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The Invisible Scent

He then had to choose the type of jasmine, which presented a whole new series of questions. Some jasmine blooms during the day. Other types open at night. He had jasmine from India, Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia. Which was best? And in what doses? Pairing them off, he blended jasmine with a few other chemicals.

“You know how some jasmine is loud and sweet and big?” Brosius explains. “Well, this is going to be the opposite of that. The volume is turned way down. The conscious nose won’t be able to detect it. That’s the point.”

The next note was an easy choice, he thought. Studies have proved that the scent most people can’t detect is sandalwood. Not the synthetic reproductions; the pure stuff, distilled from the trees in India. Natural sandalwood is expensive and challenging to use, so Brosius blended a few varieties with aroma chemicals. But he found that combining them created the opposite effect: It produced a smell. He spent months in his lab trying to make it disappear. He couldn’t. So he turned the volume way down. The effect was “this low-level hum. Like the ghost of sandalwood,” Brosius says.

Slowly, the outline of a fragrance was beginning to take shape. “It’s the contrast and juxtaposition of the real and surreal that are the key elements,” he says, and finding the balance between a real olfactory experience and an imagined one would take a lot of trial and error. “You can’t rush a perfume.”

After all, it had taken five years to create Snow. “I wanted the smell of snow, like when you’re standing outside in a field in the country, and it’s snowing heavily, and it’s that big white flake, really coming down. I wanted that smell.” Finally, while cleaning out his inventory, he stumbled upon a chemical compound that worked. He added a few slight notes to it, and in 2000, he won his first two Fragrance Foundation Awards for Snow.Mary Ellen Lapansky, vice-president of the foundation, says Brosius’s awards, and the two he earned the following year, were a recognition of his avant-garde vision and technical skills, a high mark of achievement for a self-taught perfumer.

“That whole ‘Let’s find the universal thing,’ which is big in the perfume world. Well, how boring is that?”

As the accolades piled up, Brosius eventually started his own company, entitled CB I Hate Perfume. He now sells his perfumes in more than 75 boutiques around the world, with prices ranging from $75 to $325. Some bottles come with his “manifesto,” excerpts of which read:

“Perfume is too often an ethereal corset trapping everyone in the same unnatural shape … A childish masque hiding the timid and unimaginative … An arrogant slap in the face from across the room … People who smell like everyone else disgust me.”

Brosius considers himself a rebel. When we first met, he emerged from his lab wearing an ensemble that included black Armageddon boots that rose up to his knee, a black pouch, and a black leather kilt. Many of his customers never see him, but he is everywhere. On some labels, Brosius used to put an image of one of his blue eyes on the bottle, which made it look like he was spying on his customers or reminding them not to forget the genius behind the scent, the mind behind the nose. And how could anyone forget? On the shelves of his shore, the titles of Brosius’s fragrances read like chapters in his childhood: Gathering Apples, Baby Aspirin, Clean Baby Butt, Coppertone 1967, Green Bean, Crayon, Wet Mitten, Hay, Baseball Glove, and My Birthday Cake.

As a part of his crusade against companies that use the likes of Derek Jeter or J.Lo to sell celebrity perfumes, Brosius created his own, anti-celebrity fragrance. He chose Alan Cumming, and named the resulting fragrance Cumming, a double entendre playing off the actor’s last name. But the scent isn’t that of an old Times Square peep show. Rather, it includes hints of black pepper, peat, Scotch pine, white truffle, burnt rubber, and bergamot. “I don’t actually smell like that,” Cumming says. “[Brosius] is an unusual character, like somebody out of the nineteenth century.”

Brosius is hermetic. He does not attend industry events. He does not advertise. He is secretive about his methods. His lab is closed to outsiders and is located on the top floor of 93 Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg, near the waterfront. Even now, the neighborhood has the desolate feel of an industrial park. It’s far away from the chic lobbies of Givaudan, Fermenich, and International Flavors & Fragrances, the corporate giants of an industry that has been lagging in recent years.One reason for the decline in sales has been the outcry against certain chemical agents in the scents that are alleged to limit sperm production. But one growing sector in the perfume industry shows promise: niche perfumers, who, despite making up a meager 4 percent of the market, have increased growth, according to the NPD Group, a ­market-research firm. Some of this can be attributed to changes in the consumer economy, which has become more personalized. People want a smell they think is theirs, and theirs alone.