by Susan Meeker-Lowry from Gaia’s Garden Herbals

We are bombarded with scents these days. Sprays and plug ins, cleaning products, candles, even scented toilet paper! All made from chemicals, some of them toxic. Because of this scent overload, many people have developed sensitivities to fragrance, but much to their delight, they can often enjoy natural fragrances and perfumes with no ill effect. Most perfumes and other scented products on the market today are made with aroma chemicals, created in the lab. This is true even of the most expensive fragrances and the current versions of classics. Aroma chemicals are inexpensive but can cause allergic reactions. Even people who aren’t actually allergic can get headaches or become nauseous after a while. And I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of smelling someone before they enter the room. Or long after they have left. Natural perfumes wear close to the body so they don’t announce your presence, and they don’t linger after you’ve gone.

Natural perfumes are made with pure essential oils, absolutes (solvent extracted from the raw, natural material, then further concentrated using ethyl alcohol resulting in a product that is wonderfully fragrant, generally thick or even solid, and very true to the original material), tinctures and extracts made from resins, dried botanicals, or other interesting/unusual materials. I make a lot of these! Some perfumers incorporate “natural isolates”, single odor molecules extracted from natural materials using distillation techniques in a lab. For example, the fragrance we associate with “rose” is derived from over 100 different different aroma chemicals including citronellol, geraniol, nerol. Each of these is a natural isolate. Just like with essential oils, there are levels of quality. I have only used natural isolates for scents like strawberry and apple, mostly playing with my grand kids – they love making their own perfumes!

For many years I had been using essential oils in my skin care products, and a few aromatherapy blends, but I

was intrigued with ingredients like oakmoss, labdanum, and ambers* that are generally not suitable for skin care or aromatherapy. (*The fragrance we associate with amber is actually a blend of ingredients, generally vanilla, benzoin, labdanum, and cistus. I’ve blended several different ones so I have a variety to chose from). I love deep, sultry, woodsy fragrances that take you somewhere if you let them. Then I started having dreams about fragrance, and after a particularly compelling one, I decided I had to make a fragrance to capture its essence. At this time I also started my first perfumery course with J.K. DeLapp who is now an award winning natural perfumer, and also a trusted supplier of rare ingredients like Mysore sandalwood, roses, ouds, and attars. My first perfume, Dreamscape (after that dream), is still one of my favorites and is available in my shop.

Some of my perfumes are inspired by places I’ve been that have impacted my life, like Ancient Forest (the Old Growth Forests of the Pacific Northwest), Delphi (the Oracle at Delphi in Greece where I felt the spirit of my maternal grandfather very strongly; he came to this country from Greece in the early 1900s), and Memory of Bees – an ode to summer and my beautiful garden in Maine that I had to leave when we moved to NY a couple of years ago. Sometimes I am enthralled with an ingredient and want to compose a perfume using it as the main inspiration. Aquarius was created this way, and I wear it almost every day. It’s a sophisticated, patchouli rose, with a base of rare, luscious Mysore, and some beautiful attars. This perfume isn’t cheap but it is so worth it! One of my perfumes, a floral chypre, took me back to my childhood watching my mother spray perfume behind her ears, and on her wrists. I called it Nostalgia because it reminded me so much of her. Wood Spirit took my oldest childhood friend (who was also my next door neighbor so we were together all the time – and all these years later we’re still best friends!), to the woods down back where we played and explored together. I often send her new compositions because I trust her “nose”. She’s the one who named it!

Most of my perfumes are composed in the traditional way, using base, heart, and top notes that are formulated separately, aged, and then blended to create the final perfume. The base, heart and top notes are accords – kind of like a perfume version of a spice blend (like curry powder). I often begin with the heart because that is the “heart” of the fragrance. This is the note I want people to fully experience. The base is composed of heavier ingredients – ambers, vanilla, patchouli, woods like sandalwood, oak and cedar moss, labdanum. These add to the overall perfume and give it longevity. But they can also overpower everything. Top notes are the sparkle, and they are what you smell first. Light, diffusive ingredients like citrus, some herbs, lighter florals. Sometimes I will bring a heart or even base note into the top (or vice versa) to provide continuity as the perfume evolves over time on the skin. Aging is so important in creating a perfume. When I’m working on a new blend, sometimes all I’ll add is one drop of something, then let it sit until the next day. Making perfumes is a great teacher of patience!

I also make stand alone accords, starting with an infused oil as the base, like a sandalwood blend or spruce tips

infused in fractionated coconut oil or jojoba. Examples of these are The Golden Hour and Yule. These are lighter, don’t last quite as long on the skin, and are often favored by those who are new to perfumes. Scent is a very personal thing. Whenever a customer purchases one of mine, I’m both happy and a bit nervous. I want them to love it, or at least like it enough to wear it. Trying to describe a scent with words is difficult. I’m so thrilled when I hear that, not only do they like it, but that it brought back a memory or filled them with joy or, like recently happened, they ask, “How did you DO that?” reminding me that composing a perfume is like painting a picture or telling a story, only with scent as the medium. And just like a painting or a story, a perfume can take us on flights of fancy, transport us to another time and place, provide inspiration and joy, or simply offer a bit of respite and comfort when we most need it.

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