What happens when The Queen of Butter, Diane St. Clair, a woman who makes the most coveted and expensive butter in the world, carried in some of the most famous temples of Haute Gastronomy like Thomas Keller‘s French Laundry and Per Se and sought by other Michelin-starred chefs (who are frequently turned down), decides to turn her attention to fragrance? The result is St. Clair Scents, a new indie perfume house that applies the same artisanal philosophy and naturalistic aesthetic to fragrance that Ms. St. Clair uses to make the best butter in the world. Today, I’d like to focus on the intersection of artisanal gastronomy and artisanal perfumery to tell the unusual tale and journey of Ms. St. Clair. At the end, there will be a brief scent summaries of her new trio of fragrances: Gardener’s Glove, Frost, and First Cut. Next time, in Part II, I’ll review all three fragrances properly and at-length.
What really fascinates and intrigues me is Ms. St. Clair herself. Perfumers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, particularly the self-taught ones who make artisanal perfumes, but I’ve never encountered someone whose background is in gastronomy or luxury food. Nor have I ever encountered someone who is already an established rock star in their own world — nay, a superstar in their particular niche — who then decided to start from scratch in a completely new field, taking on the challenging, insular, and often exclusionary world of perfumery, learning and doing everything themselves from the ground-up, all without deep pockets or wealthy investors. Not until now, not until Diane St. Clair.
If there is any field which is a perfect parallel and breeding-ground for scent-creation, it has to be food. I’ve often said that really good “noses” are like the best chefs, creating layers of aroma like layers of flavour in food, building from the base up with rich accords just as chefs do with food accords consisting of rich stocks, spice blends, or more. The best chefs emphasize the highest quality natural ingredients and engage in labor-intensive practices to create the truest, richest, or deepest flavours, and so do good perfumers. While Ms. St. Clair isn’t an actual chef, she follows the same principles and philosophy in creating her gastronomic, epicurean sensation, and now she wants to do the same for fragrance with a perfume house which seeks to replicate the aromas, bouquets, and feel of her bucolic Vermont farm.
As you will see later on as my tale progresses, the richness and boldness of “flavour” wasn’t initially there with the St. Clair scents, at least not in my opinion, but the talent, skill, and technique certainly were and the debut collection was subsequently revised, post-release, to become something worth considering and trying. I’ll say at the outset that they’re not my personal thing for one reason or another, either a particular note, scent profile, or fresh airiness of feel (regular readers know how I like my Valkyrie powerhouses or heavy, dark attars), but the fragrances have some appealing or truly beautiful parts, are well done on a technical basis, are easy to wear, and I can see them interesting a wide swathe of perfumistas. (I will also say that, even if the current trio aren’t necessarily something I’d wear myself, the mods for her next perfume have blown my socks off and I will be the very first to buy the final version for myself.)
So, sit down, have a drink or some tea, and prepare to read about Ms. St. Clair’s long, fascinating journey from a teenage tomboy who didn’t really care about perfume to public health administrator, draft horse-woman, then the Michelin world’s Queen of Butter, budding fragrance enthusiast, perfumer-in-training and, now, a technically skilled artisan perfumer whose airy, seamless creations are likely to appeal to people who enjoy the feel, light weight, and elegant polish of fragrances like the sort put out by Neela Vermeire, Nobile 1942, Parfum d’Empire, or early Papillon, only these are softer nature-driven olfactory bouquets. The new trio consists of: a “gardener’s glove” leather with florals, citrus, fruits, chypre-ish and green elements, smoke, and saffron spice; a spiced floral-woody with campfire smoke, earth, and leather flourishes; and a fougère-ish, chypre-ish, green, hay, bucolic scent with dark oriental accents, including tobacco and immortelle. (There are more details on the fragrances, their notes, and their bouquets at the very end of this post.)
DIANE ST. CLAIR & THE EARLY YEARS — ANIMAL FARM, CHEF THOMAS KELLER & BECOMING THE QUEEN OF BUTTER:Diane St. Clair was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised by a single mother who was a fashionable interior designer. Her mother wore Chanel No. 5 but didn’t particularly care about fragrance; Ms. St. Clair was a tomboy who wore Revlon’s Charlie, a scent popular in the 1970s when she was a teenager, but she didn’t particularly care about bottled fragrance, either, although she always loved the natural aromas and scents of the world around her. After college, Ms. St. Clair moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked for a small non-profit organization associated with the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”). Eventually, she moved to London with her long-term partner, later husband, Kevin, a journalist, staying there for a number of years. In the 1980s, they returned to America, to New York City, where she obtained a Masters degree in Public Health at Columbia University. After graduation, she worked for the city’s Department of Public Health, focusing on women’s issues and pre-natal health services and rising through the ranks. It was the time when the A.I.D.S. crisis was just breaking out and, for five years, Ms. St. Clair was one of the many agency officials who sought to help individuals and communities dealing with the situation.
In the mid-1990s, Ms. St. Clair and her family moved to Vermont. She initially worked for the state’s public health department but, over time, she got fed up with the constant bureaucracy, red-tape, and politicization of issues, so she left, became a part-time consultant, and had her second child. Eventually, she decided that she preferred to be her own boss, but she went in quite an unexpected, unusual direction than one might expect: she bought a team of draft horses and apprenticed herself to a horse logger. (That’s someone who takes away felled timber or trees by horse.) Her horses would sometimes be hired to plow fields, which is partially how Ms. St. Clair later became involved with Vermont’s strong agricultural and farming industry.
