Interviews Music for Your Nose: An Interview with Esscentual Alchemy's Amanda Feeley

Music for Your Nose: An Interview with Esscentual Alchemy's Amanda Feeley

10/26/14 10:07:40 (4 comments)

by: Jodi Battershell

I first encountered Iowa-based perfume house Esscentual Alchemy when I was still living in Nebraska. While sampling different perfumes created for the Perfume Pharmer's Peace, Love and Patchouli project. I settled on a favorite, Queen of Punk, which featured patchouli in a decidedly non-flower-child context. I was delighted to find it was from a natural perfume house in a nearby small city in the Midwest—what New Yorkers and Californians refer to as "flyover country"—and connected with its perfumer, Amanda Feeley, who gave me the opportunity to try more of her fragrances.

Amanda Feeley

Esscentual Alchemy's range is stunning, with more than 45 perfumes produced since the house was founded in 2010. Most fragrances are offered in both Eau de Parfum and Parfum concentration. Amanda is definitely a master with patchouli, whether it's the leather jacket emblazoned with an Anarchy symbol of Queen of Punk or the vanilla and coffee inflected Patchouli Creme. The gourmand range is also nicely represented by scents like Christmas and Cookies, Blue Lemonade and Mint Ginger Truffle. Her florals echo the feminine perfumes of yesterday, especially timelessand elegant Little Black Dress and beautiful peachy-iris Moon Valley, Amanda's take on the legendary Iris Gris. If you're lamenting how the IFRA restrictions on the use of oakmoss have decimated many a beloved classic, Hokkabaz is a gentle reminder that perfumers in the U.S. are not subject to IFRA restrictions and that natural perfumers in particular are still doing wonderful things with the mossy stuff.  And men, she's got you covered with lovely leather Audax Fortes and Lumberjack Man (which caused a sensation at the first FRAGments event in 2013). 

I'm particularly smitten with her new fragrance Dreams of Smoke, a smoky oriental tea fragrance that has special meaning for Amanda. She'll tell us about the fragrance and her journey from a classically-trained musician and mother to a natural perfumer whose tagline is "I compose music for your nose."

Let's meet Amanda Feeley.  

Jodi Battershell: What is your background and what did you do before your calling as a perfumer?

Amanda Feeley: I grew up on a rural NW Iowa farm.  I don’t have any stories of “I was always making perfumes from flowers as a small girl.”  I did spend many hours outside, in the river, lakes, forests, fields, and barns of my childhood home.  There’s lots of scope for the olfactory imagination there!  My one consistent perfume memory as a child was the smell of my mom’s Chanel No. 5, which she wore on the rare evening out with my father.

I am a classically trained Lyric Coloratura who received training at Simpson College.  Shortly after my graduation from college, I met my husband. Once we started a family, I decided to stay at home. What’s interesting to me, is that creating perfume isn't something I thought could be a career option growing up. In fact it wasn't on the radar in the slightest. Perfume was just something I wore to create a mood with myself.  I think John Lennon said it best, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Jodi: You are also a musician and musical themes appear in your perfumes, your slogan, your packaging, etc. Is composing a perfume similar in any way to composing or performing a song?

Amanda: As a music major we were required to take music theory, composition, counterpoint (which has horrendously strict rules), piano, orchestration, music history, etc.  These helped build an immense base of knowledge that I now draw upon to make perfumes. In composition, for example, you have to have balanced chords, your composition must start someplace, go somewhere, and end “properly.”  Meaning you always resolve the chord to a tonic or 1. The music joke is: “Don’t leave people hanging on a 7!” In counterpoint, like the music of Bach in the Baroque period, you have very rigid parameters, and you cannot go outside of them, otherwise you aren’t composing counterpoint. It’s fascinating the way they are so similar. I enjoy finding new ways to connect the two when I work.

Jodi: You're in Ames, Iowa. What challenges did you face getting your perfume house started from a small Midwestern city? Is there a local market for your perfumes?

Amanda: Ames is a wonderful place to live. It’s the home of Iowa State University, which was the nation's first land-grant college, and where the world’s first digital computer was invented. It’s been ranked as one of the best small cities to live in, best places to retire, and best small cities for new startups. Ames has more parks in town than any other place I’ve lived! It’s great to have so much nature close by. It’s right on US highway 30, and I-35, so you can get most anyplace in Iowa easily.  Notable citizens include:  George Washington Carver, Carrie Chapman Catt, Jane Smiley, Dan Schechtman, and Cael Sanderson. I love the diversity in the community.

There’s also a growing “done local” movement happening here in the arts, and also in sustainable food production. I think it’s fantastic!

