• by Julianne Adams •
It’s amazing how scent can transport you—a whiff of waffle cone and you’re back on island for the summer. Scent is an extremely powerful and often very personal sense. Years disappear and emotions can fly up when a single fragrance is unleashed. The image of 1,500, then, is a surreal one made real by John Harding’s Nantucket Natural Oils on the second floor of 12 Straight Wharf. Discreetly labeled, Harding’s glass bottles cover the wooden shelves of the already intimate space, augmenting the mystique of aromatic smells. Harding’s offerings are made even more enthralling by the minute variations: wild rose, tea rose, rugosa rose, Jo Malone Red Roses—these barely touch upon the vast selection of the store, which includes a wide array of popular and often discontinued designer perfumes.
The most surprising thing about Nantucket Natural Oils, though, is the quality, particularly given the fragrances’ price points: a nine-month supply of his natural perfumes will run you $45 for designer perfumes, $25 for a house blend. That little bottle (.25 oz) will stay on longer and probably smell better than the traditional spritz mainly because one major ingredient is missing: alcohol. Eau de parfume, the purest bottling, run around 80% alcohol, according to Harding. “I’m zero percent alcohol,” he says. “We are simply doing the green version when creating our natural perfumes.” The reasons that major perfume companies add alcohol are various and mostly at the cost of the consumer.
For Harding, his pure creations are for the customer’s benefit. “This little bottle (.25 oz) equals three of those,” says Harding, gesturing to a binder with images of designer perfumes that are mostly 1.7 and 3.4 oz. “When they try mine on and it’s on for 12 hours, they understand that I’m saving them hundreds of bucks.” Another bonus? “It smells nicer,” says Harding. As a “nose,” Harding would probably know.
A whiff of a mix and Harding can tell exactly what’s in it: base notes, top notes, and everything in between. Harding’s expert perfumer skills come not through training but his own innate sense of smell, a talent that he discovered by chance after having begun a different life path. A saxophonist at the time, Harding was vacationing on the Vineyard in 1983 and was casually browsing a perfume store. The store owner was shocked with Harding’s acute sense of smell. As it happened, the owner was looking to leave island life behind and so Harding ended up running the store. But Harding didn’t just sniff scents and sell them. “I started making natural perfumes constantly. I just started mixing them.” A few years later, in 1991, Harding brought his ability to Nantucket, where he has been ever since. When asked how his skill works, he says, “It just does. Everyone thinks I’m a chemist and I’m not.”
Harding refers to his uncanny ability to recreate, or rather improve upon, classic scents like Chanel No. 5. “People can bring me an empty perfume bottle and I can smell all 25 oils.” So it’s no wonder that Harding stocks a large supply of known scents, including discontinued favorites like the sultry Casmir by Chopard. “I’ve been told I have the largest selection of discontinued perfumes here,” says Harding. Harding makes his custom blends from a mix of pure natural oils, sourced from over 30 vendors. “I think I’ve found every source there is, and I’ve handpicked the best ones of each.” Harding then combines the oils either in an original scent like the sandy rose Nantucket Beaches or in replication of a beloved Donna Karan, for example. With his instinctive sense, Harding does not recreate based on ratios but rather leaves the exact proportions to an off-island company. “I do have to send them off to a big perfume house because when I make them I add some, spill some, throw some out. I don’t like it until I’ve finally got it. Then I’m done and I don’t know what I’ve done.”
Harding, though, masterminds all the mixes, which, because they lack alcohol and are pure oils, are technically oils and not perfumes. In this more concentrated form, a small dab (not a spray) will last hours, a major boon over traditional perfumes. “I had so many people, females mostly, that came in and said, ‘I wish you could make me my Chanel 5 because mine doesn’t stay on.’ I said, ‘Well, that should be easy enough.’ So we started doing that and it’s taken off.” Now Harding challenges the wary customer to take a whiff hours later. “Folks go, ‘$45 for that?’ and I smile and say, ‘Just wear it and smell your wrists when you go to bed tonight.’”
