When I attended the Elements Showcase, I was blown away by the wide variety of fragrances and companies on display. A highlight for me was meeting some of the perfumers, the artists who create the wonderful scents that we inhale. Charna Ethier is the creator/perfumer of Providence Perfume Company, an independent natural line based out of Rhode Island. Her scent Cocoa Tuberose was one of the most buzzed about scents of the Showcase. Her effervescent and engaging personality quickly won me over and I’ve been looking forward to speaking to her in a more in depth fashion ever since.
Ron Slomowicz: Before you started Providence Perfume Company, you worked for other cosmetic companies; what did you do and which companies?
Charna Ethier: One of my first jobs, between waitressing my way through college, was working at the perfume counter at Macy’s. That was my first foray into the world of perfume. I absolutely loved it; I was very young but very successful at it. I have fond memories of exploring all the different brands of perfume. Coming from a really small town in New Hampshire, it was a completely glamorous world that was opened to me at the Macy’s perfume counter. I sold my heart out there. To fast forward, I worked for some publishing companies and then I settled in working for Aveda for a number of years. I don’t know how familiar you are with Aveda, but I remember mixing perfumes for them. People would come in and they would choose a scent. Everything was already pre-blended and I was always mixing special perfumes. They were off-label perfumes for the customers, which my district manager didn’t really like. I would have all the scents saved in the computer. People would come in and say things like “I like this one, but I wish it was just a little sweeter” and I’d say “well, you know we have some tuberose and some vanilla; I could just add a couple drops.” I was always making up special perfumes for people.
RS: That kind of makes sense as to why you started your own company. What was your inspiration?
Charna Ethier: There were two main reasons. The first was that I had my first child. I have this distinct memory of it being close to Christmas. I was balanced in the handicapped bathroom trying to use a breast pump, sitting there with people pounding on the door saying things like “Charna, the district manager called and you’re going to have to work on Christmas Eve.” Five seconds later another pound “Charna, the junkie is back and she is stealing everything, hurry up.” I just sat there at that moment and knew that it was going to be the end for me at Aveda. I thought, “I am going to leave here and start my own business.” The other reason was that I really wanted to launch a line that was 100% natural and botanically-based perfumes. Aveda is such a large company and they are so limited by the ingredients that they could use because of cost. I knew that if I started my own company I would have all sorts of different sources. I could use all the exotic beautiful ingredients that I loved for my own line. A large company like Aveda doesn’t have that luxury.
RS: Just so I am clear, what is the difference between natural and organic? It always confuses me.
Charna Ethier: It is completely confusing and not well-regulated. People can kind of get away with saying whatever they like. Which can be really frustrating. I am not an organic perfumer, because I use absolutes in my perfume. I don’t know how much you know about essential oils and absolutes, but because of the way the absolutes are extracted from the flower there can be trace amounts of hexane. Sometimes up to 1% to 2%, and for that reason alone, I wouldn’t be considered an organic perfumer. I do choose to use absolutes as they are some of the most beautiful ingredients in perfumery. I feel if I were to not use the rose absolute, tuberose absolute, and jasmine absolute, I’d be missing out on such a beautiful array of ingredients. That is why I choose to use them. Therefore, I am not an organic perfumer. There are so many shades of differences. Some people call themselves natural perfumers or botanical perfumers, meaning that they don’t use any animal essence in their perfumes. There is not a lot of regulation in that. It is a confusing name
and classification for perfume right now because of the lack of regulation. I am a natural, botanical perfumer so I just use essential oils, absolutes, and handmade tinctures that I create myself. I use things like lilacs, rose petals, black tea, basmati rice, and things of that nature to make my perfumes. I don’t use any synthetic aroma chemicals, which are the main ingredients in most traditional perfumes that you would find in a department store.
RS: How do you find or source your natural materials?
