Learning the Art of Perfume-Making on the Caribbean Island of St. Martin

There are more than 300 essential oils on Tijon's perfume organ. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

There are more than 300 essential oils on Tijon’s perfume organ. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

When I was dreaming about my trip to the French side of the Caribbean island of St. Martin, I didn’t picture myself in a white coat, fiddling with beakers and droppers in a glass-fronted lab.But when I found out I could make my own perfume from a blend of some 300 essential oils, a visit to the Tijon perfume shop quickly vaulted to the top of my agenda. What self-declared, self-respecting shopping nut wouldn’t want to custom blend her own fragrance?

The shop and its perfume-making classes are the brainchild of John Berglund, an American lawyer turned parfumier. He and his wife Cyndi were trying to figure out a way to move from the frosty Midwest (“We got tired of living in Minnesota,” Cyndi says simply) to somewhere warmer and still earn a living.

Escaping to the Caribbean

The Berglunds set up their Tijon boutique in a converted house in Grand Case. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

The Berglunds set up their Tijon boutique in a converted house in Grand Case. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

The Berglunds moved progressively further and further south in the U.S., but dreamed of the tropics. John hit on the idea of perfume making and headed to Grasse, France, to learn the intricate tricks of the trade. It took the couple 14 years to develop their products.

The next task was to find a suitable place for the business. They spotted two adjacent houses in the lively village of Grand Case on St. Martin and moved into one, setting up shop in the other. Tijon opened in 2007.

At first, they focused on selling their own perfumes, but demand from cruise ship passengers and other tourists soon spurred them to launch classes. Visitors can now take a one-hour introductory class, a two- to three-hour in-depth class, or private instruction. I opted for the longer group class and found myself among a small band of keeners, including a frighteningly sophisticated seven-year-old girl.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You love wearing one-of-a-kind things.
  • You want more from your tropical holiday than sun, surf and sand.
  • Good for creative types, fashionistas and science buffs.

What Makes a Perfume?

John Berglund guides a customer as she samples different scents from the perfume organ. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

John Berglund guides a customer as she samples different scents from the perfume organ. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

After giving us a brief history of perfume–who knew it dated back to incense used in Asia and the Middle East as long ago as 4000BC?–John moved on to basic instruction on creating a pleasing blend. The gist? You need three types of scents: top notes (the light, fresh scents that you smell when you first spray on a perfume), middle notes (richer scents that emerge next) and base notes (heavy scents like vanilla, musk and ylang-ylang that anchor the perfume and linger hours after you apply it).

Then it was time for the fun part: deliberating among the hundreds of small bottles on the shop’s “perfume organ”: a semi-circular set of tiered shelves that does, indeed, look a bit like a big musical instrument. The choices quickly became overwhelming. Jasmine or gardenia? Sandalwood or clove? Bergamot–one of the signature ingredients in my favorite tea, Earl Grey–leaped out as a possibility, but then I spotted myrrh, which seemed so ancient and mysterious that I had to try it, too.

Back and forth we trotted between the perfume organ and our laboratory benches. With concentration worthy of the maddest mad scientist, I carefully dropped minute portions of the expensive oils–imported from places around the globe–into my beaker. Some smelled divine in their tiny bottles but didn’t play well with others. Some that seemed like odd choices for a perfume, like fennel, could work in the right combination.

Choosing My Scent

Writer Laura Byrne Paquet does her best impression of a mad scientist in the Tijon perfume lab. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

Writer Laura Byrne Paquet does her best impression of a mad scientist in the Tijon perfume lab. Photo courtesy of Tijon.

Absorbed in my experiments, I quickly lost track of both time and my mind. I simply could not decide which blend I liked best. As the class drew to a close, though, I forced myself to pick one. (Nothing focuses a writer like a deadline.) The winning recipe was two parts bergamot, two parts frangipani and two parts sweet pea, blended with four parts of a pre-mixed oil.

But the fun still wasn’t done. I had to come up with an evocative description of my fragrance (“floral with a hint of citrus” was the best my scent-addled brain could muster) and a name. Ah, the name was the trickiest part. Was I up to creating something as iconic as Shalimar, Joy or Wind Song? Apparently not. I settled on Odyssey, mainly because I was near the end of three weeks on the road.

All that sorted out, John and Cyndi bottled and labeled our new creations, packing them in gift bags full of other Tijon goodies. They placed our recipes on file in case we wanted to order more bottles in the future. Just one task remained: to toast our creative efforts with a glass of champagne. That was a task I mastered with ease.

Practicalities

  • Tijon provides detailed information on prices and reservation policies.
  • Book before you leave home, as classes fill up quickly, particularly during the winter.
  • A rental car is the best way to get to Grand Case from other parts of the island.
  • If you can’t make it to St. Martin, the Berglunds recently opened a second Tijon boutique and lab in San Diego.
Average rating for this trip

Comments

  1. says

    What a unique and interesting activity! I believe they make perfume in Bermuda as well, though at the time I visited 15 years ago I did not hear of the opportunity for visitors to create their own blends.

    5

Leave a Comment