Episode 3

The Magic and Art of Scent Making: Meet Cognoscenti

While multisensory design includes all five senses, the most overlooked may be the most powerful. Learn the intriguing history, science, and art of scent as told by Dannielle Sergent, architect, artist, and scent making founder of Cognoscenti.

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So I think most people ignore scent. And, you know, I got the question, well, why should we care about scent? And the question is, why not? It's like asking why should we care about vision or taste or touch? Scent is more powerful. And people ignore it. Dannielle Sergent, Cognoscenti Founder


CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast, we're here at Marketplace on Maiden Lane. I'm CCB your host, and I'm excited to share our conversation with our guest today. She is representing one of the senses, and we've been talking about design for the senses and the impact that multi-sensory design has on the environment and on the human experience. So today I'm sitting here with Danielle Sargent with Cognoscenti, which if you really want to remember it, you'll probably want to sound it out as 'Cogno-senti'. But Danielle is going to explain to us her experience in scent making and all sorts of fascinating facts about the science of scent.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:00:44] Thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:00:47] And we are absolutely delighted to have you. So I'd like you to start off and explain how did you get into the creative adventure of scent-making?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:00:56] Sure. So I have always been a creative person or a maker. I was trained as an architect and a painter. And during the last recession, I had "free time." I grew up with a very strong sense of smell, and I've always loved fragrance and perfume. So I decided that this was the time to explore scent as a medium. So I literally woke up one morning and said, I'm going to be a perfumer today. So I Google searched a class the next day, took a class the next day with a local woman by the name of Yosean (???), and the following day started my company.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:01:34] Ok. That's pretty impressive.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:01:36] It's just a fascinating topic and field of study. So for the first year, I sourced materials from around the globe, ingredients from all over, studied mostly with naturals initially, and then started integrating some of the aroma molecules. I became what's called a mixed media scent artist. And then the second year, I started doing the branding, the packaging, trying to figure out where my scents fit within the market and created the brand story and launched two years to the day of that first class.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:02:13] So the idea of being a scent maker, I'm sure can appear in lots of different ways. So I can think of the big brand scents. I can think of the... We're seeing a lot more bespoke scent makers, which is the category that I believe you'd fall into.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:02:29] Yes.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:02:29] And so would you talk about kind of that history of making scents and how we got to this place?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:02:35] Well, if we go way back to the beginning and the dawn of time, the people who originally made scents were the ones who were the mystics and the religious people. They were the only ones that were allowed to use scented ingredients. So we have the shamans burning incense to tell stories and talk to the gods. We have the monks creating fragrances and poisons for the de Medicis in the Renaissance. And then more modern traditional trajectories for a perfume maker would be studying chemistry at a university, and then, if they are lucky, being admitted to a perfume school to further pursue their perfume passion. And from that point, you can either go into commercial fragrances--so cleaning solutions, body products--fewer go in to sort of the master and fine fragrances. Just like wine was in the 70's where there one or two vintners working with wine, we now have multiple vintners doing terroir and crafting the brews. We talk about whiskey having sort of their own craftspeople. And with scent, it is also very similar.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:03:56] You went way over a great deal of information with that answer. And so I want to bring you back because I want to ask a couple of questions about people using scent. And you you reference the history of scent. But I know that you have a couple of stories about individuals over history who have made great strides and their name, even, in the use of scent.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:04:26] So I think Cleopatra is a really great example. She conquered lands to specifically acquire scented material. Neroli is probably the biggest one, and rose. There's a story, an anecdotal story, of her going to meet Mark Anthony. And on her barge were sails, and she drenched the sails in rose oil so that her scent could be smelled miles in advance. So she timed it just so that the wind was blowing in the direction of him. So he was waiting for her, he knew she was coming. I think everybody for miles on the banks of the Nile knew she was coming, too. So that's that's one example. Another fun example would be the Moulin Rouge, where the dancers perfumed their skirts. And at the end of the performance, they would run up the aisle, sort of swishing their skirts to the front of House where they sold the fragrance for the gentlemen who would buy it for their wives and secretly think about the dancers at night.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:05:33] So telling those stories evokes the recognition that scent is a storytelling sense.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:05:43] Absolutely. It's connected to the limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for memory, for passion, and for storytelling. So because our olfactory bulb is nestled there, that's where scent's power for storytelling comes. It can transport you across space and time. You can smell something today that you haven't smelled in 30 years or 20 years. And it will take you right back to that exact moment. It's truly special. It's poetic in its magic.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:06:17] It's just there's a cloud of thought surrounding me just by the conversation. The thoughts that you're raising. So think about people and how they connect to scent and how they communicate with scent. And I'd love you that kind of speak to that.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:06:36] Sure. So I think most people ignore scent. And, you know, I got the question, well, why should we care about scent? And the question is, why not? It's like asking why should we care about vision or taste or touch? Scent is more powerful. And people ignore it. So oftentimes people's interaction with scent is at a very rudimentary level. We don't smell enough. People will smell it most or think of scent most with food. So if they're going to a restaurant, as they walk into the restaurant, they might smell the bartender cutting the limes as they progress through there to their table. They'll smell wine and maybe the bread coming out. When their food comes, they'll actually stop and smell it. We rarely stop and smell on a daily basis, and I would love if the audience changed that and started smelling more and often.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:07:33] And do you have a challenge to them or some tips that they should think about?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:07:39] Sure. There's a a bunch of ways to integrate scent into your life. I think just when you wake up and you walk to work in the morning, what is the scent of your day? And, you know, there's going to be a typical scent path that you go every day to work and back. On special days or on the weekends, you go for a walk or a hike while you're looking at the ocean and walking through the fields, smell each step. It's going to smell different along different parts of the path. It's important to smell. It's important for your brain. It's important for your health.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:08:12] How is it important for your health?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:08:13] One of the things that is critical to understand is that some of the people who suffer from dementia and severe depression don't have a sense of smell. They've lost their sense of smell. And it's sort of one of the indicators for mental health in the aged population. They used to do what's called a peanut butter test. Now they actually have scent cards that they test on individuals who appear to have some mental challenges. And we have these olfactory neurons that are actually outside the brain, that are in the nasal cavity. They're exposed to the air. We get new ones every four to six weeks. Use them or lose them, they say. And so the more you use them, the more we think the brain is stimulated. And by stimulating the brain, we keep the brain active. So just like you're active physically for exercise or you think about doing Sudoku puzzles, scent should be incorporated in the same way. And, you know, there's no definitive proof that smelling more staves off Alzheimer's, but they believe that could be possible because the reverse is true.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:09:31] I think it makes perfect sense that all five senses are integral to our brain and to our experience. And so if one of them is broken or less used...

