A Q&A with Kelly Jones

November 14, 2014

If you can't smell, you can't taste—and that's why the nose is so important in the experience of drinking wine. Wines differentiate themselves with subtleties—oak here, cherry there—that we would never sense without inhaling deeply. We even describe wine with some of the same terms we use to describe perfume: bouquet, nose, notes, essence.

Traditionally, though, wine and perfume are not natural allies. If you don't believe us, try wearing a big, bold fragrance to a wine tasting and seeing how quickly the vintner calls you out for interfering with the wine's aroma. That's what happened to Kelly Jones, who didn't know she was committing a no-no when she spritzed her wrist on a trip to Napa Valley. But lucky for us, getting publicly chastised for a wine faux pas didn't discourage Jones; it sent her on a rule-breaking journey that resulted in a career change and a line of perfumes, including an Olfactif Fireside selection.

In this Q&A, Jones tells us how she took the leap from corporate conference rooms to late-night blending sessions—and how she landed someplace better than she could have imagined.

Olfactif: You haven’t always been a fragrance designer. Tell us a little about your former life.

Kelly Jones:I am a huge gearhead. I love cars. And I grew up in Detroit, so I grew up with cars. I followed this path of, hey, I guess that’s what I should do, because that’s what I was brought up with, something I know a lot about, and something I’m passionate about. So the first 13 years of my career I spent working in the auto industry. I was a corporate product planner.

I loved my work. I got to travel to Tokyo and Mexico City, and it was kind of a dream job. But it was burning me out. It was really intense work, and my heart wasn’t getting the creative outlet that I really wanted. So I used to go home after these crazy days and stay up all night just researching fragrance, playing with oils, kind of teaching myself and training my nose.

One day I was sitting in a meeting room in Tokyo. It was this totally plain room, and everybody was just staring down and taking notes. I looked out the window and there was a cherry blossom tree, and the petals were falling. It was just such an incredible contrast between the room that I was in and the world outside. And I had this epiphany. I thought, this is what my heart is telling me: to go follow my nose. I started doodling on the back of a product plan this whole idea of a fragrance bar. And because I was very well trained in writing business plans, I ended up creating a business plan for a fragrance bar. When I knew that I had done all of my homework, I left my very stable job and went on this journey of opening a fragrance bar and falling into the world of fragrance.

Last year when I moved to New York and into my studio on Perry Street in the West Village, I walked into the building and opened the blinds, and in the courtyard there was a cherry blossom tree.

O: Wow. Full circle.

KJ: Yeah. I still get choked up when I tell that story, because I can’t believe that it happened. And now every time I see cherry blossoms, it always means so much to me. It tells me, “Keep going. Keep reinventing. Keep challenging yourself. Keep jumping, and the net will be there.”

O: That’s a great story. So you had a fragrance bar in Tucson for a couple of years?

KJ: Yes. And then the recession hit. So I’m in this small market, which is very seasonal, and at that time you did not want to have a brick-and-mortar store because of the economy. So then I started playing around with this idea of the wine fragrances, and I suddenly found a new direction in my career. I said, “Okay, it’s time to fold the store. I have learned what I needed to learn here.” And shortly after, I magically got a job offer to go work in the fragrance industry in New York. I decided that I would also nurture my wine perfume idea on the side.

O: And how did the idea for wine-inspired perfumes come about?

KJ: At that point in my life, I was reassessing the store and trying to figure out my next move. I went to a wine tasting in California, and I was wearing a fragrance that I had been working on for several weeks. It was this really beautiful vanilla blend. And the winemaker poured a beautiful reserve Chardonnay and said, “Who is wearing vanilla?” I said, “Oh, well, it’s me,” and he said, “You’re not supposed to wear perfume when you’re tasting wine.” Well, I had never heard that before. But I thought, wait a minute—that makes perfect sense because it’s going to make my experience of the wine different. And of course you don’t want to be wearing Chanel No. 5 and drinking a great Merlot, because you’re not going to be able to enjoy either. They don’t complement each other.

