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The scent of a Filipino

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“UNLIKE the other senses, smell needs no interpreter. The effect is immediate and undiluted by language, thought, or translation. A smell can be overwhelmingly nostalgic because it triggers powerful images and emotions before we have time to edit them,” said Diane Ackerman in her book, A Natural History of the Senses.

During last week’s bazaar, MaArte at The Pen, we wandered into the booth of perfumer Oscar Mejia III, who displayed his scent, Paraluman (Muse) at one of the tables. “Paraluman can smell like a movie star,” he told BusinessWorld.

“It’s a personal experience,” he said about scent. “It can conjure different images that can only be associated to you alone,” he said. “For you, it smelled like — ”

“My favorite tita (aunt).” Paraluman smelled like her embrace, scented as it was with amber, geranium, sampaguita, green tea, and chamomile. The final seal was the note of sandalwood, which reminded me of the wooden fans she held in church.

Mr. Mejia was lucky enough to open his senses to perfume at an early age, as he was raised on a flower farm in Davao. “My first memories of scent was actually going through the gardens. There were orchids, and other cut flowers,” he said. At an early age, he began to make perfume, giving it to family and friends as gifts. “I got fascinated with the idea of scent: how it can communicate different feelings.”

His scents are named in Filipino: while there was Paraluman, he showed me Tadhana (destiny). “It’s like speckles of gold — that same feeling when you meet someone, your destined person,” he said. That one was made of ginger, chamomile, and bergamot; and had an electrifying effect that mellowed into a smolder. The names, of course, come with the association that they would be made of Filipino scents too. While he imports oils from Thailand, Grasse in France (where he received an education in perfumery), and India, he sources many oils locally: ylang ylang, calamansi, elemi, and almasiga (an endangered tree called the Manila Copal). “The Department of Science and Technology is now promoting a sustainable harvesting of the sap,” he said of the latter (meaning no trees were harmed in making the perfume).

Mr. Mejia is only one of a handful of local perfumers. There are perfume giants in the country, but what they usually make are copies of foreign scents. “It’s easier to copy, especially when we have the technology,” noted Mr. Mejia. “You just run a sample through a spectrophotometer and it gives you what chemicals or oils are inside. The other thing is, wearing a perfume is like a statement. For you to be able to smell like Chanel No. 5 says something about who you are, and what you want to convey. They want that attachment.”

He notes though, that the Philippines is abundant in the raw materials that could be used for perfumery: citruses, woods, and florals. However, the gaps in a local perfume industry can be attributed to land use. “I” order for you to produce an ounce of a particular oil, you need kilos and kilos flowers. You would need several large tracts of land to cultivate those flowers,” he said. “Because there’s no buyer or no one that can help them sell it here or abroad, they won’t get enough. They’d rather plant rice or something that is high-yielding,” he laments.

“We have the land, we have the botanicals, but [the chance] for them to invest that parcel of land for flowers is very low.”

He tries to condense what it is to smell like a Filipino. “It’s more of the Filipino sensibility — iyong gaan ng loob (lightness in being) — like the translucence of capiz,” he said, referring to the shell used to glaze traditional windows.

He explains: “The compositions are not simple. Layers and layers of oils, but the overall effect is translucent,” he said. “We have multiple layers of personalities, behaviors —  our culture is very rich. But then, when you express it externally, they feel gaan ng loob.”

To order scents from Mr. Mejia, visit his website at https://www.oscarmejiaartisanfragrances.com/ — Joseph L. Garcia

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