In this brand-new series we go out to the perfume industry people behind the scenes, helping to make international communities smell great! Our premiere episode takes us to the windy city of Chicago where we make a pitstop at Merz Apothecary (also known as Smallflower.com online)! Inside we are greeted by store manager Dana Jasper and Grace Ann Watson, their Visual Merchandiser. These two ladies have much to say about perfume, and I had a great time listening to all of their scented tales, it’s time to share this with all of you now — so let’s not waste another minute!
Q: What is your favorite season + smell associated with it?
Grace Ann (GA): I love cold weather! December- February really as dismal as that sounds. When wearing fragrance during these wacky months I switch from sweet and warm scents at the holidays, to bright green, citrus and fresher scents mid January to push me through the rest of the dark gray days.
Dana (D): It is no secret around here that I love summer! Long days, warm air, the smell of sunscreen…even that synthetic tropical coconut scent really does it for me. I also love the winter holidays and, pre-pandemic, loved dressing up and wearing my amber and oriental fragrances for cold weather holiday parties. Deeper, spicier fragrances always feel special around Christmas time.
Q: Is there a particular perfume that stirs up childhood memories – and would you share a short anecdote?
GA: Classic basic rose. I was given a tiny solid perfume when I was about 8 with a rose painted on the lid. I would keep it in this pink light up toy vanity and everytime I smell it It reminds me of playing dress up.
D: Estee Lauder ‘White Linen’ without a doubt-my mother wore this fragrance when I was born and into my childhood and I still love it. It is nostalgic and comforting to me.
Q: What is the best thing about working at Merz Apothecary?
GA: The lovely people I get to spend my days with! Their knowledge and passion knows no bounds.
D: Being part of a historic, family owned business is pretty extraordinary and rare. Taking care of our long time multi generational customers who still remember the “old days” as well as introducing new customers to the magic that is Merz Apothecary never gets old. Having access to and getting to be around all these amazing hard-to-find products is always exciting.
Q: Ancestry. Right to your roots here – are there familial fragrances that you associate with your family, or those of your personal cultural heritage?
GA: Fleur de Peau from Diptyque straight up smells like my late Grandmother’s home in Arkansas. To a T.
D: Beside the perfume I associate with my mother and childhood that I mentioned above, I would say that scents that I strongly associate with my family and / or heritage are things like food smells-lots of Polish food, fruit brandy, tobacco etc…
Q: Chicago, oh what a town! Does it have general or specific smells associated with it?
GA: Well if we’re talking the current weather scenario (blizzard and all) there is a soft ozonic quality that settles into everything when there’s this much snow.
D: I grew up here in the city right on Lake Michigan so I associate Chicago with summers spent in the water and on the sand-earthy, a little dank sometimes, sunscreen and seaweed and summer breeze. Natives as well as folks that live or work in or around the West Loop also will tell you that nothing smells as distinct as the air around the Blommer Chocolate Factory when it is in full throttle chocolate production! Amazing.
Q: Do you have a few favorite perfume houses – both classic old school and contemporary makers?
GA: I don’t really have an old school fragrance house that I’m that into, mostly because I didn’t really get “into” fragrance until about 4 years ago. As for a contemporary fragrance house right now I’m most intrigued by D.S and Durga and Vilhelm, but I also seem to circle back to Byredo pretty consistently.
D: I was a kid who started wearing Chanel 5 at age 16…I always loved perfume that SMELLED like perfume, you know? I have such a deep love and appreciation for some of the older classic houses: Chanel, Jean Patou, Houbigant, Guerlain. I think contemporary houses / makers like D.S. & Durga, The Different Company and Fzotic by Bruno Fazzolari are doing great things. Diptyque is another semi-modern classic.
Q: Let’s talk notes. Are there specific accords that you absolutely love, and why?
GA: I love pink pepper, juniper, cucumber, grass, chai, sandalwood, rose, and osmanthus. For the first 4 I find them all incredibly uplifting. They can get nice and weird depending on how they are blended. Chai and Sandalwood have such wonderful depth and spice, they can be subtle and soft or loud and bold. As for florals I’m a sucker for a fresh rose, it just makes me feel so good! Osmanthus is a note I connected with a few years ago, and it always enthrals me.
