The Invisible Scent

Photo: Peter Yang

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.

Photo: Reinhard Hunger

Brosius did more research. He read Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses and realized just how powerful the nose is. He learned that gazillions of years ago, when primitive ancestors of man were living in the ocean, scent was used to detect an enemy or find a mate. The sense ultimately became so powerful that a heap of tissue on top of the nerve cord evolved into the brain. “Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks,” Ackerman writes. “We think because we smelled.”

Brosius’s mission became clear. Ackerman had outlined it for him: “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.”

He had to find those undergrowths, everywhere. The smell of dirt made him happy and inspired a feeling of playfulness and youth. Why? He reasoned that as children, people dug around a lot in the yard. Kids grew up smelling dirt. Brosius shoveled some soil from his farm into a plastic bag and brought it back to New York. He and a partner had started a company called Demeter, and Brosius recalls throwing his bag of dirt on the table and telling everyone in the room, “I want this.

The company used a costly technology to analyze the molecules in the air inside the bag. Once the individual molecules were identified, Brosius was able to add a few notes of his own. The result: He had recaptured the joy he felt when smelling dirt from his backyard. He gave it the name Soaked Earth.

When I took a whiff, it didn’t smell like regular dirt. It was a magical kind of dirt. Instantly familiar. Memories came flooding back to me—strong emotional currents, real gushers. I could see the rickety gas station near my childhood home in upstate New York. I remembered looking at it from the bench seat of my grandfather’s pickup truck, which was always covered in dog hair. We were going fishing, and outside the gas station was a sign scrawled in red paint. nightcrawlers, it read. In my hands was a white container, and when I popped the lid, I could see the worms squirming inside the dark-brown dirt. I hadn’t thought about that day in over twenty years.

“Brosius is not so much an innovator as an explorer,” says Pamela Dalton, a senior researcher at the Monell Center, an institute in Philadelphia devoted to smell and taste. “He’s exploring which smells resonate with people rather than teaching them the next great odor they should be dousing themselves with.” Like CBMusk. Brosius had never smelled a musk deer, but he designed a scent entirely around what he thought it would smell like. “It seems to have one of those love-it-or-hate-it reactions,” he says.

I sprayed on the fragrance for Chandler Burr, a former scent critic at the Times. He grabbed my wrist, pulled his nose close, and began to tickle my skin with machine-gun-like bursts of air: sniff, breathe, sniff, breathe. I could see the muscles on Burr’s face tighten and contort into the shape of raw disgust, as if he’d just been forced to slowly chew through a dozen rotten eggs.

“Have you smelled this?”

Of course I had.

“Do you like it?”

Kind of. Yeah.

“Are you straight?”

I nodded. Why?

“Because that smell isn’t musk. It’s not even close to musk. That …” He looked back at my wrist. “That is the smell of man’s anus—a very clean man’s anus.” (Brosius’s response: “I can see where he would get that. That is exactly what musk is designed to do. It is designed to be an erotic perfume.”)

Compared to other perfumers, Brosius is “a literal olfactory artist,” Burr says. “His genius is to re-create not just the smell of objects but places and states of mind, moments that are frozen and eternal.” Michelyn Camen, who runs a blog for perfume aficionados (“fumeheads,” they are called), describes Brosius as “a Mozart, not a Salieri.” His creations remind her of the movie Inception, in which futuristic mercenaries engage in clandestine warfare by planting undiscovered thoughts in people’s subconsciouses.

Since hibiscus didn’t work, Brosius had to find another flower for his invisible scent. Violets contain ionone, a chemical compound that can make a smell “appear and disappear over and over,” as Brosius puts it. But ultimately, he settled on jasmine. “The wonderful thing about jasmine is that it has this hypnotic quality, where if you smell it long enough, you kind of trance out,” he says.

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 theuniversal thing,’which is big in the perfumeworld. 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.

At the same time, the mainstream perfume world has its classics that continue to do quite well. Last year, the highest-­selling perfumes in the country were Chanel’s Coco Mademoiselle, which was introduced to the market a decade ago, followed by Giorgio Armani’s Acqua Di Giò for men, now fifteen years old. Brand loyalty, Brosius says, is another reason that many of the big manufacturers don’t see the need for new, innovative scents.

“A lot of executives have minds as flat as Holland,” he says. “I don’t mean the tulip fields; we’re talking about the gray, dreary salt marshes. The only thing they care about is money … You know, that whole ‘Let’s find the universal thing,’ which I know is a big deal in the perfume world. Well, how boring is that? ‘Oh, gee, let’s make one perfume that everybody on the planet is going to love.’ And they’re all going to wear it? I mean, I need to go somewhere else, please.”

Customers are part of the problem too. He points toward Manhattan and drops a bomb he deploys often. “Frankly, if you’re the kind of person who needs a perfume to express who you are … well, Sephora is on that side of the river, thank you very much.”

Invisible perfume has almost been perfected. After two years, Brosius realized the missing ingredient was sex. He added natural amber to the mix. “Of the God-knows-how-many molecules that have been found in the chemical composition of amber, several of them are uncannily similar to human hormones,” he says. “I’m fairly certain that’s why it’s been so popularly used in perfume throughout history. It smells like us. It smells human.” And human smells attract us to each other.

As with the jasmine and sandalwood, he diluted the amber so that when the fumes leave the bottle and mix with the natural oils of your skin, they won’t smell like much at all. “This perfume is highly individualized. It’s not going to smell the same on each person; it’s only going to magnify what’s already there.” Namely, you.

He’s also settled on a name for his invisible masterpiece: Where We Are There Is No Here. “It will be a secret pleasure. The question ‘What perfume are you wearing?’ should never arise.”

Meanwhile, Brosius has turned his attention to his next masterpiece. “It’s very much the kind of perfume I like to make, because people will say, ‘Oh, this is unwearable,’ ” he says. “It’s something that smells incredibly attractive, but it bears absolutely no resemblance to what anybody would think of as perfume.”

So, what is it?

“Roast beef,” he says.


“Cooked,” he says. “It’s Sunday dinner. It’s the roast beef, the gravy, the mashed potatoes, the roasted carrots, the works. I figured out how to do it. This is actually going to be good. This is going to smell terrific.”

The Invisible Scent