Hall Newbegin & Obi Kaufmann
Founded by Hall Newbegin in 1998, Juniper Ridge is the world’s only wild fragrance company. Distilling colognes and perfumes from real plants, moss, mushrooms, bark and tree trimmings, Juniper Ridge’s ingredients are sourced throughout the USA’s West Coast and turned into fragrances at the company’s workshop in Oakland, California.
Director Arthur Allen and cinematographer Julia Bruk joined Hall Newbegin and Obi Kaufmann on a harvesting expedition to find out more about their passion for fragrances and wilderness.
Please tell us how did Juniper Ridge start in 1998. You’re all passionate hikers – how did you turn Juniper Ridge into a business?
Obi: Juniper Ridge was founded in 1998 by hiker, mushroom-forager, and all-around nature freak Hall Newbegin. Back then, Hall would spend the week harvesting plants up in the mountains, make natural fragrance in his kitchen, and then sell his latest creations at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on weekends. People who normally steered clear of fragrances fell in love with the stuff Hall was making, and word began to spread. Over the years, Juniper Ridge has grown from a one-man operation into a staff of 12 like-minded hiking enthusiasts who harvest the plants, blend the fragrances, and ship our products worldwide. The company is bigger, but the heart of what we do is still the same: We make real fragrance from the quiet places in the mountains and deserts we love.
What made you interested in perfumery and how did you learn it? Tell us a little more about the perfume making techniques you use.
Hall: When I started out, it broke my heart to see what passed for fragrance. All those fancy, tiny bottles filled with manipulated petroleum—yuck! I wanted to make fragrances that smelled like the places I knew and loved as a lifelong backpacker and hiker. Nothing smells better than the sage-covered mountains of Big Sur, or wildflower meadows along Mt. Hood’s Timberline Trail at the height of alpine summer. We all have an intimate, direct connection to plants from our collective evolutionary past. It’s in our DNA. When we breathe in the wilderness, we wake up that dormant part of ourselves and tap into something really beautiful and deep. People think of fragrance as being a shallow experience that just happens in our nose. It’s so much richer than that! Smell is the oldest of our senses. It bypasses reason and goes straight to the ancient parts of our brains…right to our emotions. Real fragrance stirs up profound, complex things in us that we can’t even begin to understand.
Obi: There’s a reason all the perfume houses gave up on real fragrance a long time ago—it costs a fortune! It takes 500 gallons of fresh Redwood needles just to make a pint of redwood oil. Do you know how much it costs to fill a bottle of synthetic perfume? About $1. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $500 bottle from the department store or a $70 celebrity brand, it costs the perfume company about $1 or so, basically the price of the petroleum that the fragrance is made from. WeI wish we could do that, we’d be rich! But, stuck on making real fragrance and will happily invest ten times that much on raw ingredients alone.
How do you create a new scent? What are the main steps?
Hall: I want folks to experience the happiness you can get from being—and breathing—in the wilderness. You don’t need our products to get that feeling. Do what I do—get outdoors, crawl around on your hands and knees, smell the wet earth beneath your feet. Or if you’re worried about embarrassing yourself (which you should be since people don’t normally crawl around on trails), just start by crushing tree needles and plants under your nose. Stay with it, keep breathing it in. You may notice yourself feeling things, feeling something about the quietness of the place – that’s the power of real fragrance.
Obi: All of our perfumes have 10-20 ingredients, all of which are gathered in the place the fragrance is named for. Inyo is the conifer woodlands of the Mojave desert, so it’s things like desert pine, desert cedar, sagebrush, juniper sap, mountain mohogany, dry distallate of charred pine cones, sometimes if we luck out and get a rainy year we’ll include more delicate desert plants that grow in those woodlands such as ambrosia and blooming nightshade. Every harvest is different because the places themselves are different every time we visit them, depending on the time of year, rainfall, microclimate and plants in area. For this reason, we label all of our bottles with the harvest #, and our fragrances are always changing and evolving with the place itself.
You collect raw materials from mountains and forests – could you tell us about the concept of wildcrafting?
Obi: We have a warehouse in Oakland, California. Not only is it our hometown, but it’s the halfway point between San Diego and Seattle, our territory. We do everything there, from beginning to end. We get the plants from the mountains in a number of ways that all fall under the name Wildcrafting. Wildcrafting means that we don’t farm anything, all of our plants come from wild sources, be it private lands by permission or from public lands by permit. We always gather our plants and tree trimmings in such a way that no harm is done to the plant itself. In fact, they respond to the pruning with new growth. We like to think the plants are happy to see us. We often work with the forest service as well. When they have a fire-trimming, we will take their slash piles and make soap out of them – better than burning them, eh?
