RE|ENCOUNTERS Smelling Session: Trusting Instinct & Listening to Others

Firmench RE|ENCOUNTERS places creators of positivity in the spotlight. Artists and activists create a dialogue with perfumers about the power of perfume and to share in our humanity. Here in RE|ENCOUNTERS: Smelling Sessions, creatives sit down with raw materials and scents to help tell their stories.

In our second Smelling Session, Vice President of Development at Firmenich, Dara Quinlan sits down with industry-legend Ann Gottlieb, founder of Ann Gottlieb Associates, and Ashli Hamilton. Gottlieb is a veteran of the industry for more than 50 years. During that time, Gottlieb developed powerhouse classics, like Calvin Klein Obsession, CK One, Dior J’Adore and Marc Jacobs Daisy. Ten years ago, Gottlieb hired Ashli Hamilton who was brand-new to fragrance at that time. Since then, the two have forged and formed a partnership of people from two different generations. In this Smelling Session, we learn about their approach, instinct and experience in developing scents for brands like Marc Jacobs, Kendra Scott, Dove and Axe. The two are responsible for the scents worn by millions each day.


Ann Gottlieb
Dara Quinlan

Dara: Let’s start at the beginning. Ann and Ashli? How did you two meet?

Ashli: Oh my goodness, I really think that the stars just aligned. I got a call from Ann’s office and I was shocked. I mean, I knew who she was, but I really didn’t know who she was until she offered me the job. She really took a chance. I didn’t come from a fragrance background. We entered into this relationship blindly, because there was no real job description. I had no clue what I was getting into. She really didn’t know what she needed. And ten years later, here we are.

Ann: I hit the motherload with you! I kid around and call her my third nostril, but boy, she has been an unending help, and it grows and grows and grows, it’s been wonderful. I had been looking, and I had absolutely no idea for what exactly. I’ve been guided with instinct my whole life. I feel it in my heart.

Dara: People and fragrances alike, it sounds like.

Ann: Yeah. That’s true.

Ashli and Ann at AGA offices in New York City

Dara: Ann, you’re obviously an industry veteran, you’ve held positions from Estee Lauder, to Revlon and many places in between, but when did you really know that fragrance development was the thing that you wanted to focus on forever?

Ann: At all of those companies, I was head of product development, which was inclusive of skincare, fragrance, and makeup. So that when I went into my own business in 1983, it was as a generalist, but it took me not much time to find out that developing a fragrance was a lot more lucrative than developing a lipstick line. It evolved into fragrance for that reason. Also, I had success with it—immediate success.

Dara: What was your first success?

Ann: Calvin Klein Obsession.

Dara: Well, that’s a pretty good one. So what was that like? Can you describe how that process went?

Ann: Oh my goodness. It was actually a labor of love to some degree. My husband loved a fragrance that was already on the market that he said smelled like a hug. As soon as we started out, I knew that that feeling was where we would find something powerful.

Dara: I never knew that story actually. So it was really your husband who gave you the idea?

Ann: Yep. For that, and also Calvin Klein Eternity.

Dara: Interesting, how so?

Ann: Eternity for Men he wore it as it was in its laboratory stages and people would stop him, in banks, every place, and asking him what he wore, and that’s how it happened.

Dara: How influential are outside comments on your own perception of fragrances when you’re working on them?

Ann: It depends on how I trust them. If it is consistent from varied sources, then they’re very important.

Dara: Ashli, I know candles are a huge love of yours. Is this similar to people coming into your home and commenting?

Ashli: Yes, absolutely. I have one that all three of us worked on recently in my home, the Kendra Scott Autumn. I had some neighbors over and they could not stop talking about it. The women were like, “Where can I buy this?” It was very rewarding to have such positive comments.

Ann: When we started, Ashli knew nothing about the business and has gradually learned. I now view her very much as my partner. I care very much about what she likes and what her opinions are, and won’t even go beyond that until communicating with a client, until we’re aligned on what we’re doing.

Ashli: Nine times out of 10, we are pretty aligned.

