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I didn't consider myself a perfume kind of woman. Although I've tried wearing fragrances over the years, I've never felt comfortable enough to incorporate it into my daily routine. Perfume for me was like a Halloween costume, a special occasion dress, or an ill-fitting outfit - something that's worn once, maybe twice a year, but usually buried in the back of the closet.

Nevertheless, something about perfume has always fascinated me. Maybe I'm influenced by movies and TV that show perfume as a glamorous, magical elixir that enchants and charms people with its beguiling smell. A gentle squeeze of the bulb atomizer and you've got the world under your thumb. As appealing as that fantasy sounds, I didn't think it appropriate for me, someone who's more awkward than elegant, tomboy than sex kitten.

But my feelings about perfume changed when I discovered the work of San Francisco perfumer Yosh Han and her fragrance line, Yosh Olfactory Sense. I first stumbled upon her scents at Gravel & Gold, a store in the Mission that sells her experimental and limited edition Kimia line. I was intrigued by these unusual and intoxicating perfumes that didn't smell like the average flowery and fruity fragrances. They were sophisticated, yet quirky, feminine, but a bit earthy. They smelled like something I would be comfortable wearing. And yeah, I'm not just saying that because she has an awesome last name.

What makes Yosh's fragrances different than any other is that she uses a combination of intuition (Did I mention that she's also a clairvoyant?), her extensive knowledge of spiritual energy (perhaps I should call her Chakra Han?), and her expert sense of smell to create eclectic blends of essential and perfume oils that speak to individuals of every ilk. Using a technique she calls 'vibrational perfumery,' Yosh has created collections for small boutiques and high-end department stores, and custom blended concoctions for opera singers, literary figures like Nick Hornby and William T. Vollman, and normal people like me.

The key to Yosh's unique style of perfumery is her talent of uncovering scents that resonate with their wearer, physically, but also psychically; she aims to bring perfumery back to its spiritual roots.

 At her vibrational perfumery workshops, groups of up to six people learn more about the connection between olfaction and one's physical, mental, and spiritual well being. After learning some perfume making basics (all perfumes consist of top, middle, and base note fragrances) and how different scents affect our chakras, or our bodies' energy centers, each participant sniffs a slew of fragrant oils and concocts his or her own blend. If DIY isn't your thing, Yosh can do the work for you to create a custom blended signature scent.

Being the hands-on type, I was all about the DIY-aspect of the perfume-making workshop. Though I'd missed a recent one I was able to meet up with Yosh for a one-on-one session at her studio.

Before I arrived, I imagined her studio to look like an old-fashioned apothecary shop, but instead of beakers and test tubes filled with medicines, ointments, and balms, it would be stocked with soothing, aromatherapeutic yellow and pink oils. I was surprised when the address she gave me brought me to a residence. Her studio was in her home, an elegantly decorated flat in Pacific Heights.

Though I was wrong about the setting, there was still an old timey medical feel about the materials for our session. Once settled inside, Yosh placed several amber glass vials filled with fragrance oils, a Pyrex beaker, and several pipettes in front of me. She asked me to categorize them into four groups: ones I loved, ones I liked, ones that I didn't like, and ones that piqued my interest in a curious way - what she calls 'X-factors.' X-factor scents are ones that make you who you are, and usually allude to things you either keep hidden, or are yet to be discovered.

One of my X-factor scents was patchouli. Growing up, I strongly disliked the scent which I thought smelled of dirt, and which I associated with dreadlocked white reggae fans. Lately though, I've found that in small amounts, it's grown on me. It didn't get me fiending for Bob Marley, but when I inhaled the patchouli oil it smelled comforting and earthy - not girly, but womanly.

Sniffing the French way - from left to right, then right to left again - I used my gut reaction to categorize dozens of oils. Although totally based on my own preference, at times, I wasn't sure if I really liked a smell or not. Some scents were nice but tickled my nose funny; others were noxiously cloying. I put these in the 'no' pile. Still others I couldn't place, but liked anyway, like an abstract painting you appreciate without really knowing why.

When I finished smelling all of the vessels, Yosh weeded out the ones I didn't like and had me re-smell the scents that I said I loved and some of the scents that were borderline love and like. She explained that fragrances often smell different a second time. She was right; I decided I didn't love a few of the ones I initially did, and I liked a couple of them a lot more on a second whiff. To these, she added in those curve ball X-factor scents, which make the final product more complex and unique.

Many of the scents I picked out were base note fragrances. Base notes make up a perfume's greatest molecular weight and resonate the longest, but Yosh warns against having too many of these in one perfume. She compares base notes to dinner party guests who stick around to help wash the dishes, but who also have a tendency to overstay their welcome. She suggested editing a few base notes out, so that the lighter, ephemeral top notes and balancing middle notes could also shine through.

The reverse birthday candle breathing technique is another trick Yosh uses to further edit down a scent. She had me stand up and line up the oils before me in one straight line. Just as the name suggests, instead of taking a deep breath in and then blowing out, as you would to extinguish the candles on a cake, I exhaled all the air in my lungs and then breathed in deeply through my nose while walking my nose up and down the line of vials. This technique allows you to smell the scents in combination with each other; off-tune fragrance notes jump out. In my case, peppermint and basil, two scents I liked, didn't mesh with my blend so I removed them from the pack. After a few passes and a final edit, I was left with six aromas: pink grapefruit, jasmine grandiflorum, gardenia, carnation, cardamom, and patchouli.

Yosh created a formula and let me decant each of the six oils into a 15 ml glass container using pipettes. Normally, for custom scents, Yosh does this step, but she let me do the honors. When the last oil was added, I gave the whole thing a good shake and applied it onto the back of my wrist and inhaled.

The final product was an unlikely combination of spicy and floral, topped off with a bright citrus pop. On my skin it smelled fresh and sweet without being saccharine, piquant without being overwhelming; on Yosh, who says she has 'spicy-smelling' skin, it still smelled good, but less sweet and zesty. Perfumes smell different on different people, but she claims that a custom perfume will always smell the best on the person it's made for.

I left Yosh's studio feeling elated. Aromatherapy is said to help you improve your mood, so the perfume was definitely vibing with me. But really how could I not be happy; I had finally found my signature scent and it was so me.

Create your own signature scent with Yosh of Yosh Olfactory Sense at one of her Vibrational Perfumery workshops ($250) or make an appointment for her a custom perfume session ($500).

E-mail her at or call (415) 626-5385.


Published on February 26, 2010, 2010

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