The sweet smell of success for Anjali Vandemark of Bainbridge Island comes from the perfume she makes.
Born and raised in India, “My best scent memory is of Sandalwood. My grandmother owned a small block of real Mysore Sandalwood … I would grind that precious block of wood on a sahan—a special stone meant for just this purpose. For days afterwards my fingers would stay perfumed. My soul is forever imbued with the divine scent of Sandalwood.”
But that is not the only smell she remembers. There are also the scents from a multitude of flowers that bloom in the tropical climate. “I wore jasmines in my hair, strung flowers into garlands and gathered grass tips for rituals.”
Inspired by those smells, Vandemark decided to start her own line of perfumes.
But it took some life-changing events to get her going. Last year she was diagnosed with epilepsy, and a friend died of cancer.
“The more I watched how COVID was taking away so many lives, the more I realized how precious my time was on this planet,” she said. “I grew restless. I asked myself, what would I regret more? Failing at something or never having tried at all? My dreams grew bigger than my fears.”
Vandemark said she is so glad to be living in this country where there are so many opportunities.
“Living the American dream is real and liberating,” she said. “I am grateful for this culture which made me—someone from small-town India—dare to share my love of perfumes with my community.”
She said there were challenges to starting a business during the COVID-19 pandemic when nobody could leave their homes. But because she lives here, she was able to do everything online—get a business license, buy raw materials, and so on. “I keep thinking of how accessible all these services are here, unlike so many other places,” she said.
Vandemark said India supplies many raw materials like rose and jasmine oils to the world, but since she buys in such small quantities it would be very expensive to ship them to the U.S. So she buys from U.S. vendors who buy in bulk from India and France.
Vandemark is a self-taught perfumer. An engineer by profession, systems and processes are part of her training, and she has experimented over the years with various combinations.
“I have a system to record all my trials, perfume accords (certain key notes mixed together that create a fragrance that is more than the sum of its ingredients) and naming and numbering of batches,” she said. “A perfume formula is created by mixing just the right aroma components which are measured by weight. But Perfumery is more than a recipe. It is part craft—knowing your ingredients and training your nose—and part art.”
Vandemark said she looks for inspiration from music, art, memories and experiences. “I create vision boards, and then select ingredients that might fit that ‘profile.’ This follows months of trials before I arrive at my perfume. While making a perfume, I lose time. I am in a different world. The joy of this art is sublime.”
Spices, even away from her perfumes, have always been an important part of her life. She grew up with them, has about 40 in her daily-use drawyer, and has more stored in her pantry and even some stored in her freezer to add longevity.
“Living with spices and flowers helped me train my nose early and naturally. My parents also paid special attention to perfumes. We had a special attar-dani to apply the precious scented oils on the wrists of guests, and a gulab-dani to sprinkle rose water on festive occasions.”
New to the business, Vandemark said she is starting out slow with her own savings, but would love to expand at some point. But she’s willing to take her time. “A career as a perfumer has vast scope and mastering aspects like functional fragrances, flavors, fine fragrances and applications like candles and incenses can take years,” she said.
For now she sells only online at anjaliperfumes.com, but she said she’d love to sell her perfumes in local stores and at local events. She’s also active on Instagram (@anjali_vandemark) “which has an amazing fragrance-loving community. “
Vandemark said response to her products has been positive. A reviewer really liked Tiger Bright, which features cloves and black pepper. But others like Himalayan Dawn, which features cardamom and fennel, and Monsoon Madness, saffron and vanilla, even more.
She said the coronavirus has hit India very hard, so to support relief efforts she is selling her perfumes at a 25% discount May 1-9, with profits going to charities in her home country.
Vandemark said she is so glad she moved here with her husband after he got a job on Bainbridge Island. They had lived in West Seattle, and she worked downtown.
”Where else in the world can I text my boss that I am late to work because of a traffic jam created by orcas who showed up in the waters around the ferry?” she said.