We first discovered Perfumera Curandera on a weekend trip to Woodstock and were immediately drawn to their rich, complicated scents packaged in precious tinctures. Handcrafted in the Catskills by husband and wife duo Leanne Hirsch and Jackie Bobrowky, the organic perfumes are made of natural, exotic, and magical essences from around the world. Here they share with us how they got started, what exactly goes into creating a perfume, the history of scent, and the challenges of collaboration.
Leanne, how did you get into styling? What did you like about that career and what parts of it didn’t you like?
After leaving school I worked as a prop/costume stylist’s assistant in London when I was 18, and then worked as a studio manager for 2 photographers. I had to book the hair and make up and stylists and one day when the make up artist didn’t come, I had to do makeup for the shoot. It opened something creative in me which I decided to explore as I was already connected to that world through the studio. I took a 6 month fashion make up course, then spent the next few years unlearning everything they taught me at the school as it had nothing to do with what was going on editorially in those days. I loved the freedom of those early creative days in London, one of my first test shoots was with the then 14 year old Naomi Campbell. I remember saying to the photographer then, this girl is going to be a star!
I love being part of a team of talented creative people, doing something different on every job, making people feel good, the intimacy of working with models, celebrities and real people. It’s always an adventure! It’s a source of constant growth and learning as therapist/mother/sister and my focus on wellness and spirituality.
How did the two of you meet and begin traveling together?
We met while both living in LA in the early 90’s. I was in a convertible and he was in an SUV with a mutual friend. We were cruising along the whole length of Fairfax from the beach to Sunset and stopping at every traffic light talking and laughing. We all ended up going for a late night coffee on Sunset, back then I still drank espresso, he had Chamomile tea and was a vegan! We went night swimming and to watch the sunrise, such carefree days!
A few days later he took me to watch him surf, I was smitten. We stayed in LA for a couple more years and moved to New York in 1992, and when not working we took camping surf trips to Costa Rica and Mexico. We travelled to Peru to visit his family and began to explore all his favorite places. He proposed 25 yrs ago in a tiny fishermans town in the North of Peru where he began surfing as a teenager. It was the beginning of many wonderful adventures!
In the beginning were you traveling together just out of a love of traveling or was it for your careers?
We always loved to get away from the city, Jackie was a music producer then and mostly stuck in a small studio with padded walls. As a life long surfer he was always yearning for the ocean and before having children we had more freedom to take trips. I had always travelled for work as a makeup artist and fell in love with Peru on our first visit to his family. We first went to the Amazon together when our son was 2.
Jackie has always wanted to open a retreat center in the Andes to bring groups from here to work with the shamans and medicinal plants. As the kids grow up here and life became so busy that has become less of a reality for now, but as Perfumera grows and with Jackie’s frequent travel trips we have lots of potential ideas and hopefully opportunities to spend more quality time there will open up.
When did you first conceive of the idea for Perfumera Curandera?
My background is in exploring healing modalities such as wellness and yoga and natural beauty. In my early 20s I worked with an aromatherapist in London who introduced me to many wonderful things like chi gung, shiatsu, and acupuncture with oils. So when I would travel for work, I would collect oils from exotic places and bring them back for both of us. I loved to make my own blends for myself and others and was always getting compliments about them.
In the late 90’s, when my son was born, I launched an all natural organic seaweed based skincare line, Hirsh Skincare, that grew to be in 45 stores including Bergdorf Goodman and in Europe and Asia. I always intended to create perfume as an extension of the line but never got around to doing it. I made some tiny batches and sold them at a few of the stores that carried my skincare line, but was never able to devote myself to it fully.
We moved up here when our daughter was 1 and a half. Living here gave me the mental space to let my creativity flow again and coincided with our beginning to work on developing the oils from the Amazon. We had a great old barn garage in our first house here, and that became my first perfume lab. It was such a magical and sacred space and I would go there at night when the kids were asleep and tinker around with scent. It was heavenly.
