JUNIPER RIDGE: Re-thinking the Concept of Perfumery

Interview: PERISCOPE / Photography: Ports Bishop

Let's face it, a lot of big cities smell bad.  You might not realize that while you are there, but it becomes apparent once you leave the place. Juniper Ridge, the world's only wild fragrance company, has been providing a solution to us pathetic city dwellers who love nature.  Not only do they make their products (cologne, room sprays, incense sticks) with 100% natural ingredients by extracting fragrance from plants, trees, wild herbs, and mushrooms, but they are site-specific and work to capture the smell of wilderness areas in the West, such as Big Sur, the Mojave Desert, the Yuba River, and the Siskiyou Mountains. Hall Newbegin, the founder of Juniper Ridge, was recently in Brooklyn for the opening of the pop-up store at Fellow Barber, and that’s where we caught up with him.

How did you get started as the wild fragrance brand?
I grew up in Portland, and went backpacking a lot when I was in high school. I came to New York for college, and really loved New York, but found myself missing the West Coast a lot. I think I was just hungry for that delicious, rich ecosystem and deep wilderness that we have in California and the Pacific Northwest. When I moved to San Francisco after college, I did a lot of odd jobs, spending my time painting houses, working as an office temp, and I even sold sprinklers for my dad for awhile. And then spending every moment of free time out on the trails of the Bay Area.
At some point, I decided to go to an herbal medicine school. I learned about harvesting wild mushrooms and other wild plants for medicinal purposes. From there, I started harvesting things to make syrups, jams, and teas, mostly for my friends. They were really encouraging, so I began to sell them at a farmer's market in the Bay Area in the late 90's.
What was the first product of Juniper Ridge?
The first two products were incenses and soaps — very simple. I also made bundles of wild-harvested sage. From the beginning it was always about bringing the mountains into people’s homes. It was never about being a soap maker or incense maker. It was about giving them that place. And that's still pretty much what Juniper Ridge is doing. We've been able to work with the forest service to sustainably harvest our natural ingredients on a larger scale. And we've invested in better distilling equipment and so we can use more sophisticated fragrance-extraction techniques.
It is about bringing nature to people?
Yeah, I always loved being in the mountains. It is not just about walking in the woods.  I've always related to mushroom harvesters because they get so deep into it. They are on their hands and knees doing this, and they're deep in that place. It’s a different thing than exercising and just running past all the greenness. If you engage with your senses, your animal senses, there's something inside of you that wakes up. It’s really a part of our evolution, it’s not like a New Agey concept or spiritual concept or anything. It’s just that fact we are animals and we evolve with nature. And the sense of smell and the way we interact with plants and trees is intimately connected to that evolution.
Is it complicated to make the fragrance out of all natural ingredients? I was once told that you need some synthetic ingredients to make it last.
It's definitely a commitment. I have never bought outside fragrance ingredients for one of our products. If we want an ingredient, we put our boots on and we go get it. I get offers everyday from folks who want to send me five-gallon drums of cheap, synthetic crap. But if we use it, it wouldn't be our place anymore, it wouldn't be Big Sur.
As for making the scent last for a long time on your skin, I think it is perfectly fine if it doesn't last all day. Our fragrances aren't clinging or cloying. We love that they stick around for a few hours and then vanish. That's what real fragrance does.  
So in a way, you are trying to change the concept of perfumery, the way people think about. 
That’s right. Why has fragrance become this weird specialized thing that they have at perfume counters? Fragrance has always been about using animal senses. Romans used to infuse plants and the oil and make these things like taro cakes with Mediterranean plants like rosemary and lavender. And they’d wear them on their heads, and they would melt over the body throughout the day. Fragrance has always been about wearing nature on our bodies, and I'm trying to take fragrance back to its wild roots.  
It's interesting that you started out in the late 90’s in San Francisco where the whole artisanal culture exploded first. It didn’t catch on here until around 2007, 2008.
There wasn’t a market for our stuff until five, six years ago. Whole Foods would tell us they can't sell anything priced at more than 20 dollars.  So for the first eight years of my business I felt like I was banging my head against the wall. I thought to myself, this is really expensive to make, I know it’s beautiful, I know there is a fancy market out there, somewhere they would like this because it’s exactly like organic food, it’s exactly the kind of stuff I see at farmers market, and farmers market customers are buying it. There's a very small, sophisticated circle that was the leading edge of that stuff. And it’s spread out from there, so there is a definite wave.
And there are a lot of like-minded people in different fields, it seems like.  
I started out around the same time James (Freeman) from Blue Bottle Coffee started out, and back then, there weren’t many around. Now there are people like Abe (Burmeister) and Tyler (Clemens) from Outlier, or Dan (Abraham) from Art in the Age. There's Freeman Coats in Seattle.  I just recognize what people are doing, and I say “Oh, I see your goodness in alcohol. I see you doing this with backpack. ” Hikers and backpackers, we spot each other. It’s just like in Brooklyn, on every corner, there's someone bringing their pickles, everyone's making all kinds of things. It’s funny, Portlandia makes fun of that. And it is totally hilarious. Very over the top. But at the same time, it's so beautiful. I mean, what a wonderful world that all this stuff is happening and these are like great American brands. This is America reclaiming its heritage past, and making stuff that will endure into the future.
But there aren't many in the fragrance industry.
The fragrance world is stuck in 50s or 70s, 40 years behind everything else.  That third wave movement that started with coffee or locavore cuisine was happening in every other industry but it hasn’t yet happened in fragrance. In fragrance, they are still using the same old French formulation; you got twenty or thirty things you can do according to their rules; you got a hundred and fifty ingredients you can work with and that’s it. There are over eight thousand plant species that grow in California alone. And no one has ever used any of them for perfume.
When burning your incense, it evokes memories of hiking in the woods and there is something really romantic about that, especially when you live in a big city like New York.
We call that an aromatic snapshot. It’s sort of the beauty of nature: it's there and then it's gone. If I miss that pollen time, that's it. It won’t come around for a year again. It’s just so beautiful and fleeting, like life itself. Everything is contained in that. What’s fun for me is the endless puzzle and joy of digging into nature itself. And perfume is only one expression of that.  I could spend the rest of my life hiking around the mountain where I live and still only experience a fraction of it. I could make perfumes forever off the mountain and never capture all its dimensions.
I’m hoping there are other wilderness perfumers out there who will come along and do what I’m doing. It’s such a rich world. We have no problem sitting out here and showing other people exactly how we make our soaps and fragrances. I have no problem talking to perfumers about what we are doing. I want other people to do it! There's such a rich fragrance universe out there, just waiting to be explored.   
  • Pop-up Store at Fellow Barber
  • Extraction demo at Fellow Barber
  • Pop-up at Fellow Barber
  • the Siskiyou Mountains


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