Ecology, music, perfume — Heather D'Angelo's vibrant world.
Q. Congratulations on the release of Immortelle 43|17! How did you choose immortelle as the core of your second fragrance and what else would you like to tell us about its composition?
A. After launching Moena 12|69, I spent over a year in search of my next featured botanical. Working with the rainforest conservation organization, Camino Verde, for Moena 12|69 had shown me how nature-derived products can replenish ecosystems and strengthen local communities, instead of depleting and exploiting them, so I knew what was possible. But I was looking for more than just a sustainable high-quality product for my next perfume. It had to compel me at least as much as Moena had. I wanted something truly exceptional—a scent with spellbinding and provocative characteristics. The bar was high.
I received samples of natural essences from all over the world—Hawaiian vetiver that was grown so sustainably the farmers couldn’t supply enough to keep me operating at even the slowest level of production, ginger from a small community-run regenerative farm in Madagascar that struggled to find enough timber to run their microdistillery, and palmarosa from a female-owned and operated agroforestry cooperative in Nepal that was impossible for me to travel to, to name a few. For a while, I began to lose hope of finding a collaborator that followed sustainable practices, offered a feasible means of working together, and produced a product worthy of featuring in a fine fragrance.
Then one day I received a sample of Helichrysum italicum essential oil from a small family-owned and run farm called Vitaroma in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There was something remarkably intoxicating about it that stood out above the rest. Its scent was buoyant and joyful, recalling the pleasures of floating in the ocean beneath the summer sun, of licking fresh wildflower honey straight from the honeycomb, and walking through golden fields at twilight, when the heat of the day releases aromas dry and vegetal into the evening.
A friend of mine, an herbalist well-versed in plant magick, believed my decision to work with Endlicheria krukovii (Moena Alcanfor) was subconsciously influenced by a calling to be in spiritual relationship with it. I wasn’t aware of that concept when I chose Moena, but it deeply resonated with me as she explained the role of plant teachers. Why else would I have dropped everything at the time to see a plant grow in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon? When I inhaled the heady aroma of Helichrysum italicum, I found myself called by a botanical once again.
Q. Your fragrances are each built around a core ingredient that has a geographic and ecological story. What’s the story behind Immortelle?
A. The plant called me to the Dalmation Coast. The initial plan was to spend a few days at Vitaroma observing the harvest and distillation and then embark on a two-week-long (much-belated) honeymoon with my husband, David. For a month leading up to the trip, I had been in weekly contact with Domagoj Majić, the son of the farmer who owns Vitaroma. Domagoj was concerned about the unusual amount of rain they had been receiving all spring. Typically, Helichrysum plants are harvested and distilled in the first week of June, but by the last week of May, the buds had barely begun to open. It was too late at that point to push back my trip, so we pushed forward with our plans. At the very least, I would get to speak with Domagoj’s father about his organic farming practices and see the fields about to bloom. It was disappointing but I was sure I could make the best of it.
As I walked through the neat rows of plants, each one bursting with tight yellow buds, I was astounded by the diversity of insects flitting from stem to stem. Bees, butterflies, and dragonflies flew circles around me, filling the air with the faint and constant sound of buzzing. They seemed expectant of the blossoming, which was likely only a few more weeks away. I could only imagine how this landscape would be transformed after I left. I left feeling a little sad and regretful.
But it turned out that wasn’t the end of my quest after all! Through a series of very strange, very serendipitous events, I discovered a small family-run Immortelle farm on the Croatian island of Hvar about a week later. The plants were in bloom there, so I was able to witness the harvest and distillation. I was so grateful for the opportunity to see the farm and to fully absorb the staggering amount of work and resources that goes into producing just a kilo of essential oil. It was humbling.
Q. How did your prior work as an ecologist lead you into creating fragrances, and does it drive the specific nature of your brand?
A. Ecology is the study of multiple interactions within an environment and therefore requires a whole-systems approach to inquiry. Since the beginning of Carta, this manner of thinking has shaped every decision I make when it comes to ensuring sustainable production. It’s not enough for me to know that just one ingredient is sourced sustainably, I want to know about every facet of my supply chain and how all those separate parts function together so that positives in one area aren’t offset by negatives in another. But this ongoing inquiry has been exhausting, confusing, and frustrating to say the least. Fortunately, I found a small group of likeminded perfumers and we started the Coalition of Sustainable Perfumery which aims to bring greater transparency to sustainability issues in our industry.
Q. How would you describe your style and approach as a perfumer?
A. It takes me a year to create a new perfume; I’m admittedly exceedingly slow at teasing out the unique qualities to elevate within my featured ingredient and crafting a narrative around them. In this long process of unraveling and inspired reconstruction, the fragrance begins to speak the language of memory, releasing its anchor to the past and shifting course across waves of nostalgia.
Carta is a conversation of scent and place and a conversation takes at least two actors. In the end, I strive for a balanced conversation but sometimes my voice is louder in the blend than I had intended it to be.
Q. Why do you create fragrances at a high concentration (pure parfum), also incorporating rare or never-before-used ingredients?