D: Powder! Orris, heliotrope…I love the “lipstick” scent. Chypres, patchouli, sweeter ambers, tobacco, some incense and smoke, oakmoss, rose sometimes. I like long-wearing, big fragrances so I gravitate toward many fragrances formulated with these materials.
Q: Same question – except, the notes you can do without?
GA: Camphor/ smoke, I find these overwhelm my nose and overpower anything else they are blended with. Animalic musks, they’re a funk I just can’t get with.
D: Heavy, animalic musks-amazing on some people and I love to have our customers try these on in store as an experiment to see how they wear on different people but it is tough for me to enjoy this type of scent on myself. Scents that are so smoky they smell like barbeque is another category I cannot get into on myself.
Q: When not working at Smallflower/Merz what do you do for fun and creativity?
GA: I am an avid TV watcher and I do quite a bit of crochet. I also dabble with nail art and embroidery.
D: When I am home I am constantly cooking, it is probably my favorite hobby. I also love to read and I’m a huge music person. During summer time I try to spend as much time on the beach as I can.
Q: How has business been, given the effects of the pandemic?
GA: Business has been interesting to say the least. Once we opened for limited browsing after Thanksgiving was when I noticed a shift in shopping. Not only were people shopping for gifts for the holidays, but they were indulging themselves for making it through the eternity that was 2020. It was interesting getting to discuss fragrance, with new guidelines in place, with regular clients. I was a little surprised at just how much I missed it!
D: 2020 and now shortly into 2021 has been the most interesting time in my retail career and not in a bad way. We did a ton of pivoting early on as we were not open for walk-in shopping so our focus was on our pickup and ecommerce business which boomed during the pandemic. Being with the team as we worked together to keep the business running and to get our customers the things they needed was so inspiring given how scary and uncertain things were. Giving fragrance, skin care, makeup, health and wellness consults over the phone and through email allowed us to flex our communication and product knowledge muscles in new ways! It has been a crazy, fun time in that sense. I really missed being in the store with our customers though so I am glad we are open again for in store shopping. I think the in person human connection has been good for all of us. And we’ve been busy-people are ready to get out and restore some sense of normalcy, shop for their own things, smell fragrances in real time albeit through their masks, etc.
Q: What is the most unusual fragrance you have come across in recent memory?
GA: Beaufort ‘Rake + Ruin’, It smells like jalapenos to me. It’s sticky and stinky.
D: Hilde Soliani ‘Hot Milk’: it smells like shellfish cooked in cream and butter and black peppercorn.
Q: Big performing perfumes with a humongous scent trail. Underrated or overrated?
GA: Overrated in my book. So many people come in and ask for these scents with trails miles long because they smelled it on a friend or colleague. They don’t realize that when they experience it the fragrance has been on this person’s clothes, skin, or coats for weeks and what comes out of the bottle is something totally different. I’m also a person who reads fragrance as something much more intimate, to draw a person in and bring them closer to you.
D: It depends. I personally love these types of fragrances and wear many of them but I find there can be more appropriate times and not so appropriate times to wear them. I don’t think it is very modern at this point to make one of these types of scents your “signature” and wear it everyday, everywhere. I believe in having a fragrance wardrobe. I LOVE big fragrances at work (we can do that here as we are not in an office!) or going out to, say, a bar or concert on a Saturday night. Would I necessarily wear one to a small, intimate restaurant for dinner where everyone is on top of each other and eating? Perhaps not.
Q: Apothecaries are similar (yet often great alternatives) to big drug store chains going back many years abroad and even in this country. Can you tell us a little more from your own experience?
GA: I haven’t had much apothecary experience outside of Merz. I did go to Italy a couple years ago and European apothecaries are awesome. It’s a totally different experience from pretty much anything else in the US.
