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Making good scents: A new place for customized perfumes

The Subterranean Scentsorium
The Subterranean Scentsorium
courtesy the Scentsorium

Throughout time, perfumes have been custom-made for queens, movie stars, and fashion designers. And now, you.

You can join the privileged ranks thanks to The Scentarium (85 Franklin St., 646.350.6562), the brainchild of Sue Phillips, whose resume lists stints developing fragrances for labels like Tiffany, Burberry and Trish McEvoy. Set on a TriBeCa side street, it's a cozy subterranean lair, an old-fashioned parlor adorned with books, various pieces of bric-a-brac (including blue-and-white china plates above the door) and art; perfume bottles abound, ranging from huge, display size to tiny trial size. "Every piece has meaning and memory for me," Phillips says, especially the paintings done by her mother that hang on the walls. Closeups of flowers, they're especially appropriate for the business at hand, which is developing a signature scent for a client. You start off seated on the tufted leather sofa, filling out a quiz to determine which general fragrance family—woody, fresh, floral, oriental—you leans towards. Next, Sue gives you a brief course in the composition and construction of a perfume.

Then, you move over to a table laden with a ring of liquid-laden bottles, and the real fun begins. Sue dips a paper stick into each one and you sniff it, then consign it to a pile (like, dislike and maybe); each is a pure fragrance from one of seven categories of scent. After sampling all 18, you narrow down the 3 or 4 you like best—more than that, and the scent tends to get muddy, Sue claims—and she blends them while you wait into one unique perfume. (I discovered that my ideal consisted of bright florals, with a soupcon of spice and earthy notes—an olfactory equivalent of sweet-and-sour soup). You can choose a bottle for it, and even give it a name.

Naturally, a custom-blended perfume doesn't come cheap. But the experience also gives you a good sense—or should we say scents—of what you care for in cologne, which can be helpful in negotiating the increasingly crowded world of perfumes out there. Though you might not be able to wear anything you didn't create from now on.