As a fragrance alchemist, Agata Karolina dedicates many hours to blending oils, conjuring up experimental tinctures and waiting countless months during the extraction period to create a single scent at her perfumery, House of Gozdawa. The perfume making process is one that requires precision, play and patience, and becoming a master takes years. Exquisite scents are a distillation of time and delicacy; each drop is weighed, each note is a conscious calculation and each range tells a story. “A perfume is who you want to be, but a scent is about memory. When you choose a perfume and what you want to smell like, you’re setting up how you want to be remembered by other people,” says Agata.
Her first collection Confessions was created over 1.5 years, launched only 8 months ago and is a reflection of who she is. Rather than use fancy French words for the sake of sounding luxurious or promising “majestic experiences”, Agata chose honesty over pretence and produced six fragrances; Andrea, Simo, Albert, Marta, Hel and Aga – each inspired by people who have influenced her life. The crisp white boxes and simple bottle designs draw attention to the perfume’s colour and smell. No matter the range, the packing will remain consistent and operates like a clean palette. Unlike many commercial perfumes where the selling point is brand and lifestyle, House of Gozdawa’s ethos is about reintroducing the appreciation of high quality perfume and the joy of olfactory storytelling.
Perfumer’s extract oils from organic material through methods of steam distillation, solvent extraction, enfleurage, maceration or expression. Above Agata’s work-space sits a tincture with Rosemary and on another shelf is one with tobacco. After collecting organic matter, she submerges it in a solvent with an alcohol content of 98.7% and allows it time to mature. In the next step she cooks off the alcohol until only a rezanoid remains, and then distils this back into alcohol before blending.
The distillation methods used differ in expense and depend on the desired scent. Enfleurage is one of the oldest, and there are about three masters on the globe equipped to do it. It requires spreading flowers on large glass sheets coated with vegetable or animal fat. The flowers are continuously replaced until their smell saturates the fat and once the fat is fully saturated in smell, it is distilled leaving behind the scented oil.
Less time consuming is the expression method whereby a fruit rind or plant is mechanically or manually pressed until all the oil is squeezed out. This works best for extracting citrus scents because their rinds contain essential oil. Arguably, the best method is high pressure Carbon Dioxide extraction, which removes the oil without damaging the matter, but is exceptionally expensive and currently South Africa does not offer availability for small batch production, focusing more on large distillation for export.
Once the perfume oils are ready, the blending can begin. All perfumes are composed of top, middle and base notes. “You have to hit each level for each note. Your top notes such as citrus and grass scents are fleeting and are the ones that leave first. A major percent of these notes sit on the skin for one to three hours max,” explains Agata.
Next are the middle notes which add weightiness and ground the fragrance. An example is lavender, which traditionally is considered a masculine scent. Then follows the base notes which are rich scents whose molecules evaporate slowly and are the last to leave the skin. Musk is one such example, which was originally extracted from the glands of male musk deers but is now, for ethical reasons, produced synthetically.
To be a perfumer, you need “the nose” and have to thrive on precision. The upside is that having a cold is a good enough excuse not to work because you literally can’t smell properly, and the downside is that one drop too many can destroy a blend and undo months, if not years, of work. Every oil has a different density and viscosity – some as thick as resin – and so perfume is made by weight and not volume.
Each batch is labelled by date to track the maturing process and notated in Agata’s perfume bible. A single fragrance can possess hundreds of ingredients and take years to develop. For Agata, the contemporary perfume scene is an exotic and challenging space. Olfaction has been neglected in a world that’s image obsessed and yet, when you walk into a space with a bad odour you notice it immediately.
Her first memory of scent goes back to when she was a young girl travelling to Cairo with her mother. As a perfumer she conceptualises and considers how we might imagine smells we’d like to experience but don’t always have to wear. What might London or Joburg or Cape Town smell like?
When asked what her biggest triumph has been in this very delicate process, she tells us, “I had a colleague come in to smell my perfume. He’s got a trained nose and he’ll know every single time what’s in a fragrance but he was stumped and couldn’t tell me what’s in it. It was the biggest honour for someone to come in and be enchanted by something I’d made. What makes a good perfume is that you can’t really place it, it shifts and changes all the time.”