At some point, circa 1999, she bought a farm. She’d always loved cows, so she bought one of those as well, a velvety-nosed Jersey cow. (She later told the New York Times that she gave up the horses after an accident left her with a broken leg and she concluded that “cows were safer” because they may kick you but, eventually, they stop.) Then, she decided to get certified in dairy production and bought two more Jerseys, a breed which isn’t traditionally used by farmers because they (along with Guernseys) produce a much smaller quantity of milk. However, according to Ms. St. Clair, what milk they do produce has the highest fat-content, as well as a richer, more complex taste because they process the keratin in their feed differently than regular cows. The final step was choosing a name and, since her farm was located in Orwell, Vermont, so she wittily named her new venture “Animal Farm.”
At the end of the 1990s, Vermont’s artisanal cheese scene was exploding, but she noticed that few people were making artisanal butter. While the artisanal cheeses were going for $10 a pound, or up, most of the butter which being produced went for only $3. Even so, that’s what Ms. St. Clair chose to focus on, except she decided that she was going to do things her way. First, she learnt everything that she could about her future field. She studied modern scientific methods but also historical ones, buying out-of-print books dating back to the late 1800s which described how farmers’ wives wrote made butter by hand. Some described the process and provided tips, like, for example, the heat-vs-coldness issues in culturing butter where you start in winter, putting the freshly drawn milk by the wood-burning stove overnight in order to ferment. Others recounted farm tips, like one book from 1875 which stated that the only way to make good butter is to treat your cows well and “to never raise your voice to your cow.”
Ms. St. Clair took their advice to heart (minus the pioneer woman wood-burning stove bit), and decided to focus on a very old-school method of butter production. Specifically, she wanted to make cultured (or fermented) butter — which, I’ve now learnt, is something completely different from the sort of butter produced by big manufacturers and sold in supermarkets — and to create it through a laborious, hand-intensive process that is roughly modeled on the 1800s approach and which is, again, different from the methods used by the big companies in the modern era.
According to a 2013 New York Times article on Ms. St. Clair (one of several articles on her, if I might add), cultured or fermented butter is essentially European-style, high-fat-content butter, but I won’t pretend to understand all the specifics of how exactly it’s made, not even after interviewing Ms. St. Clair at length. Suffice it to say, it took her more than 10 minutes on the telephone to describe merely a small fraction of the steps she follows: from cooling the milk in order to have the cream rise to the top; hand-separating the cream from the milk twice a day; pasteurizing the cream by hand every third day, then letting it sit with cultures until the cream is churned, resulting in popcorn-sized pieces of butter floating atop a vat of buttermilk; then pulling out those popcorn-sized bits, gently churning them together into a large mound which she subsequently hand-washes on marble slabs (similar to the sort used for baking or pasta-making), and so on. I feel tired merely describing this laborious process, so I cannot begin to imagine how much time and back-breaking work must be involved in actually making this butter from start to finish each week.
Not long after Ms. St. Clair launched her farm in 2000, one of the very best chefs in the world took a single taste of her butter and immediately told her that he would buy everything she produced. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with chefs or Haute Gastronomy, Thomas Keller is a giant with a global influence and seven Michelin stars: three for his world-renowned The French Laundry in Napa Valley (Yountville, California), three for his Per Se in New York City, and one for his casual, family-style Bouchon. In 2003 and 2004, his French Laundry was ranked the No. 1 restaurant in the world. Before and after that, it was consistently ranked in the world’s top ten or twenty, depending on year or survey. When he launched Per Se in 2004, that too shot up in the world rankings.
Thomas Keller isn’t just a big deal in America but also globally. It’s partially because he’s greatly respected by his European counterparts, several of whom he works with on a frequent collaborative basis, partly because he’s admired as a very courtly gentleman chef, and partly because he is also closely involved with the Bocuse d’Or, the culinary world’s version of the Olympics which takes place every two years. The recently deceased Paul Bocuse, one of the iconic fathers of modern French gastronomy, asked Thomas Keller to become President of the American division in 2009 as a personal favour to him. The exceptional, multiple Michelin-starred, French superstar chef, Daniel Boulud is also closely involved with the Bocuse d’Or USA Foundation, but it was Chef Keller who took an active mentorship and training role with the early American teams, resulting in their best placement in years. (If you’re a hardcore foodie, there is a riveting book called “Knives at Dawn: America’s Quest for Culinary Glory at the Bocuse d’Or, the World’s Most Prestigious Cooking Competition,” by New York Times-bestselling author, Andrew Friedman, that sweeps you through the grueling two-year training and the insane competition day of the 2009 Bocuse d’Or, complete with its large stadium of howling spectators ringing cowbells. The team, consisting of Keller’s own French Laundry chefs, won sixth place, the US’ first major placement in a long time.) And, last year, in 2017, America actually won the gold, which was pretty much astounding. Not only is the Bocuse d’Or is a great, big, bloody deal worldwide, but it is also typically won by Norway or France, so America’s win was akin to the U.S. Olympic hockey team defeating the Soviets in 1980. (The headline of the American foodie site, Eater, pretty much summed up my reaction to the news: “Holy Crap: The U.S. Team Actually Won The Bocuse d’Or.”)
