I have always wanted to know what goes into making perfume. Truthfully, part of it is because I’m extremely sensitive to them. I dread walking through that section of department stores, only to be assaulted by overwhelming fragrances that cause headaches, sneezing, and even a hard time breathing.
I’m definitely not alone; many people claim they’re allergic to perfume. It turns out tons of irritants can be found in synthetic aroma-chemicals. This is one of the main reasons Los Feliz Botanicals was created by Krystal Quinn Castro – a line of hand blended botanical perfumes inspired by California's iconic landscapes. Worry not; this is not another all-natural, patchouli perfume for hippies. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when taking the first whiff of the LFB sample kit, but I was pleasantly surprised. Each scent was so delightful, unique, and complex. They felt sophisticated, yet so completely wearable – a refreshing alternative to the overpowering perfumes I grew up with. So when the opportunity arose to create a custom AOS x LFB fragrance balm, I jumped at the chance.
My experience with Krystal was nothing short of enlightening. I learned more in that one hour than I did for weeks in school. Studying under Mandy Aftel, one of the most renowned natural perfumers in the world, it’s clear that Krystal knows her stuff and thoroughly enjoys her job. Not to mention her downtown loft is full of odd, enchanting trinkets which make me an even bigger fan. (More on that later.)
Drop in on our fragrance-making 101 session, where Krystal reveals the surprisingly disgusting history of perfumery. Here, she breaks down each layer and offers up some unexpected choices for our custom Eastside fragrance balm. Get ready, it’s about to get weird!
What makes perfume amazing is the blend of the beautiful and the putrid.
R: So I’d like to go for something that feels light and energizing, yet has an unexpected kick – whether it’s a spice or random musk. I really love Jasmine so I may want to use it as a starting point.
K: Great! I specialize in complex, unexpected notes. You don’t just want that pretty girl who has nothing interesting on the inside.
First, we start with a fixative which is mostly heavy resinoids. Since we don’t use synthetic fixatives which extend the life of a perfume, we have to get creative with what we put in the base. When you use a synthetic one, it has no smell and doesn’t affect the scent of the perfume, but we’re using essences so part of the job is figuring out what balance to put in the base that’ll smell great but also last as long as possible.
Jasmine is often a heady and heavy floral. Ylang Ylang is often paired with it because they have similar scent profiles and can support each other.
R: I think I really like Ylang Ylang. Let’s go with that!
K: Cool. For the base, there are animal and non-animal essences. A lot of things in perfume are disgusting, but they’re actually amazing. For instance, Castoreum is derived from the anal glands of a beaver. I know it sounds gross. Musk comes from the pheromones of a Musk Deer. Civet comes from the anal secretions of a Civet Cat. On their own, they’re disgusting, but what makes perfume amazing is the blend of the beautiful and the putrid. Jasmine is not just a one-note flower. It has indole, which is present in human feces as well as rose and jasmine. There’s an animal smell which is what makes these flowers beautiful, sexy, and complex.
When it comes down to it, we’re animals. It’s like the smell of your husband’s neck or the smell of sweat. It’s the thing we’re drawn to in certain situations or people…it’s also the thing we’re disgusted by in others. There was a period of time when to show a man you loved him, you kept a peeled apple in your armpit and then gave it to him, and he ate it.
R: That makes me want to puke.
K: Yup! Moving on...you always want a body in the base, which can definitely be achieved without the use of animal essences.
I love ambergris! When sperm whales eat cuttlefish and squid, they can’t digest the beaks. Every so often (maybe for 1 in 200 sperm whales), if a beak isn’t really passing through, to avoid having tears it gets wrapped in a waxy substance to protect their intestines as they pass it. After they pass it (there is some debate as to whether the wax is passed or regurgitated), it’s wax so it separates and floats away from the rest of the feces. It gets tossed around in the ocean for maybe 10 years and gets salty and sun-bleached. It’ll wash up on a beach, and it hardens. You take little pieces of it and put it in alcohol to make a tincture. On its own, it kind of smells like poop. But it adds this shimmery, amazing quality to any perfume you add it to. It supports florals and transforms and smooths out any rough edges of scents. People study whale migration patterns and ocean currents to predict where you’re most likely to find it. A tiny piece of it would be worth $30k-$50k. It mostly washes up in New Zealand, which is where mine comes from.