When I started my perfume house, I went a non-traditional route. I started completely online, due to the necessity of needing something that would continue to allow me to stay at home, and also to homeschool our four children. This also happened during my husband’s recovery from a battle with cancer and an eight-month hospital stay. A traditional brick and mortar business wasn’t going to work for my life. The biggest challenges I have had are learning all of the nuts and bolts with owning a business.  With an online business, if you’re doing everything yourself, you not only have to have your product, but also need to be able to: take pictures, market, know SEO, write copy, fulfill and ship, and provide customer service. I do it all myself, from beginning to end.  It’s been a steep learning curve at times! With the growing movements for slow food, natural products, and artisan goods, I have an expanding market of happy customers.

Jodi: How did you learn the art of perfumery?

Amanda: I am a self-taught perfumer. My knowledge comes from study of old perfume texts, correspondence courses, and much experimenting! What I enjoy most about the art of perfumery is that there’s always more to learn, you never finish studying.  

Jodi: What drew you to natural perfumery? What would you want someone who hasn't tried a natural perfume to know about it?

Amanda: In late 2010, I came across the image of Septimus Piesse’s Odophone: individual essences as musical notes, that was the clincher. It seemed the Universe was pulling two loves together. Thinking of making music for the nose tantalized me. So when I started learning perfumery, it made sense to me that I should start off with classical perfume ingredients. The ones that were the foundation of perfumery.  Is this to say that the synthetics have any less validity? No. There are many perfumers who straddle that line of mixed media, as I’ve heard it called. I love knowing that I am working with materials that have been used for thousands of years. I get a little thrill when I pull out a jasmine or frankincense oil and think about how they might have been used in older times. Natural perfumes remind me to be grateful for this little blue ball floating around in space, that we all share, and live on.

Natural perfumes are subtler than synthetics. I find them to be more intimate and just for the wearer. People often need to be in your personal body space before being able to catch a wisp of what you’re wearing. Another thing that is different about natural perfumes is you also get the therapeutic benefits from the essential oils.

Orange Cream

Jodi: What is the significance of the dragonfly symbol that adorns your bottles?  

Amanda: Dragonflies have always been special to me. They start life as water creatures, and change into creatures of the air. They are swift, can go six different directions with ease, can seem transparent if the light hits them just right, and have 360 degree vision.  In some cultures, they are the carriers of the souls of the departed.  They are a symbol of metamorphosis and transformation. The dragonfly is a reminder to be flexible, highly adaptable, to keep a light, positive outlook on life, and to remember that magic is all around me.

Jodi: Please tell us about your favorite notes or perfume ingredients. Are there any notes you dislike or avoid using?

Amanda: It's hard to pick just one!  Oils I reach for quite often are: florals, woods/resins, spices, and citruses. I do enjoy finding rare and unique botanicals to add to my perfume organ. With apologies to all of the green lovers out there, the one note I’ve had the hardest time getting to know is galbanum. When I first smelled it, all I could think of was that it smelled like dead, squished bugs!  You might even say, I had a negative emotional response to it. Fortunately in this case, being stubborn is a positive trait, and I didn’t quit working with galbanum. We’re coming to understand one another, and are close to being friends now.

Jodi: Is there a note not available in natural perfumery that you wish you could use or are trying to create?

Amanda: When I first started, I went on a tincturing spree. [Patchouli Creme contains tinctures of six different vanilla varieites!—jb] I was tincturing freeze dried fruits, toasted coconut, and lilacs. Last year, I dabbled in the enfleurage of the magnolia blossoms from my yard. With new technologies like CO2 extraction and natural isolates, many notes that were previously unavailable for a natural perfumer can now be added to the palette. It’s an exciting time for natural perfume!

A tincture in progress

Jodi: Is there a fragrance in your collection that has special significance for you?

Amanda: All of my fragrances are marks of times in my life. So it’s interesting to go back to earlier works, and think about what was happening during that time.

Dreams of Smoke is a very special fragrance. It’s a special collaboration between Nava Brahe and me. Last summer, Nava emailed me saying she’d gotten a gift of a bunch of vanilla beans from a friend who was traveling in Madagascar. She thought she’d rather have a perfume than creme brûlée out of them. I said, that’s how you can tell a perfumista! She said she’d really enjoyed my other compositions, and thought she’d ask me if I was interested. My answer was an emphatic YES!

We chatted, and I asked her to talk to me about her most favorite memories of vanilla. Along with this came out a memorable trip to Ireland, and lapsang souchong tea. I suggested perhaps a chai based fragrance, including vanilla.  She liked the sound of that, and then I remembered that I had some lapsang souchong CO2 that I had been wanting to use.

Research involved a trip for both of us to Indian restaurants to drink chai. Which was not much of a hardship since we both enjoy Indian food!  I learned from the owners at the one I went to that each chai recipe is unique to the maker, since it’s what they want to use for spices. So there’s similarities, but variations depending on who makes it, and where in India they live or are from. I thought that was really cool!

We went back and forth, and also took several trials, but the final version, is I think some of my best work so far.



