LOS ANGELES — Saskia Wilson-Brown makes coffee for a visitor to her Highland Park home. That’s not unusual.
But instead of a cup of coffee, Wilson-Brown is more interested in offering her guest a “whiff” of coffee.
What You Need To Know
- Saskia Wilson-Brown says a multi-billion-dollar fragrance industry holds too many patents on "smell molecules"
- The self-taught perfumer says "smell is a human right"
- She teaches regular classes on perfumery at the "Institute for Art and Olfaction" in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles
- Wilson-Brown and her colleagues maintain a comprehensive collection of scents from around the world
Wilson-Brown smells the grounds just before she pours them into the pot.
“It smells so good, earthy. It’s a little bit acidic,” she said.
And then the guest might take their coffee out on the patio with Wilson-Brown, who is quick to point out the smells there, too.
There’s a little dust,” said Saskia before taking a deep breath. “You know, I’m smelling dust from my table cloth, which is filthy.”
Wilson-Brown then points out the fragrant notes of a nearby house plant.
“Leafy-green, kind of camphorous note,” she said while smelling the plant.
Wilson-Brown is a self-taught smell expert and perfumer. A few years ago, after she was laid off from a corporate job at a television network, she followed her passion and created an organization dedicated to smell.
Wilson-Brown recently drove a reporter there, and along the way, they happened to pass by her favorite taco joint.
“Grilling meat,” she said. “It smells amazing.”
Wilson-Brown opened the Institute for Art and Olfaction in the Chinatown neighborhood. It's the first-ever nonprofit dedicated to educating the general public on perfumery.
“The purpose of the Institute is to bring scent and working with scent to everybody,” she said.
Wilson-Brown also noted that a multi-generational and multi-billion-dollar cosmetics industry is literally holding some smell molecules captive — out of reach, except on beauty counters.
“We are actively trying to democratize the perfume industry,” she said.
Wilson-Brown maintains the fragrance business is snooty. They look down their noses at us. Wilson-Brown says, however, that smell is a “human right.”
She and her associates literally began to collect smells commonly used by perfume companies — among the rarest in the world. Wilson-Brown walks along a wall of vials, filled with scents, and arranged in alphabetical order.
“Here we have coumarin,” she said, grabbing a vial off the shelf. “And coumarin is the first synthetic scent. It was developed in 1820-something.”
Some of the smells on the shelves are among the rarest in the world.
"This one is 'one-octon-3-ol,' otherwise known as 'Matsutake alcohol.'" she said while grabbing another vial off the shelf.
Wilson-Brown also has biblical smells in her collection: frankincense and myrrh. And not all smells smell so good.
"The real stuff is taken from the hind quarters of a little animal called a civet cat," said Wilson-Brown as she smelled from the vial. "Cat butt."
Wilson-Brown explained that some fragrances have unpleasant smells mixed into the formula. She said it’s like putting sea salt in a caramel recipe. It adds texture.
She began holding classes to teach people the basic science of perfumery and how to blend various odors to create their very own, signature scent.
When, the pandemic blew in and forced Wilson-Brown to shut the institute’s doors for a while, the irony was that COVID-19 often robbed its victims of their sense of smell. It’s a glimpse of what life might be like without our nose.
“One, I think a lot of the pleasure of life would be gone,” says Saskia. “It would go to a grey versus Technicolor. Let’s not forget: Smell is linked to taste.”
Wilson-Brown added that smell is also linked to memory. She recently reopened the institute with a new exhibit, “Dreaming in Smells.” It features the work of a European artist, who says he actual smells things in his dreams. The exhibit consists of bed sheets soaked in smells.
Following county health guidelines, however, guests had to take their whiff through surgical masks.