Ms. St. Clair had just started her business when she wrote to Thomas Keller in 2000. Back then, she had three cows and made roughly 6 pounds of butter a week. In her email, she introduced herself, explained what she did, and asked if he might be interested in trying some butter. He said okay and asked her to Fed Ex him some. Two days later, she received an email from him stating: “I don’t know who you are and I don’t know how you make your butter, but this is the best butter I’ve ever had and I will buy everything you can make.”
Coming from someone of Thomas Keller’s stature, that is quite a statement, but it was only the beginning. Chef Keller created an actual “Bread and Butter” course on The French Laundry’s expensive tasting menus, listing “Diane St. Clair Animal Farm butter” by name. When he expanded his empire to open Per Se in 2004, he wanted her butter to go along with it and specifically asked her if she could get more cows in order to meet his needs. Ms. St. Clair answered, “Oui, Chef.” As a result, and to quote another New York Times article (“What Lulu Has and Thomas Keller Wants“): “Lulu [the cow] joined Pansy, Petra, Scooter, Lightning and Dyedee” in Ms. St. Clair’s small herd of plump, pampered Jerseys. Over time, Ms. St. Clair slowly expanded her herd even further, to 10 or 11 cows, and increased her production from her original 6 pounds a week to a current figure of roughly 100 pounds a week. (She also makes buttermilk, by the way.)
Word of her butter grew and grew from the mid-2000s onwards; other Michelin-starred chefs begged to buy it for their own restaurants; and there were a whole slew of magazine and newspaper articles devoted to it. For example, the New York Times wrote about her butter in positively lyrical fashion in the 2005 “Lulu” article referenced up above:
Even indoors the organic milk she uses seems to reflect the evening sun. When her cows are grazing on fresh grass, the butter is almost as bright as the dandelions in the fields. It is 87 percent butterfat, richer even than most European butters.
In 2014, the foodie site, Grub Street, had an article entitled “This Rare Butter Costs $49 Per Pound — and It’s Absolutely Worth It,” and last year, Saveur, America’s foodie magazine bible, called it “the creamiest, most coveted [butter] on earth” in an article entitled “Is The World’s Best Butter Worth 50 dollars A Pound?” (To be precise, it’s actually $65 a pound now. Both numbers, however, are a far cry from the $3 a pound price that regular butters went for when Ms. St. Clair first started, but then, as you might have gathered by now, hers is no ordinary butter.)
The Saveur article was written by a self-described “butter zealot,” butter obsessive, and butter aficionado, Alex Halberstadt, who has apparently spent years studying and eating butter around the world, including the top European creameries in Brittany and the U.K. His expert conclusion was that Animal Farm butter was something exceptional. He wrote, in part:
Her butter was the most intense I’d tasted. It had a consistency reminiscent of great vanilla ice cream and a long, worrying finish. Like many artists, behind a nonchalant façade St. Clair happens to be competitive and proud, and alongside her butter she brought out a stick from a well-known Vermont creamery. Comparatively, it tasted like a votive candle. “There’s no secret technique to doing this,” she said. She believes that a good butter is nothing more or less than a reflection of its time and place, “a seasonal product that proudly proclaims where it was made.” Butter churned in spring—when cows graze on new grass—has the deepest color and flavor. In autumn the cows consume hay as well as grass, making for a muted but richer product.
I had the unexpected privilege of trying Ms. St. Clair’s winter crop of butter and it is everything they say, and more. It really did have the richness, thick mouth-feel, and lingering finish of extra-rich vanilla ice-cream, not to mention a delectable egg-yolk-like ice-cream or custard aroma. The butter is so rich and so high-fat in content that, even after leaving one of the balls out for two days in a covered butter dish, it still hasn’t dissolved into mushiness, lost its shape, or turned gooey. I made a meal of it one night, slathered over hot, toasty Ciabatta bread and paired with a glass of good red wine, and it was utterly perfect. (You can click on the photos below to expand them to full size.)
In case you’re salivating by now, I’m sorry to say that regular human beings like you and me cannot buy this butter on a general basis. Alas, no. Outside of a handful of fine-dining restaurants (one of which, Per Se, will set you back an arm, a leg, and possibly both kidneys), the butter is available at the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op which gets a couple of pounds a week, but you can only buy it in-store because the Co-op does not take online orders or ship items. Apart from that, a small amount of the butter is sold twice a year at New York’s Saxelby Cheesemongers, usually around Thanksgiving, Christmas, or January when The French Laundry and Per Se are on hiatus. Saxelby’s pre-announces the dates of its Animal Farm sales, and the butter is sold on a first-come, first-serve basis. It usually sells out in under an hour.
But it’s not only the general public who can’t easily avail themselves of this epicurean delight; some of the most famous chefs in the world can’t get their hands on it, either. There are a select handful outside of Thomas Keller — like Chef Barbara Lynch who was named by Time Magazine in 2017 as one of the 100 most influential people of the year — but limited quantities and a large, weekly standing order by the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group for a big chunk of the output mean that requests by many top chefs have to be regretfully declined.
