Perfect Chemistry: Ambre Blends Fragrance’s Formula for Success

America’s most addictive scents aren’t developed in a Paris perfumery or a New York lab, but in an Indianapolis basement. How Ambre Blends won a cult-like hold on our noses—and boomed into a big-money business

One day this past May, an Indianapolis boutique owner named Heidi Woodman headed down New York City’s Hudson Parkway in a cab, dabbing a travel-sized roller-ball fragrance on her wrists and decolletage along the way to her destination in the West Village. There, she stepped inside Montmartre, a bustling brasserie of the moment. The unmistakable scent of sizzling steak au poivre and pommes frites permeated the air. At the bar, two suited gentlemen approached.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your dinner,” one said, “but you have to tell me what perfume you are wearing.”

Woodman was flattered, but unfazed. In town for a furniture conference, she would receive at least 20 similar compliments and queries that week from men and women alike. In fact, she had prepared for such an inevitability, packing her tote with handfuls of fragrance samples to pass out when people asked. In the decade since Woodman first started stocking the Indianapolis-made scent at her SoBro shop, she has replied the same way each time she has been stopped in her tracks by a stranger’s sniffgasm:

“I’m wearing Ambre.”

Or rather, Ambre Blends—a line of fragrant oils, body creams, soaps, spritzers, lip balms, and skin tonics (and, coming soon, deodorant, baby creams, and bubble washes) that has monopolized high-end boutique and salon shelves from the Mile Square to Carmel since 2003, when northeastside native Ambre (pronounced “amber”) Crockett launched the company. A small-batch fragrance-maker who started out mixing up scents in her bathroom doesn’t sound like the stuff of a million-dollar business, but that’s just what Crockett is poised to achieve—along with a cult-like following, an appearance on the black market, and copycats—without the help of machines, loans, publicists, or advertising.

You (or the cool blonde under the dryer across from you at the salon) may even be wearing one of Crockett’s formulas right now. Thought the scent was your own little secret, right? Not anymore.

Woodman may have been Ambre Blends’s first cheerleader, but the many clients who followed helped land Crockett in her posh headquarters, a 1970s home office originally created by famed local home designer Avriel Shull. One mid-spring morning, the trim 37-year-old greets me at the door barefoot, wearing an oversized
cotton embroidered shirt and faded jeans, toting her redheaded 1-year-old son, Kingston, on her hip. Strolling through the main floor, Crockett casually points out the authentic white Eames chairs in a catalog-worthy sunroom, an angled fireplace wall made entirely of limestone, a pristine kitchen. Even with a toddler scampering about, absolutely nothing is out of place. It would be easy to hate her, and her perfectly wild, soft auburn curls, but she’s charming. She stops—and tugs and sniffs at her flowy top. She confesses she spilled her lunch. “To think, I sell Ambre Blends, and I’m giving you a tour smelling like tuna,” she says, laughing. She motions to her husband, Adam, a former commercial real-estate pro who recently joined the Ambre team as director of operations, to put Kingston down for his nap upstairs.

As we descend to the basement production floor, the smell of Crockett’s business gets stronger. Ambre Blends’s product line revolves around four fragrances.  The original, Ambre Essence, still reminds me of springtime blooms and heavenly clean sheets, just like the first time I sniffed the signature scent at French Pharmacie a few years ago. Both notes also evoke memories for Crockett, a haute hippie in the mold of her flower-child father, Terry, who insisted on naming her “Ambre” with the French spelling. His yang, Crockett’s mother Lesley, is a custom drapery designer who required cleanliness and organization; their striking midcentury tri-level on the northeast side always had a fresh aroma that Crockett loved.

As a teen, she didn’t enjoy perfume like her peers did, though; Fahrenheit cologne by Dior, ubiquitously spritzed at her high school, Lawrence Central, gave her migraines. “It was a loud and obnoxious synthetic scent,” she says. “Once I smelled it, I couldn’t get any work done.” Instead, Crockett frequented head shops, which among the hookahs and hand-blown glass pipes also carried rootsy oils and fragrances that were easier on her nose. Crockett parlayed that preference into a career in Fort Collins, Colorado, where she moved in 1997 after daydreaming through a semester of classes at IUPUI. There were more free spirits like herself there, one of whom inspired her to enroll in massage and aromatherapy classes. “I wanted to make people feel happy and good, and I noticed there was money in the field—and I’d have a lot of free time,” says Crockett. She also apprenticed as an herbalist and learned the traditional art of soaking garden-grown plants like echinacea, lavender, and peppermint and then extracting their essential oils to create bath and body products. She began tinkering with her own lines, particularly one based on amber, a resin traditionally derived from fir trees.

