For Julian Bedel, perfume is a surrealist medium.
“Ambergris, ambergris. Where is my ambergris?” Julian Bedel wonders aloud as he scours a wall of shelves lined with aluminum bottles. “Here. This is actually cholesterol vomited up by a whale. But it mixes with the sand and salt to create a very sensual fragrance.”
The ingredient features prominently in many of the perfumes concocted by Bedel, the founder of Fueguia 1833, a niche fragrance line in Argentina. He is known for creating esoteric, sometimes outrageous scents inspired by the likes of vicuñas, the softer cousin of alpacas; the Library of Babel, the fictitious universe that serves as the basis for one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories; and the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin’s research vessel. One of Bedel’s oddest-sounding fragrances is Ballena de la Pampa (“whale of the Pampas”), which was inspired by the idea of a cetacean napping in the long grass of Argentina’s agricultural heartland.
Here, at work on a new scent in his Buenos Aires laboratory, Bedel sets down the ambergris on a steel table strewn with scales, test tubes, and pipettes and returns to his shelves. “Now I need alfalfa,” he says, before quickly changing his mind. “No, it is not the moment. Maybe a musk. Yes, yes, a musk. Ah, but what musk?”
Bedel, who is 36 and impeccably dressed, started Fueguia out of his kitchen in 2010. Four years later, he has a laboratory in Palermo, a stylish residential neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and a showroom nearby. He’s opened signature boutiques in Russia and Taiwan, and next spring he’ll begin selling his products in Neiman Marcus stores across the U.S.
Bedel is one of a small number of perfumers who, unlike fashion houses that fork over fortunes to large fragrance firms in pursuit of the next bestselling bottle, are producing scents that consumers may or may not want to smell like. Bedel’s Equación, for example, is meant to evoke what he imagines to be the carbon-dominant odor of a well-traveled spacesuit; it smells like smoked ham to me. His Vaca Muerta (“dead cow”) is gasoline- and sulfur-heavy, reflecting Bedel’s concern about fracking in Patagonia. Even his friendlier scents tell a story: A perfume called Pope Francis, commemorating the world’s most famous Argentine, combines frankincense and maté to dreamy effect.
Today, Bedel is working off a one-word prompt that I’ve given him: cometa, Spanish for “comet.” When I visited his showroom a few weeks earlier and asked him to describe his creative process, he told me to come to his laboratory with an idea, and he would show it to me. I want something more daring and night-like than my usual flowery scents — “Moschino Hippy Fizz? Clinique Happy Heart? Oh dear,” he chuckled — and Comet, one of my oldest nicknames, seems like a fitting jumping-off point.
“OK,” Bedel says, scratching his shaved head and tucking bottles under his arm. “I have no clue what a comet actually smells like, so this scent is going to reflect the experience of seeing a shooting star from Earth. When I was little, my family and I would lug telescopes to a field up north in Entre Ríos province and watch the sky. It was an agricultural area, so it always smelled of hay and wet reeds. There were a lot of wildcats, caimans, deer, and nocturnal flowers. The shooting stars would explode and then slowly trail off.”
Most top perfumers are employed by massive fragrance labs, the majority of them in France. They have trained for years to land such jobs, apprenticing to more experienced “noses” and attending specialized schools. But Bedel was too restless for a traditional education. He was home-schooled for high school and then, instead of attending college, he built acoustic guitars and watched his father, Jacques, a well-known visual artist and architect, at work in his Buenos Aires studio.
Bedel spent a decade as a branding strategist, consulting for luxury-car companies, restaurants, and hotels. In 2010, while working on a project for a contemporary art museum, he wanted to create a signature fragrance to sell in the museum’s gift shop. When he could not find a perfume house in South America to handle such a task, he decided to start one.
Cloistering himself in his apartment with a few thousand euros’ worth of essential oils and a pile of chemistry textbooks, he began to experiment. “Some of the things I created at the beginning were god-awful,” Bedel says. “Saccharine passion fruit numbers and rancid things with too much musk. But, eventually, I started to figure it out.” As he splashes in each new ingredient, Bedel inhales, almost as if he’s breathing in the scent of a glass of wine. To blend the components together, he adds a small white magnet that resembles a piece of chalk, and places the beaker on a magnetic hot plate, which sends the contents whirring.
“Ah yes, OK, this is almost finished,” he says, after three hours and upward of 120 ingredients. “Just a few final touches. Maybe a little more jasmine? Whoops! Not that much! Uh oh …” He inhales again. “Phew. It’s OK.”
In a different room, downstairs from his laboratory, Bedel pours the contents of the beaker into a rectangular glass bottle and places it under an aluminum machine. With a sudden puff of air, the machine tamps a nozzle onto the bottle, and Bedel disappears to find a label.
When he hands me the finished perfume, I realize that something is off. I turn the bottle upside down and tilt it to each side. Then I see it. In a loopy but elegant cursive, Bedel has written the title of the scent backward. Instead of “Cometa,” it reads “atemoC.” “That’s how I’ve always written,” he says, shrugging.
When I spritz the perfume on the insides of my wrists, it smells tangy at first, then musky and floral as it soaks into my skin.
A few weeks later, I see a star streak through the sky from my balcony. By the time I inhale, hoping to catch its scent, it’s gone.