Among the boutiques and bustle of Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, there’s a storefront shrouded by thick red velvet curtains and bordered by blue and green tiles.
In contrast to its neighbours, with their large, clear windows and eye-catching displays, this shop is a little mysterious, displaying its name on the glass and nothing else.
Walking past the open door, you can catch a glimpse of the room’s large central wooden counter. Along one wall, stained walnut and aged brass cubbies stretch almost floor-to-ceiling, filled with objects of all different shapes, shades and materials – colourful glass candles, sculptural clay vessels and porcelain receptacles with intriguing stoppers.
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This is the home of Curionoir, an Auckland-based company that specialises in heady, concentrated scents and beautiful objects for your skin and your space. Founder and fragrance developer Tiffany Witehira created the brand in 2011 and opened her flagship boutique just over six years ago.
Having trained in perfumery in Grasse, France, she launched Curionoir with one object – a white scented candle, called the Lilith Doll, shaped like a doll’s head. It’s slightly dark and slightly dreamlike, and the candles, perfumes and soaps that have since been added to the line-up balance the same qualities.
Curionoir pieces are stocked around the world – including at Harrolds in Sydney and Melbourne, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth – but the Auckland flagship is the epicentre of the brand’s storytelling, an immersive brick-and-mortar space in an age of online convenience.
The extraits de parfum are mixed in Grasse and decanted by hand in the Aotearoa store into Italian-made glass bottles. Extraits de parfum are the most concentrated type of fragrance; more potent than eau de parfum, they are swirled onto the skin using a stopper or the small lip of the bottle rather than sprayed.
For each new perfume mixture, Witehira draws inspiration from a range of sources – from personal memories to history, nature and emotions. Diaphanous is inspired by “bewildering clarity”, with notes of mandarin and sambac jasmine, saffron, narcissus absolute, cayenne pepper and amber. The newest parfum is Ngutu Pā, which means “lips that touch” in Māori. It is “animalic, earthy, spicy and floral”, with notes of cinnamon, angelica, cedar, cacao, oud, vanilla and more.
Of Māori descent and Ngāpuhi iwi (tribe), Witehira’s heritage and identity are intertwined in her craft. Several of her family members are also craftspeople, including her uncle, who is an expert bone carver. Her tipuna wahine (great-grandmother) worked with New Zealand native plants to practice rongoā Māori, or traditional medicine, using gathered botanicals. This was Witehira’s first exposure to natural fragrance.
She’s “extremely conscious” of what is incorporated into Curionoir from a cultural perspective, though, walking the line between pouring parts of herself into her output while taking care to do it in the right way. “I would never want to tokenise the beauty of Te Ao Māori [the Māori world] or use our culture just to try and be on trend,” she says.
Witehira describes the apothecary-like store as a “working studio space” where customers are educated on the offering as they shop. The staff work with the fragrances, filling the glass parfum bottles by hand and packaging scented petals that can be scattered between bedsheets or in your wardrobe. “Curionoir is a slow space,” says Witehira. “[It] is a calming place where your senses are treated.”
The Shapes series is another recent release. One-off, limited-edition parfum bottles, they’re made from porcelain by local ceramicist Kirsten Dryburgh. They’re rustic and curvaceous, designed to be filled with your favourite scent, making daily application even more of a ritual. “No two bottles are ever exactly the same”, says Witehira. “They have been glazed and fired multiple times at specific temperatures to be able to house fragrance inside”.
Witehira says she loves learning, which means she’s constantly expanding on her knowledge of perfumery, as well as crafts relevant to her business such as glassmaking, ceramics and carving. This year, she’s also stepped back from the day-to-day running of the store to do a full-immersion te reo Māori language course.
While she’s had opportunities to open stores in other parts of the world, she says she’d prefer to focus on nurturing what Curionoir already has – the Ponsonby Road flagship and its current stockists.
“As each year passes by, I feel it’s more important to shift my focus and support to my whānau [family] and my community, to remain bespoke, consistent and as calm as possible,” she says.
As for what’s coming up for the company, you’ll have to wait and see. “As I mentioned, we are a slow space,” she says. “We move at our own pace.”
74-76 Ponsonby Road, Grey Lynn
(09) 360 4090