Fragrance Friends Interviews: Melissa Groben, perfumista & jewelry artist

This post is the first in a series of interviews with fabulous and interesting perfume lovers in our fragrance community. I’d like to focus on people who haven’t been interviewed already, so not the perfumers, but the people we all love to hang out with online because of our shared interests.

You may know Melissa Groben from having a generous swap with her, or reading her writing on The Pefume Magazine, or chatting with her on boards/blogs, or seeing her new jewelry creations on FaceBook. In addition to knowing her in these respects, she has also been a scent tester for me, and I’ve appreciated her input very much. Here she tells us why fragrance has been so important in her life, how she found the online fragrance community, how she started her new jewelry business called Barking Acres Studio, and a little about her family and home background. I think many of us will relate to aspects of her story, though there are several extraordinary aspects that few of us probably share. She’s always been warm, friendly, and helpful, and I hope you enjoy getting to know her better!

How has fragrance affected your life? What role has it played?

cotymuguetvsmI was about 11 years old when I started to lose my hearing. I couldn’t hear birds anymore. I couldn’t hear music anymore, except for the deep bass sounds of drums. I got through college (with high honors to boot) by memorizing all my textbooks rather than relying on lectures because I couldn’t hear the professors unless I could read their lips. By the time I was in my thirties, I had no more high frequency hearing and very little low frequency left.

“Fragrance really is the music to each day.”

I’ve always been crazy for perfume. As a young pre-adolescent, I would treat myself to Muguet des Bois and Jean Nate every Spring to welcome in the new season. Perfume has always filled the huge void that deafness left in my life. It colors everything for me, the gardens in the summer, the holiday scents and cold air of the winter, the Autumn smells of leaves and smoke. Fragrance really is the background music for each day. As I met more and more perfume people online, perfume began to broaden my horizon, introducing me to people all over the world, the most generous group of individuals I have ever known.

What was the first online fragrance group that you discovered, and was it the first time you’d found others with the same interest?

The first group of people that I met online was the famous MakeUpAlley. I was teaching environmental science classes for children at Long Island’s Cornell Farm and was asked to design a Mother/Child class on making scented lotions using the herbs grown on the farm. I started researching scented projects and that led me to MakeUpAlley. Yes, it was the first time I ever realized fragrance could mean so much to other people. MUA led me to all the wonderful perfume blogs and the communities of people who follow them. I was really shocked that others loved perfume the way I did!

You have been a tester for me, and I know you have tested mods for other brands too. Without naming anyone, do you find that we do things very differently? Do you enjoy the testing process?

I absolutely adore testing perfumes. I feel so honored to be part of the process. I think it is so fascinating to watch a scent developing but what really surprises me is how I can think a scent is ready and you will say you feel you need to add something, and sure enough, you make it even better. I think the one perfume that I felt most honored to help you with was the retro chypre Nostalgie. To go from testing over and over and then to see the perfume bottled and up for sale is just a miracle! I do test for some others, and I think much of the process is the same, but you tend to let me participate at an earlier stage than some other perfumers do. When I see some of the perfumes bring in raves, I always feel like part of me went into making that scent!

From what I’ve read, it sounds like you grew up in a family of creative people. Can you tell us a little about that?

melissa captain A smallestI grew up in a very, shall we say different, type of home than most. Of course I had no idea our home was different until I reached adulthood, but I never really felt comfortable in other more traditional homes of my friends. My father was Joe Simon, the other half of Simon and Kirby of comic book fame. My father is best known for creating Captain America and for creating the Young Love comic books that gave women their own genre in comic book history.

Dad had his studio right at home and two days a week would head off to his Manhattan publishing offices. His studio was always open to us, nothing was ever forbidden to us. I think between my hearing loss and being so close to my father, my visual abilities were always being exercised and expanded. I was very close to my father. I would spend hours with him in his studio, enduring the thick clouds of cigar smoke and the blaring television, while he worked at his drawing board. He would let me use any of the materials in his studio. He taught me how to develop photo film in our home photo darkroom. My Uncle Jack Oleck was a published novelist who often helped script some of the comic book stories and later, Sick Magazine, a magazine of political satire that my father created. I was often taken along to Harvey Studios (home of Casper and friends), so I was always exposed to writing and illustration etc. I can still remember the scent of my father’s paints mingling with the cigar smoke, and it meant total comfort for me. We had lots of animals, always several dogs, cats, flocks of chickens and ducks, and tons of other kids coming in and out of the house. It was a very idyllic way of being raised, in many ways, with animals and woods outside, and books and art all over the house. Of course, my father was the biggest kid, who just happened to make a lot of money with his art and writing!

