March 20, 2013

PNW Perfumes: Sweet Anthem & Imaginary Authors

Ashahel Curtis Lantern Slide from the Washington State Archives

The Pacific Northwest is one of the most vital scenes of creative indie-perfume making. There are so many perfumers working there, with more emerging all the time. These two are perfumers that have helped create the personality and style of the PNW perfume culture. There’ll be more on the region's perfumers to come.  In the meantime please also see my prior posts on Olo and Ayala Moriel.

The perfumes from the area are grounded in the aesthetics of artisan perfumery, made in small hand-made batches, with styling effects relating to what is known as naturalismo* in music,  which can also be easily extended to this perfume aesthetic.

I see the influences of the weather, the wilderness and the active physical life that is the ideal, with plenty of dashes of rainy day interiors and greenery brought indoors. This includes DIY culture, spending real amounts of time curling up around good used books, and holding the spirit of the cooperative while staying small and individualistic.

The region is a center of rose and flower farms, essential oil purveyors, mountain and shore hiking, books, music and coffee culture, with the perfume sensibility centering on the beauties of daily life.

It’s about integrating the grace of fragrance into an interior experience, when the grand and dramatic just won't do. Perfumers here sometimes leave aside the classic manner of making perfume and spontaneously come up with their own ways of formulation.

There’s a fascination for the old but as part of the past, modified to the present day. For example the vintage aesthetic that keeps an eye out for the spectacular French perfume classic as a lucky find on a grandmother’s dresser, with all the notes softened and broken down by the passage of time. It’s about the charms of the past, worn without corsets or hierarchy. It’s to be worn every day and night, as part of a suite or wardrobe of perfumes, to be varied by mood, occasion and opportunity.

Asahel Curtis 1920 Lantern Slide Washington State Archives
In feeling and inspiration it is lyrical, imaginative, tending toward the introverted, while reaching out to be experimental and personal. PNW perfume can be seen as the aromatic equivalent of the predominant musical influences of the region, (as there are many tiny bands expressing the zeitgeist of all the local cultures, all along the West Coast, and even across the country among the like-minded, so there are many micro indie-perfume makers doing the same thing with their fragrances).

There is a heavy use of naturals but synthetics are not eschewed.  Leading to amplified edges, leading to heightened longevity and even sometimes an easier affordability. In other words, it’s not an entirely acoustic aesthetic, but it definitely shows the strong influence of the natural perfume movement.

There is a collective consciousness at work, since this style of perfume and its making and preferences for it have resonance all over the country, from Brooklyn to New England to California and points in between and even internationally reaching into the UK as well as Washington State.
The PNW makes room for the chorus of fragrances that are varied and numerous enough to become a part of the personality of the place itself. There’s something devil-may-care about them, as there is a refusal to carry the weight of a lot of perfume history or expectations, while still attracted to what is aromatically beautiful, as an enhancement of personal space and expression.

I notice the frequency of fresh tobacco and honey/beeswax notes, and there’s a rehabilitation of the evergreen scents in the works, thank you very much, something I’ve been longing for, for ages.

Sweet Anthem has a suite of florals that are forthright and strong. I’ve worn Joan to sleep and woke up to it from time to time in the night and into the morning, with it still going up to a late morning shower. These perfumes come in a number of different formulations, but what I have are 40-60% fragrance materials in a fractionated oil base. These are the kind of fragrances that will cling to your clothing and sheets.

Joan is a bright green of white mint, coriander peony, tomato leaf, and beeswax. These notes all gather together after the first initial green opening, then turn the corner to morph and change so as to a incorporate a sense of musk. It is as if the perfume is emanating from your own hair. The same thing happened to me during the course of wearing Catherine, made of amber, bergamot, neroli, red tea, wisteria. There is a powdered amber dust beneath the citrus that gives a bow to Italianate verve and energy.

Juliet hit me initially with mango hidden within a nest of clove, jasmine sambac, muskwood, neroli and pink pepper and tobacco. Mango is not my favorite, but I must say it quickly passes on to the tobacco, which tints the jasmine and neroli and the rest to dominate while being sweetened by the florals like a long steeped herbal tea. It actually goes quiet and soft in a way that holds the ephemeral freshness of floral throughout the life of the fragrance.

Annabelle is the softest of all the samples I have, made of jasmine, osmanthus, sea salt and white amber. This fragrance makes me think of freshly hand-laundered vintage lingerie, perhaps one of those delicate pale peach silk slips now worn as outerwear by those who are vegan-thin enough to fit into their old fashioned tiny proportions.