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:09:44] Absolutely.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:09:46] You know what, though? It's going to bring up an interesting question, because what happens if, for example, one of your senses is broken or out of... Do other senses take over and help?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:09:57] They say it does. So blind people spend more time smelling than people who rely on their sight to figure out what's ahead. We can smell very well, we just choose not to. And also, we don't know what we're smelling. So there are a few training sessions to learn what things are when we smell them. But you should smell the coffee, should smell the difference of coffee without cream and with cream. Different butters smell different Italian butter smells more like cheese. Then Irish butter smells grassy. There are little things that you can do just to smell better and smell more.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:10:38] Ok, so you just took us into that that area of the different layers of scent. And you have shared some great information with us previously about how the layering of scent is kind of similar to another one of your artistic endeavors, which is architecture. So would you speak to that a little bit?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:10:58] Sure. So in scent creation, typically--and this is not true for all perfumers--there is a pyramid of top notes, middle notes and base notes. And different people will tell you what the general percentages are for each one. But they're essentially the ingredients that make up a fragrance. And top notes are usually smaller molecules and they dissipate within 15 minutes. It's the first thing you smell in a fragrance. People have likened it to a dinner party with your friends, and the top notes are the shiny, bright things that come to your party early and leave early to go to another event. The middle notes or heart notes are a bigger molecule. They are typically, but not always, what defines the fragrance. That's why they call it the heart. It would be also your best friends--they are the ones who define that particular party. Those are mostly florals. Top notes are things that grow high: citrus, pine, sort of sharp lavender can be a top note and a middle note depending on how it was distilled. And then the base notes are things that last longer: anywhere from an hour to days: Patchouli, vetiver, a lot of the woods--cedarwood, oud. Some of the heavier, rounder, wetter--Oak Moss is one of my favorites. Those are all base notes.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:12:28] The word favorites makes me think about the individual preferences that perhaps people have relative to different scents. But also perhaps, is there a cultural element to the way that we respond to scents?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:12:48] Sure. I think--and a lot of this is generalization--but Americans typically like a very clean... they like their world to smell clean; so fresh. The fragrances that are relegated to women are sweet florals. I think that's a problem, which is why I started the brand, because I like male fragrances, which now typically a lot of the perfumers don't design for particular gender. They're non-gendered fragrances. Culturally, the French are more expansive. They like things like smelly cheese, you know, they like more interesting fragrances. There are cultural things that we have to be careful of. I used the example of Palo Santo earlier in our talk because it is a specific native religious material. A lot of people were offended when Palo Santo became an ingredient that was used for commercial purposes. So I think in any discussion of scent or creation of scent for a project and individual location or environment, you have to take into account who the users are. And everybody has different tastes. Everybody has different tastes. That's why it's so beautiful. It's like art. It's incredibly subjective. There are homogenizers that you can use that will be universally accepted. A lot of people love lavender.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:14:20] Is that because it's more natural? But everything you've been talking about is natural, so I'm just curious.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:14:25] Well, yes and no. I would say no first, Lavender has healing properties in and of itself and lavender people understand and know. So I think that because it is easily accessible and easily understood, that's why it's one of those easy ones for people to cling on to. I work with non-naturals or aroma molecules, but those molecules may be found in naturals as well. So each natural smell may be composed of hundreds, if not thousands of individual molecules. And those molecules you can pull out and use those to create sparkle or to create the color blue or to create, you know, wetness in a particular fragrance.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:15:16] Your vernacular, the vernacular of scent making, is really, really fascinating because it goes across so many different senses that there's the visual and there's an auditory and it really is interesting. But I don't want you to go there. Where I want you to go now is, tell us stories about scents that you've created. Give us two.