Dara: On that one time out of 10, what happens?

Ashli: I think we both try and explain what each one sees. Sometimes I’m like, “Oh yeah, you know, I never would have seen that” and vice versa. Sometimes we come to alignment and sometimes we don’t, and that’s okay. But I think we can always move past it.

Ann: I have ingredients and types of fragrances that I absolutely do not like, and God watched over me because a number of those Ashli really does like, so I defer to her in those areas.

Ashli and Ann at AGA offices in New York City

Dara: What are some of your favorite ingredients?

Ann: Shalimar was my first fragrance then I graduated to Cartier and then Obsession. I love vanilla and sweet, delicious things. I’m sure that I could easily be an addict. My favorite scent area is vanilla gourmands. It is legendary what I don’t like: one of them is cassis because it keeps smelling like cat litter. There are ingredients that to me are very sour and smell like body odor. In fact, we’ve gotten to a point where I’ll smell something and Ashli will say, “Smells like body odor to you, right?” And it’s right. There are ingredients that some people find offensive, and others find delicious.

Dara: Do you think it’s your love of Shalimar that drove you to love vanilla things, or is it some sort of memory?

Ann: If we went back further, the first fragrance experience that I had that really affected me, was my father wearing Old Spice. Old Spice has a heavy vanilla tush to it. He would kiss me goodbye on his way to work and he would leave it on my face, and I loved the smell of it.

Dara: How about you, Ashli? What are the things that you love and where do they come?

Ashli: I’m a sweet, yummy girl. I also like smokier, darker woods. I think we are both suckers for fig. A “no” on my list is licorice, for sure. Anything that has any trace of anise, I pick up and immediately “no”, so that’s where I need Ann’s help.

Ann: Yeah, she also doesn’t like chocolate. I mean, can you imagine someone that doesn’t like chocolate? She said she was lucky I didn’t ask her that question in her interview.

Dara: What, among your many, many, many babies is at least in your top three of your favorite fragrances today still?

Ann: Okay. CK One obviously. It is very meaningful for me because it was obviously a big success. It was the ability to translate a moment in time into a bottle, but it also represented my first big win with Firmenich. And this has been a lifelong love affair that we’ve had together. Also the sad part of it, because here is this fragrance that is doing so well, and my husband was dying during this time. So I think of it both as a very happy period, and also…

Dara: A very intense period for you.

Ann: Very intense, yes it was. One of the fragrances that I certainly loved all along, but has now really become something that resonates with a moment is Marc Jacobs Daisy. It is so right. And it typifies for me, one of the things that’s wrong with the fine fragrance business today. What made Daisy successful, aside from the fact that it is of course a wonderful fragrance, is it makes you happy, it makes no other promise to you, other than making you happy. And who doesn’t want to be happy? Especially now. And it cuts through all of the sensuality and all of the dark shadows and everything, and it’s sunshine, and it is really an “up” of a fragrance.

Dara: I think what is so fascinating about Daisy, since I was fortunate to work on it with you, is that it started with something quite vanilla, which people don’t necessarily associate Daisy with, but it was soft and a hug and yummy. Then we kind of built in color and happiness. I remember to this day. I remember the model number when we put in this extra strawberry piece on it. You smelled, you looked up and you just smiled. This is one of your signature moves. You don’t actually say anything, you just smile.

Ann: But, a word about inspiration also. Marc Jacobs is one of the most terrific designers, celebrities that I’ve worked with, because he knows his stuff. And the fact that he could design a package that was so unique, and so ageless, really, and so happy, inspiring…

Dara: And optimistic.

Ashli: Optimistic is the perfect word for that fragrance.

Ashli and Ann in AGA offices in New York City

Dara: Do you have a different mindset when you’re working on big versus small?

Ann: Ashli and I were talking about the creative process and how important the strategic work is that starts with what the brand is. And so it is driven… all of them are driven by the same series of concepts working together in terms of deciding what it should smell like.

