Sometimes it’s the behind-the-scenes people who seem to have the coolest jobs. When a friend asked if I wanted an introduction to Dawn and Samantha Goldworm, twin sisters behind the scent company 12.29, I said “why not?” Then I listened to Dawn’s TED Talk (link below) on scent and memory and became super intrigued. Why does say, the smell of a certain food or flower, trigger very detailed memories? (Proust was who he was because of a madeleine.) In short, Dawn is a trained nose who worked in beauty, Samantha is a stellar marketing exec–together they envisioned a business where they create scent experiences for luxury companies from Valentino to Fendi to Zaha Hadid’s buildings and Ritz Carlton hotels. Since I spoke to them for the original interview they also launched, Scent for Good, which is both a foundation to help hospitals through their work and girls in need; they now have a hand sanitizer and the profits help the causes. Read more to learn why they can’t, and won’t, recreate the smell of a newborn baby. Why chocolate doesn’t smell (really). And how they honored the first woman marathoner with a throwback scent of her record-breaking day.
How did 12.29 come to fruition?
Dawn: I started my career a very long time ago at Avon as part of the in-house fragrance development team, one of the in-house noses. And then I moved to Coty Beauty in New York and then eventually in Paris. During this time, I fell in love with perfume and what it could do; how it could transform a person that put on perfume into someone else or someone they wanted to be–a more beautiful or more romanticized or more sensual version of the person that they thought they were.
I thought, “Wow, if perfume applied to skin can do that, it must be able to do more.” How does it work in the brain? Putting on perfume isn’t like putting on a pair of shoes or getting a handbag or even wearing a gown, it’s so much more emotional than that. What are the possibilities of what perfume could do? Could it be a way to help brands identify themselves or communicate themselves or even differentiate themselves? With this idea in mind, I went back to NYU in the evenings and start working on a graduate degree with my thesis project being olfactive branding, so this idea that brands could communicate, identify, and differentiate themselves through the power of smell.
Through my research, what I found is that the part of our brain that smells is also the part of our brain that feels and remembers. So, when you smell something, you automatically have a feeling about it, an emotion connected to it, and then you store it in your olfactory memory. This becomes, over the course of your life and primarily your childhood years, the largest and most acute part of your memory. This is why we all have the stories, years later, when you smell something you’re transported back to a different period in your life, and in that memory, once you’re transported back, you can recall everything within the dimensions of that memory–all the colors, the textures, the sounds, and most importantly the way you felt in that moment, just by being triggered by a smell.
I thought, “Wow, this could be an incredible application for brands to use to more strongly emotionally engage with their customers or their clients.” Based on that idea, 12.29 was born. And when I finally understood that this could have a very strong business application within this more academic or sociological, almost anthropological perspective on smell, that it could have a real strong business application for marketing and branding, that’s when I decided to turn to the person that knows that the most, especially in terms of consumer insights and why and how and what people buy, that person is my sister.
I went to Samantha and said, “Hey, you know what I’ve been doing in school and in my life, do you want to do it with me?” Then I moved to Paris where I was an inside nose for quite a few years and Sam was at American Express, and we started playing around with the idea and soon after that 12.29 became a fully operational company.
Samantha: Our backgrounds really gelled together and they have throughout the history of 12.29. Dawn was looking at the application of scent to be more than just something you put on your skin–how do people behave when they smell something and what does it mean in terms of the different feelings it evokes? And I have spent my entire career basically following people around understanding why they buy what they buy, why they behave as they behave, why their stated importance about something might actually be different to what they do.
I was at Unilever at L’Oréal, and then American Express just really understanding consumers from all those different product perceptions. When Dawn came to me and said, “This application that I’m looking at using scent in this way could be the next thing in marketing, could be the next tool that people use to really leverage an emotional impact and affect the way people are behaving.” I thought, “It absolutely could. That’s awesome.”
Dawn: We started playing around with the idea. I was speaking to a friend of mine who I went to NYU with who happens to be the son of the Bottega Veneta family–they had sold Bottega Veneta to the Gucci Group a few years before, and he was creating a new brand called Corto Moltedo, and they were about to open their first store in Palais Royal. So, I said, “Gabriel, I have an idea.” I explained the concept of 12.29 to him and he said, “Dawn, I trust you and I think this is interesting. I don’t really understand what you’re talking about, but I think that we should try it anyway.” I brought him through my creative process and we created a beautiful scent for his brand Corto Moltedo and diffused it in his shop at Palais Royal.
