California Dreaming

Alyssa Harad is the author of Coming to My Senses and here is her contribution to the Women in Perfumery series. You can learn more about Alyssa’s work and read excerpts of her book at alyssaharad.com.

When Jessica, a.k.a. the Perfume Professor directed my attention to the July Allure article  on the “new frontier” of indie American perfumers—that is, perfumers who create and sell their own brand—and their “solitary, rugged, luminous,” distinctly American perfumes, I was struck by the absence of California as much as by the absence of women.* Few states better embody the fantasy of America (sit down, Texas). California is the eternal frontier, the last stop on the push from east to west. It’s also home to a well established indie perfume scene dominated by women who are deeply influenced by the culture and landscape of their home state. Here are a few of my longstanding favorites. This is by no means a complete list. If you have others please say so in the comments.

Natural perfumer Mandy Aftel has been creating her lush, complex natural perfumes for more than thirty years now. She surely deserves credit as an early pioneer of the American indie scene if not its progenitor. Aftel’s home studio is located in Berkeley, one block from Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse. Like Waters, Aftel’s innovative work marries French sophistication to a Berkeley obsession with eschewing the synthetic and highlighting the glory of natural materials. But while Waters could draw on a living tradition of French techniques, Aftel had to invent her own.

Combing through her collection of antique books on scent and perfume for ideas, she experimented with her equally impressive collection of aromatic materials. (Aftel recently opened her magical archive to the public. Go if you can.) The result is a collection of perfumes that defy industry wisdom about what it is possible to do without synthetics. Strange beauties like her classic Cepe et Tuberose, which combines the earthy funk of mushrooms with the thick floral creaminess of tuberose sit alongside sunny, tender florals like Wildflower, a tribute to the California hills. As the author of several books on perfume and a longtime teacher, Aftel has inspired new generations of indie perfumers and her influence extends far beyond California.

Across the bay in San Francisco is Yosh Han who has been creating and selling her own perfumes since 1994. Han can read your aura to tell you which of her perfumes would best match your current needs—and in fact, she has read mine. (She recommended Stargazer Lily, a soft, vanillic white lily, one of the few I enjoy wearing.) She is a savvy entrepreneur as well as a psychic—a very Californian combination. Like Aftel, she is self-taught. In the Vanity Fair profile she says her perfumes have “wide open spaces” in contrast to more structured European perfumes or—though she doesn’t say this—more predictable mass commercial work, and I agree with that self assessment. I always feel like I can sense San Francisco’s constant golden hour light in her perfumes, especially her earlier work like the giddy U4EAHH! and Sottile, a tea rose like the chime of a crystal bell.

Han’s friend and colleague Ineke Rühland has been running San Francisco based Ineke Perfumes since 2006. Rühland is classically trained and it shows in her work, but the easygoing beauty of her perfumes is pure California. Even Field Notes from Paris, inspired by the coffee in a Parisian café, would be right at home on Haight Street. I was surprised to see that Rühland still offers beautifully packaged sample sets of her major collections for a very reasonable twenty-five dollars, fifteen of which is redeemable for a full bottle.

Down the coast in California wine country is Laurie Erickson of Sonoma Scent Studio, founded in 2004. Another self-taught perfumer–are you sensing a theme here?—Erickson works with both natural and synthetic materials, but she uses the latter sparingly. Some of her perfumes are linked directly to the scents around her—oak, pine, hay, apples, wild roses, damp earth. Others are dreams linked to her surroundings by mood or memory, but there is nearly always the suggestion of weather and landscape. It’s been awhile since I’ve visited the SSS site and looking at it for this article was slightly dangerous to my wallet.

Roxana Villa of Illuminated Perfumes, founded in 2006, lives and works in the Santa Monica mountains outside of Los Angeles. Her studio is surrounded by “the garden of pure fumes,” as she describes it on her blog and instagram feed, which often feature beautiful photos of flowers she is harvesting for use in her perfumes. A self taught all botanical perfumer, Roxana is also a beekeeper, an artist, a teacher and a fierce worshiper and protector of the planet. Several of her perfumes are tributes to specific Southern California plants or landscapes, including one of my favorites, Chaparral, which is the exact smell of the sagebrush hills of my childhood in the cool of the morning. Villa is currently in the process of moving to New Mexico. It will be interesting to see if her next perfumes celebrate her new landscape or look back to her beloved former home.

