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From Issue #42 May 8, 2014

Scents and Sensibility

A hearty band of foragers attempts to bring back the richness of nature to the oils with which we anoint ourselves.

By April Kilcrease

Hall Newbegin, the founder of the natural fragrance company Juniper Ridge, is in the middle of leading a 15-person group of employees and guests on a wild harvesting hike through the Sierra Madre Mountains just north of Ojai when he stops to pick up a piece of dry cougar scat. He lifts it to his nose and inhales deeply. “It is a little sweet,” he announces. His tone suggests that he is merely confirming what everyone else suspected.

“Oh, for god’s sake, that’s so not good. Don’t smell the poo,” protests his wife, Juniper Ridge co-owner Laura Boles. “We’re going to eat lunch.” Her belated outcry doesn’t pack much of a punch. (“I’ll wash my hands,” is Newbegin’s only response.) But after years of living with a man whose favorite activities include climbing trees to scrape sap boogers (Newbegin’s word) off the branches and crawling in the dirt to get closer to the fungi below, she likely knew that her words would fall on deaf ears.

A sweet, buttery fragrance floats through the early April air, and bees buzz all around us as we walk between impenetrable thickets of chaparral. The plants collected on this three-day hiking and camping trip will be used to help formulate Topanga Canyon, one of Juniper Ridge’s seasonal colognes. Past fragrances include Winter Redwood, made with bay laurel, redwood, Douglas fir, and sage from Mount Tamalpais, and Caruthers Canyon, which blends the backcountry scents of desert pine sap, sagebrush, and desert cedar.

The popular one-ounce bottles regularly sell out at such highly curated boutiques as the Perish Trust in San Francisco and Kaufmann Mercantile in New York — the same kinds of stores that sell vintage hatchets and issues of Kinfolk magazine. So far we have stopped to smell California lilac blossoms, Woolly Yerba Santa, and Great Basin sagebrush. This is our first poop stop.

“Shit is interesting smelling. It is,” argues Newbegin. “One hundred and twenty-five years ago someone at the House of Guerlain [a legendary French perfume company] figured out that civet is a premium perfume ingredient.” Civet is the perfume industry’s name for a waxy substance secreted by the perineal gland of the civet, a raccoon-sized mammal. Whereas civets use the excretion to mark their territory, Guerlain has been adding it to fragrances since 1889, when the company introduced Jicky, now the oldest perfume in continuous production. “They didn’t discover civet in the lab wearing their cute little white lab coats,” Newbegin says. “Some idiot like me at the House of Guerlain was crawling around in the bushes smelling stuff. Being like, ‘What’s this ingredient? What’s that ingredient?’”

Newbegin embraces life nose first, and he wants to wake up your sense of smell too. Sure, we’re all inhaling odors all the time, but few of us stop to think about what we’re smelling and how we’re reacting to those aromas. And as the perfume industry moves further and further away from anything found in nature, many of us have confused our distaste for overpowering perfumes with a lack of interest in fragrance.

“This,” Newbegin says as he tears off a bit of sweet brush and rubs it on his face and neck. “This is the way Romans wore perfume, that we as humans wore perfume for 2,000 years before the advent of petrochemical fragrance. We wore place on our bodies.” Newbegin is on a mission to return this smell of the wild to people’s lives, and he sees Juniper Ridge’s products as merely a vehicle for this broader ambition.

The nose knows

After learning how to harvest wild mushrooms and other plants for medicinal purposes while attending an herbal medicine school in the ’90s, the avid outdoorsman started experimenting with making soaps and incense. Encouraged by the response he got from friends, he founded Juniper Ridge in 1998.

For five years, he sold his soaps and smudges at Berkeley and San Francisco farmers’ markets, next to such likeminded artisanal purveyors as James Freeman, of Blue Bottle Coffee, and Taylor Boetticher, of Fatted Calf Charcuterie. Since then, the company has grown to 15 employees, and more than 50 stores in the United States carry its products, including such national chains as Whole Foods.

