Boston

Schon DSGN Pens in workshop

When you first see a Schon DSGN pen, you have to pick it up. The bare metal cylinder commands the landscape of a coffee table like a tiny monolith. A curiously pleasing screw action opens and closes the cap, an enticement for endless fiddling.

Depending on which metal yours is made from — aluminum, titanium, brass or bronze — the pen is either surprisingly light or formidably heavy. It looks like some mysterious James Bond accessory. Once uncapped, it looks like the Platonic model for all pens ever created, descended like a stray lightning bolt straight from the desk of Zeus.

 

Brass Schon DSGN Pen

There is something paradoxical about it. Perhaps it’s the simple yet stately design. Perhaps it’s the satisfying feel of solid metal in an item that is usually no more than a petrochemical trifle, destined for the wastebasket.

It is this ponderous pen, a favorite of our Work collection, that has brought us to the Schon DSGN studio today. But it turns out there is a lot more to this maker. Ian Schon is an engineer with some revolutionary ideas. His portfolio includes an impressive collection of retail products and machine parts that he has independently designed, prototyped, manufactured, and brought to market. He keeps production as local as possible, even when it means designing machine parts and processes to circumvent typical methods of mass production. This “systems level approach to product design” is his response to a retail world inundated with mediocre goods and dubious branding. Schon goes the hard route to prove a point — that integrity matters, even in something a basic as a pen. How radical.

Multicolored Anodized Aluminum Schon DSGN Pens

 

“I like to make ‘physical interaction designs’ that are interesting,” Schon tells us. His screwtop pen is a prime example. “I don’t want to make something and then just put it on a shelf.”

We are standing in Schon’s home studio, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brookline, Massachusetts. This small but fruitful workshop is the vessel in which Schon sets out into uncharted territory again and again, designing his way from one step to the next. Myriad parts and prototypes — from watch faces to custom pen cartridges to unexplainable metal plates, diagrams and pieces he simply refers to as “bits” — cover most of the available surfaces in the room.

Schon digs through a series of drawers in his workshop, eventually pulling out a small box. Inside is his latest edition — hefty pens made from stainless steel.

“This is the new hotness,” says Schon with a smile. He is an engineer at play.

Maker Ian Schon

 

With his exuberant explanations and that confident grin, 26-year-old Schon gives the quirky impression of a boy genius. But he is no poindexter, mind you. Factor in the light-footed energy of a competitive cyclist, then add the keen gaze of an engineer who possesses a powerful raw intelligence, a command of his craft, and an unbridled creative spark. He is driven by a cause. When he talks about the challenges he faces as a maker dedicated to “Do It Yourself,” his passion nearly boils over.

Schon DSGN studio

 

A collection of artwork adorns the walls of Schon’s workshop, all of which speak to the dynamic forces at work in him. There are complex geometric patterns, which Schon programmed on his CNC machine as he was learning to use it. There are DIY flyers from various friends’ bands featuring original punk artwork. There’s a still-life drawing of a bicycle part, drawn by a tattoo artist friend. The crowning piece, mounted above his antique lathe, is a print of a laughing skull, wearing a bike cap that reads “Can’t Stop.” Below the skull, a banner that reads “Don’t Wanna” completes the sentiment.

Bike Banner

 

Indeed, Schon doesn’t ever seem to stop. During our two hour visit, he doesn’t sit down once, even though he has just biked here from across the Charles River. Not only is he eager to tell us about his work, he enthusiastically demonstrates various processes for us on the customized machines in his workshop.

Schon works on his entrepreneurial projects in his free time. He is able to fund many of his projects out of pocket. This is thanks to his “day job,” working as an engineer at Ideo, a global design firm located in Central Square, a hub of Boston’s tech scene. He cites this advantage as a huge privilege for a maker, one that he is grateful for. Schon seizes upon all of the opportunities his talents bring him to take a stand in the world of product design, pushing the limits of what it means for a brand to be authentic.

Schon DSGN pens

 

What does that mean exactly? Consider the pen. Schon needed a lathe to prototype his design. He had a hard time finding one, and no one would let him use theirs. Rightfully so, perhaps; he had no formal training. He was not enrolled in a metalworking class nor was he employed in a machine shop.

“No one would really teach me, so I kinda had to go on my own,” says Schon. “You’ve gotta be in the trenches to make innovation.”

He tracked down an antique industrial lathe on Craigslist, purchased it, and spent the summer restoring it. Then he learned to use it and began turning prototypes in his spare time. Eventually Schon would get more formal training at the scientific instruments facility at Boston University, but he was his own first teacher.

