Oy de Cologne

Pioneering Israeli-Canadian natural perfumer Ayala Moriel creates scents evoking her Galilee village childhood

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Israeli-Canadian natural perfumer Ayala Moriel at work in her Vancouver studio (photo credit: Ayala Moriel Parfums)
Israeli-Canadian natural perfumer Ayala Moriel at work in her Vancouver studio (photo credit: Ayala Moriel Parfums)

It is common for ex-pats to miss their homelands. Some write about it; others cook homestyle food. Still others draw, paint or sculpt their memories. Ayala Moriel doesn’t evokes her homeland — Israel — through words, taste or sight. Instead, she creates perfumes to remind her of the scents of home.

‘Perfume is all about story telling… But in my case it’s also about memory travelling’

Moriel, who lives in Vancouver, Canada, is a pioneer and standout in the world of artisan natural perfumery. Her company, Ayala Moriel Parfums (rebranded from Quinta Essentia Signature Perfumes in 2006), is known worldwide among independent perfumeries and perfume enthusiasts for the high quality of its products and Moriel’s expertise and creativity. Although Moriel has designed some 50 different perfumes, it is the ones that are inspired by her olfactory memories of growing up in the Galilee that are closest to her heart.

Plants native to the Galilee inspire Moriel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Plants native to the Galilee inspire Moriel (photo credit: Courtesy)

“Perfume is all about story telling,” Moriel recently told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation from her home studio in Vancouver. “But in my case it’s also about memory travelling.”

Moriel, 36, was born in Montreal, but she was raised from a very young age in Clil, a unique village in the Western Galilee founded in 1979 by a group of people wanting to get back to the land. “It’s an organic village that focuses on sustainable living, living from the land,” she explained. “We weren’t even connected to the electrical grid for a long time.”

Moriel grew up surrounded by natural herbs and plants. “My mom was a hippy type, so I grew up in nature,” she said. “My mom was passionate about medicinal herbs, she was always interested in the local plants, and I learned a lot from her.” As a child, Moriel’s favorites were lemon verbena, spearmint, fresh lemongrass, roses, jasmine vines, frangipani and orange blossom.

Moriel did not originally foresee using her knowledge of those plants professionally. However, when 14 years ago, she unexpectedly found herself in Vancouver as a single, 22-year-old mother to an autistic daughter, she was glad to have it to fall back on. In an attempt to deal with the stresses of daily life, she began burning incense and meditating. It wasn’t long before her interest in blending incense led her to learn more about perfumery.

She is completely self-taught. “It was unclear how to train in fragrance,” she recalled. Indeed, back then, the independent and artisan fragrance community was very small. “At the time the only training available was in Europe, so I just read books and did my own research,” she explained. “I was learning as I went, and I feel like I am still learning.”

Veteran natural perfumer Mandy Aftel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Veteran natural perfumer Mandy Aftel (photo credit: Courtesy)

“Ayala called me very early in her career,” Mandy Aftel recalled in a conversation with The Times of Israel from her home in Berkeley, California. Aftel, who has been in the artisan natural perfume business for 20 years, is the author of “Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume,” considered essential reading for those interested in the art and science of natural perfumery.

Aftel, 64, emphasized that the artisan perfume community is relatively small but growing rapidly. It is also very tight knit, with members staying in close touch online, visiting one another in person when possible, and generously providing guidance and support for one another. Education is a big part of it, with perfumers regularly offering classes or working with individual clients to craft bespoke scents.

Despite all the jokes about the Jewish ‘schnoz,’ there are not many Jewish noses working in artisan perfumery

Despite all the jokes about the Jewish “schnoz,” there are not many Jewish noses working in artisan perfumery (“nose” being the industry term for perfumer). However, a number of Jewish noses have achieved fame through their work for large cosmetic corporations. For instance, Sophia Grojsman has created some of the most popular fragrances of the past 30 years, like Eternity by Calvin Klein, Beautiful by Estee Lauder, and Trésor by Lancôme.

Many of Moriel’s colleagues are impressed by her ability to produce botanical fragrances that are as refined as some of the classical European perfumes. “I have a lot of respect for Ayala,” Aftel said. “She’s very talented, passionate and knowledgeable. I find her creations to be very personal, interesting, beautiful and alive.”

