The Beauty of Scent, Scrutinized for Pleasure

Monday, August 29, 2011

Spotlight on indie brand For Strange Women

Jill McKeever is the proprietress of independent natural niche line For Strange Women. She's from Kansas City, MO, and has a brick and mortar store there as well. Click HERE to read a short article about Jill and For Strange Women from The Kansas City Star online.

My fellow perfume enthusiast and writer Nathan Branch decided to send me some goodies to review from For Strange Women. When I unpacked them, I was greeted with the phrase "Welcome to the Forest" printed on the outside of the box, which instantly made me smile. I was struck by how pretty and thoughtful the presentation was. Equal parts rustic and Victorian, each sample vial comes with a beautiful card explaining the intention of the scent. For Strange Women is an eco-minded brand, and proves that that doesn't need to mean tacky, pretentious or boring. I don't always actively seek out Earth-friendly products, but when given such aesthetically pleasing and quirky options such as these, I will happily go for the quirky stuff.

my lovely package [photo by me. I know, I'm no Nathan Branch]

Lip Embellishment Gift Set: For Strange Women's Lip Embellishments are lip balms with outrageously good fragrances and interesting packaging. My husband immediately grabbed the Poison Ivy for himself, and I went for the Pine Cone. At first, the wax can be a bit stiff, but I find that it melts with body temperature to spread more easily. I recommend heating it up by rolling it between your palms for a minute before using. The packaging is made with a biodegradable and compostible cardboard-like tube and printed with soy ink, with a cap you pull off. The lip balm is 100% natural, containing beeswax, cocoa butter, sweet almond oil, jojoba oil, meadowfoam, tocopherol, stevia extract, essential oils (that differ depending on which one you have), rosemary extract and mica. It reminds me a bit of the kind of popsicle that you push up out of the long, clear wrapper to get to the goods. The scents are brilliant and include Poison Ivy, Clove, Pine Cone and Rosewood. They are effective lip protectants and very emollient, and despite the inclusion of stevia, you can barely taste any sweetness- just a tiny hint. Perfect! A set of 4 come in a gift box for $24, or they are $6 individually.

Perfume Enhancing Fixative Base: This waxy base comes in a tin, and the idea is that you apply it before using natural perfume oils to help them last longer on your skin. The directions are: apply to skin, wait three minutes, then apply perfume. It forms a barrier so that the oils don't get sucked up by your skin immediately. It is made from shea butter, cocoa butter, beeswax and vitamin E. The base does indeed help to make the fragrances last longer, and if you generally apply natural perfumes in the morning before work and  don't really touch it up during the day, this is something that could be really helpful in extending the fragrance. The tins of Perfume Fixative Base come in two sizes, for $8 and $18.

I love the concept of the Fauna Cologne trio. They are all-natural and are named after animals. These fragrances have an oil base (jojoba and coconut), and are rather mysteriously referred to as colognes. They are not traditional colognes- instead,  I believe the word is used to imply that these are more masculine fragrances. There is a 25% fragrance concentration to the Fauna Colognes, and they are all pretty tenacious, especially for natural compositions. Individual bottles of each scent are available, 8ml for $46, or you can get a sample trio for $18.

Horse: Let me just get this out of the way first: I am ALL about Horse. Horse is everything. My kingdom for a Horse? Yes, please. This is a very rich, deep hay fragrance- fresh and comforting. It is animalic in the way that I hope everything labeled an "animalic" fragrance will smell, but rarely does. There is saddle leather present, and even the saddle wax that goes on it. It really takes me back to when I was a kid, hanging out at my mother's horse barn. While including all the elements that make us Barnyard Chic Freaks titter with excitement, Horse manages to mostly focus on the sweat-covered skin of the horse itself after just having been for a long run. It's an emotionally tender scent for me, and frankly, it almost makes my eyes well up with tears. Horse has the kind of imagination contained within it that you don't see very often. It has a linear development, but that's a positive thing here. Everything is present all at once and it just fades as a whole over time. Once it dries down in the extreme, it's very much a dry hay scent. Horse is completely enchanting, I will need a bottle of this.
notes: hay, clover, leather, cedar, oats, musk