Ian Schon works on his lathe

 

“Let’s run a part on it, it’ll be fun,” says Schon. He fires up the lathe, which he approaches like a an old friend. In a room that includes powerful computerized manufacturing equipment and a large industrial metal press, the lathe seems almost quaint. He grabs a pen, explaining the finer points of polishing aluminum with red rouge over the din of the machine.

Polishing a pen

 

Schon’s final pen design was contingent on the condition that he would be able to produce every part of it with his own two hands. Hence, a metal cylinder with screw threads, which can be turned entirely on his lathe from raw stock. No internal spring action, and no pocket clip. A simple custom screw locks the cartridge in place. Nothing requires outsourcing of material, parts or labor.

Metal shavings and lathe

 

“People design themselves out of the equation,” Schon explains. His goal is to prevent what he considers an all-too-common phenomenon. Manufacturing methods and material choices are usually tailored to meet profit-driven, lowest-common-denominator industry standards. The archetypical example is the ubiquity of products that bear the phrase “Made in China.” For Schon, it’s a red letter that indicates a failure — a failure to prioritize local production, and to preserve the integrity of the product. It means the design has become an orphan in the world, reared not by it’s parent, but by strangers in a factory, far, far away.

“It’s hard for me when people say ‘made in Boston’ or ‘made in America’… what does it really mean ‘to make’, anymore?” he asks. “When I couldn’t produce [the pens] by myself anymore [due to increasing demand], it was about finding a way to produce them in America… and still capture the spirit of what I put into it.”

Ian Schon holding pens

 

This meant nailing down a production process that fit Schon’s final blueprint, his budget, and his ethos of keeping it locally and authentically made.

Eventually Schon found a Massachusetts shop that agreed to produce small-batch runs of his pens, in between runs of the high-volume products that sustain their business.

“They’ve got big machines to pay off, right? And I have to be respectful of that, I have to be respectful of their time, and make it work for both of us,” Schon explains.

Schon took the same “systems level approach” with his “certified slammed” bicycle part a few years back. The piece became its own brand, piggybacking off of a cyclist blog and creating its own micro-culture, all known by the moniker Slam That Stem.

Slam That Stem headset bearing covers

Photo courtesy of slamthatstem.com

The niche part is a result of Schon’s natural tendency to innovate. A common pain felt among competitive cyclists is a limitation in bicycle design. The issue lies with a minor piece called a headset bearing cover — a metal washer that seals the joint where the handlebars fit into the bike frame. It is crucial for keeping dust and debris out of the joint, which must remain accurately spaced, sealed and lubricated to perform properly.

A typical headset bearing cover is over an inch thick. For serious racers, who raise their seats high and crouch as low as possible over their handlebars, every millimeter counts. Schon designed a cover that is only 1.9 mm (or .075 in) thick, and weighs a less to boot. It’s the best option on the market for racers who want to get as low as possible (or “slammed,” according to the devotees) without an expensive custom alteration.

But once again, Schon hit a hurdle. He needed access to an industrial metal punch called an arbor press, fitted with a custom stamp, to produce his design. The stamp alone would cost him upwards of $15,000.

Ian Schon and his bike

 

“So how do you get around that?” Schon asks us. “You’ve gotta do that weird engineering thing, you’ve gotta make your own tool. Then you’ve gotta convince the stamper to put it in their machine. You can’t just design, and say ‘make this part’ — you have to find a way to make it, too.”

Schon tracked down an arbor press, purchased it, then learned how to use it. He went ahead and designed his own stamp for it, then made that, too. For three years, he used it to punch out the part by hand. Eventually, he found a machinist at a shop in Detroit who was willing to attach Schon’s stamp to one of their presses and stamp out Schon’s part in between shifts.

“That’s the only reason why [Slam That Stem] is able to exist,” says Schon, proudly standing next to his arbor press. He was able to sidestep a huge start-up cost, go into production, and keep the retail price at only $22, while maintaining full control of the project.

“That’s American ingenuity, that’s that special sauce, that’s what makes American makers special, because we’re scrappy as fuck, because we can just get in there, and figure out, and say ‘ok what’s the loophole? What’s the way that I’m gonna nail this?”

Ian Schon and watch faces

 

We arrive at the heart of Schon’s ethos when he reveals his latest project — handmade watches. Schon shows off the timepiece on his wrist — a handsome, simple design, noticeably unmarked by any logo or branding, just like his pens.

“This watch was made here,” he says with a gleam in his eye. “Like, in this room.”

