I smell fantastic right now. More specifically, my wrists smell fantastic, dabbed with Moto Oud from Blackbird Perfumes—made from agarwood, deep and sweet, comforting but unfamiliar, woodsy but far from green. Layered with notes of leather, burnt rubber and spice, Moto Oud smells, according to its maker, “like a broken down motorcycle in the desert.” It’s intoxicating.
Scent is a powerful memory activator. An old boyfriend’s cologne, your mother’s shampoo. But for Aaron Way, the perfumer behind the fragrances and incense currently being developed at the long-beloved, now-online-only shop Blackbird Ballard, it’s his medium as a storyteller.
“I get to express an idea through perfume that isn’t targeted just to make a ton of money,” Way says. We’re sitting in the tranquil side yard of the home he shares with Blackbird founder and creative director Nicole Miller. The Ballard native started learning about scent when he got a job in the Blackbird brick-and-mortar, which is how he discovered his true appreciation for the craft.
Way left Blackbird to start a degree in chemical engineering in Idaho—chemistry being a prerequisite for formal perfume schools in France. But after a semester, he realized, “School was too much delayed gratification” and he needed to get back to work. Miller had been toying with the idea of starting an incense line, so she found a recipe, bought some oils and they created three scents in a weekend, with elements like tomato leaf and fern, sandalwood and anise, and tuberose. Blackbird incense is now carried in more than 80 stores worldwide.
Incense was a great testing ground for Way, whose first perfume creation for Blackbird is a cold, mineral scent named for the icy moon of Neptune, Triton. Their bestseller, Pipe Bomb, is a subtle scent that crackles into life after 10 minutes on your skin. Miller created a sweet, smoky scent called Camas based on her “childhood constantly spent by the fire.” A scent can begin with basic notes, but the story of a smell guides the creation process.
Something you won’t find among Blackbird Perfumes is a big, white floral scent. The company is breaking away from the aggressive gendering of the mass-market perfume industry. “I would never say, these four are for men, these four are for women, don’t break those rules. Please break those rules,” Way says.
Jen Siems, the nose behind Seattle’s Sweet Tea Apothecary perfumes, started her exploration with scent for medical reasons—treating terrible migraines with essential oils—but her real inspiration came on her honeymoon. At the Petit Trianon château at Versailles, there is posted a list of ingredients for the scent that Marie Antoinette wore. It sent Siems, a fiction writer, voracious reader and history buff, spinning into her imagination—what did Marie Antoinette smell like?
“I’m drawn to the stories of people,” says Siems, who began dreaming up scents inspired by the historical figures. Dharma Bum, based on Jack Kerouac, is rich with cedarwood, coffee, opium and clove. Her most popular scent is called Dead Writers, redolent of heliotrope, vetiver, tobacco, black tea and musk. Her current favorite is Madame Moustache, a musky, tobacco and vanilla-laden scent named for a notorious gambler from the California Gold Rush.
When Siems and her husband moved from California for his job at PopCap Games, she decided to try selling her wares, and her Internet sales took off. She’s still a one-woman operation, but with a one-year-old daughter at home, finding separate studio space is a definite next step. In the meantime, Siems says, “I’m working on Sylvia Plath. She is, by far, the single most requested person I get.”
Sweet Tea Apothecary