Monday, September 29, 2008

Roxana Villa of Roxana Illuminated Perfume: Musings on Natural Perfumery, Reviews and Perfume Notes

"Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen blühen? Im dunklen Laub die Gold-Orangen glühen, ein sanfter Wind vom Blauen Himmel weht,die Myrte still und hoch der Lorbeer steht, Kennst du es wohl?" (=Do you know the land where the lemon trees blossom? Among dark leaves the golden oranges glow. A gentle breeze from blue skies drifts. The myrtle is still, and the laurel stands high. Do you know it well?)

It's this famous description of Italy in Goethe's song from Wilhelm Meister "Kennst du das Land" (set to music as opus D.321 by Franz Schubert) that opens the description of Roxana Illuminated Perfume by natural perfumer Roxana Villa. Roxana is of the South (not Italy though) and it shows.
I don't consider it embarassing to admit that I discovered Roxana and her company while searching for paintings and "stumbled" on her blog. What made me pause and pay attention was the original artwork I saw there, which I soon found out was created by Roxana herself, a competent artist in both the aromatic and visual arena, and the illustrator Gregory Scott Spalenka. The illustrations on her site bring to mind the alchemical tradition of the Middle Ages as does the flou artistique imagery by Spalenka evocative of the realms that the fragrances come to evoke. Her method of working was referenced as "creating a painting of a perfume": And then the olfactory promise laid out its trap.

Natural perfumery has known a gigantic resurgence in later years, filling an existing lacuna and answering to two main needs: wanting to go back to the roots of alchemical perfumery after what seemed like a highly technology-driven and marketability-focused long phase, as well as the desire for individual, more esoteric perfumes that will act as a connection with Earth. Of course the latter might bring to mind cliché images of Earth Mother types chanting Om as they chime little bells doing their yoga routine and growing roses that like to be read Milton by the light of the moon, resulting in pot-pouri alloys fit for the headshop. This brings its own fatootsed discourse, but nothing could be further from the truth: many of those people interested in the field are not pursuing it from the aromatherapy or arcane angle at all but from the artistic viewpoint and they are genuinely vuying for beauty, often casting their eyes back to primitivism the way Gaugin did. There is also the further complication of what exactly defines "natural", what methods of extraction are allowed (are isolates and C02 extractions OK? Yes, apparently) and the ad hoc limitations of a natural palette. Not to mention that how to make a natural-based fragrance suitable for all is often a challenge because of the sheer complexity of natural essences, like oakmoss. Yet natural perfumers do try and they enrich the field with their efforts.
Roxana describes her own particular division of natural perfumery as "botanical". As she explained to Sniffapalooza: "Botanical is the term that resonates with what I choose to create, both visually and aromatically. At times I include essences that come from the sea or apis realm, which technically are not botanical in nature, however my palette is comprised of ninety nine percent botanical ingredients. I choose to work with essences that are whole, organic and of vital origin whenever possible. The animal ingredients like civet, ambergris and castoreum, contained in many natural perfumes are not in the fragrances I formulate."

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Roxana grew up in Los Angeles, California. Upon receiving a BFA in Communication Design from Otis Parsons in downtown Los Angeles, Roxana moved to New York and began work as a freelance illustrator in the world of publishing. After the birth of her daughter, she studied Aromatherapy formerly learning the miraculous powers inherent in the plant kingdom. Blending the knowledge of nature with a loving art spirit, Roxana now creates perfumes that reflect a healing modality whilst celebrating the individual. In June of 2007 Roxana was the keynote speaker at the Ojai Lavender Festival and she continues to speak and teach regularly.

Two lines comprise her fragrant bodywork: the Californica series which celebrates the aromatic landscape of the state of California (Q, Vera, Sierra, Chaparral) and the Literarium series, inspired by literary and musical exempla, honoring the fine art of story-telling (Vespertina, Lyra). There is also Aurora, one of her first florals.

