Confluences, or whence Scentient Nature came to be

This text is shared in the sprit of “getting to knowing whom you are interacting with”.  I am not very fond – euphemism - of the nameless, anonymous, reproductible things our age spurts expandingly without respite, so I want this website to be the exact contrary.

 Also because I think it is important for prospective clients who do not know me in real life to have an idea of what my personal background is, and of what my professional competences are... and of course of what they are not just as much. 

 

Original illustration by Amanda Gustafsson
Original illustration by Amanda Gustafsson

 

It is quite mesmerizing, with time passing and the good dose of age that usually comes with that, how things start to merge and retrospectively make sense. Well, let’s say a few of them do, at least.

My father had a passion for gardening, a passion to which he devoted most of his free time to (and to which he hijacked and forced-laboured quite some of my sister’s and mine, adorable man and lovely father that he usually was notwithstanding). We lived on the outskirts of Geneva, near the river confluence pictured on the title image, in the then liminal lands between countryside and the expanding city. One of our two direct neighbours was a farm, and the one the other side wasn’t but made good quantities delicious honey and the next house belonged to a regionally known mushroom collector. I used to love going on collecting walks with.  Our garden, which extended almost directly into the Rhône wild riverbanks, was basically a huge orchard, with dozens of species of fruits trees, berries, and countless produce. As my father enjoyed cooking too, he also grew a rich garden of aromatic herbs. But of all he grew, my father was, I think, especially and intimately fond of flowers. He planted abundantly... roses, irises, dahlias, and all kind of colorful bushes and flowers for all possible seasons (and with at some point a green house for the rest of the year). I think this passion grounded him, an exile forced to come finish his higher studies, and create a life, after a revolution in his birth country.

And thanks to his passion, I used to spend my spring summer and fall immersed in our gardens, and in the nearby nature. Very often hiding in wild herbs or behind trees, getting inebriated by the scent of flowers, but also simply at times by those of grass and hay, eyes closed for ours living intense beautiful immersive experiences, full of colour, sounds, energy and emotions. And inner peace.

By formation then trade, my father was a doctor in chemistry, so he used many of his skills in his personal life, for example producing amateur distillations from garden fruits on a small scale for pleasure, a process that fascinated me. I so much wish today that he was here to help us, which he always did with his knowledge and benevolent presence. He did at the very beginning of the Hindu Kush projects in the early 2000’s, and he did meet my partner for those projects (we weren’t then, he was just retired and happy to help a bit one of my friends doing something good in his devastated country) but then, he sadly passed away. His presence does accompany me intimately through this adventure though and I often think of him.

Interestingly, he also was raised in Alexandria, which was, when we were kids, something like our mythical ancestral home, despite being born and growing up in Switzerland. As a kid, in the family library, I was fascinated with the Atlases, the old maps, and books about antique trade and explorations in the antiquity. Alexandria, of course, was a central hub for the global trade of aromatics, and  often the link and gateway between Asia and the Greco Roman and Levantine worlds, since millenia. A cousin of my father was even a wealthy spice merchant, emigrated to the US after the revolution.

All my life I have been over sensitive to smell. Feeling immersive blissful delights, irresistible attraction, endless curiosity (even in strange contexts) and also strong repulsions via olfaction. Culturally, though, smell was a sense completely neglected by the local Genevan protestant culture, except that one never should smell strong. For the rest, exchanges around odours were more or less limited to “it smells good !” or “it stinks”. With one notable exception...

In the French speaking part of Switzerland, socialization revolves a lot around wines. I realized I enjoy the bouquets tremendously, more than the taste often, same held true for good whiskies or rums. Now that I don’t drink anymore, I still enjoy the bouquets much when people around me partake. I also had an absolute laser sharp radar for the presence of cork in a wine, to the surprise of many a sommelier. It took a “night of the museums” in Lausanne in the 90’s to realize I had a sharp sense of olfaction, a “nose” of kinds. I was browsing the popular event in the city with a musician on a set up and pleasant, but ultimately isolated date. One museum offered a blind olfactive degustation of 30 Aromatics. I was the only person who got them all correct from the whole evening. It then started to make sense how much my nose and sense of smell had been central in my life, even if it was marginal in the social life where I grew up.

In parallel, in my original study and career path, I became an anthropologist and a specialist of the the central Himalayas, an area of incredibly rich biodiversity, ethnobotanical practices and relevant cultural history (being the source for many important ayurvedic plants and ingredients of traditional Indian perfumery). As I was planning to study there for decades (in the end only around two, from the early 90s’ to late 2000’s). I was gathering knowledge and practices, but slowly, for lacking the botanical skills. It is also there that I started to use herbs medicinally, following the practices of the people I was living with. And some of the results amazed me.

In the meantime, in the 90’s I discovered essential oils and “dove deep” as they completely mesmerized me. They immediately started “acting” on me in subtle but profound and multilayered ways : synesthetic, psychoactive ( I see things when I smell them and close my eyes), energetic, hedonist, subtle, etc. So I started to study them with passion, and use them in my personal life for all kind of things, from home cosmetics, to mood enhancers or health care, to developing over the years my own methods of working with them, what I call Scentient work : what gave the name to this website and related real-life activities.

