A Portrait of Jane Cate: American Indie Perfumer
This summer, I was delighted to take part in the Mystery of Musk project, which featured natural, musky perfumes created by radically individualist, indie noses. My most-worn of the group was Jane Cate’s “Tallulah B2”, a luxurious, yet cheerful floral with a sensual, musky base. Her soon-to-be-released fragrance is “Notoriety”, inspired in part by Edwardian actress Lily Langtry. Intrigued, I contacted Jane. Her perfumery is called “A Wing and A Prayer Perfumes”, and she runs it with her daughter, Sarah, in Northern California. Here’s our conversation:
Marla: For many centuries, luxury was defined as unique items and excellent craftsmanship available to a small group of people. Today, mass-market "luxury" has overwhelmed these old traditions. How do you think the indie movement in perfumery is answering mass market "luxury"?
Jane: Luxury to me is defined as something special, one of a kind, something that is very unique and that no other person has. When I am creating perfume for a client, I am creating a fragrance for that person only. Even our "off the rack" perfumes are decanted one at a time. Having our clients feel special is important. Luxury is also individual attention to detail and we take pride in that.
Marla: I've noticed that indie arts are thriving outside large cities. Indie perfumeries are popular in the Alps and Provence, the English countryside, provincial Italy, and in areas of the US and Canada far removed from urban centers like New York and Montreal. How does your living environment influence your work?
Jane: I love Northern California, always have. In fact the cities of Northern California are my muses! I visited California as a teenager and just fell in love with the San Francisco area. Later as an adult I moved here, so for 35 years, Northern California, especially the Bay area, has been my home. The region has inspired me, the colors, the topography, the fragrances. Each area has its own particular fragrance and that is what I try to capture in my 'California Scents' line. The perfumes capture the essence of either the town or region they were named after. 'Napa' is a true lavender scent, and if you visit that area you would see the lavender planted among the grape vines. 'Filoli Rose' is named after the legendary Filoli mansion and its beautiful gardens; the estate has rows and rows of the most gorgeous roses and the fragrance of those gardens is captured in the perfume. I am currently working on a scent that evokes Los Gatos, a very picturesque town in the Santa Cruz mountains; it is a fern fragrance. Another one I am blending is for Half Moon Bay, a coastal town which has a pumpkin festival each year, so that will be a clove and cinnamon blend.
Marla: What inspires you to create a new perfume? You don't have corporate briefs, so what starts the process?
Jane: I think in smells, the olfactory memories of places I have been to, important people in my life and experiences I have had. Take 'Bella' perfume, when I was trying to create a perfume that reminded me of my grandmother, Isabel, I thought of that wonderful lady and the fragrances she wore. Rose was her favorite, but with an orange spice accent. When I was finished , 'Bella' was a blend of citrus infused with rose, with a little vanilla to give it the warmth of the lady it was named after. 'Dorobella' is a scent named for my mother, Dorothy, again it is a combination of fragrances I associate with my mom. My mother loves 'Joy', so when I was creating her perfume for Mother's Day, I wanted it to be classic in nature, but with a "kick". 'Dorobella' has the rose blend, but also the woody scent of sandalwood.
Marla: What are some of your favorite botanical materials?
Jane : I love roses, bergamot, amber, vanilla and sandalwood. During the Mystery of Musk Project, I discovered the joys of botanical musks as well. Citrus has also been one of my favorite families.
I love working with waxes, specifically beeswax and soy wax. I use beeswax for our solid perfumes. Recently I have begun to work with soy wax to create candles using fragrances from the perfume line. I just love the way the soy wax slowly burns and releases fragrance, it’s beautiful!
Marla: What are some materials you'd like to explore in the future?
Jane : I would like to make more tinctures and hydrosols from flowers. I am currently experimenting with tonka beans, so I will see how the tincture turns out.
Marla: What's your personal favorite, and the story behind it?
Jane: My go- to perfume has to be Tallulah B2. I love how it stays on the skin for a long time. When I was blending for the Mystery of Musk project and finally came up with a scent that embraced musk, rose and vanilla, it created a warm floral with enough musk to surprise the wearer. I thought of personalities from the Art Deco period. The actress that came to mind was Tallulah Bankhead. She was outrageous, outspoken, and very open about her sexuality. I also remember that her background was quite genteel. So I named my fragrance “Tallulah B2”, since when you first smell it, it comes off as a warm, caressing floral; then after a while, here comes the "kick" of musk to surprise you , so it becomes a very sexy scent, like Tallulah herself !
The other fragrance I love wearing is 'Sarah', rose infused with vanilla, sandalwood and grapefruit. This was inspired by my daughter, Sarah, who helps me with the business side of our perfumery; it’s a youthful, happy fragrance.
Jane’s passion and love of her environment and people is very evident in her work (I’m wearing Tallulah B2 as I write this, and yes, it’s making me happy!) Her shop can be found at etsy.