We got such an incredible response that very soon after that, I was having lunch with Alex de Betak, the founder and owner of Bureau Betak, which is one of the largest fashion production companies and he said, “Hey, would you be interested in scenting the Rodarte show next season?” Then I called my sister and said, “We’re going to scent the fashion show. What do you think?”
What kind of scent did you create for them?
Dawn: It was I think, spring/summer 2010–a very long time ago. And it was the season where the girls had a vision based on California condors, which are these really ugly birds. It was kind of a darker side of nature– minerals, gas, fire; all the girls had dreads down their backs and tattoos and their clothes were ripped and torn and burned. The floor was what looked like black ash and all the lights were this acid yellow, so it kind of looked like everything was burning or on fire. They wanted the scent to be part of that. And so, the scent smelled by beautiful burning flesh.
Samantha: Not flesh. More like a beautifully burning campfire.
Dawn: Actually it was an incredibly elegant and comforting smell. I know it sounds quite aggressive, it was not. If you think of everything about a barbecue, that’s beautifully burning flesh. A campfire where you’re cooking food, as well, it’s kind of that very grounding, very familiar smell and so that’s what I made it smell like.
Samantha: Only a vegetarian would give that explanation. If you ate meat, you would never say that.
Dawn: Ok, fine. Hello, I’m Dawn and I’m a vegetarian. [insert laughter, funny banter here]. After that we got our first piece in Vogue and we started scenting a lot of fashion shows. We worked with Alex for a while and we did a variety of his brands, including Jason Wu and then we worked with Zac Posen, Ralph Lauren, Greg Lauren, Thakoon, Alexander Wang–really all of the New York designers and then some in Paris and Milan and London.
Then I created the perfume for Lady Gaga and we launched that through 12.29, because I left Coty at that point, and we launched it at the Guggenheim. So we scented all of the Guggenheim and the Whitney and we had all these different art and fashion applications. Then, it finally started to evolve into a real branding application, whereas today we work with Valentino, Bentley, The Ritz Carlton, Montage and Thompson Hotels.
We work with brands to help them, like I said, identify, communicate, and differentiate themselves. So for Valentino, for instance, we scent all of the Valentino boutiques globally, as well as what was eight shows a year, ready-to-wear men’s, women’s couture and resorts, and their showrooms. And then, for hotels we obviously scent their lobbies and their corridors and their common spaces. We work with Zaha Hadid Architects on One Thousand Museum, which is and her only tower now in the Western world. It was to be her first, and now it’s her only, because of her untimely death. But we scented the entire building; there are four different custom scents. It’s a beautiful project. So really any brand that feels like they want to create a stronger emotional bond around their community with brand storytelling, we do that with them through scent.
I listened to your TED Talk (you can listen here) and I liked you were talking about how scent is so integral and important to us, but it’s so underutilized. I mean, why do you think that is?
Dawn: Before we’re born, and I talk about this a little bit in the TED Talk, our sense of smell is fully developed, so once we’re born we’re pretty much a bundle of emotions and smell really. We can feel and we can smell. As we grow and develop, our sense of sight comes and our sense of hearing and our sense of touch and our sense of taste, and as those senses start to catch up to our sense of smell. We also start learning how to speak. Our ability to understand and use language happens at the same time. Because of that, we have very distinct vocabulary and communication for the other four senses, and we have nothing for our sense of smell, because it’s already fully there. It’s not growing up with us, and thus, as the other senses grow and the language around them grows, the sense of smell remains full and on its own.
The the part of our brain that’s responsible for smell, emotion and memory—the things that are already fully formed when we’re born, is not connected to the part of our brain that processes and uses language. At the beginning, I thought it was a mystery. Why don’t more people smell? Why don’t more people understand the power of smell? But it’s not a mystery anymore, because literally the part of your brain that could communicate anything that you’re feeling or remembering about smell is not connected to the part of your brain that processes it. So I think that would be the first obstacle. Then, the second thing is, is there’s been less research done on this part of the brain. There’s been less neuro research done in general, because the medical world doesn’t favor testing on humans. Fair enough.
A lot of the olfactive research has been done on other lifeforms, smaller lifeforms that their brains aren’t as complex as ours. So it hasn’t really been brought to light how powerful our sense of smell is and how much it helps us understand the world. So with those two challenges in mind, I think, at least from a very rudimentary or academic, scientific point of view, that’s why this topic remains in the shadows. From a consumer perspective, once we’re 10 years old, our sense of sight takes over, and it starts to become our dominant way to see the world. Today, with the world being so digital and visual, when we think about where we’re going to put our attention and our spend, it’s really on how we look or how we sound, and even less about how we smell. I think as the world continues to deconstruct, the way that I hope that we’ll reconstruct it and heal it is through human interaction and there’s nothing more telling and more comforting in human interaction than smell. So I think there are more opportunities going forward.
