Marla Bosworth is the founder and owner of Back Porch Soap Company. She teaches classes, corporate events and experiences including candle making, soap making, organic skincare and perfumery.

April 11, 2012

Natural Perfume Classes with Charna Ethier - Getting to Know Your Instructor

natural perfume classes
Charna's line of natural perfumes.
Charna Ethier is the “nose” and founder of Providence Perfume Company (, a natural perfumery specializing in luxurious botanical fragrances. After spending years working with large beauty and fragrance companies such as Aveda, she desired to create her own line of perfumes that were truly natural.

She is a member of the Natural Perfumer's Guild obtaining Professional Perfumer status and a regular participant in global perfume projects and collaborations. Her perfumes have received critical acclaim and have been featured on AOL, The Rhode Show, numerous magazines and fragrance websites and blogs.

Charna teaches natural perfume workshops in our Boston and NYC studios. Her next perfume intensives are scheduled for May 4-5, 2012 in New York City.
Let’s start at the very beginning, where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Rhode Island and grew up in New Hampshire and Vermont.

nyc perfume classes
Charna Ethier
What is your first fragrance memory as a child?
Probably wood smoke. Our home in rural NH was heated solely by a wood burning fire.  We lived in a very rural area of New Hampshire at the top of a steep dirt hill. Our car would get stuck in the wintertime. I remember all of those winter smells walking the rest of the way up the hill to our house  – wet wooly mittens, the smell of cold air, snow and ozone – all those New England winter types of smells.

I draw a lot from scent memories. I like to try to create perfumes inspired by places or events or times in my life. I’ve always wanted to create a “summertime in Vermont” fragrance – inspired by the fields of sweet clover, the smell of hay and citrus sunshine. 

What were some defining moments of your life? How did they shape your personality?
After I had my children I realized I didn’t want to be in corporate America anymore. I wanted to have my own creative freedom. I jumped off the gerbil wheel.  (Charna’s children are Poppy, age 3 and Graham, age 6). Having children made me realize what was important to me in my life.

When did you realize that you had a “nose” for fragrance?
I remember walking into our house as a child, smelling something and asking my mother what smelled like wet dog, cornchips and glue? I was four. It happened to be a casserole that our neighbor had dropped off. I remember my mom looking puzzled. I remembered thinking that I could smell better than other people at that moment. I remember thinking to myself, “Mom doesn’t know this food smells like wet dog, cornchips and glue?” It was then that I started to piece together that perhaps I had extraordinary smelling powers.

I also remember as a kid I always knew it was about to rain. The wind shifts and you can smell something metallic in the air. It doesn’t smell like rain, but like pennies or iron. It smells different suddenly. I thought everyone could smell the same.

How do you interpret a fragrance when smelling it? In other words, how does your mind analyze the blend?
I used to just get an initial positive or negative impression of a scent as I guess most people do. But now I try to figure out the notes, whether it’s a department store fragrance or something I’m making. In a way, it’s sort of a bummer because my head starts to break it down into mathematical equation whereas before I was just enjoying the fragrance.

I’m continuously re-smelling fragrances because they change as they evolve through the top, middle and base notes. So I’m constantly sniffing my wrists every few minutes to get an idea of how the perfume changes as it dries down.

I’ll smell a perfume, and then again in two minutes, and then again in another two minutes. I’ll note that perhaps a sweet orange top note will be really strong, but then transitions quickly into something else, maybe into a creamsicle sort of fragrance because the orris becomes more prevalent.  If I notice a sharp peak or something that doesn’t transition into the next note smoothly, then that’s an indicator to me that I need to tweak the blend or seriously alter it.  Perfumes should be well blended and should have a smooth transition through the notes. It can be difficult to achieve – and I work on that.

How do you define a natural perfumer?
how to make perfume
Divine by Providence Perfume Company
I define it as a person who blends fragrances created from botanical or animal-derived essences using essential oils and absolutes. Beeswax is the only animal-derived ingredient that I use, but I would consider perfumes that use ambergris, for example as natural. I just prefer not to use most animal essences myself.

What are your thoughts on fragrance oils being used in natural perfumes?
 If you use fragrance oils, it’s not natural. Fragrance oils are made in a laboratory from petrochemicals, not made by nature.  That being said, I love all perfume . . .  I just choose to work with this palette of all-naturals.  I think natural essences are beautiful – I just love them. For instance, real jasmine – there’s a little sexy dirtyness to it. Naturals just speak to me more. 

