Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Uncorked! Celebrating the Voices of the Natural Perfumers Guild

I’m sitting here trying to write this piece and I feel a little torn. A big part of being a member of the Natural Perfumers Guild is that we don’t talk much about artificial fragrances, that’s not what we are in the Guild to do. When Anya, the head of guild asked the members to talk about how they came to love natural aromatics *or* why they love natural perfumery to celebrate the Guild’s 5th anniversary I knew exactly how to tell my story, but then I realized that I would have no choice but to mention artificial fragrances if I was going to tell the story properly. So, Anya & other guild members I hope I am forgiven… but here’s my story.

N.B. If you know me at all you know that when I tell a story I adore the details so my stories tend to be long. In case you didn’t realize I adore the details only when telling stories of things I am greatly passionate about. So, in advance I request your indulgence in this story and I promise not to meander too deeply into the garden of these details.

   Throughout childhood in my little Canadian town my Mother had a variety of hobbies, which at the time to me was normal. She sewed out of necessity and for fun. She cooked & baked all our food from scratch. She gardened like few people I’ve ever met. To my Mum using good quality materials to make things was simply how she did things Again, it didn’t occur to me this was anything but normal. Every Christmas, for as long as I can remember at our church “Holly Fair” my Mum had a table filled with scented candles and potpourri for sale. Each year as she made tiny Christmas tree candles with Bayberry fragrance (her favourite Christmas scent) and Pot Pourri from Roses she grew in her own garden I was there helping. I knew what Orris Root was for and not to eat it. I remember that she had Bergamot, Rose and Lavender oils and a few others mostly from the health food store or a craft store somewhere.

When I was a teenager my mother was working in a career, rather than staying at home with us kids selling candles and such for extra money. One day I came home from school and mom had a work friend over. Her name was Marguerite. Marguerite was divorced, wore acid washed designer jeans, her hair was perfect and she smelled like heaven to me. I asked my mother to find out what her perfume was. Marguerite called it Patchouli oil.

I had always liked fragrance. Mum rarely wore her favourite Diorissimo so I snuck a drop here and there. I used up the Jean Naté Body Splash that someone had given her for Christmas. When Marks and Spencer came to Canada I saved my babysitting money to buy the whole line of Peach bath products. There was the Giorgio phase (my parents ordered a bottle by phone directly from Beverly Hills for a late teen birthday before you could buy it here) the Anne Klein phase, the Lauren phase, and the days I stole some of my Dad’s Old Spice. There was a bar of soap someone gave me when I was nine that I never used because I loved the scent so much. I still have that bar of soap. I trolled the Body Shop as often as I could, buying tiny bottles of shower gel and slivers of glycerine soap. But nothing, NOTHING compared to that Patchouli scent when Marguerite was around my house.

Marguerite was amazing. Her clothes, her scent, her everything… The first Christmas gift she gave me was a body oil she had made herself. It was in an old Clinique bottle with some patchouli and some bergamot I think. I used it a little at a time; it was as amazing to me as Marguerite was. Over the years Marguerite took me on shopping trips and out for fancy lunches and we went to stores smelling perfumes and soaps talking about these oils she used to make those special Christmas gifts I had come to love so much.

When I went away to College in a tiny town in Vermont a bunch of girls from the dorm wandered around the local shops during a break from freshman week events. There was an office supply store with typewriters in the window and a steep set of stairs up the right hand side. There was a little sign above the stairs that said “Perfect Scents” I wandered up those stairs and encountered a scent that reminded me of my mother’s candles and Marguerite’s patchouli and MORE! When I entered that store I was the happiest person on earth! I had found a place brimming with soap and bath beads and a whole wall of bottles. Glass Bottles with ground glass stoppers and little brass tags with names like Tuberose, and Cassis and Patchouli! I had found Marguerite’s oils! Over the 18 months I was at that school I went back to Perfect Scents many, many times. George, the owner would pour oils into tiny bottles for me and one day I asked if we could mix them for me and it turned out George was a perfumer! I was wide eyed with curiousity. Most of the blends I made with George had Patchouli in them of course. Sometimes he would make me a lotion, or body oil with my scents… Just like Marguerite! At every visit I asked hundreds of questions. He was gracious and taught me a lot. I used to go back to visit friends for years after leaving school. On every trip I went to my little shop. It was sold, closed, reopened under 3 different names and those bottles went with every version of the shop. There is nothing left of the store now, but I credit George for kindling the fragranced fire that Mum and Marguerite had started.