From a tender age, Ambre had felt drawn to her namesake. She wore a stone amber pendant around her neck and loved the warm, alluring smell—as did her massage-school clients, who complimented her amber-based oils, creams, and incense. Before 1997 was over, she had developed her first proprietary scent: Ambre Essence. But it wasn’t until she refined her second fragrance in 2000, the floral Invoke Essence, that orders for her products really started pouring in. She began to take her craft more seriously, logging notes and finessing formulas.

Missing her family, Crockett returned to Indianapolis in 2001. She opened her own massage practice in her home and bottled small batches of essential-oil blends in her bathroom for clients and friends. It wasn’t until two years later that Uber’s Woodman gave the then–26-year-old her first big break. Woodman had sniffed out Ambre Essence on one of Crockett’s friends who was shopping in Uber and demanded to know the name of the scent. She immediately ordered about $1,000 worth of products for her boutique. Uber customers quickly bought out the supply. Uber was only the beginning. Indianapolis—so quick to embrace local artisans, to buy from an actual person, an Ambre—pounced on Crockett’s unisex scents. Practically overnight, other shops—French Pharmacie, Frankey’s, and Girly Chic Boutique—came calling. French Pharmacie even placed a $5,000 order, a chancy move for a small business. “They were giving me prominent in-store displays,” says Crockett. “It was beyond surreal.” Erin Welch, the former manager at erstwhile Frankey’s (and now part owner of 8 Fifteen), discovered Ambre Blends while visiting Uber and ordered it for what was then the leading boutique in town. The cavernous shop smelled overwhelmingly of Ambre until the day it closed its doors in 2011—and that marquee presence inspired flocks of fans.

To keep up with the new bulk-order demand, Crockett raced downstairs between massage sessions to mix ingredients in blenders on a TV stand. In 2009, Stephanie Harris—Crockett’s friend and now business partner—and Adam convinced Crockett to retire from massage. By then her small operation had added a third scent, the spicy-vanilla–hinted Solace Essence. And even though the lucrative massage practice had given Crockett the means to establish the company, Harris reasoned that her friend’s talents were better used toying with new product lines than kneading stiff delts—or if nothing else, handling the $280,000 in annual sales coming in the door.

Crockett’s scents were not only popular—the line had sparked a cult-like following. The most intense fans were even rumored to spray their dogs and bed linens with Ambre. The company also inspired imitators—a shop in Lafayette Square allegedly carried knockoff Ambre Essence for $5 or so—as well as black-market deals. Rachel Davidson, Crockett’s childhood acquaintance and the former owner of Pillow Talk, once one of Ambre’s best-selling stores, caught a woman in the Carmel shop pocketing vials of the fragrance. The woman, it turns out, had been stealing Ambre product for quite some time and selling it under the table while waitressing at a nearby Irish pub.

So what is it about Ambre Blends that stops strangers in their tracks—that drives them to commit crimes? After all, essential oils have been collecting dust at crunchy granola stores and craft shows since the days of bell-bottoms and 8-tracks.

First, a primer on the difference between these oils and what we think of today as “real perfume”—the kind spritzed in your direction at the department store. Unlike the essential oils that comprise Ambre Essence—pure extracts from flowers, fruits, resins, and the like—commercial or synthetic perfumes (your Chanel No. 5, your Heat by Beyonce) are primarily made from chemical products derived from petroleum that only mimic the smell of natural products. Commercial perfumes
are also mixed with solvents like alcohol, which cause the fragrance to dry faster, evaporating more quickly for a stronger effect—and also help fill up those big,
fancy bottles.

To plumb the secret of Ambre Blends’s mystique is a little harder. As inviting as Crockett is, when it comes to her enterprise, she is hermetic. She shares the brand’s obvious ingredients for her allergy-concerned customers but is clandestine about her processing methods and sources. Amy L. Wright, her heavy-hitting attorney (who oversees the estate of Marilyn Monroe and represents the Hershey Company, Heineken, and Volkswagen), has trained her well. Though Crockett has not brought any serious lawsuits against copycats, she recently discovered an L.A.-based beauty-product company copying and pasting her fragrance descriptions onto its own website, verbatim. “They could have at least moved the commas around,” says Crockett.

