Scents & Sensibility
The nose knows what it knows
It is with gratitude, as well as some modicum of shock and awe, that I’ve re-opened Essense at the end of May 2021. Gratitude for the blessing and joy that this creative artisan’s world has given me, and for meeting so many other creative souls; shock because 30 years has flown by, and I’m so darn old now; and awe that Essense has survived nearly 5 decades, with me as the principal perfumer for the last 3 of those.
The Essense retail years in Edgartown, on the magical island of Martha’s Vineyard, take a special place in my memory for the sheer energy, stoic will-power, and rambunctious fun they entailed. The perfumery learning curve, as well as learning to be a new mother for my beautiful baby, made my 1st decade with Essense very difficult but incredibly rewarding. Had I known how hard it would be, I never would have had the nerve to tackle both business and motherhood. My baby-girl used to crawl into the closets and fill my shoes with toy blocks, so that I could not go to work. Makes sense, right? No shoes, no work?
If I have regrets, it’s that those first years of Essense in Edgartown, took me away from her for so many months of each year’s summers and autumn. Customers, employees, and locals grew to know her as “the Essense baby.” Once I closed the retail store and re-invented Essense as an apothecary-by-appointment, the pace of life lost the hectic quality of that 1st decade.
For a decade in Oak Bluffs, the custom built “Essense Shack” with the green tin roof, just off the edge of the Vineyard’s largest state forest, served as a gathering place for people, romantically inclined couples, small groups, or parties, to create their best olfactory proclamations. Some of the most unforgettable parties occurred on full moons, when local witches would secretly, or not so secretly, summon their magical powers through scent, sound, tarot, and incantations. All in good humor and good fun!
Leaving the Vineyard, a place I loved deeply, was not easy, but Essense found a new home in the historic barn of the peaceful Rock Ridge Farm, once an apple and dairy farm along the shores of Lake Waukewan. It’s new home in NH’s Lakes Region has been a happy accident for Essense. After 11 years here, I can say this geographic beauty of this area is unrivaled, of course, depending on one’s taste in such matters. People come from all over to enjoy the 3-seasons of scenic beauty here. For some, a stop into Essense is a perfect way to spend part of a quieter day, regenerating. Essense has been welcomed and appreciated by the much smaller state of NH, with appearances in a variety of media, including newspaper, magazine, and television.
Though the pandemic has changed the way many of us must do business, the business of smelling good will always be important for those of us that believe the perfect scent is uplifting for the human soul. For this 48th season of Essense, and for my personal 30th year of Essense,The Parfumerie at Rock Ridge Farm is open by appointment only. It’s a special joy to *see* people again, after all these months of lock-down. Welcome back!
The front page of the May 19th, 2016 issue of The Weirs Times carried an article titled Historic New Hampton Homestead is Setting for an Age-Old Craft, by Brendan Smith, who also took the photographs. We reprint it here courtesy of The Weirs Times. The whole issue may be viewed online here.
Rock Ridge Farm in New Hampton has a long, storied history.
Once the apple and dairy farm homestead of Moses Smith, who built the Farm in 1796 after being gifted the land by his father, it was later the home of Charles Warren Robie, who made his money in the railroad and bought Rock Ridge in 1910 to live again near his birth roots. It was considered, at the time, one of the most attractive summer homes around the lakes. In more recent history it had been a horse farm, summer ballet camp for girls, and the location of numerous antique shops.
In 2009, Rock Ridge Farm was bought by Tamsan Lee Beattie, who today runs Essense Parfumerie from the historic homestead, one of only maybe a couple hundred such custom-blending perfume shops in the world.
“People have been using perfume for at least 4,000 years,” said Tamsan. “It used to always be a custom made experience. It was in the 1920s that the fashion industry high-jacked perfume when Chanel No. 5 came out. They used synthetics to create the earliest modern mass market for perfume.”
Tamsan bought the perfume business in 1990 on Martha’s Vineyard. She was to be the third owner of this unique enterprise which originally started as “Body Scents” in Woodstock, NY in 1970.
I had done some perfume making as a hobby when I lived in the Twin Cities,” said Tamsan. “Even though I had a Master’s Degree in Behavioral Science, I was still drawn to the perfume. I guess you can say I can make you perfume and fix your brain.”
In 2009, Tamsan went on the hunt for a new place to live and run her business. “I had lived in all the big cities like Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Minneapolis, St. Paul, San Francisco, Manhattan,” said Tamsan. “I was done with cities.”
Tamsan went searching through nine states, looking for the perfect non-city location, until she came across Rock Ridge Farm. “I had lived in Concord from ages two to seven when my father was a Unitarian Minister there,” said Tamsan. “I also had family still there at the time that I wanted to be close to.”
Tamsan moved back and forth between Martha’s Vineyard and New Hampton as she was selling her home and business there and working to get organized in her new place in New Hampshire. With some renovations to the barn area, which included walling in an area to create a climate controlled apothecary style perfume room, Tamsan was ready to bring her rare profession to the Lakes Region.
The walls of the perfume room are lined with five hundred and fifty “fragrance composites.” All natural oils that when combined together by someone with an expertise in the artistry of perfuming, will create a scent that will be particular to the person it is created for.