Over those early Woodstock years Jackie had stopped doing commercial music production and focused more on his own shamanic path more, bringing the shamans and their medicinal and musical traditions here, he was organizing retreats and ceremonies here and there in Peru with groups of people every few months. Through his work he became especially drawn to certain plants for their healing properties and the aromas of their raw materials. He has always also had a great nose for scent, when we first met I loved his signature vetiver and sandalwood combo that he wore. He met a renowned Peruvian ethnobotanist from a university in the Amazon, through one of the shamans we work with and developed a close relationship with him and he has become our mentor and chemist. His vast knowledge and expertise is mostly directed towards the medicinal qualities of native plants and we have used his extracts for many years for ourselves and family and friends. He and Jackie were both inspired by the aromatherapeutic aspects of these materials and with Jackie’s urging he began to work on extracting small amounts of aromatic essences for us.
When the first batch of essential oils and essences arrived from the Amazon in recycled brown plastic medicine bottles with the latin names handwritten on them in white with such compelling and subtly powerful aromas, I was very excited and began to explore combinations and formulas and perfume chords with them. I felt subtly and deeply affected by them and my longtime desire to make perfumes came to be through Perfumera Curandera Healing Perfumes.
Initially the idea was to create Peruvian Amazonian essential oils for our own use and eventually to market them to the Aromatherapy and Natural Perfume world for their healing and aromatic properties and with the intention to spend more time in the Amazon and Peru in general. This is something we still want to explore as we grow once we can produce large enough quantities.
How did you start the company – did you both do it on the side of other careers at first or did you leave what you were doing and concentrate fully on Perfumera Curandera right from the start?
From having the experience with my skincare company, Hirsh Skincare, I swore I would never again work from home running a business, without a business plan or money behind me, while still working at my career. And yet here we are again – starting on a shoestring from a vision and a passion and trying to keep it all going. The biggest challenge is to find the time to make perfume, I find too much of my time is spent in front of the computer!
With two children and us both having freelance careers that involve travel we juggle a lot and are hoping to be able to grow and find some balance. Spend more time with the family and make more perfumes.
What is the first step in creating a scent, how do you begin?
I like to spend time pottering to prepare my studio, burn some Sage or Palo Santo and Eucalyptus to clear the space, play my bone and feather flutes to ground myself. I pick out all my oils and tinctures and raw materials for a specific formula. Ideally I have complete space and quiet, (which can be the most challenging aspect, working from a home studio).
I make some seasonal herbal tea (right now for fall it’s Chaga mushroom tea or nettles and oatstraw with red clover blossoms ), I get out my notebooks, and like to look back at my notes from previous batches for reference. I lay out all my materials – beakers pipettes, essential oils, and various crystals and vessels.
I usually try to make 5 separate batches of one scent at a time. This involves noting down everything I do to each batch as I go along, which only works when I am uninterrupted. It is such a focused and concentrated process. My perfumes have approximately 25 to 30 ingredients and upwards in each batch, so it is essential to keep track and make note of everything as I do it. As each essence goes in, I enjoy watching how they interact with the carrier and how each brings subtle changes of colour and depth and aroma.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
An idea for a particular scent can come from where I have been, intrigued by a special something in the air or the local flora and fauna. The particular colours and scent of the flowers and trees and herbs of a place all create a feeling I try to describe through my perfumes. It’s wrapped up in my particular state of mind at the time, as I imagine combinations by surrendering to the aromas and letting them guide my process. Also by my daily walks, something I just read, a poem, a painting, a dream, a season. It’s definitely an alchemical process and to allow that takes time, patience and going with the flow.
The scent of the mountain streams running over lichen and moss covered rocks, of first snow and woodsmoke, of cherry blossom and lilac and snowdrops, of fresh mown grass, herbs drying in my studio – all are the beginning of exploration and creation.
I am drawn to gather the first violets and make tinctures. More violets than ever seem to be growing around me the more I use them, and these tinctures are in the base for the perfumes. Motherwort is all over my garden and I tincture her soothing medicine, as well as abundant nettles and dandelions, red clover blossoms and rose hips, tulsi, chamomile, lemon balm and mint. Lavender, sage, calendula, rosemary for teas. They give way to the autumnal leaves and velvety rust coloured sumac, barks seeds, and mushrooms complex aromas that mingle with the changing air. I love how Mother Nature and the plants communicate in such subtle ways, to connect with us in every season, guiding us, offering us the perfect medicine we need at the time.
