Queen Midas of Vermont: Gardener’s Glove, First Cut & Frost by St.Clair Perfumes

Brilliant bitch and scent writer, the Silver Fox, on the debut of American perfumer, Diane St Clair and the beauty of her process. From butter to perfume, get ready for a smelly treat… 

As a scent writer one of the main reasons I gravitate toward niche and artisanal perfumery is that the makers, creators and artist perfumers are born to tell stories. Theirs is a different route to scent as opposed to those who enrol for perfume school and courses, inhaling their way through the exacting tenets of commercial perfumery. There is of course nothing wrong with this route and the olfactive world would be a poorer place without the dedication and determination of each new generation of perfumers trained immaculately with access to the world’s top materials courtesy of connections made as they worked their way through thousands of odours, both natural and synthetic.

I have been writing for many years now on perfume, the allure, oddities, passions and revulsions of olfaction and the remarkable people who dwell in this odd and sometimes infuriating world. Artisanal perfume makers create from the ground up. Selecting raw materials, blending, compounding, bottling and selling it; some stock sent off to selected and trusted distributors around the world. These makers are people who are instinctually gifted, raw talent that hones itself against a critical world with home-schooled gut instinct and repetitive trial and error. Some people can move a pencil across a sheet of paper, but they are hardly artists. Others can sway to pop music’s insistent beats, but principal dancers in a ballet company they are not. There must be vital fire, a natural creativity that makes such people curious and restless.

Many of my favourite artisanal perfumers are naturally gifted in other ways. Mandy Aftel, the Artisan Godmother was a weaver when she first moved to San Francisco, making her own natural dyes for yarns and she also trained as a successful therapist; these two facets of Mandy, creatrix and nurturer are still at the heart of how she conducts herself in the world of perfumery.  Her generosity and kindness are legendary. Hans Hendley is a photographer, David Moltz and his wife Kavi of D.S.& Durga are musician and architect respectively. Antonio Gardoni is an architect and designer, Dannielle Sergeant, John Biebel, Bruno Fazzolari and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz are all painters, Carlos Huber, the Director/Perfumer of Arquiste trained as an architectural historian and Paul Schütze… well, the man is a polymath with a quiver of many arrows; composer, photographer and of course composer of unique perfumes that resonate like his soundscapes and eerie electronica. Ellen Covey of Olympic Perfumes is not only an award-winning perfumer but also an expert orchid cultivator and world-renowned expert in bat echolocation informatics that was useful when she created Bat for Victor Wong’s Zoologist perfumes. Vincent Micotti at Ys Uzac was a concert-playing cellist before he embarked on his journey of musically inspired compositions. These are people who create; from ground to sky, hands stained with fretful failure, crafted elation and the beauty of personal endeavour.

Now I add the extraordinary Diane St Clair to my list of love.  She is a dairy farmer in Orwell, Vermont down on Animal Farm (yep…) Her gorgeous cows are the soft grass-fed Jersey kind, those beautiful perfect cow-cows that you picture as a child, caramel brown, big eyes and remarkable lashes. It seems somehow wrong to refer to Diane’s cows as a herd, they number only ten or eleven, so I think family is somehow more appropriate.  The butter she makes is literally like gold and despite her quiet Orwellian existence; it caused a sensation in the competitive, high-octane haute cuisine world of American top-tier eating.  Now she is composing exquisite, atmospheric perfumes reflective of herself and the world she inhabits.

She posted a picture on Instagram recently of her alluring butter and the bismuth hue vibrated with intensity. It looked more like colour pigment, linseed oil and yellow powder folded together. A decade ago Diane decided to learn how to turn buttermilk into butter the homestead way, with hard work and studious attention to detail, each part of the process with her hands on it, her nose in the milk as it were, sniffing the cow, grass and Vermont terroir that she loves so much

My interest in Diane was originally piqued by an insightful two-part essay by my friend Kafka for their blog and I urge you to read it, examining as it does Diane’s bold yet somehow understandably vivid urge to explore the full range of her terroir senses. Kafka’s scrupulous examination of the St.Clair perfumes is important in terms of how this experienced writer places Diane’s’ debut creations in the artisanal spectrum. The critique made me hungry to smell Vermont grass, thorny pollen-soaked air and rubbed leaf ambience.