None of the ingredients in Juniper Ridge’s products are farmed. Newbegin and his woodsy band of fragrance foragers regularly hit the trail to harvest bark, moss, mushrooms, and plant and tree trimmings to turn into soaps, colognes, perfumes, and beard oils (a stealth way to get guys to wear fragrance). The company’s fragrances, which include Big Sur and Cascade Glacier Trail, are named after the places where the ingredients were harvested. Newbegin compares the products to olfactory snapshots.

I follow behind Newbegin as he shares his fragrance philosophy. “I hear everyone saying, ‘We don’t use our noses.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, you do.’ You’re turned off by perfume. You’re turned off by overwrought stuff. But you’re using your nose every day. This is human heritage stuff. If you like wine, gardening, cooking, hiking, you’re using your sense of smell. And the more you use it, the more beautiful it gets.”

A recent study published in Science revealed that humans can discern more than a trillion different scents. To help put this in perspective, the study’s authors point out that humans can discriminate several million different colors and almost half a million different aural tones. Given that roughly three percent of the human genome is devoted to producing our 400 olfactory receptors (making it the largest gene family in the human genome), the results shouldn’t be surprising. “In our evolutionary past, like 10 seconds ago, smell mattered and we have a deep DNA investment in it,” Newbegin says. “And yeah, we can’t smell like dogs and bears, but,” he inhales deeply through his nose, “that” — he inhales again — “that’s doing something real to you and it matters.”

According to Newbegin, about 8,000 plants grow in the Western states, compared to about 2,000 plant species in the Mediterranean. “When you see ancient ecosystems, you’re seeing cycles that extend back 10,000 years ago to the end of the Ice Age. That kind of biodiversity doesn’t exist in Eurasia. It’s really a New World phenomenon,” he explains. “We’ve got a much richer fragrance palette to draw from here, and no one has touched it.”

A well-worn field guide to flowering plants sticks out of the back pocket of Newbegin’s jeans, but I never see him reach for it. He seems to know these hills intimately, and he interrupts himself every few minutes to excitedly point out new plants. He picks a few silvery light-green leaves off a shrub and passes them around for everyone to smell. The scent is bright and herbal. “This is mugwort. This is the most common thing in the world. It grows from here up to British Columbia. This hasn’t been synthesized in the French perfume world. No one knows about our local plants.”

Genuinely artificial

Juniper Ridge’s place-specific, totally natural approach goes against the perfume industry’s current paradigm, which is shrouded in secrecy and synthetics. After World War II, the introduction of petrochemicals transformed fragrance manufacture. Suddenly, natural ingredients — such as vetiver and orchid, which cost a fortune — could be replicated at a fraction of the price. “Do you know what rose petal essential oil costs? It’s more expensive by weight than gold. But synthetic, you can buy a 50-gallon drum for about $400. It’s just based on the price of gasoline,” Newbegin says. “Now they can take petroleum and turn it into any smell on the planet and even smells that have never existed on the planet. Not only that, they can turn it up to 11 and just blast it.”

In the 1950s and ’60s, makers of synthetic fragrances overtook the traditional suppliers of natural essences and aromatic florals based in Grasse, France. In the United States, International Flavors and Fragrances became one of the largest suppliers of essential oils, and Universal Oil Products leveraged its petrochemical expertise into a new synthetic fragrance business. In Switzerland, the country’s large chemical and pharmaceutical industry jumped into the essential oil game. Major Swiss players included Givaudan, now the largest chemical company in the flavor and fragrance world.

Further adding to all the puffery around perfumery, Givaudan opened a school — a “school for noses” — in a Paris suburb in 1946. Today, the perfumery school accepts an average of three students out of the 200 to 250 applicants it receives annually. The school’s alumni have gone on to create thirty percent of the fragrances on the market, including Chanel’s Coco and Allure perfumes.

“They didn’t think about the toxins, neurotoxins, hormone disrupters, all the stuff that comes with petroleum-derived products, because it was the ’60s and hey — ‘better living through chemicals,’” Newbegin says.

According to a 2010 report by the Environmental Working Group, many popular perfumes, colognes, and body sprays don’t disclose that they are made of “a complex cocktail of natural essences and synthetic chemicals — often petrochemicals.” Laboratory tests revealed:

…38 secret chemicals in 17 name-brand fragrance products, topped by American Eagle Seventy Seven with 24, Chanel Coco with 18, and Britney Spears Curious and Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio with 17.

