A Jewelry Designer Finds a Scent as Unique as Her Latest Avant-Garde Ring
On a mild fall morning in Paris, Gaia Repossi, the 36-year-old artistic director of the Italian fine jewelry house Repossi, was sitting at a long tatami-topped table in front of a woman in a lab coat who was diligently taking notes. The setting was Kaori, a small sanctuary-like space dedicated to the making and enjoyment of incense that opened in April within Ogata Paris, the three-floor Japanese store, tearoom and restaurant in the city’s Marais neighborhood. Lining the old stone walls of the room, which is situated in the basement of Ogata’s imposing 17th-century building, were apothecary cabinets filled with glass jars. The air smelled earthy and fresh, like a forest.
The incense counselor, as the woman had introduced herself, was quizzing Repossi on her current mood, sleep cycle and appetite; she asked about her preferred season (Repossi was nostalgic for summer, she said) and her favorite scents (florals such as ylang-ylang, jasmine and rose). This is the first step of Kaori’s Yoka (kanji for “lingering” and “scent”) Sur Mesure experience: a 60- to 90-minute private consultation during which a client is led through the creation of a bespoke fragrance. Once a person has discovered their ideal base note and top notes, through a guided conversation and the sampling of various raw ingredients, the store’s in-house incense master — who trained at the centuries-old incense manufacturer Shoyeido in Kyoto — blends the scent on-site from a mix of dry herbs, plants and essential oils. The resulting fine potpourri can be worn as a personal fragrance, tucked into clothes in a small linen sachet or left in an uncovered vessel to permeate the home.
“Scent doesn’t exactly play a role in my creative process because I’m primarily a visual person,” said Repossi, sipping from a cup of warm water infused with sandalwood, a calming tonic served at the beginning of each session to prime the senses. “But it’s something I like because of its spiritual dimension.” The designer burns Tibetan incense — typically with notes of sandalwood, agar wood and amber — at her apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement during both her daily dawn Ashtanga yoga sequence and meditation, which she has practiced since her teenage years. (For a period during high school, she spent four hours a day in meditation at the Zen dojo temple in Nice. “After six months, it got too hard to sustain because I also had to go to classes,” she said.)
When the interview process was over, it was time for Repossi to select her base note. She leaned over the table to pick up one of five ceramic vessels the counselor had placed in front of her — each filled with a different mix of natural materials inspired by the five agents of Eastern cosmology: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These are the set base notes of Kaori’s incenses, composed by Shinichiro Ogata, the Tokyo-based chef, architect and designer who founded the store in 2020. “It’s potent at first,” Repossi said of the wood blend, closing her eyes to breathe in the notes of hinoki cypress, camphor and palo santo. She wavered between her choices of this or the water blend — a warm scent spiced with cinnamon, cloves and musky patchouli — ultimately settling on the latter. “It smells almost edible,” she said.
Since Ogata’s opening, Repossi has become a regular, dropping by the restaurant for lunch — a four-course meal that begins with kobachi (Japanese small bowls) and ends with delicate French-inflected desserts — or picking out porcelain cups from the shop as gifts for friends. “I admire his vision,” she said of Ogata. “It follows my idea of what real luxury is, as a refined and minimalist statement.” And so, when it came to selecting a venue for her high jewelry collection presentation during haute couture week in July, Ogata was a natural choice. She showed her graphic, sculptural designs in the building’s monochromatic two-story gallery, where they stood out on mirror-topped tables or against black backdrops on shelves. “It gave the jewelry a strong visual statement, and it allowed for contemplation,” she said.
Among the pieces she debuted was the Transient ring — a wide yellow gold twisted band sliced perpendicularly by a thin yellow gold bar inset with diamonds — which she was wearing for the Yoka experience. “It’s pure design because it’s not working around the stones,” she said, adding that she’d drawn inspiration from a tattoo of a cross she’d seen on a model’s finger in a backstage image from a Maison Margiela show. Tattoos and body paint, along with architecture and modern art, have informed Repossi’s minimalist design language since she took over the artistic direction of the brand from her father, Alberto Repossi, in 2007, when she was just 21 (the house was founded by her grandfather Costantino Repossi in 1957).The ring, on sale next month, is one of just 15 and is the first style in a new series of limited-edition statement pieces that will allow Repossi to experiment beyond the bounds of her regular, thematic collections. “It can be just about an idea, something abstract that doesn’t necessarily match with anything else,” she said.
Behind Repossi, at a marble-topped workbench, the incense master was assembling a selection of jars containing raw ingredients — possible top notes to complement the jewelry designer’s base. He had two very different suggestions: a floral blend featuring lavender, chamomile and a dash of peppery shiso, and an option comprising kuromoji, a wood with citrus notes, and the dried peel of Japanese tachibana oranges, which added a caramel-like sweetness. “I like this last combination best,” Repossi said, “but can we add the shiso?”
Each ingredient was then carefully weighed on a set of scales, according to the incense master’s intuitive recipe (which included just the smallest amount of shiso as it tends to overpower), before being ground in a yagen, a large wheel-like version of a mortar and pestle used in traditional Japanese herbal medicine. The finished scent, Repossi said, was “elegant and unconventional, subtle and strange. It’s completely different from anything else I have.” It was different, too, from any scent chosen by previous customers — none of whom, the counselor noted, had ever selected the exact combination of ingredients Repossi had.