What inspired you to start making jewelry?

I have always felt the need to create. I can actually feel it in my fingers when the need arises. I used to write when I was a child, and in my twenties and thirties I began to sew and quilt a lot. Quilting really trained my eye to see color and understand how pieces could go together to form something totally different from the pieces themselves.

The way I got into jewelry, ironically, has to do with perfume! I had met a lovely person on MUA, LynetteB. She and I became quite close through MUA and when she found out that I was moving to the Finger Lakes of upstate NY and I would only be 45 minutes away, we made plans to get together. On one of our meet-ups, we brought each other our perfumes but she also gave me a huge bag of jewelry supplies, including beads, tools, string and cord, etc. Lynette thought I might like to try working with jewelry. I was really surprised because not only do I not wear jewelry, I was totally turned off by the stuff sold in stores and catalogs. I initially had no desire to work in jewelry at all! The bag of supplies sat in my closet for years. (I’m sorry, Lynette!)

melissabirdnest edit smThen my sister introduced me to Sundance Jewelry catalog, and I really loved the styles they offered. Very earthy, environmental, and simple. One day I decided to see if I could do something with that bag of supplies. I looked on youtube and tried a few very simple things and was able to pull them off. Shortly after this, a darling perfumista who we all know and love, Ruth K, helped me with simple instructions and steered me in the right direction for getting quality supplies. And another perfume friend, Tamsin S (whom I call my “sister”), loved my designs and made me feel that I could put my designs out there so that others could enjoy them. It all took off from there, from perfume, and from the people who shared their kindness and generosity with me. How wonderful is that!

What are some of your favorite jewelry materials to work with?

melissabirdpendant edit3 smallerI love working with real gemstones! Actually, I love working with the more rugged versions of the gemstones sold in jewelry stores, but I am not sure if others would actually want to wear those items as jewelry. I have beach stones and glass from Long Island beaches that I plan to incorporate into some pieces. I don’t like working with inexpensive, artificial things like faux pearls or fake stones. Why use fake when you can use the real thing? You may spend a bit more money, you may have to search a bit harder, but what you make is all real. Last weekend I started to move into designing an entire pendant from scratch, from the wire to the gems to hammering the wire. Hammered metal is a whole different artistic look than the stuff you find in a store.

Most of my designs are based on nature, what I see around me every day, especially here in this beautiful part of the country. My jewelry is really what I would love to wear: it may not be for most people, nor for the mass crowds of shoppers, but it is created from inside my own head with materials that send me into endorphin heaven! Having a daughter is a great thing too. I can’t tell you how many times I start out thinking, “I’ll make this for Emily Jane,” and so many other people fall in love with it that I end up offering it to everyone.

I was really impressed to see that in addition to jewelry, you make quilts. I love quilts! What kind do you make and how did you learn?

I’ve been quilting since the mid-seventies. I really love the old fashioned patchwork quilts, the ones that are based on simplest designs and were meant to be used, not displayed. I am not very fond of modern quilts or even machine made quilts. I do put together the pieces on my machine, but I do the quilting designs by hand. How did I learn this? For a year I lived in a small town in Texas (Sanger, Texas). My neighbor was a real authentic Texas quilter who used up all the clothes and rags in her home for quilts. They were beautiful! She began to teach me how to quilt, and I learned more from books, and I read and read. This was way before computers and youtube instruction. It was very hard to find quilt supplies, or teachers, or even quilt groups unless you were invited by another quilter. So, like everything else I ever did, I am self-taught.

Can you tell us about the four legged friends that inspired the name of your jewelry business, Barking Acres Studio, and how the name came about?

melissa boomer boy smallestThe name actually came about by accident and through a sort of personal joke with my husband. I have a 10 year old Brittany, my velcro dog who is always within 5 feet of me. Five years ago my husband and I moved to the Finger Lakes and bought our home with its land surrounded by farmland and woods. Boomer, my Brittany, of course would bark at the deer and foxes and coyotes he saw passing through the property, and my husband began to refer to our home as Barking Acres. We would be out doing chores, and he would say, let’s go back to Barking Acres, and after a while, the family began to call our home Barking Acres, and before we knew it, the name stuck! It was such a funny name that we couldn’t help but laugh each time we said it. Since my studio is in my home, I decided to carry it one step further and name the business Barking Acres Studio. Pretty soon I will be starting a blog called The Slow Dog Blog from Barking Acres, also an ode to our old Brittany who forces us to now walk as slowly as he does in his old age, and that’s pretty damn slow! I thought: slow family, slow food, slow dog, why not a blog called The Slow Dog, all about taking your own slow time to enjoy each moment you can?

