It isn’t every day that one gets to sit down with a 47-year-old whose work I relates to his childhood dream. Meeting Cord Coen, founder of body-care brand Zents, it’s hard to not feel a sense of wonder at the mix of faith and destiny that’s led him to where he is today.
Coen was 12 when he decided he wanted to be a therapist. He started learning reiki – a Japanese technique intended for spiritual healing – from a reiki master at her forest cabin in Boulder, Colorado, where he grew up.
At 17, he began practising reiki and craniosacral therapy, an alternative healing method said to alleviate pain. Then a car accident left him disabled.
“I had a difficult time talking – the words would form in my mind, but I couldn’t get them out. I was in constant pain. I could not walk in a straight line. Even something as simple as holding up a cup would really hurt,” he recalls.
A year and a half of rehabilitation in hospital saw no significant improvement. The doctor told his parents it was probably as good as it would get – he wasn’t completely bedridden, but he was unlikely to hold a proper job again.
“My parents refused to believe the doctor. They told me not to believe what he said too, so I said, ‘Okay, I won’t’,” he says with a laugh.
Following his discharge from hospital, his parents heard from a neighbour about a Tibetan doctor in India who was said to have healed a woman with cancer. “Strange as it sounds, Boulder, Colorado is home to a lot of people from India, and I guess we just lucked out,” he says.
It was a long shot, but his parents packed his bags and sent the 19-year-old off to Dharamshala with a family friend. He stayed with an Indian host family and visited Tibetan doctors who examined his pulse, eyes and tongue, and selected herbs and essential oils for him to ingest. He says the severe pain he’d felt for months lessened almost instantly. “It was just a little better, but it gradually improved until about four months later, there was a second when I didn’t feel any pain at all. I thought it was a miracle,” he says.
Coen then moved to Varanasi to see a Western-trained doctor who had become a yogi and naturopath. Under his guidance, Coen practised yoga, pranayama (a deep breathing exercise) and meditation. “I would do three hours of meditation, take a break, do three hours of yoga, another break, then another three hours of meditation, every single day,” he says. “Each day I felt a little better. Then I started to notice larger differences three to four months in.” The pain lessened, first a little, then more, then it went away.
His sense of smell, which had been impaired by the car accident, also recovered, along with his ability to speak normally and walk better. “The first time I noticed my sense of smell coming back was in a spice market in India. I faintly smelled vanilla beans and got a rush of memory of my mother. It was just like I was standing next to her in our home. It made me so happy,” he says. This trigger became one of the pillars for his Zents aroma, Sun.
After a year and a half in India, Coen returned to Colorado. He continued to meditate and do yoga daily, and felt well enough to work.
He also discovered that he had developed a heightened sensitivity to scents. His sensitivity to aromas became another important aspect of Zents, which made its debut in 1996 at retail stores like Henri Bendel in New York and Fred Segal in Los Angeles, and luxury spas such as The Spa at The Broadmoor in Colorado and Peter Island Spa and Resort in the British Virgin Islands. Coen was 25 years old then.
“I saw a gap in the market for a chemical-free, unscented line for people who have sensitive skin, are allergic to aromas or just don’t like aromas, are avoiding chemicals because they’re undergoing medical treatment, and for pregnant women and babies,” he says. That led to the creation of one of two mainstay lines, the Unzented collection.
The other mainstay of 10 aromas (four of which are available in Singapore), was created because Coen saw another void, one for complex aromas that were, again, chemical-free. “In the spa industry, I came across beautiful yet simple scents – lavender, eucalyptus, sandalwood. So I wanted to create more sophisticated aromas you could mix for a personalised scent,” he says.
Coen first conceptualises the aromas in writing. He might write “spice market of Thailand – cardamom, mandarin, ginger” before handing the story to an aromatherapist and natural perfumer to interpret into a scent. It goes back to him and he tweaks it with instructions like “more ginger, less spicy”. Back and forth it goes, up to 120 times, before the scent is finalised. He uses the same process when he works with royalty, or celebrities like Beyonce, to create bespoke scents for them.
Coen calls the aromas “liquid memories”. “Imagine a spa experience like a massage that puts you into a deep state of relaxation, and all the while, you’re smelling this wonderful scent. When you go back to work and feel stressed, you smell this scent, and it takes you back to that happy and relaxed state,” he says.
Seeing Coen at our interview, you’d never guess he’d once suffered extensive injuries. He is well and happy. His only bugbear is the terrible migraines he gets when he smells artificial fragrances – which, when you consider that his work is all about strictly natural fragrances, is actually not such a bad thing.
Coen’s aim for his brand is simple. “Zents was born from a place of healing. I felt very lucky to get a second chance, and if I could create some products that make people smile, feel good and happy, and heal, then maybe at the end of my life, I would have done something important,” he says. - KT
These are used as well as sold at Chi, The Spa at Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore. Each line comprises a balm, body oil, bath soaps and wash, body lotion, roll-on aroma and EDT, $55-$80.