One of the latter was Grant Achatz, the three-Michelin superstar behind Chicago’s Alinea which is typically ranked in the top 10 of the best restaurants in the world, depending on the survey or the year. When I read an article (“The Story Behind One of America’s Most Coveted Butters“) which mentioned that Grant Achatz of all people was declined, I practically fell out of my chair. If Thomas Keller is the Moses of the American Haute Gastronomy scene, then Grant Achatz is akin to Picasso, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Hemingway, all rolled up into one. I cannot imagine what it would be like to make such a hot product that one has to regretfully turn down Grant bloody Achatz; it’s simply too much for my mind to compute.
For Ms. St. Clair, however, it has nothing to do with a “hot product” and everything to do with what was best for her beloved cows. When I wrote to Ms. St. Clair in stunned disbelief at reading that she turned down Alinea in 2006 (she herself is far too modest to ever mention such a thing), she explained that her supply limitations were driven by the small number of cows, her concern for their well-being, and her philosophy towards artisanal production. She explained that:
I just did not have room in my barn for another cow. My goal is to have a farm on a scale that allows me to know every single cow and not to miss a thing that is going on with her everyday. My cows are not widgets in a system. I want happy, healthy cows that produce high quality milk and thus, fantastic butter. I want them to feel appreciated every day. And if you get too big, that model doesn’t work, at least not for me.
So it’s not only an intentionally small-scale artisanal model, but it is also one which is driven by a genuine love of animals. You can see in the photos on Animal Farm’s Facebook page how much Ms. St. Clair loves her cows and their calves, and how contented they look. Even the Saveur journalist noticed and wrote about her attentiveness to what he called her “oversize children”:
After I met the 11 buff Jerseys grazing behind her 19th-century farmhouse, it became clear that for her they were not livestock but pets, or possibly oversize children. While talking in St. Clair’s living room, which looks out onto her pasture, she fixed one cow with a worried stare. Her husband, Alan, a large-animal veterinarian, sat beside her. “Does she look upset to you?” St. Clair asked him.
Plus, as Ms. St. Clair’s statement to me indirectly referenced, animal husbandry studies show that happy, healthy, stress-free livestock produce better-tasting meat, eggs, and dairy, so her approach clearly plays a role in the quality of her butter.
I wanted to share one final Thomas Keller/Diane St. Clair story before I move onto to perfumery because it makes me laugh to no end. The chef came to the farm one day with a photographer who was going to shoot photos of the butter for one of Keller’s upcoming books and with an invitation to stay for dinner afterwards. It turns out that Ms. St. Clair has a cow named in his honour, and when Keller the Cow met Keller the Chef, it was love at first sight. On both their parts, it seems. The human interacted with his four-legged namesake in such a gentle, affectionate way that the huge cow ended up following him all around the farm like an adoring puppy. That night, when Ms. St. Clair and her husband were getting ready to cook dinner for the chef, with some trepidation I might add (it’s Thomas bloody Keller!), suddenly, one of the culinary world’s mega-stars got up, started peeling the Brussels sprouts, delicately carving them, then mashing the potatoes with loads of butter and, eventually, just taking over her small kitchen completely and cooking everything himself. While the story makes me laugh, can you imagine having a seven Michelin-star chef and the President of Bocuse d’Or America puttering around your kitchen and cooking for you?! I’m generally not the envious sort but, this, this turns me pea-green, verging on a robust shade of emerald.
THE PERFUME YEARS — LEARNING, STUDYING & CREATING ST. CLAIR SCENTS:
What do you do when you’ve reached the pinnacle of your field? If you’re Diane St. Clair, someone driven, perfectionistic, and with the need for constant intellectual challenges, then you find a completely new area to try to master. In her case, it was perfume and perfume-creation.
Though Ms. St. Clair had no deeply rooted background in wearing fragrance, she told me that she had always been deeply appreciative of the natural smells and aromas of the world around her. She’d long loved the scent of grass, greenness, dirt, flowers in the garden, rain in the air, and even her cows. But, even if bottled scents had not been a major interest of hers in the past, she did have some familiarity with them: Charlie, the popular, crisp, fresh, aldehydic green floral of her teenage years later gave way to Chanel No. 19 in college and then to “hippie musky things,” sandalwood oils, or non-commercial brands.
In 2012, she decided to explore this world further. One of the things which had always interested her was the method by which scent was made, structured, and developed. Since she’s the sort who always does her research on a topic first, she began by reading blogs, like Perfume Shrine articles on a particular raw material or one of Bois de Jasmin‘s monthly posts where readers help someone who is looking for a particular type of fragrance. She eventually started testing some of the fragrances that she’d read about, ordering samples from Surrender to Chance and eventually dipping her toe into niche. By late 2013, she decided she wanted to learn how to make perfume and, one day, to have her own perfume brand.
The traditional methods for learning how to make perfume are not really feasible for someone who is obligated to stay in one place. With a thriving, successful business dependent on the daily routine of a farm and with obligations to her cows (who simply must be milked every day), Ms. St. Clair didn’t have the option of enlisting in one of the week-long artisan courses offered by some perfumers, let alone flying off to Grasse to take an expensive year-long course at the school there. She wrote to some indie perfumers to inquire whether they would be willing to work with her long-distance but was told that would be impossible.
