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Last month, I attended an astrological fragrance-making workshop at Fort Gansevoort, a gallery and activity space in Manhattan's Meatpacking district. The workshop was intimate; I was one of just three participants (the other two were a pair of middle-aged sisters) who gathered around a table in a cozy space on the second floor, as Julia Zangrilli, a perfumer and founder of Brooklyn fragrance atelier NOVA, working with an astrologer, G., created custom scents.
Together, the astrologer and the perfumer parsed what scent would work best for each participant by looking to the stars. G. consulted a Zodiac birth chart, a highly mathematical picture that locates where the sun, moon, and planets were at the exact moment of birth, to discern our sun and star signs. Zangrilli then took to her mobile scent lab — a collection of beakers and vials placed artfully on a small bar — to cook up corresponding blends.
For me, the ring-leading, willful Leo, Zangrilli mixed a spirited, citrusy blend of bergamot, neroli, petit-grain, and passion fruit.
Zangrilli's custom perfumes, based on the 12 signs of the Zodiac, ran the gamut. For example, for the ring-leading, willful Leo (like me, but we'll get to that), Zangrilli mixed a spirited, citrusy blend of bergamot, neroli, petit-grain, and passion fruit. For the virginal and immaculate Virgo, she created a union of fig, fig stem, green bamboo, and coriander. The blended scents, she said, represented us — if what's us is what's written in the stars.
I'm what you might call a passionate observer in the field of astrology. I closely follow the trajectory of the urban mystic trend and my inbox is clogged with unread Susan Miller AstrologyZone readings, but before this workshop I hadn't seen my astrological birth chart. I knew that Mercury was in retrograde several times in the past few years (I'd seen the Snapchat filter and heard friends blame their lack of motivation on it), but I had no real idea what it meant for me. I've waved a smudging bundle of burning sage in the corners of my bedroom to clear them of negative energy, but the earthy smell makes me nauseous if I don't also open a window. I'm too anxious, too obsessive, too punctual, and too dependent on pharmaceuticals to ever truly be a free spirit.
But I'm also a beauty and culture writer, and I do subscribe to the larger wellness movement in popular psychology, much of which relies on energy and trusting my gut (professionals call this wise-mind decision-making), as astrology does. I believe in the power of willingness, even if I don't always feel willing enough to get up and do something for myself.
What attracts me most to astrology as a newbie is that it gives my unkempt little life order and classification. Often, I'll find myself seven weeks deep in a stranger's Twitter feed, or eating hummus out of the fridge with my hand, or alone in a cab at 3 a.m. with a dead phone, or using a laundromat with WiFi as a makeshift office as I am now, thinking to myself, "How did I get here again?" Much of my path thus far has felt cobbled together, based on certain privileges, sheer luck, and the Midwest manners I learned early in life. Amid this mess, it's comforting for me to think that there's some celestial path out there for me. That I have a niche to fill. That my actions have purpose.
I'm too anxious, too obsessive, too punctual, and too dependent on pharmaceuticals to ever truly be a free spirit.
Astral classification as a Leo tells me I posses certain flattering qualities — that in addition to being popular, I am also a commander, a motivator, and a virtuoso. My rising sign of Libra, which affects how I present to the world, tells me I'm an advocate and a tastemaker. In college, I might have bragged about having those qualities, but like many women my age who are just starting their careers and feel unsure of where and how they fit into the world, I wouldn't describe myself that way now. At the workshop, hearing Zangrilli list my supposed qualities, I thought, I can buy into this. Really, at this point in my life, I just want someone or something to guide me. If it's the moon and sun ushering me through, even better.
After Zangrilli blended my perfume — the scents of Leo, Aries, and Aquarius mixed with an amber base — and sent me on my way, I vowed to inhabit the best qualities of my birth chart. My virtues would radiate off me. People would smell it.
Of course, I know that the qualities of a Leo have no intrinsic smell. Zangrilli made it up. But as soon as I smelled my custom fragrance, I associated positive qualities with it. There's loads of research about the learned association of scents. In her excellent book The Scent of Desire, Dr. Rachel Gerz writes, "Aromas work their therapeutic magic by evoking a learned association in the smeller. This learned association can have real emotional and physical consequences, which in turn will influence moods, thoughts, behaviors, and general well-being."
I immediately associated my supposed "Leo" scent with leonine qualities: energy, loyalty, and frankness. (Lions are frank, right?) With my celestial self settled, I wore my perfume every single day for a few weeks. And you'd be surprised: I actually started to feel like I was tapping into parts of myself that I hadn't accessed in a while. Stuff started happening for me.
For one, I had the courage to be a bit of a show-off. I started a skincare newsletter, which involves making GIFs of myself, bare-faced, applying ointment to pimples and dying my eyebrows 10 shades too dark. This would normally humiliate me, but with the help of the perfume, I fancied myself a makeup-less revolutionary. Aren't I a tastemaker, after all?
Other things I've done under the influence: I applied to 14 separate graduate programs, all while wearing my scent. I normally medicate myself before flying, and in the four flights I've taken since acquiring the perfume, I haven't needed to dose myself with Ativan a single time. I wrote this entire essay using a makeshift standing desk instead of typing under the covers of my bed. I went on a date. I've taken to calling my perfume "Eau De Clar," a nickname I once developed for myself after not correcting a grown man for four months to tell him that my name was really pronounced "Kl3r." That was in my less self-assured, pre-astrology days.
The scent stands in for a self-assuredness I too often forget I possess.
One night, after waiting patiently in a modest mock turtleneck for two hours to sing Dolly Parton's "Jolene" at a karaoke bar, I attracted the attention of a young man in a top hat and cherry-red brocade blazer who told me that in addition to being a stand-up comedian, Shakespearean actor, and fire juggler, he was also a fixture at this particular establishment. He was obviously an authority, and he told that my rendition of "Jolene" was "good." It wasn't. But I thanked him all the same. Maybe my true nature was indeed that of a leonine country prodigy, I thought to myself. Maybe I was gifted all along, and it just took the scent to tap into it.
But, oh my spirit! Leos don't mince words, and it would be only truthful to say that throughout the entire experiment, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for my inner skeptic to refute the premise that a mere scent could positively affect my life.
After all, Gerz tells us that we are psychologically susceptible to smell, that aromas can seem life-changing through the power of suggestion. In her book, she cites a study by Estelle Campenni, a psychology professor at Marywood University, which found that when participants were told that a fragrance was "relaxing" or "stimulating," its smell produced changes in heart rate regardless of what type of fragrance it was. Similarly, Zangrilli's suggestion that this perfume would make me feel more like myself was enough to make it so.
We also shouldn't lose sight of the fact that, more than anything else, our body chemistry plays an enormous role in how we smell. All humans possess a unique set of proteins called the major histocompatibility complex, or MHC. Our MHC is the genotype for our immune systems, and in turn, our body odor. We can't change it — even if a perfume or a psychic claims to be able to. But the scent's power of suggestion gave me license to project how I felt about myself. It was neither astrology nor science; it was me feeling grounded and unified, and then externalizing it.
I'll continue wearing my scent because I love the way it smells. Even though it doesn't hold mystical properties or change my body's chemistry as I secretly hoped it might, it stands in for a self-assuredness I too often forget I possess. Maybe one day, I'll find it in the belly of some old makeup bag and inhale deeply, immediately remembering how it felt to hold a vial of liquid that, for a few months at least, was the key to activating whatever magic lies dormant inside me.
Claire Carusillo is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.