Interview with Laurie Stern, Velvet and Sweet Pea Purrfumery ~ by Ambrosia Jones, Natural Fragrance Editor, Perfume Pharmer and Perfumer/Owner of Perfume by Nature.

A: Laurie, the thing that drew me to your perfumes first off, was your beautiful beautiful website! It is sooo different to anything else out there, there’s such a sense of play and fun and downright decadence to it… I get the impression that the design aspect in the way you present your perfumes is really important to you…can you share a bit about this?

Thanks, Ambrosia! I am honoured you have invited me to be a part of your series and I welcome you into my world!

Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery is a culmination of all of my artistic passions and past careers. At the heart of it all is my love of animals. The Purrfumery is named after two precious kitties I rescued, Velvet and Sweet Pea, and they really rule the roost!

So much of my work focuses on design. Really, the entire Purrfumery is one giant art project! I use my collections of antique kitty postcards, antique bottles and my friend Ron’s beautiful photos, which I styled. I practiced calligraphy for years, so when it was time to create a logo I designed the font and called it Sweet Pea. I also design and create treasure pouches and jewel boxes for all my perfumes. I want everything about my perfumes to be special – from the perfume to the bottle to the jewel box or pouch. I even create a little Victorian-style scent card that accompanies each scent. Many years ago, a perfume bottle was considered something to treasure even after the last drops of perfume were gone. I continue that tradition with my own creations. I design each perfume and its packaging to be a collector’s item, a luxurious gift to cherish.

I hand-craft each of my perfumes, and I also make many of the ingredients For example, I hand-tincture my flower essences and use honey, jasmine, daphne, and roses from my Perfumer’s Garden  & I use beeswax and propolis from my own beehives. I create my perfumes in small, numbered vintages, and the rarity of the ingredients ensures that only a limited number will ever be created.

A:So how did you come to perfumery?

Laurie: I’ve always loved making beautiful, very elaborate items – after high school I made one-of-a-kind silk and beaded lingerie pieces for high-end stores like Bendel’s and I. Magnin. Later I had a flower stand, Bed of Roses, which grew into a very busy and successful wedding flower business that I ran for 15 years. Those were wonderful years – I adore creating bouquets and arrangements and embellishing them with beautiful French ribbons, and I also loved connecting with my clients and working with them to make their dreams come true. But after 15 years of winery weddings in Napa I wanted to do something different – something that didn’t require me to get up at 2 a.m. and work on weekends!

A: And your experience with designing beautiful things definitely shows in your packaging….I fell in love with it before I had even smelt your perfumes! There is something so deliciously decadent and pretty pretty pretty about the bags, the colours, the playful touch of the kitties on the labels…not to mention the beautiful glass jewels you use as well…..

I discovered the world of perfumery and was drawn to the magic that happens when you play with essential oils and other natural materials. I basically locked myself in a room for a few years and just experimented! I taught myself perfumery by reading antique books, like my beloved Art of Perfumery from 1855, and through trial and error. I kept diaries of how essential oils and my mixtures made me feel and how they affected me – I loved the feeling of working with these materials! That’s how I came to understand the therapeutic and mood-enhancing properties of different scents. My perfume education is based in what I call the “golden age of perfume” – an era before the use of chemicals and synthetic compounds in perfumery.

A: So with you here re Golden Age!

Like me, you have chosen to work exclusively with natural ingredients…as many other Indie perfumers out there, and for so many different reasons…what’s your personal take?

Some natural perfumers use animal products (such as civet cat musk or beaver castoreum) in their perfumes. While these materials come from animals and are technically “natural,” the way these ingredients are harvested from animals is terribly cruel, and in some cases, can endanger an entire species.  For me, natural perfumes are about harmony with nature, but there is nothing beautiful or harmonious about the actual origins of animal musks, so we have to hide those aspects, lest they ruin the lovely “natural” story we tell ourselves and our consumers. Let’s bring the Art of Perfumery into the 21st century with humane and environmentally friendly practices!

