Ara the altar
earth-aware adornment for the everyday
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Letters of Ara

An online journal & e-mail newsletter in which to explore areas of interest and influence for Ara the altar.

In the Laboratory with Lesley of Essence + Alchemy

All imagery by Essence + Alchemy

Every month as part of my Letters of Ara e-mail newsletter I share a likeminded brand that is creating beautiful products with respect for both people and the planet. The brand I have chosen to share this month operates in line with a set of values that I respect and resonate with both professionally and personally, as a brand and as a consumer. As such, I wanted to allow a little extra time to explore the purpose and influence behind this month’s special brand. 

Essence + Alchemy (E+A), inspired by the elements of fire, water, air and earth, creates botanical scented goods with a focus on handcrafting sustainable, natural collections with honesty and transparency. Upon first discovering E+A, not long after beginning my own journey with Ara the altar, I felt a real connection to this considered brand which ‘strives to use creative solutions to make a positive impact on the planet’.  

Founder Lesley A Bramwell (with the fitting initials ‘L.A.B’), began her journey as an environmental scientist, with a passion for sustainability. Consequently, Lesley’s product design ensures that ‘products are made with minimal impact on the earth, its people and its organisms’. Lesley considers not only from what materials her products are made but also how and from where they have travelled; how they are packaged; how the energy required to make them is generated; and how any waste will be minimised. I particularly love that E+A handblown glass beakers are designed with reuse in mind and have found Lesley’s low-waste tea-light sets to make well received, considered gifts. I am over the moon to speak with Lesley and to explore and share with you her thoughtful, sustainable, design-led approach. 

Hello, Lesley – thank you so much for spending a little time with me and Letters of Ara. First of all, please tell us a little about yourself and the path that led you to E+A.

Hello Lauren, thank you for the lovely introduction and inviting me to be part of your beautiful Letters of Ara! 

Where do I start? I suppose my path to Essence + Alchemy was quite a long one, but I’ve always been creative, making home remedies and potions with botanicals and essential oils - bath oils, diffuser blends etc. 

I studied environmental science at university and went onto become a freelance occupational hygiene and environmental consultant working in all kinds of environments and industries. I measured exposure to chemicals and advised on environmental legislation and compliance.  Working with businesses who were passionate about protecting the environment, I knew that when I started E+A, that sustainability would be at the heart of it.

We bought an old run down house a few years ago (which we are still renovating) and in the early days it was very cold and there wasn’t much comfort.  I was travelling around the country Monday to Friday, then chipping plaster off the walls at the weekend.  I think initially I needed a more relaxing creative outlet, an escape from the mess of the house and although not the best conditions to start making candles in with all the dirt and dust, I started experimenting with candle making. I can’t remember the exact moment I started making candles but I remember considering all the different waxes.  Aromatherapy has been part of my daily life since I was a teenager and I’ve always been fascinated with how essential oils work and how they affect our well-being.  From the offset I chose rapeseed wax because of it’s eco credentials and scenting with anything other than essential oils never crossed my mind.  

A few years later, Essence + Alchemy was hatched, bringing together the natural scent and energy of plants (essence) with my scientific and environmental background (alchemy) and launched on line in Spring 2015.

 

You have created a beautiful concept and brand that entwines the elements, is rooted in environmental science, and creates beautifully designed products responsibly. From where do you take your influence and what do you see as your brand’s purpose? 

Thank you! The brand is strongly influenced by aromatherapy and the theories of alchemy.  I enjoy researching essential oils, their benefits and magical properties.  I also love discovering old alchemical texts and finding out the meanings behind words and symbols.

One of the main beliefs of Alchemy was that there were the four natural elements; air, fire, water and earth and with the right combination of these, any substance could be formed including healing elixirs. I wanted to draw on this idea and create products with purpose, ones that could help promote natural well-being by using only natural plant based ingredients and the practice of aromatherapy.

It is clear that consideration for the planet’s resources influences your decision making. What are some of the decisions you have made to lessen E+A’s environmental impact and why?

I’m fascinated with the elements, how they impact each other, changing the landscape and environmental conditions and how human interference influences these connections causing imbalance in the ecosystem.  

I always consider this in my decision making because I want my business, although small, to cause as little impact on the earth as I can, so I’m always considering how my processes and products will affect the environment and the environmental decisions of my customer.  