Cows, butter, perfume.  Intrigued yet? Such an arc of ambrosial ambition.  The words seem simple and evocative, tugging at whatever associations we have with them roaming in our recall. But all three things in the heart, hands and mind of Diane St Clair make rich, redolent sense.

The school bus yellow of Diane’s celebrated butter is quite astonishing: a result of the rich creamy milk she is given by the Jersey cows that she loves and cares for. I asked her about the colour and she told me that the Channel Island breeds process the carotene in the grass differently from other bovines. On pasture, this translates into the sunflower yellow hue and also according to Diane a taste and whiff of seasonality. In the summer months the cows’ lush greener diet imparts a sweeter verdancy and herbaceous mouthfeel to the butter and the dry hay in the winter-feed ramps up the buttermilk content resulting in a more luxurious creamy taste. Butter that tastes of love and shifting seasons.

There is inherently a sense of uxorious unease with butter; its very animalic nature and love/hate relationship with food-lovers and diet gurus make it a sensual and forbidden substance- spreading it like molten gold over freshly cut sourdough, moist Russian rye and wrenched steaming baguette.  Oil is oil; butter is decadence.

There is a sense of wonder in what Diane does; her immersion in terroir: grass, hay, earth, rain, starlight, sunlove, her soft beloved cows, their husbandry, midwifery… their heat, colour and comfort. All of this is folded and creamed into moreish gold.

Diane hand-works her butter on marble like patisserie chefs turn pastry and chocolatiers temper chocolate; this allows her to work the fats and I suspect gives her another level of connection with the processes that matters so much to her. As well as being the colour of gold Diane’s butter has the culinary status of the precious metal. Early on she sent a hand-written note to the celebrated American chef Thomas Keller along with some of her butter – a quarter pound round, packed in a plain transparent Ziploc bag. To say he was impressed is probably understating his reaction and even now his legendary French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley is one of the few places where you can taste Orwell Farm butter.  Keller owns Per Se, Bouchon and Ad Hoc along with French Laundry and he was the first US chef to hold multiple three star ratings in the Michelin Guide.  In 2011 he was the first male US chef to be made a Chevalier Légion D’Honneur for his commitment and upholding of French traditions of cooking in American cuisine. He greedily (but understandably) buys nearly all of Diane’s butter with small amounts going to a couple of other blessed chefs and any leftovers or glut butter being sold along with the buttermilk at Middleburgh Natural Co-op near the farm and Saxelby Cheesemongers in NYC.

Happily for the process, the quality of her product and the welfare of her cows, Diane has resolutely resisted any obvious opportunity for expansion and more money. She is committed also to the artisan quality of her perfume process – her senses tuned to the Vermont surroundings. It seems on the surface an enviable work/life balance but I get the feeling it is has been hard fought and while the idyllic nature of pioneer-style butter making and cow devotion looks alluring, her dedication and single-mindedness has been gnarly and sleepless.  

Writing about these St Clair perfumes during an intensely fraught period of convalescence has been the most beautiful escape. I sense the perfumes’ slipstream in the air, graze fingertips through grass, and inhale air redolent with pollen and the mote-drunk air of seasonal variance. There is such immediacy and personal welcome in Diane’s perfumery, her notes, accords and blending are more akin to well-written words, pulling you into a bucolic fiction of Thomas Hardy landscapes. This mix of expanse and privacy is a key part of the sensual appeal of the St Clair scents as if Diane has an unspoken hesitancy about her skills while at the same time knowing that her compositions have instinctual memoir.

The move from butter into perfume is not as strange as it might at first seem, Diane carries her detailed preoccupation and awareness of her surroundings into acutely observed olfactive impressions of Animal Farm and its shifting seasons.  I sense an inquisitive spirit in her, someone who is aware on many levels of the odours around her and how they might fit together to create immersive scentscapes. Lots of us might feel we notice things, smell the air and flora, take in the hidebound ripeness of animals and imagine these things casting the spell of a blissful rural wander. But few of us set out to truly capture them.

