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The art of making perfume has been practiced since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. In fact, a 4,000-year-old Bronze Age perfume factory was discovered on the Greek island of Crete in 2005, showing just how far back humans have valued scented potions. Fast-forward to the 17th century and ‘The Perfumed Court’ of Louis XIV, when perfume became synonymous with royalty because the nobility had a fear of bathing (it was thought that water spread disease). Today, we associate perfume with iconic scents like Chanel No. 5, CK One, or Gucci Guilty, but the real star of the perfume world is the “nose”—the perfumer whose refined sense of smell and exceptional skill for distilling flowers and other botanicals allows them to create unique olfactory compositions.
This month’s issue of 5280 features four Colorado perfumers, all of whom are independent noses with their own individual fragrance aesthetic. One brand we showcased is La Fleur by Livvy, which was founded by Olivia Larson in the summer of 2013. Originally hailing from Calcutta, India, Larson is a self-taught perfumer who got her start making perfumes for friends and family. I chatted with her about what it means to be a natural perfumer, the inspiration behind her latest scent Nur, and what to look for in a “green” or “clean” perfume.
5280: How did you become interested in scent?
Olivia Larson: I was born in Calcutta, India, where I spent my childhood, an it was there I subconsciously was awakened to the art of perfumery. One of my chores as a little girl was to run errands for my mother to the farmers’ market, and this gave me the chance to engage all five senses—specially taste and smell, which are both closely linked.
I enjoyed spending time in the kitchen with my parents and watching them cook. It helped expand my knowledge of working with aromatic herbs and spices. I learned the art of cooking Indian food at the age of 10. I still remember a beautiful frangipani (Plumeria) tree outside my grandmother’s bedroom—the scent of the flowers would waft inside. They were so fragrant! I also remember how Indian women adorn their hair with freshly scented jasmine flowers and oils. All of this had a strong impact on me, but it wasn’t until much later that I decided to get into natural perfumery.
You create perfumes that are natural, plant-based scents; can you tell us what this means and why it is important?
It means that I work with natural ingredients that are 100 percent botanical. These ingredients can include various plants, fruits, woods, roots, resins, and flowers. I work with essential oils primarily; they are the soul of the plant, captured in concentrated extracts, and they release unique aromatic compounds that give each essential oil its characteristic essence. These notes are complex, as they evolve on the skin over time and have a lot of depth. Plants and flowers also have powerful healing benefits besides being rich in antioxidants. For example, smelling a “real” rose or rose essential oil can help reduce anxiety, stress, and relax your mind and body; a synthetic rose cannot do that.
Is it difficult to source natural, high-grade raw materials for your perfumes?
Yes, because many suppliers are using the word “organic” and “natural” loosely. Some ingredients are harder to source than others, but once you find the right suppliers you build a relationship and trust with them. With the Internet, you can also source suppliers and ingredients from around the world that are sustainably grown, organic, and wild harvested. I use high-grade raw materials that are preferably 100 percent pure, therapeutic grade, or used in aromatherapy, and I also check the extraction methods. Some certifications to look for are USDA Organic, Leaping Bunny, and Organic Farmers and Growers.
Many perfumes—particularly famous 20th century scents like Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar—use synthetics in their fragrances; why would a perfumer use a synthetic compound or compounds in a scent?
In the 1920s, synthetic molecules and aldehydes were introduced into the perfume industry as fixatives and to enhance sillage (or how a fragrance diffuses around the wearer). Whilst using these cheaper lab-made versions, they lost the magic and depth of working with naturals; the only thing they can capture is the aroma not the soul or health properties of the plants.
I love that you talk about perfume in terms of both the scent experience and health benefits.
You know, not everything that you spray on your skin is listed on a perfume label—only 50 percent of it is listed. There are over 3,000 chemicals and synthetics used in the perfume industry today, and [some] are harmful and toxic. The skin is the largest organ, and it absorbs these chemicals and synthetics easily into the bloodstream. While the aromas of naturals are isolated and imitated in synthetics, you cannot get the true healing benefits of the plant. It’s really up to the consumer to make an educated choice.
Let’s talk a bit about the inspiration for your scent Nur, which was featured in this month’s issue of 5280.
Nur is the first perfume in the Tales of India collection. It’s layered and complex. Perfume plays a big part in daily life in India, as well as in religious and auspicious ceremonies like birth, death, and marriage. I plan to release more under this collection, including some based on my earliest childhood memories in India. Stay tuned for more updates!
Do the fragrances you create for La Fleur tend to gravitate toward one perfume category (floral, green, citrus, etc.)?
I’m madly in love with flowers, therefore the name La Fleur by Livvy. Most of my perfumes are oriental florals, so I also use spices, incense, sandalwood, and resins (I do not use musks). Many of these ingredients were used in India and Arabia at the beginning of the perfume journey and are still used today. I also use white flowers—such as gardenia, jasmine, and tuberose—because they are some the most sensual and fragrant flowers.
I know you’re a member of the International Perfume Foundation. Can you speak a bit about the organization and its role?
Yes, I am a certified natural perfumer by the International Perfume Foundation, which is a non-profit organization that has been around for over 20 years. The mission of the IPF is the protection and revitalization of perfume culture and heritage. IPF has strict guidelines including the New Luxury Code, which we have to follow as certified natural perfumers. IPF is also focusing on the entire production chain, from the growing and processing of flowers to preserving the perfume industry.
For consumers interested in only buying natural perfumes that are sustainably sourced and ethically produced, what should they be looking for?
I would suggest looking for perfumers who follow IPF’s New Luxury Code or are certified, preferably by IPF. Consumers need to ask: Is the product organic, natural, vegan, green, eco-friendly, and fair trade? Look for certifications, read labels to determine if they contain fragrance oils (synthetics) instead of essential oils, look for words like mixed-media, animal musks, or even animal testing. Are the bottles and packaging compostable, biodegradable, and recyclable?
Today’s consumer wants to be better informed about what they purchase and wear. It’s all about lifestyle choices; if you practice a holistic approach toward diet and lifestyle then you’ll want to go “green” with your beauty products and perfumes, as well.