[photo: pbs.org]

Coyote: Coyote is meant to evoke the warm fur of this elusive canine creature. Coyote starts and finishes in the masculine realm. Bay is one of those things that are rarely (if ever) used in feminine perfumes, and the bay is fairly strong here and stays throughout the entire wearing. The neroli and bergamot give a nice little citrus acidity to the blend, and after about 10 minutes go by, the warm fur accord emerges. It is not "wet dog" kind of animalic fantasy accord, so it's not quite as literal as Horse feels. Coyote is a dry, aromatic fougere with the fur element represented by a musky, woody combination. There is a smokiness that is not overwhelming nor does it give smoked meat or barbecue, thankfully. It is a slightly bitter, dry wood smoke. I think Coyote is very nice, but its classic, masculine fougere nature is not something I would reach for frequently (especially since now I can easily make myself smell of Horse).
notes: neroli, bergamot, bay leaf, patchouli, wood smoke, musk, warm spices


[animals.nationalgeographic.com]


Sand Dollar: Sand Dollar comes out of the gate with a lovely pine and lime combination. I'm not usually partial to aquatic themes in perfume, but this one is not your run of the mill Cool Water type of aquatic. The fact that Sand Dollar is all natural works in its favor. Again, there are several fantasy accords here (salty citrus? Ocean pine?). I do get the salty sea thing, but it's not overbearing. The citrus really pops, lending a nice contrast to the pine, and in the end, citrus and pine is what I remember most about this fragrance. I forget that a sand dollar is a living creature, maybe because I've never seen one in person that I can recall. Almost everyone has held the dried-up skeletal remains of one before, but contemplating this perfume has reminded me that the Fauna collection is about the living wonders of the world- animals and creatures of all kinds and sizes. When I'm not thinking about perfume, I can always be caught thinking about animals.
notes: salty citrus, rosemary, seaweed, musk, ocean pine, lime, jasmine


living sand dollar [follybeach.com]

I still have samples of several more For Strange Women perfumes to try, and based on my opinion of what I've tried so far, I'm looking forward to it. There is much fun to be had with this line, and it won't cost you dearly.

Jill McKeever [how cute is this photo? It's from her Etsy store]


[products were purchased and sent to me as a gift by Nathan Branch. The For Strange Women website is HERE, and the Etsy site is linked at the top of the page]

Thursday, August 25, 2011

eyeliner on a cat is an NPG-free zone

Many of us who have been affected by the unfortunate recent events stemming from the Natural Perfumers Guild  and its treatment of Dawn Spencer Hurwitz have been looking forward to moving past all the drama. That is why I'd like to make one last statement that will clarify my position as a perfume blogger once and for all. From here forward, I will not be reviewing any perfumes or products from any member of the Natural Perfumers Guild, nor will I be promoting any NPG events or projects (group or individual).

This is a personal decision on my part, and is a direct consequence of the outrageous mistreatment of people I care about who used to be associated with the NPG, but are no longer a part of it. I cannot in good conscience support any work or projects of anyone who shares the ideology or supports the ethics of Anya McCoy and her leadership of the Natural Perfumers Guild.

I apologize if this is offensive to anyone, but I'm a firm believer in transparency and I feel it's better for me to be up front, clear and honest every step of the way.

This statement should not be interpreted as an attack on the NPG membership, it is simply meant as a public message to NPG members that they should not expect me to review their work so long as they are associated with the organization.

