Some New Year Thoughts, Appreciation, and Plans

I want to wish everyone a happy new year! I hope 2014 brings good things for all of us.

Many thanks to the blogs that included my scents on their Best of 2013 lists! It was especially encouraging to see my first two natural scents on four lists this year.

badgeCocoa Sandalwood on Mark Behnke’s Top 25 List on Cafleurebon

Bottle Awards_smSpiced Citrus Vetiver Best 2013 Natural Scent on The Chemist In The Bottle

Cocoa Sandalwood Best of 2103 on The Non-Blonde

Spiced Citrus Vetiver 2013 Natural Award on The Fragrant Man’s Jatamansi Award List

Rose Volupte on Elisa’s Best of 2013 List on Bois de Jasmin

FragrantManAward_smLast year was a little challenging for me since I needed some down time both in Feb/March and in Oct/Nov. I released the two naturals Cocoa Sandalwood and Spiced Citrus Vetiver, and I reformulated Vintage Rose into Rose Volupte. I worked on several new formulas that are still unfinished (a ylang/jasmine/tuberose mixed media scent, an all-natural amber incense, and a tweak on Tabac Aurea).

In the coming year I hope to finish a few of those in-progress scents, and I will be retiring some of the Exclusives, or at least moving them into the “by request” category. I also plan to switch from standard perfume alcohol in the mixed media scents to natural organic alcohol (the same alcohol I use in the naturals line). It may mean a few dollar increase in the mixed media scents, but I think it will be worthwhile. As I go forward I will be leaning more toward naturals in my formulas, though I still have some mixed media in progress.

This was the first year that I didn’t even try to sample new releases, though there are a few that I really want to try (Christopher Street, Ashoka, Knightsbridge, Une Rose de Kandahar, and Cuir de Gardenia). It has become far too hard to keep up, but every year there are a few I like to experience.

I worry about the explosion of niche and indie fragrances, and as I work on new scents I keep asking myself if the formula is unique enough to justify release into an already saturated market. I want to tighten up my scent list with that thought in mind.

I can’t thank you enough for your support of indie artisans and for the wonderful camaraderie in the perfume community! Here’s to 2014! 🙂

Pre-Christmas check-in, and a few links

Christmas orders are all mailed out and I’m wrapping presents for my own family. I’m also putting together a wholesale order and starting the end-of-year paperwork. We’ve had record-breaking lack of rain in CA, and the hills are still brown instead of their normal December green.

The Black Narcissus posted a beautiful review of Winter Woods today. The writing and photography on that blog are always extraordinary.

An interesting link recently: the brains of experienced perfumers were found to be different than those of non-perfumers.

I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season!

Interview with Dabney Rose: artisan perfumer, expert distiller and plantswoman

dabney_editedToday I’m talking with Dabney Rose, a fellow perfumer, a gardener/distiller extraordinaire, and a wonderful example of an indie artisan staying true to her vision and ideals. She is a life-long plant lover and currently has a custom greenhouse at her home that holds an amazing array of beautiful flowering plants from which she extracts fragrance. In addition to flowers, she also distills roots, seeds, leaves, and woodsy materials such as agarwood and incense.

Dabney has spent years perfecting her distilling techniques and produces beautiful hydrosols from steam distillation as well as hyper-realistic extraits using the ancient art of enfleurage. She sells hydrosols, enfleurage extraits, and all-natural perfumes that make use of her special extractions.

tuberoseI recently had the chance to experience some of Dabney’s products. I was especially enamored with her tuberose extrait from enfleurage (image of the process at left); it’s amazingly beautiful and represents the full scent of the flower better than an absolute does (the absolute lasts longer, but the enfleurage is truer). Her agarwood and incense hydrosols were also favorites of mine. The hyacinth enfleurage extrait was fascinating to sniff because, like the tuberose, you’d almost think you had the flower in your hand.