When we were in the planning phases, she thought perhaps I might want to donate part of the proceeds of the sales to a cancer society, since my husband is a very fortunate survivor. I decided that it didn’t feel right.  

The very short version of what I refer to as my “18 month long bad acid trip” is: Kevin (my husband) was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on his spine, when I was two months' pregnant with our youngest. They told us if they’d found it two weeks later, he’d have been completely paralyzed from the chest down. He did five weeks of radiation, during which we stayed in Ames with people from the Unitarian Universalist fellowship. After that, when we tried to move back into our home, we discovered that it had been taken over completely by toxic black mold. We moved to Ames, and he was in and out of the hospital for several months with a bout of pneumonia, and blood clots in both lungs. During this time his largest client (he was self-employed, and I was a stay at home mom) dropped him for being “sick too much.” As he looked for work, and was about to get an interview with IA State, he collapsed on the floor at home, and after a 911 call, was rushed to the ICU. They then found the Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in his liver. He spent the next eight months in the hospital, bed bound, and endured eight rounds of chemo, and nearly died several times. We, unlike so many others, got a happy ending. He’s been clean for almost six years now, and works for the USDA. They told him he’d probably never walk again and sent him home in a wheelchair. He does now walk and he doesn’t need any assistive walking devices. It’s really a miracle that he is even alive today.

After Kevin got well, I made a promise, that whenever I could I would pay forward all of the kindnesses that people had shown our family while he was sick. They brought meals, watched the three older children, and had a huge fundraiser for us. Without the support of family, friends, the UU, and homeschool communities, we really couldn’t have gotten through that time.

In August, Nava was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she’s self-employed. I told Nava that it would be a gift to do something to help support her. Especially since I know what it’s like to be self-employed and dealing with cancer. I know there’s times during chemo where you don’t feel like or really can’t physically do anything, and being self-employed makes it harder to feel like you can relax and take care of yourself. It felt right for me to donate 40% of the sales from Dreams of Smoke to her, during her treatments.

Jodi: What are you working on right now and what's next for Esscentual Alchemy?

Amanda: I'm in the process of finishing several fragrances for a book called Release by Hope Nunki Russell. Fragrance is featured at several important points in the book, and Hope wondered if I'd be interested in creating those fragrances for her. The main theme revolves around a fragrance called God’s Gift,  which is a spicy, floral, incense scent.  There are two others. God’s Gift:  Seduction—spicy, floral, incense with cacao, hazelnut highlights.  Finally, God’s Gift:  Redemption—spicy, floral, incense, with aromatic, sacred woods.

Starting in 2015, I'll be teaching natural perfume classes at Reiman Gardens in Ames. I'm also working closely with the entomologists in the butterfly conservatory at the gardens, on butterfly attraction with certain smells. That's been such a fascinating project!

Finally, I've partnered with the owners of the Miniature Perfume Shoppe and The Mini Museum on an upcoming special project! [The details are a secret for now but stay tuned to Fragrantica for further info.—jb]

Thank you, Amanda, for the opportunity to try more of your beautiful scents and for sharing your story with Fragrantica readers.  Read more about the fragrances here on Fragrantica and purchase samples, eau de parfums and parfums of Esscentual Alchemy fragrances on the official website.

All Images: Esscentual Alchemy

Jodi Battershell (NebraskaLovesScentis a lifelong Nebraskan who transplanted herself to Philadelphia after a lifetime on the Great Plains. An appreciator of fine fragrances since childhood, she tried her hand at natural perfumery and fragrance-mixing for a number of years, ultimately concluding she was better suited to appreciating the fragrance creations of others. She is pleased to finally be putting her English degree to use as a writer and editor for Fragrantica.com.

 

 



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AbsintheDragonfly
AbsintheDragonfly

Jodi, Thank you so much for the opportunity to share my story, and my work with the readers of Fragrantica! I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me :)

The biggest gift cancer gave me, was gratitude. I don't take anything for granted anymore. I'm so happy to be able to see my children grow, hang out with my best friend, and make beautiful perfumes that give people joy!

Wishing each of you happiness and joy,
Amanda

Oct
27
2014
ComfyCat
ComfyCat

Thank you for the interview, Jodi! Amanda appears to be an amazing women and perfumer. Music and perfume both touches directly emotions, so nice to see someone approaching scents and music together.

All the best wishes for her and her family, lymphoma took my grandmother from me very recently - it makes me shudder to think what this family has gone through.

Oct
27
2014
gazelle
gazelle

Thank you Jodi for such a moving interview. Ms. Feeley's life experiences offer such hope, her having overcome such challenges. I will go back and reread this interview soon as possible. Her Dreams of Smoke sounds intriguing.

Oct
26
2014
Carnation
Carnation

The first thing that came to mind when I saw the bottle of orange cream was: Halston! The bottle itself shares similarities with the Halston edp bottle with the stopper.

Oct
26
2014

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