“Today mass-marketed perfumes are about 97 percent alcohol and water and three percent essential oils,” said Tamsan. “The perfumes I create are fragrance composites, blended with 100% essential oils and perfume oils.
When someone visits Tamsan to have her create their own unique perfume, the process can be quick or might take awhile.
“I work at finding the perfect match by asking the customer a series of questions,” said Tamsan. “It helps me understand the personality of the perfume they’re trying to create. It’s important to see and share what customers react to, in smell. Some people know in five minutes, some might come back every day for week.”
As Tamsan points out, this is not something you can do online, although there is an online shopping cart to order “ready-mades.”
“Over the years I have been doing this, Essense has created 22,000 perfumes,” said Tamsan. “Each perfume is like creating a symphony. There are base notes, middle notes and top notes." Tamsan explained that the top note gives the initial scent and fades first, the middle notes appear once the top note is gone and are the heart of the fragrance and the base note is what anchors to your skin and lasts the longest.
Still, it is not as simple as just putting a few oils together. “Everyone has different skin chemistry and different reactions to scent," said Tamsan. “It depends on factors like estrogen and testosterone levels, skin types and age, for example. I spend time with the customer. It takes at least a half-hour to find the perfect scent.”
Tamsan imports her oils from about thirty-five different vendors and has a wildly eclectic selection to use. “When I bought this business there were about one hundred and twenty smells and I have since added over three hundred more,” said Tamsan.
This reporter’s head spun a little as I was shown there were so many different types of one variety. The different varieties of oils from oranges ranged from the fruit itself, to the wood of the tree, to the peel, to the flower. And oranges vary from country to country, even within this country.
“The same plant can give you so many options. You can eat or make perfumes out of the different parts of plants,” said Tamsan. “I memorize the different combinations like you would memorize words and then make a new sentence each time, by rearranging them.” The oils are kept in antique bottles which Tamsan has collected over the years and as well as old science surplus bottles she has purchased.
Each scent “recipe” is kept in a box for Tamsan to keep on file. You can name your own scent really giving it that individuality.
“Great perfume, like great art, great poetry, great music, or a greatly assembled outfit, can alter the way we see the world as well as the way others see us,” said Tamsan. It’s not just a matter of confidence; the innate response to scents that are beautiful and subtle is generally appreciative, either consciously or unconsciously, thus changing the way the wearer responds to the world and vice versa. It’s a fact recently confirmed by scientific methods that a “good-smelling” person is subjectively perceived by others to be more attractive, more likable, and younger, (So forget the plastic surgery!) It is also a biological, physiological fact that scents, via our sense of smell, vividly connect us both to our memory banks and to our natural world. More than any of the other human senses, our sense of smell is the most direct link to the collective and individual experience of being a human being on this planet, via the multitude of emotions and perceptions closely allied with scent and memory: delight, awe, dread, fear, fun, wonder, marvel, sentiment, revulsion, melancholy, attraction, and joy, just to name a few…”
Tamsan also does private parties for Bridal Showers, Ladies' Night Out, Chem-Free Graduations and more. Essense Parfumerie is open Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend Thursday through Saturday from Noon to 6pm. Other evenings and days until 9pm. You can also make an appointment by calling 800-332-6315 or emailing email@example.com. Rock Ridge Farm is located at 48 Waukewan Road in New Hampton.
Lady Katherine worked at Essense for 3 summers, 1999-2001, while she was in college. Now a hip young adult with her own home in New Orleans, she’s pursued a successful career in marketing. Lady Katherine visited the "new" Essense Parfumerie at Rock Ridge Farm last June. We fondly reminisced about her summers making perfume for Essense customers on Martha's Vineyard. Ruggles & I thought it could be interesting to interview Lady Katherine to reflect on her past Essense experiences and talk about perfume from "the other side of the bar."
Essense: If we define "gestalt" as an organized whole—the summer job being more than the sum of all its parts—how do you remember your summer job as an apprenticing young perfumer at Essense?
Lady Katherine: It didn’t feel like just a summer job. I felt like I had the privilege to go somewhere everyday and create things that had never been created before.
Essense: Walking into Essense today, what fragrance labels/names "called" to you immediately? What scents did you instantaneously gravitate towards, like old friends?
Lady Katherine: Well Gardenia Soft is always THE first. Which is funny, you know, because I have it at home…but I still want to say “hello.” Walking in, and seeing them ALL, it’s like a group of old friends you haven’t seen in a while. It’s like: “Hi everyone…how’ya doing? Oh look…we have some new members.” (Ha, ha.) It’s like my perfume support group.
Essense: How do you think perfume, in terms of the sense of smell, and the art of scent, has translated into the rest of your life?
Lady Katherine: Letting something speak to you viscerally and learning to listen to that is something I can’t imagine I’d have learned anywhere else. Like um… when you’re blending a perfume for somebody, and they know only vaguely what they're "looking" for, but I'd have to navigate the perfume bars, to fill in all the sensory elements, put all the "notes" into a bottle to create an entire perfume, really an entire mood.
