Want to watch a master at work? You can do just that at Nolita space, Pearlita, where Kismet Olfactive founder Shabnam Tavakol can be found crafting evocative and special scents you won’t find anywhere else. The perfumer wants to welcome guests in to the immersive experience and to remove the “layers of secrecy” that typically surrounds the process of conceptualizing perfumes. Realizing that a hand-crafted and one-of-a-kind bespoke fragrance is the ultimate gift for the person who has everything (and boy do we know a lot of those people), we were keen to hear more about the behind the scenes steps. Time to meet the nose…..
Why did you leave publishing to get involved in the fragrance world?
I’m a first-generation Iranian American, born and raised in California. In my culture, scent and flowers, herbs, and essential oils are historically intertwined with everyday life. Persians love perfume and scent, often picking the most lavish profiles to wear overbearingly [laughs].Growing up, when my American friends would come over and see designer fragrances on my dresser, they’d be wowed. I also drank rosewater and my family burned Esfand regularly—a tradition in many Persian households—to cast away bad energy. Whenever a relative would go to Iran, they’d come back with hundreds of dollars’ worth of nature’s finest fragrant saffron. Fast forward to my early twenties. I went to FIDM in Los Angeles and, after doing what felt like every internship under the sun, I decided the fashion world wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until I met a group of skateboarders while living in Venice Beach that my whole life changed.
Always the start of a good story…
At a skate premier one night, I hit it off with the managing editor of an ultra-cool Australian magazine called Monster Children. She offered me an internship, and I fell deeply in love with publishing. We were a tiny team but threw the best parties, interviewed rad artists, musicians, surfers, skaters, and every day was exciting and different. After some years, I wanted more so I took the plunge into NYC. After just a few weeks of working for BULLETT Magazine, I wanted to generate ad sales in the fragrance market, so I scheduled a meeting at COTY—a big player in the beauty and fragrance industry. I can’t recall a word that was exchanged in that meeting, but I do remember everything moving in slow-motion—it was as if the world had stopped once I realized that there was an entire universe behind perfumery. I put in my two weeks that day and began to research the opportunities within the fragrance world.
How did you get your start?
I started out working for a couple of NYC-based fragrance “small businesses”: Le Labo (pre-Estée Lauder!) and cult classic Enfleurage. Eager to learn more, I applied and was accepted at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP) in the south of France. My time in Grasse was so much more than just schooling—I went through a true transition in mind, body, and spirit. While studying, I was offered an apprenticeship at the creative laboratory with Chanel Fragrances and ended up living in Paris, working at their lab by day and toying with my own formulas by night. The rest is history!
What inspired you to launch Kismet Olfactive?
The word “kismet”—or “qismat,” in Farsi—means, “what’s meant to be.” It’s akin to “fate,” or “fortune.” To be honest, it feels as if my entire life has been made of these little moments that culminated in the birth of Kismet. After I graduated from GIP, friends and peers wanted to smell my work and collaborate on scents. So, of course I took them up on it. As I did, things just naturally started to progress. Circles outside of just friends began approaching me about custom creations. My personal scent experiments were evolving. Before I knew it, I was registering Kismet Olfactive as an LLC.
What’s different about Kismet Olfactive?
I don’t create perfume by the masses—literally or figuratively. Not only do I make everything small-batch by hand, I also approach my perfume compositions like a blank canvas, which is not typical in mainstream perfumery. A lot of what you buy in Bloomingdales or Sephora from a commercial brand stems from a pre-existing perfume on the market—meaning from an already successful perfume, slightly tweaked, to create an already familiar scent that’s regarded as a “new” commercial blockbuster hit. What I do is totally free form. Of course, I approach fragrance creation with those traditional, technical skills that I’ve learned at fragrance school—but as far as making scents that are similar to what’s already on the market? You won’t get that with Kismet. I try to be tasteful with every element of the final creation, valuing quality over quantity, even if that means being less “cost-effective” on my side. I hate the feel of thin glass and/or flimsy caps, so I sourced premium glass bottles from France and weighted caps from Italy. I use a lot of natural raw materials, which is not typical in commercial perfumery because the cost is outlandish. But I don’t care! I don’t always create things that are outright pretty. Instead, I want them to linger in your subconscious. I like to try and get into the minds of my wearers—make them think twice whether they love or hate something. It’s relatively easy to make a “pretty” formula, but that’s not what I’m in it for.