Tell us a bit about the healing properties of your perfumes?
During my years of participating in healing ceremonies with shamans and the plant medicine traditions, I experienced the most divine scents that would appear as the shaman called in or sung to the plant spirits with their Ikaros. The scents were so incredible and elusive and brought about a state of absolute peace and contentment. Ikaros (the word comes from the Quechua IKARAY meaning to blow smoke) are healing songs that are given to the curandero/shaman by the spirits of the plants themselves. They are sung, blown or whistled and are very powerful in themselves. The spirit world responds to sound and scent and the shamans use fragrant smoke and perfumed waters and singing to help the participants through difficult parts of the journey and to appease the spirits and please them. These experiences had a profound effect on my psyche and I have such deep gratitude for the healing I received from these states of being,
As I continue to work within this traditional medicine path, my intention is always to try and stay in that open and receptive state of mind as I create my perfumes, in homage to all the plant spirits teachers and healers, allowing them to guide me. I consider my perfumes offerings to help others connect to the deepest most ethereal parts of themselves through scent. This is why I humbly call them healing perfumes.
A Perfumero/Perfumera in Peru is a traditional healer known also as a vegetalista who has learned the ways of several varieties of plant teachers and who employs and concocts different fragrances from these plants to use for healing to enchant the spirits.
In the spiritual traditions of the Amazon in Peru, a magical perfume called a Pusanga is made from the flowers, barks, seeds and roots of certain plants which have the power to attract to the people who wear it the things they really want – love, attraction, good luck, healing, abundance etc. A Pusanga has an impressive reputation in these cultures as “the Love medicine of the Amazon”. Traditionally they use water from clay pools deep in the rain forest where the animals come to drink, as the base so the scents contain many energies and vibrations of the forest creatures too.
Curandero/Curandera is a folk healer or medicine man who uses herbs or hallucinogenic plants, magic, and spiritualism to treat illness, induce visions, impart traditional wisdom, etc.
Master / Teacher Plants, so called for their amazing curative powers that work in a truly holistic way, addressing the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels of our being, contain powerful spirits that embody the wisdom of the Amazon jungle. For those who approach them with open mind and heart, master plant teachers offer us spiritual healing, cleansing, communion, and knowledge.
You reference the history of scent and its power frequently, tell us a bit about that.
The word "perfume" is a derivative of the Latin word "parfumare" meaning "through smoke". All the Ancient civilizations for the past 50,000 years have used incense to cleanse and purify and as sacraments to honor their gods. The earliest civilizations buried their dead with fragrant offerings to appease the underworld. Aromatic spices, barks, grasses, roots, seeds etc... were prized and traded and fought over. Fragrances were once considered to be the souls of objects, and thus spiritual and sacred in themselves.
Egyptians burnt the famous incense called Kyphi, a very odorous mixture composed of Mastic, juniper, fenugreek, pistachio, and the smoke was used to cleanse vessels for wine and provisions. Aromatic resins, spices, seeds, barks, flowers and roots were were added to wines and olive oils and honey since ancient times for perfumes, elixirs, unguents and ointments. Cleopatra is known to have impregnated the sails of her ships with precious aromatics. She took baths of rose petals and asses milk.
The "Incense Route" was controlled by the Arabs, who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel caravan from South Arabia. This trade was crucial to the economy of Yemen. Frankincense and myrrh trees were seen as a source of wealth by its rulers.
Scent has held such power and immense importance in the economy of all the ancient cultures from the Pre-Incas to the Egyptians, to the Greeks, and Romans and all throughout Africa and Asia and into the western world that wars have continuously been fought over the trade routes.