Dannielle Sargent (Cognoscenti): [00:15:40] So I don't start with a story. I start with the two ingredients. There are a lot of perfumers. Most perfumers start with a story. I take two ingredients that I want to push or pull against and they kind of tend to create their own stories. So my fragrances are numbered and they're numbered specifically so that people can bring their own stories to them. So one of them is tomato leather and that's probably the most popular one in my line. And I have gotten many different interpretations of it. A lot of people talk about it reminds them of picking tomatoes with their grandmother in the garden. Other people are like, I'm on the back of my boyfriend's motorcycle and we're driving down the highway and I could smell the leather jacket that he's wearing. So I like to leave it open to people's interpretation and not sort of shove a story down their throat. There are stories associated with them on the website and afterwards, and it's based on the interpretations of others.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:16:48] Really? So Iif you had a commission to create something, how do you approach that challenge?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:16:54] You talked about using my other senses to help define the language of fragrance. We don't have... a lot of people don't have that. They don't understand what fragrance is. So using color, texture and often sometimes even taste. Like it tastes sweetness or sour. I would use those words and those ideas to create a complete portrait of what the challenge or the concept would be. So I'm working on one right now for a client that is a room spray and a linen spray for a small, very high-end residential project. And the aesthetic of the project is California Tide Pool and they have a beautiful vintage, almost barnacle-looking chandelier. They have a beautiful Prussian blue wall and some lovely light walnut veneer. So I know that I'm going to use something that reminds me of the depth of that Prussian blue. I think the texture of the chandelier and the barnacles, I'll use Choya Nakh, which is roasted sea shell, in some way in order to tie it to California. We're at a very specific point on the California coast where eucalyptus is at the coast with the water and the salt spray. So there might be some of that. So that's how I would work, is I would take the pieces that create the whole and work with the ingredients. And some of them I may kick out after I put them together. And I don't like the smell. It's like the creative process will take me on a certain path that typically won't know in advance.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:18:47] So that is just a lovely description of creating your own art that you then give to the world. Because I'm thinking, people might commission something, thinking that they are requesting something more specific. But your response is definitely the artist's response.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:19:06] Yeah. And I am an artist at heart. And you know, people ask me, for my paintings, do I do commissions and I don't. Because that creative process is very different and hard to dictate the path as to where I'll end up. With perfume, there are ingredients that will get me towards the path that I've been asked to take, but I don't know what it's going to be when I start.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:19:31] Totally amazing. OK, I have two more questions for you. One is you referenced the time--history and time. And and I wonder, how do those elements play out in your making different scents?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:19:48] Let's see. The easiest way to describe that is each particular scent ingredient in any compilation has its own trajectory and it will come up at certain times. So you should know... or one should know when creating a scent, when those things will pop up. And there are specific notes that will block other notes and hide them. And there are other things, other notes that lock together. So instead of having one come early, you could pair it with one that's further down the chain and medium. I mean a middle note, heart note, or base note, and it will lock it so that it won't come out early. So that's locking and blocking. And so you can use some of those tools. You have to understand the ingredients and how they work in order to really tell the scent story in the timing that you want, and in the manner that you want. And the beauty of it is a lot of times when you first put something together, you don't know what the path is. You kind of think, you know. But you never know. That's why I think scent-making is so fascinating. There's so much that, even if you're very well informed--and I will always be a student. I've been doing this for 10 years, but I will always be a student. I constantly learn and I learn by doing. And it's just fascinating. It's super fascinating.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:21:20] It truly is. How much time does it take? And I'm going to say, how much time does it take to create any particular kind of scent? And when you're working on a commission or you're working with a client, what does that time frame look like?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:21:34] So some of my perfumes take years to do.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:21:39] We won't be asking for that. Just immediately.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:21:41] Yeah, I know. For a fine fragrance, that needs to cure for four weeks to six weeks. For room fragrances, it depends. It really depends on the client and on the project. It can be a few days, which is rare, but it's usually a few weeks. It takes a few weeks to really see how the ingredients sit together. They have to cure and they have to sit next to each other for a while to be friendly in order to determine what the final scent's going to be.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:22:08] So from the design process standpoint, does the client then smell the fragrance and say yay or nay or I have a concern about...