In different spheres, circa 2003, by a series of circumstances unfolding through my creative work, I got spontaneously headhunted by Valeria Manini, then a senior perfume developer at Bvlgari who eventually became their global director for perfumery, before leaving some years after LVMH’s acquisition of the company. At the time, she needed new creative forces, and she thought I could be an asset. She gave me a first gig. Creating a name for a new perfume (a ‘flanker’, actually, that is a new edition, within a successful line). The project was a success and more and more gigs started to pour quite rapidly. This work evolved ongoingly as we learned to know each other over the years : me getting to understand their process, needs and occasional blindspots; them, my different skills: creative, and conceptual, but also research, fieldwork, anthropology and last but not least by a deep personal passionate passion with essential oils and aromatics, both in practice, and through bookish investigation. I might blog more about this some day, but it has been a time of fantastic learning, and despite an industry I honestly do not respect at large, I was blessed with meeting and working with fantastic people, and so many aspects of projects : from “patch-doctoring” advanced projects, to codeveloping them from scratch, from mere researching, to conceptualization, from naming to aesthetic / formal research (to develop bottles or elements of the visual world around a new fragrance) to the collaborative development of important full collections, like Bvlgaris’ Gemme.

In short, I worked on multiple aspects of perfume development as a transversal specialist, and then also more and more also as a natural ingredients resource person. I started bridging the historical / cultural knowledge, and its traces in arts, literature and objects, with the conception and development of new perfumes, all mediated by my practical experience as a natural specialist and artisan perfumer, mostly of attars then.

Among many fascinating jobs, I became “Mr. Oud” for three years for the Swiss Brand Chopard in the second half of the 2010’s, via the structure developing their perfumes. I loved oud, but the material is so exclusive and expensive, and the market so muddy and fully of dishonesty (like always, also with some remarkable people) that I had never taken to explore it with full depth until that time. I had to become fluent enough to understand not only all the incredibly rich cultural history (and current rave in the West after millennia of ignorance). But also the different terroirs, the preparation of the raw material, distillation processes, associated aromatics, etc. Now it was time to dig much deeper and start to create things. We developed an interesting quatuor of oud based perfumes, inspired by the gardens of paradise of four different great Islamic traditions (Moor, Ottoman, Persian and Mughal). Instead of quenching my curiosity and my thirst, this fantastic process only made me dive deeper into the magic cauldron, and until that day I keep researching, learning both from literature, experts in the field and direct fieldwork, sourcing and co production, etc. I reinvested all my earnings from that blessed job into learning about, sourcing and then gradually co-producing oud.

During those years, I also had to explore in depth, over the years and for different projects many other fundamentals of perfumery: neroli, frankincense, sandalwood, ... . Here too complementing my work on those projects, with independent research networking, sourcing, fieldwork when possible, personal use, perfume creation, etc. 

As a another gift from destiny of the same kind, I was hired to work with my queen, the rose, to which I devoted several months of research (being already a knowledgeable amateur and avid collector of rose ottos before diving), during the collaborative development of two interesting rose based fragrances also for Chopard (Love, and La Rose de Caroline). The fragrance of roses had been a joy since childhood, but when I discovered the essential oil (in the 90's) it changed my life, and became the basis for a lot of my work, but this is a story for other times

In any case, it is no surprise that it is the Rose we chose to develop as our first and core project in the Hindu Kush, but as you can read about those here, I won’t develop them in this text either.

In parallel of all this work,  I also scouted extensively for finding quality producers worldwide for all the aromatics I was studying, doubling in efforts for those I was most passionate about. It can take quite some time – and quite some resources - to find qualities I can relate to, modes of production I believe in,  and people I want to support. And at first, you have to filter a lot of adulterated  or poor quality products, as you learn progressively more and more about each of the aromatics that you deem worthy and important.

I had started reselling some of the things I sourced first for myself a small scale since the early 2000’s, but without any intent to grow that: just a way to buy some bigger quantities (thus bringing prices down) and contribute to the growing costs of my sourcing passion, while providing people here with better natural aromatics that they were getting in Switzerland. Such sourcing expanded over the years, with the projects I was professionally hired on.

 

 

This “practice”, half service-based, half as specialized high quality aromatics provider, slowly grew  organically, with more and more people coming to see me for advice or to develop a perfume for them. People started asking me to give a talk or a workshop here or there as I was developing my own approach with aromatics and attars beyond classical aromatherapy (which I use for myself but do not offer as a service).

Over the years, all this naturally started to take more and more of my time (as I am very passionate) and expanded (as people were interested). I am not going to develop all this here as we are starting to touch upon the present and this text is already much too long as it is. You will find overtime in the blogs on the site writings and posts about those practices as they are alive today and about related events.

To cut a long story not any longer, the idea germinated during the general stillness of the Covid pandemic, and the time it freed from my other activities, to transform my real-life practice into something more visible and not only in the “brick and mortar” world, but also online. And I started to develop this website, which bring us here today.

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2 comments

Thank you for the beautiful comment. I am so happy that the writings evoked your blessed and fragrant memories from childhood.

Wishing you a profound, elating and beautiful journey of discovery,

Scentient Nature

Loved it…as i grew up the hilly regions of western Assam,India, with the jungles and the river being an integral part of my life…with my father who is fond of plants , flowers ,animals…..Your writings made me nostalgic……those precious memories of my childhood days ….now with my new found love for essential oils( I regret not exploring before)….I am trying to understand this magical world……

Dibyajyoti Borgohain

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