I’m formally trained as a painter and self-taught as a perfumer. One of the most frequent FAQs I get asked at parties is some variation of “How did you get into perfume-making?”
Like most artists, I’ve had a lot of different day jobs: house cleaner, dishwasher, sound technician, admin assistant, press liaison, graphic designer, advertising lackey, Persian rug salesman, and college art professor (in that order). And now: entrepreneur.
If you told me when I graduated with my MFA that someday I’d run a perfume brand and love it, I would have called you crazy, at the very least!
I always had a vivid sense of smell, and I’ve collected perfumes since I was a teenager. But it wasn’t until late in life that I began experimenting with making my own scents.
Initially, I was just collecting fragrant oils, but being an artist, I couldn’t help tinkering with them. At first, I started by making perfumes only with essential oils. In time, I tried my hand at single molecule materials (synthetics and nature identical synthetics).
That time working only with botanical essential oils was critical. I loved their complexity and character—it’s what’s missing from most mainstream perfumes. I always strive for that complexity in my fragrances.
My interest quickly became an obsession. I had hundreds of small bottles creating a new type of chaos in my painting studio alongside the paint tubes and canvas rolls.
For a while, I was confused by it and frankly a little embarrassed. What did I know about perfume making? I kept it private by throwing a piece of canvas over the bottles when curators visited my studio.
The bottles took up more and more space. So much that I had to build little shelves (an early version of my perfumer’s organ) to keep from knocking them all down like dominoes.
I read everything I could about perfume-making. I trawled the web. I ordered rare books that sometimes cost as much as $350 apiece. I was pretty sure I was losing my mind.
Many days, I spent more time creating fragrances than painting. I made what I called “blends” (4-6 materials), but over time these became so complex (30-50 materials) that I needed a spreadsheet to keep records. And that’s when I started calling them” formulas.”
Eventually, I had to accept that I had become a perfumer. So I combined my love of painting and scent in a gallery show called Mirror 5. There were five artworks in the exhibition: four paintings and one perfume named Five (still a favorite in my line).
The abstract paintings were very bright, with strokes of primary colors, painted wet-into-wet into titanium white tinted with a hint of cobalt blue. The pictures were lit by bright fluorescent lights. The scent is bright citrus with ozone and mineral notes that reflect the colors of the paintings.
The gallery sold a lot more perfume than I expected. I actually had to make extra bottles before the show closed. Even so, this was still just a quirky thing I was doing: I was really a painter, and I was really a college art professor.
Community: The Turning Point
And then everything changed for me. To my great surprise, my scents developed a cult following. I was invited to an artisan perfume fair, and two amazing things happened:
- I sold $900 in perfume in two days. It wasn’t just the cash (although, given my small salary as an art professor, it was helpful). What surprised me was that people loved the scents! I guess I did know something about making perfume.
- I met many engaging, fun, warm, and lively people who, even if they didn’t buy, told me what they liked (and didn’t!). It was the opposite of a gallery show where the most you hear is, “Nice show.”
In 2013 I added bottles for sale through my artist website labeled simply with my name. In 2014, Luca Turin gave Lampblack four stars on his blog and later in his new version of his book The Guide. My side hustle took more and more of my time. As sales continued to grow, I quit my job as an art professor.
Money Really Isn’t Everything
But what kept driving me forward wasn’t the money. It was my wonderful customers and the delight I had in serving them. When someone likes what you do enough to spray it on their body, that’s more than a compliment. It’s a statement of trust. I take that trust very seriously, and it brings me great joy.
I was successful partly because I made my perfumes for the wearer, not just as something to make an impression on others. Wearing a fragrance is like carrying a private artwork with you wherever you go, one that changes over the day and sustains your attention.
In 2017 I rebranded as FZOTIC, my first foray as an entrepreneur. We’re still a tiny business (just me, my studio manager, and a trusted warehouse team). I still value every single customer’s support. I earn that trust one person at a time.
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