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:22:18] So there's different levels of bespoke. There's the entry level where there's a brief and you have, you know, one where you get one adjustment. And then there's one like Chanel Number 5; there were five versions of that fragrance and she chose number five. So you can have a client that you create variations for and they pick one and that could be it. Or you can move further. It really depends on pricing, also on the number of ingredients that are included. So if you want the full range of a perfumer's palette, that costs more because some of the ingredients are extremely expensive. And for for environmental and rooms, you probably aren't going to be using the most expensive ones. So it's going to be somewhere in the mid range and you know, a month or two months is probably all in.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:23:12] I'm not kidding. My brain is just exploding with information and questions. I would like to kind of wrap up our conversation, given the fact that One Workplace works in commercial environments and works in health care environments and works in learning environments, what does what does developing a scent for a larger environment look like?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:23:33] It's a really good question. You know, we talked a little bit before about how different people smell differently. And in a shared environment, finding a scent that is universally pleasing is difficult. But if you use fragrances and ingredients that are accepted and known and not offensive to many people, I think you can get there. But at the same time, that also leads to fairly boring kind of scent. So for health care, you, of course, would want things that are--I'm going to digress for a moment--some scents actually clean the air and actually have health benefits. Some raw ingredients, some don't. So you might use some of those ingredients in health care. There are calming fragrances that you would use maybe in environments where there are small children. Maybe there's a more energetic fragrance for like in a design studio where you want people to be actively engaged in coming up with new ideas. So there are things you can do and parts of the perfumer's organ that you can target for different emotional qualities. But it varies. And you do have to take into account that some people consider fragrance bad. And the topic of fragrances as bad. However, I think scent, not perfume, but scent in general makes everything better and it just has to be in proportion and a quantity that is not overwhelming or offensive.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:25:22] Danielle Sargeant, thank you very much for spending time with us. Is there any last thing that you'd like to share with our listeners?

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:25:30] Yes, a couple of things. I want everyone to just start smelling more. If you don't know the name for what you're smelling, try and find out what it is. I think it will make you smarter. It will make you sexier. It will make everything better in your life. If you smell more and I think it's just such a fascinating subject, you can't but be excited about learning more about it.

CCB (One Workplace): [00:25:56] Well, I'd say we'd have to agree with you. Thank you very much.

Dannielle Sergent (Cognoscenti): [00:25:59] Thank you very much for having me. It's been awesome.