We got a chance to chat with the lovely Sandy Carr, Perfumer, CEO and package fullfiller of Bluehill Fragrances. Discover her inspiration in fragrance creation fueled by her love for the New England area and its history as you learn how her training in Grasse shaped her outlook on formulating and experimentation. We also love how Sandy gets real with us about launching a brand shortly before a global pandemic and how she pivoted to keep her brand top of mind.
Q: You seem like you’ve always been creative, even from a young age. How did your background in photography, fiber arts, and candle, soap and papermaking help inform your journey as a perfumer?
As much as others can teach you, you have to be willing to listen to that inner creative voice and try something different. You start by learning the basics, then branch out from there. For me, perfume was a tiny bit more restrained because I wanted people to wear the fragrances, not just be impressed by their use of unusual materials (which is one of the perks of being an indie). But you CAN get unexpected combinations that express your original intentions. Back Bay, for example, uses a larger dose of ylang-ylang than I would have considered originally because our climate is certainly not tropical rain forest! But combined with other, earthier materials, it helps express the city, sidewalk, and building feeling that I wanted to recreate.
Q: You studied at Grasse Institute of Perfumery. What were some of the biggest lessons you learned here?
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! We were all learning, all knocked our formulations over, all guessed at raw materials incorrectly, and all had our trials removed from the room if we didn’t label them correctly. Our instructor, a French perfumer, taught us so much and we all worked together to learn from and support each other. I still ask for help from other perfumers in online groups that I belong to.
Q: What’s the story behind your company name?
I am very lucky to live just across the street from the Blue Hills Reservation, an amazing tribute to the vision of the Metropolitan Parks Commission who purchased and set aside the 7,000 acres in 1893. It was one of the first public recreation areas in the state. I have spent countless hours there hiking, kayaking, mountain biking… Important time to let go of everything else and just “be.”
Q: Tell us about your first fragrance and the inspiration for it. How did you build it from the ground up?
My first perfume coming back from Grasse celebrated the intoxicating smell of sun-warmed grapes growing wild in Fowl Meadow, a flat, marshy area of the Blue Hills. I started with a formula for a wonderful eau de cologne that we learned while in Grasse and added to it, researching ways to achieve the grape smell. I worked with both butyl and dimethyl anthranilate, changing their relative amounts as one is mustier than the other. Other materials included an Indian Ruh Jui (jasmine), Acacia honey from France, Hedione, and Damascone Beta. It was a very simple formula and just as intoxicating as the real thing. The people who bought it in the open markets where I sold it got a real bargain!
Q: Can you describe how you got those very first fragrances to customers? How did you convince shops to carry them? What did you learn from selling them at Boston’s open markets?
I applied to and was accepted by a group called New England Open Markets. We were artisans offering hand-made goods who set up tents to sell on the weekends in a few Boston locations. I sold 17 bottles the very first weekend, although I have to say my daughter’s friends represented a large majority of sales. I used the two years in the market to talk to customers and get a better feeling for what they liked and didn’t like. At one point I offered 9 different fragrances. Obviously some sold better than others.
At the same time, I targeted a few upscale boutiques and cold-called with my bottles and samples. The timing was good because it was the beginning of people wanting to carry locally-made products. Of the five I approached, only one turned me down.
Q: What are some of the trends you’re seeing as a small batch perfumer? How are you incorporating them into your fragrances or business?
It’s hard not to mention how several months of quarantine has affected not only small batch perfumery but retail sales in general. Right before the country closed down I had conducted a new round of upscale store and spa visits and was looking forward to offering my perfumes in a few really exciting Boston and suburb locations. I will revisit those now as retail stores have just re-opened in MA, but in the interim, I needed to rethink how I was going after distribution and brand awareness.
I partnered with Olfactif for inclusion in their subscription boxes and pivoted towards a focus on social media and brand awareness. I have upped my Instagram organic and sponsored postings and am doing the same with Facebook. The statistics coming in from Shopify on increased visits to my website are pretty amazing. It’s also important to keep on top of the offerings being made to small business by Facebook, Shopify and Google.
For example, Google has made free ads available to small businesses on Shopify by downloading a free app and connecting your inventory. In some cases it helps to work with a tech advisor on these things just to make sure everything is in place.
Q: How have you grown the company since you first started? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
After two years setting up a tent and selling indoors at holiday markets I decided I had to either scale up or think of perfumery as a hobby. I ultimately decided to scale up. The biggest challenge for me was creating a network of suppliers to help create more product and retail materials.
For the first two years I did everything myself from formulation to creating the juice to filling and labeling bottles. I needed to find people willing to do this for me, at a scale that was much larger than I was used to but smaller than they were used to. That was so hard! I couldn’t have done it without the help of Karen Dubin of Sniffapalloza and Bart Scmhidt of Brands with Purpose.
I also decided to have boxes and supporting sales materials printed. I knew nothing about this and it was equally as hard to find someone who didn’t have quantity requirements while not charging an arm and a leg. Again, I have to say that not being afraid to fail; asking questions that may seem ridiculous and collaboration is what it takes to move ahead.
Q: What are you working on now? Where are you finding inspiration?
I have a citrusy fragrance that I will release in very limited quantity online for summer, another waiting for larger production, and two more that I want to work on a bit more although they are pretty far along. I also have two more that I want to make but will likely have to wait until next year.
My inspiration has always been and will continue to be my love for the New England area and its history. As an example, one that I want to finesse is called Midnight Ride.
Q: One of the things you did early on was change the packaging of your perfumes. How important is packaging, especially as a niche perfumer?
I went with new, bigger bottles, and had my graphic designer design boxes for them. This was all part of the scaling up decision: offer a more polished wrapping with better shelf appeal. I started with one new bottle shape and label as a first step but after working with Perfumarie in NY, decided that it wasn’t eye-catching enough and needed more shelf appeal. We went back to the original illustrations on the label and worked with my bottle supplier to find a bottle shape that was beautiful and classic.
Q: What are some of your favorite notes?
I am a huge fan of Robertet’s naturals. Their Tomato Natural, Lisylang and (IFRA-compliant) Oakmoss are among my favorites. I have been heard to say that I would gladly live inside those bottles. I am also totally in love with the recreation of DeLaire’s Mousse de Saxe offered by the Perfumer Supply House.
Q: What do you do to relax and unwind at the end of a long day?
Actually, I am fortunate to be able to schedule my days to get outside in the middle or the beginning of the day which is what I need to stay centered. There is so much to do as a one-person operation (with the support of many other wonderful hands) that walking my dog Ranger or cycling through the Blue Hills is a really necessary part of my day.
Q: Finally, close your eyes and take a deep breath. What are you smelling right now?
Honestly, it’s a vintage sample of Balmain’s Elysees 64-83 perfume given to me by Ida Meister, a senior editor with CaFleureBon. It is the most wonderful fragrance ever, old-fashioned like the Mousse de Saxe and described by Ida as such: “ What a glorious composition! Pierre Balmain Elysees 64-83 by Germaine Cellier hails from an era in which one anticipated experiencing a sensual journey before falling into the lingering luscious abyss of studied shadow where they longed to dally indefinitely.”
I do keep a bottle of Back Bay at my computer (my favorite BLUEHILL Fragrance), but since meeting the Balmain, I keep that by my side too and occasionally unscrew the cap for a quick whiff. Ahhhhhhh….
Photo credits: Bluehill Fragrances
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