In light of my love of the natural world, I am very proud to say that Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery is Leaping Bunny certified, which certifies that we don’t do animal testing (of course!) and that none of our ingredients have been tested on animals. Achieving this certification was a long process for us because it meant I had to contact and receive documentation from every supplier I work with or may work with in the future!

A: Grin! Perfume by Nature is “Cruelty Free” accredited here in Australia…I’m still undecided about Ambergris…you read different opinions…I have some that was collected on the beach in New Zealand….I also love to use Hyraceum, which is made from fossilised pee from a little African rodent…which certainly doesn’t harm the animal in any way, and allows me to make perfumes with a delightful rut of animal musk to them….there are so many wonderful natural things you can use in perfumes….

I am thrilled that you are Cruelty Free accredited too! And yes, I bought some ambergris from someone years ago that swore it was from a beach in New Zealand. I know it’s found there and I still feel undecided too, since I can’t know for sure, so it’s been tincturing for years!

I also work with natural ingredients because I am deeply concerned about the effects that chemicals and synthetics can have on people, animals and the environment,

The natural world just fascinates me! I want to know a plant’s root structure, how its leaves feel… Are they soft and fuzzy or square shaped like the mint family? What family are they in? Are they a member of the liquorice tribe? I’m not kidding, there is a liquorice tribe! Each plant has its own signature and something to teach us. They all have a purpose in the world, just like animals. And I want to know who they are! I’m very interested in seeing below the surface of animals, plants and flowers. I want to understand their consciousness.

Huge topic of it’s own isn’t it! I remember a lovely little book I found as a teenager talking about Flower Devas, the spirits inside flowers…

Even if you don’t go quite so deep into the spiritual side of things, the magic in the very biology of each plant is truly awe inspiring…I grow a lot of medicinal and scented plants, and it fascinated me to watch how they grow, which plants thrive next to each other, which really seem to almost hate each other…how their scent changes in different seasons…One of the most beautiful things I find about natural perfumes is that you are creating an almost living thing…and if you look into the uses of each plant you are working with, the perfumes can have just as much healing power as beautiful scents….

We need to continue that conversation sometime, I want to hear of your personal experiences with growing unique plants too! I read in the paper this morning that researchers studying humpback whales have found that not only do they sing, but some of their music turns into worldwide hits with whales all over the Pacific singing them.

A: Seriously? Whales really are amazing….

Whales and elephants!  Facts like these fascinate me for the same reasons that I love mixing perfumery materials to see what happens. I have made over 200 perfumes and many of these have 50 or more variations. The possibilities are endless!

You’re worse than me!….I have a whole working shelf full of “perfumes in progress” of different perfumes I’ve worked on over the years….but I have a much smaller number of “finished” perfumes…bit of a perfectionist…but I do keep all of my experiments as references…that way I can pick up special accords when I am custom designing scents for people…and remind myself “WHY” certain ingredients just don’t work together, grin!

So which are your favourite ingredients?

I have so many favourites! I have a Persian rose that is breathtaking! I also love carnation, and went crazy when I first mixed it with patchouli.

There you go, you learn something new every day! I’ve never tried the two together!

Jasmine is always narcotic. I love the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between my roses and jasmines. I have about 20 different roses and at least 15 different jasmines and they each have their own place and character.

Isn’t it amazing how different they can be! …Roses are my big love too…

When I was creating my new perfume Bed of Roses, it took me forever to make my rose accord. I used nine different roses and some screamed and others barely whispered, and I wanted to smell each of them but also bring them together to create one giant, amazing rose.

I’ve got that on my wrist at the’s fascinating stuff…at first I get a real sense of Wild Brair Rose and something sweet and green that makes it seem very alive…then a much deeper honeylike note comes through and it becomes almost like a Rose liquor….then as it settles into my skin, I get the musky warmth you get from dried roses in old fashioned pot pourri which makes it very elegant….