Please tell us about Juniper Ridge’s social responsibility initiative? How do you care for the environment?
Obi: We always harvest with permission from local landowners and governmental agencies. We work with the Forest Service, state parks, and ranchers to ensure that the plants and tree trimmings we collect for our fragrances are harvested in sustainable ways that encourage future growth. We come back to the same places every year, allowing us to carefully monitor our environmental impact. These regions are our wild gardens, and we love helping them thrive.
Hall: Don’t you hate it when companies say they’re donating a “portion” of their profits to charity, but never tell you how much they’re giving or where it’s going? Well, here’s our deal—we’re avid hikers, we love the outdoors, and we give away 10% of our profits every year to wilderness groups. Thanks to customers like you, we donated over $20,000 in 2012 and we’re on track to give away even more in 2013. Your purchase ensures that groups like Oregon Wild, Ventana Wilderness Alliance, Friends of the Inyo, Washington Wilderness Coalition, and Save Our Wild Salmon get the support they need to continue their important work.
Why do you think fragrances are important in our lives?
Obi: Because our perfume is 100% from real plants/moss/bark, it wears light, so you should apply it frequently and liberally. When you’re wearing our perfume, you’re wearing nature itself on your body, and you’re an animal and can’t help but be emotionally effected when you interract with real nature, so pay attention to what it’s going to do to you and how it makes you feel. People think of perfume as being this shallow thing to wear when you’re trying to impress other people or get laid – don’t get me wrong, these are wonderful endeavors, but the thing that makes Juniper Ridge fragrance different and I think really beautiful, is that when you wear our perfume you’re interracting in a deep way with a very specific slice of the natural world. Maybe it’s making you feel uneasy, or maybe it’s making you feel safe or like when you were a little kid and your dad was cutting the grass. Pay attention to how you feel when you’re wearing our perfume because unlike plastic fragrance, it’s going to do something real to you, it’s going to make you feel something.
Hall: We’ve gone back to the old fragrance extraction techniques that were the only way perfume was made a hundred years ago—steam distillation, tincturing, and enfluerage—the old ways to coax oils out of real plants and flowers that go back to Roman times. No one does this stuff anymore. The industry abandoned real ingredients in the 1950s because petrochemical synthetic fragrances are so dirt cheap, but they also smells so dirt fake! Wilderness Perfume is about the transmission of place—the wildness turns off the city, at least just for a second. Our perfumes are convenient shortcuts to getting deep into place—applying and experiencing Wilderness Perfumes is just like taking a hike in the woods, you are interacting with nature on a deep level. We’re animals and we see nature through our noses, and when you’re using your nose you’re interacting not only with nature, but with an ancient part of yourself. Real fragrance stirs up profound, complex things in us that we can’t even begin to understand. And it’s all just a hike away.
If you weren’t a perfume maker, what would be your occupation?
Obi: We here at Juniper Ridge are all Hikers and Backpackers first – we are really just perfume makers by accident. The mountains are all we know and all we care about.
Hall: Everything I do in my life now is an expression of that deep, helpless kind of love for the quiet stillness of the outdoors. When I’m not making perfume, I’m clearing trails, making wild fermented honey wine, harvesting wild mushrooms of dinner… I can’t explain why the wild grabs me the way it does, love is like that- you don’t know why, you just know you’re riveted.
What are your favourite spots for hiking in California? What natural wonders shouldn’t we miss on a visit to this State?
Obi: Well, if you are coming to the West, don’t forget to check out Washington and Oregon too. Juniper Ridge is not just a California perfume company. You really have to check out the ice giants of Mount Rainier and the rainforests of the Cascades and the Olympic Penninsula. That being said, California? California. All of it. Give it to me. Hall grew up in the Pacific Northwest and that was where Juniper Ridge was founded, and although we are based now in Oakland, we will always owe a piece of our heart to Mount Hood and Mount Rainier. For me though, nothing beats the Redwoods to the north, the Sierras to the east and the deserts to the south. California, born and bred.
Hall: I grew up in Oregon and spent my summers hiking and backpacking around the lakes and peaks of the Cascades – Mt. Hood, Mt Jefferson, The Three Sisters … just saying those names brings a little of their magic into the room for me and that’s what our perfume is all about. That’s my inspiration.