Mary-Louise Parker on the Power and Pleasure in Finding a Signature Scent

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I love perfume — the idea of it, the packaging of it, the sight of it on a dresser. I love how mysterious it can be.

“Very interesting,” murmurs Olivier Royère, the co-founder of Ex Nihilo, a perfume house in Paris. He is watching my 12-year-old daughter, Aberash, choose a scent from one of the crystal flacons he has offered her. An appointment with Olivier, complete with the customization of your own fragrance, feels like meeting with Willy Wonka to design your own chocolate bar. We’ve come to this glimmering jewel of a shop on rue Saint-Honoré for a special fragrance session. It’s a terribly fancy affair, so we made sure to wear our trenchcoats.

Olivier invites us to the corner of the boutique where eight snow-white domes await. They are the vases de senteurs from which you select your base scents without being plagued by what Olivier describes as “nasal fatigue.” I consider telling him that I have two children and a dog and my nose might be more robust than others’, but Olivier is so chic and impeccably well-mannered that I find myself nodding in agreement to everything he says, whether I understand it or not. The domes are unmarked so we can’t be influenced by the names of the scents inside them. We’re instructed to “lean in and proceed with deep sniffing ... but not too deep.”

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Florian Sommet / Trunk Archive

After Aberash and I sniff all eight domes, probably more times than necessary, Olivier and his equally chic store manager, Stephanie, bring us to another smelling station. They present a bottle of something heady and sweet and oddly familiar. “That one was designed around a memory,” he says. “Me, as a young boy, running through the woods in Sweden with my mother’s cashmere scarf around my face.” I picture a tiny Olivier tripping over a fallen log in the Tiveden National Park but resist the urge to ask him about it.

The second phase of the process involves blending our selections in the Osmologue, a golden machine with a glass front. We watch as my daughter’s base and additional notes are funneled together in the device, whirling around a brass wheel before being dispensed into a crystal flask. It’s mesmerizing, and we feel completely at home at our custom-fragrance rendezvous, but all the sniffing has made us a little tired. Once on the street with our gorgeously wrapped boxes, we decide to hunt down apple tart and macarons, which, this being Paris, takes all of about 17 seconds.

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Courtesy Mary Louise Parker

Some weeks later I find Aberash’s fragrance on her dresser at home in Brooklyn. It brings back all the memories of our sweet-smelling journey and of wandering into the Paris afternoon in search of pastries and postcards. I wonder if she will open the bottle one day and remember our trip as fondly as I do. The olfactory sense is so deeply connected to memory that once I even followed a woman down the street because she was wearing my mother’s perfume (Shalimar, a favorite of hers for over seven decades).

I wonder which days will connect to which scents for my daughter. Someday far in the future I imagine her offering her neck up to a special someone. She’ll understand the value of smelling delightful but will have internalized the greater currency of it being about what pleases her — and anyone else can (politely) take it or leave it.

For more stories like this, pick up the October issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Sept. 14.

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