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Is a Semi-Custom Fragrance the Perfect Gift?

A case for cultivating a personal scent.

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Two perfume bottles from the brand Ex Nihilio Photo: Ex Nihilo

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A few years ago, I interviewed Oscar de la Renta at Lord & Taylor for the launch of the now-discontinued Live in Love perfume. One of the soundbites I included in my story was about his belief that a woman only needs one fragrance — your scent is uniquely you, and you should shop for perfumes accordingly. The ODLR woman, it’s safe to say, doesn’t load up on rollerballs at Sephora.

This time last year, my individual scent was Le Labo’s Santal 33. But I stopped wearing it because it was also a lot of other people’s individual scent, too. The same goes for Terre D’Hermès, Chloé Fleur de Parfum, and Elizabeth and James Nirvana Black. Eventually, I smelled them on too many people to consider them my own.

Getting a custom fragrance — a thing that, yes, you can do if you’re rich — can cost thousands of dollars, but getting something tailored to you is a lot cheaper. I’d argue that it’s one of the best gifts to give someone, whether you present them with the opportunity to make one themselves or, if you know them well enough, create one for them.

The French perfume brand Ex Nihilo does a demi-bespoke service (prices start at $365) at Bergdorf Goodman in New York and Saks Miami Dadeland. The process itself only really takes around 20 minutes (you can see it from start to finish here). You can also personalize a fragrance by adding an oil to the layering process (which is what's pictured above). I’ve been wearing my custom scent — a strong, musky sandalwood — every day for the past few weeks.

You receive a custom serial number with your perfume; theoretically, you can use this to reorder it without having to guess what you picked out the first time. They also promise not to share it with anyone else, and even though scent identity fraud isn’t an actual concern of mine, it’s still nice to know that it’s stashed in a vault (or computer database) somewhere in Paris.

If you’re in New York, another option for finding a really unique scent is a consultation at Twisted Lily, a perfume store in Cobble Hill that specializes in niche and hard-to-find fragrances.

I went this past weekend with a friend who was looking for a new perfume. After explaining the types of fragrances she likes (something that’s kind of spicy, masculine, and smells like an old-fashioned), one of the store’s experts lined up about a half-dozen bottles for her to try. She left with a few samples to wear throughout the week to see how they smell on her own skin. (And when I saw her last night, she smelled great.)

This is all, of course, not limited to New York. LA has a handful of boutiques for custom and semi-custom scents, like Sarah Horowitz Parfums, where you can book an appointment to create a custom roll-on oil perfume at the blending bar for $199. New Orleans has Bourbon French Perfumes, Chicago has The Aroma Workshop, and Seattle has Sweet Anthem.

Giving someone a special scent is a great gift, and it’s also one of the best gifts you can give to yourself — much like fine jewelry to celebrate a big life event, or just for the hell of it.