Perfumer Persephenie Lea Goes Beyond Bespoke
At the base, Persephenie Lea is an artist, but she’s got a mad scientist top note. Surrounded by extract-filled test tubes, droppers, and apothecary bottles, the exotic perfumer mixes up customized, scented potions for a select clientele at her appointment-only studio off L.A.’s W. Third Street. Last year, Lea made herself slightly more conspicuous with the launch of Persephenie, her debut line of naturally scented body butters, oils, powders, and balms. “I wanted to create products that people could use as part of their daily ritual,” she says of the decision to branch out. “Something special, but not so special that it was reserved for occasions.” She ended up with five different products, including Jade Camellia Organic Body Balm, Linden Blossom Dry Body Oil, Nanu Lei Fizzy Bath Powder, Nanu Lei Butter, and Neroli Infusion Organic Body Oil with Marula Oil, the lattermost of which is hand-pressed by a women’s collective in South Africa. This month, she’ll go a step further with the introduction of four ready-to-wear fragrances along with a line of aromatic jewelry (think: rosary riffs made from baked flowers soaked in rose oil, pictured at left in photos lensed by Lea’s friend and fellow artist (and former Jojovich-Hawk designer) Carmen Hawk). Below, the L.A. native breaks down each of her new eaux and shares her excitement at finally being able to “dive into all the different musks that are out there!”
What first inspired you to become an artist and professional tinkerer?
My father is a pawn broker, which had a huge influence on me. I grew up with all this vintage jewelry. And he’s an eccentric person. In his own way, he lives like an artist. He’s always creating weird, wonky mechanical things. My mother is also crafty.
How did that translate into creating body products and custom fragrances?
I got into botanicals because I love incense making. I explored medicinal/therapeutic uses for essential oils, but ultimately my artistic nature drove me to prioritize beauty and layer them for perfume. There are no schools in the U.S. [for this]; it’s more about individuals who have figured things out for themselves. I collected books and took courses with Jeanne Rose, the grandmother of aromatherapy in America. But the best learning experience was creating custom perfumes for actual people because I had to play with new ingredients. So, I think my best teachers are my clients.
Has L.A. always been a source of inspiration for you?
I actually left L.A. when I was 17 years old and moved around to different cities, living kind of a bohemian lifestyle until I was 26. Then I rediscovered L.A., where I connected with designers like Michelle Mason and Magda Berliner, while coordinating fashion shows with Lisa Elliot at eM Productions. I traveled to India and when I got home, I had so much experience with raw materials from around the world and with blending. I never aimed to be a perfumer—I always created jewelry. But I love making perfume. There’s always this comparison to music with top, middle, and base notes, but for me it’s like oil painting, layering transparencies with scents instead of colors to create something beautiful and well balanced.
Tell us about the new scents.
I created four perfumes: two botanical and two hybrid, which means that, for the first time, I used fragrance oils (or aroma chemicals). As a natural perfumer, it was a really big deal for me to include synthetics, but artistically, it has opened up another world for me. I can really dive into all the different musks that are out there! Datura is named for a very aromatic, night-blooming trumpet flower. The smell is just incredible! It reminds me of being in L.A., when the night jasmine and purple jacaranda bloom, but it’s cradled in caramel and musk. Kildren is based on a Japanese anime character—a teenage pilot—from Sky Crawlers. The characters smoke and have sex and are very edgy, but they’re also young and innocent. In the scent, I used bright youthful notes like citrus and ginger, but also more adult coconut, amber, and orris root from an iris flower. Then there’s Snuff, which is unisex and inspired by my old nomadic party life. It smells a bit like leather, tobacco, and wood. It has a masculine quality that’s sexy and worn-in and used, but nostalgic at the same time.
What’s up next for you?
I’m creating a more masculine body line and, down the road, hopefully more limited-edition perfumes. The rosaries are new, too, and I’m really excited to incorporate aromatic jewelry and accessories. Right now I’m experimenting with scenting leather for these aromatic wallets and pouches. I think no matter what I make I will always incorporate aromatics, but I’ll let my heart pick where it goes.