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

Footnotes:
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.

Talking fragrance design and more with Miriam Vareldzis of 40 Notes Perfumes

miriam_edit2smToday I’m posting another interview in the fragrance friends interview series. This time I’m talking with someone who has worked in many segments of the fragrance industry: Miriam Vareldzis of 40 Notes Perfume. She has worked as a fragrance evaluator for major companies, has started her own indie perfume line, and currently also works for an outstanding natural ingredient supplier. Miriam has been interviewed by Cafleurebon and The Perfume Magazine about her indie line and career change, but I thought it would be fun to learn more about her work as a fragrance evaluator and to get a peek into her unique perspective of the fragrance industry given that she has experienced so many aspects of it. You might not know what a fragrance evaluator does, so here’s a great chance to learn about it while also enjoying and appreciating Miriam’s story.

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Background: Miriam was born in Santa Barbara, California and has traveled extensively around the world. She studied architecture and interiors at the University of Oregon and then worked for design firms in New York City. Her life-long passion for scent led her to a major career change from architecture and design to the world of perfumery. She began her fragrance career in 1991 at Gryphon Development, where she was mentored by one of the industry’s leading fragrance designers, Ann Gottlieb, the consultant hired to develop all scents for Gryphon. Four years later, Miriam moved to International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. (IFF) where she worked for seven years both in New York City and in California. Her work involved fragrance development from concept to launch, collaborating with master perfumers to develop scents for major brands, as well as roles in sales and marketing. She launched her own indie line, 40 Notes Perfume, in 2010. In 2012 she was recruited to work with Robertet, Inc., a French company that is one of the leading suppliers of natural ingredients to the fragrance and flavor industries. She is active in both the global fragrance industry and the community of west coast indie perfumers. She currently lives with her husband (and cat!) in Portland, Oregon.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Miriam last year when she brought some Robertet ingredient samples for me to sniff. She is knowledgeable and talented but is also a people person – warm, outgoing, perceptive and enthusiastic. I can imagine that it would be fun to work with her and have her on your team.

Laurie: What was it like working at Gryphon Development mentoring with Ann Gottlieb? That must have been an amazing opportunity!

Miriam: First of all Laurie, thank you for inviting me to speak with you. I’m happy to share my story! I was the product development manager at Gryphon, and I worked with Ann on all the fragrances. I was considered “on the client side,” giving direction to the fragrance houses, based on Ann’s direction. She was my mentor in every sense and trained me in the development of fragrances: how to focus my own innate sense of smell, evaluate on skin, smell for the brief, and give direction in the successful creation of a fragrance in all types of bases. It was from there after four years at Gryphon, through her guidance, that I transitioned my career to strictly the fragrance side of the industry and followed an opportunity to IFF. When I was hired at IFF, it was to handle all of Ann’s clients; we had developed a wonderful working relationship, and it evolved into the next phase for me.

iff_logo2Laurie: Can you explain the job of a fragrance evaluator in a little more detail? What was a typical day like at IFF?

Miriam: The role of the fragrance evaluator is really being the Liaison between Perfumer and Client. The evaluator has to know both the language of perfumery and the language of the market, and the temperament of everyone! Perfumers are often in their own world, not always aware of trends or recent launches. I had to be aware of the vision of the client as well as the creative vision of the perfumer in order to successfully guide the process. Ann really was the vision for the client, and we followed her lead. If she and I smelled, I would have to translate her direction perfectly to the perfumer!

The day to day is much more detailed, as you can imagine. In my experience, there were several layers to being an evaluator. As a team, the evaluators would participate in group evaluations of market products (fine fragrance, personal care, home fragrance) and classify each fragrance we smelled. We would come to a consensus on the olfactive family of each product and our personal interpretations. Sometimes we would agree with the product copy (as stated by the brand), and sometimes we wouldn’t. Smelling as a group is a powerful tool in honing your skill.

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Each of us was responsible for many projects simultaneously. Since I was in the Fine Fragrance Division, my projects rotated around high-end prestige brands such as Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Carolina Herrera, or celebrities such as Christy Brinkley, and also included BBW, Unilever Axe & Impulse brands. During the day I would find myself smelling experiments with various perfumers one-on-one in their office, then later that day into evening smelling “on skin” in preparation for an upcoming client meeting. And it continued when I wore ideas home in the evenings for a longevity test, smelling my arms up until I went to bed. Everything rotated around smelling!

