Jessica Hannah’s most powerful scent memory is of her grandmother.
“Our sense of smell is what taps right into our memories and emotions.”
Years after her grandmother died, Jessica’s mother pulled out a box of long-forgotten scarves, opened it, and suddenly there she was again — in spirit, at least.
“We just sat there on the floor, dumbfounded by the fact that this smell could still be in the box years later,” Jessica says.
This memory, among others, is the reason Jessica founded J. Hannah Co., a company focusing on custom scent-blending workshops.
“Olfactory is probably the least explored sense but probably the most interesting,” Jessica explains. “Our sense of smell is what taps right into our memories and emotions. There’s no filter.”
After getting her start in Chicago, experimenting and receiving critiques, Jessica moved her business to Austin in early 2013. Instead of selling a product — something she’d tried before and decided wasn’t for her — she began selling experiences.
“We should be experiencing life; you shouldn’t be a passive person,” she says. “I want people to explore and not be stressed. Sometimes there’s this pressure to do something right, and that needs to be wiped away. Just enjoy [the moment].”
Jessica offers scent workshops for large or small groups. She meets with people one-on-one for customized experiences and large groups for broader social events. Each workshop ends with a one-of-a-kind scent that can be enjoyed for months to come.
During the workshops, Jessica aids her guests in choosing top, middle and base essential oils, which vary by how long they last. Together, they go through a process of smelling combinations of florals, spices and citrus fruits until the customer is happy with the selection.
“What I believe is when you pick things that you’re attracted to, you’re going to make a scent that is actually going to give you balance,” Jessica says. “That inner part of yourself is desiring something.”
Throughout her workshops, Jessica shares a plethora of trivia about essential oils, throwing out fact after fact like, for example, what scents Cleopatra used and how Malcolm X used nutmeg in prison when he couldn’t get marijuana. But her workshops are far from one-sided. Jessica thrives on hearing her guests’ thoughts and stories. When someone says a particular scent reminds them of something from their past, Jessica is all ears, getting to know her customers through their scent memories.
“I want people to explore and not be stressed. Sometimes there’s this pressure to do something right, and that needs to be wiped away. Just enjoy the moment.”
Jessica buys her oils online but first orders samples from multiple vendors to make sure she has the best one of each; the same scent can vary tremendously from seller to seller depending on location and weather, she explains. As a result, sampling Jessica’s essential oil collection is like taking your nose on a world tour. She has lavender from France, clary sage from Bulgaria and bergamot from Italy.
A good scent, Jessica says, is balanced and synergized; it should evolve and shift because of its natural oils as the day goes on. Synthetic perfumes and colognes, on the other hand, are made to last for days — something that you just won’t get from J. Hannah Co.
“For me, the excitement is, what we have in these bottles is of the essence; it’s of the moment,” she says. “You have to be okay with it shifting and changing.”
So, don’t expect to recreate Chanel N°5. “It’s a chemical; no way these are going to replicate a chemical,” she says. “But we will create something that’s lovely.”
Since getting into the perfuming business, Jessica has found that her increased connection to her sense of smell has resulted in a closer bond with the world around her.
Now, when she experiences the not-so-lovely aroma of the man on the bus or the mixture of the mimosa tree with a rosemary bush after it rains in her neighborhood, she connects with that scent on both a chemical and emotional level.
As a result, she says, she’s learned to not be judgmental about scents as there’s no real definition of what is beautiful — an aroma that makes one person plug her nose could bring back a touching memory for somebody else. And more than anything, she stresses, getting in touch with your olfactory sense can help enjoy your surroundings with more depth.
“Allow yourself to live,” she advises. “Go take a walk, be present. Experiencing life involves engaging.”
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