What she will reveal: The scent her customers and boutiques are really swooning over is the top-secret ingredient in Ambre Essence, a delicately fragranced amber oil that serves as the extract base in each of Crockett’s three other fragrances (Invoke, Solace, and Unmasque) and whose warm aroma has been known to spark desire and arousal—even sex testimonials. Brian Knott, a Carmel expat who now works as a private chef on a 130-foot yacht touring the world, says he has Ambre Essence to thank for his exciting love life. He was once in Bora Bora when “a quite stunning French woman who barely spoke English” came up to him at a tiki bar and indicated that she wanted to know what scent he was wearing. That was all it took for the two to connect. “It happens all the time,” Knott says.

Plus, the products tend to hold their power, even if the wearer stops smelling it after a few hours; the aroma doesn’t fade much to others until you scrub it off, even days later. Her unexpected combinations also appeal. Take her most recent concoction, Unmasque Essence. Sure, it features a ubiquitous item or two, including frankincense and patchouli. But Crockett turns the volume way down so that the duo is hardly recognizable, and then mixes them with the likes of clove, black pepper, coffee, blood orange, red mandarin, and a plant-based product resembling the musk of leather. Ask Crockett about commonly used lavender, though, and she’ll smirk. “We won’t touch it,” she says. “It’s way too saturated in the market.”

One could argue, though, that Crockett has overfilled her own market—Indy. There was a time when only those in the know wore Ambre; now picking up on that telltale aroma at a soiree at the IMA or Sunday brunch at Patachou is practically a given, and customers don’t seem to mind—yet. Uber’s Woodman still sprays her store once a week with Ambre Essence, and clients tell her all the time the scent brought them into the shop. So what if 163 salons and shops in the metro area carry the brand? The products continue to fly off the shelves. Claire Bolles, co-owner of Broad Ripple’s 8 Fifteen, concurs: “It could be raining sideways or snowing, and we’ll have sold at least one Ambre item.”

Even more important to Crockett’s success, then, may be the products’ ability to react with the chemistry of a person’s body to create a one-of-a-kind scent—meaning no matter how popular Ambre Blends becomes, fans can still be assured they won’t smell exactly like their friends. “Our fragrances are highly individualized,” says Crockett. “It’s not going to smell the same on each person; it’s only going to magnify what’s already there.”

Still, being omnipresent has its drawbacks. The husband-and-wife owners of Bobby Cooper Salon, next door to 8 Fifteen, love Ambre Blends but decided not to carry the line, Sarah Cooper says, because they didn’t want to overload their small area. And the products have been missing from French Pharmacie since early 2012, when former owner Phillip Salmon purchased the salon; he couldn’t justify the $1,500 minimum order, he says, considering he lost more bottles to thieves than he sold. New co-owner Heather Price wants to sell Ambre Blends, but she’s on a waiting list—Broad Ripple just has too many spots carrying Ambre already, says Crockett.

Local success may have happened rather quickly for Ambre Blends, but the products’ popularity beyond Indiana’s borders took a little more time. At first, Crockett relied on word of mouth to carry the Gospel of Ambre, a tactic that’s allowed her to not spend a dime on outside advertising or traditional marketing in the 16 years she’s blended oils. Top Indianapolis executives and influentials (whom Crockett prefers not to name) built her a non-Hoosier fan base by sharing the products with out-of-state pals. Crockett also pursued the attention of high-end salons and spas—motherships for earth-mama beauty products. Friends and staff dropped off samples at these types of spots, hoping to catch the nose of a head honcho. And it worked. Now 66 percent of her annual sales come from outside of Indiana.

Celebs are sweet on Ambre: Jennie Garth orders online. Victoria Beckham purchases vials through her lash girl.

One of the shops that picked up Crockett’s products was a high-end boutique in Washington, D.C., called Tabandeh. It was there that Crockett’s number-one online customer, Carla Tyson, first discovered Ambre Blends’s Solace Essence. Immediately, strangers—even children—began stopping the California schoolteacher to compliment her scent. “It really moved me,” says Tyson, who purchases about $600 in products every four months. “It’s something that smells incredibly attractive, but it bears absolutely no resemblance to what anybody would think of as typical perfume.”