The Madonna Lily~ one of my favorite flowers

[photo from wikipedia.com]


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ushering in Autumn with NEST candles

Lucky me! NEST Fragrances has graced us with a new vanilla-based candle for Autumn, called Tahiti Vanille. I have an insatiable appetite for vanilla in personal and home fragrances. It never gets old to me, ever. Tahiti Vanille is a bright, cheerful vanilla, definitely of the island variety, with a touch of coconut and warm spices as accents (official notes: vanilla bean, white chocolate, cinnamon, caramel, white rum). It could easily become a favorite throughout the year, and is never heavy or too rich of a gourmand scent. Can vanilla be buoyant? Why yes, yes it can!


Laura Slatkin was inspired to create Tahiti Vanille while visiting a vanilla farm on the Tahitian island of Tahaa, where she would pass by racks upon racks of vanilla bean pods drying in the sun. I love that image, and hope that one day I can enjoy those smells and sights, but until then, I'm happy to get my vanilla fix through NEST's new candle.

I'm always impressed with how highly fragranced the soft wax is, and how evenly they burn. As long as you keep the wick trimmed to 1/4 inch, you will never have to babysit or fuss over a NEST candle. As per usual, the packaging and striped, etched glass vessel is divine. A true pleasure through and through. I save all of my NEST glass vessels and once the candle is all burned up, I like to put change in them, perfume samples, cat toys, anything that will fit.

This is a good time to remind everyone about one of my favorite candles ever, NEST Pumpkin Chai. I pine for the scent year round, but it's especially wonderful in the Autumn. If you haven't had a chance to try it yourself yet, you might be thinking, "Oh, another spicy pumpkin candle. Great." But wait! It's anything but ordinary. Pumpkin Chai bypasses the "pie" thing altogether, and instead blends a heady combination of spices like Masala chai, cardamom, ginger and cinnamon. It is simultaneously scrumptious and sophisticated, and if you're looking to set a festive mood for Halloween or Thanksgiving, you couldn't do better than NEST Pumpkin Chai.

The wax is a spiced blush orange color, and the glass vessel is transparent dark ambery-brown. Just beautiful. All NEST candles make wonderful gifts, if you can manage to loosen your grasp on them long enough.

These candles can be purchased at Candles Off Main (my favorite online and brick & mortar candle shop), and also places like Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. The 8.1 oz size candle retails for $32, burn time is approx. 50 hours.

[candles were sent to me for consideration by the company]

Friday, August 19, 2011

Perfumer Interview Series: Mandy Aftel

Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes is known for having the soul of an alchemist that deftly guides her hand in the creation of her perfumes. Her aesthetic is mesmerizing and her taste uncompromising; Aftelier final products typify of artisan luxury, from concept to execution. Her work can be summed up in one word: sublime. In addition to what she does every day, each summer, many people come to visit her at her studio in Berkeley, California. I'm grateful that Mandy was kind enough to take the time out of her busy schedule to do this interview with me and to help me kick off my perfumer interview series.




CM: You have some strong feelings about what luxury means, can you describe them? And how do you bring luxury into Aftelier Perfumes?

MA: To me, luxury includes the following values that guide my work as a perfumer: handmade, unique, attention to details, sumptuous atmosphere, not made industrially, exquisite craftsmanship, noble materials, sensually memorable, great beauty. Luxury is an internal experience; status is an external one. I hope that my perfume creates a singular memorable transcendent experience of refinement and exquisiteness for the person who wears it. I use the finest essences in the world because I really can't make the perfumes that I want to make without that quality of essence. Luxury is impossible without the finest materials, worked by hand, by a talented artist with a singular vision.

CM: When you set out to create a perfume, do you have the consumer in mind from the start, or do you just go where your creativity takes you and see what happens?

MA: I really never have the consumer in mind, I make my perfumes for me. At the heart of each of my perfumes, there is always an aesthetic problem that I'm trying to solve. I think of the perfumes in my line like chapters of a book that fit together to create a world, like a novel. This is why I may retire a perfume, even though it is quite popular, the story is constantly changing and needs to remain alive and interesting to me. 



custom Parfum Prive solid perfume

CM: What are some of the things that inspire you as a perfumer?

