I’ve always been interested in perfume, but it wasn’t until I began researching what goes into it that I started to get a passion for making something that was pure,” says Virginia Di Somma, founder, curator and perfumer of The Olfactory, an all-natural, Auckland-based perfume brand.
“I get stirred up when so called ‘natural’ brands are not transparent and make claims along the lines of being 95 percent natural. Why adulterate a pure product with 5 percent of anything synthetic and completely destroy its integrity?
“The Olfactory perfumes are pure and unadulterated, made with the highest perfume grade essential oils available. Even our ethanol, made by a local master distiller in Puhoi, is food grade. My teacher in Italy used to joke that our customers should be able to drink the perfumes we compose, and while that’s true, and I’ve done it, I wouldn’t recommend it!”
The perfumer admits that she had previously worn synthetic perfumes for most of her life, but now uses her old designer scents as air fresheners: “The ones I haven’t already given away I use in the bathroom!” she chuckles. “They may smell good, but I don’t want them anywhere near my skin.”
Virginia says essential oils are good for the endocrine system to better “govern hormones, memory, arousal and all sorts of things”.
“Essential oils get absorbed into your bloodstream, and support the body,” she continues, “whereas synthetic ingredients are actually toxic and interrupt and block our endocrine system from doing important work. I had no idea that even most niche perfumes only contain between 2-12 percent pure essential oils. The rest are synthetic imitations, cheaper to produce and more reliable for high volume production.”
At $149-$585, The Olfactory’s offerings are most certainly at the higher end of the market. The Olfactory (cleverly christened in honour of the bulb in our brains that links smells to memories and emotions) not only offers scents crafted from the “purest ethically sourced essential oils on the planet”, but a bespoke service that speaks to your individuality; a unique, once in a lifetime scent that may mark a special occasion for both men and women, such as an engagement, wedding, anniversary or significant birthday.
“It took more than three years to perfect our process,” says Virginia over coffee in Ponsonby. “With the help of a few psychological profiling questions, we came up with our own insightful questionnaire that gets to the heart of who a person is. We then help guide you toward what will reflect what is important, to what will support you in life – as well as make you feel and smell unique and delicious!”
Two final iterations are crafted, allowing the customer the final say and ensuring their involvement throughout the process. Virginia says the oils have their own energies, characters almost, that align with our bodies’ chemistry. Certain smells lure certain people, and in turn, our personal scents can attract – or repel – others.
“Smell is one of the most important things that attracts us to one another as humans, albeit unconsciously,” says Virginia. “You are emitting a smell every minute of the day without even realising it. Our perfumes react with the body to create a scent that connects intimately with your own pheromones. For you and the people you allow in for a hug and kiss, rather than a dominating, disguising smell to be announced to all within the vicinity!”
Our sense of smell is considered our most evocative, and even, says Virginia, the one that stays with you the longest: “There have been studies that show smell is the last sense you experience before you die. My mum passed away recently, and we made sure to burn essential oils in her room before she passed. I used them to embalm her body too, rather than fill her with all the toxic chemicals so bad for the planet.”
Her mother’s death, she adds, has forced her to face her own mortality, to focus on “what is important, what is non-negotiable”. “I’ve found myself wondering how long I have left – my mum was in her 101st year, so if I live as long as her that’s a good while yet! But you still have to be strategic and purposeful, decide what you want, and make it happen.”
Virginia considers her chosen path a service to others. “I love the connections I make with people while in the studio,” she says, “finding out who they are and what is important to them. I really value that, and then to be able to give them something that is a meaningful support to their lives. I’m very grateful to be doing this work.”
Virginia owned a fashion boutique in Christchurch in a previous life, forced to start afresh when her business was destroyed by the 2011 quake. Before relocating to Auckland, she headed to Italy (Virginia has Maori-Italian ancestry) where she studied under renowned perfumer Dominique Dubrana. “I’ve noticed seven to eight-year patterns in my life,” she reveals. “The earthquakes brought me here, and now with my mum gone, it feels like a new journey is about to begin.”
She recently purchased 38 acres of native bush in the Kaipara with her sons and their families, and plans to eventually establish her own scented gardens and perfume studio there. It is, she beams, her happy place. Being part Maori, an instinctual connection with the land comes with the territory. Though she enjoys her freedom, Virginia admits it would be great to share her journey with someone special, “but it has to be the right person.”
“I can’t imagine ever getting sick of making perfume for people,” she smiles. “I see myself on the land as an old lady … happy. Happy making perfume. Kids and grandchildren around.”
Centuries of Scent
From the Egyptians to the Chinese to the Greeks and Romans, perfumes have been used by ancient civilisations around the world.
A 3,000-year-old Mesopotamian tablet reveals the first known perfumer to be a woman named Tapputi.
The oldest perfumes were found in Cyprus, and were more than 4,000 years old.
The Ancient Egyptians are thought to have created the first specially designated perfume bottles, including glass ones.
Egyptian priests are cited as the fathers of modern perfume, creating fragrances to mask sacrificial offerings, especially fond of aromatic wood and myrrh imported from other regions of the African continent.
The Persians perfected the distillation process and use of alcohol as a base.
The spread of Christianity curtailed the use and making of perfume during the Middle Ages in much of Europe, during which time Muslims predominantly kept the art alive. Ironically, Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought back scent-making recipes.
The Renaissance reintroduced perfume to the Western world, especially among the upper classes and most notably in France.
The creation of synthetic compounds during the Victorian era gave birth to the modern perfume industry.