It’s my pleasure to introduce Diane St Clair who is the brains and creator behind St Clair Scents, a range of artisanal perfumes. Diane lives and works on her farm in Vermont, USA where she not only creates fragrance but also produces butter that is destined for restaurants across the United States. I have written about four of her fragrances – Casablanca, Frost, First Cut and Gardener’s Glove so you can find out more about them here. Diane has also been nominated for an Art & Olfaction Award for her fragrance Gardener’s Glove, which is wonderful recognition for her creative abilities.
Diane has been kind enough to answer these questions and I do hope that you enjoy finding out more about her and how she goes about creating her perfumes.
Can you tell us something of your background and the progression to perfumery?
I have a Masters in Public Health and spent over a decade working in public health departments in New York City and Vermont, designing programs to improve the health status of women and infants.
After my children were born, I wanted to have a more flexible schedule, so decided to return to one of my initials loves—working with animals and being on farms. I bought a team of work horses, and apprenticed myself to a logger, helping to remove trees from forests with my horses. I then worked on a community owned vegetable farm in Vermont using my horses to plow the gardens. I then moved to my own farm, got some Jersey milking cows and taught myself how to make butter, using out of print books from the late 1800’s. My creamery was licensed a year later and soon I was selling my artisanal butter to fine dining restaurants all over the United States. I also started bottling my buttermilk, and five years ago wrote a cookbook about using buttermilk in home cooking. I now have ten Jersey cows and sell about 100 pounds of butter a week and 75 gallons of buttermilk.
After doing this for 20 years, I felt like I needed a new challenge in my life. The farm exposes me to so many fabulous aromas that so few of us get to smell on a daily basis—the aromas of dew and fog coming off the land in the morning, the smell of animals, grass, dirt, wind, rain, storms coming—all the smells that city life often squelches. I’ve always loved smell, and decided to try and learn how to make my own perfume. It started as a hobby for myself, not as wanting to establish a brand.
What did your perfume training involve as I know people are always interested in hearing about the different paths that are available to creating scents?
My perfume training was difficult to establish. Because I have to milk my cows twice a day (morning and evening) and make butter 4 days a week, I don’t have a chance to travel much. A few years ago I had to travel to New York City to promote my butter business. I saw online that a perfumer named Eliza Douglas was giving perfume making workshops, so I wrote and asked if I could attend. After spending 4 hours in her workshop, I was hooked. I asked her if she would be willing to work with me using skype, email, etc because of my responsibilities on the farm, and she generously agreed. She had trained in Grasse and was working for DreamAir, Christophe Laudamiel’s company, in New York. I worked this way with Eliza for about 3 years. During this time she returned to England, and we continued working, talking about my work over Skype. We worked on building accords, learning materials, developing perfumes and critiquing perfumes. I am very fortunate to have had her instruction as my introduction into perfumery. My perfume education still continues. Every new perfume is a process to learn more and delve into unexplored territory.
When you create a new perfume, what is the process you go through? Is it always the same, or does it vary?
I was taught that when one embarks on a new perfume, it is very important to have a clear vision of what you want the perfume to be. The more defined that idea, the better equipped you are to head in the right direction and not be led down a multitude of different paths, which is so easy to do when working. There’s such a temptation to second guess what you’re doing, to think different ingredients will make the perfume better, but the important thing is to keep remembering the intention of your work when you got the inspiration. That being said, I am always inspired by different things. I have perfumes inspired by the lands and fields around me (ie. First Cut tries to capture the scent of the hay harvest in the summer), by the areas on the farm where I work (Gardener’s Glove is the smell of leather gloves after working in flower gardens, trimming shrubbery and picking fruit), by poetry, myth and fantasy. Many things inspire me, but I do approach my work in a very structured, consistent way.
How do you source your materials? Is it a challenge to source for small batch productions?
Sourcing materials is one of the biggest downsides to being a small, independent perfumer, I believe. While there are increasingly more options, there are still many limits to what perfumers like myself can source. When you can’t buy Kilos of materials, you have to buy your materials from retailers who do buy large quantities and then offer to sell them to you in smaller quantities. Small perfumers often pay higher prices because of losing the economy of scale in buying, and we usually only have access to the most commonly used materials—esoteric or very unusual materials can be hard to access. We obviously have no access to industry “captive” materials. Nevertheless, with internet stores and greater number of small perfumery brands, access to materials is getting easier.
What sort of feeling do you seek to create with your perfumes?