Ashli: I think the more homework that we do upfront, the easier it is for us to create. As Ann said, we start with immersing ourselves in the brand, everything we can possibly get our hands on as far as demographic information, and who the target is, and the customers, and who is shopping the brand, the competitive landscape. We look at all of that before we even think about the fragrance. Secondly, I think is the visual component. Is there a color associated with the brief, or mood boards? Oftentimes, we create mood boards, which is isn’t always easy for the the brand teams. The more homework we can do upfront, the easier than it is to just instinctively develop.

Dara: You have talked about instinctive decisions and how you make for good decisions. Ashli what besides that have you taken from working with Ann for all these years? What have you learned?

Ashli: The most important thing she’s always taught me is to smell like a consumer. And when we’re evaluating things to not get too specific about the ingredients that are in there, but rather just describe it as a regular consumer would at the shelf. It’s too sweet, it’s too heavy, it’s not fresh enough, and things like that. Because you don’t need to tell a perfumer what’s in there, they already know, and the evaluator already knows.

I think Ann has always considered herself a marketer with a good nose. And so, so much of what goes into how we develop is all of this strategic work that happens at the beginning. And that’s something that she’s always taught me is super important to look at: the target audience. Get into the mindset of who you’re actually developing for. If it’s a 12-year-old boy for Axe, you have to think like that. And if it’s a 45-year-old woman for high-end candles, think like that. So I think the consumer being at the forefront is lesson number two.

To have fun, and not take your job too seriously is probably number three. A lot of days it just doesn’t feel like work because you’re doing what you love.

Dara: Ann, has teaching these sort of life skills to Ashli taught you anything?

Ann: She is an extraordinary human being, and we have to start there, seriously. She has a work ethic that’s unbelievable, and I see that she approaches a lot of work as I would—where it’s never what you’re supposed to do. You look at it in total. If it means more work, you do more work. She never does something, then she’s finished, and then just goes onto the next thing. That’s helped me tremendously in terms of expanding my horizons and my business. Also, she has the most amazing memory that you could imagine. And as I’m losing mine, it turns out to be a great combination. Really, she is an olfactive memoirist. She knows what number submissions were and where they are, and where we could find them, it’s unbelievable. If she did not work with me, she should go and work for the F.B.I. I think, or someplace where she could be the next Nancy Drew.

Dara: You both have an insatiable curiosity, and I think it’s linked. You are always looking at new brands and new stores, and I think you both are constantly on store checks.

Ashli: We also both like to shop a lot, so that probably also doesn’t hurt the process.

Ann and Dara smelling Vetiver in Haiti.


Just for fun, we asked our RE|ENCOUNTERS Smelling Sessions participants to answer questions from the Proust Questionnaire. Not devised but popularized by Marcel Proust, it is a game of a series of questions where participants ultimately reveal their true natures.

Question: If you weren’t working in your current field, what would be your profession?
Ann: Secretary of Education in Biden’s administration.
Ashli: Sommelier.
Dara: Saving elephants

Question: Which talent do you wish you had?
Ann: Stand-up comedy.
Ashli: Singing!
Dara: I wish I spoke more languages.

Question: Where would you most like to live?
Ann: New York City.
Ashli: Napa Valley.
Dara: I heart New York.

Question: What trait do you most like in others?
Ann: Compassion.
Ashli: When people don’t take themselves too seriously.
Dara: Warmth.

Question: What trait do you most deplore in others?
Ann: Disingenuousness.
Ashli: Narrowmindedness.
Dara: Dishonesty.

Question: What word or phrase do you most overuse?
Ann: Can you believe this?
Ashli: Hey, can you do me a favor?
Dara: It’s crazy.

Question: What is your perfect idea of happiness?
Ann: I’m going to pick a specific moment in time. My perfect idea of happiness was being in Rome with my daughter, son-in-law and my two grandsons making Yaki.
Ashli: Doing the things you love the most with the people you love the most and not having another care in the world.
Dara: I would say traveling with my children, yada, yada, but really, I could also say a great glass of earthy red wine.