Growing up with a love for scents and fragrances, for Rei Nguyen, deciding which career path to pursue was a no-brainer. After graduating from a studio for olfactory design in Tokyo, Rei, who was the first Vietnamese to successfully organize a fragrance exhibition in Japan, returned to Vietnam to launch her own fragrance brand, NOTE - The Scent Lab.
Paying Rei our first visit at NOTE's first boutique in Thao Dien, her lively energy made the space seem more vibrant. We asked her what makes a good perfume artist, how to break into the industry and what kind of magic happens at NOTE lab.
What’s in the JD of a professional perfume aritist?
To give you a proper answer, I'd like to address some misconceptions people have about this profession.
One popular and persistent misconception is that as an authority on smell, only perfume artists can decide if a scent is beautiful. But that’s simply not true. The sense of smell is a gift all of us possess, and we perceive fragrances in our own unique ways.
When you don't find a scent appealing, it simply means that it has not touched you. So the artist’s job is to create a fragrance that will engage the wearer's emotions rather than simply concocting some abstract or transcendent composition.
Another misconception is that perfume makers have their heads in the clouds. In reality, this job requires a balance of emotion and logic. If an artist is sensitive but does not have an analytical mind, creating a beautiful aroma would be a struggle. On the other hand, if the artist has good technique, but cannot convey a story through their craft, then no matter how good the scent is, it won’t serve anything on the emotional level.
And lastly, what many people get wrong about perfumery is the nature of the workplace. People usually see me holding business meetings and organizing perfume crafting workshop. But the lion’s share of my time is actually spent in the lab. In other words, scent-making can be a pretty lonesome job.
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You’ve collaborated with a number of businesses on bespoke perfume. How do you create a fragrance fit for your client?
Business perfumery is a whole different story! My briefs for clients are long and detailed. During our discovery sessions I focus on understanding their expectations, from budget to packaging, and go from there.
The more detailed the brief, the more accurate the scent will be. If the customer is not sure what they want from the product, it is my duty to guide them through the process. The most important consideration when designing perfume for clients is that the scent must represent the brand’s identity — not the artist himself.
What was the most interesting request you received? How did it turn out?
I'm recently working on a cologne for men inspired by the 1920s barber shops. Normally, when creating a male fragrance you’d go for citrusy notes like orange, bergamot or lemon, as they have a cooling effect.
But Vietnam’s combination of tropical heat and humidity poses unique challenges. My quest here is to create a breakthrough summer fragrance that suits the climate while staying true to our original masculine concept with classic, jazzy notes.
Can you share more about Note — The Scent Lab?
NOTE officially launched in October 2019 and although it’s been less than a year since the release of our first fragrance, the brand’s DNA is already well established. We are a team of craftsmen, not dreamers. Cement candle jars and wooden solid perfume boxes are produced in-house, so our products have a very streamlined look. NOTE's identity can be described as “elegancy over roughness” — the harmony between a mild, tender scent and a strong, powerful package.
Our first foray into perfumery was via scented candles and essential oils. We've also built an extensive perfume library since then. Next up, we will launch our first niche perfume collection!
I want our customers to fall in love with NOTE at first whiff and to keep coming back because of the value the brand brings. This will set a solid base for the brand to grow more steady and thrive further.
Who are your inspirations?
There are three people who influenced the way I work and live. The first one is Sophia Grojsman, an American perfumer with a passion for roses, believes that wearing a scent is like listening to music. To her, a scent is associated with an emotion, and the perfumer is who to deliver feelings into scents. I’m very in tune with Sophia's ideologies and views.
Another person who influenced me greatly is Edmond Roudnitska, the father of Diorissimo — the best attempt at a lily of the valley. This is Christian Dior's favorite flower, whose essence cannot be extracted. Edmond spent 10 years going out to the garden every day to smell the lily, with countless attempts to achieve the finest replica. Although he doesn’t have many scents to his name, the ones with his stamp on have been loved for generations. To me, Edmond leads by example when it comes to patience.
And lastly, it's my olfactory teacher in Japan, Ms. Satori Osawa. She was the one who taught me that a beautiful scent comes from a heavenly soul. Scent is how an artist transmits his or her thoughts, so we must live whole-heartedly to create beautiful scents.
How does one break into this industry? What are the essential skills of a perfume artist?
For formal training, you can't beat France. But Japan is also a good starting point. Basic understanding of chemistry can be an advantage too.
Most important, however, is olfactory acuity. The process of interpreting smells requires a combination of analytical and perceptual skills, so you should be able to keep both the individual ingredients’ and resulting scent’s characteristics in mind when creating a perfume.
Furthermore, you need to be consistent. Unlike a piece of music or a film, the only way for us to engage with a perfume and to determine its value is through our sense of smell. And since it differs greatly from person to person, it’s your job as a perfumer to ensure every fragrance that comes out of your lab is consistently great.
It’s also important to integrate feelings into scents. Koudou, the art of appreciating Japanese incense, relies on a structure of codified conduct to appreciate the scent. Yet instead of using the the word “smell” (嗅ぐ), it uses "listen" (聞く) — or "to listen with the heart" — an action directed towards tranquility and inner peace. You don't have to go into the woods or up the mountain to find tranquility. Peace of mind is achieved when we devote ourselves to something; and that is how you create a truly beautiful scent.
Creating fragrances also requires patience. It takes a lot of time and effort to get the scent right and to become an expert. And this being research work, be prepared to face daily challenges alone at your desk.
What are some challenges people typically face in this job?
In an emerging market like ours, the perfume industry faces many barriers. Although NOTE was well received, in general the domestic ecosystem is very immature and consumers don’t associate local perfume brands with quality.
Then there is the challenge of hiring the right people. In Vietnam, it takes a brave soul to venture into an industry with no proven track record. Unless one is passionate enough about perfumery, convincing someone to take the plunge is no easy task.
Finally, there is the challenge of sourcing the ingredients. To give you an idea, about 100 different ingredients go into a perfume bottle. So for us, raw materials are one of the main expenditures — something a startup barely have to deal with.
But in every challenge comes an opportunity. The fact that the industry is in its infancy simply means that I can contribute more to building a foundation and pave the way for other companies who will come after me. For the domestic perfume market to grow, we need multiple players, not a handful of brands.
As a start, to bring the beauty of the olfactory art to the community, we’ve launched perfume-making workshops at NOTE. I am also currently working with a number of experts on establishing an organization for the industry in Vietnam. They are like-minded people, with a deep appreciation of perfumery so my hope is that together we can create an environment for Vietnam’s perfume market to thrive.
What is a typical day in your life?
Every morning before work, I run a small nose-training session. I’d typically go through 10 to 20 scents. This helps maintain the sharpness of my sense of smell, making me more effective.
During the day, when I don’t have business meetings, I spend time researching and formulating smells. Otherwise, I keep myself up to date with industry news. In the evening, I usually continue working on fragrances. Sometimes I write: for my blog or just for myself.
On weekends, I usually spend 1 to 2 hours running workshops. Since I spend most of my time alone in the lab, weekend workshops are my chance to meet people and mingle.
If there were a fragrance that encapsulates you, what would it be?
Patchouli — a woody scent with a strong aroma. I personally love earthly fragrances, such as moss and wood. Initially, you don’t think much of the smell but after a while patchouli reveals its character bringing a sense of reliability, stability and ... manliness!