In the case of home fragrance or candle development, I would smell a burning candle in a specially designed odor booth for lift, character and tenacity.

miriamsniffing3

A typical day could range from smelling alone, to smelling with a perfumer, smelling with a team on a project, smelling with Ann to further a project in preparation for a client presentation. I would also conduct fragrance training for clients (sales teams who would need to learn how to smell), and last but not least, write fragrance copy and descriptions for all the fragrances we created.

One of the most important qualities to being a successful evaluator at a fragrance house is the ability to separate your personal preference from the direction of the brief. The client has a vision for where they want the fragrance to be, and it is our job to take them there, at the highest level, for the brand.

Laurie: Wow, sounds like your nose got a workout! That must be hard sometimes to separate personal preference from the project. It sounds like a fascinating job though.

The experience you gained at those companies must have put you in a perfect position to develop your own line and must be partly why your line was so polished from the start. Did you encounter any aspects of being an indie brand that came as a surprise? Was it hard to narrow down your scent offerings for the initial launch?

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Miriam: What came as a surprise: I am much more used to working in collaboration with people than I am being totally by myself. So although the creative development and blending was easy on my own, the day to day was much more challenging without a team of people to connect with on a daily basis. I love personal interaction!

It wasn’t difficult to narrow down my offerings because I started with the materials, the notes. My “muse” for each scent was a natural material or note that I was in love with and wanted to play with: Vetiver, Jasmine, Ylang, the notion of “Cashmere softness”… each of these was the singular inspiration for the scent. Initially I had developed six, and the seventh came at the very end. Then I knew the first Signature Collection was complete. Each fragrance is a “deep dive” into the Universe of that note and how I was feeling about it at the time.

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Laurie: When I tried samples of your line, my favorites were Exotic Ylang Ylang and Sampaguita Jasmine (I must have been in a white floral mood!), both beautiful.

What personal qualities do you think are needed to launch a successful indie line? Do you think it has gotten easier or harder over the years? (Resources are better and online connections are more available, but the number of indie brands has exploded so there is more competition.)

Miriam: The personal qualities question has two levels: the level of “business owner” and the level of “creator.” As an entrepreneur, there are many ways to interpret the business model: from creating, blending and filling on your own all the way to partnering with a fragrance house to manufacture your fragrance idea. All approaches are valid.

On the level of creator, I feel integrity of personal vision is key. For some that may be living their dream as the “Alchemist-Wizard,” staying very behind the scenes. For others, that may be holding the platform as “Teacher,” promoting the Lost Art of Natural Perfumery. Or for others, delighting us by being “Court Jester,” showcasing provocative new ideas and blends.

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For me personally, it’s crucial to follow inner vision on all levels simultaneously; the fragrance will be perceived from the juice, to the bottle, packaging, imagery, through to the website and ultimately to the package the client receives. Seems it always goes back to design for me!

And if by successful you mean financially, then the Indie Brand may want to experience marketplace success, which then begs the question if it is still Indie! LOL. I do believe in financial success for Indie brands, for sure.

Like you pointed out, the market place has exploded with Indie Brands. I feel it is easier to actually launch a brand, with all the resources available now. But I feel it is simultaneously more difficult for that brand to be successful, and even more complicated if that brand wants to be international. The regulatory environment for perfume, and natural perfumery specifically, is more stringent and exacting for everyone, creators, suppliers, and distributors alike.

It may take an initial spark of interest or curiosity to “fall in love with perfumery” and suddenly launch a line. But it takes a tremendous amount of personal passion, humility, and life-long learning to stay in this creative industry. Perfumery is an art that is not suddenly learned overnight, but honed over a lifetime.

Laurie: I completely agree, Miriam; it does seem much easier to start an indie business than to last for the long haul, and the regulatory environment is making things much more complicated, especially for those who want to take their brand international.

