The Art of Composing Fragrance, Naturally

A studio in the El Cerrito hills beckons those with a nose for custom-made perfumes derived from natural ingredients. By Yuko Fukami | November 7, 2010 [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="272"]art-of-composing-frangrances Perfume artist Laurie Stern at her Velvet | Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery Credit Yuko Fukami[/caption] Back in the days of Marie Antoinette, perfumes were made with essential oils and other plant and animal fragrance materials, but since Coco unveiled Chanel No. 5 featuring a novel synthetic fragrance material called aldehyde, commercial perfumes have been made mostly with synthetic fragrance chemicals untested for health effects. However, a small and emerging group of perfumers make perfumes the old-fashioned way, using only natural and plant-based fragrance materials such as tinctures, essential oils, and absolutes. One of its members is Laurie Stern of El Cerrito, whose products carry the Leaping Bunny certification, which assures that they are free of animal testing. When I contacted Stern in September to request an interview, she was in the midst of creating a perfume for a New York City event organized by Sniffapalooza, a community for perfume enthusiasts. Stern was to speak at the event and also debut a new perfume. I  had to wait. I finally got an appointment,. While driving along a winding street in the El Cerrito hills, I wondered what to expect at her studio, also known as the Purrfumery. I'd read that she makes her own tinctures from flowers in her fragrant and beautiful garden and that she also keeps bees. The moment I walked onto the front patio, my time-space continuum seemed to shift a little. I knocked at a door beneath a Velvet and Sweet Peas sign. Vivacious and warm, Stern greeted me with smiles. The Purrfumery is a wonderland out of Jane Austen novels, a room full of crystals and flowers, lace, ribbons, jewels, and fabulous smells, everything a girl could want. Her world is lusciously sensual and totally Laurie Stern. Velvet and Sweet Pea are the names of her cats that were rescued by Stern some years ago. The two cats adorn the gold-embossed labels of her products wearing tiaras that Stern made for them. Now she has six rescued cats and works to rescue animals in her spare time. I spotted a large antique secretary whose shelves are filled with baskets upon baskets of essential oils and concentrated fragrant liquids extracted from plants called absolutes, all categorized by types of scent. This is where Stern sits and composes. The desktop is cluttered with bottles of oils old and new. In another corner of the room is a table dedicated to antique oil bottles. I could hardly contain my excitement. For a novice natural perfumer like me, her studio is a dream come true. Each of Velvet and Sweet Pea's perfumes comes in Stern's delicately decorated handmade pouches with a scented Victorian card that Stern designed. Using crystal bottles made by Brosse, a French company that makes perfume bottles for big perfume houses, Stern makes each of her oeuvre into a beautiful collector's object. Stern pointed to pouches decorated with velvet pansies hanging on an armoire, saying, "I made all of those." A nature girl from a young age, Stern has sewn all of her life. After graduating from CCA, she made one-of-a-kind handmade lingerie for stores like Bendel's and I. Magnin using antique lace from Europe. After that, she had a successful wedding flower business. Her perfume business brings her past work and passions together. I asked her about the perfume she worked on for ten years. "It was one of those things," Stern said, "where you keep adding things to the blend, and it never seems right until one day, ten years later." A woman in Berkeley came up with the name for the perfume, Fir~ever Young in a contest created by Stern to name the perfume. I tried a dab of the green juice on my arm. The first thing I smelled was conifers, then I noticed the jammy sweetness of fir absolute among some fresh floral scents and black currant. Next, I asked about Song Bird, Stern's favorite perfume. Combining orange flower, boronia, nutmeg, the perfume gives her confidence and makes her feel she can take on any challenge, Stern said. She got the idea for the perfume from scent strips that were rejected by a custom perfume client. As I dabbed Song Bird on my wrist, the scent of muted orange flowers rose from my skin, then later came fruity boronia. Boronia absolute made from a type of Tasmanian heather is very, very rare and costly. Then she opened a bottle of her newest perfume, Bed of Roses. "You're the first one to try it," she said. My heart skipped. A light rose scent with a vanilla-like sweetness opened the perfume. Then it progressed to a greener, sharper rose, more layered and complicated than smelling a single rose. I later also noticed the fruitiness of boronia. The perfume contains nine rose oils from around the world, plus tobacco, cognac, orange flower, boronia, and carnation. Commercial perfumes are made of synthetic chemicals for several reasons. Quality of natural oils can vary from producer to producer, from harvest to harvest, and their supply can also vary from year to year. Synthetics don't. They're uniform and much easier to work with. The supply is predictable, too. Natural oils also cost a lot more than synthetics. One-and-a-half milliliters (there's five milliliters in a teaspoon) of jasmine absolute can cost $50. Rose otto costs at least twice as much. A teaspoonful of boronia absolute will set you back about $300, if you can find it at all. Naturally, perfumes made exclusively of essential oils and absolutes end up being, well, not cheap. The Kittylicious Eau de Parfum line is a more affordable line of Stern's creations. They are light and delicious. Black Cat reminded me of Halloween candy — sweet, chocolaty, with a hint of licorice-like anise. Mojito smelled just like mojitos! It smells of fresh limes and mint, and infinitely wearable. The line also includes classic floral scents, too. Terrain was made for her husband who is a landscape designer. It is a fresh scent that a woman could easily wear. Geranium gives the blend a nice herbal rosiness; frankincense gives it depth. Velvet and Sweet Peas perfumes are sold online at and by appointment at her Purrfumery. Stern welcomes all customers, even the ones that come by to make one small purchase. You can also buy sample sets online, but if you're interested, I recommend a visit to get the full Purrfumery experience. Velvet & Sweet Pea's Purrfumery, 727 Sea View Drive, El Cerrito; Mon-Fri, noon-5pm. Phone 510-528-8040; fax 510-526-6829; email: