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Cat's Meow

Time to stop and smell the flowers By Tonie Minsal Le Parfumeur Rebelle I could dedicate an entire review to Perfumer Laurie Stern’s aesthetic for her luverly company Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery--it’s that sweet and special. To my mind, only one other company has ever impressed me this much with the care and attention paid to the beauty of presentation--it’s that impressive. From the lush purple box the products arrived in, to the shredded paper packing, to the silver wrapping paper, to the little velvet pouch with a rhinestone buckle, to the sweet little info cards, to the silver box with the faux gem on top--I was blown away. Laurie was a wedding florist in a previous incarnation--lucky us that she does perfume now! The scents themselves are nearly impossible to describe, they’re so complex and delicate--they’re like a fine lace or filigree. They are a testament to Laurie’s love affair with flowers. It’s trippy, but instead of being heavy and overbearing, these fragrances invite you to come closer to inhale their loveliness, like a flower inviting a bee. The Terrain is probably my favorite; it smells incredible with mitti attar. Laurie employs the most delicate hand, but it’s still strong enough for me. This is what I want to smell constantly and forever. Indescribably beautiful. When I look on Velvet & Sweet Pea’s site, I was shocked to discover that this was an eau de cologne, not a perfume. I am always drawn to scent in its strongest concentration, and yet I am completely smitten with this. Laurie outdoes herself with this blend. Narcissus Poeticus is kind of low and warm and deep. Kind of gummy and resiny, polar opposite of the high, white, clean smell I expected. Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Gardenia is not your granny’s drugstore jungle gardenia. Laurie’s version of this hypnotic flower is not at all the funereal, cloying choker that most of us grew up with. This interpretation is all softness with notes of candy and powder--and I mean powder in the best sense of the word. Dry down brings out an ambery spice anchor. I detect some juicy citrus notes as well. Another one I cannot stop sniffing. Jasmine Dawn To Dusk was another surprise--citrusy sweet. I wanna say bubble gummy, but in the best possible way. Three different jasmines meld warmly with citrus oils to give an edible quality to this potion. Songbird--clear light orange blossom champagne with a tiny little anchor of a sparrow’s foot of sandal or mitti holding it from completely ascending. Jewelry Of Heaven is complex; starts with a winey note, drying down to kind of a sweet, clear orange candy with a powdery top, then settles into a sandaly, mitti-ish heart. Veddy veddy nice indeed. You’ve just bathed in a pool of clear, crisp mountain spring water. You roll down a hillside, still naked, through a riot of wildflowers. As you crush the blooms, they release their fragrance--a rainbow of sunny smiles, lifting up to Heaven. You run exhilarated, through the fresh spring breeze, petals clinging to your still damp body. Oh no wait--you’ve just used Velvet & Sweetpea’s Calliope Bath & Body Oil. Laurie also does Solid Perfumes in a base of organic jojoba and beeswax. These are packaged in the dearest little silver poison boxes with a big faux gem on top. I tried the Honey--tuberose predominates with a citrus top note. This is bee juice, man, for sure. Sweet, gooey, and tasty. Lovely. Victorian. Velvet Sweet Pea’s Bath Salts are just grand. Highly scented and packaged dearly, they come in Kashmir Lavender, which is a must have. Really clear and sweet. Passionflower is a surprise, with spearmint, ylang, blood orange, and lime. I am not a fan of mint, but it works wonderfully in this blend. Monkey Cat smells like essential oil of monkey and cat. Kidding--I’m kidding. Named for one of Laurie’s kitties in residence, try this one yourself and see. Terrain is lovely, with frankincense, geranium, and lime. Different than the perfume version, methinks. Laurie also stocks some splendid organic hydrosols: Bulgarian Rose, Orange Blossom, Rose Geranium, and Lavender. Staples. I’ve tried others, and I’m very impressed with the strength and quality of these. So much so that I ordered more of the orange blossom and the rose. Laurie also offers Perfumery Adventures--check her site for details. Um--she has a claw footed tub in her back yard--enough said! Any of Laurie’s products would make the dearest, most impressive gift. You heard it here first, at good old LPR--expect big things for Laurie Stern and Velvet and Sweet Pea’s--just look at her last name--she’s a star!

