100% NATURAL BOTANICAL PERFUMERY FOCUSING ON RARE INGREDIENTS AND UNIQUE SCENTS
BY SHALEEN DESTEFANO
Wit & West is a small-batch artisanal perfumery based in Colorado and solely owned by this husband and wife duo. We had the pleasure of talking with Whitney (Wit) about how this project passion of hers, came to fruition.
Before Wit & West Perfumes, I spent two decades in the corporate world working in the financial services and hospitality industries in finance and marketing leadership roles. About 3.5 years ago I told my husband Rob that I wanted to do something different, something that could allow me to express myself artistically while connecting to others through a sensorial experience…and then it hit me, perfumery.
Growing up, perfume and everything scented including body oils and body powders, soaps and candles were a staple in my life. Both my parents wore perfume, and my dad owned a boutique in Colorado Springs called Swale Hall that featured British home goods, teas, candies, as well as perfumes, soaps, and scented body powders from Floris of London. I had considered perfumery as a career years ago, but I was not quite sure what that meant or how I would get there. This time I had decided I was not going to let my fear of the unknown stop me. I spent 2+ years studying on my own as well as under some of the world’s most well-known and highly regarded natural perfumers including Mandy Aftel of Aftelier Perfumes, Charna Ethier of Providence Perfume Co. and Anya McCoy of Anya’s Garden Perfumes. From there Rob and I came up with our vision for the brand and Wit & West was born. Wit is a play on my name, Whitney and West is a play on Rob’s last name which is Westendorf.
Many of us have no idea how our favorite perfumes are made, we just know the scents we favor. Can you tell us about your process?
Perfumery is the language of scent; both an art and a science. As an artisan small-batch perfumer I am fortunate to have the same artistic freedom that other artists such as painters and musicians do; the freedom to take my artistic medium and translate it into a final piece, aka a perfume. In my case, the medium is perfume and my perfumer’s palette consists of 100% all-natural and botanical ingredients that I use to compose a final perfume. On a more technical level, constructing a perfume requires discipline and the ability to follow a repeatable process. One of the most notable perfumers who helped lay the groundwork for the process used in constructing a perfume is French perfumer, Jean Carles, the founder of the Roure Perfumery School in Paris in 1946 (now part of Givaudan). Today, many perfumers (including myself) continue to follow the Jean Carles method focused on a rigorous process of evaluating each raw material based on their odorous characteristics and volatility and then classifying them into base, middle and top notes. Borrowing terms used in music, a perfume is composed of different “notes” or aromatic materials that are arranged into “accords” (another musical term, i.e., “chords”) and then further combined to create a final perfume.
When I sit down to start the creation process, I start with the development of the story behind the perfume. Often the story is connected to a feeling, memory, place or experience. This sensorial focus in my process is important because our sense of smell is directly connected to our memories and emotions. For example, when I set out to create my perfume Brumaire Woods, my goal was to pay homage to my husband’s childhood home in the Vancouver-Portland area by capturing the experience you feel when hiking through the Columbia River Gorge, the canyon of the Columbia River that stretches for 80 miles and forms the boundary between Washington and Oregon. Once the inspiration for the perfume was defined, I started brainstorming descriptors that evoked the feeling and mood I wanted to elicit (calm and peaceful) and from there I selected the fragrance family to help define my perfumer’s palette of ingredients to work with.
Fragrance families (or olfactive families, “olfaction” meaning “to smell”) are the traditional classification system designed in the early 1900s by the perfume industry to categorize fragrances. Examples of fragrance families include floral (includes notes such as jasmine), woody (includes notes such as sandalwood), and fresh (includes fresh and citrusy notes). For Brumaire Woods in particular, I focused on the classic fragrance family known as a fougère (French for “fern” and pronounced “foo-jair”). Fougères, traditionally speaking, are composed with lavender, oakmoss and coumarin (naturally occurring in tonka beans) creating a character that is fresh, mossy, cool and herbaceous (examples include the first fougère launched in 1882, Fougère Royale, and a more current perfume, Paco Rabanne Pour Homme). The focus on the fougère fragrance family really spoke to me in terms of the artistic and sensorial effect I was going for; cool, refreshing and green (lavender and mint), soft, mossy and earthy (oakmoss and tobacco). I started with the initial framework of a classic fougère and from there I developed trials of the formula that I evaluated and adjusted over several months. My final formulation for Brumaire Woods consists of a focus on fresh and herbal top notes including lavender, mint and thyme, the heart leans in a more floral citrusy
direction with jasmine and neroli, while the base focuses on mossy and earthy elements with oakmoss and tobacco.
