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The Sweet Smell of the Bronx

By Sandhya Subbarao for NY City Lens

Think perfume and your mind automatically drifts to visions of Paris with its haute couture and indulgent lifestyle. But in New York City, your sense of scent might lead you to the Bronx. Yes, you read that correctly. The Bronx.

On a street adjacent to the train tracks, in an old industrial neighborhood of the South Bronx, a perfumer fills bottle after bottle of perfume for brand-name designers. The family-owned Delbia Do, a boutique manufacturer of fragrance, has been in business since 1968. There is no name on the factory door to announce its presence, and this is exactly how the company’s owner, Darryl Do, wants it to be.

“In this industry, designers of perfumes want you to think that they created the perfume and spend thousands of dollars on ad campaigns to convince you that they did. We don’t have our own product line. We don’t want to compete with our clients,” says Do, who fiercely protects the names of the companies that employ him to maintain the illusion that the designers made the perfume themselves.

Aside from three French companies—Chanel, Hermes and Dior—which do create their own perfumes, it is the fragrance manufacturers, like Delbia Do, and not the designers, who make all brand name perfumes for the international market. In the 1960s, many fragrance manufacturers operated in New York, but many moved to New Jersey or elsewhere in search of more land at cheaper rents, says Virginia Bonofiglio, chairperson of the Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing Department at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology.

But today, “Delbia Do is the only place that manufactures fine fragrances within the five boroughs,” says Bonofiglio. “This unique family-run and owned business, with its long history and roots in New York City and its dedication to sustainability has become a force in the fragrance industry.”

Do and other wholesale perfumers create and manufacture fine fragrances for their clients. Fragrances that are then sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys and other premiere stores all over the world under their clients’ brand name. A typical production run for Delbia Do is between 1,000 and 3,000 bottles, versus tens of thousands at large fragrance manufacturers.

“We are in a unique position because we have the skills and work with small batches,” says Do, who trained as a perfumer under Vincent Ellis, past president of the American Society of Perfumers, for several years.

Delbia Do is but a small corner of the global fragrance industry, which is expected to cross $33 billion by 2015, according to a recent report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. The United States accounts for approximately 30 percent of the market.

The four top fragrance manufacturers—the $2.9 billion New York-based International Flavors and Fragrances, Swiss companies Givaudan and Firmenich, each with approximately $3 billion in annual revenues, and the Holzminden, Germany-based company Symrise, with about $2.5 billion in annual sales—dominate more than 40 percent of the world market for perfume. But many of the big designers still turn to smaller perfumers, like Delbia Do.

When, for example Calvin Klein or Donna Karan wants to create a perfume, they would write up a ‘brief,’ or a conceptual design of what they want the fragrance to smell like, for a perfumer, or ‘nose,’ as they are sometimes known. The brief can be detailed or broad. It might say, “ I want something that smells like the wind blowing through the Sahara,” or “I want a fragrance that recalls the smell of a Russian teahouse,” or “ I want a fragrance for the evening that is musky for young adults.”

The perfumer then goes to work and blends oils, extracts and essences to create the desired fragrance. Once the prototype, or ‘essay,’ as the industry calls it, is developed, then a Givaudan or International Flavors and Fragrances manufacturers it in bulk. And some of these orders go to the perfumer of the Bronx.

From big name designers whose products maybe sold at Barneys to regular clients that want to create a specific olfactory expression, Delbia Do has worked with them all. Do recently created ‘Blood by Kaimin,’ using rose, leather and patchouli oils for Kaiman, who is Lady Gaga’s stylist, and Nicola Formichetti, the artistic director for the Italian fashion label Diesel. The burgundy colored perfume was made to look like blood, per the duo’s request, said Do. The fragrance was launched in conjunction with V Magazine’s yearly coffee table art book, ‘Zero Zero’, which featured photographs by fashion legend Miles Aldridge.

Inside the exposed-brick building where Delbia Do is located, 15 employees in white lab coats supervise two large metal tanks in which perfumes are mixed and macerated, while others hand-pack boxes of finished product for the domestic market or for shipment to Asia and Europe. Glass vials of essential oils and extracts and jars of materials are neatly stacked in their laboratory, where the creative process occurs.

This is where Do methodically and precisely constructs, mixes and modifies his early perfume sketches or “essays” for client approval, and makes the “juice,” for his perfumes. The juice is the concentrated liquid that gets mixed with ethyl alcohol and water, and then is aged and filtered to make the finished product.

According to Do, the process of making fragrance is not just an art form, but also a controlled exercise that requires an understanding of the ingredients and the chemistry involved. “Making a fragrance is a lot like baking,” he says. “You work with precisely measured ingredients in a controlled environment.”

Lately, Do has been working mostly with natural ingredients. “Some years ago aromatherapy was the rage. Now, it is all about ‘natural perfumes,” he says. But what people don’t realize is that many natural-products are becoming extinct due to over-harvestation,” Do says.

Then there are other issues: creating the same smell from every batch of perfume manufactured using natural materials is also difficult, simply because these raw materials are affected by climatic changes and natural disasters.

For instance, at one time perfumers had been specifying the use of natural vetiver ( a type of perennial grass) from Montserrat in the Caribbean. Then in 1995, and again in 1997 a dormant volcano spewed 20-feet of ash into the air forcing the evacuation of its residents and the island was abandoned. Perfumers were left scrambling to find alternative sources for vetiver.

Moreover, Do says, all natural products do not necessarily smell good and they are more likely to cause allergic reactions in comparison to their synthetic counterparts.

Chandler Burr, New York Times perfume critic and author of two books on fragrance, believes that the “natural” movement is a marketing gimmick and results in diminishing the value of creating perfume as an art form.

“Perfume is not food, where all-natural is logical and desirable. Perfume is art, and it is not more rational to demand all-natural materials in this art than it is to demand that buildings be built with mud and thatch or that paintings be made with the colors available to Bronze age artists before the advent of synthetic colors, acrylic paints,” Burr says.

Delbia Do’s latest creation is a hair perfume. “The new thing is hair perfume. Chanel just came out with one. And I just completed a project for a client who wanted a hair perfume inspired by the flowers of Hawaii. It is called ‘Ex Animo.’ It will be launching shortly,” Do says.

So the next time you are out shopping, look out for Ex-Animo at a store near you. It is made in the Bronx.


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