Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Making Scents at 3rd Ward

Posted By on Wed, Nov 21, 2012 at 2:37 PM

Perfume blends by instructor Julianne Zaleta of Herbal Alchemy
  • Perfume blends by instructor Julianne Zaleta of Herbal Alchemy

I would like to think that I have a pretty good sense of smell. I mean, when one of my co-workers is heating up lunch in the office microwave, I'm usually able to guess correctly whether it is Indian food or not. [Ed. Note: It is almost always Indian food] And I love perfume. Love it. When I was younger, I used to tear all the petals off my birthday roses—a very sweet thing my father did for me every year, he got me as many fire-and-ice roses as years I was old—and throw them in a jar of water and wait for the magic to happen. What actually happened was not so magical because the water would smell really amazing for the first couple of days, but then it would turn rancid and the rose petals would dissolve into a slimy gunk that skimmed the top of the water and then I would throw the whole thing out and not bathe in it as was my original plan.

Anyway. I gave up my hopes of becoming a master perfumer, but recently those hopes have been reborn. Well, I still don't think I will be a master perfumer, but after being kindly invited to sit in on the Perfume Blending Class at 3rd Ward, I can now rattle off facts about base notes and heart notes and, after taking one whiff of the damask rose oil that the instructor brought in, I was in heaven.

It had been a while since I'd taken classes in anything. Which, when I think about it at all, is ridiculous. What kind of people take classes? The best kind of people, as it turns out. Everyone in the class was really engaged and took notes and participated in the class in a way that was, frankly, really fun to be a part of. The instructor, Julianne Zaleta of Herbal Alchemy, teaches this class on a monthly basis with plans to offer a more advanced perfume blending workshop later this winter. Zaleta, who told me, "I've been collecting oils and making perfume for more than ten years at this point," has a small business, Herbal Alchemy Apothecary, where she "makes and sells her own potions." In addition to that, she is a lively, informative presence during the class, which she starts off with a history of perfume that manages to be both comprehensive and easy-to-follow for the novice (me).

One of the things that Zaleta said that struck me the most—especially since I am someone who plays around more with adjectives than with sandalwood oil—is that "scent is the sense without words." Of course, there are many descriptors used for scents, but all of them actually originate from and are related to other senses. Things smell "bright" or "creamy" or "sweet" or "rich" or "like horse vagina" (as one of my fellow class members said when sniffing jasmine oil) but all of these adjectives actually apply to the experiences of other scents. Except maybe horse vagina. I don't know what that was about and I don't want to.


After we got a feel for what we were about to start experimenting with, the perfume oils came out and testing strips got passed around. I learned a lot of things from this. One thing I learned was that I never want a perfume made out of mushroom oil because I'm not too keen on smelling like a mixture of soy sauce and dirty toilet funk. Another thing I learned is that I love bergamot, which makes sense, because I am a big fan of Earl Grey tea. Also, patchouli oil does indeed make me think of hippies and the hemp necklaces—maybe they were chokers, maybe they had clay beads with suns on them, I'm not confirming or denying—that I wore in high school for a very brief period that was unfortunately captured on my driver license photo. All of which is to say, I love patchouli.

The class culminated with everyone applying their new knowledge of perfume in order to concoct their own blends and then, ultimately, applying it to themselves. Right on their own bodies. We each got to create two perfumes, and I was a little nervous—perhaps because I was flashing back to the slimy rose potions of my childhood—but I wound up loving my two perfumes and have been wearing them every day. One, which I feel is more "daytime," had base notes of sandalwood and Peru balsam with heart notes of damask rose and honey and head notes of ginger and black pepper. I sort of wanted to drink it. But didn't! Because we added the oils to Everclear, which is 109 proof vodka, and I didn't want to get drunk at my first perfume blending class. The second perfume, which is more "nighttime," had a patchouli and vetiver base, with jasmine and violet leaf as heart notes and bergamot and bitter orange to finish it off. I love it too. And I've been forcing everyone who comes in contact with me to smell my wrists, which, might be an invasion of their personal space, but no one has complained yet, because my wrists smell so good. SO GOOD.

Another fun thing about the class was that everyone who I told about it uniformly said "I want to do that." Which was nice because it gave me an idea. Presents! Not gifts of my perfume blends (those are for me and I don't want anyone else to smell like me) but gifts of classes. Experience gifts are awesome and the thought of taking this class with a friend, so that you could simultaneously swoon over the ylang-ylang and gag over the mushroom essence, is a smart one. Plus, it would be good to do this class with someone else so that at least one person on this earth doesn't think you're a total freak because you compulsively smell your own wrists several times a day. Every day.

To take a class at 3rd Ward—perfume blending or one of their many other available choices—go to

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About The Author

Kristin Iversen

Kristin Iversen

Kristin Iversen is the Managing Editor at Brooklyn Magazine and the L Magazine. She has been described as "a hipster buzzword made flesh." This seems pretty accurate.

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