Diane very kindly sent me samples of all three perfumes, but I ended up buying them, I realised I needed them in my collection. The samples were dabbers and I wanted to spray as liberally as my mood required. The mix of air and perfume in atomisers is always preferable to me unless the concentrations of essential oil suggest otherwise. The difference in atmospherics was subtle but different enough to create shifts of Vermont weather on the skin.  You also get a true sense of how richly botanical these perfumes are and the careful balancing act that Diane has achieved between surging horticulture and quiet contemplation.

As the perfume bug bit, Diane realised she would need help. She approached olfaction in much the same way as butter, small batches of excellently made product, created using the finest natural ingredients.  Diane attended a workshop held by Grasse-trained perfumer Eliza Douglas who splits her time between the UK and New York where she works for DreamAir, the highly regarded and innovative fragrance factory founded by Christophe Laudamiel, one of the most fascinating and original scented voices in the business today. With some of the industry’s big hits under his punkish belt (like A&F’s Fierce and Polo Blue…) he finds oddness in seemingly mundane accords, surrealism in the ordinary. The perfumes he created for Strangelove NYC are magical lavish constructions of carefully considered materials that both harmonise and sing along. His debut collection The Zoo is startling, each perfume loaded with dazzle and addictive intrigue. I am obsessed with Scent Tattoo, a post-coital sandalwood and leather scent that glistens and refracts like petrol spills.  The name has a brilliant double reference: scent akin to ink patterned, swirled and traced onto skin and also the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the dizzying annual spectacle of Christophe’s beloved tartan, musical ceremony and military tradition that unfurls on the dramatic esplanade beneath Edinburgh Castle each night in August.

Eliza agreed to work and communicate with Diane, thus becoming a valued mentor, teacher and friend.  Trials, accords and hope travelled back and forth between Orwell and New York and slowly but surely Diane painted her world into a detailed and beautiful trio of perfumes.  Christophe has also helped, sampling her work and making suggestions. His payment? Diane’s delicious butter of course. He is French after all. He even visited her in Vermont and was very taken with the beauteous Jersey cows. This invaluable assistance has helped Diane hugely on her journey as a perfumer, working her way through the technical challenges of olfactive assembly and the difficulties of building accords that would hold together and help her ideas bloom.  Frost, Gardener’s Glove and First Cut are the work of a woman entranced by her environment, learning as she inhales, pulling ideas from soil, air, water and sky. They are learning scents, but the curve is divine.

Quiet is the new black.  The conception of hushed perfumery and its private harmony with skin is truly to be prized.  Bombast and targeted pomp despite selling well in some markets is ultimately unfulfilling and generic. As I have withdrawn from the world my search for authenticity in many things become paramount, including fragrance. This doesn’t mean organic or necessarily 100% natural but it does mean personal, properly artisanal makers in touch with their materials from inception to wearer.

When you work with naturals there will always be a concern that the resulting perfumery is more hushed in comparison to more conventional fragrance or the feral radiation of ouds or dessert tables groaning with gourmand excess.  Each to their own and my collection is no stranger to excess, but perfumers like Hiram Green, Rodney Hughes at Therapeutate and Tanja Bochnig at April Aromatics are using measured stillness and elemental power to explore the minutiae of environment and mood. We pause and walk their worlds, taking care to absorb the scentscapes. Diane St Clair’s terroir perfumes are the perfect embodiment of this style.

Now, onto the perfumes themselves. There is a gleeful rush of smashed jasmine in the opening of Gardener’s Glove, mixed with the green yeastiness of linden and divisive curves of waxen lilies. It is quite the start. A smartly arranged trio of apricot, saffron and enigmatic bittersweet lemon underplays the floral opening as it settles into a muted yet arresting pollen mood. This is pungently shot through with the gourmand familiarity of blackcurrant bud, deliciously tea-like, heightening the sense of garden and meadow harvest, broken stem and trodden leaf.

