A Nose for Nature

Words by Veronica Mike Solheim
Photography by Andris Søndrol Visdal
Story originally published in Volume Eight

You catch a scent of blueberry pie, a fresh cup of coffee, babies, summer rain or a bonfire and your mind is running wild with a flurry of memories. Scents and fragrances can make us travel. A leap back in time to moments from our childhood, good and bad. Rasa Maria Gundersen would even go as far as saying we can catch the memories of our ancestors—that what they once smelled and experienced is stored in our own DNA. But then again, Rasa’s relationship to scents and flowers goes far beyond any standard. It’s a passion that took her to Grasse, France to learn perfumery the old-fashioned way and eventually made it her way of life.

"Ah, this one dances in my mind," Rasa says as she hands me a long piece of paper. In her other hand she’s holding a nice little jar, with the word Jasmine on it. She looks excited as I carefully place the paper under my nose, close my eyes and take a deep breath to really take it in. 

"I love it."

"Yes, yes, yes," Rasa says, all lit up.

When she talks there is no doubt about it—her passion is real. It’s almost touching to hear her speak of all the different scents and notes. The base notes are some of the first things you learn at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery. Rasa completed her studies there to become a perfumer a few years ago, and she speaks of the school like it’s a haven for people who are into fragrances and flowers. 

"What about this," she asks. "Do you like this one?"

With a new jar in her hands, she curiously waits for my answer. The jar is just one of at least a hundred, all carefully placed around her little shop, Naturales, in the uptown area of Frogner, Oslo. It’s a romantic place; heavy furniture with a lot of character, plants climbing the walls, test tubes, old illustrations of flowers and books about botany and scents. And the light from the large window is currently crowded by intruders.

"The bees are a problem," Rasa says and rushes across the floor to close the door. "They leave honey on the window, it takes forever to get rid of it."

No wonder the bees come to visit, the room smells of a tropical garden, like entering a luxurious spa centre. Among all the jars and books, Rasa’s own products adorn both tables and shelves. Every product is homemade and so completely natural they're actually edible. Lotions for dry skin, mouth spray for good health and, of course, fragrances. Currently she has three signature fragrances, but she also creates custom fragrances for clients.

"I’m not sure about this one," I tell her, wanting to give her a justified answer. "I don’t think I’m that into roses."

"Oh, no! You don’t like it?" Rasa starts rummaging around in boxes of jars. She wants to find a scent that can make up for the last one.

My mind and body feel immediately comfortable when she hands it over. It’s fresh, clear, yet has depth.

"I think I understand what kind of scents you like now," Rasa says, relieved.

"I’ve heard I’m a musk kind of person," I say.

"Musk!" Rasa laughs. "Musk is just something someone made up. I think you mean that you like something heavy and mysterious. You like animalistic notes. And maybe some citrus."

Rasa makes perfumes the old fashion way. Or more precisely, the old French way. Nowadays things are more synthetic, because it’s cheaper to produce them that way. While natural fragrances are extracted from flowers and other plants, synthetics are chemically produced. As much as 80% of perfumes produced today are made with synthetic scents. When Rasa makes a new customised perfume, understanding the personality of the client is essential, as well as the aromatherapeutic qualities in the scents. She wants all the bases and notes to balance. Her fragrance Night Out took a whole year to develop. Also DUGG, which is so popular it’s currently out of stock, is made with a particular purpose.

"It’s made to reflect an inner search for peace and calmness. It’s a fragrance that’s supposed to remain in the background, shy. It’s not sexually oriented, and should instead make you feel focused and calm. It’s inspired by dew, or dugg in Norwegian. Dew is natural vaporisation. It’s water from the air that lies on the flowers and holds extracts that disappear in the morning. Also, my name means dew in Lithuanian."

Lithuania is where Rasa was born and bread. How she ended up in Norway is a love story. Actually, she calls it love at first sight. They met at a party in France and nobody thought it would last. Yet, Rasa is now married to this particular Norwegian architect, Kai, and they have two daughters together. They live in an elegant house on the outskirts of Oslo’s west side. Their garden is big and indulgent with plenty of flowers, plants, shrubs, trees and vegetables. Outside there’s an elevated greenhouse filled with tomatoes and herbs, surrounded by flowers and greenery. Not one single flower in this garden is there only for appearance's sake..

Rasa has a way of touching the flowers I've never seen before. She lets the stem fall between two fingers, before her whole palm wanders up against the leaves. Then she almost closes her fist before waving her hand back and forth in front of her nose. There’s one plant in her home that leaves an intense aroma throughout the whole room only from this one little gesture. It’s fascinating how much she knows. The names of the flowers and scents are flying past me almost unnoticed. She knows how every flower and plant smells and what each one can do for you. She can even see how a flower smells, even if she’s never sensed it before.

"It might be from a past life or generations," she says. "A scent is stored in our DNA."

Rasa jokes about people who compare her type of work with witchcraft. After all, to lubricate oil on the chest to prevent a cold might sound a bit like this. She didn’t believe it herself until she tried it and experienced that it worked. Maybe it’s Rasa’s background in nutrition that makes her in need of facts. But it is proven that scents do more than just smell. Peppermint, for example, gives you energy. While lavender has a calming effect. Jasmine provides confidence and optimism, and cinnamon can fight mental fatigue and improve concentration.

When asked about her favourites she really doesn’t have an answer.

"It’s like asking a painter what colour is his favourite. To me, every scent is a good one. Even the slightly unpleasant, strong plant notes can suit me," she says. "But I love a little drama."

Actual drama is where Rasa draws most of her inspiration—she loves movies, especially French ones, and she’s visited the Cannes Film Festival many times. According to Rasa it’s a common thing in the industry, to be inspired by movies and movie stars. But also the other way around. She wanders around in her garden. She makes sure that I stop and smell a thing or two for every step we take. And when we arrive at a huge shrub of apple mint, she takes a grip around a few stalks and shakes it firmly. Dozens of bees and butterflies appear from the bushes, along with a wind of pollen.

"Isn’t it beautiful?" Rasa asks. "Our neighbour’s bees escape sometimes and come for a visit."

It’s hard to describe both the sight and the smell, as the sun is about to go down and the whole area smells of flowers.

"Next year I’ll be distilling this to use it for a new fragrance."

One can’t help but notice her excitement when she says this. And, as I am about to leave she vigorously pulls a handful of leaves from the ground and hands them to me.

"Here! Take these, put them in some soil," she says. "Mint really suits you."