NICOLE MILLER and Aaron Way, the masterminds behind Seattle’s Blackbird brand of edgy perfumes and incense, work in an atmosphere redolent of beautiful gloom.
Approaching the black bungalow that serves as the headquarters for the online business and as company founder Miller’s actual home, exotic smells wrap around you like a stranger’s embrace.
The scent wafting from inside, a mix of ceremonial resins, smoked spices, burnt citrus, dry ice, quarry stone, seaports, old flower petals, overripe fruit, spent fuel, yesterday’s coffee and minty tea, gives this whole block in Seattle’s North End an aura that rocks the visitor forward and backward.
The smell is powerful enough to make passers-by either feel woozy or swoon.
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Blackbird, an internationally renowned indie fragrance company Miller started as a fashion-forward, bricks-and-mortar men’s clothing boutique in Ballard about a decade ago, specializes in scents that take you places you didn’t think you wanted to go that, once there, you feel you’ve visited before.
The fragrances, stripped of prettiness and predictability, are just a little bit warped. And yet the smell of sea air on a ferry ride home or burnt matches after lighting candles on a first date or grandpa’s cracked-leather reading chair, all of which find their way into Blackbird’s fragrances, tap into something deep inside of us.
In that sense, Blackbird, which not only produces its own fragrances but curates and sells the work of other niche perfumers, is the ultimate symbol of the Northwest’s brooding, analytical, iconoclastic ethos.
Perhaps no industry flies as deeply under the radar as luxury indie fragrances, a nascent but exploding niche of the multibillion-dollar perfume industry in the United States, according to the NDP Group retail-research firm.
The handful of brands in the Puget Sound region are mostly run by self-taught, mom-and-pop perfumers making their creations by hand in home studios, basements and tiny storefronts.
They all seem to share a stubborn love for the unexpected and, like the alchemists of old, a knack for marrying natural essences that are sometimes downright offensive in their concentrated form into fragrances that shimmer on the skin.
“It’s that frontier spirit,” Way says, “that Northwest, do-it-yourself idea.”
“Do it wrong” is the duo’s unofficial motto, Miller adds — refinement by way of rebellion.
LIKE HANSEL AND GRETEL left to their own devices in a mythical forest, Miller and Way spend their days plotting new ways to stoke us through the power of scent, in the form of bottled perfumes, soaps and intensely aromatic, black incense pyres.
“What gets us up in the morning?” Miller asks one day over smoky black tea spiced with licorice. “I want to make weird stuff.”
For sure, there’s nothing ordinary about scent compositions that bring to mind the smell of fresh ink on paper, kinky black leather, a basket of green cinnamon-tree leaves rather than cinnamon bark, or a misty Northwest rain forest strung with moss.
“You can’t make an L.A. perfume in Seattle — it doesn’t work,” says Miller, who grew up in Kent. “Even when you pick cedar wood” — a common ingredient in fragrances — “you pick the one you recognize.”
The pair takes pride in introducing scents that, as Miller says, “make you feel a little uncomfortable, but not make you feel bad.”
After all, “this is art,” she says. “But it’s also a business.”
Way, boyish and slight in his flowy, gothic sportswear, is Blackbird’s “nose.” The expression refers to a person whose smell sense is acute enough to identify and pick apart the myriad elements that combine to make aromas most of us only experience as one thing, if at all.
“He can smell things that other people can’t smell,” Miller says from the living room of her home and fragrance studio, which is painted black and filled with macabre curios and head-spinning odors.
She refers to Way, an Idaho native who has studied chemical engineering but is self-taught as a perfumer, as both a futurist and an old soul who “doesn’t reference or even understand our current world.”
The first perfume Way made for Blackbird is named Triton, after the largest moon orbiting Neptune. With a brutal lunar landscape of ice-gushing volcanoes as a reference point, Way created an icy accord, or blend of scents, ranging from violet leaf and iris root to cedar and carrot seed to musky-green vetiver and black pepper.
On the skin, Triton smells both otherworldly and locally sourced, like perfumed space dust with a hint of sun-bleached driftwood, a meteorite smoldering on a Pacific cove.
“That is Aaron,” Miller says.