As a natural perfumer, I have an affinity toward scents that can be experienced in the natural world but sometimes it’s not as easy as one would think to be able to actually “bottle” those scents. One of the challenges with natural perfumery is that not all plants, flowers, etc. that exist in nature and have an aroma are easy (or affordable) to extract (separation process of aromatic compounds from raw materials). For example, while there is a commercially available natural ingredient called orris root that comes from the rhizomes or roots of the iris plant (e.g., iris pallida), there is not a commercially available version that focuses on an extraction of the scent from the actual flower petals of the iris. Part of the reason for this is because most extraction methods would either destroy the odor molecules of petals (e.g., the heat from steam distillation is not conducive to extracting a quality material from the delicate petals) or they would not be cost effective (e.g. solvent extraction would likely produce a low yield thus commanding a higher cost).
Since I tend to enjoy a good challenge, I decided to extract the irises in my garden using the traditional French method of extraction known as enfleurage. Enfleurage uses odorless fats such as solidified coconut to capture the fragrant compounds exuded by plants/flowers (flowers are placed on top of the fat and replaced multiple times until a desired scent is achieved). This is a method that I have been perfecting over the last 3+ years (with irises and other flowers from my garden) and plan to leverage as part of future perfumes in the Wit & West Reserve Collection.
What sets you apart from the rest?
First, I would say the fact that I am an artisan small-batch perfumer with a brand that is both perfumer-led and owned, and second, as an artistic choice I focus on natural materials exclusively for my perfumer’s palette. The world of indie perfumery is certainly growing but the focus on all-natural ingredients is still considered a rarity – in part due to the difficulty of working with as well as the high cost of natural ingredients vs. aroma chemicals (e.g., synthetic or laboratory developed ingredients). Lastly, as a perfumer/olfactory artist, my North Star and something I will never compromise is on the creation of perfumes that are unique and don’t smell like everything else. I do not create perfumes that are replications of other perfumes on the market, and I do not create perfumes based on trends to appeal to a mass audience. Using the language of scent, my perfumes tell a story and I want that story to be interesting, daring and bold – sometimes even provocative. I realize that may not appeal to everyone, but it will appeal to those who don’t want to smell like everyone else.
What inspires your scents and are you planning on creating new variations?
My perfumes are often inspired by memories, places, experiences and travel. As I mentioned before, Brumaire Woods is inspired by the Columbia River Gorge in the Pacific Northwest. Other perfumes such as Rosa de Bolero and La Valse are inspired by ballroom dance. In terms of variations, I am working on new additions to the Wit & West Reserve Collection, our line of limited edition perfumes.
When you are in the process of making, do you have music playing? Can you set the scene for us on a typical day for you as the perfumer?
When I am working in the Wit & West perfume studio, I do often have music playing. I love many different genres of music and listen to everything from blues and rock to jazz and hip hop. A typical day in the studio usually involves administrative tasks such as order fulfillment, production of new batches of perfume (our perfumes have to age for 6-12 weeks), marketing planning and execution (PR and social media, digital, etc.) as well as working on the creation of future perfumes (I usually try and dedicate at least 2 days per week to perfume creation).
Where can we find your products?
Wit & West Perfumes are available at witandwest.com as well as at several boutiques throughout Colorado. We also do local pop-up events and markets in the Denver area throughout the year including Firefly Handmade and Denver BAZAAR, etc. (events are listed on our website).
What can we expect from you in the future?
I am focused on expanding the Wit & West Reserve Collection with the addition of new perfumes that utilize enfleurage extracts from flowers in my garden. I am also focused on expanding wholesale retailers outside of Colorado and I plan to expand internationally in the next year by opening international shipping.
When you aren’t in the studio making perfume, how do you spend your free time?
In my spare time, I am a ballroom dancer and I dance competitively, and then when I am not dancing, my husband and I love to travel, and we typically try and go somewhere internationally at least 1-2 times per year. Earlier this year we visited Morocco and Santorini, Greece and later this year we are headed to Argentina. Travel feeds our soul in a way that not many other experiences can, except maybe perfume.
Provacative, bold and inspiring . . . thank you for sharing your story with us, Whitney! If you would like to explore Wit & West further, visit witandwest.com.