What is a typical day as a perfumer like for you?
My day as solely a perfumer would look much different if I wasn’t also the business owner! When I’m wearing my perfumer hat, I wake up at dawn while the world is still asleep and will write several formulas over coffee. I’ll smell raw materials or trials of scents that I’m working on while my nose is still fresh and unsaturated. When I start weighing formulas, I put on a proper playlist to get into the zone, feeling closer and closer to the formula as I smell each material I’ve incorporated. I evaluate, test on every inch of my skin, make discoveries, confront setbacks, annotate, get frustrated, get excited. When I’m stuck, I’ll dive back into my notes or one of my many perfumery books to find grounding or some new turn of idea. On the less dreamy side, my day-to-day more often consists of doing all the other things that come with being a small-business owner. The balance between hustling and putting out little fires all the time is real! From content conceptualizing, communicating with current accounts, reordering raw materials, managing the lab in general, working closely with my designer on new ideas, book-keeping …the list goes on.
Kismet has a few varieties of fragrance—Fine, Common Ground, and Natural. Can you elaborate on what makes each category different?
My mindset with perfumery is both expansive and inclusive, so my collection(s) reflect different aspects of that bigger picture. There’s so much push and pull from opposite ends of the industry: “fine fragrance” vs. “natural”; “designer” vs. “niche”; the age-old “masculine” vs. “feminine” debate. I think it’s silly to limit ourselves to an either/or perspective, offering only one or the other. I have the know-how and materials to create on both sides of the spectrum, so why wouldn’t I? When it came to building Kismet, I decided from the get-go that I wouldn’t pigeon-hole my clients or my craft. I don’t discriminate when it comes to who likes to wear what, or when, so Kismet’s collection(s) are meant to reflect that inclusivity. The “Fine Fragrances” collection, you could say, is a more traditional, classical approach. On the other hand, the “Common Ground” collection is more conceptual, raw, experimental; these scents are inspired by some of my favorite public spaces in various cities around the world—from Tompkins Square Park in NYC to the Place de la République in Paris—and attempt to capture the sights, sounds, and smells of the streets. Kismet’s “Natural” offering is just that—100% natural, premium, sustainably-sourced materials. Different strokes for different folks.
Kismet also creates custom fragrances. What does that collaboration with the customer look like?
Whether for a brand or individual, the custom creation process is intimate and truly collaborative from start to finish. The scents we gravitate toward have so much to do with upbringing, psychology, memory, aesthetic preferences, etc. I’ve developed a questionnaire that I provide to the client to fill out, which gives me a good initial understanding of the journey we’re about to embark on based off their answers. Once I have a sense for who the client is, I curate a selection of raw materials that we smell together. We explore options at this stage, I take notes on likes, dislikes, feelings that are evoked, etc. Here I start seeing possible directions for the formulas. Next, we go through a trial phase where I’ll spend the next couple weeks developing two-three directions to present to the client. After we’ve narrowed it down to a single lane, I’ll fine-tune the formula until it’s “the one.” This is a very thorough and involved process—it’s not a quick turn-around, nor is it a cheap venture.
The process of creating a whole scent seems really complex! What’s your process for creating a new scent—and where do you start?
It’s true, building a fragrance is an incredibly layered process. Rule number one, for me: I don’t create when I’m not inspired. I hate trying to force something to come to life. That said, when inspiration strikes, I run wild with it. What sparks an idea might be something simple, such as a memory, color, feeling, poem, a whiff of a raw material… But the stages after that are more like forming an orchestra. Each note (or raw material) serves a very specific purpose, and there are literally thousands of options to select from in order to express the nuances you want to convey. It’s the micro-moments that make the composition harmonious. Where to end, for me, is the hardest part really—I can always go on tinkering.