Honeyed Rose Pot Pourri liquor? You could almost drink it…..

Thank you! It’s funny you should mention that, because I also make healing flower essences and I was making one for a friend the other day and was out of my brandy, so I used this delicious Crispen’s  Rose brandy, It has something like 40 antique roses in it, it tastes divine, and it tasted so good that I’m going to use it in all of my flower essences now! There’s your Honeyed Rose Pot Pourri liquor!

Orange blossom is also one of my favourite materials. I use it in my Songbird and Honey perfumes and Jasmine Orange Blossom from my Kittylicious Eau de Parfum line.

Mmmm… blossom is truly divine stuff…it always seems almost ethereal to me…it has such a delicate light feel to it, much more so than other flowers…..

Coffee blossom, frangipani, tuberose… I love so many of my ingredients! Frankincense just blows me away and I use it in many of my perfumes. And, I am a fir freak! Fir absolute has a scent that is beyond belief, and Douglas fir… I could eat it – and have! I use fir in my Fir~ever Young perfume. Fir~ever Young contains about 40 different materials. I started creating it 11 years ago and didn’t think it was finished until very recently.

I almost swooned the first time I opened a bottle of fir absolute! It still makes me go all glassy eyed every time I sniff it…it’s so incredibly fresh and fruity and deep and….ahhhhh….I used it in a perfume I made to celebrate my grandfather and spent 3 years working on it…and I can see myself coming back to fir absolute over and over….

Sometimes perfumes really need time to come together don’t they?! I have a few that I made in one afternoon…others I’ve been working on for years and am still not quite happy with…..

Would love to smell Fir-ever Young! We should exchange samples

I would love to, let’s do it!

I also love cognac, vanilla, and orris. I also have an amazing juniper berry co2 that is swoon-worthy. I could go on forever… boronia, osmanthus, and the lotuses. Oh! And violet leaf and ylang ylang! I love clove and nutmeg in a blend, even though I am a floral nut. Songbird would not be the same without the nutmeg, even though it is barely detectable. I also have a lot of antique essential oils, and just a tiny bit of antique cinnamon in a perfume is so sensual! Antique rose, vetiver, patchouli, neroli, they are unbelievable. I use them all, they’re meant to be enjoyed!

Only problem is eventually you use them up…I’m beginning to stockpile good years of things like vetiver and patchouli to use in 10 or 20 years time…..

Yes, I’ve lots of things aging. They do get finer. I used to feel like I needed to hoard them, now I’m into using them all, I just figure that’s what they’re here for!

Which ones don’t you like, or find challenging?

I don’t like to single out materials that are not my favourites, just like I couldn’t say that daisies aren’t wonderful and special. I know what they can do in a blend and it can be magic. Like putting a little spearmint in ylang, it wakes you up out of the ylang stupor. I’m getting into my ouds now – some people go yuck, but when I blend them with some florals, they are amazing. It’s the same way with patchouli – when I add some cinnamon and jasmine, I love it!  I believe the more you know about making perfume, the more there is to learn!

My goal with each perfume is to stretch myself, to learn something new….Making my new perfume, Bed of Roses, I diluted all of my materials and accords at a 25 percent dilution, measuring everything on a 1/100th of a gram scale. Then I recreated it by weight, rather than by volume. What a difference! And what a challenge, since I am terrible at math! I’m going to write an article for other perfumers on how to do it, since they are asking me to.

A: I tend to stick to straight volume measures. Otherwise I get tangled up in percentages….Mind you so does Chanel, so I figure it can’t be that unprofessional, grin!

I love the solitude and deliciousness of making perfumes alone in my magical perfumery.

A: Grin! And I’m really enjoying the wonderful gift of the internet to be able to have virtual chats with all you other perfumers from my little workshop here in Oz!

I love making perfume, but it’s wonderful to be able to share my obsession with others who understand what I’m going on about from time to time

The internet is quite magical for so many reasons! I feel the same way about connecting with wonderful, interesting folks like you! And the fact that I can create my own world and share it with others, and have it be sustainable with my kitties selling perfume on the internet…

So tell me more about your perfumes…do you have any favourites? Any special stories about how they came about?

