The Perfumer: Sanae Barber

LA-based perfumer Sanae Barber is a modern-day alchemist who brings a distinct sensibility to the world of scents

By Sponsored by Hendrick's Gin

Published September 17, 2013 4:01AM (EDT)

This is the fourth installment in a new series called Keepers of Curiosity, featuring interviews with intrepid performers, artists, writers and culinary-minded individuals with a thirst for discovery and innovation. The series is brought to you by Hendrick's Gin. To read the other interviews in this series, click here.

What do you do?
I wake up and I get dressed in a robe. Then I walk through a land of dreams. It’s a manmade land with natural things full of highly ornamented rooms, divine creatures, intricate rituals, inspiring inscriptions, and gorgeous nymphs who bring me the essences of songs, lyrics, and stories. Then I weave fragrances which sing these songs and tell these stories in a made-up language unique to each person.

To make this happen, I primarily blend and wear pure perfume oils, however over the last few months, I’ve been experimenting more and more with eau de parfum, which basically has a higher alcohol content. The ingredients are all the same, but there is a difference in the alcohol to perfume content ratio, which by the way, is still natural, I only use food-based, organic spirits and natural botanic oils. And, of course, the experience of applying and wearing the perfumes is different.

Pure perfume oils are concentrated; they’re a dense experience; the application is more direct. With eau de parfum on the other hand, you incorporate an atomizer. And I love atomizers! They disperse the scent in a different way, creating a new experience. It’s still very long lasting and beautiful, but different. I wouldn’t diminish one or the other. They’re just unique experiences. You could say, there’s a magic to an atomizer and an elegance to a perfume oil. They’re both right for different moods and occasions.

Where do you mine inspiration?
From the fairies that live in the forest, especially the ones who inhabit the hills of the Pacific coastline. Recently, I’ve also been incredibly inspired by my collaboration with folk singer-songwriter Father John Misty.

How would you describe your work?
As a mysterious inscription that tells the story of memory theater through the sense of scent.

What are you most inquisitive about?
I’m most inquisitive about the language of scents, and the effects of that language once it envelopes you. I’m also most inquisitive late at night and early in the morning.

What drives your curiosity?
A desire to share interpretations with people. Communication beyond words and thoughts.

How do you keep things curious?
Curiosity can happen at any moment, like a breeze though your hair or wind felling trees, like wafting moments of sidewalk rosemary, surprising notes of night-blooming jasmine, or spotting a star at the same instance I smell an orange blossom nearby.

What's your next project?
Well I’m generally reserved with whispers of the future, but this dream has formed a shape beyond the lucid mornings. It’s a collaboration with Isis Aquarian of Father Yod’s Source Family. It’s reminiscent of ritual incense. I’d say the strongest notes are Copal and Rose de Mai absolute. Each day I’m spending more and more time with this one. Looking forward to seeing what kind of life it takes on.

Is your work for now or later?
The work is never for any time. When a time limit or expectation is created, the life is sucked out of the dream immediately. The fragrance is a story and has a life of its own, including all the stories around the making of the scent.

What curiosity does your work satisfy
The thing I am most curious about with the perfume project is the natural organic way it came about. The intoxicants have a life of their own. I can be in my dreams, walking through my day, making a new story, or being asked to tell it over and over again. This is an extraordinary experience I’m having with my work right now.

Everyone I come in contact with, related to scent, has his or her own unique story to tell. I find it interesting. When I first put out the Bonnie Billy scent some people insisted, “This is a more feminine scent,” while others said, “This is very masculine.” Some thought it was more intense, others felt it was softer. The same is true for my other perfumes, as well. Smell is like music: One day you might not like an artist or song and the next day it’s your favorite one. It’s also like food. I used to hate raw tomatoes, now I grow them in my garden and eat one a day.

Tastes and senses can change. I feel it’s related to moods and how open a person is at any given time in their life—or closed. In this way, scent, like music, art, or fashion, can be an expression. Maybe you want to have a new story to tell or you want to define yourself in a new way. Scent like clothes, like food, like music, can define and redefine who you are, or who you desire to be. It’s fun. It’s fashion. Scent is a part of that game we all get to play. It’s what makes us and defines us as humans.

For more on Sanae Barber and Sanae Intoxicants visit or follow her at @SanaeIntoxicants

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