23 Jan The Natural: Behind the Botanical Beauty of NYC’s Marble & Milkweed
We found out about stellar “analog beauty” company Marble & Milkweed via Twitter, which led us to a website with a photo of a single tuberose flower atop a sky blue typewriter. Needless to say, we were won over immediately. Founded and formulated by the gloriously named Briar Winters, Marble & Milkweed produces skincare, fragrance (including these solids in vintage compacts), gifts and teas sourced from organic and wildcrafted ingredients.
Horticulture has always been a big part of Briar’s life, which began, as it happens, on a farm in the Pacific Northwest. Her company’s name is a nod to the flower that feeds the monarch butterflies and whose Asclepius genus is named after the Greek god of medicine. It’s also a nod to the clawfoot tub in the kitchen of the Lower East Side apartment Briar shares with her boyfriend Michael. (The pair met at noted Midtown restaurant Aquavit, where they used to work, he as a chef and Briar as a pastry chef.)
Today Marble & Milkweed is a full-time passion. Briar now creates and ships her formulations out of a sun-soaked fourth-floor studio in Tribeca, where we stopped in for a visit on a brisk morning in late December.
Serene, sophisticated and a blast to hang out with, Briar exudes a Pre-Raphaelite glow. Below, we talk about the perks of playing in the dirt, beekeeping in Bed-Stuy, and why people are smitten with her cardamom body butter. Plus, we sniff from her arsenal of rare and evocative essences, from ginger lily to silver fir to, oh baby, a fossilized amber…
So you grew up gardening?
My parents always had a garden. My dad had an apple orchard [outside Bellingham, Washington, with 1500 apple trees], so I always grew up being outside, being in the dirt, in the garden, wrestling around with dogs. I feel really lucky to have been able to do that. I was exposed to so many germs and I’m healthier for it. [Laughs.]
Even after we moved off of the farm and into town a little bit, I always loved gardening. I had mostly a shade garden — it was under a beautiful hazelnut tree. It was sort of like my fairy garden with all these little paths. It had all kinds of bleeding hearts and angelica and forget-me-nots, all these woodland things.
I used to change my family’s answering machine message; when I was home alone and going to be outside I would say, “I’m so sorry I can’t come to the phone; we’re in the garden.” [Laughs.] And of course my parents put up with that. Which was very indulgent of them.
How did you get from the Pacific Northwest to NYC?
There was something drawing me toward New York and I didn’t know what it was. I went to NYU for a couple years and I didn’t like it. But I loved the city. So I left NYU and went to cooking school — another instance in which my parents were very indulgent — then I worked in a pastry kitchen for almost a decade. And that is kind of a difficult lifestyle. It’s not an easy thing on the body. I had for a while a pretty cushy job at a hotel, so I had a bit more free time and just started playing around with this kind of thing, what I do now. It just started as a hobby — as many things do. Just a little project here and there…and then it turned into a full-time thing.
Does your pastry experience inform your work with beauty? And were you coming in late from the kitchen and working on formulations during the day…?
The thing with pastry is, as you hone your craft, you end up being the one who’s there during the day, doing all the production. And someone else usually plates it at night. So I had a lot of time for myself in the evening. I would start experimenting and it just took off from there. It’s very similar to a lot of pastry stuff – like blending things and creating recipes, weighing everything out to the gram and following procedure very closely. It’s a very similar mindset to what I do now.
A lot of similar ingredients too — nice oils. Actually, essential oils in cooking is really taking off right now. Mandy Aftel in Berkeley is a perfumer; she’s someone I admire enormously. She’s been this driving force behind so many people getting interested in botanical perfumery and in the last few years she has collaborated with chefs to do a lot of cooking with essential oils. They’re basically the lifeblood of the plant, so they’re very, very concentrated but you can use the tiniest little bit and it changes the flavor and the aroma of things — and in ways you won’t expect.
What’s a favorite example of this?
