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.
3. 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.
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.”
6. 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:
- 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’.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.