According to Harding, the alcohol in perfumes manipulates the longevity of a scent, meaning that at first you smell a blast of the fragrance’s top notes and a few hours later the scent has all but disappeared. “It’s too strong, then it’s gone,” says Harding. “The alcohol makes you smell the pretty top notes. Without the alcohol, with mine, you’re smelling the base notes but they go away. We have to make people wait 60 seconds. The hardest thing in my store is making them wait one minute. After one minute, the base notes go away and then the pretty top notes that you smell come out.”
And the scent is on you for hours. “This is not going to evaporate in an hour. You have afternoon and all night.” What does linger on your wrist is not a pungent floral or heavy musk; it’s a remarkably soft scent. “Scent is such a beautiful thing if it’s soft. Soft attracts, strong offends.” Harding’s scents achieve this softness and durability because the pure oils he uses are cut with sweet almond oil. Pure oils are necessarily cut with something because gardenia, for example, cannot be distilled to an essential oil whereas sandalwood can be. So all of the oil bases that Harding makes his own oils with use sweet almond oil in lieu of water or chemical additives. “[My pure oils] are natural and pure because of my carrier oil,” he says. And long lasting, unlike what is typically sold on shelves. “If it becomes a year old,” Harding says about traditional perfume, “you have to throw it away. My oils, without the alcohol and preserved in sweet almond oil, are good for 10-12 years.”
Plus, the purity of the base oils make for a much more pleasurable end fragrance. Speaking about his cologne for men, Harding says, “It’s hard to put it in words but it doesn’t have that cologne smell. It’s got more depth and richness. It’s almost like you have on your own scent.” But Harding isn’t changing the smell. “People wouldn’t know you’re not wearing the same thing they bought in the department store,” he says. Harding is more enhancing the aromatic experience. He says that often customers, after smelling his version of a scent, “will go home and smell the alcohol stuff and go, ‘Oh, this is horrible.’” Harding sees his mixes as altering their sense: “their nose has been changed by the pure stuff.”
For those who complain of allergies, that change is a necessary find. “So many females think they can’t wear perfume. It’s a simple luxury of a scent gone from them because they either sneeze or get a headache or have allergies. Those things are from the alcohol,” he says. And without the alcohol, there’s no problem.
While Harding’s oils have the unintended effect of alleviating allergies, his aromatherapeutic selection actively seeks to alleviate complaints like migraines, insomnia, and muscle aches. Designed by British aromatherapist Peter Holmes, the oils are potent stuff. “I’m a perfumer, I’m not an aromatherapist. Having a nose, I have the ability to smell the best quality, the prettiest. Peter Holmes—his aren’t just the best; he’s way ahead of everyone,” says Harding. “Four drops of his cost what 12 drops of someone else’s does. Mostly they’re used for room diffusers. You’ve got to get them into the limbic area for five minutes. That’s why you can’t just sniff them.” Aside from room diffusers, massage oils and baths are perfect uses for the mixes, all made from organic essential oils. Harding also sells these oils individually, which are food grade because of their high quality. “You can cook with them,” says Harding, holding a bottle of essential basil oil, “which you can’t do with regular essential oils.”
After you’re done eating that basil pasta, you can freshen up with cinna-mint breath freshener or any of the other wildly delicious flavors Harding sells in tiny, discreet bottles. The small bottles pack a lot of scent, as do Harding’s soothing bath blasters. “Great stocking stuffers,” he says of them. More importantly, “they make your skin unbelievably soft.” After that soothing bath, spritz up with a dry body spray in lieu of a towel. This spray, and other items like shampoo and lotions, comes unscented. “They all have no smells,” says Harding, “so I can custom scent them.”
Better start dreaming up your wildest scent, or dig up your old signature fragrance—but chances are Harding already has it on his shelves. Don’t fret over getting hooked and not being able to come in to the store because Harding offers a full array of products online at NantucketNaturalOils.com. A fair warning though: buying online is not as much fun as sniffing your way through the myriad of glass bottles.