The recently released scent Way, composed in collaboration with the Seattle-based singer/songwriter Nika Roza Danilova, aka Zola Jesus, is a rhapsody of contradictions — dark and sparkling, funky and fresh, smoky and floral, as complex as the musician who inspired it.
Unsurprisingly, Way collects rocks as a hobby — a keeper of stones with a mind like a sponge.
When the pair started out by making incense to sell at the now-defunct Blackbird clothing store, “we wanted to make incense that didn’t smell like incense,” Way says.
They try to eliminate the “too weird” ideas before beginning the actual fragrance-making process. Perfume-grade alcohol and base ingredients can be expensive.
The first incense was called Ozo, a surprisingly fetching mix of licorice and rose.
Their fragrances represent pleasantness wonderfully marred: Sunlight pouring through thick, velvet curtains, a fleece sweater sopping wet from a downpour, a smudged I Love You written on a sticky note.
THE OLFACTORY membrane inside the human nose, with its 50 million receptor cells capable of transmitting information on some 10,000 different odors, is the only part of our central nervous system that has direct contact with the external world.
Every second of every day, that membrane is bombarded by countless molecules floating around us, causing actual electrical sparks and cascading chemical reactions that allow our brains to identify certain scents and conjure feelings and thoughts based on them.
The odors that stand out go right to our core.
Natural-fragrance trendsetter Mandy Aftel’s indispensable book, “Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume,” perfectly captures the mystery and stunning specificity of smell:
“Fragrance has the instantaneous and invisible power to penetrate consciousness with pure pleasure,” she says in the book’s opening passage. “Scent reaches us in ways that elude sight and sound but conjure imagination in all its sensuality, unsealing hidden worlds . . . An odor can immediately evoke the details and mood of an old experience, as if no time had passed at all.”
Perfumers insist that their most popular fragrances are ones that remind customers not just of things past but of their parents and grandparents, in particular.
The “sweet and smoky” Blackbird perfume Camas was inspired by Miller’s childhood memories of roasting hazelnuts by a fire at her grandparents’ house, as well as sleeping under sheepskins and shooting black-powder rifles on pioneer-style, family camping trips to Camas Meadows.
Like Camas, the most interesting perfumes tell a story, either from your life or maybe the life you fantasize about living, as this 1970s tagline for the Faberge women’s perfume Tigress playfully illustrates: “Tigress. Because men are such animals.”
Either way, says Nikki Sherritt-Lewis, the perfumer behind the Seattle fragrance line Rebel & Mercury, that story needs chapters, to unfold.
“My style is very unusual — layered and powerful,” she says.
We’re talking black pepper, marjoram, kaffir lime, aromas that are distinct on their own but send wearers on imaginary getaways and daydream rendezvous when blended with other scents.
Sherritt-Lewis says she has a strong, visceral reaction to Mount Rainier. So the moist, ozone-rich scent of glaciers and sweet smell of bare, wet earth appear a lot in her compositions.
Her fragrance Angeline, on the other hand, is inspired by memories of her mother.
“Everything that she smelled like is powder to me,” Sherritt-Lewis says.
Angeline is therefore decidedly feminine, with notes of bergamot, white grapefruit, rose, amber and tonka bean.
Far, far away at the other end of the spectrum is her unisex fragrance Ampersand, which is inspired by her travels along the Northwest and California coasts.
Ampersand is a run-on sentence of smells, first the funk of sea mammals on a beach, then something kelpy and briny, then lemony sweetness, then perfumed wood. And then. And then. And then.
Marilyn Monroe famously told interviewers in the 1950s that she wore nothing to bed but a few drops of the legendary Chanel No. 5. Today it’s still the world’s best-selling perfume, with a bottle sold every 55 seconds, according to Chanel.
But Rebel & Mercury customers expect something with familiar notes that’s still “out there,” Sherritt-Lewis says.
“People are slowly finding out that they can have a signature scent, but it’s not going to be Chanel No. 5,” she says.
THE TREND toward more distinctive fragrances gives indie perfumers an enviable freedom, and an unenviable challenge.
