Local News Matters weekly newsletter
Start your week with a little inspiration. Sign up for our informative, community-based newsletter, delivered on Mondays with news about the Bay Area.
Years ago, Laurie Stern, a self-confessed animal lover, found dozens of miniature purple lemurs at a flea market and fell in love. She snapped up the furry little creatures.
“My husband thought I was crazy,” she recalled. But he just laughed and shook his head.
Three decades later, master perfumer Stern is attaching her baby lemurs to hand-designed boxes that hold natural perfume from Velvet & Sweet Pea’s Purrfumery, the business she founded twenty years ago and named after her cats. Her latest offering is Luminous Lemurs, an award-winning scent that helps fund lemur conservation in Madagascar.
All of Stern’s perfumes are natural and lovingly made by hand with ingredients she’s either collected from top sources — essential oils can go for as much as $1,000 an ounce — or grown in her own garden in the El Cerrito hills. Her solid perfumes are made with beeswax from her own beehives. All her perfumes are cruelty free and made through experimentation and meticulous record keeping in order to track each ingredient’s effect on the overall scent.
It took Stern three months to develop Luminous Lemurs, and several more months to allow it to age. But she always knew her purpose: to donate a generous portion of the proceeds to Centre ValBio, a research center in Madagascar that engages the local community to help restore tree corridors, save lemurs and other wildlife and support the local economy.
When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, Stern hand-blended Luminous Lemurs after a friend traveled to Madagascar and brought her ylang-ylang, an essential oil made from flowers of the tropical Cananga tree, as a gift.
“She put this natural treasure in my hands and told me about the lemurs she saw there, and how the dense forests where they live are dwindling from deforestation,” Stern recalled. “She told me about the people she met who are trying to reverse the damage through education and research. And she told me about Dr. Patricia Wright and Centre ValBio.”
Wright has led Centre ValBio since 1991. The organization works to save Madagascar lemurs and help indigenous people through research and education. COVID hit the center hard. Travel was suspended to Madagascar, and the organization needed help. So Stern decided to create Luminous Lemurs to raise awareness about the lemurs of Madagascar and support Wright’s work.
“It’s a dire situation now for the world’s wildlife,” said Stern. “But there are smart passionate people trying to change things. I want to help them through making perfume and donating a portion of the proceeds — it might have taken a pandemic, but I’m all in.”
Inspired by her older sister, Gail, a museum curator and inveterate collector who died of pancreatic cancer 16 years ago, Stern has long been drawn to collecting. She scoured flea markets for antique lace and ribbon which she used to design and make clothing — the perfumery is still full of treasures from her earlier collection. Later, Stern owned a wedding flower business. In 2000, she began making perfume, pouring over texts written in the 1800s to learn how to make natural scents using only organic alcohols and jojoba oil as a base for her perfumes.
In creating Luminous Lemurs, Stern said she was “going for a beautiful evolution” as she blended top notes of blood orange with mid-notes of ylang-ylang, carnation and spices indigenous to Madagascar, such as cinnamon and cloves, along with base notes of sandalwood and vanilla that had been aged for 20 years.
Since the fragrance was introduced in October, it’s won numerous awards and high praise from international perfume experts.
Stern and her perfumery were named Best Natural Perfume House and Perfumer in 2020, and Luminous Lemurs the Best Scent of 2020 by one international perfume blog.
“I got lucky with Luminous Lemurs — people went crazy over it,” Stern says. Now, she’s finishing work on a perfume called Pangolin Violette Rose to help endangered pangolins, the most trafficked animal in the world. It’s slated for a May launch. Combining her natural perfume expertise with philanthropy will continue to guide Stern’s next steps.
“This is just the most delicious fun thing to do,” she said.