Ruth Casella, a purchaser at Pennsylvania’s The Lodge at Woodloch—recently named the fourth-best destination spa in the world by Travel + Leisure—says, “The product almost sells itself. People try it, and they love it.” Yolanda Yoh Bucher, editor-in-chief at New Beauty, featured Ambre Blends in 2010 and agrees that she has never smelled anything quite like the scents. Both Casella and Yoh Bucher discovered the line at an International Spa Association convention in Las Vegas, one of the two annual trade shows—traditional hotspots for breaking into national retail outlets—on which Crockett splurges to participate in.

A more-economical move has also proven powerful: Crockett capitalizes on stories like Tyson’s through a “share the love” campaign, sending samples to great customers so they can give them away along with business card–sized notes featuring Ambre Blends’s website. She has also avoided forking over ungodly amounts of money to place product in big-event swag bags, a signature move for small brands trying to catch the eye of Hollywood and the media. Even so, celebs are sweet on Ambre Blends: Jennie Garth orders online, Tyra Banks swooned over Unmasque at an L.A. party, Andie MacDowell recently “favorited” an Ambre Blends post on Twitter, and Victoria Beckham—who has her own fragrance line—purchases vials through her lash girl.

Other anecdotes testify to Ambre Blends’s reach. A friend of Crockett’s was wearing one of the fragrances at a club in New Orleans late one night when a stranger looked up, astonished. “Are you wearing Ambre Blends?” the woman asked. She recognized the scent from her own collection. Even with her success at home and abroad, Crockett’s not afraid to mess with a winning formula or demand only the best for her clients—even if it comes at a cost. After famed Dr. Mehmet Oz announced he now prefers meadowfoam-seed oil to lanolin oil, Crockett decided to adapt her already-cherished lip remedy to meet the trend. Back in her basement lab, she worries over a third test batch of the new lip balm. “Lanolin oil is perfectly fine, and I still like it,” says Crockett as she chips away at rock-hard blocks of beeswax, carefully measuring the shards on a scale and adding them to a Breville slow cooker. “But we have customers who really follow Dr. Oz, so this gave me an excuse to update the formula.”

Crockett follows the world of plant-based oils, herbs, and minerals as much as anyone could. And when it comes to her own precious ingredients, forget Costco-brand—only the finest versions will do. In fact, Crockett has worked with some of the same vendors for the past 16 years, including a West Coast family she scouted for her coveted amber oil in 1997. “They’ve called me to warn me when competitors are snooping around,” she says of this source, though she prefers not to name her vendors or her rivals. And although she keeps details like this close to the vest, she’s well-prepared to deal with threats to her business. Many of Crockett’s 50-plus vendors, as well as her employees, have to sign a confidentiality agreement before working with the recipes. She also has a substantial lawsuit fund set aside in case anyone—insiders or competitors—breaks the contract.

The downside to hunting first-rate in-gredients? The price. Many items, including natural sandalwood, frankincense, and pure soy wax, tend to skyrocket at a moment’s notice; a third of an ounce of a secret oil in Unmasque can range from $15 to $75 in a given year, for instance, simply because the producer has to recultivate it when the fragile source plant nears extinction. And the ingredients often come from intense climates in Morocco, Madagascar, Peru, Somalia, and Hungary—places where drought, fire, sunlight, and rain levels can all quickly affect availability and cost.

Other business owners might take shortcuts, especially when it drastically affects profit margins, but not Crockett. There’s the quality to think about; the mysteriously sourced vanilla used in her Solace Essence smells rich and floral—as Tyson says, like nothing you’d find mass-produced. And because Crockett so “adores” her customers, she says, she will eat the cost difference for as long as she can.

Perhaps the hippy-dippy touchy-feeliness of Crockett’s benevolence makes more sense when you learn that sister is making some serious change. This year, Crockett’s company is on track to break $1 million in sales; in 2012, her team sold 15,000 standard-sized bottles of $46 essence oil—almost quadruple the number sold just two years earlier. Crockett’s beauty products now circle the globe to more than 280 locations, including some of the most renowned luxury destination spas in the world, from Kardashian go-to Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic to the exclusive Four Seasons Resort Hawaii, Lanai. Still, this
success brings with it tough decisions about the kind of company Ambre Blends aspires to be.