Sometime in the late 80’s Mum and I talked about opening a little shop here in Ontario that was just like Perfect Scents. Sadly, I knew nothing about business and my mother told me it would be very expensive to open a shop like that and I believed her and gave up on the idea, or so I thought. At dinner with my friend Julie in the 90’s I was complaining about how miserable I was waiting tables. I had dropped out of college (majoring in film) I had taken courses in fashion design, cake decorating, and was looking into jewelry design programs. Julie looked at me and said: “Well why don’t you do this perfume, soap store you keep talking about” I just looked at her and wondered how she knew about the old idea with my mom. She said “Well, every time we go anywhere that’s all you talk about! You drag us from store to store smelling stuff, talking about some store in Vermont and how that scent isn’t as good as that one and on and on!”

So, about 6 months later in 1994 I had a shelf in my living room with 11 scents (a mix of fragrance and essential oils, but I didn’t know the difference), some cosmetic bases and a company name and logo. Clearly Julie’s kick in the pants was a fan to that almost doused fire! I blended little perfumes for friends and clients from the bar I was working in. My goal was to make custom perfumes and also blend the scents into bath products. I wanted everything to be “Natural”. Marguerite had retired and had decided to study aromatherapy. I learned more about that art from her and made a specific decision that using fragrance to help people’s ailments: headaches, cramps etc just was not my thing. I understand now that Aromatherapy is far more than that, but at the time, that’s how I chose my path. I wanted to use fragrance to make people really happy, the way it always made me when I found a new scent or soap to love. I had to import all my oils from the US because the oils I found in Canada were insanely expensive. 2 or 3 times the prices I was offered by the American companies that I had learned about from George.

Fast Forward a few years to 2003 and I had just opened my first storefront. I had run the business at home part time and had blended many custom fragrances for people and had brought in other odd and obscure brand names of bath and body care products to the store. I had closer to 80 fragrances from a few different companies. I had learned the difference between fragrance and essential oils and that fragrance oils were considered artificial but I loved so many of them. My US suppliers had assured me all those inexpensive fragrance oils were natural. I had read about some perfumers using only essential oils which was neat, but I knew what kind of budget that would take. PLUS all my favourite fragrance oils… I couldn’t get rid of them… I LOVED them. Aromatherapists would come into my store and look down their nose at me and tell me I knew nothing but I was proud of what I was doing. My collection had grown to 100 oils, and over half of them were essential oils. I had clearly decided that I would be using both types of oils to blend perfumes and bath products and my newest customer base in Chicago ADORED the fragrances I used to make the Bath Bombs I was shipping to them. My store was tiny, so I made the Bath Bombs in my mother’s basement apartment where my son and I lived at the time.

Over the next while I started to get terrible headaches while working with some things in the store. The most marked time was on a road trip to see my Chicago clients with my car full of soap and bath bombs made with mostly fragrance oils. I chomped on Sinus medication like it was candy for the 9 hour drive, my head splitting. It took some time for me to work out that almost all the fragrance oils in my collection gave me a sinus headache. I am so sensitive/allergic now that I can barely walk down the laundry aisle in the grocery store without the headache. My Doctor believes that it’s that years of working with the oils, especially near to where I slept has over exposed me to the chemicals in all those “natural” fragrance oils.

For many years I was often inspired by a magazine called Victoria. Sitting in my new store one day I opened an issue to find that the magazine had been cancelled and this was to be one of my last issues. I was saddened. But, inside was an article about the Natural Perfumer, Mandy Aftel. Her story was inspiring and I was curious so I bought her book Essence and Alchemy, was instantly intrigued by her writings on natural perfume ingredients. I has the strangest feeling reading that book. it felt like I had been handed a bottle of magical paste. Every word in that book took the tiny bits I had learned from Mom and Marguerite and George and countless other places and stuck them all together.