One extra drop of a particular ingredient, just one hundredth of a gram, can throw the whole mixture off or elevate it, says Karyn Gold-Reineke, the sylphlike owner and nose behind the perfumery Pirouette in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
“It’s almost like the scent wants to tell a story,” Gold-Reineke says. “I let the blend open up and tell me what it wants.
“Blend. Let it sit. Blend. Let it sit. You have to be on their time schedule.”
Her Gold line of perfumes cost $130 for a 35-milliliter bottle and each has about 100 components.
Her ritualistic fragrance Mosaic contains very expensive agar wood essence as well as sandalwood, frankincense, amber, coriander and moss. It smells murky, like a moonlit walk in an exotic wilderness. Wanderlust evokes travel with notes of tobacco, saffron, black tea, sandalwood, leather, smoke and market spices.
Right now, moss is a big element in perfumery, she says.
“It’s green, it’s lush, it’s earthy, it’s got mystery to it — it creeps and crawls,” she says.
She brings out a jar of heavily concentrated, green-black oak moss essence, actually a lichen, and opens the lid.
It smells like thousands of years of decayed tree needles packed in soft dirt, but with the freshness of a crisp breeze after a November rainstorm.
CHRISTI MESHELL, the owner and nose behind the Bellevue-based line House of Matriarch High Perfumery, dips her finger into a jar of tobacco-leaf extract and rubs some on the top of my hand, and in an instant I am transported back decades to my grandfather’s tobacco farm in Kentucky. Sticky-sweet tobacco leaves, old barns, haylofts, manure — the scent-memory is unblemished, like a perfectly preserved photograph.
It gives me goose bumps.
Meshell, with her flowing black hair, sumptuous silk prints, sparkly platform heels and fairy goddess grin, is an agent provocateur of scent, melding wildly intriguing elements into luxury fragrances that defy easy descriptions.
She was raised in oil country — Port Arthur, Texas — but she’s a Northwest hippie medicine woman at heart. Every morning she drinks a glass of water infused with frankincense essence. “It’s good for you,” she insists.
Meshell leads her guests past a to-scale human skeleton hanging by the stairwell that leads up to the plush design studio of her atelier, which is decked out like an eccentric sultan’s parlor (that’s a unicorn bust hanging on one wall; that’s a live white dove perched in a picnic basket by the window; that’s loungy electro by Thievery Corporation blaring on the speaker system).
Meshell sits cross-legged on the floor and begins the interview by burning a series of opulent tree resins: Pine, then dragon’s blood, then oud, which is so precious a piece no bigger than a fingernail costs $5.
The smoke rises and curls like a dancing ghost and forms a cloud above our heads.
“This is the original ‘perfume’ — it literally means ‘through smoke,’ ” Meshell says, during a mini-lesson on the evolution of fragrance, from its use in fumigating living quarters and hair to its use in prayer, ceremonies, courtship and other life pursuits.
Meshell says her sense of smell is so exact, she can tell that a man is smoking a Cohiba cigar from a block away. She says she can smell textures, too. Put a cactus close to her face and its physical prickliness will tickle her imagination.
“Your nose is kind of the last real touch point to the natural world,” she says. “It’s like you’re being touched by nature.”
This allows Meshell to work like a collage artist, composing multilayered fragrances with spectacular resonance that project something of the wearer onto everyone who comes near.
“It’s the last thing you put on before leaving the house,” Meshell says. “It’s that mood that you carry with you, your essence, your invisible aura.”
The smell of Puget Sound seaweed mixed with evergreen extracts, cannabis, animal musk and about 300 other ingredients brings a chilled-out, mystical and sexy vibe to the Blackbird perfume Meshell made in a collaboration with the Seattle fragrance brand.
For some customers, she says, her long-lasting, $120 to $300 full-size perfumes are the only material indulgence they allow themselves.
As Meshell shows off a wall-length bookshelf with hundreds of bottled ingredients, she says that some are derived directly from the Pacific Northwest. A blazingly intense lavender essence comes from plants grown in Redmond. She makes seaweed essence with washed-up kelp she gathers on beach walks.
Her favorite place to visit is the Hoh Rain Forest on the Olympic Peninsula with its hanging moss.
“This is the last enchanted forest, and we live in it,” Meshell says of the Northwest in general.
“Nature,” she says, “is the ultimate luxury.”
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.