Starting My Own Business: Brooklyn Perfume Company

Yes, I knew it would be expensive and that I would panic about money. There would be mistakes, some onerous (such as pricy or smelly), and there would even be unpleasant people to deal with. What I didn’t expect? The enormous number of small and large tasks to take something from a critical success amongst a few colleagues and pleased customers, to a viable business. There’s all the legal stuff, of course, but then there’s bookkeeping (and hiring someone part-time), there is every sort of label in its own little envelope, labels for big samples and small samples. Deciding what to print on the inkjet and what to send out… Should we stain the boxes for the samples?

While any of this going wrong can be upsetting, none of it induces the same degree of angst as does a concern about the actual product—such as putting on one of of my perfumes in the afternoon and an hour later going into a panic—“it’s shot, there’s no tenacity, I can’t smell it!”—before realizing I had just washed my hands. Some of this angst is heightened by knowing I’m undereducated and haven’t spent the last 10 years working with masters in Grasse. I don’t know much about perfumes later than the 1970s and have nothing to stand on except my experience with cuisine and wine. The smells must stand on their own.

I do have a vision. It is inspired by the smell of my mother’s perfumes when she wore them in the 1950s. (One thing about getting older is that you get to have tasted and smelled a lot of good vintage stuff.) As I plod through my olfactory analyses of naturals and chemicals and of any accords I might have fallen on, I make links with those ancient perfumes (Joy, Vol de Nuit, Shalamar, Chanel 5, Chanel 19 were a few) Some of these smells are now no-no’s. Natural musk will hold you by the hand and walk you into a sacred garden, but forget it—it comes from killing a small and endangered Himalayan deer. A drop of civet pulls together disparate notes—especially florals—into a sophisticated bouquet. We’re out of luck on this one too because it comes from a civet cat. I have no inherent problem with this—we exploit cows, don’t we?—but some producers torment the civets by caging them and poking them with sticks so they’ll release more of their anal scent paste. I have cybershopped all over Ethiopia looking for a humane version (one producer claims to keep the civets in an enclosure, but not a pen, and let them wipe their anuses on poles posted around for this purpose). If this is true, I could justify it, but I can’t take the chance that someone’s just screwing around with me. On my next trip to Ethiopia, I’ll drop by. 

Other smells, less taboo, strike me—the smell of natural florals, supported on a beautifully structured artificial base or a whiff of ambergris associated somehow with bergamot or vetiver. It’s an accumulation of little things that I use to express the vision. 

As I spend more time designing labels, worrying about hiring, keeping my head in the sand about money, the joy of olfactory exploration can easily get shunted to a small corner of a busy schedule. When I work, I need privacy and freedom from distraction (no phone) and an open-ended amount of time.

Lately I’ve been working on recreating the smell of flowers with basic perfume chemicals. I’m cheating, necessarily, by having memorized most of the ingredients that go into each flower. The game is to figure out how much to use of each compound. I’ve come up with some really revolting stuff. (One friend, straining to be diplomatic, described my jasmin as good for toilet bowl cleaner.) I do think I could elevate some of my experiments by integrating naturals.

Of course it’s taken much longer than we had hoped to get BPC out there. We are “out there” now, in that our perfumes are available on our website, but we’ve yet to do much in the way of promotion. That is to come.