Yosh Han, a noted San Francisco-based artisan perfumer, agreed. “Ayala is a talented natural perfumer. Her designs are complex and sophisticated, where many natural perfumes smell either mushroom-y or too earthy, or hippy. Her fragrance style has the structure of traditional French perfumery but with modern concepts.”

And Laurie Stern, proprietor of Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery in El Cerrito, California called Moriel “groundbreaking.” She met Moriel when she came from Vancouver to visit her at her perfume and bee-keeping garden (Stern produces her own beeswax for use in her products). Stern, 57, shares Moriel’s commitment to using only natural raw materials, as well as her stance against animal testing and cruelty. Whereas some artisan perfumers combine botanicals and synthetics, natural perfumers like Stern, Aftel and Moriel use only botanical ingredients.

Fragrance writer and reviewer Ida Meister (photo credit: Courtesy)
Fragrance writer and reviewer Ida Meister (photo credit: Courtesy)

Stern points out that the expensive nature of botanicals presents a challenge to consumers. But natural perfumers refuse to cut corners. Ida Meister, who writes for the international online perfume encyclopedia Fragrantica is very discerning and can easily tell the difference between botanicals and synthetics. “I appreciate how hard it is to achieve good work with botanicals,” Meister said. “It’s hard to produce things that don’t disappear in three minutes.”

That was a particular challenge that Moriel surmounted in creating her new etrog (citron) perfume called, “Etrog Oy de Cologne” (citrus scents are especially ephemeral). It took her several years to formulate it, because there is no essential etrog oil available.

Her family tinctured fresh organic etrog zest for her in Israel, and Jewish community members in Vancouver donated their used etrogim to her for three years so that she would have more raw material to tincture (tincturing produces an alcoholic extract from the plant). The perfume’s top notes are (in addition to citron) pomelo, Japanese mint, green myrtle. Its heart notes are balsam poplar buds, honey, lemon myrtle and petitgrain cedrat. The base notes are sweet myrrh, olive resin, ambergris and frankincense.

‘She achieved the smell that etrog leaves on your hands’

“She achieved the smell that etrog leaves on your hands,” Meister said, referring to the holding of the etrog as one shakes the lulav on Sukkot. In reviewing the Oy de Cologne for Fragrantica, Meister, 57, compared it to Jacques Guerlain’s Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat, finding Moriel’s more complex. “Guerlain’s version is more straightforward, while Ayala’s weaves a myriad of subtle intricacies upon the flesh, fleeting though they may be,” she wrote.

Moriel zests etrog for tincturing (photo credit: Noam Dehan)
Moriel zests etrog for tincturing (photo credit: Noam Dehan)

Gaia Fishler, an Israeli-American living in New Jersey who writes the popular The Non-Blonde beauty and perfume blog and tracks the fast growth of the artisan perfume world, also loves Moriel’s newly launched etrog fragrance.

In speaking with The Times of Israel, Fishler, 41, called Moriel “an educated nose and a true artist” and notes that “the second [a perfume] leaves the perfumer’s hands, it becomes part of the wearer.” In this way, the connection between the scent and the event or memory that inspired the perfumer to create it can be lost. “But I know the reference points,” Fishler said referring to the particular Israeli life experiences that inform about one-third of Moriel’s repertoire.

‘I missed the scent of the rain hitting the parched Middle Eastern earth’

Among her other Israel-inspired fragrances are: Finjan, a spiced Turkish coffee gourmand with a hint of floral notes; Sahleb, which evokes the traditional orchid-based Middle Eastern winter drink; Song of Songs, an oriental perfume using aromatics mentioned in the biblical book; Zohar, an orange blossom soliflore; Yasmin, a Jasmine soliflore showcasing the phases of the flower from dawn to midnight; Cabaret, a perfume that is reminiscent of Rahat Loukum, or Turkish Delight; and the gingery, oriental Zangvil.

One of Moriel’s earliest experiments in creating perfume took the form of trying to reproduce the smell of the yoreh, the first rain of the winter rainy season in Israel. “I missed the scent of the rain hitting the parched Middle Eastern earth,” she says wistfully. “In Vancouver there is no ‘after the rain,’ because it seems to almost always be raining.”

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