The perfumers above are the ones who have become a part of my personal scent library, but I would be remiss not to mention the casual glamour of Sarah Horowitz of Sarah Horowitz Parfums whose fragrances are an effortless part of the L.A. scene, natural perfumer Alexandra Balahoutis of Strange Invisible Perfumes who turns the weird-hippy vibe of Venice Beach into something baroque and rare, and natural perfumer Kedra Hart of Opus Oils whose sexy sense of fun brings botanicals and burlesque (and the occasional troop of faeries) together at long last in Hollywood.

*There is a fleeting reference to LA’s Orris Perfumery. Looking at their website and press it was difficult for me to tell if the couple running the business was also creating the perfumes. Do chime in if you know more. Their desert collection made me wish they had samples on offer.

**Full disclosure: In April 2012 I was lucky to work with several of these perfumers and Chef Dana Tommasino on a scent dinner in San Francisco. Yosh Han was particularly generous with her time and connections.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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28 Comments

  • Jillie: Lovely article, Alyssa, and now I yearn to try Yosh’s Stargazer Lily!

    May I add to the list of Californian perfumers the name of Laurie Stern of Velvet & Sweetpea’s Purrfumery? I have never yet had the pleasure of smelling any of her fragrances, but her concept and generous, kindly spirit shine through on her website! August 2, 2017 at 10:20am Reply

    • Alyssa: Yes of course! I have smelled some of her perfumes and they are very worth sampling! August 2, 2017 at 5:09pm Reply

  • Nick: I wear Incense from Sonoma Scents Studio, and it’s great. People describe it as outdoorsy and bracing. I’d agree with that. August 2, 2017 at 10:42am Reply

  • maggiecat: The perfumers you mention here are all so talented and well-known (at least among the likes of us) that their omission from the Allure article is shameful. If anything were to make me want to move to California (not likely, but still…) the chance to be close to all of this talent would do it. Thanks, Alyssa, for an insightful review. August 2, 2017 at 10:50am Reply

    • Alyssa: Yes, Maggie, I agree. That’s why I included their founding dates. And it’s not just us! Yosh has celebrity clients, Mandy is very well known. It’s kind of silly, really. August 2, 2017 at 11:17pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Thank you for the very informative article and review. Hopefully, I will get back to that area one of these days. August 2, 2017 at 11:59am Reply

  • Monica: I would add Loreto Remsing of L’Aromatica, based in California. I have tried many of her vegan perfume creations like Yellow Rose, Kulfi, Daphne and they are really amazing! August 2, 2017 at 12:55pm Reply

    • Alyssa: I’m so glad to learn about her work, thank you! August 2, 2017 at 2:46pm Reply

  • Jessica: Brava! I love this post. You’ve inspired me to revisit a few old favorites and check out a few names that are new to me. x August 2, 2017 at 2:03pm Reply

  • Lucham: I have been ignoring my love of perfumes for a while. This lovely article has me ready to give myself a road trip to California. Thank you! August 2, 2017 at 4:44pm Reply

    • Alyssa: Hurrah! A lot of these folks offer classes and/or bespoke perfumes so it might be worth writing to them ahead of time. A studio tour of CA perfumeries would be so much fun. August 2, 2017 at 5:10pm Reply

  • Heather: I had the great fortune of working Mandy, Yosh, Ineke, and Roxana a few years ago. They are all profoundly creative and generous of spirit. I count several of their scents among my unconditional (wear anytime, anywhere, in any mood) favorites. Yosh’s Omniscent and Roxana’s Sierra come to mind immediately. I’m very happy to see them mentioned here. Lovely article, Alyssa. August 2, 2017 at 5:57pm Reply

  • Marti Hayduk: Very lovely article.

    I am eager to try several of your suggestions.

    Let’s not forget the work of DelRae Roth.
    Parfums Delrae Illuminee is one of my all time favorites. August 2, 2017 at 6:03pm Reply

    • Alyssa: I adore DelRae’s work and she was part of the scent dinner I mentioned in the footnotes, but she’s a creative director not a perfumer. I think the CD’s role is very important and usually underrated but we decided to focus on perfumers only for this round. August 3, 2017 at 11:26am Reply

      • DelRae ROTH: Nice to be included, thank you so much Marti. While I’m not a trained perfumer I am very involved in the creation of all of my fragrances. They all start with my idea and I work very closely with my perfumer. I hope some of you will be curious to read more…
        thank you! xo August 3, 2017 at 12:45pm Reply

  • Beth: Oh… I have to ty Chaparral. I looove the scent of sagebrush prairie. August 2, 2017 at 6:30pm Reply