Charna Ethier: I sample as many different suppliers as I can. I tell students when I teach classes to do the same, so they can see what they like and find to be of high quality. Then go back and place an order for a larger quantity of that material as soon as possible. The suppliers turn over their essences pretty quickly and they don’t necessarily make a notification. You might get a sample of a beautiful French tuberose that is buttery, creamy, rich, and bright orange that smells amazing. If you wait a few months, go back, and place an expensive order for an ounce at maybe $400, and it may arrive and be a totally different tuberose because they ran through their supply. It may have rained a lot in France that year and their new supply is not as high quality as the sample that you received. They don’t necessarily put a notice on their website saying “it was a crappy year for tuberose; buy them quickly before we get the new stock in.” I really think that sampling is key and especially when you are starting out. For instance, I remember people raving about frankincense, especially in the natural perfumer’s guild. Yahoo chat groups and perfumers all over the world were chatting about where they ordered things from and what they liked. I didn’t know if it was because I was raised by hippie parents and didn’t spend a lot of time in church, but I thought that it smelled awful. I had a bottle of frankincense and I thought it smelled like a bottle of turpentine, it literally smelled like it would remove paint. It wasn’t until I bit the bullet and ordered a bunch of different samples of frankincense from other suppliers and realized that I just had a horrible quality of frankincense. That was sort of my first introduction into purchasing these ingredients for perfumery and realizing that there is a vast difference between suppliers, quality and the year in which they are grown, growing condition and where in the world they are grown.
RS: You just mentioned that you teach classes, what kind of training or education do you have as a perfumer?
Charna Ethier: I am self-taught. After working for Aveda for a number of years and then deciding that I wanted to start my own company, I put a lot into educating myself. I am one of those anal retentive people that won’t buy a new stereo or TV until I Google it and do as much research as possible and read in Consumer Reports. When I started I really spent a good two years educating myself with as many different avenues of education and information as I could. I read every book possible on natural perfumery. I really worked hard to learn everything that I could. This is not an inexpensive avenue; I sampled tons of ingredients and spent years’ blending, that is why I like to teach classes. In particular, to beginning natural perfumers because perfumery is shrouded in this cloud of secrets and mystery some times. I want to impart the knowledge that I have learned onto my students in a way that makes them feel like they can do this. I want everyone to love natural perfumery as much as I do, that is what I try to impart onto the students. I don’t try to give them a sense that “you are never going to be able to do it; it is so hard, it’s so difficult.” But more like “isn’t this beautiful, isn’t is cool that the scent of rose grown in Tunisia will change from year to year depending on if it is a dry climate or warm climate? Can you smell the difference between these two vials? Isn’t that incredible that there is just a year difference between the crops?” I love it; I just want to pass it on to my students.
RS: I can feel it just over the phone. What is the hardest ingredient for you to work with?
Charna Ethier: Right now, I have something called Choya Nakh. It is from India, it is roasted seashells, and it is incredibly strong. Probably the strongest ingredient that I have ever experienced. It is so strong that I have it diluted down to 1% and still almost one drop can overpower the perfume. Once you really dilute it down it has a scent of a smoky leather kind of aroma, which is very cool but very hard to work with. It doesn’t play well with other ingredients, if you know what I mean. It really tries to dominate everything, I am determined that I am going to get it right in the way that I want it at some point. Choya Nakh is very hard to work with.
RS: That sounds like Oud actually.
Charna Ethier: It is stronger, like twenty times stronger than Oud! At some point I will get it right, but often after I finish aging the mods and I think that I have it, I will discover it has overpowered the blend and it’s back to the drawing board.
RS: You mentioned aging, how long do you normally age a fragrance before you sell it or experiment with it?
Charna Ethier: I joke that being a natural perfumer is like being a vintner, because aging is such an important process to our perfumes. I recommend aging for at least a month at a minimum. That can sometimes be interesting with supply and demand. While I make my perfumes in larger and larger batches, it can be difficult because if there is an article written about a particular perfume there will be a run on that perfume, so I have to be conscious of that because I am going to need at least a month and a half to create another batch and age it properly and filter it.
RS: With the aging, do you find the shelf-life of a natural fragrance to be different of that of an artificial fragrance?
