Much More Than Memory
Frederick Bouchardy is the founder of Brooklyn’s Joya, a fragrance brand and design studio that produces perfumes and scented objects like the Odd Woods and Tender Earth candles he designed with East Fork’s Alex and Connie Matisse a few years ago. Collaborations such as this is one facet of Joya. Another is the creation of remarkable scents that are marketed under the studio’s own name and still another is designing environmental scents that are dispersed into the air via gas atomization technology at hotels, boutiques and events worldwide. When I began to do research about Frederick and about Joya, I knew there was so much to the story, and I sensed that Frederick would be the consummate storyteller. He agreed to an email correspondence with me, which took place in August 2021, when he was visiting France. The following is a lightly-edited transcript of that correspondence. —Shannon Doyne, East Fork
Shannon Doyne: I thought I'd begin by asking you about your work with East Fork on our Tender Earth and Odd Woods candles. In collaborating with Joya on these scents, Alex wanted to capture very specific scent memories of the former tobacco farm that became the first iteration of East Fork. That’s Odd Wood. And for Tender Earth, Connie wanted to bring back a very specific moment from her childhood. What do you remember about the experience of working with them?
And—second question—you mentioned that Joya’s industrial designer, who happens to be from Slovakia, has named Tender Earth as his favorite, out of all the scents Joya Studio has designed. What do you think makes a scent transcend the merely beautiful (and/or, perhaps, the hyperpersonal) to attain something that speaks to someone who doesn’t know about, say, old farms out in the country in North Carolina?
Frederick Bouchardy: Wow, yes, Connie and Alex came by over three years ago. I think they were in NYC for a trade show or client/partner visits? In any case—sheesh—those were different days... What a time. I am glad we met in this way, though, as it helps us create a common language for communicating our goals together. We don't even need to share the same vision (or values! or experiences!)... Only a way to smell things together to create a baseline scent lexicon.
If we are talking about what I believe will be a long term project, we smell raw materials together. (This is what we did together. Another thing to note: One thing Alex and Connie and I share, I think/feel, as entrepreneurs and makers is trusting our own instincts, making decisions, efficiency.) The funny part is, of course, there are elements of education and exploring/learning together... But what I am really trying to grasp is how they want these fragrances to make them—and, thereby, their clients—feel. This work involves psychology, linguistics, knowledge of ingredients and their respectives heritage/provenance/what that says about them... All things I truly love. It is hard, draining work, but it's important because it can lead to results that stand the test of time. Case in point: These two scents.
I think Martin loves that scent because, despite having the world's most incredible public parks, we really do miss the smell of the earth here. The parks here are 100% man-made, after all, even the ones that appear relatively wild. Tender Earth is about the feeling of the scent of the earth, and it is gentle and signature at the same time.
SD: I'm really interested in the distinction you draw between scent and how that scent makes a person feel. You have to find the people to make (and later, wear) scents that bring about some emotional connection—how you feel when you smell the earth, in speaking of Tender Earth.
It seems like memory must be one of the things you work to unearth when you're working with a client. I'm thinking here of the candle you made with Central Park Track Club, its wet leaves and petrichor and cedar bring about not "what running smells like" but a very specific moment, being in the near-rain and relief, maybe a drop in temperature, a break from the sun, how that plays out in feelings, if one is up for doing the work of remembering, that is. I guess for others, scent is really literal: they like the smell of roses and they just look for something that smells like roses. No disrespect! But it's not the storytelling that you're interested in and I am, too.
I should stop meandering and ask what you think about the role memory plays in making a great scent for someone else or for Joya. Or, if not memory, perhaps it's a matter of constructing a world or a moment that one wishes existed then capturing that as a scent. I guess imagination is part of the factor, along with memory. I wonder what you think about all of this.
