To Diana and Ivana, a Nose by Any Other Name Than 'Aphelion' Wouldn't Smell as Sweet

updated 07/24/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

He calls himself Aphelion, a Greek word that means the most distant point from the sun reached by a planet in its orbit He chose the name because of its connotation of remoteness. "I've always been a fairly obscure person," he says, "and I work quietly for rich and famous people who don't particularly want it known that they'll splash out a lot of money on a fragrance."

Aphelion, 48, is a master parfumeur. In the parlance of the scent trade he is a "nose," acknowledged by his peers as one of the best in the business. His sense of smell is so acutely sensitive, Aphelion claims, that he could wander into the woods and detect the lingering odor of a cigarette smoked there three hours earlier. His gifted and highly trained nostrils are insured with Lloyd's of London for $5 million.

Naturally, Aphelion doesn't waste his talent just sniffing around woods. From his headquarters in Devon in his native England and his laboratory in the South of France, he creates customized perfumes that get splashed onto the likes of Princess Diana, Queen Sofia of Spain, Ivana Trump and Abigail Van Buren. His clients must be willing and able to pay through the proboscis. Prices start at $10,000 a batch—usually a liter or two—and can escalate to $80,000, depending on how exotic the blend is. More than a third of his customer list is made up of Americans.

For their money, Aphelion's clients get a product that is about as highly personalized as their fingerprints. "Every human being smells differently," Aphelion says, so no scent will smell exactly the same on any two persons. The Nose, himself a curious blend of the mystic and the chemist also goes to great lengths to plumb the personalities and habits of his clients in order to tailor each fragrance. He questions them in person about favorite foods and colors. He sends a sample of their handwriting to a calligrapher in Switzerland for analysis. He considers the various chakras (energy centers) of the body and tests for allergies. And most curious of all, he insists that his clients wrap a clean piece of cloth around their arms overnight The next day the textile is tested by his lab to break it down to individual components that make up a customer's "odor signature."

After the Nose has worked out the appropriate formulas in his head, his laboratory blends herbs, flowers and chemicals into a volatile syrupy liquid that is then put into a pure French grape alcohol for eight or nine weeks. Once these "married" scents have been macerated, they are frozen for an hour or two, then filtered, and voila! a new perfume is born and numbered for future reference. He relinquishes the honor of naming each scent, according that privilege to the whim or imagination of his clients.

"Americans tend to have the misconception that a strong fragrance is a good one. Not true," Aphelion says. "Subtlety is the main thing you should always be going after. An aroma that hits you between the eyes is offensive to me. I don't create a fragrance for a short hype but one that will unfurl over hours on a lady's skin."

His loyal clientele often regards Aphelion as a kind of musician for the nasal passages, since he composes a fragrance as Mozart might have written a concerto. Born Keith Edward St. John-Foster in Yorkshire, Aphelion is descended from a line of violinists. He still uses musical terms to describe his work, remarking high notes or deep chords, major and minor keys in the composition of fragrances. The metaphor is about as musical as Aphelion gets, since he admits he has "no talent for playing the violin. I make it sound as though I'm strangling a cat."

Chucking music at the age of 15, Aphelion took leave of his widowed mother and headed for the South of France to apprentice with a master parfumeur named Gilbert, a longtime family friend. Aphelion spent three years at "a minor university in the provinces" to earn an economics degree, as well as three years as an officer in the British Army. In all he studied with Gilbert for seven years. Shortly before his mentor's death in 1970, Aphelion was admitted to the society of parfumeurs and recognized as a master in his own right.

Among his fondest triumphs is a fragrance he created for diva Maria Callas on the occasion of her 1967 return to Milan's La Scala Opera. "Callas sang Tosca and held the audience spellbound," Aphelion remembers. "The more she sang, the warmer she became and the more the fragrance I created for her wafted throughout the opera house. By the end of the third act everyone there could smell it. After the performance she assured me she would never again wear any fragrance but mine."

Aphelion's scent magic is not reserved exclusively for the ladies; he makes a "woodsy, masculine" after-shave for Armand Hammer and created an aftershave balm that was "evocative of the Mediterranean slopes of Spain" for Pablo Picasso, who immediately splashed it on his bald pate. And then there was the case of the wealthy Miami man—one Aphelion mercifully refuses to identify—who was impotent. The parfumeur advised his client to crush a head of garlic, mix it with honey, spread it on toast and after eating it, cleanse his breath with a sprig of parsley and half an apple. Then the man was to put on the nutmeg-based musk love potion created just for him. According to Aphelion, the client reported that "it was a raging success."

A twice-married man, the father of four sons and a daughter ranging in ages from 9 to 21, Aphelion and his second wife, Paula, maintain a flat in Paris, a 400-year-old English country home in Devon and a small farmhouse in Majorca "where we go to hide." He travels the globe for his exotic supplies, including Bulgarian rose petals, Egyptian jasmine and a delicate white flower called ylang-ylang, found in Madagascar. Like any great nose, Aphelion can easily identify any of hundreds of aromas found in nature and at least 2,500 of some 4,000 artificial scents that have been made in labs. "Fragrance is our most emotive drug, a powerful drug that can quickly and profoundly alter your state of mind," he insists. "I make fragrances to improve people's emotional health by giving them a more positive attitude and by drawing out the best within them."

His own favorite smell, however, is much easier to obtain than any of his emotively restorative concoctions. It is "being out in the country, just after a rain." That, the Nose could have added, costs absolutely nothing.

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