It’s one of those things that smell kind of bad, but you can’t stop smelling it – like sweet, metallic seaweed or driving through the country. It just smells like nature and each time you sniff, there’s something new.
R: Mmm, it does smell kind of sweet and is oddly addictive…
K: We want something that’ll support the Jasmine while also balancing out the other bases. Frankincense will cut some of the heaviness.
R: Yea, I like Frankincense the most.
K: Done! Next is the heart, which is exactly what it sounds like – it’s the heart of the perfume. This is generally where all the florals live – jasmines, roses, lavender absolute. Oftentimes, perfumes are based around the heart. I think it’s more challenging and interesting to build perfumes off of the play on how the base affects the heart and how the heart affects the top...how they all work together, as opposed to saying “we’re making a rose perfume.” It’s more nuanced and fun.
The quality of materials is very important. For example, synthetic jasmine will be made out of the 4 main constituents in jasmine oil, where it actually has over 50.
I think a spice could also be interesting. All Spice (also known as pimento berry) isn’t as obtrusive as other spices, it’s more subtle. Clove may feel a bit holiday.
R: I prefer All Spice, let’s do that.
K: Great choice. Lastly, the top note is where we have the most volatile essences and can be a little tricky – citruses, spices, a couple woods. This is your introduction to the perfume, and it will be gone within 15 minutes. They’re there to sharpen and open up the perfume or the blossom. When you open the bottle and smell it, you’re typically smelling the top notes. The goal in making a well-structured perfume is to have the top note reaching down into the heart and the heart reaching up and down so you get a very dynamic, but very connected blend.
We’ll definitely want a citrus; it’s so sharp and pointy that it will balance out that round, heaviness we have. We have such a beautiful bouquet in the heart, but having a weird, unexpected element would be great.
R: I love the grapefruit and bergamot mint.
K: I love that! This goes to show that even though there’s a lot of competition in the perfume world, everybody likes something totally different so there’s always going to be room for innovation. Some things are a little out there and weird, but if you like it, you love it.
R: Speaking of out there and weird...tell me about some of these crazy objects around your home.
K: This is the cow skull we used for our wedding alter. We draped it in Spanish moss and king proteas. It was gorgeous.
K: Our bookshelf! We had these shelves made for us when we lived in a different loft. We used it as a room separator with shelving on both sides. Now, it holds trinkets from our travels, interesting liquors, and of course our books! Ooh you can see the leather-wrapped bottle of pisco we got on our trip to Peru where Josh proposed.
K: Bill Murray! And my keys! Haha. This owl is so important to me. My grandmother taught ceramics and gave me that for one of our last holidays together before she passed away.
K: I just realized how funny it is that the Good Meat book is right next to Becoming Vegetarian. We got that croc head in New Orleans on a road trip we took early in our relationship. And that’s a bottle of mezcal with a scorpion in it. My husband/co-owner loves mezcal - I think this one is his favorite. I bought that whiskey in Ireland last year - Josh is Puerto-Rican/Irish and I'm Irish/English so we have a soft spot for all things Irish.
K: Oof there's a lot going on in this shelf. The license plate and weird animal thing were gifts from our friends when they went to Alaska. The golden poop bank is from when I lived in Japan. And that's a baby pig in the jar. (Ok, I'm just now realizing how creepy my stuff is. The vegans will hate me, haha.)
K: Oh man, this is a knife from Peru made with alpaca teeth and hair. I actually hate this thing, but Josh loves it.