All the Roxana Illuminated Perfume scents I sampled share the natural perfumes aesthetic in that they wear close to the skin and have a herbal, non-perfume-y quality about them which is surprisingly comforting sometimes in contrast to the scintilatting but -alas- also often screechy projection of mainstream perfumery. The initial jolt shouldn't fool you into dismissing the accords, because a few minutes later the projection becomes friendly. The two that captured my interest most were Q and Lyra.
It would be natural you might say, if you have followed Perfume Shrine, to see that the earthy woody Q made an impression as it is richly infused with the tannic smell of oak, peppery accents and an ambery-like base reminiscent (to me) of labdanum and patchouli, which is restrained on the sweetness aspect. Q (for Quercus agrifolia) began as a tribute to Beltane (one of the four "fire" festivals in Celt tradition) which auspiciously led to the mighty oak. The feeling is poised between seasons, very fit for spring or autumn, making me want to sit under the deep foliage and let the wind breathe tales of yore into my ear.
Lyra on the other hand is a more vivacious, euphoric affair with the immediacy of flowers, especially the fresh, almost fruity piquancy of what seems like orange blossom, jasmine and tropical ylang ylang singing out of the bottle like alto voices in melodious thirds. Inspired by the brightness of the night-sky asteroid near Vega but also the heroine of the book "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman, the floriental Lyra is shining with its own bright veneer. This white floral composition is especially appreciated in a natural blend as there is none of the florist shop headspace of department store fragrances: rather the blossoms exude a deeper, more solid, hefty presence in the accompaniment of a classic warm base of ambery resins and hesperidic overtures. Perhaps the only drawback is the rather limited lasting power, but this is something that can be easily amended by re-application.

The Illuminated Perfume scents are:
Notes include: Mandarin, Spice, Egyptian Jasmine, Rose, Amber. (In its 2nd edition)

Comprising essences, accords and tinctures are of plants found in the Chaparral Biome of California.
Notes include: Citrus, Mimosa, Iris Root, Sage, Rhodendron, Pine, Cypress. The 2nd edition is available this Autumn. Portion of the proceeds from each 1/4 oz perfume sale supports The Chaparral Institute.

Many of the essences are grown and distilled in Ojai, with regional plants utilized in our specially prepared tinctures.
Notes include: Lemon, Lavender, Orange Blossom, Hay, Coastal Sage, Seaweed, Labdanum. (Currently in its 2nd edition).

Q (known as Quercus in a previous incarnation)
Tinctured Oak leaves combine with accords of Citrus, Wood and Resin. (Currently in its 2nd edition) Portion of the proceeds from each 1/4 oz perfume supports The California Oak Foundation.

The most complex of our perfumes, combining chords within accords of Conifer, Wood and Resin. Portion of the proceeds from each 1/4 oz perfume supports TreePeople.

Notes include: Orange, Spice, Rose, Jasmine, Patchouli, Distilled Earth, Oud. (Currently in its 1st edition).

Notes include: Pink Grapefruit, Egyptian Jasmine, Ylang Ylang, Complex Amber Accord. (The 3rd edition available soon).
The inspiration for Lyra began with a custom perfume created for Roxana's daughter Eve (Evangeline).

To find out more visit the Illuminated Perfume site. You can obtain the same samples I got: sample vial gift pack (set of three 1 gram bottles) $25 or sample vial gift pack (six of three 1 gram bottles) $50. They will come in a little box with the cutest wax seal embossed with a bee, beautifully wrapped.

What is most intriguing for the numerous women in search of their very own individual perfume is the Custom Perfume Portraits service, of which there are two options: Bronze package: $5oo and Platinum package: $1000.

Roxana will be attending the October Snifapalooza Fall Ball in New Yok City, headlining the October 11th luncheon (presenting a fifth Californica surprise scent, the 2nd edition of Chaparal and solid versions of her scents): to participate, contact Karen Adams at kadams@sniffapalooza.com.
For those in California, there will be an Aromatherapy 101 Seminar by Roxana on November 12th in the Santa Monica Massage School. Call 818.763.4912 to register.

Pics of artwork by Greg Spalenka and Roxana Villa provided by Roxana Illuminated Perfume, not to be reprinted wihout permission.


  1. Thx for the article perfumeshrine! I don 't know Roxana but I 've tried natural/independant perfumers such as Ayala etc and to me natural "perfumery" is not perfumery but aromatherapy. I know this sounds subjective but this is coming from a pro-green vegan vegetarian girl! Without certain synthetics compositions fall flat and lack artistic abstraction, they will smell like those literal rose waters and LOTV scents Coco Chanel wanted to stay away from. That said I totally support perfumers who don 't use animal products of course.

  2. stella polaris10:26

    I don't know her either, but would have enjoyed wearing her Lyra, not at least because I consider Pullman's Dark Materials triology to be among the best novels I have read the last years. Have you seen the "addition" Lyra's Oxford? The red small book is utterly beautiful, a beauty in itself (as a thing/object), nice illustration and with "extra"-materials. I know he has written another companion to the triology: Once upon a time in the north, about Lee Scoresby (the texan) meeting Iorek Byrnison (the bear). Oh, when cold starry winter nights come, I think I must get that book and read.. :)
    (I wonder what perfumes would match minus 20-30 degrees and starry beautiful nights? Usually I take refuge in warm summer-evoking scents then. But starry icy white scents perhaps exists?)