The average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label. Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions … Also in the ranks of undisclosed ingredients are chemicals with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues. These include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked with sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone, a synthetic fragrance ingredient that concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk.

Still life

While most modern perfumers work in a world of test tubes and sterile laboratories, Juniper Ridge’s perfumers look more like backwoods moonshine brewers — both because of the rugged beards that they sport and because of the converted whiskey still they haul around for making steam distillations.

At sunrise on the day after the hike, Obi Kaufmann, one of Juniper Ridge’s distillers, sets up their field lab at our campsite in Los Padres National Forest. Even with gloves on, my hands have gone numb in the frigid morning air, and I grip my enamelware mug of coffee for warmth.

Dressed in denim and a plaid flannel shirt and knit cap, Kaufmann seems undisturbed by the temperature. I can read the words “wild” and “life” tattooed across his bare fingers as he feeds sweet brush and black sage clippings into the distiller. Next, he pours in about four gallons of cold water. The heat from the flame at the base of the still will dissolve the aromatics in the plants into vapor. The vapor will then rise through the double-chambered copper pipe and condense back down into liquid.

This mixture of essential oil and plant-infused water, called “hydrosol,” will then spurt into an orange plastic funnel and drip into the glass flask below. Similar to the way salad dressing separates, the little bit of essential oil produced in the still separates from the hydrosol and rises to the top of the flask as the liquid cools.

“This process is basically like steaming your vegetables,” explains Kaufmann. “We’re going to boil up the sweet brush and collect the steam. If this were fermented grain, we’d get whiskey dripping out the end.”

A couple of hours later, the water is siphoned off, leaving behind the fragrant oil, the chief ingredient in all of Juniper Ridge’s products. The scent is green and sweet, with a little bit of floral. If Juniper Ridge hopes to capture the essence of spring in southern California, this is a lovely beginning. Other traditional tricks they employ to trap plants’ good-smelling goo include tincturing, maceration, and enfleurage, which uses duck fat or tallow to capture the scent.

Around the campfire that evening, Newbegin’s eight-year-old daughter, Jane, instigates an impromptu talent show that includes the head of business development Matt Cacho and director of R&D Tom Accettola competing in a headstand challenge and Newbegin and Kauffman, or rather “Hall and Obi,” doing a rendition of Hall and Oates’ “Man Eater.”

After the evening’s entertainment wraps and Jane is safely tucked in her tent, we swig from a shared bottle of whiskey, and talk briefly returns to perfume. Newbegin sums up his take on the multibillion-dollar industry in one word: “grody.”

“They talk this big game about, ‘Oh, we’re fancy and we’re the House of Guerlain,’” he says with a drawn-out posh accent. “And Chanel has been doing this for 250 years. And Givaudan, it’s like the Hogwarts of perfume schools. It’s like you have to be transported there from some other place.” He rolls his eyes at the oft-cited statistic that there are fewer “noses” (industry slang for perfumers) than there are astronauts. “They’re like, ‘We do this better than anyone in the world. Stay away.’ That’s bullshit. This belongs to all of us.

“You’ve seen us. We’re idiots. All I did was ask why isn’t anyone making perfume that smells like this,” Newbegin gestures to the air around him. “Because when I smell perfume, I want to barf. But this, this is beautiful.”

Newbegin thinks the perfume industry today is where the wine industry was 40 years ago. “I think more and more people are going to be doing this, and in 50 years there’s going to be a Western perfume industry that’s based on the fragrance grammar of this place. We’re just beginning to chip away at the edges of it,” he says. “It’s our sincere hope that other wilderness perfumers will follow us.” Based on Juniper Ridge’s growing popularity, it seems likely that others will soon pick up the scent.

Photos by the author.

April Kilcrease writes about rollerskating, whiskey, and breakfast tacos. When she's not working at her desk in Oakland, she enjoys petting baby farm animals and climbing fences. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, AFAR, and San Francisco Magazine.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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