If you’ve ever been tempted to start mixing your own scents, Anya McCoy’s story will be instructive. Anya started collecting essences, then started selling, then started blending, and eventually founded the Natural Perfumery discussion group on Yahoo. Recently, Anya has launched naturalperfumery.com, a clearinghouse for information on this expanding field. She plans to launch her own line of perfumes early next year.
How and when did you first become interested in perfume?
My first scent memories involve the lush perfumes that my mother and her friends wore. They gave me the almost-empty bottles so I could play with the bits left. I was only two or three, yet I could differentiate the varied perfumes by name. I connected them with the real world, like the roses and irises and crisp green succulent leaves of the hedges that grew in our garden. I found that picking and rubbing the flowers or leaves on my skin didn't produce a fine perfume, so I thought there was something magical about how the scent went from the plant to the bottle — and there is! I knew I would be fascinated with perfumes for the rest of my life, and the natural world of plants and perfumes has always been intertwined in my heart and soul.
And how did you become interested specifically in natural as opposed to synthetic perfumes?
In the hippie days, I discovered that "headshops" carried single note essential oils, like frankincense, sandalwood and patchouli. I noticed that the natural oils didn't "turn" on my skin. They were lovely in their simplicity and there was no sour stench after a few hours, as sometimes occurred with mainstream perfumes. I began to seriously collect essential oils in my 20s, and soon had over 200. I would pull out my stash of oils at parties, and offer everyone a sniff or dab of, say, chameli, vetiver, or lavender.
I got an undergraduate degree in Economic Botany, and a Masters in Landscape Architecture, specializing in fragrant gardens of the tropics to further my understanding of the source of perfume plants and how to incorporate them into everyday life. I didn’t know of any perfumery schools, or I would have opted for that, instead. I delved deeply into the physiology, history, botany and use of fragrant plants, and that was the next best thing to me. That education has been a wonderful foundation for me in perfumery.
And eventually, you began mixing and selling your own fragrances, right?
I was encouraged to begin blending by two cologne recipes in Jeanne Rose’s book Herbs and Things. I had never seen a cologne or perfume recipe before that. Later, I studied other books such as William Kaufman’s Perfume, and Roy Genders’ Perfume Through the Ages for technique. I’m bold enough now to construct a perfume with no top notes, if I want to, producing a blend meant to be hypnotic. It insinuates itself upon you like a dream. Experimentation and intuition, built upon learning, is the key to any art or science.
I started selling single note oils in bottles I hand-poured and labeled in the early 90s in South Beach under the name Anya’s Tropical Essences. Several stores and hotels carried the oils, which were popular among tourists and young service workers. Many of the musical artists who recorded at the studio at The Marlin Hotel knew they could find me in the lobby or at the bar with my stash of oils most afternoons. I have to laugh about it now: how naive, and probably illegal, that was! Later, some hotel owners asked me to blend simple, fun scents for private line body care products. They also referred perfume clients to me, and so my bespoke perfume business was born.
And later, you founded the Natural Perfumery discussion group on Yahoo...
Mandy Aftel’s book Essence and Alchemy, which was released in 2001, created a groundswell of interest in natural perfumery and many aromatherapists and soapers began blending in earnest. Aftel’s book clearly laid out techniques, descriptions, and history and offered lots of encouragement for natural perfumers. For a time, Mandy hosted a group on Yahoo but she closed it down to open her Guild, so I started the Natural Perfumery group in June 2002.
The passion and love of natural raw ingredients, and the desire to create perfumes united the members. In three years I have witnessed the level of sophistication increase tremendously; there are some very talented and serious perfumers that are now going commercial. The group has grown to more than 500 members, and the archives, in the form of past posts, are a fabulous source of information on raw materials, blending tips, and other creative issues. Additionally, the Files section holds information on safety data, government regulations and all kinds of pertinent business-related details — the stuff that can trip you up if you aren’t aware.
We’ve stimulated each other to try new things — many on the group have taken up infusing and tincturing our own botanicals to obtain rare fragrances that are not available commercially. Currently I have six varieties of jasmine tincturing, along with rare tropical flowers, cardamom leaves and other fragrant materials, including peaches. These are all unique items that add a personal touch and fun lagniappe to a blend.
What will naturalperfumery.com accomplish that you couldn’t do through the Yahoo group?
Based on my experience with the Yahoo group, I sensed that natural perfumery needed a better public presence on the internet. Naturalperfumery.com had its soft launch on June 14, 2005, the third anniversary of the Yahoo group. The website will be an educational and marketing tool for the new industry, and will help to raise awareness of natural perfumes.
There are links to natural perfumer's websites, where the public can order samples and purchase perfumes. There are also articles, and soon there will be a newsletter, a magazine, and information on the raw materials that are the basis for our creations. Since it is basically a one-woman show at this time, things are being added slowly, but a visitor even at this early stage will, I hope, come away with a good feel of what natural perfumery is all about.
For those of us who insist on wearing synthetics, can you list 3 or 4 of your favorite mainstream perfumes?
My favorite mainstream perfumes are Cologne by Thierry Mugler, Byzance and Mystere from Rochas, and my first love, Chanel No. 5.