BY TRISTA EDWARDS
Scent evokes memories. It conjures forth the past. It can evoke a time and place. It summons the remembrance of old loves. It transports us back to childhood. It can stop us dead in our tracks and remind us of a moment that we never even knew we forgot.
And crafting scent, as perfumer Claire Baxter proclaims on her website, is an aromatic art.
Claire is the founder behind the Texas-based fragrance shop, Sixteen92. Taking its name from the year of Salem Witch Trials, Sixteen92 crafts small batch fine fragrances inspired by literature, lore, and history.
Not only are the names of the fragrances tantalizing—Southern Gothic, Paper Moon, Hellebore, Only Children Weep, and the Riot Grrrl-Hole inspired, Doll Parts, but the descriptions of the scents are just as hypnotic.
The Bottling Room, for example, from this summer’s Banned Books collection is described as possessing the aromas of sterile glass, electricity, copper, hot light bulbs, lab-grown flowers, synthetic greenery.
Can’t you just smell that already? Can’t you just feel it?
TE: Tell us a little bit about your relationship with witchcraft. How would you describe the magic that makes up Sixteen92? What particularly drew you towards the aromatic arts?
CB: Looking back — way back — I think I have always been driven to seek feedback, acknowledgment, or clarity from nature, from energy, from all of the hidden parts of ourselves and our environments and our histories. When I was young I didn’t realize that others didn’t feel the same kinds of connections that I did. Honestly, it was difficult for me; sometimes it still is. I grew up in libraries, and when left to my own devices I gravitated to books about the occult. So, I read everything I could: from astrology to tarot, shamanism to mediumship, and the histories of those persecuted as witches throughout the centuries.
This relationship with magic — with energy — has shaped how I look at the world, and certainly how I create. Scent is a powerful medium, capable of capturing hidden desires and lost memories. Throughout the creation process, I’ve found that I work best when I allow a scent to take on its own energy and tell its own story.
As for how I was drawn to perfumery specifically… I spent a decade in advertising and branding, working with fashion and luxury retail brands. This was fun, but often not creatively fulfilling on a personal level. Many years ago I spent a lot of time experimenting with candlemaking — Sixteen92 in its earliest incarnation (circa early 2000s) was once meant to be a line of home fragrances and candles — but along the way I realized that the types of fragrances I was most interested in creating were more complex than anything that would easily lend themselves to home fragrance and wax. So, at different times over the past nearly 20 years, I would experiment with fragrance as a release of creative energy. Eventually, I found myself with a collection of bottled stories, several of which ended up becoming our original general catalogue collection in 2014.
TE: Your beautiful website states that your small-batch fragrances are inspired by literature, history, and lore. What story or myth or figure have you yet to craft an inspired fragrance for and are just dying to concoct?
CB: I have a long list of these! Early last year I briefly spoke with Anne Rice about a collection of fragrances based on The Vampire Chronicles. One day when we both have availability in our schedules I’d love to continue that discussion because I have a lot of ideas.
TE: Likewise, what has been a fragrance you keep trying to capture in a bottle that keeps evading you?
CB: Pretty long list of these, too, haha! Most of them are specific scent memories from my childhood that I haven’t been able to get quite right yet. I doubt that these would ever become wearable fragrances, but I work on them periodically as time allows. The scent of winter in West Texas/New Mexico is one that I’ve been coming back to for some time, as is the scent of lying in a swimming pool at night in rural Madison County, Texas (where my grandmother was raised), seeing more stars in the sky than I ever knew existed. Honestly, I couldn’t even tell you what that last one is supposed to smell like; I guess I’ll know what it is if I ever get there.
TE: You describe Sixteen92’s fragrances as “small journeys”—I love that—what is your favorite scent journey and where does it take you?
CB: I’ve thought about this one a lot and it always comes back to being a journey through time rather than to a specific place. Scent is so closely linked with memory that I guess this is inescapable in a way.
My favorite olfactive memory is an odd compilation of the scents of Autumn throughout my childhood — sycamore and pecan leaves, cold bark, woodsmoke, fog on the windows, pumpkin patch in the rain, the first morning frost on the lawn. Being from Texas where we are lucky to get a few short weeks of “traditional” Fall in mid-late October, these scents are pretty strongly tied to Halloween for me, which I guess is both telling and fitting. :)
TE: If Sixteen92 had a theme song what would it be?!