I’ve long admired the gorgeous photos that Dabney shares on Facebook. All the photos in this post are hers; you can see she is an excellent photographer with a sharp eye for composition (all photos copyright Dabney Rose). I’ve not met Dabney in person, but she seems like a straight shooter, someone who always tries to be real and honest with you, which is something I greatly respect.

home_sm2Dabney grew up in West Virginia and currently lives with her husband in North Carolina (photo at right). She has a son and a daughter. Today we get an in-depth peek into her world and an update on what she will be working on this year.

Laurie: Did your connection to plants and nature start in your childhood? I’ve read that you spent a lot of time on the trails by horse and by foot, as I did, and I’m guessing your early experiences probably contributed to your wanting to keep a lifelong connection to the natural world.

Dabney: First, Laurie I want to thank you for this opportunity; it’s refreshing to come across another perfumer with this much interest and vision outside her own studio!

dabney_hiking_smAnd, yes, yes and yes! Not sure how the twig gets its original bend but I was extremely fortunate in that the natural world was in the forecourt and as a backdrop to my life. “Playthings” were trees, rocks, woods, flowers and creeks. I would wander off, sometimes for hours, even at a young age. Our family had ties with Northern Virginia and that world was of horses, old family homes (the old places had smells that you hardly encounter anymore), and roaming several family estates on foot and horseback. My first experience with ambergris hit me over the head with my childhood in Warrenton.

Another early memory is the wild plum tree at the edge of our woods; somewhere around age ten I asked my dad to help me make some wild plum incense with the flowers, and I remember that the incense did smell like the blossoms. That made a vivid memory!

In the early 80’s I had the experience of sharecropping tobacco, from the planting to the curing and baling, and smelling tobacco absolute resonates at a deep level with me (I have “been tobacco”).

In Conversation, ©DR

“In Conversation” ©DR

I also have a lot of plant dreams and sometimes the actual smell of a flower will wake me up.

Laurie: You recently mentioned on Facebook that you lived for 11 years in a place with no running water? Can you tell us about it? (The photos looked like it was a gorgeous spot, but that would be very challenging!)

Dabney: Ah, Laurie, this was one of those “starting over from scratch” times and I was offered a place with the whole south wall in windows. My brain’s first cylinder fired off with, “Think of the plants I could have!” I had done a bit of homesteading and roughing it but had no inkling it would go 11 years! It didn’t stop me from distilling though.

greenhouseLaurie: That’s dedication! I love seeing pictures of your beautiful greenhouse. Did you design and build it to your own specs? What types of plants do you grow in it?

Dabney: My husband built it; we were gifted all the double pane windows we could use. It is a real dream come true for me and is built in panels so when we move, it will definitely move with us! The intention was to enable me to grow whatever fragrant plants I could, from a lemon tree to parma violets to cyclamen (the roster varies each year). It’s kind of like my lab, and I have figured out the cool and warm zones and place the gang accordingly. It’s also my own personal haven and I go out there and blend energies with the green people.

greenhouse3_smLaurie: A greenhouse like that would be a dream for many of us! (Probably more work than we’d imagine, but worth it.) How did you learn to distill? Was it mostly trial and error or did you learn from others or from books? I read that your Dad helped you learn?

Dabney: My dad got me started. He was a chemist, saw I was into aromatherapy, and connected a few dots. That was in 1987 and I still have the glassware he got me. Back then there was no reading material to help me along the way, and I do remember feeling isolated and frustrated. But at the same time there was no one to tell me I couldn’t do this or that!

Laurie: Did distilling lead to perfumery or vice versa?

Evening primrose distillation

Special evening primrose distillation, ©DR

Dabney: I was distilling for over 15 years before I got into “proper” perfuming, and I got into it as a way to round out my fragrance experience. With distilling, I seem to be able to go deeper into the creative process; it offers more of an unknown quality to the journey and encompasses more realms. Enthralling as perfuming can be, the process remains on one plane only. You are mixing, moving material around, and then you end up with blended materials. (Of course beautiful synergies take place but you are still on the one plane.) Distillation is alchemy; something gets transmuted and raised to a higher frequency. It “encourages the flowers and herbs to release their finer spirit from the grosser,” and the essence of the distiller gets distilled as well.

