Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How did a humble soapmaker get so obsessed with natural scent?

My story begins here, with my dog-eared copy of Mandy Aftel's Essence and Alchemy.  When I first bought it, several years ago, I read it cover to cover.  Then I read it again.  Then I set it by my bedside table, and read a section every night before going to sleep.  I did this for months.  Sometimes I carried it, like a talisman, to my farmers markets.  Sometimes I carried it into my soap studio.  Sometimes I carried it to my computer, where it was a very bad influence, urging me to buy just a little jasmine grandiflorum, and a little jasmine sambac so I would know the difference.  It told me that balsam fir absolute had a jammy sweetness...really?  I'd have to try that, too.  And guaiacwood...that sounded interesting...cabreuva?

I was--still am--a soapmaker.  I've always used essential oils rather than fragrance oils to scent my soaps.  But back then my scent blends, though pleasant, were uninspired: rose geranium and patchouli; tea tree and lavender.  Yawn.  Essence and Alchemy pushed me to think more like a perfumer, making interesting and unexpected choices in my blends.  Mandy Aftel talks a lot in this book about the pairing of opposites.  One of my soaps offsets a light, grapefruit/spearmint blend with earthy vetiver.  The inspiration came directly from Essence and Alchemy, where Mandy wrote that spearmint blends well with vetiver.  That seemed so counter-intuitive that I had to combine them myself and see if I agreed. 

Then I ordered some samples of Aftelier perfumes.  I was excited, but also cautious.  I didn't think I was a perfume person.  I'm the person who gets a headache from other people's perfumes, who will change seats to escape perfumes in a restaurant or a theater.  When my samples arrived, I was delighted with the tiny bottles in their glorious purple and orange box.  And when I applied them, oh...They were sumptuous and rich and smooth, and not in the least old lady-ish.  They were daring.  They were like eating a strong cheese for the first time.  I was a pig with these perfumes, no control at all.  I'd wear Shiso on one wrist, and Cognac on another, and I'd sniff one, then the other, then back all day.  I'd make other people sniff them, too, relentlessly, through each stage of their drydowns.  I was one step away from knocking on the neighborhood doors, passing out literature.

As I could afford to, I bought samples from other botanical perfumers:  Illuminated Perfumes, Liz Zorn, Vireo Perfumes.  Last summer during my farmers market season-when I work about eighty hours a week-I took a single day off, and I spent it driving to Providence and back so I could sample Charna Ethier's Providence Perfumes.  It was a joy, and also an education. By this time I had aspirations of moving beyond soap into perfume.  Being a perfumer who doesn't smell perfumes would be like being a playwright who doesn't go to the theater, or a poet who doesn't read.  

I think for the most part we're a scent-phobic society.  Can you imagine holding an apple under your armpit until it was saturated with sweat, then giving it to someone you were attracted to, as women commonly did in Shakespeare's time?  Now we rub aluminum under our armpits to halt any hint of odor, and we hang air-fresheners--which are really nose-deadeners--in our cars or closets.  

But these days I walk around sniffing things as unabashedly as our cat Trilby.  I pull cherry blossoms to my nose to inhale. I crush violets and rub them against my skin.  I go to the arboretum and rub the different conifer needles between my fingers, smelling the difference.  I tincture figs and dates, tonka and vanilla beans. I go the the food co-op and bury my face in a jar of myrrh. 

As it turns out, I'm not alone.  Through talking about scent, I've discovered some friends who share my passion.  Some of them are perfumers, some of them are perfume collectors, one is a cook who gets the same blissed out look smelling my scents as I get tasting her pineapple marinade.   Sharing scents, comparing how a perfume smells on each other's skin, feels so intimate.  If we wear a mask of propriety in public, the mask melts away when we're smelling something that moves us.