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A Conversation with The Sum

December 05, 2016

From their studio in Portland, Oregon, the small team behind The Sum works from a simple point of view: The things we put on our bodies and allow to touch our skin affect us deeply. Anyone who has ever felt the way a certain perfume can provide an instant boost of confidence or a wash of tranquility understands what they mean.

The Sum started with a line of unisex sterling silver jewelry, but part of the company’s vision is to always learn, create, and remain open to new experiences. A chance encounter with a perfumer in New York opened their eyes to two things: First, that perfume—ethereal though it is—is the most powerful and transformational adornment possible; and second, that they could study it and partner with other artists to transform The Sum’s vision and ethos into modern unisex fragrance experiences. In this Q&A with Olfactif founder Tara Swords, David, The Sum’s Creative Director, tells us how he teamed up with perfumer Josh Meyer, of Imaginary Authors, and began one of the best artistic collaborations of his life.

Olfactif: The Sum started out with jewelry. Tell us how you got into the world of fragrance.

David: I had a few little bottles of perfume and I always loved wearing them and seeing how people reacted to them, but I was very new in the fragrance world and didn’t really know the potential. My friend took me to a perfume shop in New York, and it was this beautiful space and everything smelled so new and endless. I was struck by how the perfumes all had different stories and they could transport me to different times or places. It was so perfect. Everything smelled so great, and I thought, "Oh, wow—there's so much more than Drakkar Noir!"  That was my introduction, really, and it just grew from there.

O: You put a sterling silver bead in each of your bottles. Why?

D: We put that in there because sterling silver has long been associated with healing properties and ceremony. We’re not trying to say our perfume will clear up your skin or anything. But part of what makes The Sum is the focus and intent of all our products and how they’re made. Everything adds up. Every ingredient, idea, and design, and even the place where things are made -- everything, no matter how small, makes a difference. It’s the same thing, on a larger scale, in our lives. We also put the Sterling Silver in there as a secondary tie to our jewelry line and our love for precious metals

O: How big do you envision your fragrance line growing to be?

D: I don't know. That's something we've talked about a lot. We don't want any redundancies, and we also want only as-close-as-you-can-to-perfect fragrances out there. We d like to try to do one every year. It's also such a huge financial, and time-consuming, undertaking. I think I would do one a month if I had endless resources, and maybe keep 9 out of 10 for myself and friends and really special occasions. I love how nostalgic perfumes can be and how they remind us of the past, or how they can become marks in our lives. Sort of like movie soundtracks. It would be so cool to have the ability to create special scents for life events- before or after.  

O: You currently have The Red, The Black, and The White. What’s coming next?

D: We’ve released one called The Mauve. We LOVE it. It leans a little bit more feminine, as compared to the rest of the line, and it's very smooth and easy-wearing. It’s this lush lavender that’s so layered and deep and rich and unlike any lavender I’ve ever smelled. And there’s a presence of tea leaves and a calming sensation, and then it’s balanced by a woody base. It's just something you smell that makes you go, "Ohhhh, yeah..." You know? It’s like you’re diving into something or being submerged into something that just smooths everything out.

O: Do you plan to do The Green?

D: Yes, definitely I’d like to!

O: I could imagine what that would be like.

D: What do you envision?

O: Maybe a dark green, sort of a jade color—not a fresh, airy green but a  darker, intense green. It's something I don't think I've ever smelled before, so maybe that's why I'm imagining it. I can also imagine an herbal green that has a smoky feel.

D: That's awesome. And it's funny, because I have a little sheet of ideas, of what directions we can go, what we've talked about, and I love the idea of an “Emerald.” I'd imagine this dark forest, where the soil is very dense, damp, and earthy—a rainforest, but not a tropical rainforest. And within that, there's a beautiful, modern sculpture in front of a beautiful, modern home. So, the juxtaposition of this deep forest with this obtrusive element of minimalism and modernity. What would something like that smell like? I guess we’ll find out if we do The Green.

O: It seems like you and Josh work very collaboratively.

D: Oh, yes. And it’s not just the process that Josh and I have—it’s also the processes around that. I've been lucky to work with a lot of amazing artists and musicians and designers and thinkers throughout my life on different projects and jobs. And I’ve loved so many of the projects I’ve done, but this process of translating The Sum into scent experiences has been by far the most exciting and fulfilling! It took Josh and I a while to learn how to communicate, to create a language really, so I could transfer a feeling or experience or concept to him. And then for us to collaborate on what that meant and how it affected people. And then Josh does his magic and creates these beautiful fragrances that are like art. I am so thankful to work with Josh.

We’ve talked about eventually working with other perfumers on the line. Josh is one of the ones to actually challenge me to be open to it, to get back into that process of translating The Sum and a fragrance experience to another perfumer and learning to work with them and communicate with them. I do love working with Josh though, so we’ll see what happens.

O: Where can people find The Sum jewelry?

D: We sell online at thesum.us, and you can also find it in Los Angeles at American Rag and The Celect in Orange County. Rand & Statler, Azalea, and Welcome Stranger in SF. And Ajax in San Diego. In Portland, we’re in a great store called Machus, and in Denver it’s at a place called Goldyn. We're also in Monaco and picking up a few new Canadian stockists as well.

What's great, though, is that the fragrances are growing so quickly and people are excited and it’s changing what a lot of people expect from fragrances. As fragrances go, there seems to be a lot of interest right now, especially among men. So now we’re also in H. Lorenzo, Mohawk General Store, Redeem, The Well, and a bunch of other amazing shops that we’re really proud to work with.

O: It has to be so exciting to create a brand, and have it be understood, and then branch out into something new and have that be well received, too.

D: It is. I work with amazing people. I feel so lucky. I always thought, if this can be my life, where all I do is come in and work with amazing people, make cool stuff, and live from that—that is the ultimate dream.

And I just want to say that the passion and amount of dedication that people in this community have for perfume is just absolutely amazing to me. At some point people can, and do, make money off of certain aspects of this, but their first notion is, "I love this thing, and I want to figure out how to share it with other people." There are services like Olfactif and the perfume blogs and events—and coming from a newbie such as myself, it's so beautiful. It's rad to see people wanting to share this passion and their fragrance experiences. So, thank you for that.

And thank you for talking with me. I really appreciate it.

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