Whole-Botanical Perfume Business Ondine Blooms in Montpelier | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Whole-Botanical Perfume Business Ondine Blooms in Montpelier


Published April 13, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Paul and Maya Boffa - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Paul and Maya Boffa

Paul Boffa never expected his newest vocation to draw on his skills as a lifelong musician and homesteader. The guitarist, vocalist and composer has written about 100 folk-rock and children's songs. On 33 acres just outside Montpelier, he grows vegetables and blueberries. In 2016, a fateful discovery in a New York City department store inspired Boffa to explore a new way to use his creative mind and his nose attuned to scents of the Earth: as a perfumer.

Paul and his wife, Maya Ondine Boffa, were perusing the scents aisle at Bergdorf Goodman that winter when a staffer discovered his capacity to identify fragrances. Years of gardening had heightened his sense of smell.

"I am used to taking in the olfactory experience," Paul told Seven Days.

The couple began learning about the art of perfume making. Paul quickly improved his mixing skills by working in a friend's perfume lab, where he could use a wide variety of ingredients and essences without spending a lot of money. He soon found that, just as he composes a song based on one lyric or sound, he can create a perfume based on one scent or emotion, he said.

Like music and gardening, perfume making is an art form that takes tinkering and adjusting to perfect. The way he might deliberate between two or three notes in composing a song, Paul spends time deciding whether another drop or two of an essence would make the perfume better.

In 2019, the couple launched perfume company Ondine with six scents developed by Paul. Sold at Maya's hair salon, also called Ondine, on State Street in Montpelier, all of the perfumes are made from water, alcohol and whole-botanical essences, meaning essences that come from all parts of the plant, Paul explained. By contrast, most commercial perfumes are made with synthetic compounds.

The couple strives to buy essences from organic and wild sources that are sustainable, meaning that no plants are endangered in the process. They seek producers who prioritize soil health, plant viability and a low carbon footprint.

Sustainable packaging is also important to the Boffas, Maya said. The perfume comes in 30-milliliter handblown bottles made in Vermont, and 10- and 50-milliliter ones made in Italy. The bottle caps are turned by a woodworker in Scotland.

"We leave a delicate footprint," Paul said.

Ondine perfumes range from rustic to explosive. One called 44 North combines the essences of honeysuckle, birch bud and oak moss for a scent of "the woods of Vermont," according to the website. Inspired by Barr Hill Gin, Juniper offers the essences of ginger, petitgrain, caraway and white fir.

Each Ondine perfume costs $65 for a 10-milliliter (0.34-ounce) bottle, $165 for a 50-milliliter (1.7-ounce) bottle and $200 for a 30-milliliter (1-ounce) handblown Vermont bottle. The Boffas determine their prices by averaging the costs of the essences: $25 to $600 per bottle, or $100 to $1,000 per ounce, depending on the intensity of the extraction process.

Ondine fragrances - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Ondine fragrances

By contrast, a 1-ounce bottle of the classic Chanel No. 5 goes for $345, but Maya doesn't believe the price of commercial perfume is a helpful comparison. Producing perfumes with synthetic materials is cheap, she said; it's the advertising fees that jack up the price.

The Boffas aim to reintroduce perfume to people who have written off commercial products due to the use of synthetics, Maya said. "We create it for the wearer so you can feel good — and that can bring you happiness," she said.

So far, many buyers of Ondine perfumes have been women whose hair Maya styles at her salon. Open Tuesday through Friday afternoons, it's a rustic space with exposed brick walls. "My clients are more elderly women who live in central Vermont and are not big on glamour and perfume — but have really appreciated these perfumes, surprising themselves," Maya said.

Paul believes Ondine perfumes appeal to sensuous people. "They are alive in their senses, and they are seeking sensual stimulation for themselves," he said. "So they are people who also probably appreciate art, good music, good food."

"I appreciate that Ondine is a completely natural, wildcrafted and organic perfume," Vivian Infantino, an Ondine perfume wearer from Shelburne, wrote by email to Seven Days. "This is a perfume that's unique to Vermont and to the ethos of those who sustainably hone their craft and make their products here."

While a synthetic perfume stays on the skin for nine to 10 hours, sometimes overwhelming any room its wearer enters, the longevity and impact of Ondine perfumes are less intense. They should break down on the wearer's skin after five to six hours, Paul said.

To expand their market beyond sales at the salon, the couple has traveled to a couple of arts and crafts shows in recent months. Maya found that young women in particular are curious about "adult perfumes" and want to wear something sophisticated, she said.

The Boffas also sell through the Ondine website, launched in fall 2021, but neither is skilled at social media, Maya said, so attracting new customers has been a challenge.

"Like any growing company, we are confronted with how we expand," Paul noted.

Sometimes they become walking advertisements for their products. A couple of weeks ago, Maya and Paul were wearing one of their scents while on vacation in Vieques, Puerto Rico, when a woman approached them to ask about the perfume. The interaction ended in a sale, and Maya and Paul shipped Sarah Ellison's perfume to her in Alabama when they returned home.

"[I was] drawn to the essence of Ondine before actually experiencing the perfume itself," Ellison wrote by email. "After a close encounter with Maya and Paul on a remote island, [I] knew [I] wanted to experience whatever creation they were providing the world."

The beginning of the pandemic was a turning point for Ondine, the couple said. The daily news of people dying from COVID-19 and the stress on health care workers guided Paul's creation of the scent Amphora. A combination of sweet basil, frankincense, cinnamon and myrrh essences, it's designed to "calm, revive and restore," the website indicates.

Two years later, Paul and Maya have sold bottles of Amphora at a 30 percent discount to about 20 health care workers. Some customers have used the perfume both on themselves and on the deceased as a way of "ritually anointing" them, Paul said.

Moving forward, the couple aims to develop wholesale accounts throughout New England, Maya said. "We are trying to grow it to a level that is manageable and satisfying," Paul added, "and that has enough of a financial return that it is worth it to continue."

Ondine is one of a small cadre of whole-botanical perfumers, "and that works well for us," he said. "We are not promoting this glitzy item [that] the perfume industry is typically about."

The original print version of this article was headlined "On the Nose"