Interview with Natural Perfumer, Priya Narasimhan
Q: What made you interested in natural perfume?
A: I think I've been focused on the senses since I was a child, and when I was a teenager that led me to a really strong interest in food and drink, especially in spices, herbs, and other aromatic elements. (Growing up in an Indian household, with a whole different language of flavors at home than at school, must have had an effect too!)
So when I started making bodycare in 2009, I was always really interested in telling an aromatic story with each product. I loved building off the natural scent of the oils and beeswax and clays and tinctures that formed the basis of my products, adding essential oils — ones that smelled right but also made sense functionally — to build a compelling olfactory story. But with bodycare and skincare — face cream, shampoo, deodorant — my first priority is always the healing effect of the botanicals on the body, and the scent palette is drawn from ingredients that make sense functionally.
After a couple of years immersed in making functional products, I became interested in the idea of abstracting out only the dimension of scent — no functionality, no texture to hide behind, no other purpose than the olfactory journey itself — using the ingredients that I'd become so familiar with. That's what perfume and cologne is to me. A scent that smells great on a person, yes, but the scent has to be compelling, evocative, meaningful, and take the person on a journey until the scent winks away into nothingness. That's the goal at least!
I also really liked that perfume is recognized as an art. I treat making bodycare with the same reverence as I do making perfume — though my intentions vary depending on the format — but I like that perfume fits into a history of artistic practice going back millennia, and that the context around perfume invites the user to pay close attention to scent, to travel on a journey with the perfumer, to make room for the emotions and associations and memories conjured by scent. I think perfume is the context in which the sense of smell is taken most seriously — you can really move people with perfume, and I like that.
Q: What’s the best part about getting to create your own personal, unique scents?
A: You get to create what you like, to lean into what moves you, what makes you swoon! I love that I can create scents that feel like magic to me. For me personally, this means scents that evoke northern forests, bonfires, smoky cocktails, old books, rainstorms, orange groves, meadows… I often find that most of the natural perfumes out there — with notable exceptions, of course! — are just not to my taste, often too sweet, fruity, or floral. I crave green, the ocean, salty earth, smoke, forests, the interesting and compelling instead of just the pretty. It's like how learning to cook means being able to eat the food you crave — it's true for perfume too!
And the process is so cool too. The materials are so beautiful individually, and the way aromatics come together and pull out aspects of each other's personalities is so lovely to witness and work with. And there's the way botanicals can combine and lock into something new and unique, to the point that it's hard even for the perfumer to remember what went into the blend! And how developing a new vocabulary of scent — one based around the building blocks of natural perfume — makes you come alive to the smell of the world around you. Perfumery is a joyful and endlessly interesting practice.
Q: What is the most interesting thing you learned about scents?
A: Last year NPR had a piece on an article in Science about how humans are much, much better at smelling than we think! That our olfactory hardware — our smell receptors and the olfactory bulb in our brains — is pretty damn good, not so different from that of dogs! We've got the capacity, and we all know how scent can spark a decades-old memory, transporting us back in time, stirring deep emotions. Yet our society mostly focuses on smell in the form of taste, through the world of food and drink. Food is wonderful! But we smell our partners, our pets, our homes, our hospitals and schools, our cities and our forests — we know the world partly through our noses. And as a culture, we don't focus on cultivating our innate capability to smell, refining our experience of this sense through thoughtful language, using our intelligence to discern and analyze our experiences of scent — smell remains something of a mystery, even as its power over emotion and memory is clear. We sleepwalk through the world of scent! My mind boggles at what our culture could be like if we combined our human creativity and intellect with a full embrace of the fact that we are smelling creatures, just like the other animals in our world.
You can find Priya online at Priyameanslove.com and @priyameanslovebodycare on Instagram.
A note from Priya —
"I'm so excited to lead a class that expresses a passion of mine: sensory education, the kind that is only possible in person as a shared experience. There is so much knowledge that can only be obtained in the moment, through careful attention to the senses, and in this class you'll use your nose (with guidance!) to learn so much about perfume, its building blocks, and construction, its mysteries and enchantments. This is the kind of class I'd wished I'd been able to take when my interest in perfume was first starting to bud years ago -- but I intend for it to be a rich experience for perfumistas and experienced herbalists alike, as well as folks who just love good smells."
JOIN US FOR
BOTANICAL PERFUME 101
7 - 9 PM
@ Temenos Retreat Center