Nora Gasparini wafts a scent-soaked paper strip past her well-trained nose. Her nostrils don't, as I half-expect, flare in revulsion as she judges my amateur fragrance-mixing efforts. Instead, the elegant Martinique-raised, Bali-based artisan perfumer raises an eyebrow – ever so slightly – and suggests a tweak for my next blend.
The yet-to-mature scent, it seems, has largely passed the sniff test.
Phew. I was hoping to impress Gasparini who, from her close-cropped hair to her coffee-coloured pumps, exudes the same kind of sophistication I'm hoping to capture in a bottle.
I'm at one of her perfume-making workshops at Ayana Resort and Spa in Jimbaran Bay on Bali's south-west coast. Here, in a studio setting that feels part shopfront and part laboratory, we each take a seat in front of our own "organ" of 44 notes, drawn mainly from Indonesia, that range from the specific (vanilla, lavender and sandalwood) to the more poetic (aquatic, leather and smoky).
But how do we even start to play these notes? "Believe me, you don't want to smell them all," says Gasparini, who has developed a formula to narrow the ingredients for our bespoke fragrance. We fill out a questionnaire that reveals character traits – perhaps we're a zen type who gravitates towards fresh and delicate scents or a romantic with a hankering for the classic and ageless? We also jot down our favourite perfume (mine's Chanel No. 19).
From the responses, she selects top, middle and base notes for us to blend into something harmonious and pleasing. My 10 notes are white musk, oriental, benzoin, lotus, green tea, frangipani, rose, bergamot, aquatic and ginger.
After noting my favourites, I count out the precise number of drops I've written down as my formula, feeling a bit like a mad scientist. I create three variations on a theme – dripped into miniature bottles labelled one to three. They range from a light eau de toilette to a longer-lasting perfume.
"Your first impression of perfume disappears very quickly because of the volatile molecules," says Gasparini, explaining how top notes such as lemon, sweet orange and cardamom work on the nose. "They're like bubbles of champagne – they pop and disappear."
Middle notes are drawn from flowers, fruits and spices while heavier base notes are created from woods and resins. "The intensity of their smell is not that high but they stay on your skin longer," she says.
I ask Gasparini which of my trial blends she prefers. "You can ask but I can't answer that," she says, with a smile. Use your instinct, she urges, to pick the one that will become a 30-millilitre bottle of fragrance. I inhale them all many times, change my mind a few more times and finally settle on blend number two.
The second-trickiest bit is naming my new fragrance. But as I'm living it up at one of the resort's villas, where someone's at my beck and call at all hours of the day, I settle on "Bali Butler" as a reminder of this rare treat. Later, one of the butlers drops by in a golf cart to deliver the boxed and labelled bottle to my door.
Still, I must wait three weeks before trying my new fragrance. It takes this long, Gasparini says, for elements to merge and mature. I pop the black box onto a bathroom shelf at home and wait for the weeks to pass. It reminds me of being a kid at Christmas, peering at wrapped presents under the tree and wondering what's inside.
Finally, the big day arrives. I crack open the box, spritz exuberantly and inhale it by the lungful. To me, it's astonishingly close to that favourite scent of mine but with a touch of je ne sais quoi. What a souvenir to bring home from Bali. One whiff and I'm right back there.
L'Atelier Parfums et Creations' 90-minute perfume workshop, which includes a 30-millilitre bottle of your own bespoke fragrance, costs $US80. A three-hour workshop, which includes a lecture on Indonesia's role in perfumery, costs $US125. The store keeps your perfume formula on file so it can be re-created for future orders. L'Atelier has two Bali locations: at Nusa Dua and at Jimbaran's Ayana Resort and Spa. See perfumeworkshops.com and ayana.com.
Katrina Lobley travelled as a guest of Ayana Resort and Spa.