Inspired to try his hand at making another “everyday use” item to follow his pens, Schon ordered a quartz watch on eBay, took it apart, and then reassembled it to see how it was built. Not long after he made his own watch case and a dial with a 3-D printer. It was only the beginning.

Watch faces on desk

 

“I wanted more, I wanted that tick, I wanted the mechanics,” says Schon. “What if I could make a watch entirely from scratch, I thought. So, I got to it.”

Schon reworked his case design to fit a mechanical watch movement (as opposed to quartz), so he could begin building the individual components. After three years of trial and error and many redesigns, (indeed, there are at least a dozen iterations of watch faces strewn over Schon’s work table), he began to arrive at a prototype that he would be capable of building.

“I created this watch and many more in between — many, many, many more in between,” he says. “I’ve just been diving super deep into this trying to figure out what I can make of it. I’m all over the map with how I create these.”

Each redesign required Schon to try new processes with his machines, particularly his CNC machine. Schon spent months writing the code to “draw” his watch case and other components on the computer.

CNC machine

 

“I had to develop the process,” he says. “There’s no book on it. You have to be really frickin’ creative and you have to use your engineering brain.” Once again, Schon had to design his own proprietary tool, this time for his CNC machine. He points out a custom mounting plate on the CNC table and asks us not to photograph it.

“It’s my special sauce,” Schon says with his grin.

Schon reiterates a that key element to maintaining control of the project is limiting the design to what is practical. Many watch design elements require specialized manufacturing that isn’t typically available in the States, or is otherwise cost-prohibitive, even for big companies. He points out certain details, like tiny, hair-thin sticks of metal decorating a commercially produced watch he has nearby, as examples of this kind of heedless design. Then he holds up his own watch face again to illustrate his point.

Watch face prototypes

 

“If you look at this watch… I have drilled dots [marking the hour] — because I know how to drill things. If you design with what you know, you can produce it and you can make the parts. And then your design lives — it makes it to market and it’s made in Massachusetts the way you ethically wanted to create it. You have to know your limits and your boundaries. The reason why [a company] says ‘oh it’s so hard to manufacture things in America’ is because [they’re] not thinking about it the right way.”

Schon explains that the watch world is enormous, full of behemoth companies, generating millions and millions of dollars a year in revenue. A lot of that revenue is based on brand image and stance, but not much scrutiny is given to the actual manufacturing behind that identity, at least not enough, according to Schon. He cites a prominent American watch company, who proudly boasts “made in America,” as an example. At best, he explains, they are simply assembling their designs Stateside, but not actually making the components.

Ian Schon and Paul Jackmauh

 

“They have the value I have, from a marketing standpoint, right, but not the guts. They’re not actually making it. You’re paying for marketing, and that’s sad, that’s something that hurts me, as someone who cares about goods,” says Schon. “This watch thing is an exercise — to say ‘dudes, you can make it in America, but you don’t want to, because it’s hard.’ …If you’re crafty about the design, you can produce it in America. And that’s where I’m at.” For him, the watch project is a social statement, a challenge to the status-quo.

“I just want to be there to set an example. I love competition. I want to encourage other makers to think that way, because it just strengthens their brand.”

 

 

Watch faces on desk

Schon plans to have ten finished watch prototypes — all already at various stages of completion here in his workshop — by December. Rather than hastening his design to the production stage for the sake of efficacy, Schon is focusing on completing a design that he is capable of producing himself, that he will be able to scale up locally.

“You’ve gotta be so clever to do it. You don’t have a ton of money, you don’t have a ton of scale, so you’ve gotta get really creative, you’ve gotta do stuff like this, like have a little factory where you’re doing one-offs in your house. It’s a blast.”

On our way out, Schon leads us outside to show us one of his earliest and dearest projects — his bicycle. To build it, Schon apprenticed with some bike makers in Baltimore, learned to use a brazing torch, then purchased his own. He designed and assembled custom tubing blocks to build on, then built his bike. What a surprise. It bears his personal lightning bolt “logo.” He handles it with the same affectionate touch as his lathe.

Ian Schon and bike

 

“I’m here to inspire, that’s the only reason I did this,” Schon says with another smile.

It is most certainly inspiring. We came here to learn about his pens, but it feels like we’ve just taken a whole curriculum in product design, engineering, industrial manufacturing and anti-establishment maker-activism. Schon is his own one-man production firm, on a mission, designing his way through uncharted territory. He seems to be having a lot of fun doing it.

Schon DSGN pen, watch, and bike

 

Check out Schon DSGN pens here!