MA: My greatest inspiration is the beauty of the essences themselves: the complexity, beauty, range, texture and shape of the natural essences. I happily spend large chunks of time sourcing materials from all over the world. When I get a new essence in my hands, I'm always thinking about how I can bring it to life in a perfume and find my way to understanding each essence from the inside. I am completely in love with my essences- I think about them day and night, pine for them when away, they inspire what I create. I also create from wanting to capture some vague feeling or experience from my life. There are many fleeting feelings that are so rich to me. I am particularly inspired by what Virginia Woolf was doing with her fiction. I think the first way I have of understanding the world is through my feelings-- but that often doesn't match up to words. The world of feelings is so strong in me that the only place that I can capture them and put them down is in a perfume. 

CM: Are there any natural materials you just don't like working with, or have trouble working with? Conversely, which are your favorites?

MA: I like the challenge of creating perfumes from essences that I don't particularly like or think are difficult. Several of my perfumes were created to see what I could do with a challenging essence: Parfum de Maroc- cinnamon, Cepes and Tuberose- cepes, Haute Claire- galbanum, and Tango- choya and coffee. My favorites change all the time but right now they are: castoreum, costus, sarsparilla, jasmine (always), poplar buds and ethyl phenyl acetate. 

CM: What are your favorite scents in the whole world? They can be anything, not necessarily elements of perfume.

MA: White lilies, sweet peas, oolong tea, dirt, my husband's neck (up close), and skunk (at a good distance).

 Mandy Aftel's garden in Berkeley, CA

CM: Some people may not know that you do everything with Aftelier Perfumes yourself, from creating the fragrances to bottling them up- you are very "hands-on" with your company. Can you explain a little bit about why this is? 

MA: I love what I do, and I find the process of actually making the perfumes deeply satisfying and I would never want to entrust it to someone else. I like having my hands (and nose) in the materials. I will allow my business to grow only up to the point where I can still do everything myself. When you work exclusively with natural essences, the final perfume often needs some subtle tweaking because the aroma of the essences can vary from crop to crop. I love this aspect of it, that it's alive and not static. For me, to be able to make the perfumes that I want to make and have people love them is thrilling to me. 

CM: Why is it important to you that you work within the constraints of natural materials only?

MA: For me, nothing is as incredibly beautiful or diverse as natural essences. I love the range from funky stinky to drop-dead gorgeous and everything in between. They intrigue, inspire, fascinate and thrill me. I love holding in my hand the essences that have been used since the beginning of time in every culture across the planet. Their intense intrinsic beauty has sustained their preciousness through the ages, and I feel their aromas contain all the stories ever told about how they were discovered, why they were valued, where they came from and what they were used for. 

CM: We are hot off the heels of your most recent launch, Haute Claire, which has been getting a lot of attention for its uniqueness. Do you have any other fragrances in the pipeline at the moment?

MA: I am working again on the Letters to a Fellow Perfumer series on Nathan Branch's blog- this time with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. We are talking about doing a classic floral. I'm very interested in creating an interpretation of florals in my own quirky way. I always find it hard to describe what I am trying to create with words-- it is just an intuitive feeling of something that is new and fresh to me. I am in love with some natural fruit essences I recently sampled, so will be very interested in including them, if they will play well with the florals I have in mind.

CM: You have worn many hats in your life thus far- therapist, author of several books, teacher and perfumer... many people daydream about shifting gears in their lives like that, but are so hesitant to do it out of fear of the unknown. Do you have any words of advice for someone who might be in that position, ready for a change but scared to take that leap?

MA: I have always thought that people have more regret for the risks they didn't take, than for the things they tried that didn't work out. Failure was never that frightening to me. I was always surprised when something succeeded.

CM: You have carved out a unique position for yourself in the world of perfumery- you've managed to bridge the seemingly ever-widening gap between natural and traditional perfume for many people. Why do you think your work as a natural perfumer is becoming so popular with those who had not previously liked or been exposed much to natural fragrances?