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Tell us about Pearlita! Why open a store now and what was the journey like to open it?
Pearlita is a women-owned creative beauty collective run by founder Megan Robinson (hair stylist), Cali Strauhs (esthetician + brow artist), David Bullen (colorist), and me (perfumer). We all danced a long time with the idea of opening a vibrant space where people could come and feel transformed into a more beautiful self—inside and out. We had all reached a point in our careers where we felt confident enough in our craft—we just needed the perfect moment when all our forces made sense to combine. One day, Megan called me at 9am and told me to drop everything I was doing, walk out of my apartment, and meet her at a space she was viewing for our idea. The rest was history… Well, not really— It’s been a lot of hard work to get the shop up and running, but it’s not half bad when your best friends are by your side, busting their asses off for the same cause.
Is physical retail an important element of the Kismet experience?
The buildout and expansion of my lab within the walls of Pearlita has finally brought my visions for Kismet into full fruition. Like I mentioned above, perfumery is a very secretive world. This was both always alluring and annoying to me. It’s close-to-never that you get to see a perfumer at work, let alone be able to meet and have a chat with him or her about how and what goes into crafting a scent. The Kismet experience has always been about breaking down those layers of secrecy and exposing the rawness of the craft. Having a lab where people can not only see what the contents of a perfumer’s lab looks like, but also smell the individual ingredients and fragrances, has turned Kismet from being just a commodity to a full-blown experience. It’s a space where I get to engage with customers in person. That’s what I’ve always wanted from the beginning.
What do readers need to know about the store/what are some special features?
I’d say we’re all pretty eclectic creatures that work there…so, there’s a certain kind of energy that is vibrating within our walls. Everything that has to do with Pearlita is involved, to some degree, with friends—from all of us who work there, to friends who helped design and build out the space. The shop has basically become a scene out of Steel Magnolias! Aside from everyone’s brilliant talents, I’d say the real special feature is that any one of us who is treating you at Pearlita will treat you with true appreciation, attention to detail, and more love than you’ve probably ever received in a retail capacity. We’re all our own “business owners,” so you’re dealing first-hand with the person most passionate about the service. If you come in, you’re sure to make new friends.
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If you could only pick one fragrance to wear forever, what would it be?
It’s funny, when people ask me this the answer often comes as a surprise. When I was younger, I was a die-hard Chanel fan. I wore CHANCE for years, COCO, Bleu, Coromandel…but ever since I became a perfumer—now smelling and testing raw materials for 8+ hours a day—I don’t wear perfume recreationally anymore. Sure, I wear the things I create during the testing phase to see how it performs on skin but, during off-hours, my nose needs a break!
All of Kismet Olfactive’s fragrances are notably sustainable. What are some pressing sustainability issues in the fragrance industry and how are you navigating them?
The fragrance industry is being looked at under a microscope these days when it comes to sustainability, which was a long-time coming and much needed. There’s a lack of education within the general public regarding raw materials. Sustainability is a huge concern in our realm because, historically, farms didn’t necessarily plan long-term with certain precious crops; as a result, some materials are now either extremely scarce or, unfortunately, extinct. For example, East Indian sandalwood—one of the most prized materials in perfumery—was over-harvested to near extinction; efforts are now made to protect and revive this material, but the cultivation process is slow and complicated, with trees taking generations to grow to desirable maturity. Being conscious of sourcing sustainable raw materials is always going to be something I advocate for. Ideally, and eventually, I plan to source my own raw materials, working directly with the famers, bringing awareness to their work, and even bringing clients—with who I do custom work—to the source, in order to see how much work goes into producing a single drop of oil.
What’s next for you?
There’s a lot in the works with Kismet right now. I have new fragrances in the works, and am translating our popular “Studio Scent” home fragrance into a candle, and much, much more. At Pearlita, we’re planning some holiday pop-ups and inviting friends for creative residencies in the space. Come visit us at the shop if you’re in NYC—125 Elizabeth Street!