Filed Under: Boston, Work
Craft & Caro logo and nylon strap

Evolution is the process by which a species adapts to its environment, in order to thrive. It happens in small steps. It is catalyzed by chance. Each successful variation endows a lucky creature with new or improved abilities, ensuring the strength and endurance of its line. Homo Sapiens is subject to this natural progression, of course, but there is something that sets us apart.

Woman with wings manufactured for human flight

For some time now, we have had the distinct pleasure of playing a role in our own evolution, thanks to our unique creative faculties. We call this kind of progress innovation. Innovation is the means by which we adapt the world to our needs, in order to thrive. It also happens in small steps. It is catalyzed by inspiration.

Vintage flying invention

Innovation is what sets us apart from the other evolvers. It is what makes us human. We get a chance to impart our ideas, our values, our tastes, and our aesthetics into our very existence. We get to stand back, square up the canvas in our sights, and contribute our own brushstrokes, even as we live them.

Our deeper values, what we might call spiritual aesthetics, inform how we choose to live. They are reflected in those brushstrokes — in all the subtle ways that we manifest beauty, elegance, and refinement in ourselves each day.

True style is borne by the graceful fusion of utility — dictated by the practical requirements of evolution — and beauty — that more elusive sense of what pleases the spirit. The care we put into crafting ourselves evinces the grace that resonates within each of us. It is how we share ourselves with the world, and in doing so, we uplift each other.

Closeup of Nylon strap of Craft & Caro leather ruckpack

That’s why we do what we do at Craft & Caro. We celebrate creativity. We cheer on the people who nudge us forward with each new innovation. We see style as something that is part and parcel of good design and good workmanship. We seek out the choicest fruits of the artisan world, according to our own heartfelt aesthetic, and collect them in our stockroom. The items we choose share the virtue of innovation, whether they are classic or cutting edge.

 Top front of leather bag

So far, this has been our contribution to the cause. Today, however, marks the genesis of something much bigger for us.

For once, we have had the opportunity to stand at the drafting board and determine exactly what shape inspiration will take. We are quite excited to announce Craft & Caro’s first ever collaborative product. 

LTHR Supply x Craft & Caro ruckpack in Bourbon

 

In partnership with our talented friends at LTHR Supply, we proudly present The Ruckpack.

 

We teamed up with Jeremy Szechenyi and Travis Tyler, the makers behind LTHR Supply, to collaborate on the new model, based on their classic Rucksack. After no small amount of consideration, we arrived at something that we are proud to put our names on.

The Ruckpack takes into account the practical demands of everyday use, and shines as an example of the subtle panache that has come to characterize our company. This is an everyday bag, to be sure, but a bit more distinguished — sophisticated, simple, durably built and enduringly stylish.

Side view of Craft & Caro Ruckpack rolltop

This redesign is all about the details. It is in the details that you will find those very sparks of inspiration that excite the senses.

We chose softer leather for a more luxurious feel. The edges of the rolltop are unstitched and unfinished, allowing for increased flexibility and more casual styling. Eventually, the raw leather edges will develop their own unique patina.

Backside of Craft & Caro leather Ruckpack

High-quality nylon straps, designed to stand up to long-term stress, replaced the leather ones. They feature a slide loop instead of a belt buckle system, allowing for continuous adjustment. The design does away with loose strap ends for a cleaner look and function. They’re stitched right into the bag, instead of being fastened with a lot of metal hardware.

Backside of leather ruckpack

Overall, the bag has fewer structural rivets and more stitching. The remaining rivets and fittings are made of aluminum instead of stainless steel. The result is a lighter, more comfortable pack. The bag also has an increased capacity, making it ideal for the urban commuter, the casual outdoorsman, or the thrifty vacationer. The minimalist design makes for a wonderfully simple functionality.

LTHR Supply x Craft & Caro leather patch

To commemorate the series, each bag bears a handsome, manually-stamped leather patch, featuring the respective LTHR Supply and Craft & Caro labels, as well as our collaborative tagline, “everyday goods, timeless designs.”

This first limited run comes in two colors, Bourbon and Walnut. And of course, every single component, from the full-grain steer hide and the bonded nylon stitching, to the aluminum clips and rivets, was produced in the USA. The Ruckpack was designed and assembled with pride in Boston, Massachusetts.

Leather ruckpacks by Craft & Caro

Thank you for giving us a chance to share this little moment of evolution. We will continue to step forward, to inspire and be inspired, and to champion the work of makers across the globe. Their workshops are where the magic is happening. Our collective passion for progress is what keeps them at it. Here’s to much, much more.