I’ll start with Songbird… About 10 years ago I was making a custom perfume for a friend and I had her smelling scent strips of my many aromatic treasures. I had a pile of the ones she loved and another pile of the ones she didn’t love. After making my notes on the ones she loved, I picked up the pile that were not her favourites and sniffed them just as an afterthought. I loved what I found in that pile! Instead of working on her custom perfume, I started to play in the rejected pile. I worked on it for a few months and was delighted to come up with Songbird! It was spring and the songbirds were singing wildly outside the Purrfumery window and I was listening to a lot of Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams on my CD player. Songbird has rare boronia, antique Ceylon cinnamon, nutmeg, orange blossom, frankincense, sandalwood and many other essential oils and absolutes. I presented this perfume to her and she went crazy over it! She’s gone through several ounces of it by now and we laugh about it. I still haven’t done her other perfume!

How beautiful!  Songbird is certainly a great tribute to a warm spring day! I can see a happy young sitting in a lush meadow of spring flowers sipping orange cordial….

Just goes to show doesn’t it, you never know what a persons is really going to need in a perfume, grin! I’ve actually moved away from just letting people smell different ingredients, and now tend to work from who they are as people, and how they want the perfume to affect them. It’s really hard for non perfumers to be able to picture how different oils are going to work together…and I find after 20 years I can often pick what kind of perfume a person will be attracted to from things like their choice of colours in clothing and their personalities…

It’s a bit like marrying the plants themselves to the people…as you said, each plant and flower has it’s own qualities, and I find people mirror these….

I like the idea of making something beautiful out of what has been rejected. I trust my intuition and know that nothing gets thrown away (metaphorically speaking), because it’s all part of the delicious process. I probably wear Songbird the most of any of my perfumes, I love its juiciness and the way it lifts my spirits. Songbird is also the first perfume that I created that made me feel like I could call myself a perfumer. It was a big moment for me. I loved it every time I put it on and I knew in my heart it was good! It’s gone on to be one of my best sellers, too. But I needed to know it for myself first.

Have you ever thought of making it’s sister perfume out of the other pile? I’d love to smell how it turned out!

The problem is that I just tend to keep making new things, meandering down the road and going off on all of these new tangents and then I forget where I started!

Then there is my Honey perfume. I wanted to use flowers that bees go to for nectar. I had a huge loss a few years ago and during that period of grief we had a bee swarm in our garden. The bees turned out saving me as much as I saved them! Not knowing how fortunate we actually were I called a local beekeeper to remove the swarm. As soon as he started telling me stories about them I knew I wanted to keep bees. I learned that bees will swarm to an ideal environment and swarming is the way they multiply, they make their new queen and half of the hive goes out searching for a new home. I persuaded the beekeeper to teach me about bees and he helped me build the hives. It’s been several years and I am still in awe of the bees. That spring and summer I devoted myself to the bees and to making my Honey perfume. They’re an affirmation of life and how sweet life can be, even with it stings. Our first honey harvest was the most delicious thing I have ever tasted! Now I eat honey everyday!

I think your perfume “Honey” is my favourite of the lot. It’s got a true musky elegance to it that really appeals to me. I’ve worked a lot with honey notes…I really like the combination of sweetness and musk that goes with it. You’ve managed to accentuate that muskiness and build on it…and I love the way you use the orange blossom more as an accent in honey rather than centre stage…it’s a very clear scent. In that it isn’t cluttered…many perfumers seem to think that a good perfume has to be “clever” and have lots of complicated notes and layers to them and Honey is a beautiful balanced creation. (unluckily, the bottle Monica sent me was almost empty…if you ever have any spare that you want to toss my way so I can “evaluate” it in more depth….grin!) It’s really truly lovely!