In all the fragrances I had made I knew I had to have a base note, a middle and a top note. I knew what civet and ambergris were. I had driven hours for and passed the Fragrance Sales Specialist exam, and read as much as I could. I knew a lot but there was something in the way Mandy described natural perfumes that made me think I should try it. So, in my next blend I did!  Something was missing….. but it was a good thing…. And I was stunned! I had got to the point in my blending where everything I did seemed kind of muddy and I was adding more and more fragrances to fix what wasn’t working. I have some old recipes from my fragrance oil days that had 15 or 20 things in it! When I started working with only essential oils the blends were simpler, but somehow they smelled like they were fresher, clearer. You know how fresh air has a feeling… but not a scent? It felt like my perfumes finally had fresh air in them. As silly as this may sound, I felt like I was the luckiest person on earth because I had discovered a world that was within my realm of understanding, but not so much foreign that I couldn’t jump in and have fun there.

I looked at my collection of natural ingredients and was ecstatic I could finally use it! That gooey vetiver stuff that everyone hated, I could use it! The expensive rose oil that I bought as a treat, the benzoin that was stuck in the bottle, the endless citrus collection and my Patchouli.  In Mandy’s book I realized that I could use it and stop listening to people tell me it smelled like Hippies, or Dead-Heads, or my mother’s favourite: A Gypsy Brothel! My collection grew and grew and the selection of fragrance oils dwindled. My bottles got tinier, since the natural ingredients were sooo much more expensive. I covet Lilliputian bottles of Tuberose from New York & Anya’s velvety Boronia from Australia. I have bizarre things like burnt seashell oil, and salty hunks of ambergris all of which I’ve grown to love. I have an almost inexplicable dream state experience whenever I smell the really exotic things like civet.

I still hesitate to call myself a perfumer, despite 17 years of working with Fragrance and almost 10 dedicated to creating Natural perfume .When people ask if I’m a “nose” or a perfumer I tell them I consider myself a self apprenticed perfumer, that has never had any schooling or teaching in the subject but somehow have 100’s of perfume blends under my belt. One day when I get the courage I will send a blend into the Guild for evaluation and join the rank of the Natural Perfumers in this amazing group.

Now, when I blend a perfume I exclusively use essential oils & other natural materials. I realized at some point that how I make perfume is a little strange as compared to others I’ve encountered. Before the internet, finding books on making perfume in small town libraries was next to impossible. I certainly didn’t have the budget to buy many books on the subject. I met a perfumer in a company in Toronto, but his lab was full of weird stuff that made no sense to me…. So I made up my own way. I custom blend all of my perfumes with my clients present for every step. I call it “Blending Fresh” and our joke is that the customer doesn’t get to leave the session until they love it. Although I have learned that sometimes that takes more than one session and imprisoning a client for hours on end doesn’t always work. ;)

Every client visit becomes a social time, I listen to them, I share Mum and Marguerite and George with them, we talk back and forth over coffee as I sniff and sample and count drops. The perfume is done when the client takes a sniff of what I’ve just put on them and their eyes light up and only then do I know they love it. To me, that look means they’ve just experienced all that natural fragrance means to me. That look says to me that I haven’t just made them a perfume, but that I’ve brought them out to the Fresh Air.
 I told you it was a Long Story! Thanks for reading!  

Happy Anniversary to the Natural Perfumers Guild ! Please check out the list below of other guild bloggers involved in this fun project!  
Lord's Jester Inc            


  1. What a great story, Noelle. And don't apologize for a long story, either, look at the length of mine! The Guild welcomes Associates who have primarily natural aromatics, realizing that some have to carry fragrance oils to serve their loyal customers. I have found that over the years, many slowly delete the FOs from their stock, as you have.

    Oh, enough of that talk - I loved the story of Mum and Marguerite and everything that transpired after that on your path.

    It was lovely speaking with you yesterday, your high energy level matches mine, and yes, I'm very interested in the two projects you proposed. ;-)

  2. What a wonderful story! And every detail was necessary.

  3. How terrific, that you never gave up !
    I adsmire your tenacity and desire...

  4. I think your long story was important to share in the manner you did. Interesting how people and things show up to inspire us on our path.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  5. It is amazing what can be "right under our nose", n'est-ce pas? Your future path was right by you for so long. :) My business experience has been much that way as well with progress made due to necessity, timing, grace, and a constant commitment to discover more of self and continue to give good effort. You will always go far that way! :) much love...

  6. Beautiful story Noelle! I can really relate to the Giorgio, Anne Klein and Lauren phases. Add to that Liz Claiborne and you have the scents of my senior year in high school and freshman year in college lol.