Two weeks ago I found myself in a little shop on Halsted Street in Chicago. Filled with little bottles of scents, the Aroma Workshop invites patrons to escape their busy lives and create a one of a kind bottle of perfume under the guidance of Tedd Neenan, the workshop’s owner of 21years.
Not a native Chicagoan, I stumbled upon it looking for some fun things to do while visiting the Windy City. I found out about the workshop from a TravelZoo.com deal. For $45 you can come in for an hour-long class, during which you create your own perfume. You leave with two bottles of your customized scent, a 2.2 oz bottle and a travel size atomizer. I checked out the reviews – extremely positive. It sounded like a great experience for someone like me.
After scheduling my appointment over the phone, I arrived at the workshop on a Monday afternoon. When you enter it, Tedd, the owner, greats you warmly and welcomes to sit at a counter, in front of dozens of bottles of scents. The shelves are filled with different sized bottles and vials of potions as well. It struck me right away upon entering that you are not overwhelmed with any scent. The opposite of the experience you have when you visit a fragrance counter at a department store. At the Aroma Workshop random spritzing of scents is not part of the process.
Once seated, I was instructed to smell all the scents from tiny little bottles and pick my 10 favorites. The scents are organized into four categories: “floral” like jasmine, rose; “flavors” also known as gourmands such as vanilla or chocolate; “fresh and citrus” scents like orange or bergamot and “earthy” ones like sandal wood, musk. You can choose from a variety of many different scents. I thought it’d be extremely difficult with so many choices, but it was actually easier than I’d thought. Some scents were appealing from the very first sniff. Others I put away quickly.
Perhaps that’s because scents have a strong connection to memories. When you smell something for the first time, for example ocean, you don’t have a memory of it, Tedd explained in a follow-up interview. The next time you smell it, “…your brain goes into the catalogue of scents and connects it to a previous experience”. “People love the scent of lilacs because it brings back memories of happiness, childhood, and being out of school in the springtime,” he said.
Tedd shared some examples of how scents connect with memories for him. For example, the scent of vanilla brings back positive memories because it reminds him of perfume his first girlfriend wore. It’s not necessarily the scent of vanilla itself that he likes so much but more the memory of someone he really wanted to be with.
I asked Tedd what memory he wished he could bottle as a scent that he hasn’t yet. He answered with striking visual detail “… the combination of scents when you ride your bicycle down a mountain path, with snow melting combined with the smell of pavement, trees and pristine clean mountain air.” When he talks about perfume, he just closes his eyes and describes various scents in such a way that shows his absolute passion and dedication to what he does.
Once I picked my ten scents, that’s when the magic began. Tedd starting placing drops of my picked scents on paper strips, combining them in twos and threes. Based on my input and my reaction, he started creating more complex combinations, featuring four or five different scents. If your nostrils get overwhelmed, you can smell a small container filled with coffee beans that neutralize your nose, like eating crackers cleanses your palate. You are also welcome to step outside of the shop with your scent strips to get a fresh perspective.
Tedd mentioned that there is no secret to combining different scents; his years of experience and expertise just allow him to make fragrances that go well together based on a customer’s likes and preferences. He also believes that certain types of personalities like certain scents. For example, extroverted people are more attracted to floral, less subtle scents. “The secret is that we help people create the scent and they help us make the scent. It’s a collaboration and nobody has ever left with a bad scent.”
When asked about unusual requests to create scents, Tedd immediately recalled the story of a customer who went to a Jon Bon Jovi concert. After hugging the artist, she brought back a shirt she wore that day filled with Bon Jovi’s sweat and asked to have that smell bottled. Although it was a weird request, the customer left happy. “There is no way of creating the exact smell of a person, but we can create an impression of that person. That’s what we do.”
After I narrowed my choices to two combinations that I both loved, after adding a note of peach to one of them, I made my decision. Next, I was asked to choose the perfume bottle that I liked and a travel size atomizer and to think of a name for my perfume. Based on the notes of Peach, La Mer, Burn, Touch, White Tea and LSD (Lakeshore Drive), which are all a little sweet and musky, I named my perfume “Sweet Temptation”. Next the owner entered the info about my fragrance into a database, so in case I want to reorder my perfume, it’s ready for me. Tedd said most people do reorder, because they get attached to their customized scent. Some people also have a few seasonal scents, one for summer, one for winter.
If you like the idea of your own customized body products, the shop also offers a wide variety of soaps, body lotions, hand creams and bath products that you can add your favorite scents to. The Aroma Workshop also offers aromatherapy that uses essential oils, different from the scents you use to create your perfume. Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils for therapy through scents aimed at healing sore muscles, skin conditions, headaches or relieving stress. If that’s your cup of tea, you can sign up for a class at the shop as well or you can pick one of 12 already created essential oil blends.
The majority of expertise that Tedd developed is through working within the industry. In his hometown of Columbia, MO there was a similar fragrance shop called Perfume Parlor and he was friends with the owner. After retiring from a dancing career on the East Coast, he went back to his hometown and started working at the Perfume Parlor that his brother bought in the meantime. After a few years and meeting his wife, he decided to move to Chicago and open his own perfume shop. Now he works with a group of five other perfumers. They have learnt the secrets of the trade from him but all of them had a passion for fragrances.
I absolutely loved my whole experience, I really enjoyed the process of picking the scents I liked under the guidance of Tedd and I loved the personal connection between me and the owner, something that you cannot get while buying a bottle of perfume from Sephora or Macy’s. The owner is not trying to compete with department stores though; he says that coming into his shop is a completely different experience. “It’s an alternative to a department store, an addition, not something instead of, it’s a complimentary experience and after visit to our shop you’re more prepared and you have more knowledge next time you go to a department store.” But the whole purpose of the shop is this one on one experience, where you can come in for an hour, forget about everything else and learn about scents and create “a metaphysical connection and communicate beyond words” and leave with a fragrance that you love and that you created yourself.
Next time you’re in Chicago I highly encourage a visit to the Aroma Workshop. The store is located at 2050 N Halsted Street. To book your appointment call 773 871 1985 or visit their website at www.aromaworkshop.com .
What do you think of my experience? Have you ever created your own bottle of perfume? If you could create any customized beauty product, not just perfume, what would it be?
the founder and editor of Her and Makeup.