FB: I believe this relates to our hard-wired nature: the need to connect, collaborate. Creating a scent that's an on-the-nose replication of a thing is not that interesting, nor is it what we're here to do. I'm not a physicist, but we all perceive things through our own lens, which is informed by evolution, education, experience, taste, style, many things. Think of a grape candy or soda. That's not a regular grape. It's kind of a concord grape. But mostly it's a perception informed by the taste of this thing found in nature that is so crazily sweet and distinct that it's nearly alien. So, yes our sense of smell, which essentially recognizes patterns, takes shape right next to the brain and within the limbic system (where we famously process and regulate emotion and memory) is about much more than memory, unless you see memory as an amalgamation of physiology, psychology, biology, chemistry, sociology, philosophy, artistry, everything basically. As in holistic healing, you can't separate mental from physical health. Or spiritual health. In this way, scent is actually a mechanism for discovering (or rediscovering) your true nature. Retracing a smelled experience using a map of memory is like searching for who you really are.
SD: That is the best meandering, Frederick. Thank you for that. What you describe is like time travel. What I wouldn't give to walk through my first elementary school, now long bulldozed, built in the late 1800s or early 1900s, to again smell the wax on the wood floors, chalk on blackboard slate, coal furnace and our fears of Bloody Mary in the mirror in the basement bathrooms, hint of mold, too, and, to tell the whole truth but make it less nice, the dirty kids in unwashed clothes and, to help mitigate that, the cheap perfume our teacher sprayed around the room, like an ur-Febreze.
This brings me to two things I'd like to ask you about. First, do you have a time/place/moment from your life that you have retraced via scent? If so, what was it, did one scent memory seem to unearth more scent memories (which happened to me as I wrote about my school above) and how did you know when you and the perfumer had gotten the memory complete?
The other thing—and I'm sorry if asking about two very different things in one email violates the loveliness of our email exchanges, a risk I'm taking because I assume you want to wrap up this process more sooner than later—is about the scents you have made for hotels, even whole hotel chains with locations in cities on different continents, places that would be inhabited by people who no doubt have different scent registers, if that's a half-decent term for it. How did you set out to make the scent and did your own experiences with the emotions of travel inform the process? I'm asking this as a person who stays at the same hotel as before on subsequent trips to a city, largely because the comfort of the familiar goes a long way with me, and certainly, the way those hotels smell is a big part of it, though I can't quite define the notes of those scents.
FB: You can time travel:
a) There are mindfulness practices that take time and commitment, as well as ways to understand and explore your subconscious... When I add scent--both my own "material" experiences and my overarching journey and research and projects, I feel it's real.
b) I plan to (re)deliver that universal school experience (first kiss?) through scent at some point.
Question 1: I'm currently retracing it all. When my grandfather passed away, I found a big bottle of cologne in his medicine cabinet with a few drops left. It was like finding a note from him to me. This message and what it led to guide me all the time. I don't want to say much more. I also brought home some of his handkerchiefs and hats and the pocket knife he used to cut fruit. He always did that facing his hand, instead of away, which I thought looked so cool, effortless.
Question 2: At this point, I want to work on scents for my own projects and only take on others that I believe in and could love. I love working on scents that help communicate a hotel's identity. Comfort, aliveness and inspiration. When it comes to environmental scent (candle, reed diffuser, incense, cold diffusion, etc.), I want to involve and thereby offer all three. But I'll take one if it's strong and right. Any of these is key and valuable.
It's extremely cool to have a niche brand that serves a smallish audience but to be involved in designing part of an experience that millions of people come across every day. It's like speaking multiple languages.
From a branding perspective, a consistent scent is beyond key. Not much more needs to be written or said about this, not because it's an efficient way to manipulate your target customer (which is how many marketing firms and trend forecasting agencies will put it, effectively) but because it's a way to show that you really know them and exist to do so and to serve them. I am truly happy (and humbled) to be involved in this when it's genuine.
SD: You are a most gracious penpal, Frederick. I hope you are enjoying your time in France.