The photos you’ve posted on FB of your home, garden, and locale look gorgeous and must bring you a lot of pleasure. Did you grow up in the same area?

melissa_view_smThank you for the compliments on my home and garden pics! I love living here. I grew up on Long Island, first in Nassau County and then in Suffolk County. I have always loved woods and land. When I was a child we were allowed free rein to go anywhere, like most kids on Long Island were back then. I would spend whole days in the woods, armed with my little pocket books of Wild Flowers or Rocks and Minerals! Just 5 years ago, Mike and I moved to Barking Acres (there is that name again!). I love it here. We live in a small farmtown about 30 minutes west of Syracuse, surrounded by farms, lakes, rivers, and drumlins (huge hills carved out of the land by the glaciers). The seasons here are phenomenal, each one distinct from the other. I often say I feel like I am living in a children’s coloring book! The visuals that nature offers us, for free, up here are astounding. I can understand why the Native Americans were so spiritual after the beauty that surrounds us.

Looks like you do quite a bit of gardening! What are some of your favorite plants?

Melissa shade border edit smI started gardening when my two kids were toddlers. At that time I lived on Long Island, in a regular development like most Americans live. I wanted to create a park-like setting for my kids on our own property. I started to learn and read about gardening (again, pretty much self-taught!). Eventually, our property had a hollyhock garden the children used to hide in, and a perennial garden that was situated right behind their swing set so they would swing up over the perennials. I would place a children’s picnic bench hidden underneath a flowering shrub so they were partially hidden in their own little worlds. It was a lot of fun designing a magical place for the kids.

Living up at Barking Acres, I have continued perennial gardening, with a woodsy type garden directly in front of my front porch (north facing), and colorful sun loving perennials on the hot side of the house. I have two favorite plants: daffodils and beebalm. Daffodils always come up right when we need them the most, at the very beginning of Springtime and want nothing more than a place to grow. Bee balm, which also is a carefree plant that thrives anywhere here, offers itself to all bees and butterflies and gives us a gorgeous dark red flower wherever we plant it. And also, of course, blue morning glories, the color of which I believe no artist paints could ever match.

Thanks so much for your interview, Melissa! We share a love of fragrance, nature, animals, gardening, and artisan jewelry, so I feel a kinship in those ways, and we both appreciate all the special people we’ve met through the fragrance community. It was fun to get a peek into your world!

EDITED to add, here’s a link to the new Barking Acres Studio shop on Etsy:

Checking in: scent update and upcoming new blog series

Scent Update:

I had a breakthrough on the floral scent yesterday. I wanted to cut the sweetness, and I have a balance that is working much better now. I decreased some of the sweet elements (including benzoin and peach lactone), and I added a little oakmoss and a subtle leafy green note. I also made the floral accord more complex. It’s feeling more sophisticated now, less sweet and beachy. I think it’s still a nice summer scent despite being different than I’d first imagined. The floral accord has ylang complete, jasmine sambac absolute, osmanthus absolute, tuberose absolute, and soft lily of the valley (the lily of the valley is synthetic). Other notes are bergamot, natural peach lactone, beeswax, benzoin, oakmoss, patchouli, Mysore sandalwood, cedar, amber, and musk. I’m debating whether to add a touch of aldehyde.

Progress on the tobacco is not going so well. The last mod was not good, so I need to backtrack a bit. I’ll get back to it after I feel the floral is ready for testing. And on the all-natural front, I’m waiting for arrival of a new olibanum before getting back to work on Amber Incense.