My favorite is black pepper — it’s really beautiful in perfume and also incredible in food. It gives this sort of sweet, fragrant, spicy note but without the harshness you might get from a fresh-cracked peppercorn. [Offers us a bottle to sniff.] It almost has a floral quality…
There’s so much inspiration that can fly back and forth.
What is analog beauty?
I started wanting to make things for myself. I’m very big on ingredients — I feel like there are so many scary additives out there that are used willy-nilly in beauty products.
I thought I could create something that’s effective and beautiful without any of that. Everything I use is plant-based and that’s a big part of it too. I want that to be, energetically, a big part of what this company is about: Everything comes from plants. It’s about having that connection with nature, with your environment.
Have any botanical ingredients in particular surprised you?
One thing that I’ve noticed in particular is rose oil. First of all, rose oil can come from all over the place: there’s Bulgarian, Egyptian, Turkish — all these different roses, and they all smell so different from each other.
It’s also fascinating to notice the difference in one you’ve gotten from the same supplier. [It smells one way] one year, and then the next year it will smell a little different. Because it’s coming from the earth — it depends on how they were growing that year, how much sunlight they got, everything. That can be kind of startling, which is a good thing.
In general, how is a Bulgarian rose different from an Egyptian rose and from a Turkish rose…?
It can be tricky to make too many generalizations about the character of roses from different places, as they can be grown in so many different soils and microclimates. Bulgaria is known especially for its rose otto [rose oil extracted through steam distillation] production, and the rose ottos that I use from there is sweet, round and full-bodied. The rose absolute from Bulgaria I use is bright, but also has depth and spice. Beautiful rose essences also come from Turkey (sometimes greener with a hint of spice), Egypt (warm and deep), Morocco (warm and softly spicy).
What are some other similarly protean ingredients?
I use a lot of honey too. That also can vary quite dramatically depending on what the bees are eating. It’s one of my favorite materials. It’s so magical when you think about how it’s produced, and what it represents. People have been keeping bees forever, in ancient Greece, Rome.
Now that bees are so threatened, I think that the more we can bring things like that into our sphere of awareness, the more we are connected to them, and the more we have a stake in what’s going on. That’s really important. We actually started keeping bees, my boyfriend and I, this past year in Brooklyn, in a community garden in Bed-Stuy. It’s an ongoing experiment.
It gives you an appreciation for what they do. They work so hard. It’s really an incredible thing to watch.
Do you still garden?
We’re both members of our community garden in our neighborhood, at 6th and B. It’s a really, really wonderful garden and we’ve been members for a couple years now.
The history of community gardens in the East Village is absolutely fascinating. They really all sprung up at a time when the neighborhood was completely burnt out; landlords had completely given up on their buildings so they would burn them down for insurance. It was a wreck — just empty lots. And then a few people moved in, mostly artists and creative people — the natural cycles of cities, you know?
One of the best things about being a community garden member is getting to know your neighbors, people from different generations. [Also], in the middle of the city you’re not always feeling attuned to the natural rhythm of things. Being a part of the garden is a nice way to do that.
What are you working on?
I’m a part of the horticultural committee there, and we’ve been doing a native plant project. I’m really excited about it — we’ve been planting native plants like crazy. I would like to use the space I’ve created through social media, through the blog and the connections I’ve made with people to really promote native plants. It’s become my New Year goal.
We’ve attended workshops by the Butterfly Project, which is a really cool organization; they partner with Bronx Green-Up, and they educate people about what kind of pollinators are supported by different plants and give the plants out to community gardens.
What are some of your favorite NYC natives?
Foxglove penstemon. It doesn’t look anything like regular foxglove — it has these beautiful pale flowers on reddish stems. I love, I love purple coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea.
Let’s talk products. What do you love using right now?
Right now I’m using a lot of my Rose & Chamomile facial scrub, which works so well for my skin in the winter because the ground botanicals exfoliate dry skin away and the oils really give a nice boost of moisture on these cold dry days.
My favorite scent right now is anything made with the beautiful gardenia absolute that I was lucky enough to be able to purchase this past year. It smells just like the gardenias we like to visit in the conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden, and is such a fresh, uplifting scent. You can smell the green notes. It’s an incredible essence — you can see by the way it moves — it’s a very viscous liquid.