One day, however, she read a Sonoma Scent Studio blog post by Laurie Erickson on how to make perfume, which included the name of a professional “nose” who offered independent classes in New York City: Eliza Douglas. Ms. Douglas had been trained in Grasse and had worked with Frederic Malle, then with the avant-garde nose, Christophe Laudamiel. At that time, Ms. Douglas was based in New York and offered three-hour classes that covered different aspects of perfumery in the classical approach, starting with the basics, like how to know your ingredients, what things smell like, and then how to construct an accord.
Ms. St. Clair took one of the classes in person, then approached Ms. Douglas about teaching her long-distance and Ms. Douglas agreed. What followed was roughly four years of instruction with detailed homework assignments on scent (both natural and aromachemical) and how to structure or layer materials to make a well-composed, technically sound fragrance. Ms. Douglas taught perfumery by accord. To give just one of the most basic examples that Diane shared with me: how to make a citrus accord and what possible ingredients could be in different variations thereof. Diane would make six or seven different versions of a certain accord, send them off to be evaluated, and then have long Skype sessions where student and perfumer would discuss the results of each one at great length: the choices which were made and why, how things smelled, and how they might be improved.
Eliza Douglas was her teacher, but two mentors helped along the way, sniffing her mods and providing feedback: Christophe Laudamiel and Luca Turin. If you’re unfamiliar with Christophe Laudamiel, he is a brilliant chap who initially studied chemistry at Harvard and MIT before getting a degree in perfumery, working for IFF or alongside other famous noses, and then starting his own perfume house, DreamAir. He’s created some well-known designer fragrances (for example, Ralph Lauren’s Polo Blue) and some niche ones (Wikipedia credits him with Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute) but he’s also known in the niche world for making the extremely rare, limited-edition fragrance collection based on Patrick Suskind’s famous novel, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. (If you’re interested in learning more about Suskind’s book and Laudamiel’s creations, you can read an old article of mine on the subject: Patrick Suskind’s “Perfume” & Its Impact on Actual Perfume Creation.)
Ms. Clair talks about some of her mentors’ advice on the Mentor page of her St. Clair website and how it impacted her technical growth. For example:
Christophe generously agreed to smell my work in progress and offer his critiques. His criticism often sent me back to the drawing board, but his most valuable piece of advice to me was to ask if I thought I had found “the nerve” of the story I was trying to create in my finished scent. If not, I should remove the clutter of notes that were getting in the way of capturing the heart of my scent. This gave me a very important tool to use as I continue to assess my future work.
In the case of Luca Turin, Ms. St. Clair says one particular piece of advice became the “credo” by which she often judges her work as it develops. He told her:
To advise you on an artistic direction, I would say to think about your perfumes as characters in a novel. You need to give them flaws–a scar down the cheek, a sudden flare of temper, an odd, quavery voice. Then they can become truly beautiful.
If it’s difficult for a geographically restricted fragrance outsider to learn the techniques needed to compose good, structurally sound fragrances, but there are a whole other set of challenges involved in starting one’s own perfume house when one doesn’t have deep pockets or wealthy investors. One of the greatest problems is that indie artisans are frequently limited in their access to the top raw materials; another is the difficulty of engaging in economies of scale. I’ve talked about both those things in the past in Part II of my profile on Liz Moores of Papillon Perfumes like, for example, the technical or logistical difficulty of obtaining top-quality perfume essences and materials when most suppliers have Minimum Order Quantity (MOQ) requirements. They won’t sell to you unless you buy large quantities, typically starting at a thousand pounds or dollars per item. Some small high-end companies, like New York’s famous Enfleurage, were usually too expensive to be practical for all Ms. St. Clair’s needs, but she found help at the Perfumer Supply House whose owner, Christine, sells more affordable, good-quality naturals and aromachemicals from the best companies, including Robertet, Synarome, IFF, and Firmenich. She sourced other materials from Hermitage Oils, White Lotus, or Eden Botanicals.
The “Minimum Order Quantity” problem reared its head again when Ms. St. Clair was facing a more mundane logistical part of starting her own brand: buying the actual bottles and their parts. One of the things that has long amazed me is just how much indie artisans end up spending on something which few of us usually give much thought to: the atomizer tubing and spray within a bottle. I’ve heard some crazy numbers, but the price is driven by the fact that artisans usually buy in small quantities and cannot afford the large-scale, mass orders of the big houses, so they’re unable to engage in economies of scales. The same problem exists when it comes to buying the actual perfume bottles and their boxes. Eventually, however, Ms. St. Clair found a branding firm willing to work with her on everything from her logo and her website to some of her logistical needs, like finding bottles in small sizes (13 ml, found in Germany) and at a price which would fit her budget.
In late January 2018, Ms. St. Clair launched her perfume house, St. Clair Scents, with three fragrances: Frost, First Cut, and Gardener’s Glove. Then, she wrote to various bloggers to introduce herself and to ask whether they might be interested in sniffing her fragrances, writing about them, or providing feedback. I was one of those bloggers.