Nature is where I draw both my inspiration and raw materials from so it’s vital that I make considered decisions on the materials I use and sourcing so I’m always looking at where the materials come from, are they sustainable, are they ethically sourced and if they don’t tick these boxes I have to start again.  

It’s also important to remember that just because something’s natural, it doesn’t mean it’s safe or it’s been safely extracted.  Many essential oils are solvent extracted with harmful chemicals like petroleum ether and hexane.  I only use steam distilled essential oils because I know it’s a more natural and gentle method of extraction and those solvents haven’t been used in the extraction process. Essential oils are the soul, the life essence of the plant so it’s important not to destroy that by harsh extraction methods.

Another important decision I made at the very beginning was to consider the life cycle of my products, in particular the packaging - what happens to the packaging and glass when the candle is used. With this in mind, I had to think about the glass.  I wanted the glass to be reusable and offer my customers physical candle refills which fit perfectly inside the glass.  The reuse of the glass is something that I’m trying to encourage even more of and I am currently working on a brand refresh with a new glass design to make it even more versatile for reuse. 

 

What drove the impetus to refresh the brand, and what can we look forward to upon its relaunch?

It’s always hard running a business and making the right decisions.  Sometimes creativity and the need to please can take over.  The decision behind the brand refresh happened towards the end of last year when I realised that I had too many candle size options, I suppose I was trying to please everyone.  I needed to get back to my core values and strip everything right back.  I can’t really reveal too much at this stage but I will be relaunching next month with a new look - glassware and packaging. 

 

When considering the production process, can you share a little about your practice and the journey you undergo in creating a scent or a product?

When it comes to creating scent, I always start off with the plants, for an example I created a bespoke diffuser scent ‘Land’ for The Plant Room based in Leeds.  It was to scent an installation at the London Design Festival in London last year.  They were creating a landscape of grasses and plants inspired by the Scottish Highlands.  My first step was to look at the plants they were using and also research what was growing in Scotland and worked from there.  

I then look at what essential oils are available and before I decide on whether they can be used,  I check if they are steam distilled as this is the most gentlest form of extraction and also make sure that there aren’t any sustainability or ethical issues. Usually I work by adding a drop of each oil onto scent paper and smell the scents on their own, then with each other to see how they work together.  I then create two to three different blend variations. I let the oils blend together for a few days, return to them and tweak further if required.

Do you find that you experience any particular challenges in staying true to your values, personally as well as professionally? 

Yes definitely.  This is why the brand refresh and product changes are so important. Sometimes when running a business, outside influences can blur your vision and it’s very easy to veer of course sometimes but I think for the most part its easier professionally to stay true to my values.  From a personal perspective, there are always challenges.  I’m not the only decision maker at home so there will be always be compromises.  We’re always looking at ways of reusing things at home.  Whatever comes out of the house renovation has found a new home somewhere else in the house or garden or is waiting to be reused. My husband built our kitchen with wood off-cuts from a kitchen business and most of our furniture is second hand or repaired. 

 

Finally, what does a typical day look like for you and is there anything in particular that you do to invite a little slowness or self-care into your life and work? 

I’m very fortunate to work from my garden so I don’t have far to go to work.  My mornings are very relaxed and peaceful, the favourite part of my day.  I arrive at the garden lab around 8am and enjoy this quiet time. If the weather is good, I sit outside with a cuppa with Jack my border collie and enjoy the garden for a while.

Before that I generally switch the wax melter on.  It can take a few hours for the wax to melt.  I then catch up with emails and admin while the wax slowly melts away in the background. I make everything to order so every day is different.  I enjoy this way of working, it means that every product is made with intention and I know when I’m pouring a candle, who that candle is for and where it’s going. 

Other times I can be working on creating new scent blends, for E+A or bespoke projects I’m working on or I can be experimenting with new materials or product testing.  It’s very varied, no day is the same. Working with essential oils helps with my mental well-being, I don’t know what I have would have done without aromatherapy in my life and now I get to work with essential oils everyday! 

I’m always in the garden, enjoying the birds chattering away or investigating what’s growing.  At the moment, the Forget-Me-Nots have just started flowering and Tulips are just about to open.  I find that being so close to nature everyday helps slow things down when things start getting a little bit hectic, just being able to step outside for a few minutes is the best tonic.

 

 

A few months down the line, E+A launched their brand refresh.

Read my journal post exploring Lesley’s updated offering, designed with a circular economy in mind.