A bridge between nose and heart

written by Zhang Boning, edited by Keith Richburg, Mar. 23, 2017, Hong Kong

If everyone were a perfume, what redolence would you send out?

“A mixed smell of metallic confidence and romantic floribunda – like a fearsome iron throne twined with tender roses.”

This is how Cui Temeng, a 22-year-old Chinese fragrance designer, defines himself, using his perfume review of his favorite Serge Lutens Sa Majeste la Rose, which, according to Cui, smells like his personality.

This perfume uses two extremely different aromas. The acute essence of cloves may represent Cui’s ambition and confidence of his career. The soft flavor of Moroccan roses stands for how sentimental he is when designing perfumes.

Although Cui doesn’t make perfume with his hands, he, as a fragrance designer, is the bridge between customers and flavorist’s working desk, abstract and specific, nose and heart.

Before the flavorist dissolves attars into a perfume, Cui talks to customers, trying to understand their abstract demands and come up with a recipe of open note, body and base. In Cui’s words, he is like an architect who draws blueprints, according to which the flavorist puts bricks together.

Cui runs Trueast, a small fragrance company, in China’s fashion city Shanghai, with a flavorist. Trueast designs and makes custom-made fragrances for furniture makers or landscaping companies. Such companies want to impress people with not only their products but also the flavors of their products.

“The smell is pigment and the sprayer is a painting brush. Fragrances I designed are like paintings, through which I express themes,” the 5.8 feet-tall young man said, eyes narrowed. He wouldn’t stop talking, making an analogy between designing fragrances and making films, and recalling his grandfather bringing him to a spice market.

Cui wants his new office to be modern with Chinese-style details. (Photo by Trueast)

The company’s office was designed by Cui, who has a strong desire to create and is described by his fellows as a “DIY freak”. He chose Chinese-style stone, byobu and wood furniture. The main colors adopted are Chinese red and black, resembling the style of a royal palace in China’s Han Dynasty while being acceptable for global customers.

The designing idea of the office is consistent with Cui’s idea of making perfumes and running this company– to bring Chinese-style redolence to the world. To his understanding, Chinese smells, like the philosophy of Taichi or Confucius, are softer than western scents. Cui’s eyes sparkled on his thoughts that ladies in China will someday put on the perfume he designs.

Six years ago, Cui bought his first perfume, Dior Homme Sport, when he was in senior high school, and it led him enter the new world of fragrant substances. He turned crazy for the balminess world, spending all his money on only two things – meals and perfumes. He studied those aroma compounds, trying to find out what iris is and how it smells. Since then, he has collected about 300 bottles of bouquet, totaling more than 150,000 RMB (about $22,000).

Cui acquainted himself with Kasim Chen, current flavorist and his partner at Trueast, at a perfume exhibition in 2015, by showing his fragrance review of Serge Lutens Sa Majeste la Rose to Chen.

“I heard that he will have internship with me. I was glad because I like those who really have a passion for perfume,” Chen recalled. Chen was then the only flavorist at a Chinese fragrance company which produces fragrance for bath products.

Cui interned during a summer break from his university in New Zealand. Before that, he developed an ability to identify the plant once he smells the odor of it when he learned botany. In New Zealand, he was always in black with his long naturally wavy hair tied up, like an artist.

Trueast flavorist’s working desk. They have over 800 bottles of essence, bought or took from the flavorist’s personal collection. (Photo by Trueast)

A year after, Cui graduated from university and talked Chen into starting a perfume company, with 500,000 RMB raised from investors and Cui’s parents.

“It’s exactly because Cui was new to the perfume industry that I decided to quit my previous job,” Chen said, explaining why he quit his previous job even though he earns less with Cui. “Cui gives me space to create odors and sometimes guides me to think out of the box. That’s what makes real perfumes.”

In China, many fragrance companies design flavor for food, cigarettes or bath products. They make chocolate milk, blueberry cigarettes and seawater shampoo with chemical essences. But Cui doesn’t want his company to make aromas for other industries. His dream was a brand which produces its own perfumes that individual clients could put on.

However, things didn’t go well as predicted. Cui lacked experience about perfume production, business rules and company management.

Cui calmly reflected on that dilemma and listed all the difficulties. He said having their own branded perfumes and opening shops means the customer base grows fast. Consequently, a tiny mistake in the fragrance recipe could have huge impact and kill the company.

After struggling, Cui and his partner decided to lay their brand dream aside. They began to design fragrances for companies’ offices or exhibitions. Although this business model slowed down the company’s pace of making money, Cui could have time to learn the market and consumer demands, and to build his company’s reputation. He now has his curly hair cut and straightened, and always wears shirts and suit pants.

Not long after they adopted this business model, Red Star Macalline, one of the biggest furniture companies in China, asked Trueast to make fragrances themed “home and sweetness” for their annual exhibition last December.

Trueast also invites people to DIY perfumes in the company’s lab. (Photo by Trueast)

After a brainstorm, Cui chose the scent of rice as the main flavor. He stayed up all night for three days, thinking about how to reproduce the smell of warmth, starch and vapor that could remind all Chinese of the cooked rice they enjoy every night at home with their beloved families.

Cui buried his head in a rice bucket, trying to dissect and identify all the elements in the smell of rice. He and the flavorist looked for other essences that have the same features. After the flavorist put them together, Cui compared it with his recipe and told the flavorist to change the proportion of some attars.

On the exhibition day, the solvent was sent to the exhibition center through air pipes. The furniture company was rather satisfied. Several visitors also noticed the unique smell and said it perfectly matched the theme.

Cui hopes that Trueast have its own branded perfume that be sold overseas in five years.

“I will make perfumes that touch me. And of course it will make me feel better if people say ‘oh my god, I like this smell’,” said Cui, nodding his head with his right hand on his chin.

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