D: At Merz Apothecary, and in the apothecary setting in general across the world, we have the opportunity to treat health concerns, wellness, self-care, even indulgences in a holistic sense with a personal touch. We are a small business and vet everything that we carry-we know that efficacy matters, ingredients matter, deep knowledge and expertise matter, even things like packaging and merchandising matter to the pleasure and sensorial experience of the people that come into our store. Our customers know that we are a one stop shop for trusted health advice from a pharmacist or sales person, personal care items that are hand picked by our buyers and staff as well as THE place to get gifts year round. Apothecaries are so unique in this way, Merz is unique in this way, there is nowhere else in the city and only a few other places in the country where you can have a similar experience.
Q: Secondarily, the traditional apothecary was a dispensary for all sorts of herbal medicinal cures dating back to the BC era. With offerings of lotions and potions, how have they stayed the same and how do you adapt to modern society, and society to this specialized service? Is it an Western/Eastern cultural thing?
GA: This is a big one! I think apothecaries will always be a thing. The level of service and customization you get is much more unique than a typical drug store. We have a nice balance here at Merz. You can get an herbal remedy for your sleep troubles, a homeopathic for your allergies, a moisturizer for your skin, candle for your home and fragrance for your nose! I think apothecaries as a whole embrace more of a lifestyle practice than just grabbing what you need, which is definitely a more European and even Eastern approach to shopping. We definitely have a lot of customers who are sent here because their friends said, “Merz probably has it!”
D: We have always had a huge European and international clientele as herbal and homeopathic medicine has been more widely practiced and trusted for a longer time in other countries and cultures than it has been in the States generally speaking. The great thing that is happening now with more research and professional studies coming out concerning the herbal and natural health world is that people who perhaps did not grow up in these practices, young people etc. are coming in looking for alternative remedies to OTC medicines, natural ways to build immunity, herbal remedies to help sleep, cold, flu, stress, the list goes on. People are open, they’re willing to try things, they do their research but they come in with great questions and we end up building relationships with many of them. Offer someone a tincture to help sleeping AND then the perfect gift for their friend’s birthday? You can’t go wrong. Modern apothecaries are a one-stop-shop as I said before. Regardless of East versus West, Merz has the reputation it does because we balance what is new and modern in, say, skin and body care technology in what we are bringing in but also have tried and true therapeutic tea recipes that are 100+ years old. We keep and offer what we know works and are also always on the hunt for the next amazing product.
Q: Let’s talk about sense of place and perfume, shall we? Take a trip with me. Can you name a particular perfume that took you on a voyage recently? Where did it take you too and how significant are such expressions in a time where lockdowns, etc. are commonplace?
GA: Vilhelm ‘Basilico & Fellini’. This reminds me of my first trip to Italy. I was so lucky to spend a couple of weeks there exploring both rural and urban areas of such a lovely country. This particular fragrance takes me back to a dinner I had at Badia a Cultibuono. Earlier in the day we got to explore the grounds walking through gardens and gazing at the rolling hills, later that evening when we returned for dinner the air was hot and humid but so green and lively. It was such a beautiful place and the meal was so delicious, unlike anything I’d ever had before. This fragrance brings those wonderful memories right to the forefront of my mind. Green and warm, sweet and smooth, the scents of the scenery and the food and the wine coming together in the most spectacular way. Fragrance is such a transportive element it is so important in this time. Even if it isn’t to another place entirely, putting on a fragrance can change your mood, thus shifting your perspective.
D: Francis Kurkdijan’s ‘Grand Soir’ is one of the fragrances that got me obsessed with “niche” perfume in the first place. I hadn’t been wearing a lot of fragrance during the pandemic, I got into this rut of being a bit fatigued and bummed that I couldn’t wear my favorite lipsticks out as I wear a mask all day, I couldn’t pick the perfume I was going to wear on a night out and douse myself and my clothing in it-this type of rut. The other day I picked up Grand Soir and put it on-it was so comforting and warm, so enveloping like a cushy sweater and it excited me like I remember being excited when I wore it for the first time years ago. I think these little indulgences, little pleasures, are so important especially now when self-care is key in keeping us mentally healthy and grounded when we spend so much time solo or indoors having little variation in our day to day lives.
Q: When you assist a customer looking for something in the shop, how do you determine what may fit their lifestyle or need in a fragrance?
