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.