The Purrfumery Adventure

A review by By Recommendation Only's Johanna Kaestner The more sophisticated we get the harder is it to be unique. Personalizing weddings, based on family tradition and heritage, are very much en vogue; but how can a hostess surprise her wedding shower guests? For women who want to pamper their friends with something luxurious, and at the same time something sensual and fascinating, I suggest the Purrfumery Adventure! Laurie, the Adventure's creator was formerly a well-known wedding florist in the East Bay. She now has turned her talents to creating all-natural botanical scents, brewing small batches of natural botanical perfumes and body oils. The passionate cat lover called her business Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery in love for her two rescued cats. It was one of the clear and sunny days in late fall when we, a middle-aged group of women, all friends from the event industry, drove up the hill to Laurie's house. She had invited us to accompany her for a romantic journey of the senses. We relaxed on comfortable chairs and sofas around the coffee table were most of Laurie's treasures were displayed. Exquisite perfumes and body oils were securely stored in fine French crystal bottles or jeweled boxes in order to preserve the volatile fragrance. We smelled the scent of incredibly rare spring-blooming jonquilles, which belong to the family of narcissus poeticus, and marveled at the simple, fresh aroma of blood oranges. We drew in the earthy pungency of the Indian pink lotus, and learned that whole villages live from picking these flowers from the ponds hidden in the jungle. We experienced that Lavender from the the high altitude of the Himalayas has more floral scent than medicinal scent, and that the best vanilla beans come from Madagascar. Soil, weather, altitude, and the year of the harvest are very important. The more perfect the conditions, the better the plants from which these volatile essences are collected. We shared and laughed about our impressions, which the different perfumes provoked and had a lot of fun, and laughed about the outcome. Laurie offers her Adventure for bridal showers or teas, small groups like brides and attendants, or even the bridal couple itself. I am sure you they will discover an entirely new side of each other as they explore the world of scents. Adventure rates depend on the number of participants and travel time. For more information please visit Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery

Find Your Own Scent!

A review by By Recommendation Only's Johanna Kaestner A story about the magic of hydrosols, and how a woman followed her dream. You read correctly, it is not a typo; the "purr" in Purrfumery comes from Laurie Stern’s beloved cats, Velvet and Sweet Pea. They snuggle and purr on the white damask love seat in her small, comfortable studio. Here she meets her clients, creates her scents, or studies in her most precious possession, Eugene Rimmel’s 1865 Book of Perfumes. The antique armoire with the eyelet lace-covered shelves houses her treasures. They consist of organic blends of perfumes and are packaged in jewel boxes and French crystal bottles. All the items are displayed in clear cellophane bags, ready to be sold and delivered. Daylight filters through the white lace curtains, giving you even more of the impression of being a world apart. Only one window is uncovered. Glass shelves are fit into the frame; they carry Laurie's antique perfume bottle collection. About 25 years ago Laurie started to buy these bottles at flea markets, and she would imagine the scents they contained and the ladies enveloped in those scents. At that time she had no clue where life eventually would lead her. "Everything about flowers always astounded me; the glory of springtime, the rich autumn colors, rose and lavender jam, aromatherapy," Laurie stated. To satisfy her love for flowers she became a flower designer. Her beautiful, lush, fragrant bouquets and decorations were in high demand. Then, there was that trip to France; the visit to the famous perfumery, Fragonard in Grasse, which inspired her to immerse herself deeper into the mysterious, closed world of fragrances. Looking back it seemed a natural progression from creating bouquets that attract the eye, to creating natural perfumes that excite the sense of smell. She took one weekend class and then decided to study on her own. Her deep connection to nature helped her to go on a discovery tour through centuries of ancient knowledge. She learned about the main plant energies, which are either calming, invigorating, or sensuous and about hydrosols which contain micro drops of essential oils that are healing to the soul. To find out how important they are for our well-being, Laurie tested her two nephews, and had them pick their favorite scents. The one with allergies preferred the respiratory oils, a combination of blue spruce and frankincense, helping him to breath easier; the one with hypertension picked the oils with calming effects. At the time of our meeting Laurie had just returned from a class in Arizona; the topic: Plant Healing. It highlighted the esoteric branch of flower therapy showing connections between herbalism, homeopathy, and aromatherapy. "Scent goes to the brain and regulates the hormones. A good perfume maker must be a good alchemist," Laurie told me. All oils have a different volatility, a different rate of evaporation. A great perfume will unfold like a flower on your skin. Each scent has top notes, heart notes, and soul notes. The first 15 minutes you smell the top note, the citrus and herbal flavors. The heart notes unfold next; they are the rich fragrant flowers like jasmine, roses, and carnations. Last are the soul notes, ancient woods, tree sap, sandalwood, frankincense, and myrrh. Aphrodisiac oils are mood enhancing and make you feel delicious. "I feel blessed to work with the earth’s most precious treasures," she comments. Laurie orders her mostly organic oils and absolutes from all over the world. This gave her the idea to create the lecture Purrfumery Adventure. She leads her listeners to discover that lotus flowers are collected in a tiny pond of rural India, the best vanilla is grown in Madagascar and Tahiti, and the high altitude of Kashmir puts the most energy into the lavender flowers. Laurie invited me to such a trip, which I will share with you later in the year.

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 areanewsgroup.com.