GA: I ask a bunch of questions. Sometimes a determining factor is price point or size so I try to show things within those limitations first. Although more often than not when someone finds something they love price and size take a back burner in terms of requirement.
D: It depends on the customer. Some people are really clear on what they like or what they think they may like which makes the initial “diving in” pretty easy and we can go from there. We also have quite a few customers that are big collectors. If someone is not sure what they like but want to delve into the world of fragrance I sometimes will ask if they know what they DON’T like and go from there. We are really casual and relaxed about fragrance consulting though-elitism or snobbishness are never terms I want our fragrance shop to be associated with. We want it to be approachable and fun. I will often just start pulling things off the wall and spraying them onto blotters, looking for the customer’s reaction to certain scents. I use intuition all the time to narrow down my selections-I listen to how they describe scents, their body language, what they keep going back to on the wall visually, which blotters they go back to and key words about their life / work. And you HAVE to get it on the skin. Wear it and see, it is the only way to decide on something you will really love.
Q: An underrated house of note that you want to get more recognition?
GA: Fzotic by Bruno Fazzolari. There’s literally something for everyone.
D: I agree with Grace Ann here- Bruno is doing some really interesting fragrances as well as stuff I find very classic in style. Meo Fusciuni’s namesake brand is pretty extraordinary, each scent is totally different and I love them all. Masque Milano is another house that should blow up! Such quality and variety.
Q: Let’s talk about botanical, natural, organic fragrances. How do you see them differing from the larger brand-names and how do you differentiate a true perfumer from any number of companies that produce those small bottles of essential oils that you can find almost everywhere, or is there a difference at all?
GA: This is tough. I think there’s a lot of misinformation about how fragrance is made to begin with which leads to misconceptions about natural/ organic fragrances. Essential oils can be worn as fragrance when put in a carrier oil. Many people think these essential oils are easy to come by or extract and they don’t realize they can get crazy expensive, bulgarian rose for example. On top of that natural extracts sometimes come from the whole plant and smell nothing like the commercially known scent, think lavender. I think there is definitely a place for natural fragrances but I believe it’ll always be in a niche setting until transparency about fragrance production and ingredients becomes more mainstream.
D: I gotta piggyback on what Grace Ann said. The terms “natural” and “organic” are thrown around so much these days, it is hard to know what that really means in terms of perfume. I try to be clear that a synthetic fragrance note is not necessarily “bad” for you in terms of your wearing it on the skin suspended in perfumer’s alcohol just the same way that essential oils are raw materials of natural, pure fragrance can be volatile on the skin or mucous membranes if not properly diluted. I don’t love to speak in terms of bad or good or right or wrong. We like what we like and in a customer service setting like ours we simply want to find the customer something they like, whatever that form of scent may be. Personally, I prefer to spend time learning about and experiencing what I think is true perfumery (dilution of fragrance in alcohol), not roll on oil “perfume” or solid “perfume”.
Q: Do you have a particular fragrance that is a ‘go-to’ for those times when you are seeking a bit of relaxation, or healing from the Covid Blues or any general urban malaise?
GA: Byredo Unnamed. I purchased it right before the pandemic lock down began so it reminds me of my last dinner out before everything shut down.
D: Penhaligon’s ‘Artemisia” is powdery and cozy, I love a spritz before bed.
Q: What do you think about the very popular perume backstories?
GA: Oh I’m a sucker for a backstory. Whether it’s about the whole brand or each individual fragrance I think a story is very important. A brand like Byredo which bases everything off of memories from the brands creator to something like Santa Maria Novella, the world’s oldest apothecary, is going to have something that someone connects with. I think the story can be quite impactful on the wearing experience.
D: Branding, marketing, storytelling is how so many of us connect to products these days. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t buy into much of it! Of course I want to go on a scent journey with a perfumer-the story or inspiration is definitely part of what informs the sensory experience of smelling and wearing the perfume. Some houses do this extremely well-Byredo, Vilhelm, Diptyque. Meo Fusciuni come to mind.
Q: What do you think of houses like Escentric Molecules, or say, Demeter, in terms of showcasing a singular note? Do you see this as a form of isolating specific ingredients as a way of adapting to minimal tastes or as a form of educating the public about fragrance notes and their origins?
