Bottled Memories: An Interview with Perfumer Oscar Mejia

Written by: Trish Lim/Tuesday, Jun 28, 2016 03:32 AM

An orchid farm. Mother’s floral, powdery scent. A day on the beach. Christmas dinner. Old books. Curiousity. Warmth. Comfort.
 

Some would call it impossible to bottle up memories, emotions, and ideas, but perfumer Oscar Mejia believes otherwise. When talking about his passion for creating scents, Oscar is a master at building images from fragrances and vice versa. In the last three years, he’s had people come up to him asking for particular smells, from something as specific as peppermint or breakfast food to something as conceptual as “the scent of curiosity” or the playful style of a jazz artist.

“Every step is challenging,” he says of his craft. “The fact that you have to create something concrete from something abstract like music, and then you create something tangible, that’s the excitement and the challenge…The client can ask for different things, and every person has his own vision of something.”

The passion began when he was just a small boy roaming the orchid farm of his parents. He created his first scent when he was just five, picking petals and boiling them in water to extract the fragrance. “I grew up with plants and…there is a home-based laboratory where we would culture the orchids,” he explains. “My mom was also highly interested in perfumes.”

He learned to love it as an art, finding joy in making scents from things he loved, and soon embraced the scientific aspect of it when he took up chemistry in college. “When you’re talking about expression and inspiration, that’s art. When you’re dealing with the reactions of these chemicals, then it becomes a science. It’s a matter of how much of each you use; you have to find the right formulation.”

What started as just a hobby that had him giving out perfume bottles as gifts and give-aways grew into a business that he did on the side of a full-time job. 

“It started as an exercise of creativity,” he says. “There is a questionnaire. I ask them (his clients): when you smell your perfume what images do you want to see, what colors, what texture, any particular memory or music? From that I create a mood board - a collection of pictures that will be the basis of the fragrance. After that, it’s really more of identifying which scents to use. That usually takes 2 weeks to do that. Sometimes I’m in the mood, sometimes I’m not. I’d like to think that it’s an expression of how I see the client, at the same time, the personality that the client wants to convey in the scent. The whole process takes 4-6 weeks and can extend into months.”

His creative process is both intricate and introspective, much like an artist or songwriter pondering on his next masterpiece. “I immerse myself in the inspiration of the cliet,” he says. “I had a client who wanted ‘scent of curiosity.’ There’s a reflection process also, along the way, because you, as a designer, will have to think of what consitutes curiosity. My interpretation there was something exciting; it’s like a new discovery. I translated it into a scent that is acidic, very striking, very lively.”

ScentScaping is also a trend that has captured Oscar's attention. An article on Huffington Post describes scentscaping as “the concept of creating an experience by way of different scents.” Companies are naming scent as the last frontier of branding, pointing out that olfactive senses strengthen emotional connections and memory recall. Hotels, retail stores, restaurants, and even events like weddings and birthday parties, are making use of ScentScaping to create more long-lasting memories. “Every time they smell it, they remember the event,” Oscar says.

"Sometimes I’m in the mood, sometimes I’m not. I’d like to think that it’s an expression of how I see the client, at the same time, the personality that the client wants to convey in the scent."


Apart from mixing scents for clients, Oscar has developed his own line of perfume. Unlike commercial fragrances that use chemical-based compounds, he makes it a point to use essential oils that he extracts on his own. But what really sets him apart are his own memories and feelings as a person, which he’s managed to share with people - the human element played up, transformed into artisanal scents.


The Kanlungan Collection (photo courtesy of Oscar Mejia)

Scents are your memory banks,” Oscar says. “My collections are about hugot - feelings. The first collection is Kanlungan, a tribute to home. Ginger tea reminds me of the salabat, which is prepared at home. Powder and petals reminds me of my mom. The next is Aguinaldo, Christmas edition. The familar scents of berries, peppermint cookie, or lemon meringue. The Summer collection is called Sinag - the scent of the beach, of bagong ligo. ”

Of his home country, he has much to say, describing the Philippines as rich - an explosion of colors and textures. “If I could make a scent, it would be rich but at the same time, fresh and translucent - like a capiz shell,” he says. Although the level of appreciation for artisanal fragrances in the Philippines leaves much to be desired (the climate and culture make it difficult for an industry to grow), Oscar remains optimistic about his craft, pointing out that the Philippines was once in the map of the fragrance world in the 1930s and a site for plantation farms. He promotes his advocacy through lectures with UNESCO-NCCA (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts) to make people aware of the fact that the Philippines can be a top producer of oils and extracts.

But like most of his scents, Oscar's long-term vision for himself is rooted in memory. He dreams of owning an end-to-end farm, where he can be free to build scents literally from the ground up. “It’s like I went back to being a kid,” he laughs, recalling the farm of his childhood where he first discovered his love for perfumery.

A conversation with Oscar leaves one to wonder at the significance of memories and why we look to the past the way we do, even as we move forward. Though they speak of a time long gone past, memories are not dead things; they are vibrant, heavily textured pieces of our identity, coloring the way we see ourselves and the lives we live. They are different for everybody; how we feel about the smell of an orchid farm, the aroma of Christmas dinner, or the scent of aged books gives us an idea of who we are, what we hold dear. And we would do well to show our appreciation for artists like Oscar who capture them for us, give them new layers, and bottle them up for us to treasure and keep.
 


You can follow Oscar Mejia and find his handcrafted fragrances at:

www.OscarMejiaArtisanFragrances.com
www.facebook.com/OscarMejiaArtisanFragrances
Instagram: @OMArtisanFragrances

About Trish Lim
Trish Lim loves writing about travel and the characters in her head. She's also a painter and an entrepreneur. When she's not at her desk, she's out exploring the Philippines, making art, or searching for a good cup of coffee. Check out her adventures at trishintransit.com.
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