MA: I am deeply grateful to the incredible perfume bloggers (like yourself) who have championed my perfumes and written such beautiful words about my work and have really understood me as an artist and what I was trying to do. This has helped that people who think they don't like natural perfumes be willing to give mine a try. I am thrilled to be thought of more as a perfumer, and not simply a natural perfumer. 


       Mandy's cat Stan "the Steve McQueen of felines"

           [all photos courtesy of Mandy Aftel]

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Perfumer interview series starting soon!

Very shortly, I will begin a new series on my blog which will consist of interviews with perfumers I feel are important, talented and add something unique to the world of perfume. Some of them I will know personally, others not so much, but I can't wait to satisfy my curiosity about all the things I've always wanted to ask them. I think it will prove to be entertaining and enlightening for you too, dear readers.

Mandy Aftel, giving us Stevie Nicks-style realness

First up will be my two favorite Californians: Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, natural perfumer extraordinaire and all-around great friend, and then the slightly naughty proprietress of Opus Oils, Kedra Hart. Okay, maybe she's a bit more than slightly naughty. I will be celebrating with Kedra a big anniversary for her and a big launch. Mandy will lend some fascinating insight into her creative process and ideas about what perfume means to her.

Kedra Hart, obviously up to something here

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Natural vs. Synthetic: Fighting over imaginary candy [unfortunate times]

Recently, some very disturbing things have come to light in the world of perfume we love so much, and it truly saddens me when this sort of thing happens. Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is one of my favorite perfumers: she is talented, imaginative and has a heart of gold. Basically, the kind of trifecta that is hard to ignore. She was treated poorly, and in a very public and harsh manner by the Natural Perfumers Guild and Anya McCoy. You can read the details HERE.

I'd like to bring up a topic that is part of what lies at the heart of this unfortunate incident, and that is that there is a perceived battle between naturals and synthetics in perfume. I'd like to go on record by saying that this is exactly like "fighting over imaginary candy" (as my friend Cait so aptly referred to any kind of over-dramatic situation). Both naturals and synthetics are wonderful and have their places in modern perfumery, and I wouldn't want to live in a world without either one of them. Consumers just want good perfume, and most people are very capable of deciding for themselves exactly what that means to them. Fighting battles that don't really exist is not quite my thing, but I do want to make one thing clear on my position: nobody deserves to be blindsided in such a manner. It is unprofessional, unseemly, and just plain ugly. Dawn has a lot to be proud of, and she will find an endless font of support from all over the world. Her natural and blended perfumes show the kind of ingenuity and integrity that has improved the world around her and has cemented her creative vision as one of distinction.

I feel that it is my responsibility as a perfume blogger to stand up for what I'm passionate about, and that's exactly what I am doing. I hope that others will do the same, no matter what they believe in.

the brilliant Cuir et Champignon by DSH Perfumes

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Modern soliflores [not your grandmother's perfume]: Discovering Ayala Moriel's Viola

Canadian perfumer Ayala Sender of Ayala Moriel natural fragrances is brand new to me. I'm currently in the process of making the rounds to try work from several independent perfumers that I'm long overdue to try. I received a lovely little box of screw-cap glass sample vials from Ayala a few days ago, and gave each one a cursory sniff. There wasn't a disappointing one in the bunch.

Viola perfume

The first vial I grabbed and dabbed was Viola, a violet soliflore from the Language of Flowers collection. It starts with a green and humid note (presumably the effect of ylang ylang and violet leaf together) tinged with rose, which soon gives way to gentle spices. It starts to become reminiscent of a carnation encased in a glass display, with granules of raw sugar stuck to the condensation on the inside. The touches of spice (that don't seem to be listed in the notes-- clove and nutmeg perhaps?) is the olfactory twine that binds this blend together. Never giving up the floral ghost, Viola slowly morphs into a true powderiness that will undoubtedly have powder fans (like myself) clamoring for more. At this point, it feels more like a violet soliflore in the classical sense, but the natural ingredients and the breathtaking skill employed to blend them takes Viola out of the realm of the dusty Victorian violets of yore and elevates it. This is a modern interpretation, replete with the cool chill of iris and just a hint of sweetness. Like many natural fragrances of quality, Viola is fleeting, but this is a small price to pay for the couple hours of addictive bliss to be gleaned from wearing it. This is exactly the kind of perfume I want to see and smell more of.

