These days everyone assumes that all makers live in Brooklyn. But where I find the whitewashed, sunlit studio of Briar Winters is–surprisingly–in TriBeCa. There’s a crazy quilt of buzzers pastiched to the outside door of the building. When I find hers and buzz, Briar arrives a couple minutes later and leads me up the old stairs into her magical lair of scents.
Everything is painstakingly organized and arranged, from the wall of oils, to the labels made and ready to apply to packaging, to the finished products placed on the shelves by the windows. Briar herself reminds me of a princess from a German fairy tale– she practically glows with her blond hair tied up in a braid, pale, perfect skin, and soft voice. She is deliberate and sweet and, in a way, believes in magic, which I discover when I ask her about the small crystals scattered about her studio.
“I like to put one in the bottom of my teacup,” she tells me. “It’s a nice little ritual. It looks beautiful, and it adds something to the ritual of having tea. You just slow down for a second, and let everything else go away. I’m not super new-agey,” she hedges. “It’s not that I don’t necessarily believe in all that, but I think you can invest meaning in a lot of different things. If you have a particular ritual or something that means something to you, that is just as valid as something that someone else tells you is magical. I put a lot of love into everything.”
“We’re really, really small—it’s just me. I would like to keep it all handmade. It’s really important energetically.” She worked as a pastry chef for a decade, but after formulating small products for her friends and herself for some time, she officially started her business two years ago, using plant-based, traditional ingredients like ground-up rose petals, chamomile, milk powder, honey. “Cardamom and rose is a signature scent. I worked at a Swedish restaurant for a while [Aquavit], and I grew to love cardamom,” she says. She sells serums, seed-based oils, teas, skin butters, little push up lip balms in simple, biodegradable cardboard packaging.
“My goal is to keep things super simple. I don’t like putting preservatives and funny stuff that you can’t pronounce in my products, because I don’t think it’s necessary,” she says. “I discovered working with my own sensitive skin that simpler is better. I get reactions to all kinds of weird stuff that is in products.”
She also tries to go organic most of the time, which sets her apart from other natural care companies. “There are a lot of small companies out there that are doing a great job, but not everyone has a real commitment. There’s a lot of “natural,” but natural and organic are not the same thing,” she says. “I would say 98% of ingredients I use are organic. Most [of my] products are 100% organic. Some of the exceptions to that are in our botanical fragrances. It’s almost impossible to source certain things that are traditionally used in perfume as organic. Many of them are cultivated without the use of chemicals, but for various reasons, including the way they are processed, can’t be certified as organic. And it’s just too tempting for me, all these exotic plants.”
The oils come from all over the world—Guatemala to Madagascar. She almost has relationships with her oils, which have fickle personalities that change according to the context and who they are interacting with, or even just the season. “Sometimes you’ll get in a batch of oil and it will be completely different from the last batch,” she says.
I ask her about the production of her ingredients. Are they fair trade? “I’m not ordering directly from producers, there’s someone in the middle. It’s really important to trust your supplier. Eden Botanicals in California does full-spectrum tests on everything to make sure that there’s no adulteration, that if it’s certified organic that it’s actually organic. They are a very committed company to the social aspect as well. I would love to visit all these places, but it would be impossible. They do go and visit these places, they can tell you a lot about a certain oil.”
She runs her fingers over the little vials with a sigh of contentment and pulls ones out for me to sniff: solids, oils and resins, sharp and musky, floral and woodsy. Labdanum, she tells me, holding it under my nose, was traditionally harvested in Italy. “Sheep in the Mediterranean would walk through these narrow trails, brushing against the flowers, and they would collect this resin on their sides as they went along, and they would distill it off the sheep. I’m not sure if they still do that,” she concedes.
“Plants have energy and all these essences–it’s incredible the amount of plant material that is required to make a single bottle. It’s important to be respectful and reverent about that. Everything is super simple, but it is designed to connect you with nature. You’re putting nature near your face. It’s very intimate. And it’s important. Especially for people living in the city, we’re a bit deprived of all of that.”
She counsels patience when using a natural oil on your skin, especially if you’ve been using conventional products. “All these things that have essential oils in them, they bloom on the skin. Sometimes it’s hard for people who are used to synthetics that come out and hit you right away. Especially with natural perfume, you put it on your skin and the smell you get right away from it is different from the smell you will get 10 minutes from that time, 20 minutes from that time. It’s very interactive with body chemistry.”
She’s been trying to do seasonal kits, so as to use all the quirky oils she’s amassed. “I was looking for a way to share those, in a limited edition format. Some of them are special and I’m never going to get again.”
“At home we cook with food from the farmers market, and there’s no reason we can’t do that for self-care. Scents that helps you be more present in the season, that reminds you of something.” She chooses scents that are subtly evocative of what nature is doing. “You can’t get the smell of spring,” she says. “Things like violets and lilac are really, really difficult to extract. But there are ways to recreate the feeling of something, and that is where the subtlety comes in. It can be very rewarding.”
She’s currently selling her spring getaway kit, which uses yarrow and rose geranium, a little bit of wild carrot, and wild chamomile from Morocco. It includes a body oil, tea, a serum, a little crystal, and a tea skin mask.
She doesn’t just use oils. “The facial tonic is really magical. I get these hydrosols which are a byproduct of distillation. The botanical material gets put in a still, the essential oil is distilled out of it through these tubes. What’s left of the steam that is used to distill it is this water that is infused with the essence of the botanical materials. ”
She also has vintage pill boxes that she fills with solid perfume. She finds them in antique shops. “One of my favorite customers, she found one that she really liked with four different little wells in it, and she sent it to me and said, ‘This is what I want in each one.’ It was such a fun project. That’s the kind of stuff you really live for. Producing stuff, you do huge batches of stuff, and after a while it’s a little bit of a slog. But having a project like that is perfect, it’s really inspiring to see how into it people get.
You can buy her items on her website and Etsy. During the holidays, she has open studio hours and you can stop by. “When you’re online you imagine what it might be like, but it might be hard to understand that until you smell it.”