  3. Thank you Emanuella for your interesting comment and you're welcome on the article.

    You bring a valid point and one that is usually at the forefront of people who do not like the approach of natural perfumers. Honestly, I just think that certain efforts are better than others (from an aesthetic point of view) so just like with more mainstream fragrance it's a hit- and-miss thing: I don't like just any natural fragrance, just like I don't like just any synthetic fragrance! LOL

    That said, I do believe that apart from what Coco said (which was valid in her own time, when there was a revolutionizing of fashions and sensibilities breaking with the old, Belle Epoque style) one should approach natural perfumes as something completely different than mainstream or even niche perfumery: they're a special breed within niche and one needs to be attuned to that in order to be fair. The quest for abstraction can be attained (I highly recommend you sample Abdes Salaam's perfumes from Profumo.it line! ~or the G.Daude ones which I think you have, altough she did use a minimal amount of select synthetics for "hold").
    Then again I believe there is really nothing inherently wrong with a realistic composition that tries to capture a snapshot of nature, especially in our times when the opposite of Chanel's time is happening: don't we -in general- like and respect FDTRB by Creed because it is perhaps the truest tea-rose smelling fragrance on the market? Granted I don't usually wear it but that doesn't diminish its value in actually existing and owning it! ;-)

    As to animal products, that's a huge discussion and very confusing one at times: real animal products do smell better in perfumes alas, although I do feel kind of saddened by the thought of them being rendered through suffering (in the case of musk or castoreum). Then again vintage perfumes that do contain them have already used the harvested juice so one just might go ahead and use them since it doesn't really bring any difference to the animals' suffering any more , while oppose the use of them in current production (since that would entail a continued demand for cruelly rendered ingredients).
    Ah, a big can of worms and a confusing one as well (because so often the companies do not divulge and one cannot be 100% sure no matter how careful in research and comparison with the raw materials).

    Interesting topics though all of them :-)

  4. S,

    thanks for stopping by and also for informing me of the sequel to the book. I need to search that one up, then!

    It's very interesting to capture the scent of snow, of the North, of an icy landscape ~it's one of my own quests and honestly I don't think anyone has captured it yet! At least not what I envision as such myself (L'eau d'hiver, Van Cleef Les Saisons Hiver etc).
    I think a very crystalline, painfully pure accord would be best, something that smells of cold ringing air and Aurora Borealis luminosity...perhaps a little conifer resin and a hint of logfire smoke might be acceptable in the background ;-)

    Sounds good?

  5. stella polaris12:58

    I think you are right! It must be painfully pure (as the experience of standing under the stars a cold day/night of winter are), and resins may be added.
    (I am particularly fond of the smell of resins, since I am also a amateur violin player :)
    I have once smelled L'eau d'hiver, and it didn't say winter to me. Ellena's transprency is something else, the snow that should be captured is very dry, not wet. The driest and coldest there is.

  6. Glad you "get" what I am talking about, S! (knew you would!)
    Yes, I know about violin: wish I could hear you sometime.

    I think L'eau d'hiver is kinda warm, actually: that heliotropin thing that is in direct relation to Apres L'Ondee (then again I find ALO has a warmth to it too!)
    The snow has to be dry, if it's wet it's melting :P
    I think a good approximation might be the first couple of seconds of spraying the vintage Rive Gauche. If that could be prolonged and dried out on a little resiny yet cool note it could be perfect!
    (is anyone listening?? *hopeful looking around*)

  7. Thanks for this fantastic article! I will definitely try to catch her at her Santa Monica appearance... Absolutely love the Goethe song you quoted at the beginning...

  8. Amy H18:44

    What a coincidence! Today I'm testing one of Roxana's solid perfumes that I was lucky enough to win a sample of. It's not in production, but was something she made for her birthday (she called it Birthday Balm in her newsletter). It starts as a gorgeous earthy blend of indolic jasmine and orange on a base of labdanum and patchouli. I think it's well-balanced in the opening, but after a few minutes, it becomes somewhat base-heavy for me as the labdanum and patchouli dominate. I find it slightly too one-dimensional in the drydown, wish it had something else to foil off of. I'm not usually a solid perfume person, either, but I liked the consistency and level of fragrance. Lasts about 2 hours on me. I'm interested in trying more from her line!

