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This Chess-Themed Fragrance Brand Wants to Make Intellectuals Smell Good

I got my first Mind Games scent—the spicy, rosy Grand Master—when the brand launched two years ago. Its vessel is shaped like a bishop on a chess board, and so are the bottles for the other nine extraits de parfum that debuted alongside it. This was high-concept stuff for a brand new fragrance company, which made me wonder: Who comes out of the gate this strong, this confidently? Of the scores of fragrance and grooming operations that launch each year, this one stood out for multiple reasons.

Mind Games is the in-house brainchild of The Fragrance Group, which licenses and distributes a highbrow perfumed portfolio (including scents for Tumi, Bentley, Brioni, and Lalique, among others). At the helm of Mind Games is husband-wife duo Alex and Mariana Shalbaf, the CEO of The Fragrance Group and creative director of Mind Games, respectively. Together, they’ve combined invigorating and long-lasting scents from top noses in the game with trophy-like bottles—informed moves from practiced pros, which, not coincidentally, often lead to success on the chessboard.

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“Chess is timeless, it connects to everyone globally, no matter what your chess pieces look like,” Mariana tells Robb Report, adding that she has fond memories of playing the game with her grandfather.

Mariana and Alex Shalbaf of The Fragrance Group
Mariana and Alex Shalbaf of The Fragrance Group

Those memories are part of what led the Shalbafs to think about how they might offer a more intellectual form of luxury fragrances. To create the scents, they enlisted a roster of leading noses—including Emilie Cooperman, David Apel, and Annick Mendardo, among others—and offered them unfettered access to the notes they wanted to use. Over the course of six years, this vaunted group put together the brand’s first assortment, now known as the Artisan Collection. Its second offering, called the Soulmate Collection, launched in September 2023.

“A master perfumer envisions what it is you want to make, by blending a very specific dosage of very specific ingredients. You have to have a lot of that premeditated before you can begin to work,” Alex says. “The platform of ingredients made available to all the perfumers are hundreds and hundreds of ingredients. It’s like a grandmaster chess player who envisions a move that requires many many steps, and who plays with that level of experience, as well as the foresight of the moves ahead.”

Mind Games The Forward Extrait de Parfum
Mind Games The Forward Extrait de Parfum

Though many of The Fragrance Group’s brands are curated for mass appeal, Mind Games is intended to offer what the Shalbafs consider “niche wearable” assortment, which allows for a deeper exploration of notes. “With perfumery, it’s always interesting to learn about niche notes, but rarely is it enjoyable to wear them,” Alex says. The Mind Games fragrances, then, combine unconventional ingredients in pleasurable ways. One of Mariana’s favorites, called The Forward, combines two Madagascan ingredients, mandarin oil and vanilla. Because the vanilla trade in the island nation is male-dominated, the women-led mandarin oil sector provides a fitting complement.

Mind Games Gambit Extrait de Parfum
Mind Games Gambit Extrait de Parfum

The other quality that sets this brand apart is that all of its fragrances are extraits de parfum, meaning they include a higher percentage of perfume oil than many other brands. (They’re priced accordingly: each 100 ml bottle costs $375.) The Shalbafs wanted to source the highest quality ingredients so that even a citrus note—which tends to wear off the fastest—could express itself for an entire day. “You need true essential oil, and lots of it, to last a long time,” Alex says. That is no more evident than in Vieri, a citrusy-woody-peppery expression crafted by perfumer Christelle Laprade, which in my experience casts its lustrous lemongrass aroma all day.

Then there’s a favorite of Alex’s called Gambit: a profoundly fresh scent that ironically lacks any singularly fresh notes. Clove, patchouli, sandalwood, cardamom, and petitgrain punctuate this sensual number from Symrise perfumer Carlos Viñals. “It’s everything a citrus fragrance gives you, but no citrus,” Alex says. As far as experimental fragrances go, that’s a gambit we can get behind.

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