Charna Ethier: I do. I feel that three years is an optimal shelf life for natural perfumes. They don’t go bad, my students always ask that. They don’t go bad after three years but I have noticed that the top notes start to fade. I would say that three years is an optimal shelf life for the perfumes.
RS: That is actually similar to regular perfumes. If they are not stored correctly, the top notes are the first things to go, but your base is still there. What inspires you to create a scent?
Charna Ethier: I can be inspired by so many different things. I feel like sometimes when people ask me that question they expect me to say nature. I wouldn’t always say that nature is always my inspiration. I can be inspired by a cold day with a down comforter wrapped around me because I am freezing. I will start thinking about the feeling of having a cuddly, close skin sense. Something that is somewhat warm but not spicy. It can be anything. I would love to create a scent that smells like Vermont in the summertime, which is where I went to college. There is a certain kind of scent in the summer where you can almost smell the water evaporating off the grass because it is so warm and it’s such a lush area and there is so much clover. I have a blend floating around in my head with a red clover, a little bit of tonka, something green like violet leaf or galbanum, and maybe a watery element like mimosa. It could really be anything, even a memory of a certain time. So many different things inspire me, I cannot pin it down to one thing.
RS: I have to ask about one in particular. At the element show, everyone was talking about your cocoa tuberose. I fell in love with it and am about to buy a bottle of it. What was your inspiration for that one?
Charna Ethier: With that scent, I really wanted to create a perfume that smelled like chocolate or cocoa. There are a couple other natural perfumes out there that have chocolate notes in them, but they are really quiet. I didn’t want mine to be quiet, I wanted you to be able to smell the cocoa but not too much of a sweet gourmand. As I was playing around with it, I really liked the way it had a buttery note in it and I wanted to boost it up. They can be a really creamy buttery tuberose but I didn’t want to make it feminine. You don’t ever associate masculine and tuberose together, that’s what I wanted to do. I brought a little bit of wormwood into it, which cut the sweetness, and I wanted the cocoa note to be there but for it not to be super-sweet. That’s what I was really going for. When I describe that it is a unisex scent they always make a face. They wonder how something that is cocoa tuberose can be unisex. That was really my desire.
RS: You nailed it. when I first met you I was taken by your effervescent personality. If you were to bottle your personality, what would the notes be?
Charna Ethier: That’s a really great question. I think there would be orange blossom; I really like it a lot. Like my personality, a little bit too much of it and it can get a little bit fecund, but if done the right way a little not too much Charna and its great. Small doses.
RS: Apply sparingly.
Charna: Yes, exactly, apply sparingly!
RS: What’s coming next, what are you working on now?
Charna Ethier: Good question. Remember how I was telling you that I really liked creating tinctures, which is just taking a botanical ingredient or spice, even dried fruit like peaches or apricots and you put it in a jar, add alcohol, and let it steep for a while. I really like doing this because I think it gives a really original edge to my perfumes. No one else is going to have a note in their perfume that is a squash blossom tincture. The notes that people really wonder what they are. I think that it really expands the palate of the natural perfumer by doing this. I have a basmati rice tincture that I have been working on and I am really excited about it. It has a really interesting lactone, a milky kind of note with a little bit of nuttiness to it. Milky notes are a little harder in natural perfumery because there are certain families of ingredients that are much more difficult for us to reproduce. For example, Oceanic and lactone type scents, so I am excited about working with this basmati rice tincture. I use it as the base alcohol for my blend. I am working on something that I would describe as leaning towards the more masculine end, with a creamy, rice back note that is really cool.
RS: What would you like to say to all your fans out there?
Charna Ethier: Thank you! Thank you for supporting a small, independent perfumer from Providence, Rhode Island, who doesn’t have a big advertising budget or a lot of connections and finances. I owe so much to my blogging community who supported me, and my customers who have supported me as well. It can be difficult competing with the big boys, if you know what I mean. I owe a lot to them for their support and all the bloggers out there that have supported me. I am a lucky, lucky woman!
Interview conducted March 2012.