Behind the scenes with indie perfume pioneer, Sarah Horowitz-Thran.
Sarah Horowitz-Thran was one of the very first perfumers to helm an independent fragrance brand. We were excited to hear about her trajectory as a pioneer of indie perfumery and also that of a consummate professional. Read on...
Q. You began your work in perfumery by designing custom fragrances for friends in college. How did this come about initially?
A. I started creating fragrances in a little shop in Boston owned by an independent perfumer that I happened to wander into in between classes my freshman year of college. I fell in love with the customization aspect, the idea that each of us is unique, and that our fragrance should reflect that, should tell our personal story without words. I fell in love with not just the materials I was working with, and the history, the lore, the sacredness of perfume — but also the connections it made with people, how perfume connected us to the moment, to our memories, to our highest aspirations. I loved it all, and still do.
Q. You have a very diversified business — multiple fragrance collections, private label work, perfumery classes and, of course, custom scent creation. How on earth do you manage all of this and why did you choose to diversify to this extent?
A. Ha. “Managing it” is a relative term! Some days I do better than others, and I have an amazing team. I diversified because I’m completely self-funded, and when I started out, anyone that asked me to do anything regarding perfumery, I basically said yes to, and then figured it out. I needed the money, and I love to learn. I drive it now with intention as opposed to always saying yes and then running after it. I know more now, as there is nothing like experience to teach us.
Q. Your most popular scents in our store are Hereafter, The Now and Perfect Veil — all could be considered skin scents. You’re great at designing this type of fragrance! Is that what you wear yourself?
A. Funny enough, I prefer warm, rich, woody-sweet fragrances. My personal fragrance is actually Origin Story, which is based on the skeletal structure of the very first fragrance I made the day I walked into the perfumery in Boston so many years ago. It has evolved since then, with jasmine grandiflorum — jasmine is my favorite floral — and patchouli, vanilla, sandalwood and amber in the base. I love deep and smokey.
But I totally appreciate the clean, sheer scents, and I do love the musk category — those naked skin scents that are sensual and sheer. I feel like I have a very “Californian” vibe in my perfumery. Most of my fragrances have a laid-back feel, and can be worn with jeans and a tee shirt or a little black dress.
Q. How would you describe your personal aesthetic as well as your aesthetic as a perfumer?
A. My aesthetic is clean, cozy and creative. I love clean lines AND plush couches, wood tables and lots of plants and comfy clothes. I'm most comfortable at home, or in my office, where I have l lots of books and plants (my husband’s passion is plants thank goodness, I would kill them!), beachy and easy. And I think my perfumery reflects that — deep and rich in the base, but easy to wear, second skin. Nothing that covers up, only that enhances and captures the spirit of the one who wears it.
Q. Behind the scenes, you’ve designed blockbuster hits for other brands. How does it feel to see the success of these fragrances but to not have your name attached to them?
A. Wonderful — now. It has also been challenging at times; depending on the brand. Some of my clients share that I am the perfumer, some like to say they make it themselves. Most have the fragrance as their sole business so take the time and money they have to focus on the growth of their brand. I have been so focused on keeping the business alive and supporting my family that I've spent much more time working on other people’s brands than my own. We've grown now to allow me to shift that focus, and I have begun to focus more on my own brand while still consulting and developing for a smaller, select clientele.
Q. What are your favorite perfumery materials to work with and are there any you despise?
A. I absolutely love oakmoss and vanilla. I do not love galbanum or tagetes, although in the right dosage (for me, VERY small), I love the effect they can have.
Q. Creating custom fragrances for individuals must be quite an intimate experience. Can you tell us about your approach to blending a scent that’s just right for someone?
A. I was a philosophy and religions minor in college, and I wanted to ask everyone who they were, what they thought about themselves and the world around them, find out what they believed and what made them tick. I found being behind the bar — like an alcohol bar, but with perfume oils as my spirits — gave me permission to ask absolute strangers the most intimate questions.
We talk for the first half hour or so, I ask lots of questions, “Who are you? Where are you from? What do you love? Favorite color, texture, time of day, memory?” and as they speak, I start to pull specific oils depending on the answers. I then organize the oils into top, middle and base notes, and we smell together, eliminating what they do not resonate with. I blend with what is left, and we co-create the formula together, tweaking and adding drops, until they are in love.
Q. You launched your first brand in 1994, which makes you a legit pioneer in independent perfumery. What words of wisdom would you offer to indie perfumers who are just starting out?
A. I would suggest taking classes, ordering materials, and understanding them. READ about the art form. Find your favorite existing fragrances and read about what makes them what they are. Play with the materials. There are a few actual schools — there is a program in Grasse that takes new students. I'm self-educated, but I absolutely had mentors and apprenticed with perfumers along the way. Know your COGs [cost of goods], and make sure YOU CHARGE APPROPRIATELY! Make sure you calculate a fee for YOUR TIME — your time is valuable, and when you grow, you will not be hand making every single piece of the brand, and will have to pay someone else for it.
And lastly, whatever your passion may be, whether it is creating perfume, clothing, painting, or accounting, put your creative spirit into it, and have faith in yourself. Make a plan. Follow it, and be prepared to have it change. And do not give up.
Q. We’re always excited to hear about what you’re up to. What’s next for Sarah Horowitz Parfums?
A. Well, our filling and manufacturing division is growing every month. We focus on meeting the manufacturing needs of small to mid runs, and there seems to be new indie brands every day, which is so exciting! But my passions are my teaching and my fragrances. I’m working on a new collection, a passion project really, so maybe in the next 18-24 months? I have found that I’d rather work slow and steady and get things right, than rush and miss something. I’ve done a lot of ‘quickly’ to keep an income flowing and the business moving over the last 30 years of perfuming (yes, THIRTY YEARS!!!). I’m ready to take my time and enjoy every bit of the process.
Explore the Sarah Horowitz Parfums Collection