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The wilderness fragrance distillery

Name

Hall Newbegin

Idea

To bottle the scents of his favourite hiking trails and create nature colognes for his brand – Juniper Ridge.

Many of the entrepreneurs that we have interviewed for One Quarter have found their niche in established markets by creating businesses that reflect their own unique ideas and values as opposed to following rules made by others. Juniper Ridge is the newest addition to this family and this interview discusses how and why the integrity of their product is at the very core of what they do. The products in point are their wilderness perfumes that capture the scents of trails hiked by staff using botanicals that they have gathered along the way. Usurping the questionable agendas of some of the larger cosmetic companies, Juniper Ridge is built on the simple idea that “nothing smells better than the forest”.

The founder of Juniper Ridge, Hall Newbegin, describes himself as an accidental perfumer. The native of Portland, Oregon grew up hiking and backpacking the lakes and peaks of the Cascades - an extensive mountain range in the west of North America. For him, those places evoke a magic that he wanted to share with others and so he began to tinker with the distillation and extraction process in an attempt to bottle their natural scents. Describing the creation of each Juniper Ridge perfume as an experimental process, the fragrances are made cross-country – “on dirt roads and trails, around campfires, and in our Oakland, California workshop”.

Hall's perfumes reflect his love for the natural environment that he grew up in, and he now uses his business to give back as 10% of Juniper Ridge’s annual profits are also donated to wilderness groups. Impressed with the way he runs the company and the methods he uses to develop the perfumes we caught up with Hall to find out more.

How do you go about capturing the scents of the trails that you hike?

To be a nature perfumer, you don't need a science degree. All you need is your nose and a few primitive techniques for getting the goo out of plants.

You boil water. You steam ingredients. You capture that steam and re-condense it. Oils extracted from the plants are then skimmed off as ‘essential oils’. You narrow down a landscape and turn it into perfume. Smoking, steaming and tincturing are just some of the ways we capture the scents of the land for our all-natural personal and home fragrances.

Is it really that that simple?

Since we’re experimenting with these plants for the first time we usually apply all 10 different extraction methods and see what we come up with. Nobody can tell us if you’re going to get more 'true' redwood smell from the leaves, bark, cambium, root or soil - and for each of those which extraction technique will be the best way to get true fragrance.

How do you gather these ingredients?

We get the plants from the mountains in a number of ways that all fall under the name Wildcrafting. Wildcrafting means that we don’t farm anything, all of our plants come from wild sources, be it private lands by permission or from public lands by permit. We always gather our plants and tree trimmings in such a way that no harm is done to the plant itself. In fact, they respond to the pruning with new growth - we like to think the plants are happy to see us.

These regions are our wild gardens, and we love helping them thrive. We often work with the forest service as well. When they have a fire-trimming, we will take their slash piles and make soap out of them – better than burning them, eh?

These practices sound fairly different from what I’ve heard about more mainstream methods.

We’re trying to change the concept of perfumery. Why has fragrance become this weird specialised thing that they have at perfume counters? Fragrance has always been about using animal senses and wearing nature on our bodies - I'm trying to take fragrance back to its wild roots. We use old fragrance extraction techniques such as steam distillation, tincturing, and enfluerage - these methods date back to Roman times but no one does this stuff anymore. The industry abandoned real ingredients in the 1950s because petrochemical synthetic fragrances were so dirt cheap, but they also smell so dirt fake!

What ingredients are you using in your scents?

Mojave is the conifer woodlands of the Mojave desert, so it’s things like desert pine, desert cedar, sagebrush, juniper sap, mountain mahogany or dry distillate of charred pine cones. Sometimes if we luck out and get a rainy year we’ll include more delicate desert plants that grow in those woodlands such as ambrosia and blooming nightshade. Every harvest is different because the places themselves are different every time we visit them, depending on the time of year, rainfall, micro-climate and plants in area. For this reason, we label all of our bottles with the harvest number, and our fragrances are always changing and evolving with the place itself.

So the possibilities are endless?

There are more than 10,000 different species of plants on the West Coast, but nobody has ever thought about those in terms of fragrance. It’s really a job that’s too big for one person in one lifetime. I could spend the rest of my life on the mountain I live on - Mt Tamalpais - just making perfumes there with the ocean, seaweed, blossoms, redwood forest and oak moss. There are roughly 1000 species of plants on that mountain, not to mention lichens, moss, seaweed, mushrooms, soil, roots - it just goes on and on. There’s the way the mountain smells right now when the oaks put out their flowering catkins - it’s so sweet and fertile - just intoxicating. There’s the smell of the chaparral on a hot summer day, the redwoods in winter, the coastal flanks of the mountain in spring. I could easily make hundreds of perfumes just from that one place.

So the perfumes are inextricably linked to the place where the ingredients are sourced?

Yes - all of our perfumes have 10-20 ingredients which are gathered in the place the fragrance is named for. Wilderness perfume is about the transmission of place—the scent turns off the city, at least just for a second, it’s just like taking a hike in the woods. Real fragrance stirs up profound, complex things in us that we can’t even begin to understand.

And it’s all just a hike away.

Interviewed by
Alice Bradshaw

Photography by
Courtesy of Juniper Ridge

Juniper Ridge