How is what you do different than say a perfume?
Dawn: I used to make perfume, in fact, sometimes we still do. But this application isn’t about perfume. Perfume is for an individual to put on their skin and have some form of individual brand identity or expression for themselves. What we create is a scent. It’s a smell. It isn’t necessarily noticeable most of the time. In fact, because it’s part of an overall branding communication, you shouldn’t notice it outside of the rest of the branding language. It shouldn’t be any more present than the lighting or the sound or the aesthetics of a brand space or environment. It should work seamlessly within all other forms of identification and differentiation for the brand, so that it lives in complete adaptability and coherence with everything else.
The only thing that differentiates it over time is its ability to transport you back to the space like nothing else can. For instance, if you’re in the Valentino store and you have this lovely experience buying a gown for an event you’re going to and then, let’s say a few months later, you happen to be at someone’s home and they have a Valentino candle and you smell it, you’re immediately transported back to the store where you had that lovely experience buying that gown. That’s the ability that scent has, that some of those other branding elements do not.
Do you both wear perfume? Do you make your own?
Samantha: There was a time when I was allowed to choose my own perfume, now I wear perfume that Dawn in working on. I do get to pick which one I want to wear out of the ones she is working on, sometimes. I have different pumps in my bathroom of different modifications and I wear them not only to give her feedback, but also because they’re beautiful.
Dawn: Most of the time I wear a musk molecule called Helvetolide which it smells like a fresh, warm, fluffy cloud.
Is there an elusive scent? Is there a smell that you’ve always wanted to create that you can’t figure out, have not gotten to that place yet?
Dawn: I have had people ask me to create smells that are quite elusive. I’ve had people ask me to recreate the smell of their children, their babies.
That’s impossible. Isn’t it?
Dawn: It is. We do not have the ingredients to do that, nor am I interested in smelling their children and doing it.
My sister says her baby smelled like strawberry shortcake.
Dawn: Hers probably did. The smell of a newborn baby is, I think, one of the most precious and sacred smells in the entire world. There’s a reason that they smell so good. One, because they are brand new life and there can’t be anything more sacred and more beautiful than that, but the second reason is, and this is why from an animal, instinctual place that mothers really have to protect a newborn baby is they smell good enough to eat, literally. And so, you need to protect them from animals in the wild.
What has been one your favorite projects?
Samantha: I’m thinking of one that I’ve talked about a lot and maybe right now I’m reminded of it because we are in such a stressful and anxious time, because it’s comforting to me. We were still at the beginning of our company and we got a call from a production company that was producing the show for Opening Ceremony. They wanted to get the designers, Carol and Humberto, on the phone with us, because their show, which was centered around Belgian chocolate, was in two weeks and everyone was distressed. They ordered these huge vats of chocolate that they were going to pour down a wall they had created at the show, while the models were walking the runway. But when they got the chocolate, it did not smell. They asked us, “Can you make our chocolate smell?” First of all, it was midnight wherever Dawn was in Europe and everyone else was in New York. Dawn’s awake, but she’s also ready to go to bed and she said, “Of course it doesn’t smell. Chocolate doesn’t smell unless it’s heated.”
Then all of a sudden, the line goes dead. Dawn’s sitting there, “Hello? Hello?” All of us ran to go find chocolate, because we were like, “What is this woman talking about?” We all came back to the phone and we were smelling chocolate. And we were saying, “Oh my god. Our chocolate doesn’t smell. Does your chocolate smell?” And she said, “Put it in your mouth and eat it.” And we all start eating it, we said, “Oh, now it smells.” She replied, “Yes. Because it’s a taste. It’s not a smell.” She’ll explain to you the science behind that. But chocolate, unless it’s heated, you have to eat it to smell it. So, we worked with them and created this scent for their show and the end results, how do you explain it, Dawn? It was chocolate with a human touch. Right?
Dawn: It’s like holding a piece of chocolate between your fingers, so a chocolate bar with a human fingerprint. Essentially we worked with flavorists, to get the flavor of chocolate, mixed it with some really fluffy cloud-like musk and a little bit of animal notes to get a human skin aspect, and diffused it in the air. Sam, you want to tell this part of the story about what happened after the show?
