The story behind Chanel No. 5, the world's most iconic fragrance, is that Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel was presented with two groupings of vials numbered 1 to 5 and 20 to 24, each one containing a scent created by perfumer Ernest Beaux. Chanel chose the fifth one, not only because the rose and jasmine base evoked the abbey garden where she grew up, but also because the abbey was run by Cistercians who valued the number five for its mystic associations.
Not long ago, a small group of beauty writers and editors - myself included - was invited by Canadian perfume entrepreneur Barbara Stegemann to make similar choices for her forthcoming fragrance. And while mysticism may not have factored into my picks, there was something wonderfully serendipitous and meaningful about the experience.
Stegemann, as many know, is the one-woman machine behind the 7 Virtues fragrances - i.e., Afghanistan Orange Blossom and Noble Rose of Afghanistan - both of which contain organic oils sourced from, you guessed it, Afghanistan.
Harvesting the flowers for their oils offers an alternative form of employment to Afghans who might be engaged with or drawn to the country's illegal poppy crops. The farmers are paid fair wages and Abdullah Arsala, whose company produces the oils, benefits from the strong, ongoing business relationship.
Stegemann, who appeared on Dragons' Den earlier this year and landed a deal with businessman Brett Wilson, has now started sourcing vetiver from Haiti, considered among the finest in the world.
On a Thursday morning in mid-March, those journalists and I were asked to weigh in on six vetiver variations and help determine which one would make it to the same Bay counters that the first two 7 Virtues are sold at (for $70) in Canada.
As Orange Blossom and Noble Rose are, the samples were the work of Toronto perfumer Susanne Langmuir.
I was anxious to smell what she could do with vetiver, the root of a long, thin grass that possesses an incredibly earthy, enveloping aroma. Le Labo's Vetiver 46, for example, goes deeply sensual and velvety, while Tom Ford's Grey Vetiver is like cigar smoke captured in a cashmere sweater.
Stegemann, being the smart cookie that she is, realizes that the scent cannot be too niche. So Langmuir, accordingly, veered mostly toward lighter interpretations. The first was the most masculine and combined watery notes with eucalyptus and oak moss. For the second, Langmuir added vanilla and amber to the vetiver; the result was a juice so rich and cognac-y that I wanted to drink it up. Three proved a strong contender with its fresh, woody notes, while four through six were pleasantly citrusy but otherwise forgettable.
Seconds before making my pick, Langmuir threw me a curveball. She revealed a seventh fragrance, which she said was actually her first creation of the series but did not make the short list on account of its woody complexity.
I inhaled it and there was no going back. This scent had passion and intensity - akin to a peaty single-malt scotch compared with blended whisky.
I can't say I was too surprised to find out that the 7 Virtues team (which also includes Stegemann's business partner, Rebecca Brown, and beauty-industry maven Shelley Rozenwald, now the Bay's "chief beauty adventurer") opted to spend more time reassessing and reformulating the scent. Perhaps customers might be ready for something bolder after all. Originally planned as a Mother's Day launch, the vetiver scent will hit Bay stores in the fall when it will be more seasonally appropriate.
Stegemann, for her part, seemed energized by our response to this dark-horse seventh fragrance. And given the name of her company, it felt like a sign.
"Everything works when you include people," she said in a follow-up phone interview from her home in Halifax. "And it helps me let go of control."
Although she has no previous perfume background, she has realized, she says, that fragrance can be a "body of communication" to tell this larger story about opportunity and empowering people in places of strife.
Stegemann's goals are impressive: Up next, she wants to marry a raw material from Palestine with one from Israel and create a perfume using oils from North and South Korea. Incidentally, she describes her process as a "mystical journey," but acknowledges that it comes with immense responsibility. "Once you start, you want to promise the farmers you will never leave," she says. "For me, it's the execution that will keep us going, so I will never let them down. Everything we learn is crucial to how we shape this."
Of all the ingredients in Stegemann's repertoire, her commitment, it seems, is the purest of all.