My guest AMANDA FEELEY is an artisanal perfumer based in Ames, Iowa, in America’s heartland. She offers her unique, hand-developed perfumes via her company ESSCENTUAL ALCHEMY. THE SPRAY CHEST is pleased to sample some of Amanda’s cleverly-titled perfumes and find out about her intuitive, ”musical” compositional technique.
AF: I’ve only been doing this since January 2010. I really think my training as a musician has helped me in my perfume composition. I had gone to school as a music major at Simpson College in Indianola, Indiana…studying Opera under Dr. Robert Larson. We had to take classes in Theory, Composition, Harmony, Counterpoint. Now, the rules of Counterpoint are explicit and strict; your music has to “go somewhere”; you can’t leave your audience hanging… A seventh chord has to resolve, for example. You have to build strong chords. Perfumery, for me, is similar.
I remember, I used to go to this little store in the mall called Garden Botanika. They had a Perfume Bar, where you could go and mix for yourself a custom perfume. I loved it. When they went out-of-business in the mid-90‘s, I was so bummed.
Looking back, I realize I was always a Perfumista; I had wa-a-y more perfume than a teenage girl could ever wear in a lifetime. I loved the way each scent was different, each smelled differently on my skin… and each elicited different emotional reactions.
I remember I had this inexpensive perfume from Avon. Actually, it was two perfumes in one. I think it was called something like FIRE AND ICE? You were meant to wear them separately, or blend them according to your mood… One was warming and spicy and extrovert; the other was cooling and soothing and inviting.
I was really struck by the way how, blended together, they seemed to make an entirely new perfume.
I was a junior in high school when I discovered SUN, MOON AND STARS by Karl Lagerfeld. It came in a beautiful, cobalt-blue glass bottle, with a golden cap, laced with stars. I loved it, and it was one of the first “high end” perfumes I remember using. Before that, it had been more affordable, but still loved, things like LOVE’S BABY SOFT, ASPEN, EX-CLAM-A-TION!… WIND SONG… STETSON for women, Arden SUNFLOWERS… There was another, a little more upscale, from Victoria’s Secret, I think it was VANILLA CARAMEL.
In college I just started wearing pure jasmin oil for a long time.
In December of last year, my husband Kevin, an avid blogger, had noticed that a vegan perfumer was offering a Do-It-Yourself Perfumery Kit. He asked me if I’d like it for Christmas? Well, would I! It was like having that Garden Botanika Perfume Bar at my fingertips again. He got it for me, and I began mixing things. With each mixture, you were to wait a month to allow the oils to blend and meld. I was pleasantly surprised when some of my creations really turned out pretty good. We ordered another kit from this lady. Some of the oils might have been synthetics, but most were natural essences. I was dazzled at the way these oils could yield me scents that smelled sophisticated, like something as high-end as SUN, MOON AND STARS.
Spurred on, I ordered Mandy Aftel’s book ESSENCE AND ALCHEMY, and took her Level I correspondence course. It came with your workbook and 12 essential oils. They smelled incredible, and my kids were, like: “Can we smell them, too?” And I was, like: “No! No-one can touch these but Mom!” [laughs.] I wasn’t about to have, say, benzoin dripped all over the floor.
At one point in Mandy’s book, I came to a fascinating chart, from THE ART OF PERFUMERY, devised in the 17th century by a man named Septimus Piesse. It showed the musical notes on the staff, and, according to Piesse, each note on the scale corresponded to a scenting note… say, jasmin. And I had an epiphany– I thought to myself, “Hey, I already know how to do this!”
From there, I just started ordering oils, absolutes and concretes, mixing things up, and began taking copious notes in my leather journal.
DLB: I’m loving this scent of yours called LUMBERJACK MAN. It’s a gorgeous balsamic woody, with delicate floral and ambered hints. It smells oaky and soft, delicately sweet, slightly turpenoidal…
AF: Thank you. I’ll tell you about how the name came about: My husband Kevin is a big coffee person, and in that area has a remarkable nose himself. Whenever one of my perfumes had done ageing, I’d go to him and say “Smell this.” On this one, Kevin thought a moment and said, “That one smells…. like Christmas. It smells like a forest…. It’s manly…”
And I interjected, “What, you mean, like a lumberjack?”
He said, “Yeah. It’s…. a Lumberjack Man.”
“Like Monty Python’s Lumberjack?” So that’s what we called it: LUMBERJACK MAN. It is manly, but it’s got a touch of sensitivity… that’s the ylang-ylang… You know, “he’s a sensitive man… He chops down trees—”
DLB: Wears high-heels? Loves to press wild flowers?
AF: [laughs.] Manly, but sensitive, too.
DLB: Tell me about this scent, KAMA. It is really seductive… intoxicating… hay-ey and reedy, with wonderful spicy and camphoraceous notes… a luscious base of citrus and sandalwood…
AF: I’d been thinking about India. And all these elemental substances which had been used for thousands of years—
DLB: Yes, KAMA does smell alluringly “ancient”…. venerable….
AF: I started blending these oils… intuitively mixing them. Still learning, of course, I told myself that even if it didn’t turn out perfectly, I still would have learned something.
The name came about when, one evening at dinner, I dabbed some on my throat. I’d been considering calling it ODE TO INDIA. But at dinner– we’d had a little beer or wine— Kevin could not take himself away from this fragrance. “What does it smell like?” I asked him.
“It smells like…” he said, “like I could just stare at you over dinner all evening…. and then enjoy you later…”
And I thought, Oh! I guess I’ll call it KAMA, then. It’s too bad the kids are still awake. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink… [laughs].