I guess making perfume…activated my instincts a little more. It taught me to "go by feel." I fancy myself a good cook for example and when people ask me HOW I cook, I tell them I cook the way I perfume. When making a perfume, I learned how to listen to the bottles talking to me. When I helped customers make a perfume, they could often explain what they wanted, but I learned to translate that into a scent by "listening" to the bottles of scent themselves.
Customers might create a personal fragrance, get maybe like 85%, but that last little piece, that very last note to complete the circle, was still a mystery. It had to be just right, to make the fragrance complete… this is when I would let the scents themselves "talk" to me, almost as if they’d call out. The way I’d describe the feeling is: there’s something missing to make this perfect… what is it? And then, um… Orange Blossom yells out: it’s me, it’s me! (Hahahaha… laughs) I learned to listen to those creative instincts when making perfume, and that was training to be attuned to my own creative instincts in other areas of my life.
Essense was/is TOTALLY unique. There are other places that’ll make ya a bath gel that smells like, uh, you know… peach or over-the-top lilac blossoms. (Haha) But after working at Essense, when I’ve gone into those places, there’s NONE of the MAGIC. Essense IS part magical mood. Other places have none of the science and the art of potion making. Other places might make you feel hurried, like you're in an airport… like, "carry on by!" That's not the way perfumes are made...
In most retail establishments, it’s process versus product. At Essense you get both... an elaborate magical process, to be enjoyed and remembered, and a good product, that smells great, feels great, is for your skin, and fabulously uplifting for your psyche.
Essense: How important is smell, either to you, or to human-kind?
Lady Katherine: Well, for me, smell is VERY important. If somebody smells offensive, then I don’t want tot do business with them, and I certainly don’t want to sleep with them.
Essense: (Hahaha….) Will you elaborate on that, please? What does the smell of another person tell you, either as a perfumer or as a normal person going about your daily life?
Lady Katherine: It has to do with basics of hygiene, but it’s also chemistry. AS in… "does mine work with yours?" And… it can even be like… TRUST. If somebody smells a certain way you’re more prone to trust them.
Essense: Why or how is that? Trust? Is trust linked to smell by memory? Is trust linked to memory?
Lady Katherine: Well, yes…but if you meet somebody with guns all a’blazing in some cheap dollar-store perfume, you’re like “what are you hiding?” Yah…when loud perfume is covering up, or assaulting the room, you wonder “what are you covering up?” It’s like the scentual version of “the loud talker.”
Being a perfumer is sort of like being a bartender. You learn everything about people. You learn their life stories: joy; sadness; sickness; what they’re going through; what brought them (into Essense); why they’re taking this time for luxury? Have they made perfume for themselves, or as a gift? By helping the customers during their perfuming process, you send them away with something that is both uniquely theirs and uniquely yours—as in something that you’ve given to them. And… you can be part of their celebration, like about somebody’s wedding. Or, part of their healing, like a after a big romantic break-up. Or, you can be part of their moving on, to bigger and better things in their own lives.
I remember all the teenaged customers that always wanted their perfume to be “Sexy-Sexy,” or the married ladies who’d been with the same men for decades and wanted perfume to make them feel desirable again. Then there were the newly married honeymooning couples that spent HOURS at the Essense bar, touching and sniffing each other. (Hahahaha) …maybe they needed less help? The time for those experiences is recorded in perfume, and on the perfume recipe cards for perpetuity. Those transitions, or those moments of life are captured, via scent. THOSE people have THOSE memories always. That’s the way I always felt about it… you know.
Essense: What other thoughts would you share with Essense and Essense customers today?
Lady Katherine: You know, you don’t have a whole lot of experiences in life where you’re encouraged to take time and think about yourself. At Essense you sit, and think, and smell; you take time; you wait to see/smell which scents work with your own body chemistry. It’s just SO FUN to make something; it's a chance to describe yourself in a positive, fun, memorable way, with a custom potion that you can wear.
Tamsan & Ruggles
Tamsan is a practicing perfumer of 30 years, as well as a sidewalk social scientist with an actual Master's Degree in Behavioral Science from The University of Chicago. Because the sense of smell is closely linked to memory and emotion, the art and science of perfume is very psychological. Ruggles is also a sidewalk social scientist, a rescue-poodle with dubious urban-feral origins. Abandoned on the streets and left to starve, Ruggles has a Master's Degree from The School of Life, but he's a philosophical-poodle who's maintained a very good sense of humor. Both are relocated from major urban centers. For nearly 50 years, Tamsan lived in the cities of: Chicago, St. Paul, Manhattan, Indianapolis, Berkeley, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Providence, and San Diego. Together, they now blog about life's sensory and fragrant spectacles from more bucolic surroundings. More specifically, Tamsan blogs about olfactory mysteries and miracles; Ruggles prefers to comment on anything edible or odoriferous...
ESSENSE PARFUMERIE at Rock Ridge Farm is located a 6 minute drive from Meredith Village on the OTHER side of Lake Waukewan along the far end of scenic Waukewan Road bordering The Snake River, just over The Snake River Bridge.
The Snake River in summer and winter.