The Nose Knows

By Janice Carter Levitch

Photos by Kathryn Harrington

Memories, imagination, old sentiments and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” –Oliver Wendell Holmes


Let me tell you about my recent experience at the American Perfumer, located at 211 Clover Lane, where I met co-owners Dave Kern and Matt White. There is something in the air that stirs and builds anticipation for a boutique solely committed to our sense of smell and, particularly, fragrances created solely by American perfumers (hence the name).

Portrait by J. Edward Brown.

Several years ago, I received a sculpture of a large nose made of white porcelain regally perched on a black pedestal from a dear friend of mine. He gave it to me as a gift and to honor my strong sense of smell, which at times can be a nuisance depending on which way the wind is blowing and what smell it’s gotten a hold of. He told me it was interesting how I could identify the fragrance a person was wearing after being near them for just a few moments. We would laugh about how often I would get it – as he said – “right on the nose.” So, you can imagine how excited I became when I was asked to spend the afternoon in a perfume shop. From the moment I stepped inside, I was overwhelmed with the possibilities. Could I have a custom fragrance created? Would they know enough about my style to understand what I preferred? All of my questions were put to rest when I caught up with Dave Kern to discuss our shared love of the perfume industry.

Tell me about American Perfumer.

“My partner in this business is Matt White, and he is brilliant. The first thing I like to do is welcome someone into our store and let them know who we are and what we’re about. We have 125 perfumes from the 30 perfumers we represent, focusing exclusively on American perfumers. With their images on the wall and the bottles being as pretty as they are, usually the customer will take it from there and figure out the process. I let them explore and ask questions about what they’re interested in. It all comes down to the individual wearer, and it’s about what it makes the wearer feel and experience. I think you should wear a fragrance for what you prefer – whether it’s memory triggering or just sheer aromatic pleasure.  Everyone can relate to fragrance in one way or another.”

Do the seasons affect what people choose to wear?

“It depends. Either someone has committed to wearing one fragrance all year around because it’s like their ritual or some people like certain fragrances to fit their mood or time of the year.”

What do you think this shop brings to the perfume community?

American Perfumer Co-Owner Dave Kern.

“In a very small way, I would love to have a little store that always does this. Long term, I think focusing on this group has the attention of the perfume industry, and they feel its worthy of their attention. They like what we are about and we have great momentum. (Fellow) perfumers have been so enthusiastic about this.”

Will customers get to connect with the perfumers you represent?

“Hopefully, over time, all the perfumers we represent will come here and meet our customers so they can get to know them. Whether it’s a distiller or an interior designer, I think fragrance is a big part of the conversation right now, and there will be a lot of ways for our perfumers to assist in those industries that want to express the olfactory. Also, our perfumers will create a bespoke fragrance for our clients, and that cost will vary.”

How do you view the shop’s place in the industry?

“I think what we are really trying to do is bring people who are interested over to what’s most interesting. The intimacy that they can achieve with American perfumers is immediate and it’s growing in a way that an American audience can grow their interest. It’s been 25 years in the making now, but they still compete with big brands with a lot of money behind them. If we can have our perfumes compete on nothing but the merits of what’s in the bottle and the execution of concept, then we will always be successful. Whether that concept is something refreshing you splash on in the middle of July and it is meant to be a simple tonic or it expresses a singular artistic point of view, I think we want to simply represent the best of all of those perfume experiences. If 20 names of our perfumers are on the minds of millions of Americans sometime in the future, then we will have been successful.”

Do you think people wear fragrances for themselves or other people?

“I think people who really connect with perfume are wearing it for themselves. People who are in the wider community who wear perfume more offhandedly like an accessory might wear it for different reasons.”

Matt White and I chatted over the phone about his role at the shop since he was traveling in Malibu when I interviewed Dave.

“American Perfumer is creating a new market category in American artisan perfume, and Dave Kern has emerged as both an ambassador and an authority in this new and exciting movement,” Matt commented. Stay tuned for my April column when I travel to Napa Valley and meet up with Matt at his winery (that’s all I can say about that at this time – it’s a wine embargo).

My take away from the experience? The fragrance that leaves an impression with you always comes about for the right reasons. This is something that I learned after spending some time with Dave at his shop. He was patient and helped me to sample numerous perfumes. The one I was especially drawn to is called Lampblack and was created by Bruno Fazzolari. It’s sort of like a revolution of fragrance – just out of the norm and pushing boundaries. Another one I adore is Amora by Hans Hendley, which I would describe as a traditional, fruity floral that Hendley added a new twist to.

This entire experience has only heightened my fascination with my own sense of smell. Who knows, maybe I will be adding aromatologist to my list of accomplishments soon. V