When people in perfume talk about "rising stars," a name that comes up is Charna Ethier. Through her Providence Perfume Co., Charna has launched a library of natural scents that have won fans around the world and even FiFi nominations. (In the perfume industry, these might as well be the Academy Awards.) Charna is an innovator known for finding the yin and yang in unusual note combinations—Cocoa Tuberose, anyone?—and creating perfumes that feel as much like new revelations as they feel like tributes to the natural world we know. Branch & Vine, her newest release and part of the Olfactif August collection, is a perfect example.
But to talk about her as a rising star doesn't give enough credit to the years of hard work and training that have gotten Charna to her current success and charming new shop on Providence's Wickenden Street. It also doesn't convey the fascinating life story that set her on this path.
Here, she shares it with us.
Olfactif: You had an unusual childhood on a commune. How did that influence your relationship with the natural world?
Charna Ethier: I can almost hear my mother screeching, "It wasn't a commune!" It's an ongoing joke between us. She hates when I tell people I grew up on a commune. I often ask her, "If it wasn't a commune, then please describe the communal living environment I grew up in as a child."
She pauses and replies with an air of nonchalance. "Well, it was a farm. And we lived off the land. Your father and I would barter with our neighbors for things we needed . . . we would trade a cord of firewood for a few chickens, that sort of thing. And we welcomed those who needed a place to stay. Everyone would help out and . . . " At this point she falters and I smirk.
"And where was this farm located, Mom?" I question.
"In a small town in New Hampshire called Unity," she will answer reluctantly.
I nod. "And what were the names of our neighbors?” ("Neighbors "being a loose term for those who lived within five miles of our farm and who could only be reached by traveling down rural dirt roads.)
"Our neighbors names were—let's see, there was Zana and Sunshine and Sundance of course—"
I interrupt her here. "And were our neighbors nudists, Mom?"
"Oh, for heaven’s sake, Charna! Sunshine and Sundance were partial to . . . " she trails off.
At which point I will reply triumphantly, "Thank you, Mother. I think I've proven my point."
All joking aside about my early childhood, it did influence me in profound ways. My relationship with the natural world was familiar. I spent my days in the garden helping plant seeds, weeding, hauling manure from the barn to fertilize the soil, and later picking and gathering the vegetables we had grown. I played in the woods and built playhouses from scratchy bales of hay. I watched hornets build nests in trees. I fed chickens, cows, goats, and pigs. I understood the cycle of life clearly as most farm children do. I understood what hard work it is to make something with your own hands and the sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies this work.
O: What did your childhood smell like?
CE: The scents I remember most from my childhood are wood smoke, snow, manure, marijuana, raspberries, and pine needles.
O: I read that you worked the perfume counter at Macy’s. That’s a long way from living on a community farm! How did you end up with that job? How did it change the course of your life?
CE: After my parents divorced, I went from a farm girl to a latchkey kid. Times were tough for my single mother, and she worked multiple jobs to support us. We lived in a series of dreary apartments and purchased our food from the grocery store. I still remember the shock of watching my mother crack a store-bought egg into a frying pan. The egg spread into the pan like water. I had never seen such a thing. The eggs I gathered from our chickens were so fresh that they cracked and cooked in perfect small circles. And so began my education into the mainstream world. It all started with an egg. There was TV! And video games! And meals cooked in microwaves! And glossy magazines! Oh those glossy magazines, how I loved them so.
I remember a photo taken of me when I was about ten or twelve years old that perfectly sums up this new world I gleefully entered. I am sitting outside on cement steps, reading Seventeen or maybe Sassy magazine. I am wearing an old T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the Dukes of Hazzard television show. Irritated at being interrupted from my fashion magazine reverie where I imagine myself blonde wearing the perfect shade of pink lip gloss like the cover model, I stare at the camera sullenly. I was ready for bigger things. I craved glamour and fashion and sophistication.
The summer before I entered college, I began to work at Macy's at the perfume counter. At night, I waited tables. Macy's was a temporary job but I took my new position very seriously and with a massive amount of enthusiasm. I considered working the fragrance counter at Macy's to be the height of glamour. I sold my heart out and reveled in sniffing all the wonderful perfumes I had only read about.
O: How did you then go from the mainstream world to natural perfumer?