Because hydrosols have water-soluble components as well as oil-soluble, they are a more holographic representation of the original plant than the EO and can be truer in scent profile. Hydrosols, as with enfleurage, are closer to what I think of as the “original fragrance,” the fragrances that inspired and gave rise to perfume, and they captivate me as much if not more.

"Hydrosol fragrant kisses" ©DR

“Hydrosol fragrant kisses” ©DR

I have for years desired hydrosols to be taken more seriously as fragrance; people tend to dismiss them because they are so fleeting, but really, how long does a kiss last? Let them be fragrant kisses!

Laurie: I can definitely understand that point of view. Sometimes you are in the mood for something gentler and have the time to focus on it and appreciate it — these would be lovely for meditation.

Hydrosols are usually produced as a by-product of distilling essential oils, but you specialize in creating exceptionally high-quality hydrosols as a main product. How do you modify the distillation apparatus/process to focus on the hydrosol?

Rose blossoms, ©DR

Rose blossoms, ©DR

Dabney: For me it is simple: I don’t do bulk. Period. My batches are small, intimate and intense. My yields are in pints, not in gallons. If I’m doing flowers, I hand remove every single calyx. A lot of my batches are quite labor intensive; the ginger lilies go through the mortar and pestle on their way to the still. I once had someone who wanted to buy my whole stock of raspberry. It’s gratifying beyond anything when people say, “yours are the best I’ve ever found.” It helps one rebound from the burnout times but it’s also validation that you have found a good and worthy path through your life. It’s humbling. I’m sorry that I disappoint some people because I can’t offer to sell wholesale, but I am an artist and this is my art; it’s not just a way to make money. On occasion I will do special requests.

Laurie: I think most indie perfumers feel the same way about the scents we make in small hand-made batches, so we can relate! What are some of your favorite materials for distilling? And for enfleurage?

Camellia blossoms

Camellia blossoms, ©DR

Dabney: I’ve put over 60 different materials through the still, and it’s nice to still be awed; recently I did some high-quality Japanese incense and it’s precisely and beautifully right on. I like doing my lemon tree “a la petitgrain sur fleur.” I enjoy doing co-distillations, like an agarwood and rose that was sublime. Delicate things like camellia flowers get doubled distilled; I put them through the still twice to give them a little more “oomph.” This also takes more time, electricity, and water. I enjoy pairing flowers with gemstones, like tuberose and moonstone. I like getting out of the box and have done things like french green clay and rice bran (you would not believe what they do for your skin). And I want to bring back my AlcheMists (hydrosol hybrids)… the ideas never stop coming!

Laurie: Have you been able to extract scent from some of the flowers that aren’t usually available in essential oils/absolutes, like gardenia, lilac, violet (flower) or lily of the valley?

narcissusSmDabney: Yes, but I’m still trying to grow enough of these to really have them make an impact. My daughter and her husband just bought a farm in upstate New York that just happens to have a lilac grove, and I hope to be able experiment with these in every way imaginable!

Laurie: That’s great! I’ve tried some simple infusions in alcohol, and while I’ve had success with things like iris root, ambrette seeds, and tea, the flowers that I’ve tried have produced infusions that were nowhere near as useful for perfume as essential oils. Would you say enfleurage is a better way than infusion for the home gardener who wants to extract some scent from a small crop of flowers?

Dabney: Enfleurage continues to be a revelation to me. There is no other process to compete with its authenticity of capturing a flower’s scent profile. It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing. If you’ve taken good care of them, they will sing for days. To dunk a flower in oil or alcohol (or solvent), you drown their voices. The resulting medium is flat and distorted. To me it’s like dead verses alive. (I once seared some scallops with enfleuraged lemon blossom…and I know I will never top that for taste.)

"It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing."

“It’s like working with angels. You pick the blossoms but they are still alive and singing.” (hyacinth blossoms, ©DR)

Laurie: I can see what you mean by sniffing the samples you sent me; the hyacinth and tuberose are amazingly beautiful and real! Makes me very tempted to try enfleurage next summer, especially since it does not take any special equipment.