The concept of Gardener’s Glove is beautiful. Garden tools and paraphernalia gather gradual soul with the accruement of dirt and decay, the rubbed, snapped history of hedgerows, borders, orchards, meadows, flowerbeds, fields and woods. And there are the evocative delights of spades, trugs, secateurs, trowels and twine, bamboo, flowerpots, seed trays, kneelers and wheelbarrows. These objects, much used and well loved, they smell and feel potent with age, dust and blooms crushed across iron, wood and leather.  I’m aware that many of us don’t have access to working gardens, something that makes my heart ache as I age. Daily wanders through the Royal Botanic Gardens assuage the longing, but not quite enough.

Diane has conjured up this extraordinary concept of a gardener’s glove. I think the singular glove subconsciously is an important part of the fiction, something elegantly familiar, used over and over in a semi-feral garden drenched in bees. The leather of the glove has been healed with waxes over the years and these have absorbed the shed, porch, greenhouse and pull of leaf, berry, thorn and rain-soaked petal. Earth and chlorophyll stain the map of unfurled cracks that over time have moulded into the malleable palm.

One of the things you notice with all three St.Clair perfumes is the big naturalistic embrace of the openings, Diane imprinting the details of terroir upon us. While you are being seduced by the notes on skin you realise the diffusion of Vermont mood into the air around you. I think this frisson of weather turning, arresting us, only really comes with artisanal perfumers and the way their souls seep into the essence of their work.

Spraying Gardener’s Glove creates a rush of abandoned greenhouse, the air has a slightly different weight in my nose, and the texture somehow smells brighter, more sparkled. I get lost in meadow notes, cut grass and the odour of whispering flora. Diane has used leather and saffron to suggest the body of the glove, bolstered by a delicate use of patchouli, benzoin resin and a distinctive rice-like vetiver.  Some wicked, mucky castoreum (a synthetic form of beaver musk) and smoky fir needle add eccentricity and fleshiness to the layers of grasses, resins and citrus. This glove has rubs of intense jasmine, the blossoms leaving giddy impact on the leather. Perhaps a little soapy on the flooded nose, but then increasingly joyful and alive. No matter what else they gather, the ghost of these sensual blooms will haunt the glove like persistent enfleurage.

Each occasion of wearing affords new and subtle pleasures. The sensation of wearing nature in its tactile hazy summer residue way is at times quite moving. In the wrecked garden of the family home that my parents sold in the wake of a deeply unsettling and often bitter divorce were the remains of a Victorian coach house. In front of this was a sullen mossy greenhouse where I have blurred recollections of dissolvable seed trays and the sharp lemon-green finger sniff of tomato plants. Many of my home memories have been tainted by the rendering of a forty-five year marriage, but that top corner of the garden remains a heady recollection of linden, elderflower and decay, mingled with the abandonment of tomato plants, fractured glass and weary aluminium.  There were feral fruit trees and a mossy stone bench that had collapsed like an ancient henge. These memories were lured into life again by the dizzying, close capture of Diane’s perfume work.

They say the first cut is the deepest. Diane’s First Cut is certainly an olfactory incision of sorts in air, on skin, of some arresting beauty; the chafed herbiness of basil and rosemary initially rich, buoyed up by the honeyed pressure of a lovely rose. The effect is of early morning light in a still, warm kitchen.  Over the years of writing I have developed a reserved preoccupation with immortelle, its gorsy cicada warmth adds a sense of stillness to the opening weather of First Cut, working beautifully as the top notes mellow the yuzu fruit, its expressive facets oscillating between grapefruit, litsea cubeba and mimosa. This beautifully made start flickers and floats on card as a cold, cold hay note rises; not a tobacco, coumarin exhalation as I might have expected but the olfactive vision of a worn Shaker table scattered with fresh straw, low light, as evening falls.

It is of course skin that causes revelation and Diane’s work is no exception. First Cut is more intensely abstract and cohesive on flesh, the elements harder to read. On card it is easier to track and recognise materials but on skin, as it should be, it becomes more elusive, yet all the more fascinating. It is here that the golden-sweet hay St. Clair leitmotif stains First Cut in the most addictive way.

