Interview with Niche Perfumer Liz Zorn
Perfumers are olfactory artists whose oeuvre is intensely personal yet ephemeral. Scent is alluring yet difficult to pinpoint; great perfumes gradually reveal themselves by telling a story as they interact with the wearer. A well-crafted perfume is, indeed, art in a bottle.
For some time now, I’ve been intrigued by the work of perfumer Liz Zorn, a talented visual artist who also creates stunningly original fragrances in her Cincinnati, Ohio atelier. Equally adept at wielding a palette of olfactory essences as a she is a paint palette, Zorn composes scents that are highly regarded by her peers, perfumistas and fragrance bloggers. Wishing to learn more about the olfactory arts and understand her unique approach, I asked Zorn to discuss her creative process.
DC on Heels: When did you first become interested in creating fragrances? And how did you learn the art of perfumery?
Liz Zorn: When I was 12. I spent that summer hanging out in a new age shop near my parents’ home. The owners made altar and sacred oil blends. I learned the basics of natural blending from them.
DCOH: What are some of the benefits of using natural perfumes?
LZ: I do not see it as a benefit; rather it is just a different concept from commercial/industrial fragrance. There are pros and cons to each method. My only concern is to create from an artistic vision, and hopefully end up with a successful result.
DCOH: How do natural perfumes differ from their synthetic counterparts?
LZ: They do not differ all that much for me when the materials are thought of as tools of a trade — just as paint is a tool of the artist’s trade. You can use natural pigments to paint or synthetic. In the end, it comes back to the vision, the reason for creating in the first place. The goal should always be in achieving one’s desired result. I find that this can be done in many ways.
DCOH: You started out as a natural perfumer, but now incorporate some synthetic notes as well. Are there effects that you can only achieve with synthetics?
LZ: I have (almost) always had both naturals and synthetics in my palette. I did release a natural collection first, but this is just chronology — not method. Again, to repeat, there is no real difference for me between the two. They are all equal parts to the composition. Sure they each have different attributes, but only so far as they are used to achieve a goal.
For example lavender — when it is the applied choice brings just the right element to the blend as say the synthetic version of phenyl ethyl alcohol in an appropriate blend. If I am building an orange blossom accord, I can do so with all naturals, all synthetics or a combination of the two. Each will have its own signature. This is a good thing. To keep creating the same thing over and over with a limited palette is boring. Or I should say boring to me. I like to have all the bells and whistles at my disposal. I may not use them all, but I can surely experiment with them. The more, the better as it creates a richer environment for learning and growing. Perfumery is a field where no one is ever really a master due to the variables. I like this kind of challenge. It keeps me sharp and on my toes.
DCOH: Where do your ingredients come from?
LZ: All over the world. And in my own back yard. I create a lot of tinctures, and use my own herbs, flowers and barks, etc. … I am not all that nostalgic about materials; I am only interested in finding the best materials for my needs. Sometimes they are close by like American citrus oils and other times they are from far away like Egyptian jasmine.
DCOH: How would you describe your style?
LZ: I am not sure that I have a style. I am a mutt. I work off my moods and energy, the world around me. I have a lot of interests; one day I am all gaga over football and the next I am at the opera.
DCOH: What inspires you?
LZ: Everything … literally.
DCOH: How does your work as a visual artist inform your perfume creation?
LZ: It’s all the same thing. There is no space where one ends and the other begins.
DCOH: I am intrigued by your olfactory art installations — can you tell more about this?
LZ: I create what are mostly abstract smells that are meant to provoke a specific response. I place the scents in bell jars so that people can smell them individually as a progression. (I usually have several bell jars set up as an installation).
Sometimes they are meant to speak as a theme like spring flowers where different elements are used to convey the idea. Each element in a different bell jar. I am currently working on a completely abstract scent art installation that addresses specific human emotions. My scent installations have nothing to do with perfume. I think that this current trend of trying to combine high art and commercial perfume is confusing to people. I know it was very confusing to people who visited my old studio space where I was trying to do both at the same time.
This is one reason I closed my perfume shop. I want to be very clear about what olfactory art is about and what scent art installations should be about. It is very hard to push any social/human artistic boundaries with a bottle of perfume. It is achievable when you take perfume and all its baggage out of the picture. The bottom line is they are two different things that use the same materials — a subject that would take a lot of ground to cover fully.
DCOH: How does your work evolve?
LZ: I have no idea. If I knew this, I would probably not do it. I like to start each project with a clean slate. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so much. I get lost in the work. I wish I knew where the time went, where I went.
DCOH: How do you develop a fragrance?
LZ: It always starts with an idea or desire to create. From there I build it in my head. Once I have a fairly good composition I write all of the materials down on a piece of paper. I then part them out by volatility and start experimenting with the various percentages of each material. I rarely separate them according to top, middle and base notes or even think in these terms. My scent structure (almost) always follows an evolutionary linear path.
DCOH: Describe your creative process.
LZ: Again, I start with an idea. If I am not motivated, I do not create.
DCOH: Are you ever influenced by trends in perfumery?
LZ: I don’t even know what that means. Is there such a thing? I do not follow the mainstream, so could not really speak to what is happening there. It’s like trends in fashion. I see it on the periphery, but it means nothing to me personally. I live in jeans and flip flops. If I have to get dressed up, I am all cranky like a seven-year-old boy who just wants to play in the dirt.
DCOH: What scents do you recommend for summer?
LZ: I am all for independence and do not like to make recommendations. I expect people to have a mind of their own with their own likes and dislikes. Wear what you like and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You know the mantra. You only get one chance to be you.
DCOH: Where can one try and purchase your fragrances?
A native Washingtonian, Beauty Blogger Lia Phipps is an interior designer with an irrepressible, life-long fascination with health and beauty. When she is not selecting fabrics and paint colors for clients, she occupies herself with trying new products and dispensing beauty advice to friends, acquaintances and anyone who is willing to listen to “Tips from Phipps”.