  • ClareObscure: Hi Alyssa. I like this article. I recently read your book, Coming to My Senses. I found it to be a thrilling account of your awakening to the joys of fragrance & the development of a career shaping passion. Thank you for writing it. Your book moved me & resonated with my own realisation that a fascination with fragrance can’t be denied. I find it hard to fathom the way perfume is snubbed & even forbidden in some American workplaces. I thought this category was reserved for cigarettes.
    Thanks again for your book. I’m a fan. August 3, 2017 at 4:51am Reply

    • Alyssa: Thank you so much for this sweet note! I’m so glad the book resonated with you. August 3, 2017 at 11:27am Reply

  • Neva: Very interesting article Alyssa. I appreciate the information very much. For us, from Europe, it is not easy to get acquainted with American perfumes in general. There are few distributors, high transport costs, etc… I know most of the mentioned perfumers by name, I have some of their perfumes on my “to-try” list, but I haven’t been able to try them out so far. On the other hand, somehow I have been able to try (and buy) creations of some of the East Coast perfumers. August 3, 2017 at 5:44am Reply

    • Alyssa: An interesting point. I wonder if distribution is easier through New York? It may also be that NYC area perfumers create with an eye toward European restrictions on materials. Victoria probably knows much more about this than I do. August 3, 2017 at 11:29am Reply

  • MaggieM: Definitely a missed opportunity on the part of Allure to acknowledge the role trailblazing women have played in the field of contemporary perfumery, especially since it is a magazine geared to women! California certainly has been a crucible of ideas and not just from perfumers. The IAO was founded by a woman…Perhaps the presence of women in perfumery should be the theme of the next FRAGments. Thank you for posting! August 3, 2017 at 10:19am Reply

    • Alyssa: Yes I am familiar with Saskia’s work–and with yours! At first I thought the usual West vs East coast rivalry might be part of the issue but then Imaginary Authors is from Portland so who knows? I do have sympathy for freelancers looking for ways to pitch stuff and how it often gets published in a context beyond their control, but for the editors to place this piece in the “Diversity Issue” was pretty glaring. August 3, 2017 at 11:33am Reply

  • Becky K.: I am so glad you wrote this article! Even though I live on the East Coast, my mother is a 4th generation Californian, and I have never visited the state! Perhaps I can “visit” California by sampling some of these fragrances. Thanks! August 3, 2017 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Ariadne: Loved your book, love this post! This series of contributions to perfume knowledge is VERY exciting for me! August 3, 2017 at 7:39pm Reply

  • Grayspoole: Great article Alyssa! I was excited to see your byline since I also enjoyed your book very much. I would add Shelley Waddington of En Voyage Perfumes to this wonderfully talented group of Californian perfumers. (I assume Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids, up the coast in Seattle, will be covered in another article.)

    Given the influence and success of all of these women perfumers, I cannot imagine how the Allure article managed to overlook them. I don’t want to go all negative, but I believe that many of Allure’s articles (their annual lists of best beauty products for example) are closer to advertorials than real journalism. Could that explain the otherwise confounding choice of indie perfumers in this piece? August 4, 2017 at 5:25am Reply

    • Jennifer Shaw: Grayspoole, Allure has changed so much since Linda Wells has left and moved onto different pastures in the publishing world. When she created Allure, so long ago, it was a huge difference in how beauty magazines thrived. I miss the biting wit of Fay Wheldon and other writers who would question the role of beauty/vanity. There was more bite to it. I miss the old Allure.

      I finally read the Allure piece and was quite stunned, too! Shocked would be the word I choose that they would forget about Mandy Aftel and Yosh who are such luminaries in the San Francisco Bay area. Oh well, I suppose that I am no longer their demographics. I have yet to attend one of Mandy Aftel’s gatherings and surely hope to attend one soon! August 5, 2017 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Ann: Wonderful article, thank you! And so necessary. Wow, Allure, what were you thinking???

    Alyssa, I recently read your book, and it was just a joy. My favorite part was your bridal shower – miracle!

    Scent dinners? Perfume tours of California? Good to know there are wonderful real life experiences waiting for perfumistas 🙂 August 4, 2017 at 7:25am Reply

  • Steve L.: Well done article. Since reading it I’ve been alternating Yosh Sombre Negra and PdN NY Intense: two women perfumers, one a Californian. They’ve both got what it takes, as far as I can tell anyway. August 5, 2017 at 10:59am Reply

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