Uncommon Scents

Natural perfumers extract lush life from their passion

By Michelle Devera Louie San Fransisco Chronicle Staff Writer Posted on Sunday, February 11, 2007 Excerpted

Something's in the air in the Bay Area--and it's not the fog. Just follow your nose, and you'll come across a plethora of natural perfumers.

The most recent entrant on the scene is Laurie Stern of El Cerrito. The 50-year-old entrepreneur is about to launch Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery, her line of botanical perfumes, on--naturally--Valentine's Day.

"I just wanted to make something that really combined all the different passions of my life," Stern says.

After 15 years in the wedding floral business, she found that the long hours and early starts (she would often begin at 2 a.m.) were taking a toll. "I never saw my husband," she says.

So, in 2000, Stern decided to take a perfume class. The materials, she said, "just really, really blew my mind. They really spoke to me." She wielded pure rose oil, narcissus and agarwood like an artist, creating scent in her own image.

Stern's line--including perfumes, massage oils, bath salts and cologne that range from $10 for a 1-ounce bottle of orange blossom hydrosol to $550 for a 1-ounce bottle of Songbird perfume--emphasizes "="botanical," meaning that the perfume is unsoiled by synthetics, dyes or animal fixatives.

Stern goes a step further by cultivating her own plants to tincture and distill, and she also offers to recycle her packaging by refilling clients' bottles and containers. She also has her own beehive, which she uses for her Honey perfume. The cats on her label, Velvet and Sweet Pea, for whom the company is named, were rescue animals. She has five rescued cats.

"There's a real little animal inside them (cats), following what's inside, their instincts. That's what I love about perfumery--that it affects our old brain, the seat of our emotions."

The artisan, as she and most natural-perfume makers call themselves, uses anywhere from 10 to 50 ingredients from her backyard to as far away as Tasmania.

"It's like a recipe, like baking," she says.

Stern spent 2 1/2 years reading perfume books from the 1850s, before synthetics hit the market, and fiddling at her laboratory, a wooden Victorian-style desk filled with hundreds of glass bottles.

Considering that the U.S. fragrance industry is a $6 billion-a-year business, according to Rochelle Bloom of the Fragrance Foundation, and that the Internet is fast becoming a powerful catalyst in both sales and supplies, the natural-perfume trend will continue to grow.