Meet John Biebel, Founder and Creator of January Scent Project, a Rhode Island-based fragrance house. Learn the story behind how John named his house, how being a writer for Fragrantica had such an influence on his fragrance education and how being a UX designer ties into being a perfumer.
Q: What is your title?
I refer to myself and founder and creator. In short, I do everything, with some occasional assistance, but everything from making the perfume to designing the packages, it’s all mine.
Q: January Scent Project, cool name! How did you come up with it?
There is a story here. In high school, I was in a design class. Our big project as a group was to design and screen print a calendar, each of us choosing a month. I remember my teacher saying, “January is the toughest month to choose. First, it’s boring. But second, and more importantly, it’s the first thing everyone sees, so it has got to get their attention.” I was so struck by the challenge of that, it never left me as an idea. So yes, I took January as the month I would design in the calendar, and I knew that I would save it as the name of a creative endeavor in the future. To take something that could seem mundane but also as a beginning; I still love this idea as a singular creative challenge.
Q: How long have you been interested in scent and perfume? How did you start learning about it?
It began at a young age, but most seriously when I started to write for Fragrantica back in 2012. I have learned so much through my writing assignments, and interviewing people, smelling so many perfumes. It was an opportunity to get a vast education in a concentrated few years, so it was really the past decade that has been most influential for me.
Q: What is your process or your inspiration for a new fragrance?
I usually work from the point of view of opposites. When I have been working on something and it is complete, my mind, my hands, they want to take a huge leap in a different direction, to somewhere very different. So this is how one perfume happens after one was just made. I look at what I want to study or learn about, something very different from what I’ve just done, and then jump forward.
Q: How do you know when a fragrance you’re working on is finished? How long does it take you to create it from start to finish?
This can vary a great deal, and I’ve had different experiences understanding when something is “done.” One perfume I worked on took me a full year to make and went through tons of revisions; many versions were tossed out as I kept refining it. Another perfume I purposefully said “do this quickly, John…” and I only worked on it for two weeks, and it was complete.
What I can say is that the more resolved the idea, the easier it is to move it to a conclusion. But being certain about something is hard – there are so many choices available to us! It is the human element of perfume that can add time to when something is finished. I was working on one fragrance and it seemed that I’d reached a great stage of “doneness” a few times, only to watch it fall apart when applied to the skin. It was such a tough challenge. Making something that smells good is one kind of challenge. Doing that but also making it work on skin is quite another thing altogether.
Q: How has your style evolved since you first began creating fragrances?
I have learned two very important things since I started making perfumes. First, you don’t have to put every possible component into every bottle. My first few perfumes have extremely complicated formulas, and I’ve grown to appreciate a (somewhat) simpler structure. Also, it’s OK to fall a bit in love with certain materials and build an idea around them. At the moment, for instance, I’m really mesmerized by the smell of sage and marigolds and I’m trying to make something with them. The idea is not terribly complex, but just a joyful experience with these two materials, and sometimes that alone is enough.
Q: You are a UX designer too. That seems pretty analytical. Can you tell us a little more about what a UX designer does? Does being a perfumer tap into your creative side?
My work in UX plays a huge role in perfume, and vice versa. UX (User Experience) is broadly a means of designing systems, interfaces, patterns, pretty much anything, specifically with a person in mind so that he or she can use these systems to the best possible advantage. A good example I give is when you have a great experience buying something online at a website – when you feel informed, make a good choice, easily checkout your item, and feel fulfilled at the end: That whole experience involved good User Experience Design – a system designed with you in mind. Perfume has so much UX involved. You are making substances that will be worn by people, experienced by them, remembered by them, so of course you need to think of that person all the time when you’re working.
Q: You are also a painter. Have you ever painted with scented paint? Is that possible?!
Nice question! I have not done this specifically, but symbolically? I think paint and scent can have parallels in the methods one uses. I tend to paint thoughtfully, deliberately, sometimes even slowly. This is very much the way with perfume as well – you can’t work too quickly, there is always time needed to wait, assess, adjust. I have had a few experiences when mixing oils and substances together when I thought “this has a feeling of painting right now…” usually when something quite magical emerges, like mixing white and yellow together and getting a very bright, illuminated white in the process, or when you mix a tiny bit cardamom into sandalwood and it becomes noticeably warmer… These processes inform each other.
Q: What are you most proud of with your brand or your fragrance compositions?
I knew when I set about making perfume that I wanted to give the scents a kind of visual presence that was hard to put a finger on – something that was in the present but looked back at the past. It’s hard to do this without being too nostalgic, but I think I’ve managed to achieve this through the visual art I’ve woven into the designs that accompany the perfumes. I’m proud that I was able to give the fragrances this feeling of being somewhat “lost in time.”
Q: If you could describe your brand in 3 words, what would they be?
Oceanic, Rhythmic, “Lingua franca”
Q: What’s next for you?
I continue making perfumes and making images. What is great about creating scents is that there is never, ever too much to learn. Your own education never stops. If anything, your curiosity grows with each year and so the challenges become greater and greater. I want to continue, always with an eye toward making things that are relevant, thoughtful, and trying something new. Not everything has to be ground-breaking, but to explore new territory, this is important. To always keep exploring, that is my hope.
Want to know more about John…head over to his interview with Yanna (Tommelise) on YouTube as they explore Smolderose and some more fragrances in his collection. Learn how he deigns his boxes and names his fragrances too!
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