Alexandra Balahoutis created the botanical perfume house Strange Invisible Perfumes in 2000.
The US-based company has become one of the leading lights in the art of botanical perfumery. We spoke to Alexandra about the creation of her natural fragrance company and what sets these perfumes apart from the rest.
Aromatherapy is essentially medicine. It is formulated according to the therapeutic value of each essential oil. Botanical perfumery uses many of the same essences. The difference is that perfume is intended to be beautiful and evocative rather than healing. Health benefits are merely a perk.
In the last few years, there seems to be a revived interest in the master perfumer or ‘nose’ behind perfume brands. But in botanical perfume the distiller seems to be just as important. The two roles are very different and yet the relationship between distiller and perfumer is an important one. How has this relationship evolved at Strange Invisible Perfumes?
As a perfumer, I formulate the fragrances. My master distiller distills and sources the essences that I want for my compositions. When we are distilling in Ojai, I am there to choose the plant material that goes into the still based on odour profile. For example, we distilled myrtle in the late summer last year. When we were harvesting the leaves, I smelled the old growth myrtle leaves and the new growth leaves. I directed Jack to use 70% new growth and 30% old growth. This was because I had a very particular note in mind. When you simply buy essential oils from price lists, your palette is limited. Together we formulate perfume from the root to the bottle.
There seem to be similarities between creating botanical perfume and fine wine or boutique whiskey. Can you explain the process of making botanical perfume and how this differs from synthetic perfume?
Like fine wine, all oils in our perfumes are aged prior to blending, which results in the development of greater aromatic complexities. Once I have formulated the fragrance, our distiller hand-blends it in small batches at our laboratory. After the oils are combined, we carefully add organic beverage-grade grape alcohol. The fragrance is blended at a very specific temperature, allowing the essences proper time to fuse with one another. It is extremely unusual for perfumes to be made with this much care, whether they are synthetic or natural. It is also surprisingly rare for a perfume brand, small or large, to produce fragrances in a state-of-the-art, dedicated laboratory like ours.
Strange Invisible Perfume is known for the use of organic, wild-crafted and biodynamic ingredients. How does this affect the quality of the essences and why is the use of these ingredients important to you as a perfumer ?
The quality of the essences is another matter. The scent profile of each essence has to stand on its own. Natural, organic, wild-crafted, and bio-dynamic are separate attributes. The skill of the distiller is vital to the quality of essences when the plants are grown according to said standards of purity, however, the plants themselves are of a higher quality. This is an excellent start, but with the wrong distillation practices, the essences will be lack-lustre.
I don’t design handbags or cocktail dresses. This is what I do. I want to fully occupy this craft leaving no stone unturned. Without the torment of perfectionism and the rewards of so much detail, I wouldn’t want to do this or anything else.
Perfume has the ability to transport the wearer to a different time and place or conjure a childhood memory. What is the first scent memory that set you on the path to botanical perfumery?
There are so many. My mother kept all of her perfumes in gorgeous antique crystal perfume bottles. They were all arranged on her vanity table like candles in a shrine. She also had beautiful silver combs and a mirror that was beaded on the back. She was the one who did the beadwork ⁄ embroidering. It all seemed so important and so beautiful. I thought of the liquids inside these bottles to be like secrets and I would never know them. I could only enjoy their charms. This may sound dramatic but I remember feeling very inspired even then at the age of three or four.
What is one of your favourite scents?
Arunima. It is warm vanilla without heaviness. It also has a friendly disposition due to lively notes of ginger, lavender, tuberose and key lime. It is a completely new sort of oriental fragrance.