Let’s definitely share samples! And then there is my little Black Cat… I made my Black Cat perfume in five minutes! It was before Halloween and I just thought candy! I blended chocolate, liquorice, blood orange and a few more things. Most of my perfumes take months – some I play with for years. Black Cat was very spontaneous and fun!

I was a bit wary of “Black Cat” at first…I don’t normally like liquorice perfumes much…but “Black Cat” has just enough to give it a quirky touch and the chocolate balances it and gives it a nice warmth that makes it really friendly…more of a cheeky accent to the flower notes and blood orange!

Fun indeed!

What dreams do you have for the future? Where would you like to go with Velvet& Sweet Pea?

I’d love to create a book about the Purrfumery. It would blend history and lore with stories about flowers and perfume. There would be gorgeous photos of our kitties in their Swarovski crystal tiaras (I studied jewellery making in art school) and crowns that I make them, and their silk and velvet bejewelled tutu’s that I sew for them! There would be fanciful pictures of kitties making perfume and making packages for our Purrfumery friends! I have also been keeping elaborate scent diaries for more than 11 years and have studied almost all of my perfume materials. I would include pieces from my scent diaries in my book.

Now THAT sounds like a Great project! It would make a fabulous coffee table book! Maybe some scented inserts…..Can I pre-order a copy?

I’d love it! I’d also love to travel around the world to places where the most exquisite perfume materials originate. It would be amazing to visit the Valley of the Roses in Bulgaria and the lotus ponds in India! I also want to continue to experiment endlessly and create new perfumes and products. I am most at peace when I am in my own little jewel box – “Laurie world” – meditatively focused and listening to my intuition, and mixing to my heart’s content these gorgeous, profound materials! I listen to Emmylou, Lucinda, Steve Earl, Dolly Parton, Townes Van Zant… The music becomes part of the magical process.

I have also started to make what I call “healing perfumes” for friends. I have studied flower essences for years and understanding that each plant and flower has a signature… When I am with my friends I see visions of flowers and on the spot I create a perfume that I hope will imbue them with the particular traits of the flower that they need support from at the time. For example, rose is protective with its thorns, and yet it enables the wearer to feel full and open. Lotus is helpful for transitions and breaking through the mud, pushing through the water to reach the sky! So far, the feedback is amazing, so I’ll keep exploring the path. Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Perfume and Flower Whispering Services may be coming next!

Honey, I think you’re Healing Magic is already in all of your perfumes!

Thank you so much for sharing your Perfumes and Thoughts, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know you! Now I just have to get over to the States some time to visit in person…..

Thank you so much, this has been delightful! And you must come visit the Purrfumery and the kitties sometime!

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Justine 05/02/2011 at 10:24 am

What a wonderful review Ambrosia! One gets a real feel for Laurie’s creative process reading it. It sounds as if you both had a lot of fun with this interview — more like friends chatting, yes?

Ambrosia 05/02/2011 at 6:07 pm

We did have a lot of fun Justine! Laurie is such a sweetheart and it’s fascinating to get to know another perfumers creative world….
This is the first of a series of “Perfumer to Perfumer” conversations I’ll be doing…so watch for the next one!

Ragna 05/02/2011 at 11:42 pm

My heart applaudes you (vigorously) for the lovely interview, sharing the love of perfume that you both have. I really get the passion and creativiity that Laurie has and I am sooooo going to try Bed of Roses!

Maggie Mahboubian 05/04/2011 at 12:08 pm

As usual, Ambrosia, your playful, fresh interview really opened up a window into Laurie’s world as well as your own. Someday, someday I hope to visit the Purrfumery and meet the kitty legends in their embellished habitat.

Laurie Stern 05/05/2011 at 10:41 am

Thank you so much Ambrosia for taking the time to have a delightful conversation with me! Your questions were wonderful and it gave me the time to reflect about my work over the last 11 years. What a gift. And thank you Monica, PerfumePharmer is truly a gift to to the natural perfumery world! I look forward to learning more about all of us out there!


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