Samantha: We scented the show and the designers really wanted people to smell the chocolate, so it was strong. And fashion shows take a while to start, right? So people were just sitting sitting there smelling chocolate for a while, and after the show finished people ran to the wall and started licking it. You can actually still Google it. They’d been smelling chocolate forever and they just needed to have some.
Dawn: I think one of my favorite projects that we’ve worked on over two years ago was for Equinox; they were commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first woman to ever run a marathon, Kathrine Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon.
Equinox wanted to create a perfume for that and distribute it as a way to excite the female runners in Boston for their marathon runs. I talked to Kathrine and brought her through my creative process. I decided to recreate the smell of the day that she ran. I had her walk me through the experience she had and all the smells she encountered, and really more importantly, how she felt during that run.
At the time, this was 50 years ago, sneakers were still made out of leather. She said very quickly her feet were bleeding, inside of her shoes. So there already I was thinking, “Okay, leather and blood.” And they’re running on tar and sidewalk, surrounded by greenery, but everything was frozen, because it was an uncharacteristically very cold day, so there was frostbite on everything. It was at the time where there wasn’t as many soap options, so a lot of the runners were using Ivory soap. And instead of today’s jello shots with electrolytes, men would suck on oranges and throw the peels along the track, so there’s all these orange peels that were being thrown, as well as she told me that she wore lipstick, which was a big point of contention for her boyfriend. He didn’t really understand. And she said, “Well, I’m a woman. Just because I’m running the marathon, why would I not wear lipstick? That’s what I do.”
Then, she explained to me how, and you can actually Google this, as well, during the marathon, people were trying to push her off the track, because they didn’t want her running, and the press was in front of her, getting in her way. Her boyfriend actually punched out one or two people to protect her, so she could finish the marathon. With all that information in mind, we recreated the smell of that day. Then, we layered it so that it smelled just not like a memory, but also like a perfume, and sent her two different versions in New Zealand, and she went for a run with them both on. She called me and she said, “Dawn, I can’t believe you did it. I felt like I was back 50 years ago as a young lady running the Boston Marathon for the first time, not knowing that I was making history, just knowing how hard it was, and didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
She was almost in tears, and it was incredible to be able to do that for someone, but even more so to be able to do it for all the female runners that were about to run the marathon in her honor, 50 years later. I guess that’s one of my favorite projects we’ve done in the past couple years.
What are you working on next?
Dawn: Scent for Good. It’s our newest initiative that Samantha and I are super passionate about. It’s an olfactive wellness concept. The whole reason we use scents is to get to emotional resonance; it’s really a vehicle on the journey to get us to a place that creates or recreates this emotional experience and bond.
We thought, “How can we use this to have an offering or to create a service for the world at large?” It’s wonderful working with these big brands and I think today’s people really live their lives through brands, so we feel proud to partner with them. But how can we also use it in a way that’s almost more democratic and that touches everyone, in situations that we do feel the most emotional, and maybe not the most in control? And how can let scent create touch points of comfort and safety in those environments? So that’s what Scent for Good is. The application will be in hospitals and medical care facilities and cancer centers, as well as through product.
Three words that describe 12.29: Craftsmanship, visceral, and modern.
Three words that describe you:
Samantha: Optimistic, authentic, resourceful. That’s so practical, but I think it is one of my characteristics, and right now, not even just today, but what we’ve been going through this year, I think being a business, and being a small business, you have to be resourceful, and I think it’s something that Dawn and I were raised with and it definitely both of one of our stronger qualities.
Dawn: Integrity, synesthesia, and maybe cerebral.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed?
Samantha: I guess, as a company right now, I would go back to being resourceful. During this pandemic, it’s hard to be a company of any size, at this point, large or small. I think you have to figure out ways to work with your community and the way that we’ve built 12.29 is through our community. Like we said, when we first started the company and we had this idea, we reached out to our friends to say, “Hey, what do you think about this idea? Do you want to partner with us and try it out?” We’ve built the entire company through press and our connections, because we build strong relationships with people. In times like this, you lean on those relationships and figure out how you can help each other and get through it, both personally and professionally.
Dawn: I would say it still lies in my first answer, my self-integrity. And I think Sam’s version of that is authenticity. I just think what you think and what you say and what you do, all being in line. Today, as a person, and as a company, that’s incredibly important and necessary. In a world that we often find ourselves communicating on a screen or looking in various places for actual facts or truth, I think integrity is a characteristic within a human or within a company that is necessary to create a strong foundation, voice and a purpose. At 12.29 we’ve always had a purpose, and now at Scent for Good, as that initiative evolves, we have an even stronger purpose. They both speak to the integrity that we try to foster within ourselves and with the company.