Heather Kaufman is a graphic designer and perfumer from the SF Bay Area who creates rich, deep and immersive all-natural perfumes. Jolie Laide, her indie fragrance house, pays tribute to midcentury French New Wave cinema. We touched bases with Heather to learn more about her brand, background and the art of botanical perfumery.
Q. How did you first come to perfumery and how did you learn to blend perfumes?
A. I always loved perfume. My Mom wore Norelle and my aunt wore Arpege by Lanvin. Those scents were an early influence in my life. As I grew older I found I couldn’t tolerate synthetic perfume ingredients. They gave me headaches. For many years I didn’t wear perfume. I was introduced to essential oils and was able to enjoy scent again. I didn’t think about making perfume with essential oils until years later when I read an article about a Bay Area natural perfumer, Mandy Aftel. I thought, I have to study with her.
I took my first class with her at Esalen and I found my calling. I bought her Level 1 book (you had to study it before taking classes with her) and many years of her classes followed. I also did years of self-study. I had 7 years of studying before I began my perfume line.
Q. How would you describe the overarching aesthetic of Jolie Laide? And what inspired you to pay olfactory tribute to French cinema of the 1950s and 60s?
A. It’s nostalgic. I love the 1960s, I love films, and I love anything French. There is a connection between those years and a great social, political and artistic revolution. The French New Wave films, after which my perfumes are named, depict the feeling of reinvention and the upheaval of those years. Everything was changing—people saw things with fresh eyes.
Like those films, my approach aims to disrupt the status quo of mainstream perfume making. My line is a nod to that time, those films, and those feelings. They have odd things happening within the blends: they are complex, pretty, stinky, carefree and real. I find the perfumes of that era are reminiscent of natural perfume.
Q. We love the name of your brand (which translates to “pretty-ugly”), can you tell us how you reflect this concept in your work?
A. In natural perfume there are beautiful ingredients and also weird, stinky ones. If I used only beautiful ingredients it would be boring, too pretty, too sweet, nauseating. When I add the odd or ugly ingredients, it adds tension that makes perfume more interesting and even challenging. Life is complicated with ups and downs, good and bad. Without the bad, we can’t appreciate the good.
I also love light and dark. We all have it within us. It’s part of human nature and this existence. I’ve also done a good amount of personal growth work so I’m interested in the dark and the light within us, as well. These counter elements add interest, balance, and most of all, a uniqueness that exists when working with opposites.
Q. Which specific attributes of natural ingredients do you particularly love (or any favorite materials)?
A. If you get a rose from the South of France or one from Turkey they are completely different. The French rose is sweet and pleasant while the Turkish rose has some funk to it.
I love the way they unfold and reveal themselves to you over time. I have a particular favorite called kamala attar. It is the inspiration for Cléo de 5 à 7. Once described to me as a pink lotus pond at dawn, to me it smelled like the inside of my mother’s purse, lipstick, leather, perfume, chewing gum and cigarettes! This attar is a distillation of pink lotus, agarwood, ambrette seed, jasmine and sandalwood.
Q. What are some of the challenges of natural perfumery that you wrestle with?
Sustainability is a big issue. Some natural perfume ingredients are over-harvested and may no longer be available. And climate change is affecting our ability to grow plants predictably.
Buying the same botanical ingredients from the same companies and same terroir are not a guarantee that you will get the same scent from the oil as the last time. This makes it tricky to have batch-to-batch consistency with each perfume.
The high price of the ingredients is another issue. And prices are going up. Planting, harvesting and distilling these plants are time consuming and require vast amounts of natural materials to produce a very small amount of essential oils. So, it makes sense that the prices should be high, but it does affect what I can buy and still make the perfume affordable to the customer.
Q. Did your childhood in San Francisco and Marin County influence your perfume sensibility, and if so, how?
A. Yes, I love this climate and being surrounded by water and forests. My mom loved the sea and nature, too. She often took me to Stinson beach, Muir Woods and Mount Tamalpais as a child. She had a great love of plants and flowers and taught me about them. With all the natural beauty around me, falling in love with it all was unavoidable.
Water, plants, flower and trees inspire me. Because of my Mom’s influence and all that surrounded me I was immersed in nature. When I started to make perfume, the natural route made the most sense to me; the names of the ingredients are actual plants that I can see and smell. Plants have a uniqueness that is evolving, odd, surprising and beautiful. There’s always a discovery when I spend time with botanical ingredients. They don’t always show themselves fully at first. I have spent years getting acquainted with some.
Q. Your two top sellers at Tigerlily are Cléo de 5 à 7 and Masculin Féminin. How would you describe each of them in three words?
Cléo de 5 à 7: clandestine, lipstick, leather
Masculin Féminin: smoky, floral, tobacco
Q. Did the break from perfumery that you (and many others) took in 2020 change your approach in any way?
A. It was a time for pause on many levels. Because I was home so much I had a lot of time for introspection. I learned a lot about myself. During the pandemic, I was feeling down, and so I didn’t create much at first. I joined a group of natural perfumers who met once a month and we gave each other challenges to create perfumes based on a color, an artist, a particularly difficult ingredient, etc.
We made our perfumes, mailed our samples to each other and had Zoom meetings to smell and discuss. That process gave me a reason to blend again. With these challenges I found myself making perfumes I would never have made on my own. My favorite challenge was the blind blending. It helped me to reconsider my preconceptions of the ingredients and to discover new properties that I had overlooked.
Q. Are you working on any new fragrances and, if so, any hints you can give us?
A. I am working on a new line that explores the dark and light of the human embodiment of spirituality connected to the medieval past.