Laurie Stern of Velvet & sweet pea's purrfumery
• Can you tell us of your background?
I grew up a block from the ocean in a little town called Longport, near Atlantic City, New Jersey. I still love the smell of the ocean and sea life, and the sound of shore grasses blowing in the breeze. I’ve always had my own businesses, ever since I got out of high school. Early on, I made one-of-a-kind lingerie pieces with antique lace and beadwork that I sold to high end stores like Bendel’s in New York. Later, I had a modest flower stand that grew into a wedding flower business. I have always loved making things, especially bouquets and arrangements with beautiful French ribbons. I also loved connecting with my clients and working with them to bring their visions to life. My wedding flower business was very successful, but after 15 years of winery weddings in Napa, I was ready to do something different.
• Did you have a interest in fragrance growing up?
I have always wanted to know everything I could about flowers and their scent—I’ve been a nature girl my whole life. I remember my best friend’s mother gave me a bottle of Joy in high school and I loved it! I adored the rich, rose-jasmine smell. I also had a very extravagant aunt who would give me sensuous body powders and oils in high school, and I went crazy over them! We had honeysuckle in our backyard, and I sipped their dew. When I arrived in the Bay Area at 18, I loved wearing Body Time Muguet, Joy & Diorissimo. In my twenties, I wore obscure Italian and French perfumes I would find in the south of France, at the flea markets in Nice, when I traveled there to buy antique laces. I loved visiting the perfumeries in Grass and Eze, never knowing that I would someday be a perfumer myself!
• How did your current journey into perfume begin?
I discovered the world of perfume 15 years ago in an introductory class and I was immediately enchanted. I basically locked myself in a room for a few years and just experimented. I played with essential oils—amazing ingredients from all over the world. I read antique books, like my beloved Art of Perfumery from 1855, and that is how I taught myself how to make perfumes, eau de parfums and natural cosmetics. My perfume education is grounded in what I call the “golden age of perfume,” an era long before perfumers used synthetic compounds in perfumery. At that time, I also started keeping scent diaries of how the oils made me feel and how they affected me. This is how I developed an understanding of the therapeutic and mood-enhancing properties of different scents.
• Where would you say the fragrance world is in at the moment? There is a tremendous amount of conversation and creation around perfume right now, and I think it’s wonderful. The public is gaining a renewed understanding of perfume as an art form. I think natural perfumes are becoming more popular because so many of us are fragrance-sensitive or have allergies, or simply enjoy the subtlety of natural perfumes. Many of my customers want cruelty-free perfumes with no animal testing that are also free of animal musks. And with some of the new technology, I think we’re going to see incredible new extractions from plants.
I think the web really opens up the conversation, too. There are many resources available for amateur and professional perfumers, and sites like Facebook where perfume lovers can connect.
• Can you explain in your own words one of the major differences that people may notice with natural perfumes.
I love how natural perfumes call on a connection to the ancient world and to our primal brains. We are so used to rushing around in our modern world and thinking and planning ahead, but our sense of smell is very present, very immediate. Scent helps us to relax and get grounded in our experience. Tapping into our old brains by inhaling an incredible scent reminds us to slow down and smell the roses! Scent can have a profound effect on how we see the world, too. Rose always cheers me up and jasmine still makes me swoon. Conifers transport me to the redwoods, where I can inhale deeply! I love to be in the forest, and I bring it into many of my products, including my new Beard Balm for beardsmen!
• What would you say is your creative process if you can share?
I get an idea, or I want to make perfume around some new gorgeous material that I have. It usually takes around six months to perfect it. But it really depends. I made my Black Cat perfume in about 10 minutes! I was in my Purrfumery before Halloween and I knew I had to make a Black Cat perfume. I was thinking of candy and vanilla and then I added cocoa, blood orange, aniseed myrtle for licorice, and ylang ylang. Fir-ever Young took me 10 years. That’s how long it took to tell me it was done! I used hundreds of woods, fir and cedars, not to mention floral scents and citrus—it was a work in progress for a very long time. I was thrilled when one of my customers was interviewed for Oprah Magazine and she mentioned that she wears it.
I make all the perfumes here in my perfumery, and I also make many of the ingredients that go into my perfumes and other products. I make house-infused organic alcohols with honey, vanilla, and roses from my Perfumer’s Garden and I hand-tincture flower essences. I use beeswax and propolis from my own beehives. I design all the packaging and I create each perfume to be a collector’s item.
My passion for animal welfare is also a big part of my creative process. In fact, my two kitties ( Velvet & Sweet Pea!) that I rescued from a life of lab testing inspired me to build my Purrfumery. After I was in business for a few years, I became Leaping Bunny certified. Leaping Bunny is an assurance to my customers that I don’t do animal testing and neither do any of my suppliers. Creativity and compassion are one within these walls!
• Do you have any advice for those that may want to become an perfumer?
I don’t generally give advice because I think you have to know for yourself what makes your heart sing. I have always followed my heart, wherever that winding road has led me. I became passionate and obsessed about natural essences and there wasn’t a choice, I didn’t even think about it. I had capital from my lucrative wedding flower business, and once I knew I wanted to put my perfumes out into the world, I started thinking seriously about bottling them and creating treasure pouches to house them. I wanted every part to be as beautiful and magical as I could make it, so that each aspect is in itself a gift, from the perfume to the bottle or jewel-box, to the pouch or purse, and last, but not least, the Victorian-style scent card that accompanies each scent.
Working in a creative realm isn’t easy. Marketing is a challenge and it’s a lot of work, even if you enjoy it enormously!
• Finally do you have any other words that you would like to share?
My Purrfumery is a whimsical place—I retreat there to have fun and get carried away by scent. My Purrfumery friends feel the same way—visitors always say they feel like they step into another world when they walk through the door. My latest source of whimsy and fun is a line of men’s products to help beardsmen keep their beards under control. It’s called Mr. Whisker’s Beard Balm and it was a blast to formulate! I told you I am a true tree hugger, right? I hike a lot and I’m always hugging the trees to smell their essential oils. I love all of the rich scents of the earth, from woods and mosses to grasses and leaves. These are the elements I am weaving into my Beard Balm line. When I work on these products, I take a break from the feminine whimsy and the florals I use in my perfumes and get into something completely different. It’s a hilarious challenge to edit my packaging designs because I’m a “too much is never enough” kind of girl! This approach works really well for my perfume lines, but for my new men’s line, I’m working on simplicity in terms of design. Mr. Whiskers is a very sophisticated cat! And he likes things simple and earthy, so that’s what I’m doing.