During the preternaturally hot weather that sulked over the city and most of Europe in June and July, First Cut felt like the most divine stint of rehab; lost in a green-thrashed floral bower, light filtering through layers of chlorophyll-rich leaves and shrubby air. A lemon tree sweats a citric mood into your recovery and lavender, roses and the lovely dry barkiness of oakmoss catches on the edges of a thousand imagined sensual throats. I really love the hay absolute Diane has used; it’s a hard note to control, small doses often dissipate and leave an uncomfortable space, but calibrated correctly and blended with imagination, hay absolute brings beautiful atmosphere and warmth to compositions.

I generally rise early but this summer I was getting up at five am to work in the residue of any night coolness before the hammer blow of the heatwave fell. With repeated wearings I’ve realised it is the entwining of rose and immortelle in First Cut, a kind of buzzing ochre-smeared madder that transmits blond pipe tobacco on skin.  In the mornings this odour utterly delights me and right now, calms the fuck out of a weary fox. As the tobacco forages skin it aids the gentle development of smoke and a grassy vanilla. The kitchen-rubbed basil and rosemary don’t completely fade but sink into the base like piquant culinary memory.

If I had to choose one of Diane’s trio that felt somehow different, it would be Frost, inspired by Robert Frost’s poem To Earthward, it is a little more insistent with a mood and reach that points to future direction and thought processes. It is the strongest of the three or at least the one from bottle to skin with the most powerful flesh bounce and echo.

It is also the part of the trilogy I have taken longest to love but that love has deepened to something akin to obsession. When you first hear the name Frost it will settle in your psyche depending on how you hear the word and your associations with it. For most of us this will be chill, cold, Jack Frost, first frost, hoarfrost and gardens veiled wedding white as dawn breaks on gelid petals, stalks and blooms. Intriguingly there is none of this in Frost, but those of who read poetry, especially American poetry will hopefully think of Robert Frost, nature poet par excellence whose emotive words profoundly shaped how America has considered its rural environs, listened to its skies and inhaled its weather. In times of bleak shadow I have often picked up my collected poems and lost myself in Frost’s revelatory natural minutiae of the human condition. I had to re-purchase my copy of his Collected Poems after lending mine to someone who lost it. (LOST IT! Don’t lend books people. Your heart will always be broken.)

Reading Frost’s poems again chronologically, I felt the power of his connections to land and spirit swell, falter, crack and mend. His words remind me that perfection is impossible and chasing it is sad folly. To Earthward, from Frost’s 1923 collection New Hampshire that also includes Nothing Gold Can Stay, and Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening is an eight-stanza poem that celebrates a journey of loving; the first four verses look at that intoxicating first flush of passion when anything seems possible. Love renders us immortal, senses alive to everything around us and we cannot imagine how it could ever come to an end.  The second darker, more rooted half explores the shadows of reality creeping over the light of love. Difficulty, struggle, smoke, amertume, weariness. Time marks us. The ceilidh of infatuation and first crush fades. Love is grounded.

To Earthward is not a particularly easy poem to open, but poetry like with many things in life, interpretation is subjective and often dependent on personal experience. I personally never quite forget the power of reading new poems, discovering new poets and feeling their words and rhythms blow through my mind like squalls of unexpected weather.

It was delightful to discover a poetic homage to Frost, tipping an olfactive hat to the poet’s understanding of American flora and fauna. Love as flower, love as trees, spice, petal and ground. To Earthward breaks the back of sadness and exposes the burial of love after a lifetime of shared intimate detail.  There are key natural motifs in the poem, redolent images that echo the shifting schematics of giddy all-consuming first love to the charred aromas of endings.

Frost is a noticeably stronger perfume than either First Cut or Gardener’s Glove and its initial overture is divine, a scent of Christmas homemade pomanders; mandarins studded patiently in cloves and then rolled in orris powder and left in a dry, dark place to desiccate slowly. The orris adds its own alluring odour of powdered mystery. My mother used to make these, inspired in part by Eleanor Farjeon’s poem The Clove Orange.

I’ll make a clove orange to give to my darling.

The mix of clove absolute in the base, Meyer lemon, bergamot, mandarin and woody sweet petitgrain is the most perfect rendition of freshly made pomander, the fruits sticky and dusty with labour, lined up on a juice scattered table top.  It is a persuasive start and this pomander note drifts like a heritage phantom throughout Frost’s journey on skin. It becomes less clovey as Diane replaces its sweet spiked spice with a moody smokiness in the final stages to remind us that love and the fumes of passion are essentially ephemeral concepts.