Vintage Jet Pack man

Check out the Ruckpack here!

Filed Under: Boston, New Products, News, Travel

News Bulletin

Art on display in Market at Casablanc

Dear friends of Craft & Caro,

We want to take a moment to share with you some of our latest accomplishments, and some exciting things to come!

After a few action-packed weeks of taking part in pop-up events, launching the Maker Profile blog series, planning for the summer, and making new friends all along the way, we find ourselves at the beginning of yet another exciting endeavor.

People walking through Market at Casablanc

Renovations are underway at Craft & Caro’s new store/showroom/lounge/gallery/event space in Market at Casablanc! We mentioned this exciting new artisan collective in the profile of Brothers Artisan Oil a few weeks ago; since then we have been invited to take a studio in the space. The entire place is coming alive before our eyes, and we’re psyched to be a part of it. We’ll be spending a lot of time in our new neighborhood over the next few weeks while we set up. Please bear with us. Decorating is hard work.

Art on the wall at Market at casablanc

By summer, you’ll be able to come visit us in the Craft & Caro Showroom! Contemplate the Boston cityscape from our lounge, browse the inspired products on our shelves, and explore the diverse studios and makers that belong to this curious new community.

Visitors in Best Bees studio

We’ll get back to you soon with more details on the store opening and other events, as well as a full-length article on Market at Casablanc.

Stay tuned for upcoming editions of our Maker Profile series, featuring engineer Ian Schon of Schon DSGN, letterpress stationers Smudge Ink, designer Jeremy Szechenyi of LTHR Supply Co and leather goods makers American Bench Craft. We’ll have to prepare the first Summer Beer Review soon, too! How time flies.

Enjoy yourselves. This is Craft & Caro, wishing you all the best in life.

See you soon!

Neon flamingo in a hall

Filed Under: Boston, Culture, Events, News
Boston Made banner hanging from chainlink fence

Two weeks ago, Craft & Caro had the opportunity to be a part of Boston’s newest craft market, Boston Made. Twenty diverse, Boston-area artisans came together in Somerville for one of the first pleasant, sunny weekends of the season.

The market was received with unanimous delight by curious patrons and vendors alike. For many on both sides of the booths, it was the first time attending such an event in Boston, despite the increasing number of active artists and makers in the city.

Marquee at Boston Made craft market

Boston Made is the brainchild of peers Kathryn Yee, founder of The Everyday Co., and Kate Kellman and Isabel Bonenfant, founders of Of Note Stationers. The three entrepreneurs came together in January to build a comprehensive database of craft markets they had each worked, to plan for the new year. They quickly saw that their combined resources held a much more valuable potential.

“We realized that wasn’t anything local in the Spring after the hustle of the holiday markets” Kathryn explains. “Between Kate, Isabel and I, we were confident that we could create a small market from all the makers we knew. So we just kicked it off and started planning,” says Kathryn.

Sign hanging from vending tent at Boston Made

In keeping with the enterprising spirit that is characteristic of the maker movement, Kathryn, Kate and Isabel saw their opportunity to create something and went for it. Over a matter of just a few weeks, they embraced a “divide and conquer” strategy and used their individual networks to build a roster of vendors, supporters and organizers.

“We started with our network of maker friends and expanded from there. Each of us spent hours reaching out to people for event promotion,” says Kate.

Crowd at Boston Made craft market

As luck would have it, friend and kindred spirit Chas Wagner offered to host Boston Made at his brand new pop-up event space, The Clubhouse. Chas, founder of the culture and apparel brand Rally Sports, recently rehabilitated the vacant Somerville Ave. garage into a bright, mural-adorned, community-oriented space for creative events just like this one.

Just down the street from Union Square and within eyesight of the Artisan’s Asylum studios, The Clubhouse sits in the heart of one of Boston’s most creative boroughs. Only New York City boasts more artists per capita than Somerville, according to the city’s official website. On-street parking, steady pedestrian traffic and high visibility made it the perfect location for the incipient market. In turn, Boston Made was a great chance to showcase the colorful new venue.

Shoppers at Boston Made craft market

Kathryn, Kate and Isabel put special attention on curating a well-rounded selection of vendors, for a robust shopping experience where every table offered something unique.

“It was important that the experience of the shopper felt cohesive and curated. We made sure that each maker would be highlighted and we didn’t have overlapping products” says Kathryn.

Spoons on display(Spoons by Annie Meyer Studio)

“Our aim was to have a well-balanced group… If we allowed any overlap in the type of goods showcased, we made sure their aesthetics differed enough so that all of the brands would compliment each other,” adds Kate.

