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The Seduction of Scent: Meet Boise Perfumer Elise Wishlow

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Boise perfumer Elise Wishlow talks about crafting scent the way other artists talk about painting or music. She starts, she said, with a specific smell in mind—maybe jasmine, rose or spruce—and then blends "up, down and sideways" with her arsenal of essential oils, layering sensory notes over each other like brushstrokes.

"The top notes are essences like citrus or really light herbs, and they're the first that you smell and the first to lift off. They don't last very long, so you're going to want quite a few of those in your blend," she said. "The middle notes are usually the florals—the herbs, some spices—and then your base notes are the heavier fixatives. They'll generally anchor the blend, and those are woods [and] resins."

LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson

It's a delicate process, and one that can take weeks, months or even years to perfect. But for Wishlow, the soft-spoken mastermind (or, more accurately, "master nose") behind Boise's Press & Still botanical perfumery, it's also a calling that has tugged at her for decades, ever since she took a job at an aromatherapy shop in college that introduced her to essential oils.

"I'd probably say [Press & Still] is 20 years in the making. That's how long I've been thinking about it," she said.

Wishlow holds down a job in marketing and graphic design, but she spends every spare hour in her tiny jewel box of a perfume lab on State Street that's tucked unobtrusively between a barber shop and an auto repair center. It's chilly inside, crammed with gleaming metal tables and shelf upon shelf of shoe boxes with mysterious labels like "Jasmine 95-113" and "Ros/Ros-Ger 137-162."

"All of these boxes—" Wishlow said, gesturing around the laboratory's walls, "—are full of teeny, tiny little bottles of past blends that have led to products I have now, or they just never went anywhere."

LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson

The discarded scents easily number in the hundreds. And when Wishlow talks about her process, it's clear why: Her perfumes often begin with as many as 20 different oils, which she blends and re-blends—first by scribbling down ratios on recipe sheets, then by mixing drops of oil—dozens and sometimes hundreds of times before settling on a favorite. The process is stretched out even further because she uses only pure, natural ingredients, which require her to wait two weeks for "the molecules to marry" after blending. That's the only way to get an accurate read of what the perfume will be like in the bottle.

All of this explains why it took Wishlow years to get her first product, a lavender, jasmine and patchouli-scented perfume called Despair is Folly, to market. A year and a half later, she's finally ready to offer a full line of perfumes and aromatherapy oils, which range from woodsy Sombrio to spicy, floral Cleo. The line debuted on her website Dec. 5.

"I decided to step back from the 10-, 15-, 20-ingredient blends and go back to what I originally did in 1998, which is just five, six oils that are meant to help with certain states of mind," she explained.

Those oils are responsible for the heady, intricate aromas of Wishlow's perfumes. She's clearly fascinated by them, talking about their scents and origins in an almost reverent tone.

"I started ordering and ordering and ordering. I went through this process—which took probably years—of just discovering a whole new set of oils. Like ambrette seed, I'd never heard of that, that's a vegetable musk. There were so many. So I went on this kind of journey learning all about these oils. I have this little notebook. I would order something in, I would put a drop of it on a tester, smell it right out of the bottle and continue to smell it in 15-minute intervals throughout the dryout, which would be hours sometimes, and just kind of record my initial thoughts and keep taking notes," she said.

CJ WARD PHOTOGRAPHY
  • CJ Ward Photography

In the lab that day, Wishlow had more than 50 different oils on hand, and she explained how she chooses them in the same terms a vintner would use to talk about wine. Rather than using absolutes (aromatic oils extracted with solvents), which are common even among natural perfumers, Wishlow favors oils that have been cold pressed or steam distilled—the two processes that gave her perfumery its name. Before bottling, she mixes the oils with golden jojoba wax (a moisturizer) and vitamin E (a preservative).

Speaking of names, Wishlow chooses them just as carefully as she does her ingredients. Each of her perfumes gets its moniker only after she spends hours researching plant and flower-related folklore. Cleo, which is rose-heavy and sultry, is named for Cleopatra, while the light, fruity Malmaison, Wishlow said smells like a garden, which gets its name from the estate of Josephine Bonaparte, who cultivated one of the first specimen gardens.

Those chemical-free scents won't last forever, though. So Wishlow offered a final word of advice on wearing natural perfumes:

"What I say to people is, 'Don't hoard it.' You know how some people will just put something away in their drawer and save it for a special occasion? Don't do that. You need to use it up."