DLB: Tell me about this scent, SAX AND VIOLETS. It’s a very tender, comforting, lavender-based scent, with delicate, grassy undertones. A very subtle spice note delicately echoing the natural spicy hints of the lavender… Nurturing, refined…. intimate.
AF: It’s Number Six in my compositional output. One of my earlier perfumes. Again, it’s based on the musical idea that perfumer’s notes go together with each other like musical notes. Mandy Aftel’s course also gave me insight into how different types of notes— like florals— should blend together. I also approached blending by considering notes as “colors” on an artist’s colorwheel…. literally assessing angles of compatibility between notes the way a painter chooses colors.
DLB: I love, in SAX AND VIOLETS, that delicate— what is it?— basil or anise-like note supporting the “edges” of the lavender.
DLB: It’s fabulous.
AF: My husband was a jazz major– a trumpet guy. Whereas my musical concentration was classical, he was always into the avant-garde. Kevin always appreciates my more jaunty or angular or less-traditional compositions. To his nose, this new perfume smelled like “ a dreamy jazz combo, playing in a velvet-lined room, with a vase of purple flowers at the center.”
DLB: I love this other scent of yours as well, BLUE LEMONADE? A vibrantly juicy, tangy, mouthwatering study in lemon and lemon-like notes…
AF: That one is fun… It’s Number 10. It was conceived in early spring… That April had been SO dreary…so rainy… cold still. I really wanted something cheerful and uplifting. Upon ageing the scent, I noticed that it was pleasant, but perhaps a bit astringent… maybe too “Mr. Clean”. I thought: What can I do to take it in another direction? Intuitively I added some blue chamomile to the recipe and aged it another month. And it was perfect. I really grooved on it. It’s like: lemons and ginger and tangy and “yum!”… but with a “blue tang”. It became my BLUE LEMONADE.
DLB: Then we come to this scrumptious gourmand of yours, ORANGE CHOCOLATE ROSES. Now this is truly a delicious, sweet, nearly edible scent… marvelous. Sweet chocolate, with tangy, fruity nuances.
AF: This is a scent from my Decadent Chocolate line.
From Mandy Aftel, I obtained a Cacao fragrance from her Chef’s Essences collection. It smells so yummy! Like some really good chocolate you’ve gotten your hands on. I started blending notes with the cacao… My goal was to give the impression of actual chocolate candies, for example, an authentic Chocolate Mint Truffle, a Ginger-Mint Truffle… or a Chocolate Hazelnut Infusion. The fragrance you’re sampling is my ORANGE CHOCOLATE ROSES. I envisioned it as a delicate chocolate “flower”. It’s my Number 19.
DLB: How many fragrances do you offer today?
AF: Around thirty. And I always have ideas brewing in my head for new scents.
DLB: What inspires you?
AF: Sometimes it’s music… or an artwork…. or a picture… Or maybe it’s an abstract thought I think of. It’s “The Muses”, you know? It’s almost as though I don’t decide anything; The Muses really direct my hand. I might have an initial idea, but I will let it incubate until the inspiration really hits me. My first twelve fragrances were more intuitively built, but now that I am gaining in experience, I’m starting to blend with more confidence.
I’ll jot some proposed notes down in my journal… and then I’ll wait, you know, to see what materializes.
DLB: Any scents you’re developing now?
AF: Yes, an “absinthe” perfume.
I loved, in college, studying about the 19th and early 20th Centuries, with their huge, passionate outpouring of art, literature and music. The French art songs, which were “impressionistic” in the same way as the canvases the Impressionists were painting. The way a Monet, like that music, was so emotional. I was fascinated in the way all the poets of that period were all drinking absinthe. I thought, What is it about this substance that seemed to invoke the Muses?
I read up on this bohemian culture. How they were augmenting the absinthe with opium… laudanum… and painters like Van Gogh were dangerously getting some of that lead paint into their mouths…
Couple those maddening influences with the emotional upheaval of that period… and you have some truly amazing
I’m an astrologer of many years, as well, and I remain fascinated at the astrological influences that reigned during that particular artistic efflorescence, which also yielded much new technology, like the steam engine. People almost went crazy for a while… there was this gay revelry… people had the apocalyptic idea that, “Well, the world’s coming to an end, so I might as well have a stiff drink.”
I was finally able to get the actual ingredients– the oils– that went into absinthe. Found this old absinthe recipe from Pernod, in this old encyclopedia of alcohol.
I’ve never drunk absinthe— authentic absinthe has long been illegal in America, although that’s changing now. But the concoction that I mixed sure smelled like I thought it should—- it was even that pale, strange green color! Knowing that my notes were all authentic and natural, I even toyed with drinking it. I asked another perfumer if that were possible. She said, “Yes, actually you could…. but don’t tell any of your customers that if you’re putting it up for sale!”
DLB: Amanda, how can we buy your perfumes?
AF: You can Friend me on FACEBOOK, and on one of my Tabs you’ll see the ArtFire Shop. Or you can go directly to my website, http://www.esscentualalchemy.com
I’ve begun selling my perfumes in a beautiful glass decanter, which contains a glass applicator within. In fact, if you buy the larger decanter, I will refill it with the jus when it is empty. I’m very “green” that way.
DLB: Plans for the future?
AF: I want to have a real, bricks-and-mortar store here in Ames… in which I sell all my perfumes… teach classes… offer elegant “sniffas” to guests.
THE SPRAY CHEST is thrilled to recommend this very talented newcomer in the world of artisanal natural perfumery. Amanda is definitely a rising talent you’ll want to watch.