Secrets Of...

Five Questions for a Nose That Knows

By Anh-Minh Le

For Gary McNatton, a self-taught nose, every scent he conjures tells a story. Take, for instance, grass: “I’m a little kid. I’m on my bike. I see my father in the front of the house with his lawn mower. He’s wearing plaid shorts and a plaid shirt — two different plaids at the same time. He looks at me and he winks. I smell that grass being cut — that wet, green, beautiful scent — and I ride off down the block, knowing that I’m loved and very happy.”

Over the years, McNatton has also mined his memories of Sausalito, Mexico and Brentwood for aromatic inspiration. Raised in Kentucky, after studying art history and psychology at Vanderbilt University, McNatton lived in Chicago and Los Angeles. In the latter, during the mid-’80s, he launched product design firm Mottura. While he had the visuals and sound nailed down for the showroom, it was missing a scent. So he eventually set about developing his own.

The process resulted in a range of glycerin soaps — among them, that nostalgic grass scent. Fans included Gap’s then-CEO, Mickey Drexler. The San Francisco-based business acquired Mottura and installed McNatton as vice president of personal care. In the post-Gap years, myriad companies, from retailers to hospitality brands, have enlisted his olfactory expertise.

Today, along with Monelle Totah, he is the co-founder of Hudson Grace (, where he devises scents for the home goods purveyor’s in-house line of candles. At the Palo Alto and San Francisco locations, the Original is the most popular.

McNatton is currently working on a Big Sur inspired scent that will be released this spring. As with all his creations, he reflects, “it takes you to a very beautiful, magical place or moment.”

Perfume counters can be overwhelming. How do you decide which fragrance is right for you? “Fragrance is so personal, and it’s important that you test-drive a fragrance. Go to your favorite department store — the better the store, the better the choices — sample the scents there, take some samples home, and then wear-test the scents. The best test: First, it has to please you. Second, if you get compliments, that’s a good sign. And what I always tell people — this is what I do personally — is to go to bed with the scent. If it bothers you in the night and you have to jump up and take a shower, well, there’s your answer.”

Any other tips from your years in the industry? “This I do know: People with lighter skin tones wear florals very well. Darker and Mediterranean skin tones drink the light floral notes, so a bit richer, warmer scent is ideal for them. Also: Women wear men’s fragrances beautifully. A warm, rich men’s scent on a woman is very sensual and wonderfully unexpected. Both men and women respond beautifully to it. Across the board, the biggest mistake — one that happens too often for men and women — is simply wearing too much. It is a major no! With scent, less is more. Too much can ruin a dinner, a date, an office environment, a friendship even.”

Let’s talk candles. Is there a right way to burn a candle? “There is, and when I’m in the stores, I must tell customers this 10 times a day. A candle has a memory. And what I mean by this is: If you burn a candle for, say, 30 to 40 minutes and then blow it out to save the wax, you are actually cutting the life of a candle short. Burn a candle two to three hours each time, to allow the entire surface to become liquid. By doing this, you will not have the wax hanging to the sides of the glass. That wax will be lost and you will not get your money’s worth.”

What do people often overlook when it comes to candles? “Like many things in life, there is a difference in candle quality. Many times, a candle is more expensive because of the quality of the wax and, most importantly, the oil. So when you can justify buying up, do so because a $12 candle is just that. In fragrance, good is good — and better is memorable. Maintain the candle to assure that you get a quality and clean burn. Before you light a candle a second time, a fourth time, a tenth time — take a tissue and pluck the blackened wick, removing the carbon. This will make for a clean, smokeless burn.”

Any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to fragrances? “You never want fragrances in the dining room. You don’t ever want to mix fragrance and food. Food has its own fragrance. When you’re at a dinner and the person sitting next to you is wearing this big perfume, his or her scent can ruin the meal. … Haven’t we all had that experience? In that situation, you just can’t focus on the meal because the floral notes take over. It is fine to burn scent in the rooms where you are entertaining, but avoid rooms where food is served.”

Scents and Sensibility

McNatton’s guide to candle placement in your home

Entry: “We have a gorgeous green fragrance called San Miguel. It’s the scent of tomato vine. You know that moment in the summer when you reach into the green leaves and pluck the ripe fruit — the amazing green scent that remains on your hands. … The experience of the scent is as if you have every window open in the house and all that beautiful young summer green scent floats in on a breeze, filling the room.”

Living or Family Room: “This is where the family gathers, so it’s nice to have a warm and woody fragrance like Brentwood. It’s masculine, and I like men to be comfortable around fragrance. It’s the scent of sun-dried driftwood, California white oak and cypress — a wonderfully rich, beautiful fragrance.”

Powder Room: “Floral is great in a guest bath or powder room. I would suggest the Hudson Grace Original, which is tuberose, jasmine and orange flower. Or Savannah, which is the scent of pure magnolia blossom with just a hint of citrus.”

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