Thursday, March 17, 2011
Perfumery Without Pretension
Perfumery without Pretension "a Biography of One Natural Perfumer".
My relationship with natural perfumery probably began at eight years old. My mother is an avid do-it-yourselfer, and was doing-it-herself remodeling the bathroom. The faint gunpowder texture of her power drill combined with some extra large glue guns smacked of something unholy, as though she were invoking all the sins the family had previously released in the bathroom. Not even open windows on a breezy Indiana spring day could banish the odor. Left alone in the kitchen with that smell for company, I decided to climb the stepladder to the spice rack and pull lids off, desperate to inhale something other than demonic power drill offal.I sniffed gingers and pepper, cinnamons and rosemary.
Pretty soon I had created a stew of nothing but the spices that I liked: I accented cloves with nutmeg and ginger. Not long after, anise found its way into the pot. While I thought the white pepper might be a little incongruous, in it went and in that circumstance it actually worked nicely. While the horrendous mechanical scent wasn't banished completely, it was made bearable by the boiling spices on the stove, and caused both my parents to come into the kitchen sniffing with the eager curiousness that comes when something smells really tasty.
My mother later tried to replicate my experiment and failed; I had also forgotten to write down the recipe. I always thought that spices were intuitive, that if you simply knew the texture and heat level of the food, you should intuitively determine what spice went best. I did not realize until my early 30s that my mother kept spice charts in her cupboard precisely because she lacked that intuition, and that my capacity for it led me from potpourri stews to herb gardening to the perfumes that form my livelihood now.
My mother's parents were subsistence farmers, and significantly supplemented their grocery bill by growing as much food as they could on their property in Muncie, Indiana. They encouraged my interest in plants and herbs, and would leave out their Reader's Digest copy of The Magic and Medicine of Plants for me to find on my visits. I would spend hours fascinated with what the chemical compositions that each photosynthetic miracle could perform. By the time I converted to the religion Wicca at 19, I already had a decent grasp of herbs and how they worked; I made no assumption that just because something was "herbal" that it was "safe". I'd spent too long reading about the insidious effects of Digitalis (foxglove) on healthy people to make any such assumption.
In an effort to understand more about assigned magical properties of plants and how those properties were determined, I encountered Culpepper's Complete Herbal. I was uninterested in its medical data --we now have the regularly updated Physician's Desk Reference for that-- its astrological data intrigued me. Culpepper had assigned each herb a planet and a zodiac sign; this helped me assemble oils with a magical purpose in mind. It stuck with me, and soon I began assembling concoctions of plant infusions and essential oils that I bought at a local General Nutrition Center store to use by rubbing on candles or by combining over an oil burner.At some point I found myself with a small collection of essential oils -- basil, rosemary, and a third I don't recall -- and a need for book money, since my post college marketing job barely paid enough for me to cover rent and groceries. Casting around for a little extra income, I considered my essential oils, and I posted an eBay listing offering to custom make ritual oils starting with the materials I had. To my surprise, a bidding war ensued, and the person who won wanted multiple oils designed. I found myself building an occult-based oil library. No matter how much I studied, there was more to know. No matter how much I knew there was already someone out there with a misunderstanding of the materials I used.
Eventually I had to shut down -- divorce and the newfound single life didn't leave much room for oil-making, and I drifted from it. Still, old customers would track me down and ask me for my fragrances, and when new friends discovered I had this skill and a small oil repertoire, they began asking me to make perfumes for them. As a response to the demand that kept finding me despite my hiding, I opened Magickal Realism Natural Perfumery on Etsy in 2006.
Since opening as a perfumer rather than as an occult oil-maker, I've hit a whole new learning curve -- there is so much more to perfuming beyond making it safe for the skin. Natural perfumery versus synthetic perfumery was certainly a topic of debate, but not with the passion it now has, fueled as it is by popularized -- but not necessarily accurate -- views of what is good and what is bad for the environment and for the human body. Far more people think it's attractive to smell like sweet foods. The vegan influence on perfume and cosmetics is profound and irreversible. At least once a month I want a customer who wants a natural scent to perform the same way a synthetic fragrance would. New regulations and research both excellent and iffy are raining down on perfumers with the regularity of a monsoon. There is a lot of interest and conflict around natural trends, but it's a fight to maintain accuracy within those trends.
Sometimes I find my preference for using naturals unintentionally politically fraught. I have encountered fellow perfumers who find it impossible to consider a life in perfumery without any kind of musk, and others that believe I am cheating myself of my full potential not using synthetics. These choices are just that, choices -- there are those that have their reasons for choosing synthetics that extend far beyond simple cost considerations, and there are those like me who choose naturals for reasons much more complex than notions of what's "good"or "bad" for ourselves and our consumers.
I am still learning. I could have some sort of certification in perfumery from every school in Grasse, France and collect aromatherapy degrees right and left and I would still have more to learn. So while I may inform you along the way, it is my intent to share what I'm learning with you. I am here to discuss, look up, verify, and once in awhile stick my finger in a cage. I hope you enjoy the coming journey with me, and find something new to consider in even familiar territories.
Bio:Diana Rajchel is the designer behind Magickal Realism Natural Perfumery on Etsy. She co-leads the Etsy Green and Clean Guild, a guild committed to truth in labeling and ethical beauty product creation. She is also a freelance writer and blogs on plus size fashion.