For steam distillation, is there any simple equipment someone can set up in the kitchen to give it a try, or do you really need to buy professional equipment to get good results?

Dabney: Distillation is a very straight-forward and basic process, and it does not take fancy equipment; the only thing I would insist on is a really good condensing tube, but that is well under $100. Sometimes I use a reconfigured stainless steel pressure cooker (reconfigured at my friendly neighborhood hardware store). Quality comes from knowing how to ride your horse, not how fancy the saddle is.

Laurie: I understand that you may be coming up with some new products for sale. Do you want to give us a hint of what might be coming?

Vase of tuberoses, ©DR.

Vase of tuberoses, ©DR

Dabney: Recently I had to withdraw from the scene for a while, and now I am back in creative mode and building another website. The big news is that one of my favorite clients has asked me to collaborate as perfumer for her forthcoming company. We are taking the time to get all of it right, so it might be another year or more as we are aiming high!

Laurie: That’s wonderful news, Dabney! I’m sure you will come out with something extraordinary! Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm with us! It’s been a treat to talk with you. Best wishes with all your projects!

You can stay tuned to Dabney’s Facebook page for updates, announcements, and the beautiful photos she shares.

Petal portrait, ©DR

Petal portrait, ©DR

1. For those who want to learn the art of enfleurage, Dabney provides a wonderful illustrated tutorial here. Enfleurage involves spreading freshly-picked flowers on trays of fat (coconut oil, for example) and collecting the scent of the flowers in the fat. The flowers are changed multiple times to concentrate the scent, and when the scent is strong enough the fat is washed with alcohol to transfer the scent from the fat to the alcohol.
2. A hydrosol is a product of steam distillation, and an excellent discussion/definition can be found here at Mountain Rose Herbs.
3. Dabney has been interviewed by Cafleurabon and Now Smell This. A beautiful review of several of her products can be found at Indie Perfumes, and more reviews can be found at Scent Hive.
4. All photos copyright Dabney Rose.

Study Finds 30% Difference in People’s Scent Receptors

I’ve been talking about this for years on my blog based on my experiences with testers during the process of creating scents, and the studies keep coming in to support what we perfumistas have suspected for ages: our different sets of scent receptors in our noses make us smell scents differently. A study by Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia (published in the Nature Neuroscience Journal) found that 30% of scent receptors can vary from one person to the next. That’s a surprisingly big difference.

We tend to be quick to say that a scent doesn’t smell good on our skin when we dislike something and don’t want to hurt the feelings of fans of the scent, but it can be both our skin and our noses that are different. Sometimes you can put the same scent on two different people and the same nose will smell it differently on those people. But if many different people smell the same scent on a paper strip, taking skin out of the equation, they will experience it differently. Their receptors will pick up different aroma molecules in the scent to different degrees, changing the scent experience.

This is partly why it is impossible to create a universal scent that everyone loves and why we need options to choose from (though maybe not as many options as the crazy explosion of new scent offerings in recent years!). It’s also why you’ll see different people online describe the same scent so differently, and why it’s important to try samples for yourself rather than going by what others say. And of course, personal preferences based on experiences and upbringing are added on top of genetic scent receptor differences, which further complicates the scent experience.

If you are interested in this topic, the article at the link is worth a quick read. You can find other posts on my blog on this topic by clicking on the tag “genetics” below this post.


I put the cart up a week ago (late Thanksgiving night) and I’ve had a good amount of orders coming through. Plenty to keep me busy but so far I’m keeping up. I’ll post if turnaround time gets bogged down, but so far so good. We are working to batch the Exclusive scents that are low and will be putting larger bottle sizes of those up as we can (first up this weekend will be Fireside Intense and Wood Violet).

I have a fun interview to post for you on Monday. Lots of gorgeous photos and a person I think you’ll enjoy meeting. 🙂

We’re having a cold snap here with temps below freezing at night (I know that sounds wimpy to most of you, lol). I’m keeping an eye on my lettuce pot garden on the porch though…

I’ll have an update soon on the new scent. Have a super weekend!