—he’d been wondering what other olfactory experiences he could create. Had he peaked?
Then came the very surreal scene in the film in which one character says the following words to another: “Where we are, there is no ‘here.’ ”
Here, there. Where? The absurdist line reminded Brosius of studies he’d read detailing the mysteries of the human nose, and why some people can detect scents that others can’t—while some can lose the sense of smell altogether. Anosmia, the condition is called. Brosius’s mental gears began to click. He thought, Wouldn’t it be clever to create a perfume that only certain people can smell? Invisible perfume. Now, that would be an existential achievement: It smells so good you can’t even smell it.
And yet the non-fragrant fragrance would do so much more. People often think of perfumes as aphrodisiacs that attract others. But in reality, the scents we buy attract us to ourselves. A dab of one fragrance can make us happy, the spray of another can inspire the kind of confidence that comes with wearing a favorite shirt or pair of shoes. And it’s the projection of that inner happiness and confidence that really makes us more attractive to others. So as Brosius saw it, invisible perfume would be a psychological trick. He imagined two people meeting for the first time. Both of them would light up in euphoria at the smell of each other, and they wouldn’t know why.
The process of creating this revolutionary scent would be, in some ways, like the process of creating any other. Perfumes unfold. Most fragrances have a top note, which is what you smell first, and then that fades into the middle note. The fragrance is held together by a base note, the most enduring scent. At its most basic level, each note is composed of molecules, so a perfume artist has to have the encyclopedic knowledge of a lab chemist and the ingenuity of an inventor in order to produce the right mixture. The operation itself is painfully time-consuming. Any perfume can have a dozen or more notes, individual scents that are blended together, each with its own dimensions.
In his quest to create invisible perfume—was it even possible?—Brosius began by choosing a flower he wanted to build the fragrance around. The choice was obvious. Hibiscus had featured prominently in Le Testament, so why not use it? The smell of hibiscus can be sweet and alluring, though not as strong as some other flowers. So he began to break down its scent until only the faintest, nearly undetectable trace was left. He took a whiff.
“It smelled terrible,” he says.
Many of the world’s leading perfumers discover the power of their noses in Grasse, a lush flower-growing town in southern France that’s been the capital of the perfume industry since the eighteenth century. They toil away in labs, earning degrees in chemistry and getting diplomas from perfume schools, in order to design everything from Chanel No. 5 to the “clean” smell of laundry detergents. Brosius, on the other hand, found his calling while driving a yellow cab around New York.
In 1980, at the age of 18, he moved to the city from Dalmatia, the rural town in Pennsylvania where he grew up. He’d wanted to be an architect and eventually landed at Parsons, where he was a student by day and took shifts driving a cab for extra money in the evenings. On Saturday nights, he often picked up groups of women. The scent of their perfumes in his cab would be so strong that he’d nearly puke. “Those were the Giorgio days,” he says. “Miserable.”
His next job was working the cosmetics counters at Barneys, which later led to a gig at Kiehl’s, where one of his duties was to keep track of the company’s 128 scents. In his spare time, he’d rearrange them like a florist, throwing together unusual bouquets. He’d whip up a few for clients like Cindy Crawford, mixing her favorites into a personalized concoction so she wouldn’t have to overload her purse with several bottles.
By the early nineties, he felt burned out in New York and moved to his family’s farm in Dalmatia, where he studied the history of scent. He learned that priests burned bundles of incense to cover up the horrid smells of animal carcasses that had been sacrificed to the gods. In Latin, perfume translates literally as “through the smoke.” The Egyptians created scents to use before lovemaking. Ingredients were scraped from the glands of wildcats or small musk deer, or washed up onshore as ambergris, which is excreted by sperm whales and hardened by seawater and sun and time.