  9. DC,

    thank you for your most kind words. Do catch her and report back for those of us who can't!

    Glad you like the song :-)

  10. Amy,

    thank you for stopping by and for your interesting comment!
    I heard about the solids from Roxana but haven't tried myself yet. It sounds very close to how a combination of Q and Lyra would smell like, lol.(good!)

  11. Mike Perez00:00

    A+ on the packaging. Bea-utiful!

  12. Perfume Monkey06:11

    Its an awesome relief, and about time that true natural perfumery is having a renaissance.
    Walking through the perfume sections of most department stores awash in a petrochemical haze
    always feels like someone has a vice grip on my throat and lungs.
    The human organism does not have a loving relationship with synthetics, hence the allergies that occur from toxic build up in the body.
    With all due respects to Coco, synthetic perfumery was born for two reasons...

    1. Standardized formulations of scents that would be the same, batch after batch after batch.
    2. Price. Synthetics, petrochemicals are cheaper than the real thing.

    Synthetics are the norm, and have their place in the sensory realm, however in my opinion comparing them to perfumes made from pure essential oils is like comparing faux wood linoleum to real wood, or an acrylic painting to one made with oils. Granted the talent of a perfumer will vary from one to another, but mark my words, Roxana Illuminated Perfume is a star on the rise.

    True natural perfumers are to be commended for several reasons.

    1. They are working with materials from the organic world, hence garnering a renewed respect and understanding of nature and the value it brings to us. There is also a living, dynamic quality inherent in essential oils that synthetics can never attain.

    2. The healing properties of essential oils (emotional and physical) are known in the medical circles and have been passed down for thousands of years in some cultures.

    3. Creating simplicity in complexity... Because there can be hundreds of chemical components in one true essential oil, a well blended natural perfume can have literally tens of thousands of chemical components melding together to create a symphony of scent.
    Synthetics are stripped down to simple chemical spikes limiting their potential. The challenge for the natural perfumer is to master the science and the artistry.

    4. Creating art with organic substances that are more complex and malleable allow them to evolve like a fine wine. This "cooking" process is an art unto itself.

    5. The bio chemicals inherent in essential oils meld with an individual's chemistry. Roxana's "Q" for instance will wed differently to every soul.

    Roxana's "Q" is a masterpiece of perfumery, natural or not. I love it, I wear it, and I'm a guy.

  13. M,

    isn't it? Love those touches of old.

  14. Well, I have nothing to add: you've given us quite a bit to think of PM! Dialogue is always good.

  15. Anonymous17:02

    Screechy, is the perfect word for my experience of synthetic perfumes. The article gave such an intriguing picture of Roxanna that I find myself compelled to try 'Q'.

  16. Coincidentally, I just received my sample of Q from Roxana today, and it certainly transcends the "natural perfume" genre. I have been wearing it for a couple of hours, along with Sierra and Vera, and with my slight cold, it is the one I can still smell. I admit to being a true Oakmoss ho' and that's what I"m happily getting from it today, I'll have to retry after my cold for more complexity!

    I'm not sure if I agree about consistency and commercial concerns being the main reasons for the uses of synthetics at first, although they certainly are within our own time.

    I think that probably Coty and Poiret, who seemed to be at the forefront of everything interesting style- and perfumewise at the beginning of the 20th centry, did it because they COULD, as is so often the case when new technology arises, but also because it gave them a much more complex palette to work with. Remember that Poiret was a Maximalist and his lab was generating scents as fast as they could, with matching custom bottles and boxes as well as several editions of each one, from uber-couture down to Macy's caliber product. Yes he was also the first designer to make a huge amount of money from scent before dear old Coco steamrolled everyone with her practicality and minimalism after the First War, ideals which go perfectly with synthetic scent ingredients. But all of these original scent creators used wonderful combinations of natural ingredients augmented by synthetics, however, a far cry from L'Eau D'Issey.

    Thanks for covering so many aspects of perfume on Perfume Shrine, Helg!

  17. Grace06:47

    Aromatherapy is a practice sorely misunderstood as Emmanuella has aptly demonstrated.

    Modern perfumery is synthetic chemistry. If you like that, then that's fine. But to suggest that natural perfumery falls flat and lacks artistic abstraction further illustrates a profound lack of knowledge in what has, and will always be, the original method of making perfume.

    It is for this reason I embrace Roxana Villa as she heralds a timely reminder to what has been lost to large conglomerates with huge advertising budgets that brainwash us into thinking that synthetics are the only way one can achieve a true perfume.

    I look forward to sampling more of her work.


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