All of them are soothingly casual and remind me of beautifully pressed vintage cotton dresses worn by capable young women riding their bikes, with a stack of library books in the baskets on their way to the farmer’s market. They are distinctive, satisfying and well priced, similar to those used books by unusual authors that fill the cafes and bedrooms of the PNW.

Which brings me to Imaginary Authors. The concept behind this perfume line is actually so perfect for my own sensibility, I feel it’s almost not fair I wasn’t part of the brainstorming sessions that came up with the writers and their books, as expressed in perfumes based on their invented lives and works.

Memoirs of a Trespasser, by Philip Sava, a loner: “who needs love when there is still cognac in the glass?” My handsome high collared imaginary boyfriend of the group, with notes of Madagascar vanilla, guaiacwood, myrrh, benzoin resin, ambrette seeds, oak barrels (in one way or another). With a note list like this, as you can imagine this fragrance feels like being under a cashmere blanket on a cool night, as the vanilla and benzoin browning your skin to toast radiating its own warmth beside a wood fire, that brings even more heat to the skin. The vanilla in this tones everything in its path, without sweetness but like breathing in the essence of a benevolent big cat’s strength. Soft and warm, it is an antidote to that which is not, and while a masculine under the strictest sense of the word, it is as wearable by women as a soft scarf around the neck.

Violet Disguise, authored by Leonora Blumberg, a California girl who had a career in Hollywood but withdrew to a more peaceful existence in a wild valley, is composed of plum, violet, dried fruits, balsam, amber, and even the evening air; the month of May. There’s something delicate but invigorating here, the convertible top is down and the hair flies back as she drives at night through the canyon roads to meet up with her exquisite Hollywood lovers in her youthful success. This might be what you wear when you are not quite what you appear to be, as your still waters run deep. Violet and plum are sweet but here just a touch of sweetness in the cool air as the amber comes up quickly. I associate the serious studiousness of an Asian scholar with plum and the darkness of violet as a color, the delicately sweet ultra-feminine tone in the quietness of a perfume that gathers inspiration from deeply sensual relationships with the like of amber and balsams.

The Cobra and the Canary has a theme of escape, of luck in finding the means to get away, feeling the breeze through an open car window rushing along toward adventure. Composed of the stimulating energy of lemon, the coolness of iris, the specificity of heat within tobacco flowers, leather, hay fields and asphalt. This perfume reminds me of the scent of someone who has just walked in the door from being away for awhile, as the scents and air of the outside world they’ve just passed through clings to them. Definitely a masculine fragrance, as is the imaginary author James Spundt, “driving faster than dammit”. It's one of my favorites of the line and I would not hesitate to wear it. It maintains a low-key air of mystery and freshness even if a cigarette might have been smoked along the way.

I find the packaging and back-story of these lines adds immensely to my enjoyment of them, and love that they are so casual and seem built to enhance all manner of personal mythologies.

They have longevity but don’t throw too far as to be intrusive to others, and are shockingly well-priced, if you are coming from European niche where $200 is the new $100.  The websites for both are engrossing and they both have sample programs set up to try out the range. I think of them both as lines that ought to be experienced more as a suite of perfumes rather than choosing only one to be worn over and over.

P.S. I just got my second sample order from Sweet Anthem in solid perfume form, (of the new Cybele, which I find to be smooth and deliciously excellent in a Jane Austen's magnificent countryside kind of way) and as I am a huge fan of solid perfumes, I was pleased to find out that this line’s most popular form is as solid perfumes that come in extendable sticks.  Portability of perfumes is what I like, since I tend to reapply frequently or switch out during the course of a long outing. 

There’s so much going on in this neck of the woods it will take several more posts over time to give the appreciation deserved.

*For a full explanation of naturalismo, see this NYT article about that style of music which I thinks explains the PNW perfume scene as well.

 Speaking of which, a little music to listen to perfume by: Rachel’s Family Portrait 

Disclosures: I both purchased the samples and received a separate set of selected Imaginary Authors samples as gifts from a fellow perfumista Tami Holubar.  My opinions are my own and I am not compensated in any way.

Copyright 2012 Lucy Raubertas, All Rights Reserved. 
Photos above from the Washington State Archives
and the perfumer's sites.


Victoria Jent said...

Love this post.
"In feeling and inspiration it is lyrical, imaginative, tending toward the introverted, while reaching out to be experimental and personal. PNW perfume can be seen as the aromatic equivalent of the predominant musical influences of the region.." <-- You nailed it.

Lucy Raubertas said...

Thanks Victoria!