That effort was not lost on the vendors, who agreed that the diverse selection of products really elevated the experience for everyone.

Kitchen & Kraft booth display and signage

“It’s a good group, a good variety of products,” said Tori Kendrew of Kitchen & Kraft, maker of natural kitchen and home goods, or as her slogan reads, “rad things for mindful living.”

Illustrator Shawna Koontz agreed. “This is incredibly well curated. Some of the most top-notch makers in the [Boston] craft industry are here.”

More importantly, it seemed, Boston Made provided a much needed opportunity for local makers to get out of their studios and make connections with each other, and with their customers. For some vendors, this was their first time coming face to face with other craftspeople working and creating in the very same community as them.

Jane Cuthbertson standing at her vending booth

“It’s invaluable for networking. To me that is the most important thing by far,” explained maker Jane Cuthbertson of Grey Green Goods. This was her first time vending at a live market. “Everything I do is online mostly. But there is no substitute for picking something up.”

Amy Seeburger poses at her booth

“As a weaver I’m kind of isolated,” said Amy Seeburger of Aurelian Weavers. Amy opened her website for business just one week before attending Boston Made. “Just being able to understand what the customers’ needs and wants are is huge.”

Despite the burgeoning population of Boston makers and the growing interest locally crafted goods, many voices in the industry lament the lack of regular events like Boston Made. While a few major (and more impersonal) shows like American Field come to Boston annually, and New England Open Markets is gearing up for another busy season down in the South End, many makers feel Boston is far from hitting its saturation point.

Shoppers at Boston made craft market

“A big part of this was about drawing attention to creative small businesses. There is a huge maker movement happening not only in Boston but across our country, bringing back craftsmanship. I’d love to see a change in the way people shop in Boston. Right now there isn’t a cool destination for people to shop local. Everything is sort of spread out and siloed. We see it happening in other cities but not ours,” explains Kathryn.

Designer Erica Feldman, who came out to peruse the market, was excited for that very reason. “I’m from Chicago. There’s a really big [maker] culture in Chicago. When I moved here I couldn’t find any independent brands, so it’s nice to see this.” Feldman is the owner of HausWitch, a boutique home goods store in Salem, MA, where a similar craft scene has developed.

Alaina Montuori smiles at her vending booth

“The pop-ups and markets are where customers are really meeting us,” says artist Alaina Montuori, proprietor of Extras By Alaina. “Its nice when people can discover what’s happening.”

Surely, the biggest reward for Kathryn, Kate and Isabel was the incessant inquiring by patrons about when the next Boston Made would be happening.

“We didn’t expect the overwhelming response from both vendors and attendees to this market. People kept asking if we were doing it every weekend or when the next one would be,” beams Kate.

A vendor makes a sale at her booth

“From just one show, Boston Made has created a brand for itself. We’ve been talking about keeping it small and curated, but approachable, encompassing and supportive. I think this will set our market apart from some of the larger ones.” reflects Kathryn. “The possibilities are endless.”

Kate is just as optimistic. “It’s an exciting time for the Boston maker scene. Lots of cool people are doing really cool things. And it seems, as this community is growing, so too are the opportunities for new markets.”

Pillow depicting the word "Boston"

(Pillows by Salty Oat.)

Filed Under: Boston, Culture, Events, News
Natural perfumer Jennifer Botto of Thorn & Bloom

Jennifer Botto is a pioneer in the field of all-natural luxury perfume. She creates her intoxicating blends by hand in Somerville Massachusetts. We visited Jenn in her studio to learn about the detailed process of hand-blending a fragrance. Jenn shared her inspirations with us, as well as some insightful reflections of her own. 

1. How did you come to start a natural perfume company?

I grew up on a farm in upstate New York. Working with botanical aromatics is a way for me to connect with nature, something that I’ve been missing since moving to Boston. I also grew up with many allergies and chemical sensitivities. When I made the switch to all-natural products, I was underwhelmed with the selection of natural perfume. I mostly found aromatherapy-style blends that lacked the complexity and sophistication I desired. Thorn & Bloom was meant to bridge the gap between these aromatherapy-style natural perfumes and synthetic luxury perfumes.

2. What passions inform your work?

I’m influenced by nostalgia and memory. Many of my blends have some reference points from my past and conjure strong emotions in me.

Jenn Botto of Thorn & Bloom with Paul Jackmauh of Craft & Caro3. Tell me about your product. What makes it special?