THE PERFUMER, THE BLOGGER, THE GERMAN SHEPHERDS & THE PERFUME REVISIONS:
It’s at this point in the tale that I have to make a personal digression. There are certain things I love passionately and obsessively, and you might be surprised to hear that fragrance is actually not high on that list. Far from it. The things which make me alight with fervor and with the passion of a small child at Christmas include: history, German Shepherds (“GSDs”), gastronomy, German Shepherds, photography, history, German Shepherds, gastronomy, politics, Supreme Court decisions, Michelin chefs, German Shepherds, and, well, you get the idea. The repetitions are intentional, but they are also quite accurate.
Once in a blue moon, by rare fortuitous chance, a fewl of my interests collide or converge, which was the case in late January when I received an email from someone called Diane St. Clair. In it, she talked about how she was a dairy farmer in Vermont, made artisanal butter, had studied to learn how to make perfumes, and had a new trio of fragrances which she’d just launched. The email went on to say that she was: “an outsider in an ‘insider’ industry, but forging ahead nevertheless. It is a bit daunting and crazily competitive, but you only live once. I’m following my nose.” She asked, would I be interested in sniffing them, possibly writing about them, or merely providing some feedback?
Buried within the completely modest, self-effacing text was a passing mention of how her butter was carried by Chefs Thomas Keller and Barbara Lynch, and a few other fine-dining establishments. Then, at the end, were two sentences which I doubt any other blogger received in their similar outreach emails: Ms. St. Clair was a German Shepherd person. In fact, she had two Teutonic Overlords, and she was just as passionate about the breed as I was. I receive a lot of emails each week from fragrance companies or every day perfume lovers but, if you recall my list of passions, you’ll understand why this particular email made me sit up.
When I tried Ms. St. Clair’s initial trio of fragrances, however, I wasn’t blown away. They were fine, pretty, and technically well constructed, but I’ll be honest and say I shrugged a little when I smelled them the way they were back then upon their January launch. There were a variety of reasons why: performance issues, olfactory timidity, elusiveness of certain note aspects, weak note delineation, anemia, occasionally too much abstraction as a modern stylistic or technical approach, and also, for me, insufficient richness to create a truly strong, robust character.
Plus, I had a major problem right from the start with the fact that the trio were originally described and classified as “extraits” with 15% concentration. Back in January and February, her website had only a handful of sentences describing each scent, no note list, and only a passing mention of their fragrance concentration and classification — and that 15% stood out. I remember reading it and sharply raising an eyebrow. As a general, technical rule of thumb, 15% is right at the borderline of the concentration levels for either an eau de toilette (typically 10% to 15% concentration) or an eau de parfum (15% to 20% or 22%), while an extrait is usually 22% and up.
The original versions that I tested were nowhere close to being an “extrait” in feel or performance. At best, they wore like a moderate eau de toilette or perhaps a very strong eau de cologne. I remember testing one of them and having to double, then triple my standard testing scent quantity in order to detect its individual notes or just its presence, period, as it developed.
So, I declined to review them. Not every fragrance that I cover is my personal thing (far from it in fact), but it’s a rule of mine that I never write tepid reviews, let alone bluntly negative ones, for brand-new, indie start-up firms which have no backing, no deep-pocket investors, no powerful marketing arm, no press, and, just as importantly, no endless groundswell of rave, gushing, one-sided reviews from the online perfumista community. In those particular circumstances, when a blogger with any sort of moderate following writes even a tactfully diplomatic, lukewarm review, it can deleteriously impact someone’s livelihood and, as such, it’s arguably unethical, can smack of bullying, and, by my standards, is just plain wrong. Since I won’t lie about what I think, I simply stay silent instead and write nothing.
But Ms. St. Clair is a hardcore German Shepherd person and that plays role in this story, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I explain. German Shepherd people are not like other dog people. We don’t just love our personal furry ones; we frequently worship the breed as a whole — passionately, zealously, and in what I admit is occasionally a cult-like fashion. I’ve owned more than ten different breeds in my lifetime and I surround myself with animal lovers but, in my experience, GSD people are obsessive at a whole other level, though my brothers and sisters in the closely related, rival world of Belgian (Malinois) shepherds sometimes come close. In both cases, our dogs and their time-consuming needs become a major force in how we live our lives. It’s probably because they have been bred to be intense working dogs rather than mere house pets and you must therefore keep them trained and engaged if you don’t want to end up with a destructive loaded gun.
That’s one reason why we’re so tightly bonded, but why we worship the breed goes beyond that. GSDs have an exceptional level of intelligence, proven by studies to be amongst the very highest in the canine world which, when combined with their temperament and discipline, means GSDs are trainable in the greatest range of work of any dog. They can be anything from fierce military dogs rappelling out of helicopters with Special Forces teams to bomb/drug/IED-detectors to docile, comforting therapy or gentle eye-seeing dogs. They can even be trained to sweep floors, put plates in the dishwasher, or use a human toilet and then flush it. (I can link you to the YouTube videos, if you don’t believe me). GSDs are fiercely protective of their people, following them everywhere like glue and watching over them to the point that they’re often nicknamed “velcro dogs;” they’re fantastic, gentle, and loving with babies and children in their family; they have extensive vocabularies (or understanding of words) which can reach up to 250 words (or higher); and they’re immensely interactive dogs who can be quite vocal about sharing their opinions or responses. When all of that is combined with their complex, intense characters, well, the end result makes them seem practically human, to us at least, and it creates a profound obsession.