A. I just love extrait de parfums! There’s something so elegant to me about the private ritual of dabbing a little perfume in secret places. Don’t get me wrong, I own many fragrances that I love to spray into a thick cloud and walk through on my way out the door. But when it comes to my own creations, I prefer to craft a more precious experience for my customers. My music was always the same way too, intimate and intended to be listened to at a soft volume rather than blasted throughout the room. Never was a headbanger.
Q. Like Mauricio Garcia, who we featured earlier this week, you’re a co-founder of the Coalition of Sustainable Perfumery (COSP). How do you incorporate sustainability into your perfume business, and has it been challenging?
A. I think I answered this one above!
Q. Your band, Au Revoir Simone, is played on regular rotation at Tigerlily. You’ve said that, for you, there’s a relationship between music and creating perfume. Do tell…
A. Thank you so much! The longer I’ve been a perfumer, the more perfumers I’ve met who are also musicians leading me to believe there really must be a very strong link between the two mediums. For me, whether I’m composing music or perfume, both are propelled forward by a force that comes “through” me rather than “from” me—there’s an inspiration-from-elsewhere driving the choices I make. And with both mediums, there’s always a moment where I just “know” the piece is done. Lastly, it takes me a year to write an album and a year to compose a perfume so I’m apparently a very slow artist.
Q. In addition to Carta and Au Revoir Simone, you’re also the Director of Communications at ASU’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science. What is the focus of this work?
A. The Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science is an incredibly exciting research center with the ecologist, Greg Asner, at the helm. In my position as the Director of Communications, I wear many different hats ranging from helping our scientists promote their research to orchestrating massive outreach efforts such as our citizen science project during Hawaii’s 2019 coral reef bleaching event.
Q. Your first fragrance, Moena 12|69, raised money for Camino Verde, a non-profit that works on reforestation of Amazon. How are their efforts progressing and is there anything else you’d like our community to know about this project?
A. The Coalition of Sustainable Perfumery recently checked in with Robin Van Loon, founder of Camino Verde, and Olivia Revilla, Farm Coordinator, to find out how their team has been faring during Covid-19. We learned that the Tambopata Province community was hit hard by the pandemic but they’re finding silver linings wherever they can. They have some wonderful new developments with sustainable (truly!) rosewood along with new pathways to distribution within the US that will hopefully provide ample funding for 2021. I encourage you to sign up for their newsletters!
Q. Have you thought about how your geo-based approach to finding core perfume ingredients might change given the current travel restrictions?
A. This is definitely a big problem for Carta. But on the bright side, I have already chosen my next three featured ingredients and I have enough of each in my possession to start creating. Given that I can’t travel to these destinations, I plan to take a stab at perfuming about places I’ve never visited and then tweak the blends later in a post-Covid world. It’s a backwards approach but it’s better than waiting around!
Q. What words of advice do you have for other perfumers who want to improve the sustainability of their brands and products?
A. First I want to say that it’s hard for indie perfumers and I get it. We can only order minimum quantities of everything, which means we have to do the best with what we can find. Of course, we’d all love to have custom bottles made of recycled glass with caps made of ceramic or some other eco-friendly material but often we’re stuck with cheap plasticky items produced overseas and therefore have a big carbon footprint. And when it comes to sourcing ingredients, indies are often more driven by price than transparent sourcing. If Liberty Naturals is selling sandalwood for $50 an ounce and Eden Botanicals is selling it for $100 an ounce, the more appealing choice is clear for someone struggling to get their business off the ground. We have to do the best we can with the resources we have and the information we have, which is also limited.
So with that said, I encourage perfumers to improve the sustainably of their brands and products by first being curious about where their stuff comes from. Don’t be afraid to ask suppliers questions, especially about traceable, transparent sourcing. Ask to see their MSDS forms, their COA forms, ask if their distributors have actual relationships with farmers or if they’re just a third-party distributer. Ask packaging providers if they use recycled paper and plant-based inks. Try to eliminate single-use plastic wherever possible. Companies like Eco-Enclose provide effective alternatives to bubble wrap.
When it comes to synthetics, it’s a minefield. The Coalition of Sustainable Perfumery has an endless list of questions for Symrise, IFF, Firmenich, etc. and when we have our answers we will shout them from the rooftops! We all need to know if the petroleum-based aroma molecules designed to replace overharvested species such as sandalwood really are more sustainable alternatives to naturals. We also need to know more about toxicity because ingredients need to be healthy for the planet and our bodies too—that’s the only way to be sustainable.
Mauricio, Molly, Sydney and I always joke that if we were really going to be sustainable perfumers, we would just give it up completely, because at the end of the day, we’re making luxury products that use resources. But we don’t really believe that. Perfumery is an art and I wouldn’t ask a painter to give up her acrylic-based paints any sooner than I’d ask a perfumer to give up her Iso-E. But there are a lot of amazing technological advancements out there such as white biotechnology and green chemistry that have opened up a new world of sustainable aroma chemicals. I’m determined to keep uncovering answers to these questions and sharing knowledge and resources with my community.
Q. Do you have a location or ingredient in mind for your next scent?
A. I do! But it will be at least another two years until I can reveal it. ;)