My perfumes are Eau de Perfums in a base of organic grape alcohol. Many natural perfumes come in roller-ball bottles, in an oil base, but I find the combination of an organic alcohol base, bottled in an atomizer spray bottle, is ideal. This combination works best to aerate each blend’s volatile notes, allowing the scent’s full spectrum to shine through. So much time and effort has gone into growing, harvesting, processing and blending them and I want to pay homage to those efforts.

4. Why all-natural?

The skin is the largest organ in the body, and certain substances are even more readily absorbed through the skin than our digestive system! While people are focused intently on eating organic food, they often don’t realize that they are giving themselves a daily dose of synthetic chemicals when they apply cosmetics.

The reason why synthetic perfume lasts longer on the body than natural perfume is because synthetic chemicals have a longer degradation period, both in the body and in the environment. Sometimes people tell me they don’t like natural perfumes because they fade faster than synthetics, but natural essences work more gently on your body and on the environment. The delicate tendencies of natural extracts provides a more intimate user experience. You have to get close to the wearer to fully enjoy it, and it won’t interfere with a delicious meal or cause others in a tight space to inhale an imposing odor.

Thorn & Bloom Perfumes

5. What is the story behind the name Thorn & Bloom? 

The name Thorn & Bloom refers to the notion of holistic living and consumption. Similar to the trend of ‘nose to tail’ eating (making use of the whole animal), Thorn & Bloom strives to include all the elements of a natural aromatic, ‘from thorn to bloom’.

This is in direct contrast to synthetic perfumery, which tends to artificially reconstruct only the most ‘desirable’ molecules of an aromatic, leaving out less ‘perfect’ molecules. They lack a tactile quality.

Take Jasmine, for instance, which has a high degree of naturally occurring Indole, a molecule also found in human feces. Indole is often described as ‘animalistic’ and ‘musky’. Synthetic perfumers can choose to create a Jasmine perfume with as much or as little Indole as they like, simply by adding or subtracting synthetic Indole. Natural perfumers, on the other hand, will use the whole Jasmine essence. That means they will work with the level of Indole that occurs naturally, which can vary due to the growing conditions and species of Jasmine used.

By keeping our ingredients as whole and as pure as possible, we are allowing a given aromatic’s full, natural spectrum to shine through. Sometimes, this spectrum can include unique nuances which, to some, may be an acquired taste. We see these nuances as essential elements, knowing they’ll impart depth and character to an otherwise mundane blend.

“To embrace imperfection is to embrace authenticity, something that is often lost in our modern world. I believe that imperfection can elevate beauty in surprisingly profound and spectacular ways. Thorn & Bloom’s 100% natural blends vibrate with energy and soulfulness, allowing you to fully appreciate nature’s incredibly varied palate.”

Thorn & Bloom Wild Rose scent sample under glass bell6. What are some pros and cons to working with all natural ingredients?

A major con to working in the natural products market is the ‘greenwashing’ of consumers by companies that either don’t know they are using synthetics or don’t care. The term ‘natural’ is yet unregulated by the FDA, so it is really meaningless. As a result many perfume houses will market as ‘all-natural’. It’s very frustrating trying to compete with their lower price-point and entirely different aromatic profiles. A few ways I like to tell consumers how to differentiate natural perfumes from synthetics:

  1. Color: Many natural aromatics will be (and should be) highly pigmented. This pigmentation results from the plants’ polyphenols (a.k.a. antioxidants) coming through in the extraction process. Perfume houses that have clear perfume will most likely be using questionable aromatics. I always say ‘trust your eyes and your nose’.
  2. Price: Natural aromatic extracts are pricey! This will reflect in the final cost of the perfume. For instance, an ounce of Tuberose extract can reach a price of $400. If you come across a bargain ‘natural’ perfume, it may be too good to be true.

I will often explain to my customers that natural perfume is first and foremost an agricultural product. That’s not something many people associate with perfume! For this reason, a formula will vary slightly from batch to batch, year to year. This is because the raw material used in it will be affected by local growing conditions.

Just as a vintage of Merlot grapes will vary from year to year and yield a different flavor profile, a crop of roses will vary as well and will yield a different aromatic profile. I think this is so cool! This variation is a big reason why natural perfume is not often mass-produced. Large companies are wary of these nuanced shifts in aromatic profiles. They assume customers want consistency above all.

You wouldn’t want to go out and buy a synthetic bottle of Merlot just because it tastes the same year after year! So why would you want to with perfume? In this way, botanical perfume can connect us with nature in delightfully intimate ways.