CE: After college, I worked in publishing for a number of years. I landed my first position as an editorial assistant after answering a classic interview question humorously, still intent on a cosmopolitan future. When asked where I saw myself in five years, I answered earnestly that I saw myself living in New York, working for Penguin Putnam Publishing, having a large corner office and sending my assistant out for complicated coffee drinks. I then mimicked speaking into a handheld voice recorder stating seriously, "Note to Jackie Collins: Chapter seven needs more sex." I was hired on the spot.
I moved up the ranks, worked for different companies, and found myself on the corporate track. I was working for a large educational publishing company out of Boston. I wanted to be an editor, but editors had to prove themselves as successful sales reps first. I found out quickly that I was a terrible textbook sales representative. Apparently I could sell perfume—for which I had a passion—but couldn't sell an economics textbook—for which I had no passion—to a Yale professor.
After leaving the publishing world, I found myself working for Aveda. I excelled and grew to love the natural aromas I was surrounded by. I loved the warm complexity of jasmine and the sharp refreshing pop of rose geranium. It was while working at Aveda that I began to toy with the idea of creating my own line of natural perfumes. I would use all the rare, exotic essences that Aveda, being a large company, could not source to scale. I would have complete creative freedom.
I spent years creating perfume mods, noting how the fragrances aged, noting how certain essences would have a synergistic effect on one another. I would fall asleep composing formulas in my head. I would wake up in the middle of the night certain I had discovered the problem with a particularly tricky perfume I was working on. Occasionally my husband would tell me I had woken him up the night before with cryptic comments I could not remember saying in my sleep such as, "It's the galbanum! It's always the galbanum."
O: How does the urban environment now inspire you? How does nature continue to inspire you, even as you live in the city?
CE: I love living in the city of Providence, Rhode Island. Providence's nickname is the Renaissance City, which I find apt. We are surrounded by such an active arts community here. Providence is home to many colleges, which imbues the city with a liveliness that I adore. I meet photographers and chefs, fashion designers and tattoo artists, writers and drag performers, hip-hop artists and florists. I revel in the creative environment.
While Providence is a city, we’re minutes away from the ocean and the beautiful beaches of Newport. We have a small garden in our postcard-size yard where we grow herbs and heirloom tomatoes. When I want a dose of nature, I don't have to travel far.
O: What role do you think natural perfumery will play in perfume in the future?
CE: I believe that the popularity of natural perfumes is on the rise and will continue to grow. Amazing advancements in technology are increasing the natural perfumer’s palette exponentially. I find it humorous when I hear a remark on the "limited" natural palette. I do not feel limited. Should I decide to work with ylang-ylang, a tropical white floral, I have many options; I can choose an ylang-ylang absolute, which presents as a sweet crystalline heart note, or a carbon dioxide distillation, which is a faint but fresh top note, or ylang-ylang extra, which is the sweetest and most narcotic oil distilled from the choicest flowers picked at dawn, or ylang-ylang III, which is clean and soapy. I can choose a fractional distillation of ylang-ylang that smells like clean, spiced stargazer lilies. There are many options for the perfumer based on how the botanical material is distilled and where it is grown. Jasmine sambac grown in France smells very different from jasmine sambac grown in India. I rejoice in all the nuances these plants possess. The beauty and complexity that natural perfumes offer the wearer is compelling.
O: Tell us about Branch & Vine. What was the inspiration?
CE: Branch & Vine is a light, fresh, eau de cologne based of the green aroma of tomato leaf, jasmine, fir, and vetiver. I was inspired to create Branch & Vine upon examining our small garden. With the recent opening of our boutique, tasks such as weeding the garden have fallen by the wayside. After a few weeks of neglect, I was dismayed to see the wild tangle of vines and leaves that the garden had become. Morning glory vines wrapped tight around tomato plants, remnants of lily of the valley still pushing their way into the plot, mint taking over . . . and the aroma of this wild garden was incredible. The concept of a new summer cologne based on these scent profiles was intriguing. I liked the idea of creating an eau de cologne that wasn't built on the standard citrus model.
O: What does the future hold for you?
CE: I will continue to create new modern, natural perfumes. I enjoy the artistic process of creating a perfume from start to finish, from petal to perfume. Perfumery is my passion, and I'm fortunate to enjoy a career creating fragrances that others find exciting and unique.
Check out Branch & Vine, Charna's newest release, here.