At the same time, as I lifted the glass and had my wrist next to my nose, I felt like I was smelling more and better understanding the warmth of the wine. And I thought, this is a really cool combination. Something’s happening to my senses. I’m appreciating the wine more.

Now, I appreciate that art of winemaking. But at the same time, I wanted to take these two worlds and see if I could combine them and take them both to a different place.

O: How did you start that process?

KJ:I went back to my fragrance studio and sat with five of my favorite wines, a mix of reds and whites, and I went about creating fragrances from the notes I was smelling in each. I wanted to create a fragrance that I believed would complement each wine.

O: Not to smell like the wine.

KJ:Right. We’ve all spilled a little wine on ourselves, and it doesn’t really smell good. That’s why the line is called “Notes of Wine.” The perfumes are representative of the individual essences that you would get in a bouquet of a glass of wine.

O: Tell us about Notes of Cabernet, the perfume featured in our Fireside collection. Can you tell me how you approached the development of that scent?

KJ:I sat down with a really lovely bottle of Cabernet from Napa Valley. I poured the glass of wine and gave it a swirl, and I thought, okay, I’m getting a lot of cherries. But it not just any cherry, it’s a black cherry. It’s a Michigan cherry. And then I would taste, and then pull my cherry essences or fruity essences from my library and start with those. Then I would sip and sip again and notice the leather, pink peppercorn, tobacco flower, and keep mixing. I kept at it until finally, when I took a sip of wine and sniffed the fragrance, it came together. The two complemented each other. It wasn’t just about the wine and it wasn’t just about the perfume. It was about the experience of both together.

O: The perfume stands on its own and wears beautifully. But do you also recommend that people try it while sipping on their favorite Cabernet?

KJ: Yeah. To immerse yourself in the world of wine along with perfume, I do encourage people to go grab their favorite bottle and do their own combinations. It goes back to where my career in perfumery started, where it was all about mixing and matching. There are no rules. It’s about what you like. So while my fragrances are based on California varietals, I like to encourage people to go grab their favorite French Bordeaux and see what it smells like with that. For example, the Notes of Merlot perfume is beautiful with a glass of rosé. It’s fun to become your own sommelier. Plus, it helps you learn about the wine and not be so intimidated by it.

O: We’re in a great time right now where learning about things like wine and perfume is more accessible. They aren’t the closed worlds they used to be, right? People are more comfortable exploring wine, fragrance, and culinary arts. The way you’ve taken two of those and mashed them up creates an even cooler exploration opportunity.

KJ:You’ve captured it perfectly. And I think it goes back to who I am. I was in the auto industry and I changed my career for this world of fragrance. There are no rules in life. Just go follow your passion, and don’t be afraid. Because when you don’t follow the rules and perhaps you try to break them and question things, you end up in this whole other world that’s even better.

O: You’ve also made both wine and perfume accessible, price-wise. Was that important to you?

KJ: It was. I didn’t use $200 bottles of Bordeaux to create these fragrances. When I created these, I was running a bootstrapped business and living on a very strict budget. So I just bought these wonderful everyday wines, and I thought, this is a great wine that I love to drink on a Tuesday night. I also saw that there were so many niche fragrances I wanted to try but I couldn’t spend that much on a haute perfume all the time. So I wanted the perfume to be accessible so people could enjoy both the perfume and the wine on their own terms, not be intimidated by either.

O: You’re now a marketing director at Takasago, but the way you created your own independent perfume venture is really inspiring.  

KJ:That’s what I’m most passionate about—being a role model for people who want to follow their passion. Showing people that they can’t let fear in and they have to keep going. I get choked up about it, thinking about the times people have said, “You’re an inspiration. I’m going to go for it, too.” Because it’s really a choice to not let that fear in. When I hear people say that I’ve inspired them to make a big change, that’s the most rewarding thing. It’s not about how much fragrance I sell or what publicity I get. If I can make somebody open their eyes and seize that awesome opportunity in front of them, then that means I’ve won.

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