Hand holding perfume sample

7. Can you tell me a little about the basics of perfume production?

Every scent has base, middle and top notes. Each is categorized by its volatility, or how quickly it evaporates. Top notes are the most volatile, like citruses and peppers. They also tend to be the most effervescent and sharp. Middle notes are usually florals. They’re well-rounded and add body and beauty to the blend. Base notes provide staying power. They anchor the blend and include scents like vanilla, woods, musks and roots.

I don’t have a strict formula that I work with, but usually I tend to focus on a gorgeous middle note and start by building accords (made up of three or more complimentary notes) around it, then I add aromatics one by one, drop by drop to experiment. Lots of trial and error. Or I focus on a scent family (for example, green, wood, floral, or amber) and find aromatics within those categories to bring together. My blending is often fast and furious when inspiration hits.

Natural perfume extracts

8. I understand you even make some of your own tinctures to use as ingredients. What are some of those scents?

I have made raspberry, strawberry, blackberry, peach, pineapple, rooibos, basmati rice, black cardamom, rosemary, grains of paradise and coriander. Each raw material is aged in organic alcohol for a minimum of six months. Most of my tinctures are aged over two years. 

9. Who tends to buy your product and where are they?

As a new company, I mostly sell directly at the New England Open Markets and online. My stockists include Craft & Caro, the St. Germain Boutique at the Fairmont Copley Plaza, and Scent Trunk. Many customers are referred to me through popular niche perfume blogs, such as CaFleureBon, which has given Thorn & Bloom many positive reviews.

My perfumes are popular among both women & men (I offer many unisex blends) and the brand is especially well-received among customers in Dubai and Egypt. I feel this is because they are more familiar with the qualities of natural aromatics and appreciate the sophistication of my blends.

Jenn Botto holding a scent sample for Paul Jackmauh

10. What are your plans for 2016? What are your prospects for the brand?

I have three trade shows coming up this season — Elev8 NY, Indie Beauty Expo, and W.E.L.L Summit. I will be working hard to develop more scents in the fragrance line, along with body, face, and bath oils. I’d love to start bespoke services, and make custom blends for people who want their own personalized scent!

11. What has been your greatest success so far?

I’m so excited that Thorn & Bloom has recently been announced as a finalist for the prestigious 2016 Art & Olfaction Awards!  Thorn & Bloom is among nine other finalists — acclaimed artisan perfume houses from all over the world! The winner will be announced on May 7. This is especially exciting for a 100% natural perfume house like Thorn & Bloom, as blending with botanical aromatics often poses unique challenges.

12. How about your greatest challenge?

My greatest challenge is ongoing: managing limited resources. I started the company with limited funds and time and I have had to be patient with growth due to these constraints. However, it is incredibly rewarding being able to keep the company small and under my own control, which means keeping the quality at a high standard.

Jennifer Botto of Thorn & Bloom

13. What is something you’ve learned from starting your own business?

I’ve learned that finding a mentor and building up a supportive community around you is so important. After every setback or failure, it’s really great to have positive voices encouraging you to keep going. When things go well it’s also necessary to be able to share that with others, as a confirmation and celebration of your efforts. Anya McCoy has been especially helpful as a mentor during my studies at the Natural Perfumery Institute. She heads the Institute and is an amazing resource for natural perfumers all over the country.

14. What do you think of the Boston as a community for the craft/maker scene?
Boston’s craft/maker scene is thriving, thanks to institutions like New England Open Markets, which has been supporting local makers for years by offering them thriving venues at which to sell their creations.

The Artisan’s Asylum in Somerville is another wonderful entity that supports makers by offering them affordable studio and fabrication spaces and shared tools and equipment. I recently read that Somerville boasts the largest number of artists per capita outside of New York City, which is amazing! I’m proud to be a part of the movement.

Thorn & Bloom perfumes on a wooden table

15. What is your favorite Thorn & Bloom scent?

My favorite is Stranger in the Cherry Grove. Originally, it was an attempt to recreate the smell of my father’s cherry flavored pipe tobacco, but it took on a life of it’s own and turned into a blazing cherry orchard!

I love that the cherry comes across as charred and resinous, not sweet and pretty. To me, it represents a wonderful duality between innocence (cherry fruit) and danger (smoke and leather). I love that yin and yang atmosphere it conjures. I also worked so hard to create a cherry wood accord, as cherry wood is not available as a single aromatic, and I think it comes very close to the real thing. Saffron lends a wonderfully smooth, new leather note while amber pulls everything together in a sensual warmth.

Assorted bottles of botanicals extract in Thorn & Bloom studio

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