From her cottage among the green hills and grapevines of Healdsburg, California, Laurie Erickson and her Sonoma Scent Studio have developed a loyal following in the fragrance world. Erickson's fans love her work for the way it capture elements of nature—the sweetness of violets, the sparkle of sunbeams through the branches of a tree—and translates them into perfume. We spoke with Erickson about her journey from geo-mechanics to perfume, how a Sonoma Scent Studio perfume is born, and how the Internet makes her work possible.
Q: How did you first come to love perfume and scent?
Laurie Erickson: I’ve loved scent in the garden and in the natural environment as far back as I can remember, but I didn’t develop a serious interest in perfume until later in life. I started to blend essential oils because of my interest in natural floral notes, but then I joined some online perfume boards and fell down the rabbit hole! I sampled as many perfumes as I could, and my casual blending turned into an intense study of perfumery.
Q: How did you get into perfumery as a livelihood?
LE: I didn’t plan to make a business out of my interest in perfumery. I started offering fragrances to friends, and gradually the website and business grew. I thought I’d give it a try and see where it went.
Q: I read that you were doing some technical writing before launching into the perfume world full-time. Did you enjoy that? Was it a relief to pursue perfumery instead?
LE: I loved technical writing! It allowed me to combine the technical and creative sides of my personality, though perfumery uses both sides, too. I worked as a freelance writer for computer companies but had to give it up when my wrists developed chronic tendinosis from long hours of typing under tight deadlines. I still have to avoid typing on the keyboard and use a pen tablet instead of a mouse.
Q: You grew up in Woodside, California. What are some of your early childhood olfactory memories of that area?
LE: I loved the scents of the wooded trails where I rode horses as a kid. On hot days, I especially enjoyed the damp scents of the creek-side trails that were lined with ferns and redwoods. I also loved the scents of the dusty trails among the dried grasses and oak trees in summer. The barn was full of fragrance memories—hay, alfalfa, leather, grain, dust, cedar shavings, and horses. Favorite childhood scent memories in Woodside also include the fragrance from roses, jasmine, sweet peas, and carnations that my mother and grandmother grew in their gardens.
Q: You’re lucky to live in one of America’s most beautiful—and most beautifully scented—locations. Can you talk about the inspirations that you draw from your surroundings? Can you even imagine yourself doing what you do while living in a highly urban area?
LE: Even though some people thrive on an urban environment, I would be very unhappy living in the city. I feel relaxed and at peace in a quiet, rural spot, probably because of growing up in rural Woodside. Even when I lived in a suburban neighborhood, the street trees and my small garden were very important to me. I think my need to connect with nature does influence my perfumes; I love to use florals, woods, spices, resins, and natural smells and am not drawn to ingredients that smell more synthetic to me.
Q: You have a strong science background, including a master's degree in geo-mechanics, I read. How does your science background inform your current work?
LE: The main advantage of my science background is that it helped me develop research and problem-solving skills that apply to any field, even something like perfumery. Also, I learned some computer programming skills that helped me code my website. I learned far more math and physics than needed for this job, but I probably could have used a little more chemistry.
Q: Can you tell us about the birth of a perfume in your studio, from idea to release?
LE: The ideas for many of my perfumes come from the ingredients. I often get a special new ingredient that’s really beautiful and I want to build a fragrance around it. Other times, the idea may be a place, like Forest Walk, or a natural theme, like Fig Tree or Winter Woods. I’ll start by writing a list of the main notes that I want to include, and then I translate those notes into a list of ingredients. Some notes require many ingredients to make up an accord. I put the list of ingredients into an Excel sheet and take an initial guess at the proportions, and then I create the first mod (trial version). I begin with diluted ingredients because I work in tiny batches so as not to waste ingredients. After testing on my skin, I tweak the formula in the Excel sheet and then make another mod. That process continues until I feel I have something good, and then I send out some tester samples to people. I consider their feedback and then modify the formula again and send another set of tester samples. When people say they want to buy a bottle, that’s a good sign! Once the formula is done, I transform it to use undiluted ingredients and scale it up. For release, I write about the new scent on my blog and send out a newsletter to my subscribers.
Q: How do you source your ingredients?
LE: I source most of my natural ingredients from a few companies in France, and I source the synthetic aroma ingredients from a few distributors in the U.S. I often sample multiple versions of the same ingredient from various companies to pick the one I think is the best.
Q: Tell me about the development of Fig Tree. What was your vision? What does this scent represent to you?
LE: Fig Tree came about because I wanted a new scent for spring and summer. I have lots of wintery, woodsy scents, but I need more fresh and summery scents. Fig leaf notes are one type of green smell that I like. I wanted my fig to have some woods in the base and to have some creamy lactonic notes without having too much coconut. (Creamy/milky accords usually include lactones, which typically have some degree of coconut to them.) I hoped to incorporate the scent of the whole tree: wood, fruit, and leaf. I sent testers out and received good feedback, so the project came together fairly quickly. It was gratifying when a blogger in Greece thought that Fig Tree smelled authentic because she really knows fig!