‘Now no joy but lacks salt,

That is not doused in pain

And weariness and fault;

I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark

Of almost too much love,

The sweet of bitter bark

And burning clove.’

If you read this out loud savouring the taste of the words in your mouth, you can smell the odours; an aftermark of woody bark and the madder-mist of clove. (The word aftermark makes me sigh with joy). The aftermark of Frost on skin, the shadows of materials lingering like past conversations in empty rooms is why I find this particular perfume so compelling. Diane has in some respects used To Earthward like a recipe, words handed down from mother to daughter, and perhaps over the years women have scribbled notes on the page. But Frost is more than this, Diane, like Frost is profoundly influenced by her surroundings and the Vermont terroir.  

Frost’s ‘…sprays of honeysuckle, That when they’re gathered shake, Dew on the knuckle.’ are given soft luminosity by the Stil de grain yellow accord that Diane surrounds with rose geranium and elderflower absolute with its lovely chocolate-dipped apricot nuances. The vividness of Frost’s ephemeral wet words is quite visceral in its olfactive rendering. When I worked in perfumery I was asked many times for sweet peas and honeysuckle, two blooms deemed as old-fashioned and unextractable. Things have moved on considerably in terms of technical applications and creativity but ultimately it is still the instinctive skill of the perfumer that allows us to experience such flowers.

The gift, or trick if you want to be churlish, is to balance the fleeting knowability of such blooms yet also impress upon us their beauty and classicism. Poets use economy and huge emotional resonance in their arsenal to move, enrage, romance, shock and awe us. The perfumer must do something similar, creating from a palette of natural materials in Diane’s case to illuminate, hopefully prompting us to inhale and momentarily conjure memories of fragile and elusive flowers.

The nostalgic paroxysm of honeysuckle, a lipstick blur of rose geranium, grass, the earth beneath us, air, grapevines and musks; these things move like weather through To Earthward as the love rises and falls to the soil, grounded by the weight of time and perhaps our own expectations of desire. Love is in the details, the minutiae of time spent together and eventually the drydown of our lives is both humbling and scented with relief, honeysuckle and the beautiful drift of smoke, clove and setting sun.

This essay has taken me months to write, Diane St Clair’s debut trio deserved this attention and intense scrutiny. They made me think a lot. I have chatted back and forth to Diane and she has been immensely kind and generous with her time. It is not telling tales to say she questions this olfactive shift in her life, immersed in the brutal delicacy of perfumery as she creates her treasured golden butter and mothers her creamy, dreamy Jersey cows.  She wonders if her work is perhaps too quiet for an olfactive world preoccupied with money, blatant trends and repetition. But as with modern cities and banal architecture there will always be delicate flowers and verdancy that peek through paving, split facings and commuter pathways. These things are all the more beautiful and valued because of their rarity and unexpected loveliness.

I search now for quietude in my life but I still want moments of intensity and difference; these don’t have to be accompanied by flashing lights and booming aromatic pomp. The fact that Diane St Clair has thought to move her considerable skills sideways from conscientious animal husbandry and artisanal butter making into the often divisive and highly competitive perfume world makes me feel at once passionately supportive and fearful. Niche is on it knees and mainstream scent is running on wearisome empty. True innovation or a natural awareness of real beauty is rare. There is a lot of talk of finely sourced materials, as if these will transmute mediocre visions and skill sets into perfume gold.

Each wearing of Gardner’s Glove, First Cut and Frost reminds me why I love artisanal scent and the world of creative olfaction but also poignantly why I chose to stop being a part of it, halting more regular essays and my social media presence, withdrawing into a world of floral photography and botany.  The words flow slower, my mind focuses a little less, burned out I guess by disaffection. But then Vermont weather dawns, my skins smells of meadows in sunlight, grass pollen and peaceful woodland. Flowers sigh, insects hum and I say to myself…Diane St Clair thank you for slowing time a little, creating perfumes of such personal resonance and grace.

Read more from The Silver Fox here.