CB: I’ll be predictable here and pick Ministry’s (Every Day Is) Halloween. That’s been my personal anthem since middle school. It wasn’t a phase, Ms. Spencer.
TE: The descriptions for your scents are so poetic. You can almost feel the scents from the words alone. One of my favorite descriptions in your catalog is for “Last Exit for the Lost”—Orchard apples, woven wood baskets, dried hay, distant chimney smoke on cool air. Has concocting a fragrance ever surprised you? As in you had an idea in mind for what you wanted to create, however, it organically became something else you never even imagined?
CB: Yes, this happens often. A lot of times I will begin only with a basic idea of the mood or concept I’m looking to create and will allow the scent to move at its own pace. Sometimes this means that different turns will be taken, and the final product will be surprisingly different from what I would have expected it to become. Each fragrance follows its own path, and my creation process is a bit different for each new scent or collection, so I’ve learned to go with the flow and let each formula evolve organically. Perfumery is a form of storytelling; sometimes I need to let the perfumes tell the story for me and focus more on listening than controlling.
It’s funny that you used Last Exit For The Lost in your example because that one’s original incarnation was meant to be a warm-weather spring floral fragrance. The more I worked on it, the more it became clear what it wanted to be instead — floral elements were replaced with dry hay, and warm breezes turned into chimney smoke. The disparity isn’t always that drastic, but it’s always interesting when it happens.
TE: What is something you’ve learned about fragrance since becoming a perfumer and starting your business that has made you experience the world differently?
CB: I think the biggest insight I’ve gained from this has been how differently people experience fragrance. As such a subjective medium, everyone comes in with different ideas and intentions and backgrounds, and these can — and absolutely do, sometimes dramatically — color and shape their entire experience with a fragrance or a collection. It’s a good analogy of the uniqueness of our individual journeys and how our experiences — big or small — imprint everything that we make or do or touch throughout our lives, for better or worse.
TE: What’s that last book you read or song you heard or film you watched that inspired you?
CB: My Summer collection was inspired by banned books, so I recently re-read and re-experienced a lot of classics that I hadn’t picked up since high school: Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill A Mockingbird.
TE: If you planned a trip based solely on traveling to “scent destinations”—what cities would be on the itinerary and why?
CB: Ah, how cool! This is hard. I’d need to organize this by season, and I’d probably want to choose places that I have personal or ancestral connections to.
For Winter, I’d unsurprisingly choose the deserts of West Texas and New Mexico. Creosote bushes and frost-covered rock, the dry chill of the Davis mountains at altitude, dust, and cold sand.
Spring might be New Orleans — chicory and coffee; warm humid air carrying night-blooming jasmine and datura; geosmin and cobblestone and dry moss. My ancestors were Acadian and some were among the first immigrant settlers in southern Louisiana; I have many ancestors buried in and around New Orleans, so I’ve always had something of a connection with the city; it really shines in the Spring.
Summer would be central or Southeastern Texas (outside the cities, though), just to smell the thunderstorms and the gardenias and the miles of dry field.
Fall would be — another one probably surprising to no one — Salem, MA, and the surrounding area. There’s truly something magical in the air in New England during the Autumn. It’s not a fragrance that translates to any other part of the country — there’s a crisp coldness and a solemnity that’s not present anywhere else in the world.
TE: Lastly, what new projects are you working on for Sixteen92 that we can be on the lookout for!?
I have been working, off and on, on a Tarot-themed collection. Eventually, this will feature all 22 cards of the Major Arcana. It’s a collection that has started and stopped a few times due to scheduling conflicts with our seasonal calendar, but I’m always excited when I’m able to pick it back up so it will be coming soon enough. I’m also working on some licensed material; these kinds of projects require a lot of planning, and this particular project has been a couple of years in the making; it’s coming together slowly but surely and I enjoy the collaborative nature of licensed collections, so hopefully there will be more of these in the future.
You can experience Sixteen92's latest Falloween 2018 collection, The Forbidden Arts, HERE.
Trista Edwards is an associate editor at Luna Luna Magazine. She is also the curator and editor of the anthology, Till The Tide: An Anthology of Mermaid Poetry (Sundress Publications, 2015). You can read her poems at 32 Poems, Quail Bell Magazine, Moonchild Magazine, The Adroit Journal, The Boiler, Queen Mob's Tea House, Bad Pony, Occulum, and more. She creates magickal candles at her company, Marvel + Moon.