GA: One note fragrances can be quite interesting. It really showcases what that particular note would smell like and teaches how things can change on your skin vs how it smells on someone else. I think Demeter is a fun brand to play around with. You can layer them with fragrances in your collection to create a new experience or mix a few together to create a custom scent. It lends itself to the minimalist and the maximalist.
D: Both. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to appeal to those that do not want strong, projecting, complex fragrance. I like big fragrances but oftentimes I will put on Juliette Has a Gun ‘Not a Perfume” to give myself a break. It gives those of us in store the opportunity to give a bit of fragrance formulation trivia to our customers by explaining what Cetalox or Iso e Super is, how it can smell, having them experience it etc.
Q: As we previously talked about we are doing this ongoing series called ‘One Note Wonders’ which I attempt to adapt seasonally by month, selecting one somewhat broad accord/note to focus on each month. We already completed our focus on Absinthe (Jan), Woody (Feb) but I wonder if you have any perfume suggestions for our upcoming months regarding Tobacco (Mar) and Ginger (Apr)?
GA: Hmmm for Tobacco (March) I’d say Tobacco 1812 from West Third Brand, a sweet, fresh tobacco, and for Ginger (April) St. James Black Ginger and Amaranth which has a green, sweet, spicy vibe.
D: For Tobacco I like ‘Broken Theories’ by Kerosene or ‘Pavillon Rouge’ from Jovoy. For ginger ‘Fils de Dieu’ by Etat Libre is lovely.
Q: Conceptual perfume. I see this term being levied from time to time. I know what it means in terms of contemporary art, but in perfume?
GA: I’m not going to lie I had to google this one…and I’m still not sure what it means. My interpretation would be a fragrance blended more for concept than final result. Blending together different notes to evoke a feeling or entice a memory regardless of its wearability. Then packaging it in a vessel that could be seen as a piece of art and design versus just a containment device.
D: There are artists using fragrance as part of installation work and gallery showings to add to the symbology or meaning or significance of the work, to create a unique experience that adds something to the art and the way you see/sense/feel it. This is what I think of when I think of conceptual perfume, though I am not sure if there are other meanings to the term. Matt Morris, an artist and writer based in Chicago, frequently uses fragrance/perfumery in his work or as the work itself, in a conceptual way. Grace Ann and I are huge fans of his. Check him out-http://www.mattmorrisworks.com/perfume-1
Q: This is a two-parter: Can you name a new and upcoming perfume house to watch for? Do you have a favorite nose(s), even across brands, that consistently creates fragrances that you find intoxicating or timeless?
GA: I’m gonna pass this one off to Dana. My knowledge in terms of noses and fragrance houses is fairly limited, but I will say Masque Milano is a pretty interesting fragrance house. It also brings attention to the different noses that created each fragrance.
D: The talent of Francis Kurkdijan cannot be denied! He consistently creates beautiful, wearable fragrances that are never too trendy or boring. Celine Ellena is another perfumer that comes to mind thinking of timeless fragrances. I have to plug Anat Fritz ‘Tzora’ too though, created by the great Geza Schoen. It is the most well balanced, intoxicating, perfect woody fragrance I have ever smelled. I get jazzed about this scent all over again each time I wear or demo it. It is one of my all time favorites. I know that doesn’t have to do with a perfumer across brands (although he did create Escentric Molecule), I just had to mention it!
Q: Thank you for taking the time out to be posed twenty questions! Lastly, what are your hopes and dreams for the future of perfumery?
GA: It actually ties back to your previous question, I would love the noses behind fragrances to be more prominent. If we think about fashion houses along the likes of Dior, Givenchy and Gucci more and more people are tracking the artistic directors and lead designers for certain collections and following their work when they do different projects. I think if more people learned about the actual person who was making their fragrance versus the brand name it would change the way fragrances are collected and talked about in the mainstream.
D: My hope is that people continue to become interested in niche fragrance and fragrance in general and that the industry keeps growing. I want people to forget what they think they love or don’t love and experiment with scent.
More Info about Merz Apothecary/Smallflower.com