Making Sense of Scents: A Review by Perfumer Lyn Ayre

A review by perfumer Lyn Ayre 18 September, 2008 Purrfumery profiles – Velvet and Sweet Pea’s have shared their samples with me and here’s what I smelled... Narcissus Poeticus opens with a pungent animalic scent that quickly dries down to the earthy aromas of a love nest. Very unique. I detect some Osmanthus and possibly some myrrh. Still evolving at the one-hour mark. 2 hours later-scent has faded. Jasmine Dawn & Dusk is fruity, jammy, jasmine at its best. It’s ascent from my wrist to my nose is speedy and constant. There’s a soft powdery note in the background and bright springtime notes in the foreground. Still evolving at the one-hour mark. 2 hours later-scent is still there. Fading at 3 hours. Jewellery of Heaven is very floral and sweet. This scent draws me in and makes me want to keep inhaling its heavenly aroma. Wonderful. I detect palma rosa, rosewood or possibly jamarosa – a sharp penetrating top note. Still evolving at the one-hour mark. 2 hours later-scent is still there and wafting up to my nose. Three hours later, still going strong. Finishes very powdery on me. Honey is amazing. Diffuses nicely, lasts a long time. I love this perfume. It ends up being very sweet and floral on my skin. Still evolving at the one-hour mark. 2 hours later-scent is still there and wafting up to my nose. Three hours later, still going strong. Four hours, very soft now. Gardenia is not overpowering like the live plant rather pleasingly heady, floral, sweet, and definitely Gardenia. I like it very much. Still evolving at the one-hour mark. 2 hours later-scent is still there and wafting up to my nose. Three hours later, still going strong. Four hours, very soft now. Songbird is wonderful. I would choose this perfume. I detect cinnamon, vanilla, and orange… almost edible… like a fresh bright tasty creamsicle. Yummmm. Still evolving at the one-hour mark, 2 hours later-scent is still there and wafting up to my nose. Three hours later, still going strong. Four hours, very soft now. Terrain Cologne is fresh and clean. I detect perhaps blood orange, geranium, frankincense… still evolving at the one-hour mark. 2 hours later-scent has faded I truly enjoyed this foray into the furrows of the perfume feline. Laurie Stern is a true perfumer, crafter, and skilled artisan. Over the last couple of years, I have smelled dozens of perfume samples from other natural perfumers but none has topped these. Her accords are tightly mastered and thrilling to my olfactory organs. Thank you so very much for sharing your amazing gift, Laurie.

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.

Cultivated Charm

Time to stop and smell the flowers By Kathryn Loosli Pritchett Times Correspondent Posted on Sat, Apr. 29, 2006 Excerpted "You can tell a lot about a gardener by what he or she grows. Gardens filled with found objects or rare specimens indicate a collector's sensibility. Back yards overflowing with tomatoes, squash and artichokes identify the earth mothers (and fathers) among us. Rose gardens reveal a romantic personality; native plants a practical concern for the earth. Participate in any of the garden tours available in the Bay Area this spring and you'll meet a host of fascinating people through their plants." "Laurie Stern's passion is flowers, preferably scented ones. In the El Cerrito garden she shares with her husband, landscape designer Gary Lazar, Stern has planted flowers that eventually infuse the homemade tinctures, perfumes and bath salts that make up her perfume business, Velvet and Sweet Pea's Purrfumery (a nod to the many cats that sun in the garden). Stern will be demonstrating how she makes her perfume in their garden during this year's Secret Gardens of the East Bay tour on April 30. Stern and Lazar bought the property 23 years ago right after Lazar earned his landscape design degree at Berkeley. "The house was a total pit, and the landscaping was even worse," says Lazar. "I looked at the site and said, 'What does this space want to be?'" Lazar determined that what the property was calling out for was a series of terraces where you could take in the view and have dedicated resting spots. A back deck attached to the house lined with potted plants is the first area; below it is a shaded terrace with a view; beneath that and to the side of a charming guest cottage is the barbecue area lined in stone and featuring a bold wall fountain. At the bottom of the property is a lilac dell, another small fountain and a wrought-iron arbor covered with Cecile Brunner, New Dawn and Zephirine Drouhin roses that support an elegant chandelier. The arbor shades a claw-footed tub fully plumbed with hot water for al fresco bathing. When Stern wants to concoct a favorite tincture, her materials are close at hand. Floral notes are derived from lavenders, roses, hardenbergia, wisteria, honeysuckle and sweet peas. Citrus notes come from lemons, limes, blood oranges and mandarins. Fruity notes abound in the pineapple, guava, kiwi, apricot and wild plum plants. And to create "earthy" perfumes, she grows mosses, sages, herbs, wild gingers and ferns. "This is our paradise, our refuge in life," says Stern. "Every day we try to spend time in it."