What are your plans for this gardenia?
I did a solid perfume for Madesmith, whom I really enjoyed working with. They curate a selection of handmade goods, and do stuff that’s exclusive to them. I love them. They’re a partnership — one of them is based here and the other is based in LA. I did a perfume with the gardenia and clove and other white flowers. I have a really beautiful clove absolute that I’m just in love with. [Lends me a dab of a gorgeously dynamic scent; I will be smelling my wrist for the rest of the day.]
What’s most popular among Marble & Milkweed fans?
The butters and the body oils are very popular. They’re very accessible and make lovely gifts too.
Is there a butter that’s moving especially briskly?
The cardamom. It’s my favorite spice and it’s one of my very favorite scents. I think it comes from when I was working at Aquavit. In Scandinavian desserts, there’s so much cardamom and I just fell in love with it. It’s one of those things that can go either way: It can be sweet or savory, and it complements so many things.
I find that people really connect with it too. There’s something very comforting about cardamom and it’s also really great for you — it’s full of antioxidants and it’s excellent for digestion.
Your Winter Getaway Kit sounds like a thrilling walk through the forest.
I love being able to put together a little kit that just reminds you where you are in the season. Right now it’s all about coniferous scents. I know people associate that a lot with the holidays but winter has just begun. [Laughs.]
I have the silver fir from France that’s amazing [she offers us a sniff of a stark, snowy, woodsy aroma]. You can get all these different varieties of fir and they all smell so different from each other. And this is a kind of sweet douglas fir, a different kind of fir character. [We sniff a sweet, resinous scent.] I’ve been experimenting with blending them together.
You also did a scent for winter, Perfume No. 3.
I wanted to create a winter rose, basically. A lot of rose fragrances are very springy and summery. I wanted a rose you could wear in winter and have the spicy, resinous undertone to it. It’s almost like a dried rose in a way too.
I’ve been working on a new scent for spring…for several years. [Laughs.] But I could never quite get it to be what I wanted it to be. Sometimes things take a lot of time. I want it to be green, but it’s sort of elusive, you know? Of course I want it to smell like when you walk outside into the garden in spring, but that means so many different things. And it means a different thing every year too. I have some orris root that I’ve been playing around with that’s really interesting. It smells like violets…
How do you cleanse your nose between scents?
I find that inhaling into a piece of wool or cotton can be nice. If I’m wearing a sweater or something, I’ll just…[Sniffs sleeve.]
Any other new discoveries you’re excited to work with?
One thing I’m looking forward to working with is a fossilized amber, which is so beautiful. It’s really fascinating. [We sniff; it smells like warm, intoxicating antiquity itself.] For the winter I think it would have made a beautiful scent — I just didn’t have time this year to get to it. I really want to do a solid perfume.
This is ginger lily, which I’m really crazy about. This might find its way into something in the spring. I was gifted a really beautiful hydrosol from Dabney Rose. She’s incredible — she sent me this ginger lily hydrosol. It’s the very pure essence of it, but it’s also very vegetal.
Why do plants matter on a personal level?
People feel so comfortable in gardens and around plants. It gives people a sense of well-being. It’s very therapeutic. I went to visit one of my dear friends right after she had her baby this past summer, and she was in the ICU, and there was so much tension and stress and everyone was feeling so much anxiety.
We had just gone to the farmer’s market, my boyfriend and I. This was in August when it was bursting with stuff and we had this bunch of basil with us from the market. And we get into the elevator at the hospital and everyone turned around and said, ‘What is that? That smells so good.’ And there was this visceral reaction. You could feel this weight lifted off everyone. It was incredible to see that moment. And it was something so simple.
People [say], “Oh aromatherapy,” like it’s such a wacky thing. The original aromatherapy is a bunch of basil in the elevator. [Laughs.] It was a really special moment. It made me want to do that more, to bring those moments to people.
It makes you realize how good it is to have plants in your life.