notes: orris root, Turkish rose otto, tonka bean, vanilla absolute, violet leaf, ylang ylang extra

I have several more samples from my inaugural Ayala Moriel order that I just received, and I plan on reviewing them soon. This is just the beginning of my relationship with Ayala's perfumes, the first of which struck me dumb, rendering me wordless and very emotional. Now that I've recovered my voice, I definitely plan to use it.

the lovely Ayala Sender

[my sample was purchased by me for my own collection. I highly recommend this Sample Pack where you can choose 6 samples for $40, and they arrive in screw-cap glass vials-- my favorite kind-- 1 full ml each. Ayala also makes chocolate bars and truffles, tea, candles... all sorts of wonderful stuff!]

[photo credit: AyalaMoriel.com]

Friday, August 12, 2011

Taking a Breather: vacationing in Migraine-Town

Hi folks, it's been a little slow at eyeliner on a cat the past several days, and I thought I'd share a bit as to why that is. I've had daily migraines for several days in a row, and those of you who have suffered them know that sniffing, testing and painstakingly writing about scents is really not possible. I hope to be back up and running A.S.A.P., because I miss my blog and my readers to bits!




Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Saturday Sillies: What note do you want to smell in perfumery?

We've all thought of them: scents we come across in our everyday lives that instantly make us wistful... "If only I could smell this in a perfume!", usually followed by, "Why hasn't anyone thought of this yet?" and then, "Well, maybe they have, I'd better Google it."

This happened to me yesterday, and the inspirational culprit was none other than a Pluot.

The Flavor Queen variety of Pluots

Technically, it's a hybrid of a plum and an apricot, but it's much more plum-like in flavor and the Flavor Queen variety is sharply verdant in smell and taste at the outset. In short, it's utterly exhilarating. It reminds me of something Kedra Hart of Opus Oils could do something really fun and interesting with in a perfume blend. I can imagine essence of yellow Pluot married to mimosa or fleur d'oranger, some earthy jasmine sambac, a dry wood base and a touch of musk. 

What about you, are there any scents you've encountered in your day-to-day life that have made you think of how incredible they would be in a perfume? Dish. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

When we were young: Opus Oils Lady Death

I have a lot of days and nights when I'm not exactly looking for a complicated fragrance to distract me, I just want something that gives me a happy and peaceful feeling. Opus Oils Lady Death from the "Afraid of the Dark" collection is exactly that.

notes: black lily, plum, narcissus, opium, oak moss

The first thing I notice is the bright, slightly tart plum that is almost reminiscent of black cherry. It's so cheerful and soothing, The floral notes of black lily and narcissus lurk quietly behind the plum, never asserting themselves too much. Almost from the start, the sweet and dark incense facet of opium melds with a touch of what comes across as tonka-infused musk. Combined with  the rich cushion of oak moss, this stage lasts for hours and the plumminess fades. As it dries down, it becomes softly powdery and just feels downright narcotic.

photo: opusoils.com

Lady Death has an "It-factor" that I had a lot of trouble placing at first, and then I finally realized what "it" is. It makes me feel younger when I wear it, it reminds me of old times- incense smoke, very late nights, romantic trysts and Siouxie and the Banshees blasting on the stereo. It's a very comforting, easy scent that fits very well with who I once was and still am. For me, Lady Death is quite literally time in a bottle.

Siouxie Sioux

[Opus Oils Lady Death is available in several different sizes starting at 1 dram for $30 as well as in bath and body products. Sample was sent to me by the perfumer for consideration]