What are your top tips for creating natural perfumes?
Be prepared to make a lot of duds. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to get a prince. You can’t get better without trial and error.  I’ve run out of quips!  It takes time to discover how natural ingredients interact with each other in the perfume. I’ve made some horrible smelling things. You need to play and you’ll learn as you’re playing.

I still to this day keep and age my bad blends. Natural perfumes really change a lot with aging and you need to revisit these blends and learn from your mistakes. A few months later you might discover, “Oh I thought I used way too much sandalwood, but it is blending very well with the rose.” At this point the perfume still isn’t good, but I realize the ratio of rose and sandalwood is good, now I have to work on other parts of the structure, focusing on the top notes . I can still learn a lot from my duds.

These mistakes are what have taught me the nature of the botanicals.  Things like cepes and oakmoss tend to grow stronger as they age.  Something you learn as you age your blends and some not so wonderful creations over the years.  Experiment and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  It’s a learning process.

Name three things that keep your business running day in and day out.
Coffee, my creative passion, and the internet.

How do you get inspired to create a fragrance?
It is a collection of ideas that are bouncing around in my head for awhile.   I can be inspired by a season or nature. Lately (because fall is here) I’ve been wanting to work on something traditional with an apple-oak note that has chamomile in it. I get inspired by objects, like a wooden box or a warm fuzzy blanket on the couch. I’m also inspired by other perfumes.
I’m one of those people who can’t imaging wearing the same perfume in the dead of winter that I would when it was 100 degrees out, so something lighter in summer, something bolder in the winter.

I created a perfume called Gypsy after reading the children’s book “Madeline and the Gypsies” to my kids one night. There’s this great quote in the book:

“The gypsy mama didn’t like at all
What she saw in her crystal ball . . .
For Gypsies do not like to stay
They only come to go away”

 I found the illustrations from the book incredible- Madeline in the dark night in Paris with a crescent moon above and a bonfire - that was my creative image for Gypsy.   I knew I wanted to create a exotic scent inspired by the book.  This is what I love being the most about a perfumer – the creative freedom and the ability to be inspired.

That’s a great story about Gypsy. Speaking of your kids, what do they think of your perfumes?
Poppy has no interest yet, but Graham likes to smell the perfumes I’m blending. He very thoughtfully sniffs my blends and very slowly says, “Hmmm, smells like . . . cinnamon.”  He tells me that everything smells like cinnamon, despite the fact that there is no cinnamon.   Each time he asks to smell something, I expect his review to be different, but apparently everything I make smells like cinnamon to my six year old!

What are the “telling signs” for when you’ve hit a homerun with a blend?
There’s no way to tell, because everyone’s scent preferences are so different. I can tell technically if it’s well-balanced or blended, but I think you have to learn to trust your gut. Take other people’s opinions into account, but never weigh them more heavily into what you think about your blend. You have to go by what speaks to you.

I wish I could say that everyone loved a particular scent and followed me down the street to ask me what I’m wearing. But the truth is what one person may love is what another person hates. If I get a rousing “no” from my testing panel or friends and family, then I may rethink the blend.

 What are the primary fragrances we’d smell if we walked into your home?
I wish I could say that it smells like jasmine blooming, but it smells like old house. It’s Providence, everything is old [she laughs]. But when you get close to my studio, it starts to smell like a blend of flowers, spices and a lot of vanilla, because I have a lot of vanilla beans in there.

What’s a typical day for Charna Ethier from the time you get up to when your head hits the pillow (assuming you sleep with one)?
Wake up. Get kids ready for preschool . If I’m feeling peppy, walk them to school and return home feeling overly smug for having walked two miles before 8:15 a.m. Drink copious amounts of coffee. Read and reply to emails. Check/receive orders. Pack shipments. Note stock levels on products while packing orders. Make mental note to reorder jasmine and bergamot. Forget to order jasmine and bergamot. Call photographer to schedule follow-up on product shots needed for website. Sit down at the blending table to flesh out a few concepts for a private label boutique scent. Shop owner fluctuates between wanting a spicy unisex blend or a soft feminine floral. Hmm . . . challenging. Decide to create multiple versions of each for our next meeting. Start blending and realize that I’m five minutes late to pick up the kids. Go get kids. Ship packages.  The rest of evening is a blur of cooking, cleaning, baths and stories. Drift off to sleep watching bad reality television or the cooking channel. Remind myself sleepily to order more jasmine and bergamot. Promptly forget.

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