I now see that my question was a bit vague in reference to “success,” but I had in mind selling enough to meet whatever goals the indie owner had set out for himself/herself. I agree that there are many scales at which you can run an indie business. Defining indie would get us into a big thorny topic, lol.

robertet-logoIn addition to your own line, you’ve recently been working for the major fragrance house and natural ingredient supplier Robertet. It must be fun to introduce people to new essences! What is your favorite part of your work for Robertet? Have you visited any of their growing fields? Do you have some favorites of their ingredients?

Robertet rose harvest.

Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)

Miriam: Since joining Robertet, I have happily “fallen down the rabbit hole” into another universe in my exposure to natural fragrance ingredients and their sourcing around the world. It has deepened my knowledge of not only materials, but the various manufacturing processes needed to create essential oils, absolutes, isolates, hydrosols, etc. I’ve not been to a growing field yet, but I have been to Grasse in the South of France, the headquarters of Robertet, and seen the distillation of neroli, cocoa and other beautiful materials. I have never smelled more varieties and qualities of lavender or ylang in my life! This is a true gift that I am treasuring.

Ylang blossom (photo property Robertet)

Ylang blossom (photo property of Robertet)

Laurie: That must have been wonderful to see the distillation operations in Grasse! Some companies like Robertet seem to be more open to the idea of working with smaller indie brands in recent years. Do you think that might be a trend? (I’m ever hopeful!)

Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)

Rose harvest (photo property of Robertet)

Miriam: Yes, I honestly do think this has become more of a real possibility for smaller brands. Especially in these last few years. First of all, the market has completely changed. The larger brands aren’t the only ones launching fragrances. The marketplace has expanded into home fragrance, personal care, private label, and Niche & Indie brands. Fragrance houses that once only worked with established cosmetic companies are now open to working with smaller, entrepreneurial companies. The minimums are still a factor, since we are still talking about manufacturing. But there is more flexibility now.

Laurie: I read in your Cafleurebon interview that you were another Jeffrey Pine sniffer as a kid! My brother and I used to love to sniff those tree trunks too because of their sweet, resinous vanilla scent. What are some of your favorite non-perfume smells today?

Huge_jeffrey_pine_trunksmMiriam: I LOVED the smell of the pine trees at Yosemite and Mt. Lassen National Parks, every hot August, growing up. The heat of the sun would bring out the vanilla resin, and the park rangers would tell us to put our noses into the bark and sniff! HEAVEN! What a memory. Don’t laugh, but I have a very nostalgic memory around the smell of basement mildew! My grandmothers’ house in San Francisco, close enough to the water to get the dampness, had a cold concrete & mildew note. Her house was the center of life, so I naturally have a positive association. And I love the smell of the gas-stove before it lights: a very home-hearth feeling. I adore the smell of the pods that fall from Eucalyptus trees. These are all scents from my childhood, ironically.

Laurie: Oh, eucalyptus pods are another of my good childhood smells too! ☺ We have some common CA childhood scent memories. And isn’t it true how our associations with scents affect our feelings toward them, in this case elevating basement mustiness to something cozy.

Given all the things on your plate, do you still get some time to relax at home in beautiful Oregon, where you live now? What kinds of things do you like to do for fun and relaxation?

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Miriam: I love to go on walks: hikes in the forest, walks on trails, and walking around town and neighborhoods. It keeps exercise interesting, and is great downtime. I love my yoga practice: right now it’s my savior, with so much travel in my life. My husband and I are both movie and music fans, and there is no shortage of either here in Portland. And naturally, we submit to the whims of our Cat!

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Laurie: Thank you so much, Miriam, for generously sharing your time with us and for giving us a peek into the world of a fragrance evaluator. It’s inspiring to meet someone who had the courage to make a radical career change and then made so much out of it! Wishing you continued good luck in all your endeavors and with 40 Notes!

Footnotes:

1. For a wonderful blog post tour of Robertet in Grasse, see Persolaise Perfume Blog.

2. Gryphon Development was the company created by The Limited to develop and launch all products for Bath & Body Works, Victoria Secret Beauty, A&F personal care, and Henri Bendel’s private label. Gryphon was bought-out less than 5 years after it formed.

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:
https://www.etsy.com/shop/BarkingAcresStudio?ref=shopsection_shophome_leftnav