12.29 / scent designer
interview by CAROLINE GAIMARI
portrait by OLIVIER ZAHM
After studying art history and business at New York University, Dawn Goldworm interned at the fragrance giant Avon, where her boss eventually convinced her to have her nose tested for perfumery. She passed the exam with flying colors, spent the next five years at International Flavors & Fragrances New York perfumery school, and then worked at the fragrance houses Firmenich and Givaudan, where she became the nose for Coty Beauty Europe. Now based between Paris and New York, Dawn and her twin sister Samantha have started 12.29, their own olfactive branding company, which scents runways, hotels, retail shops, art fairs, and human beings around the world.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — What are your favorite existing perfumes?
DAWN GOLDWORM — I am completely obsessed with and fantasize about Shalimar once a month, the way it was when it was first created. It’s one of the most sensual, voluptuous perfumes. That whole family was made for the woman that I think all of us want to be: our sensual, powerful, intimidating, raw selves. Shalimar was the ultimate perfection of that in a scent. I also like French Lover by Frederic Malle, it has a great construction that smells great on all men — and women. Aqua Universalis by Francis Kurkdjian is interesting because it’s a modern interpretation of a clean smell. It’s not done in this kind of ’90s superficial, transparent way, but with more texture — it’s dirty and clean at the same time. The Eau de Cologne from the Chanel Exclusifs line is a great modern interpretation of how to do an eau de cologne. I love the way Coco by Chanel smelled, because my mother wore it when I was a child. My father would bring it back from his travels, and my mom would give the flacon to me when there wasn’t much left. I would put it into my underwear drawer and think about what I would smell like one day when I was old enough to meet a man.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — How did you go from studying art history to what you call technically “evaluating perfumes”?
DAWN GOLDWORM — I did a two-month internship for Avon. A few years later, when I was in London at Sotheby’s getting a master’s in art business, the director of fragrance at Avon called me back and asked me if I would be interested in coming in and getting my nose tested, so I flew back to New York, and I did well. I trained at IFF in New York and then with Firmenich for another year doing genealogy — which is the study of the initial structures in scent, how to identify them and fit in new ingredients over time. I then studied at Givaudan in Paris for two years in sourcing and extraction of raw materials, and the creation of molecules.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — What are you working on right now?
DAWN GOLDWORM — In 2009, I started my own olfactive branding company with my sister, called 12.29. Just this year after finishing the Lady Gaga scent, I left Coty to concentrate full-time on my own company. I had written my thesis on olfactive branding. Since then, I’ve been working on lots of projects, from scenting a Rodarte show in New York with Bureau Betak to the Design Miami fair during Art Basel. Also, I’ve worked with a luxury hotel chain, a furniture company, and young designers like Thakoon, Chadwick Bell, and Calla on their shows.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — What is the draw for a brand to have its own scent?
DAWN GOLDWORM — On a more scientific level, when you smell something, your olfactive nerve stimulates the emotional cortex of your brain, and you create what I call “scent emoticons,” or smells linked with emotions, and these float around your memory. Your olfactive memory being the largest and most acute part of your memory, these bridges are quite strong. These scent memories don’t leave your brain. If you can get your client to create this scent memory through your custom scent, you can completely influence how they perceive and understand your brand and control the experience that they have in your space.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — What exactly is synesthesia, and when did you realize you had it?
DAWN GOLDWORM — Synesthesia is a condition that enables a person to understand one sense through another. I met someone the other day who, when he hears sounds, he tastes them; an A-sharp tastes differently than a D-flat. Personally, I see color when I hear or look at letters or numbers; they are all in color to me, which is how I memorize them. I found out that I could do it through smell when I was training at IFF. My mentor is a synesthete and he paints perfumes. I could look at the painting and understand the scent through it, understand where the colors came from. When I started to train my nose and understand that I could smell color, it took my learning to a whole other level. When I evaluate, I see all of the ingredients in the perfume as different colors, and I move the colors around within the structure to redesign the perfume for different audiences. The creative process that I go through with a brand is heavily based on the colors they identify with, the textures, and the emotional territory.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Making it quite convenient to do a scent for Purple?
DAWN GOLDWORM — True, in a way. But more because Olivier Zahm had such a specific understanding of the word “purple.” Olivier said that he chose the name “purple” because purple is a difficult color to reproduce. It’s not a primary color; it’s very complex and rich, deep, tender. It’s also quite sexual. It’s very interesting for a scent. He also said that purple isn’t really a color; it’s more of a sensation — like blue velvet — which evokes a feeling and texture. We spoke about the history of Purple, why it was created and what he thinks it stands for. He said that even though Purple is an idea that brings together fashion, art, architecture, politics, and philosophy, it doesn’t take itself too seriously — there is always that personal, intimate, sexual aspect. There is a part that can be understood by everyone, but there are other layers that are harder to understand. After we went through this process, we smelled raw materials and went from his preferences. It took two years to get to the final perfume. The Purple perfume is based on the idea of a complex, animated, rich, soft, deep color with these textures to it. And, of course, it’s very sexual.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — How do you translate this visual idea in your head into an olfactive formula that a lab can re-create?