You've got me thinking about mannerisms, with that description of your grandfather cutting fruit. That's how we remember people, isn't it? Not their job titles or their public-facing accomplishments, but how they sank into a chair, how they smiled when they were feeling shy versus when they felt fully themselves, how you felt in their presence—I could go on forever—and obviously, their scent (not just fragrance but everything that is part of it, like shampoo, shoe polish, etc.) and your memory of it.
I sure do hope you make what you called a universal school experience (first kiss?) someday. I'm sure it would resonate with we who are drawn to the emotions of that very specific strain of nostalgia. I love to remember school, as you know from a previous email, and all of adolescence, which admittedly, the years have helped idealize.
I might be getting down to my last questions here, if you can believe it. Thinking about your travels right now, you have that rare moment ahead of you: returning home and being able to smell it before losing it to familiarity. What does your home smell like? Please feel free to delay your answer until after you are back.
And, please forgive the lack of transition to my other idea here: there's so much poetry in what you do. Storytelling, too, of course, but here I am thinking of your scent Foxglove. Could you guide me through its ideation? I'm an ex-New Yorker and every time I happen upon the product page on Joya Studio's website, I get this huge grin on my face, but I don't want to say more than that.
FB: Funny: My (5 year old) son can't stop talking about how much he loves the smell of his grandfather's car: Tobacco, fake leather, salt water and kicked up dust and clay. I hardly notice the smell, but it's sweet. French people love the smell of "cave," which is dank, musty, where they keep wines and store things.
Know exactly what you mean, but I think maybe someone's job and accomplishments impacts how they sit and smile, for better or worse. Do you wonder why Tom Brady's expressions and body language are so willful/pronounced? This is one of the reasons I love scent. On your skin, it can help you communicate what you intend—whether that's a mood or an identity. In your home, it can help illustrate—and create!—where you want to be. And it doesn't have to be the same thing all the time or even the same for each mood or space.
It's 101°F where I am right now and 95°F back in New York right now, so I'm scared to consider what that impact will be, but I know the smells at home: Garden is dewy with a snap, blue-green and cement and soil. Kitchen and pantry are dark, musty, wood, plum, burgundy. Living room is covered in art projects with my boy. I didn't have time to fully arrange, so cardboard, paint, glue, orange and blue. Upstairs is fresh linen, still hot from the skylight: ivory, cream, grey. And I have a sacred space that will smell of shoes and copal resin, burned every day in July. Green.
Foxglove is close to me and the last perfume developed with my close friend and quasi-mentor, Rayda Vega, who passed away recently. Rayda was initially a family friend and freelance perfumer. Ultimately, she and I worked together for years, including on Joya's first four perfumes. I learned so much. Her lab was in her apartment. When she broke her arm at an agility competition for dogs, I assisted her with compounding. This is when that part of the craft started to take up a lot of space in my mind. Rayda was interested in traditional fragrance construction, so I might push toward deconstruction or different ways of considering and transmitting beauty. I love contrast, and I love to learn.
Foxglove is an ode to New York City. The name is based on research and the testimony that—at one point—Manhattan was covered in digitalis plants, which are, of course, odorless—and quasi-poisonous as well. So, it was a chance to imagine the untouched aroma of this City with an element of danger for fun and the obvious connotation(s). It ends up being classic but a little rough, sharp and sweet: orange and grass and leaves and stems over honeyed white flowers with a familiar, warm cedar and musk base.
This was 2014. A big part of the launch was experimenting with digital selling and storytelling, which is hard to do when you are offering personal scents. I met with horticulturalists from the Central Park Conservatory Garden to better understand what people were seeking and responding to on their visits, what their associations and passions were. And I used Henry Hope Reed's Central Park: A History and a Guide as a north star for the entire project. The NYTimes Style Magazine called Foxglove the "new unofficial scent of New York City," which I thought was cool and, as the French say, improbable. Ultimately, it smells innocent, not dangerous at all.