Q: It seems that some perfumers have a touch of synesthesia. Do you experience any other sensations related to smelling? For example, do smells conjure colors or tastes in your mind?
LE: When I’m testing a scent I often think that I need to “listen to that beginning part again” or “replay it from the top,” so the various senses do become mixed in our thoughts sometimes. I often associate colors with scents, but I think that comes from associations with nature and most people do the same thing. Plum smells conjure purple, grassy/leafy smells conjure green, citrus smells conjure orange and sunshine, etc. I do remember scents very vividly in my head, almost smelling them for real in the same way you can almost taste a food in your mind if you imagine it. My scent memory recall is quite vivid, but I think my synesthesia is about the same as most people’s.
Q: Who makes up Sonoma Scent Studio?
LE: Sonoma Scent Studio is a sole proprietorship that I own. I have not taken any investment money for it from any source; I have grown it entirely by reinvesting the profits into the business to build my stock of ingredients, packaging, and equipment. It’s basically a one-woman show, but I do have some help with packing and shipping, and with things like batching and making samples. The website may look it like it’s a larger company than it is, but it’s a small artisan company run from my home.
Q: What have been some of your discoveries about balancing the art and business of perfume?
LE: I’ve been lucky not to have to live with the kinds of ingredient cost restrictions that perfumers face at large companies. I spend a lot of money on ingredients, and I try to balance that extra cost by spending very little on advertising and by doing my own website work. There are disadvantages to being small, though. For example, ingredients cost more in small amounts (by the kilo) than they do when you can buy in large drums. Also, my handmade products are much more labor intensive than products that are manufactured in a factory, and that adds to the cost. I’ve learned that the traditional business model of selling wholesale to retailers/distributors doesn’t work well for me because there is just not enough profit to split. I have been more successful by doing the bulk of my sales directly to customers from my website. People are often surprised to hear that I don’t want to be sold on lots of other websites, but if I were to do that I’d have to raise prices. For now at least, I like to pick just a few boutiques to work with and do most sales from my own site.
Q: Do you have a personal favorite from your line?
LE: My current favorite is Spiced Citrus Vetiver, but that’s partly because I always love the newest scent in progress. I don’t really have a favorite, but some of the ones that I never tire of smelling are Winter Woods, Forest Walk, and Incense Pure.
Q: You don't really have much in the way of "clean" scents in your line, but clean scents have been quite popular with the general public for a while. Why do you gravitate away from those types of scents?
LE: I am not fond of most of the synthetic notes used to create clean scents. I do like musks, but I don’t like aquatic or ozonic notes and find it very challenging to work with them. Sometimes I like a finished perfume that uses those notes, but I prefer to appreciate those made by others rather than try to make them myself.
Q: Who are some of the perfumers you admire most? Whose work do you find inspiring?
LE: I am inspired by so many perfumers that it’s hard to name just a few. When I first discovered niche scents, though, the Serge Lutens line was one that really caught my attention because the perfumes were unlike anything I’d smelled until then. I love many of the early scents that Christopher Sheldrake did with Serge Lutens. I also have long admired many of the classic Chanel scents by several perfumers: No. 19 by Henri Robert, Coco by Jacques Polge, and No. 22, No. 5, and Bois des Iles by Ernest Beaux. Today as I work on my new all-natural line, I am finding contemporary natural perfumers like Mandy Aftel and Ayala Moriel to be inspiring, especially because they are also artisan indie perfumers.
Q: How does it feel to create something that is, perhaps, based on your own scent memory and then release it into the world where it inspires different scent memories in other people?
LE: One of the most wonderful parts of the job is to receive emails from people about the scent memories that my fragrances evoke for them. It’s especially gratifying when my scents have helped someone who is going through a hard time. Quite a few people have written to me to say they are going through an injury or illness and can’t get outside into nature as much as they’d like, and they’ve found one or more of my scents to be comforting. Hearing that I’ve made a difference makes me feel very good. Sometimes people write to say that a scent reminds them of a beloved person or environment from their past, and that is extremely satisfying, too. I don’t mind at all when someone’s interpretation is a bit different than mine, and in fact I like to leave some leeway in the scent descriptions for people to find their own meaning in the scents based on their own experiences.
Q: If you weren't making perfume, what else would you love to be doing?
LE: My other dream job would have been garden design, or maybe running a florist shop that specialized in scented flowers.
Q: Independent perfumers have existed for ages, but it seems the Internet makes this kind of livelihood more possible for more people. What role does the Internet play in your livelihood?
LE: The Internet has made my business possible—I could not have started this business without the Internet. It connects me to my customers and to my suppliers for ingredients and packaging. When I was first learning, the Internet helped me research perfumery and ingredients. It also has kept me in touch with other perfumers. The Internet is big factor in keeping me connected to everything I need to run a business from home. I think the Internet has spawned a resurgence of artisan and indie products and companies in many fields.
Find Sonoma Scent Studio Fig Tree here.