Meet Shannon Lords-Houghton, the Perfumer Behind 84.Shelter

A Shelter Island perfumer explores the depths of experience and alchemy.
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Photography by Doug Young

Sense memories—from a favorite meal, a far-off beach vacation, a childhood birthday party—are important to everyone, but they’re critical to Shelter Island–based perfumer Shannon Lords-Houghton. “The first scent I ever tried to make was a smoky-tobacco fragrance for my husband,” Lords-Houghton says. “I began by smelling different kinds of tobacco oils and leather, and as I was making it, I was reminded of the pleasant and distinct smell of a pipe, which my dad used to smoke.”

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Lords-Houghton starts by mixing a standard perfume formula in a beaker, then “begins to play,” adding and subtracting various essential oils until she arrives at a final formula, which is then decanted into small bottles, capped with a roller ball, and stamped with a wax seal. Photography by Doug Young

The result, called Pipe, is now one of seven in her line of fragrances, bottled and packaged under the moniker 84. Shelter and sold at select shops throughout the East End. The collection is intentionally unisex, says Lords-Houghton, who adds that she has always gravitated toward masculine notes in perfumes: “My husband and I often find scents together and share them. I wanted to follow that vibe and create scents that anyone can wear.”

Lords-Houghton began her venture into the world of scents and perfume-making a year ago, setting up her “laboratory” in a charming freestanding studio space behind her Shelter Island home. Arrayed on top of a converted kitchen table/ desk are various beakers, funnels, pipettes, and a roll-on capping tool, all lined up neatly in a row, along with a book of scent formulas and notes. “I keep careful notes while I’m creating scents,” she says, “because you can easily lose your way, and then have to start over again.”

Lords-Houghton starts by experimenting with essential oils, sourced from a wide variety of vegetal matter that ranges from yuzu to piñon resin. She applies drops of these oils to paper test strips to assess “how they work together,” then “follows the rules” known to all perfumers to create base notes, heart notes, and top notes, “using a basic formula and percentages of each, before I start playing with and adding oils. I make the formula for one bottle in a small beaker, stirring it and smelling it, and then I let it sit for a day or two, putting a drop on a strip and allowing it to percolate. Sometimes you nail it, most times not so much, and then you have to go back, adding more of one or less of what’s overwhelming or throwing everything off.” Lords-Houghton uses fractionated coconut oil as the base note, which is hypoallergenic and helps keep “everything as organic and clean as possible, which isn’t easy in the cosmetics industry.”

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Her perfume Shore features notes of orange blossom and gets its color from the blue tansy flower.

Once the formula is finished to her satisfaction, Lords-Houghton pours it through a stainless-steel funnel into 15-milliliter glass bottles and caps them with a roller-ball applicator. The diminutive bottle is “easy to travel with” and the roller ball allows the oil-based perfume to “go on your skin nicely and stay there longer.” After the bottles are capped, she adds a stamped wax seal emblazoned “84.S,” a nod to her address and her first name. “The seal brings more color and texture to the bottle than a flat label would,” says Lords-Houghton, whose most personal creation is a scent called Camp. “While I was growing up, my family vacationed in the mountains in Montana and had campfires at night. I remember the smell of the woods, the crunch of pine needles underfoot, and the lingering scent of smoke, and I wanted to evoke that memory.” The challenge of distilling an evocative concept into a concrete entity “is hard work,” she adds, “but when you find something that you were meant to be doing, it’s not difficult. I love every step of it.”

The print version of this article appeared with the headline: Made in the Hamptons.