Self-care is having a moment. If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us all the importance of making our health and well-being a top priority. One of the brands helping Coloradans make the most of their increased time at home is Formulary 55. Founded by self-taught chemist Cordelia Smith in Seattle, Washington in 2012 and relocated to Pueblo in 2014, Formulary 55 (named for 55th Street in Seattle, where the brand started) has grown from a small batch, made-at-home bath and body brand to an international business with products carried throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as countries like Sweden, New Zealand, and Japan. We chatted with Smith from a safe distance (via email) about how she started Formulary 55, what makes for a good scent memory, and the new gift sets she’s dreamed up for Mother’s Day.
5280: Tell me about the beginnings of Formulary 55. When and why did you start creating your own products?
Cordelia Smith: I was 21 and going through a phase of wanting to grow and make everything myself. I happened upon a book on soap making at the local candle supply store in Seattle, and it immediately piqued my interest. Nowadays, you can go online and find soap recipes very easily, but back then, handmade soap was made using lard and lye. I knew that this wouldn’t do, as I love animals (Editor’s Note: Lard is derived from the fatty parts of pigs). I was committed to making soap that was free of animal ingredients and I still am. Formulary 55 is completely vegan and cruelty-free. I started learning as much as I could about alternative ingredients like soy and coconut. It’s safe to say that I received an unofficial education in chemistry!
Did you start creating your own scents at the same time or did that come later?
Aromatherapy and plant materials have always inspired me, and all of my initial scents started with essential oils. Back then, I’d start formulating a scent by identifying the feeling that I wanted it to evoke. Then I’d experiment with different combinations of essential oils to see what worked well together. One of my very first scents was called “Awakening,” and believe it or not, I still use it today. Now it’s called “Ginger Blossom,” and it’s available in our Aromatherapy Home Care Collection.
What is your creative process when working on a new product?
When I’m working on a new product or developing a new scent, you can most likely find me in the test kitchen in my office. I’m an introvert, so I like to work solo and without distraction. Often times, I become most inspired at the end of the day (I’m a night owl), and once the creativity starts flowing, it’s very hard for me to stop.
When did you relocate from Seattle to Pueblo?
We moved to Pueblo in October 2014 because my husband and our COO, Anthony, and I wanted to grow Formulary 55 in a way we didn’t think we could in Seattle (without a few extra million dollars). We purchased a 115-year-old building in Pueblo for $110,000 and relocated shortly after. Anthony renovated everything himself. Our offices and manufacturing facility are located in downtown Pueblo, and we never would have been able to do that in Seattle. If we had stayed there, our offices would most likely be located in an office park somewhere outside the city, which is not the lifestyle we want.
Coming from a fashion background as I do, I know it’s becoming harder to find people with artisan skill sets; is that an issue for you, as Formulary 55’s products are handmade?
Finding the right employees in Pueblo was challenging at first, but after a few years we’re happy to report that we have an amazing team of ten. We have the most dedicated, talented employees who bring unique skill sets to the company. For instance, one of our employees is an amazing illustrator and when I was creating our new Seasons Collection, I knew she needed to design the packaging. Our production manager is an amazing baker (she used to own a café in Minnesota), and that experience lends itself beautifully to our production—some days we make 1,000+ bars of soap in eight hours!
What are some of your first scent memories?
My first scent memories are of chalk and dust from the basement of my Lutheran Sunday School, and Jovan Musk that my Mom would apply when she’d go out. Our Apiary No. 55 scent is actually my take on Jovan Musk from the ’70s.
You combine some unexpected ingredients in your scents (for example, Love Potion No. 9 has an unexpected mix of notes, including smoke, amber, Peru balsam, and champagne); how do you begin when creating a new scent and deciding on combing ingredients?
As of late, I’ve found myself most inspired by the places I’ve traveled to. Pulling from the sensory experiences from that destination, I’m able to identify the top and base notes quickly. From there, the process can take on a life of its own and there’s no way to gauge how long a scent will take to formulate. The middle notes are the hardest for me. For the past few years I’ve been working on a scent inspired by Salida. It’s one of my favorite places on Earth and we own property there. Our property is covered in piñon pine trees, so that makes for an easy first note. From there I have drawn from everything else I’ve experienced—the warm sun, the pink cacti, and even the fine layer of clay that covers much of the ground—to develop the remaining notes. It’s safe to say that I’m still playing around with this scent, but I believe that’s why our customers love our products so much. I’m a perfectionist and want to ensure that I get it just right!
Any new product launches this spring that you can tell our readers about?
You can expect more gift sets! Just in time for Mother’s Day, we will be debuting three new bath and body sets perfect for gifting: Aloe Leaf and Mint, Apiary No. 55, and Honeycomb and Neroli (each are $33).