That obsessive passion creates a connection between hardcore German Shepherd people to a degree which, in my opinion, very few other breed owners have except, perhaps, Malinois and dressage horse people. They, too, have expensive “fur-children” which require extensive training and daily working interaction, resulting in particularly intense bonds. And, like them, GSD people also have their own separate language which signals membership in this particular cult: Schutzhund (SchH 1, 2, or 3); IPO; KKL or Kkl (Koerklasse); VA (Vorzüglich-Select); BH; East German/DDR vs. West German or Czech or American; working lines vs. show lines; high-prey drive; bite work; Siegers or World Siegers; A-stamps or Penn Hips; rear angulation; “cockroach backs;” and so much more.
I knew from the moment I read Ms. St. Clair’s second email to me, long before I had ever actually tried one of her fragrances, that she spoke my language and that I had met one of my people. In her second email, she elaborated on her dogs, mentioning how one of them, Shen, was from SchH 3 and East German lines while another was an American GSD. I did a double-take at the words and just beamed. Since then, I think we’ve actually talked about German Shepherds as much as we have about fragrance, possibly more. While it would be facetious and overly simplistic to write “German Shepherd fanatics unite,” there is a large kernel of truth in that and I’m honest enough to say so candidly.
Since German Shepherd people have ties which bind, I sought to help Ms. St. Clair as best as I could on the fragrance front. Though I wouldn’t write an actual review, I tried to do the next best thing by providing extensive and detailed feedback, suggestions, and recommendations on everything from technical note stuff to compositional structuring, fragrance marketing, concentration levels, industry trends, website listings, and more. I’ve worked and emailed with her over the last two and half months and, in the process, I’ve gotten to know her quite well. The more I learnt, the more fascinated and intrigued I became — and it wasn’t because of our Teutonic Overlords, by the way. Quite simply, for reasons that I’ve tried to make clear throughout the first half of this profile, Ms. St. Clair is one of the most interesting, intriguing people I’ve come across in a while.
Even so, I have to emphasize that it would not have been enough to make me write about her (let alone in the sort of detail that I’m doing today) had she not revised two of her three fragrances: one in small ways; another in more significant fashion; increased their concentration levels; and also reclassified all three in terms of fragrance type. Ms. St. Clair is a perfectionist who wants to learn everything she can, who wants to make the very best scents she can, but she was also someone who was also willing to listen to technical advice, and then take the gutsy, unusual move of revising two of her fragrances 6 weeks after their original launch in January. For me, that made a huge difference, not only to the actual scent of one of them, Gardener’s Glove, but also in how two of them performed and, as a result, in my confidence to endorse them.
I think the changes will make a difference in how others see the fragrances as well. The original St. Clair trio had a fair-to-good review from Jessica on Now Smell This on March 1st. The revised scents got a glowing review at the end of March from Robert Hermann on CaFleureBon, particularly Gardener’s Glove which he loved most of all.
A PREVIEW OF THE PARTIALLY REVISED & CHANGED TRIO:
I’ll cover all three fragrances in great detail next time, in Part II, but I thought I’d provide an early peek at them today with brief scent descriptions and their note lists. (I pretty much insisted that Ms. St. Clair add the note to her website because I know what perfumistas want or expect, even if many perfumers hate the lists because they want people to simply live and feel the scent experience.)
Gardener’s Glove has been revised the most since its debut. It’s had its note structure tweaked, certain accords strengthened and emphasized, and its concentration raised to 25% which is now, objectively, a proper extrait by all technical standards. Let me warn you, however, that it wears like an eau de parfum at the middle point in that range and that its sillage is moderate to low, depending on how much you apply.
The fragrance is described as follows:
If you work amidst the thorn and bramble, you know that the gardener’s glove is a soft, pliable leather, worn down from work, in all the right places.
The scent carries the background fragrance of the glove—tanned, aged leather, woods and soil—along with the ambrosial elements of the garden—sumptuous jasmines, roses, green blossoms and ripe fruit.
Top Notes: Meyer Lemon, Tomato Leaf Absolute, Galbanum, Bergamot
Middle Notes: Jasmine Sambac Absolute, Jasmine Organic Extract, Apricot, Black Currant Bud Absolute, Linden Blossom, Lily, Rose Absolute
Base Notes: Leather, Saffron, Patchouli, Ambers, Vetiver, Benzoin Resin, Castoreum, Fir Needle
Gardener’s Glove starts off as a literal rendition of its namesake, then briefly turns into a floral-driven bouquet that is led by an utterly superb honeysuckle accord as well as fruity roses, jasmine, red berries, grass, patchouli-ish earth, and chypre-ish accents. “Honeysuckle” is not a flower which can be distilled into essential oils for perfumery, and perfume notes by that name are always accords that have been constructed from other elements or poor synthetics. I’m being quite serious when I say that the note in Gardener’s Glove is the single best and most authentic, naturalistic “honeysuckle” that I have ever encountered. Simply exceptional. (It’s also in Frost, although insignificantly lighter and more muted fashion.