Upcoming on the blog:

I’m starting a new series on the blog soon. Every time I am interviewed, I always feel the urge to turn the tables to interview some of the wonderful people I’ve met in the fragrance community — not so much perfumers and bloggers who are already well known, but the perfume lovers who are not written about as often despite also having interesting stories. We really do have a great group of people with all kinds of talents and interests and with a love of art and fragrance that ties us all together. I finally decided I needed to make time for this project, and I’ll post the first interview soon. It should be fun! I will keep it low key and will post additions to the series as time permits. I’m hoping to make it sort of a celebration of our merry little band! 🙂

Cocoa Sandalwood Review and Drawing on The Fragrant Man

Thank you, Amer, for your beautiful review of Cocoa Sandalwood on The Fragrant Man! I know what you mean about the fragrance community being full of generous souls! 🙂 Glad you’ve met good friends and discovered a love of natural perfumes!

The Fragrant Man blog is holding a Cocoa Sandalwood sample drawing too, so you could head over if you want to enter.

Happy Father’s Day!

I’ve been very lucky to have the parents I did, and I’m lucky that they are still doing well. Happy Father’s Day to all the Dads out there, and many, many thanks to mine. 🙂

I’ve been working on the summer scent and the new tobacco blend. The tobacco has gone far enough astray from Tabac Aurea to be something new. I hope to get samples of both out to some testers this week.

It’s a gorgeous hot day here today. Last Sunday night we had a scary, very weird thunder/lightning storm. From 1:00 am until 3:30 am we had hundreds of strikes that sounded like they were very close by. The news reported that 20 small fires started around Healdsburg, so some of them did touch down here. Luckily all the little fires were put out immediately, but farther north the fires were larger and harder to fight. Thunderstorms are rare here in summer, but they are dangerous because our dry summer grasslands are such a fire hazard. Thankfully, the weather is back to normal now.

The Bottling Process

I receive questions from time to time about how the scents are bottled, so I thought I’d describe the process a little bit. My method is probably similar to that of many other small indie perfumers.

As orders come in, I bottle the scents at the time of order. I offer so many bottle sizes that it is impossible to predict what sizes people will want, so I do not keep any full 5 ml, 17 ml, or 34 ml bottles in stock for any scent. We do fill sample vials of all scents weekly and keep a box with drawers full of 1 ml and 3 ml samples to make it easy to fill sample orders.

I keep a few cabinet shelves full of filtered batches of each scent, and we use those large bottles to fill samples and perfume bottles as orders come in. In addition to those filtered bottles, I keep large bottles of unfiltered juice in reserve for all scents. When we run out of filtered juice for a scent, I filter the waiting unfiltered batch that has now matured, and then we batch the scent again to put a new unfiltered batch into storage. I make larger batch sizes of the most popular scents. This method ensures that I never have to sell old stock. Everything turns over and is fresh, and there’s no waste. It also lets us quickly adapt to changing sales patterns of scents, which happens with the seasons, for example. Only small indie companies can run this way, and it is one advantage to being small. (There are disadvantages too, like not getting economies of scale, so it’s nice to appreciate the positives when they pop up!)

Interview Series on Olfactoria’s Travels

Birgit on Olfactoria’s Travels has been doing a weekly interview series with various people in the perfume field. So far she’s interviewed Mandy Aftel, Vero Kern, and Viktoria Minya. Today she posted my responses to her questions. She chose an innovative format with short sentence beginnings that we answer with short sentence endings. It makes for a quick read but reveals a bit more about the person in just a few words. Fun! Thanks for including me, Birgit!

Another update and some links

I’ve been working on a summer scent that I had to put on hold a year ago after spending months on it, and I’m very pleased with how it is coming along. I want it to be a more natural take on a beachy summer floral, and I think I’m getting there. Almost time to send out a few testers. So far it’s about 95% natural, but I will let it be whatever it needs to be in order to work best.

You might remember that I used to be carried by the niche perfume boutique Sundhaft in Germany. Sadly, they have closed, partly because of the upcoming new EU regulations that go into effect in July. Andy Tauer just posted today about this issue, and he gave a link to the full pdf of the new regulations so that you can have a look if you are curious. Basically, it is becoming impossible to be a small perfumer in the EU. It is also very hard to do business with the EU if you are an artisan perfumer elsewhere. I wonder what will happen as this goes into effect. I can’t answer detailed questions about the law at this time because it is so long and complex that I have not had time to try to understand it all, but we will have to see what unfolds this summer. On a happier note, Andy also mentions he was just in Forbes Romania (a really nice feature story).

And I wanted to say thanks to nancyknowsbest at the blog “Make Perfume, Not War” for the review of Wood Violet today. I loved your story.