DAWN GOLDWORM — That’s the gift of synesthesia. I see perfume. When I go through and deconstruct a brand or person, and we smell raw materials through this lens, I can see the olfactive vision in my mind. With this information, I go back to our fragrance partner, Firmenich, and tell the specific perfumer what I see. Over the next few months or years, we massage it, change it, pull apart the different nuances and put them back together. We go through maybe 100 modifications in between the ones that the client sees — it’s like making a couture gown: you take measurements and only at certain points do they try it on so you can refit it.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Is the process of creating a perfume for a brand different from creating a custom scent for a person?
DAWN GOLDWORM — It’s similar. For a person, they almost have to objectify themselves. People really appreciate the process, as it’s quite narcissistic. It’s an emotional experience making the scent. It’s like getting a portrait done of yourself if you had never looked in the mirror — you smell this thing made from you, when you couldn’t have conceived it before. Creating your own perfume is taking all the pieces inside of you — to create a good one you need the good and the bad — and taking them outside of yourself, deconstructing who you are. It probably will smell nothing like what you thought. I bring the person through a list of questions to help them objectify their thought process: If you could see yourself in a color, what would that be? You wouldn’t say just “purple,” you would say a deep, plush burgundy purple or a deep red wine purple that’s been sitting in the cellar for 10 years. I want it to be liquid, cold, but deep and rich at the same time. Just those words, that color, temperature, and texture create the structure of the base of a perfume. I didn’t create something that didn’t exist — all I did was translate you into a smell.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Do you think we are attracted to someone in part because of the way they smell?
DAWN GOLDWORM — I am convinced that the most profound experience that we can have with scent is through the smell of people. Starting with the smell of our parents. You identify your mother through the smell of her breast milk. From there, your whole world is smell as a child; everyone that you interact with and build yourself through is based on the smells and people around you. The idea of having your first love, or encountering people throughout your life — lovers, friends, parents, siblings — all of these things are so linked with smell, because that’s emotion and olfactive memory, and you can’t divide the two. It’s such an essential part of how you interpret other people, and it’s completely unconscious. I would argue that when you are attracted to someone or something — it’s greatly based on the smell. Which is why I don’t really understand Internet dating!
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Because you are missing out on that sensory contact?
DAWN GOLDWORM — Yes. You miss out on that necessary emotional connection. For example, I think the sweetest smell on a man is along his hairline: they sweat there just a little bit; the laundry detergent on the collar of their shirt rubs there just a little bit; you might get a little bit of aftershave there or hair product. There is something about the mixture of those smells with their own personal smell that is intoxicating. On a woman, an interesting place to smell her is near her breasts. It’s a mix of her body lotion, where she sprays her perfume, where she sweats just a little bit. Without using your eyes, without using the understanding of sound or tasting and touching something, you can completely create the idea of someone in your mind through smelling them. I think that’s very romantic.
CAROLINE GAIMARI — What are the dream fashion brands to work with?
DAWN GOLDWORM — I would love to do a perfume for Yohji Yamamoto, because if you could translate the word “romantic” into the cut, the flow of a dress, that would be Yohji Yamamoto for me. I would have loved to make a scent for Alexander McQueen’s shows — they were epic theater productions. The show where he had Little Red Riding Hood coming out in the cape, with the wolves after her — imagine if you could have also smelled the forest? Or something beastly, mixed with leather and a raw feeling of winter in that room?
CAROLINE GAIMARI — Beyond working with people or brands, how do you see yourself working with scent in the future?
DAWN GOLDWORM — By working so in-depth with scent, I realize that it has so much more power than we think. It may sound fantastical, but I would love to heal people with scent. In Alzheimer’s research, for example, scientists have realized that one of the first things to go is the olfactive nerve: you lose your sense of smell, and the little bridges between smell, emotion, and memory are destroyed. You can no longer access memories or make new memories, because your olfcative nerve and the emotional cortex of your brain are no longer stimulated, so you live either in the past or in another realm because you have lost access to your memory and you can’t create new ones. What if you could use scent to rebuild that bridge? What if you could use scent to change the perspective of people’s lives for rehabilitation? Scent alone could never do this completely, but alongside other measures, scent can help to change the way people live.
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