The feelings that I try to evoke with my perfumes can vary from project to project, but I would say that overall, I work with a higher proportion of natural materials than traditional perfumers, and I am striving to bring a sense of authenticity to the projects I undertake. This is not so easy to describe, but I am trying to convey through each perfume project, a sense of the beauty of the materials I work with and a sense of the beauty inherent in the perfume’s inspiration. Many people have told me that they think my perfumes have a vintage feel. I think this is because of the high percentage of naturals that I use, the textured way that my perfumes smell and the easily accessible stories and images that I try to convey.
Which perfume of yours do you feel closest to or like the most and why?
I don’t have a perfume that I feel closest to. All of them are like a snapshot in time for me, a reflection of where I was in my perfumery development when I created them. I am still growing as a perfumer, and though my scents may all have some common identifiers, I think they will continue to show the progression of my work and therefore all have their unique and special qualities.
Your perfume Gardener’s Glove was nominated for an Art and Olfaction award in the artisan category. What did you do when you heard the good news?
I was completely shocked when I learned that Gardener’s Glove was a finalist in the artisan category of this year’s Art and Olfaction awards! I had only been in business for a year! You are asked to keep the news to yourself for a couple of months until the AOA announcement in Milan, so it was very hard. My biggest challenge was to figure out how to leave the farm for 6 days so that I could to travel to the awards ceremony in Amsterdam. My wonderful husband offered to cover all the work on the farm and creamery and insisted that I go. He gave me an incredible gift by doing that.
In what ways has this helped your creations / business?
I think that the award gave my work and brand some industry credibility. I’m not sure if it changed my business significantly. It can be very difficult when you start out and you are an independent, self trained perfumer, to remember how long it takes to build a brand and a business. There is so much perfume out in the world and so much competition. I think the award gave me a boost of confidence and was confirmation that I should carry on. It also exposed me to other perfumers as well as the Art and Olfaction Institute, which was a wonderful change of scene for me, since I’m pretty isolated from perfumers working on my farm in Vermont. (except for Christophe Laudamiel, who I have become friends with. When he needs to escape the City, he will visit us! He is a great source of inspiration and education!)
How do you balance the creativity along with the business side with St Clair Scents?
At this point my business is still fairly small. I sell only through my online store and through the American Perfumer store. Doing everything—creating formulas, making perfume, ordering perfumery and packaging supplies, fulfilling orders, marketing—is a lot of work, but still manageable. I’m quickly getting to the point where I probably won’t be able to keep all of my perfumes in stock and will sometimes be out of them. But the reason for the business is the creative aspect of perfumery, and I will never let that be lost in the pursuit of getting bigger.
What are the parallels you draw from your work on the farm and your work with perfume?
My work on the farm and with perfume are very connected ( see answers #1 and #3). Even if the inspiration for a scent was not something directly from the farm, the quiet and natural beauty of the farm provides a contemplative space for me to think about my perfumery work. A lot of my work on the farm is either rote work that I do regularly every day, or manual physical labor. I am often thinking about perfumery materials, formulas, and changes to my perfume work when I am milking the cows, stacking wood or moving fences. It’s all intertwined!
You have released four perfumes : Gardener’s Glove, Frost, First Cut and Casablanca, and I’ve just seen that you have two new fragrances on your website. Can you tell us about these fragrances.
My new perfumes, Pandora and Eve, were inspired by the painting “Pandora” done by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse. Showing Pandora as she opens the forbidden box, the artist captures her curious, innocent expression against a backdrop of a dark, sinister forest. The stories of Pandora and Eve, who reached for the forbidden apple, have much in common. Both came to symbolize women who were punished for disobeying orders and acting on their impulses towards curiosity. Curiosity, however, is what pushes us all towards creativity and innovation and should be celebrated. These two fragrances are “sisters”, sharing most of the same notes, both with a heart of innocence, comprised of orris butter, lilac accord, rose and jasmine. Pandora is the darker of the two, with opoponox absolute and a labdanum extraction added to its base. This project was particularly fun because I asked Italian illustrator Massimo Alfaioli, who I met through Instagram, to collaborate on the project by making drawings of Pandora and Eve. I had his illustrations made into cards that accompany the perfumes out into the world.
How do you see your range evolving?
The next perfume that I’m working on uses some really exquisite materials from Laboratoire Monique Remy (narcissus and jonquil absolutes). I am more and more moved by the beauty of the materials I can work with, and want to share that beauty with those that enjoy smell. I am working on finding a way to let the materials speak in their own voices, within the larger composition of a perfume. Sort of like hearing a melody within the larger music of an orchestra. We’ll see if that is something I am able to achieve!
If you would like to read more fragrant conversations with Fragrant Femmes : Please see Pissara Umavijani, Mandy Aftel, Barbara Herman, Maria McElroy, Liz Moores, Serena Britos, Shelley Waddington, Tania Bochnig, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz and Olivia Larson.
Notes : Images come from the St Clair and Animal Farm Instagram pages