Vocation vacations: Job-auditing firm turns career switch dreams into reality

Our reporter takes a short stint with a perfumer. What this man 'nose,' you can learn.

mark Thomson
Mentor: Perfumer John Harding creates fragrances, including replicated name-brand ones, at his Nantucket, Mass., shop. He also lets visitors apply their noses to his art.
mark Thomson
Scents and sensibility: The writer takes a sniff at the 'fragrance bar' at John Harding's Nantucket shop, where hundreds of bottles line the walls.
Mark Thomson
Hundreds of bottles line the walls at John Harding's Nantucket shop.

I have always believed that I secretly possess inordinately acute olfactory senses. So when the opportunity to test this theory presented itself, I hopped on a ferry to the island of Nantucket. If it turned out that my sense of smell was as good as I suspected, perhaps I would exchange my pen and pad for a pipette and a future as a perfumer.

John Harding, owner of Nantucket Natural Oils and master perfumer, would be my guide. He is one of more than 300 mentors contracted by a company called Vocation Vacations ( to help people discover whether they might actually want to swap their current career for a life dabbing perfume on customers' forearms – or catering to a celebrity's every whim (celebrity personal assistant), or carving guitars out of wood (luthier).

A few of the other options that caught my eye: alpaca rancher, stained-glass artist, sled-dog trainer. There are also the more popular choices: doggie-day-care owner or sports announcer.

According to founder Brian Kurth, about 75 percent of Vocation Vacations participants fall on the side of vocationers – people seriously considering a career change who want to test the waters. The other 25 percent could be characterized as vacationers – retirees looking for a more directed holiday, people curious about what might have been had they earned a master's in architecture, or dreamers for whom the idea of raising alpacas should probably remain a dream.

The packages, which last from one to three days and cost between $549 and $2,000 (two days with Mr. Harding is $949), include an optional before and after consultation with a career coach and a Myers-Briggs personality test. I opted for the whole package, including the coaching and the test, but with an abbreviated half-day vocation vacation.

A less expensive alternative is Mr. Kurth's new book, "Test-Drive Your Dream Job" ($16.99, Business Plus), which offers tips on arranging a do-it-yourself job-testing trip.

Set off Nantucket's rough cobblestoned Main Street, Nantucket Natural Oils has the feel of a store that is part apothecary, part bath section of Victoria's Secret. In addition to a line of edible powders and oils – Harding says he has to have something to keep husbands busy – there are an array of bath products, handblown glass perfume bottles (some with tiny glass dogs for stoppers), and petroleum-free candles.

Harding is stationed at his 15-ft., glass-topped perfume bar. Behind him are the shelves that he constructed from two old fireplace mantles, lined with 1,200 colorful bottles of oil. He wears blue-tinted glasses, his reddish hair gelled into tight curls.

"I am a Nose," he says by way of introduction.

In the lexicon of perfumery, a Nose is someone who can sniff a bottle of perfume and distinguish all its different notes, or scents, as many as 25 discrete smells in the average perfume. According to Harding, Noses are one in a million.

Harding specializes in replicating name-brand fragrances without the alcohol or additives and at a fraction of the price. Although perfume houses don't advertise their ingredients, they aren't patented either. That means anyone can make Chanel No. 5 if they have olfactory senses good enough to pick out the ingredients. Harding makes this and 724 other men's and women's commercial fragrances – all with the word "Resemblé" on the label to avoid copyright infringement.

The way Harding talks about discovering his own nose is almost mystical.

It wasn't until later in life. He was in a jazz band, attending graduate school at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Tiring of the lifestyle – "going to bed when the sun was coming up" – he met Miriam Novalle, a French-trained master perfumer, at her shop while on vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

"I picked up a bottle and smelled it, and out of my mouth came 'heliotrope'," says Harding, who doesn't recall having been told about the plant with a fragrant purple bloom. Ms. Novalle was so impressed that she offered to apprentice Harding and sell him her fragrance bar.

As Harding begins dripping different ratios of "Rain" (his own creation made of lily of the valley and hints of seven other flowers) and other oils onto coffee filters (the most scent-free paper), I become confused. I can distinguish the difference; I just can't say which I like better.

There is something delightfully mad scientist-like about swirling glass pipettes in bottles of oil. And after Harding tells me to smell my sweater, as a way to cleanse my nasal palate, I develop a new appreciation for the simplicity of its woolly smell. My nose would be happy to sniff my sweater all afternoon.

In the course of three hours, I begin to haltingly pick out better balanced scent combinations. I can smell, for example, why two drops of "Rain" to one drop of "Carnation Spicy" is more balanced than two drops of each. Sort of.

When I call a fragrance grassy, Harding sounds surprised. "That was a good call. You've got a nose," he says.

He's mostly being encouraging. As for being a true Nose, he admits, "I could train anyone to make perfume, but this is something you're born with – it's innate."

Which is OK. Because according to my Myers-Briggs career report, my personality type is a 100 percent match with a job as a reporter. Kurth says that about 80 percent of vocationers end up sticking with their original job – though since the company was founded four years ago, more and more "alumni" are beginning to shift careers.

After just five rounds with the coffee filters, my nose is exhausted. Harding says his nose never tires. He's hard-pressed to come up with even one smell he doesn't like. A horse stable, with manure: Loves it. Dead skunk: Loves it. Landfill? "Right," he admits. "That's not the best."

Certainly Harding's most impressive feat is being able to re-create a perfume by scent. He has a very distinct way of smelling, inhaling audibly as he rolls whatever he's sniffing from the left to the right nostril. Working this way, he says, it can take him a few days to unlock a fragrance. (He charges $500 for the first quarter-ounce and his customary $45 a quarter-ounce after that.) To begin, he'll drip different oils into a bottle. Spilling out a few drops here. Adding more of a floral note there. Then a little musk. After figuring out the ingredients, he sends the final mixture off to a lab in New York where the proportions of each oil is determined so that he can reproduce it.

Harding gets some odd requests. A woman in Indiana recently sent him a CVS pharmacy pill bottle. In a letter she asks if he can please replicate the smell of the substance inside. It's a "liquid antibacterial soap that they use in public rest rooms," she writes. She has called Procter & Gamble, the manufacturer, but after being put on hold for a while, all they could tell her was that "fragrance" was on the ingredient list. "Good luck with this," she concludes. "It smells soooo good."

It doesn't, really. It smells like public bathroom hand soap. That much even I can tell.

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