Scents of a Woman

Joan Morris, Contra Costa Times 13 June, 2009 When Laurie Stern gave up her lucrative wedding flower business, she spent the next three years closeted away sniffing distilled flower essences and making tiaras and tutus for her cats. Don't worry. This isn't a cautionary tale about a fast-lane workaholic who ended up stalled in the breakdown lane. Stern may not have been working 80-hour weeks on wedding arrangements, but she was in full control of her faculties. Stern, who lives in a too-cute cottage in El Cerrito with her husband and cats, was transforming from florist to perfumer. Perfumery is an ancient art of extracting scents from nature and combining them into perfumes, colognes and other wonderful smelling emollients. It would seem a natural progression from florist to perfumer, but those careers can lie on different ends of the spectrum. As a wedding floral designer, Stern was more concerned with appearances than aromas, although the scents of flowers entered into the equation. But her focus was on combining colors and shapes and trying to create a visual theme and atmosphere for her brides. Perfumery is an intensely personal and introspective endeavor dealing with scent and the power it wields. Our most vivid memories are often connected not to sight but with smell. Scent triggers memory An aroma can more clearly recall scenes of our past than a thousand photographs ever could. A whiff of new mowed grass can instantly recall a summer's day; the delicate scent of gardenias may conjure the image of your first corsage; the aroma of cinnamon may bring to vivid memory your grandmother baking apple pies. Journeying beyond the flower into the aroma has been a peregrination of self-discovery for Stern. Although she loved her floral business and her clients -- she considered them friends -- it was a hectic, hurly-burly lifestyle that didn't leave much time for lunch let alone reflection. "When I gave it up I literally locked myself away in this room for three years," Stern says. "Working with flowers for so long, I never knew they could affect me so much." Wanting to a take a break from her hectic life, Stern decided to focus on herself. Being a romantic at heart, she'd always loved the sensual nature of perfumes, especially botanicals, and began reading about how they are made and what it takes to produce them. She began playing around, as she describes it, with essential oils that she created herself, plucking roses and geraniums from her terraced garden and distilling them in a small copper still until she had captured their essence. Then she would sit in her parlor laboratory, sniffing each one and journaling the thoughts, emotions and memories the aroma enticed from her. Once she extracted every distinction from the aroma, she would, like a chef plotting a new recipe, make notes on how this fragrance might change and blend with others. Into a new world As the days went by, she began to realize she was unlocking a door to a creative side that she hadn't known. Even her handwriting became more languid and floral. Eventually, Stern began producing perfumes that she gave as gifts to friends and family. They liked them and she realized she was on to something. "It's hard for me to do something and not turn it into a business," Stern says. And so Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery was born. The business was named for two of Stern's cats -- who became the recipients of the tutus and tiaras she made. They posed, not without some complaint, for the photos that adorn the labels. Stern, who calls herself an artisanal botanical perfumer, has become a virtuoso of scent, blending top notes with heart and bass notes to create subtle yet beautiful perfumes. Nothing is done by chance or happenstance. Many botanicals come straight from her garden, creams are mixed in her kitchen, and even the beeswax she uses comes from a hive that moved into her yard and decided to stay. The bottles are reproductions of the antique French parfum bottles she collects. The velvet bags her "little treasures" come in were designed and sewn by Stern. And the cards she slips inside each one are copies of antique scent cards. Stern's work area -- a quaint, Victorian styled parlor -- is filled with her wares and tools. Her desk looks like something J.K. Rowling would have written into a Harry Potter book if she had thought to feature a perfume maker. The desk is an organized riot of crystal bottles and vials, each holding a tempting treasure: The essence of a flower, herb or spice, removed from its source and captured, unwilting, forever. It is here that Stern mixes her perfumes and lets her imagination roam. At other times, she follows a spiral staircase down through the levels of her scent garden, the creation of her husband, landscaper and builder Gary Lazar. She collects leaves and blossoms from the citrus trees, roses, tuberoses and dozens of scented geraniums that fill each level of the garden. Stern says she strives for the most organic perfumes she can make, and spends part of her time educating people about perfume's darker side. Many perfume companies use animal essences, harvesting them from animals kept in captivity. Stern also dislikes the modern marketing of perfume, which she says focuses on image above scent. "They impose a view," Stern says. "They tell us, 'Put a scent on and be a power queen or a sex goddess.' But perfumes should change you from the inside," reflecting who you are, not what someone tells you to be. In other words, perfume shouldn't define you. You should define the perfume. One thing Stern's perfumes have in common with the big company brands is that they're expensive. One ounce of her best perfume is $550. Colognes are less than half the price. Stern says making perfume is time- consuming and exacting, and the little details such as the crystal bottles and velvet bags add to the overall expense. Yet, if used correctly, a tiny bottle can last a long time. "Some people walk around in a cloud of aroma," Stern says, missing the subtlety. Perfume should be intimate, something that you can smell and that is only detected by others when they lean in close. And finding that perfect scent? Well, that's something each person must decide, Stern says. "I tell people to trust their intuition," she says. "See what scents you are naturally attracted to and go from there." Reach Joan Morris at 925-977-8479 or jmorris@bay