Gardener’s Glove longest and main phase on my skin, however, is neither the titular glove nor a floral-driven scent. Instead, it is centered almost entirely on a smoky, spicy, somewhat dry (and occasionally slightly masculine) leather composed out of saffron and a birch-tar like note. The honeysuckle, rose, and jasmine are initially woven around it, but the supporting elements soon turn abstract, thereafter wafting simple, muted streaks of sweet, syrupy floralcy, wood smoke, earthiness, and resins. Then, the whole thing dissolves into a simple smoky leather, albeit one with a subtle (but lovely) velvety plushness in its textural feel.
Let’s move onto Frost, which is a tribute to the poet, Robert Frost. According to the St. Clair website, it follows:
the story of his poem, “To Earthward,” which describes the transformation of youthful love, from “sweet like the petals of the rose” and “sprays of honeysuckle” to painful love, which stings like “bitter bark”, “burning clove” and “rough earth.”
The fragrance is similar to what is described: a spicy, floral-laced woody scent with a gorgeous honeysuckle note, other florals, clove, earth, “bitter bark,” and campfire smoke. It, too, has a floral-leather stage on my skin. The new version has been revised to be stronger and richer, and its concentration is now at 20%. While that is technically in extrait territory, I find that it still wears like a moderate eau de toilette or perhaps a really robust, strong cologne. If Frost were bolder and had big sillage, I would instantly buy it for myself because I really love its juxtapositions of light and dark, its utterly addictive and heady honeysuckle aroma paired with cade-and-birch-like campfire smoke, spicy woods, and dark, sweet, patchouli-like earth.
Oddly enough, a number of those aromas do not match what’s actually on the note list. With two of her fragrances, Ms. St. Clair manages olfactory sleights-of-hand where she structures and composes her materials in such a way that they tend to undergo an alchemical transformation and end up smelling like something quite different than the actual material. This is one of those scents. (Gardener’s Glove is the other.) In both cases, the note list doesn’t mirror exactly what appears on my skin. Frost‘s official note list is:
Top Notes: Bergamot, Mandarin Yellow and Green, Coriander, Petitgrain sur fleur, Meyer Lemon
Middle Notes: Honeysuckle Accord, Rose Geranium, Elderflower Absolute, Petitgrain Absolute
Base Notes: Cistus, Labdanum Absolute, Vanilla Absolute, Vetiver , Cedar, Smoke, Clove Absolute.
The final fragrance, First Cut, is a fougère-chypre-hay fragrance which plants you right in the great outdoors on a sunny day. The note list is:
Top Notes: Bergamot, Yuzu, Rosemary, Basil, Tomato Leaf Absolute
Middle Notes: Lavender Absolute, Rose De Mai, Rose Geranium, Immortelle Absolute
Base Notes: Hay Absolute, Tobacco Absolute, Oakmoss, Vanilla Absolute
Initially, First Cut transports you to a citrus, herb, and lavender garden adjacent to sun-dappled fields filled with sweet hay, freshly cut grass, chypre-ish mossy greenness, and soft earth. Slowly, inch by inch, the landscape changes, dissolving into a hay-field where the bales are slick with a sweet-dry syrup composed of immortelle, dark tobacco, vanilla, and a pinch of soft, abstract grassy greenness. The summer’s breeze blows soft wisps of aromatic lavender your way but never enough to distract from what is a rather delectable hay-immortelle-tobacco-vanilla accord. Crazy as it sounds, the latter smells to me a hell of a lot like the accord in Serge Lutens‘ Chergui before the latter was gutted, reformulated, and diluted. When taken as a whole, the two fragrances are hardly identical because First Cut has definite fougere, herbal, citrus, and grass elements which Chergui lacks, but the central accord at the heart of both fragrances is similar enough to be really appealing. I absolutely loved that part of First Cut. I simply struggle enormously with the fragrance’s softness, lightness, and discreetness. But those issues are completely personal and subjective matters of taste preference; they have no bearing on the objective issue of whether a fragrance is well made. And First Cut, like the others, definitely is.
While the trio may not suit my personal style, I’m certain that they will find quite a few admirers amongst those who don’t mind soft, light fragrances. I think two of them, Frost and Gardener’s Glove, would appeal to people who love floral leathers or floral-woody scents with the airy feel, polish, and easy elegance of fragrances like the sort put out by Neela Vermeire, Nobile 1942 (eau de toilettes), early Papillon, April Aromatics, or Parfum d’Empire. I’m not saying they’re identical in aroma, because they’re obviously not, but they do wear the same way on my skin, have a similar technical seamlessness. and a similar airy feel. The third fragrance, First Cut, will initially appeal to green/chypre lovers of Aftelier‘s Bergamoss and La Via del Profumo/AbdesSalaam Attar‘s Tarzan/Oakmoss/Muschio, then later to fans of the hay/grass/fougère aspects of Dusita‘s Issara and the hay-tobacco-immortelle aspect of Chergui (original version).
Next time, in Part II, I’ll provide proper, actual reviews for all three fragrances with detailed, in-depth scent descriptions and development breakdowns. There will also be a brief discussion of how different fragrance quantity applications impact their character and performance. See you then.
Disclosure: My perfume samples and Animal Farm butter were kindly provided by Ms. St. Clair. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.