A Place in the Woods: Juniper Ridge

Although I've lived most of my life within a two hour drive of Big Sur, it wasn't until recent years that I finally visited the enchanting coastal area. When I left, I started thinking about my next trip and I looked for anything that would hold me over until then. Big Sur is like that—it has a way of grabbing you and never letting go. There are the views—its dramatic meeting of the mountains and sea—but there is also its scent: coastal sage, redwood canyons, kelp, and sea air. 

Thankfully, the times away were made easier with my discovery of Big Sur Wilderness Perfumecreated by Juniper Ridge, an exciting fragrance company that doesn't use artificial chemicals to approximate natural smells. Rather, the team behind Juniper Ridge is a group of backpackers who wildcraft the actual ingredients one would find on the trail and then distill these ingredients into scents. To wear one of their creations is to wear a place. 

On March 1, the company will release 327 bottles of its new fragrance, Winter Redwood. When the limited edition sells out, it'll be gone forever. Before the release of this new product, The Penny Rose got in touch with Obi Kaufmann, from Juniper Ridge, for an interview to learn more about the company.

What's your role at Juniper Ridge and how long have you been with the company?

My role with the company is Chief Storyteller. I know that is not an exact role, but it is the title I’m going with these days. I’ve been hiking and making Wilderness Perfume with Hall Newbegin (founder of the company) and Juniper Ridge for about 10 years now. I’ve done everything here, so I feel confident enough to talk about all aspects of what we do, and then share that story, and a very weird story it is, with the rest of the world.

What do you love about working for the company, and what do you love about your job?

All of us here at Juniper Ridge are nature freaks. We hit the trail and formulate around the campfire. We sniff the air—what does this wild place smell like right now? I grew up in the forests of the Yuba River, west of Lake Tahoe, and the way the wind changes through that cedar-lined wilderness, from the dry summer to snow-packed winter and then back into the wildflower-filled spring, is incredibly evocative for me. Capturing the way these places change, not just season to season but week to week, is a giant reward. At our best, we take aromatic snapshots, and that is akin to the most beautiful experience in the world.

How long has the company been around for and how did it first get its start?

Juniper Ridge was founded in 1998 by hiker and mushroom-forager Hall Newbegin. Back then, Hall would spend a week harvesting plants up in the mountains, make natural fragrance, soaps, and wild-herb teas in his kitchen, and then sell his creations at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. People who normally steered clear of fragrances fell in love with the stuff Hall was making. The rest is wilderness perfume history.

While the company has grown significantly, how does it continue to maintain its independent roots?

We will always be a renegade company. We're not sending stuff off to French noses to help us construct conventional perfumes. We go way off-script from what nearly every other perfume company believes they should do. Our fragrance ingredients have never been used by any perfume house in Paris, or anywhere else. The only way to get these notes is to put on your hiking boots and head into the backcountry yourself. We aren’t making, for example, an evocation of Big Sur—this is Big Sur.

Can you tell me about the Big Sur cologne? 

Our Big Sur Wilderness Perfume is the smell of Highway 1 with your windows rolled down, the sage covered mountains tumbling into the ocean below. Our perfumes have 10 to 20 ingredients, all of which are gathered in the place the fragrance is named for. All the ingredients in our Big Sur Wilderness Perfume are from the Central California coast, sustainably harvested on public land by permit and private land by permission. 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 the area. For this reason, we label all of our bottles with the Harvest Number, and our fragrances are always changing and evolving with the place itself.

What do you think makes the Big Sur cologne especially stand out?

Our muse for Big Sur, and the rest of our portfolio, is the quiet stillness of the mountains, the deep beauty of place. Along that mystical stretch of land between Monterey and Cambria, I close my eyes and remember long summer days or Junipero Serra Peak, or drinking wine next to a stove fire at Deetjen’s, or having a picnic up the Tin House Trail, in the wildflower meadows above the Redwood canyons. When you wear a wildcrafted fragrance, you know it. It's like a little snapshot of the place it came from. The sunshine, the sage fields, the mushrooms, the forest breezes—they're all in there. The layers are incredible.

What do you think makes all of the Juniper Ridge products especially remarkable?

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 smell 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.

Where is your favorite place to hike?

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 now based 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.

What new things can we expect from Juniper Ridge in 2014?

We just finished formulating our Winter Redwood seasonal fragrance—our love song to Mount Tamalpais. In previous iterations of this (one of our signature Field Lab limited-edition fragrances), we included mushrooms and campfire smoke. Since there has been no rain this year, we went more ocean-y with the fragrance: tincturing sea grass and experimenting with Douglas Fir tree pitch. The result is pure, magic light. It might be our best fragrance ever. We were only able to make 327 bottles of it, so snatch one up as soon as you can—when it is gone, it will be gone forever. Look for it, March 1 at www.juniperridge.com.

For local readers in the Bay Area, find Juniper Ridge "Big Sur" cabin spray, trail crew soap and incense at Cameron Marks. For online readers, find Juniper Ridge products here