Nowadays the emphasis on natural botanicals and raw materials is greater than ever. There is new technology to harness more subtle aspects of natural materials and there are increasingly rare and exotic materials being distilled around the world through Co2 extraction and cold water extraction and using sound frequencies. The ancient ways are being valued more and more as they disappear and there is a growing interest in preserving them for the future.
Raw Botanical extracts are very costly and large quantities are needed to make tiny amounts so for growers and farmers there is an expanding market for aromatics. Many large commercially owned perfume houses, still use some naturals in their formulas (though most have been replaced with synthetics) and they have control over many of the worlds finest crops of raw materials, such as Chanel and Hermes. They also use technology to recreate materials identical to their natural counterparts. Most people couldn’t tell them apart. However as a natural perfumer, I feel that the real thing contains a myriad of nuances that are simply not the same as the identical manufactured one. Many professional noses will say there is no such thing as a truly natural perfume! I guess then throughout history one could say all those civilizations were wrong. With the advent of distillation techniques the world did open up to making more complex accords and scents than before and now the possibilities are even greater than before to extract more previously elusive materials. This is also coupled with a movement by the larger fragrance companies to control what we can use and what we can’t and there are big issues because they are trying to outlaw many precious aromatics that are thought to have contraindications for use because of plant toxicity, but this is more an issue of control of the market than abased in fact. In Europe there are many raw perfume materials commonly used for centuries by perfumers that are under threat or banned by the powerful fragrance companies and this is as worrying as the efforts of the big pharmaceutical and agricultural industries trying to control our health and our food.
What are your favorite smells of all time?
That’s a really hard one, there are so many and they seem to be infinite! The smell of warm earth after the rain in summer. Cacao, vanilla, honey, beeswax, tar and pitch, campfires. All of the the delicacy of fragrant teas, oolongs and puerhs and green tea. Coffee. Caramel. The scent of the ocean. Favorites florals always and forever make me so happy. Rose, Jasmine, Orange Blossom Lilac, Hyacinth, Narcissus, Tuberose, Gardenia, and Lotus makes me swoon literally.
I love all the ancient scents of the spice routes and the silk road trade routes frankincense, patchouli, cinnamon, cardamon, star anise, coriander, fennel, cloves, bergamot, vetiver, sandalwood and all the balsams. Lichens and moss and all the tree resins, silver firs and blue spruces and green pines. Lemon Verbena and Holy Basil and Lavender.
My all time favorites are burning sage, Palo Santo, cedar, and tobacco, and camphor for cleansing and smudging.
You’re based in the Catskills, does the area where you work and live influence your process?
I love being based in the Hudson Valley. I appreciate its tranquility and beauty and being able to look out at the mountains from my studio. To be able to swim all summer in the clear cold streams is just magic.
Having nature all around is so necessary for me, I thrive in it. I do work frequently in Manhattan and as much as it is always exciting and driven and things are happening, I love the coming home again, to the serenity and the sky and the wildlife, deer and bear and skunk, and just being amongst the trees and streams and mountains is such a source of peace.
Do you find collaboration as a couple challenging? How does working together influence the direction of your business and your scents?
Yes! We are still working toward finding the best way to work together, as we are so different. I am chaotic, an artist and a collector. I am disorganised. I like to go with the flow, I take time to get into that flow and to get myself organized to work. He has already been up for hours and done a million things by the time I am ready to start. Jackie is organized and methodical and logical. I am a late night person, he is an early morning person. He is focused, I am all over the place. It is a work in progress! He thinks I should have started with 3 scents or 5. I started with 7 and now have 10.
Jackie, aside from Perfumera Curandera, you still lead small groups of travelers on spiritual journeys through the Amazon Jungle and Andes Mountains. How does this journey affect the people that go with you and do you find each journey affecting who you are as well?
Peru is a country with a living tradition of ancient culture and knowledge, so what we try to offer is an opening into some of these rituals and healing ways. More often than not just physically being there (i.e Machu Picchu), one will immediately feel the energies of these places. Every journey is a different one and people access and receive exactly what they need at that particular moment and space in their lives. As a guide I have witnessed many transformations in people and this enriches my own journey and is part of why I love to do this work.