Scents and sensuality — a bespoke scent for Classic Week

When Christie’s invited the olfactive agency 12.29 to create a sensory experience in the Rockefeller Galleries for Classic Week, the challenge for fragrance designer Dawn Goldworm was to create a scent that encompassed over 1,000 years of history

What does a gold wreath of laurel leaves smell like? Or a Roman head from the 3rd century B.C.? Would it exude the earthy aroma of the sculptor's workshop? These are the kind of questions Dawn Goldworm asked herself when she was invited to create a signature scent for Christie’s.

The fragrance designer was presented with six works of art offered for sale during Classic Week New York (25-29 October), and the challenge ‘was to find a thread that connected all the objects together while still seducing the viewer’.

A Greek gold oak wreath, late classical to early Hellenistic period, circa 3rd-4th century BC. 17½  in (44.4  cm) wide. Estimate $150,000-250,000. Offered in Antiquities on 28 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A Greek gold oak wreath, late classical to early Hellenistic period, circa 3rd-4th century BC. 17½ in (44.4 cm) wide. Estimate: $150,000-250,000. Offered in Antiquities on 28 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Goldworm and her twin sister Samantha are the directors of the olfactive branding company 12.29 (12.29 being their birthdate). As the designer explains in our video above, both women were born with synaesthesia — they perceive smell as colours and sound — and as a result are fascinated by the connections between art, design and the senses. She describes the dress she is wearing as ‘cherry red liquorice with a sharp wood note for the pleats’.

One of the first artists to experiment with this condition was the Russian modernist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) who, as leader of the Blue Rider group, hoped to blur the distinctions between sound, colour and words, synthesizing a new experience that would be more spiritual, more sexual, more ecstatic.

Since 2009, Goldworm’s Manhattan-based business has created scents for leading brands such as Harrods and Valentino. For Christie’s, Goldworm was tasked with creating a fragrance that would encompass more than a millennium, from ancient Greece to the French Republic. ‘I wanted these times and places to come alive for the viewer and provide a more intense viewing experience.’

Nicolas Régnier (Maubeuge c. 1588-1667), An Allegory of Autumn. Dimensions 54 x 38  in (137.2 x 96.5  cm). Estimate $100,000-150,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings and Sculpture on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Nicolas Régnier (Maubeuge c. 1588-1667), An Allegory of Autumn. Dimensions: 54 x 38 in (137.2 x 96.5 cm). Estimate: $100,000-150,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings and Sculpture on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

According to the designer, smell predates birth: ‘A baby is born with a highly developed sense of smell which it uses to comprehend the world around it and recognise its mother. The emotions a child experiences in the first ten years of life are retained in his or her olfactory memory, which stores the recollection of aromas. This is why, in later life, a scent we connect with our childhood can trigger visceral emotions.’

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904), Markos Botsaris, 1874. Dimensions 27⅝ x 21½  in (70.2 x 54.6  cm). Estimate $2,800,000-3,800,000. Offered in European Art Part I on 28 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Jean-Léon Gérôme (French, 1824-1904), Markos Botsaris, 1874. Dimensions 27⅝ x 21½ in (70.2 x 54.6 cm). Estimate: $2,800,000-3,800,000. Offered in European Art Part I on 28 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The difficulty for Goldworm is that scent is deeply personal — what can evoke security and happiness for one person can quite easily alienate another.

For Christie’s she began with the basics: texture, colour and light. She studied the rich fabrics in the paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), Jan de Beer (c. 1475-1528) and Nicolas Régnier (1591-1667). ‘The portrait of Markos Botsaris [above] has this contrast between the cold metal of his weapons and the lush softness of the velvet,’ she observes. ‘There’s sensuality and danger there, and we want to reflect that in the perfume as well.’

A Sèvres porcelain beau bleu garniture of three vases and covers, circa 1776. 17¼  in (43.8  cm) high. Estimate $200,000-300,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A Sèvres porcelain beau bleu garniture of three vases and covers, circa 1776. 17¼ in (43.8 cm) high. Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Jan de Beer (c. 1475-1528), The Annunciation. Dimensions 26¾ x 20⅝  in (67.9 x 52.4  cm). Estimate $200,000-300,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings and Sculpture on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Jan de Beer (c. 1475-1528), The Annunciation. Dimensions: 26¾ x 20⅝ in (67.9 x 52.4 cm). Estimate: $200,000-300,000. Offered in Old Master Paintings and Sculpture on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

For colour, she took the gold of the Hellenistic wreath and the Sèvres porcelain, as well as looking at the decorative backgrounds in the paintings and how the artists played with light. ‘That one single light source which illuminates the picture really creates emotion,’ she explains.

‘We want the art to almost jump out of the painting, to jump outside of the object. To transcribe that to perfume has been an honour.’

Classic Week runs from 25-29 of October, with viewings from 18 October at the Rockefeller Center, Christie’s New York