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"Into the Unknown: The State of American Independent Perfumery" - John Biebel, January Scent Project

August 28, 2018

People like to reference the Lewis and Clark expedition as a high point of exploration of the Americas’ interior. And although it is true that the land had been populated for millennia before, this was a notable trek because it was continuous, and allowed for comparisons of landscapes and people over a vast stretch of land in a way that hadn’t been done before, or with such a keen interest in mapping the journey along the way. This was monumental for the first decade of the nineteenth century, and where we find ourselves now, just past 200 years later, the US finds itself again the subject of discovery. Today the explorers are perfumers and amateur chemists, and their goal is to create a foothold for artisan perfumery that exists outside the constraints of formal structures, institutions, or hierarchical expectations. To do so and yet still maintain the resonance of a well-crafted French or Arabian perfume requires something more akin to olfactive street smarts than a degree, but the point is one of process: The new voices in American perfume making are taking unusual routes to reach a level of artistry that didn’t seem possible forty years ago.

The adage “necessity is the mother of invention” is almost apt here, but not quite. I would change the word necessity to curiosity. Couple curiosity with the rise of availability of aroma components through the internet, and suddenly a palette of perfumer’s materials is no longer locked up in an academy or a Swiss lab, but freely obtainable to folks anywhere who wanted to find out what these different elements actually do. Forerunners in this field helped to set a standard of excellence and continue to do so, such as Dawn Spencer Hurwitz of DSH Perfumes, and her one-time collaborator Sarah Horowitz of Sarah Horowitz Parfums. Their beginning work at the now-famed Essence on Newbury Street in Boston influenced an early outcrop of independent perfumers who thought that they could give this all a try, seeing what they could create in their kitchens. Amber Jobin of Aether Arts, a former student of Dawn and fellow Boulder, CO resident, represents a school of mountain-landscape centered perfuming that has its own distinct flavor as it has migrated west. Further south in Texas, Claire Baxter, perfumer of the Art and Olfaction Winner Bruise Violet, has made a distinct mark as an independent creator of the south west, along with Lesli Wood of La Curie in Tucson, Arizona.

In the Midwest, John Pegg of Kerosene surprised many by arriving on the scene and creating scents from the land of automobile manufacturing, and in Ohio, artist Liz Zorn created her line Soivohle. Two distinct “movements” emerged from the west coast: The San Francisco perfumer’s school, and the Pacific northwest’s vital contributors. In the former case, Californian perfumers such as Bruno Fazzolari, Ineke Rüland of Ineke Perfumer, Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, Laurie Erikson of Sonoma Studio, Yosh Han of Yosh, and Dannielle Sergent of COGNOSCENTI are just some of the vast array of perfumers of this creative hot spot, making magical, award-winning perfumes. Works such as Fazzolari’s Lampblack and Yosh’s Kismet have been defining works in American scent. Further down the coast in LA, you will find perfumers such as Sherri Sebastian of Provision. The full-bodied classic perfumes of YeYe by Ernesto Sanchez Bujanda add yet another flavor of interest to this coastal line-up. Botanical perfumer Alexandra Balahoutis of Strange Invisible Perfumes in Venice rounds out this fascinating cast.

Just up the coast in Oregon and Washington, yet another perfume scene emerged that is influencing the evolution of scent across the country and beyond.  Josh Lobb’s mysterious perfume venture Slumberhouse broke ground in this territory and paved a path of dark-hued, artistic scents. Josh Meyer’s Imaginary Authors series of perfumes has created a narrative structure to his perfumes that has changed the way perfume is perceived - now presented as part of a long epic, not unlike series books that were popular in the US from the late 19th century onward. Christi Meshell’s House of Matriarch combines alchemy, spiritualism and a distinctly American brand of native perception to its line of creations. Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids has transformed the perception of multi-tasker as biologist, gardener and perfumer with the creation of her award-winning perfumers for both her own brand and for Canada’s Zoologist. Also working with Zoologist is Shelley Waddington of En Voyage perfume, another American perfume treasure of Portland who has created a vast repertoire of fine fragrance.

Flipping back to the east coast, Brooklyn, New York has seen an explosion of maker culture and perfume has been an enormous part of that experience. This was initially led by the master indie perfumer Christopher Brosius of CB I Hate Perfumes (formerly of Kiel’s and Demeter), and includes such important creators as Maria McElroy of Aroma M and House of Cherry Bomb, Hans Hendley, Alexis Karl (also of House of Cherry Bomb) and her own perfume line, Irina Adams of Phoenix Botanicals, and David Seth Moltz of D.S. & Durga, home to the much celebrated perfume Burning Barbershop.

Up the coast into New England, important voices in perfume continue to work, and we wind up where we started, but here the perfume conversation takes on new territories. Neil Morris has been in the perfume business for decades making some classic scents like Cathedral, along with the sonorous fragrances of Ava Luxe by Serena Ava Goode. Some new additions to the Boston scene are Jennifer Botto of Thorn & Bloom, and just an hour south you’ll find the all-natural classic French perfumes of Charna Ethier and Providence Perfume Co., creator of Moss Gown and Rose Boheme.

Blocki Perfume is an interesting case of an independent American perfume voice revitalized by the great-great grandson of the founder. Through research and dedicated work, he has been able to make newly inspired modern perfumes using the same sensibilities of the founder, raising the interesting speculation that American independent perfumery has actually been an occupation for much longer than presumed. The Blocki scents were created by American perfumer Kevin Verspoor, known also for his work with Odin and now his own line of scents, PERFUME KEV.

The state of perfume making in the US continues to flourish, as more and more countries shift their gaze to the fragrances that emerge in this market, breaking conventions of what perfume should be, or what a typical audience is supposed to wear. The independent perfume maker in the states comes from one of many different habitations, different cities with different sensibilities, and yet what binds them all together? It’s not pure rebelliousness, as that could lead to a kind of olfactive chaos. No, I think it’s more of a desire to strike out new territory in a field that was once covered in scrub brush and smoke. Curiosity alone cannot make for beautiful perfume, but it drives a certain spirit that energizes anything that touches a bottle. Contemporary perfuming chips away at the decorum surrounding this goal and finds beyond it a rough-hewn path into unseen territory, much like an expedition into a fascinating unknown.