Because growth has been steady—between 30 and 35 percent annually, for the past seven years—Crockett has been able to keep Ambre Blends self-funded. She hasn’t taken a single dollar of investment. “I’ve never wanted anyone looking over my shoulder,” she explains. Her CPA claims every successful business will eventually have to take out a loan or use credit cards to keep up with the demand, whether it be for stocking up on ingredients or investing in machinery, but Crockett will attempt to resist. She could make products faster by industrializing her facility, but her goal is to stay at a size where she can guarantee human hands craft the products, not giant machines.

Those hands come by way of her staff. Out of her six employees, one is a cousin, another is her spouse, and the rest are dear friends—and they all look like they just walked out of an Anthropologie ad. They pad around Crockett’s subterranean lab barefoot, laughing often and giving each other deep hugs between pouring olive-oil soaps into custom molds and bottling spritzers. A monthly status meeting in May resembles a middle-aged Girl Scout gathering; they debate celebrating employee birthdays with a cabin getaway or a Whalers concert and sip organic kale-lemon-apple juices. Newly hired Lisa Lemen, a bubbly, fit California expat, hands out glasses of water with lemon wedges. The team goes through new-account updates and brainstorms future gift combos: organza-wrapped shave bars and razors for Father’s Day, summer skin packs for families.
Managing partner Harris asks Lemen to hold a few deliveries so she can add handwritten notes. Cooing baby Kingston awakes from his nap and gets passed from gal to gal. This work life is the opposite of a cubicle—spending a day here feels more like mental yoga—and, along with the “European hours” Crockett enforces from February until June (10 to 4 with a lunch), would cause anybody to seriously contemplate a career change.

So how does a nearly million-dollar company get by with just six people? One way Crockett has balanced workloads is through production partnerships. On one sunny Tuesday afternoon, Michelle Hoard comes by for a meeting. Hoard, a registered nurse with a huge affinity for natural products, has been collaborating (or, as Crockett calls it, “playing together”) with Crockett since last August to develop an aluminum-free deodorant scented with Ambre Blends fragrances. Working part-time from her home kitchen, Hoard experiments with mineral salts, aloe, and the top-secret Ambre Essence oil. Now she and Crockett must sample the eighth batch. They pass the jar and take deep whiffs. Harris, with an amused expression, pipes up. She prefers Batch 6, she says, raising her arm: “Come smell.”  

Crockett has also gotten advice from locals who share her growing pains. Two days after Hoard dropped in, Dave Colt and Clay Robinson, owners of Sun King Brewing Company, come by to discuss future partnerships. After touring the downstairs lab, the group gathers around the fireplace in Crockett’s living room. Crockett sits on the floor, sipping through the brewery’s staples: Sunlight Cream Ale, Wee Mac Scottish Ale, and Osiris Pale Ale. Colt tells her about the flavors that come from hops—from spice and blood orange to grapefruit and lemon—and the history of the hop plant. “It’s a cousin to marijuana, and it has natural antiseptic qualities,” he shares. They ponder the possibility of Crockett integrating humilis lupus
(the extracted oil from hops) into her lip balm. Then the conversation turns to expansion concerns. Because both the Ambre Blends and Sun King product lines are in such demand and require so much hands-on care (both have a short shelf life and need temperature control), Crockett and Robinson have plenty to commiserate about. Robinson tips off Crockett that the state of Indiana offers grant programs to help businesses their size with international awareness.

But how long can she continue to run her business in such a small-batch way? New accounts are added weekly. And in May, the Oprah Winfrey Network came calling. Danny Beers, an Indy native and loyal Ambre customer who now works for OWN, asked Crockett to send some Ambre Blends products for them to review for the media maven’s “Favorite Things” TV show. Beers followed up to tell Crockett that the OWN producers were impressed with the samples. Should they be picked for the show, the potential boost in customers could prove a double-edged sword. “The O Factor” caused Chicago-based Garrett Popcorn to go from making its snack food eight hours a day to 24 hours a day after being featured as a “favorite thing.” And it took Pure Color Jeans—another small business chosen as a favorite in 2005—an entire fiscal quarter to catch up with demand.

With or without Oprah, Crockett’s relationship-centric company is evolving. She plans to move into a larger facility by early 2014; after just a year in the lower level of her 5,700-square-foot home, the company has already outgrown the space. And since joining the team, her husband, Adam, has pushed for more concrete
order in her otherwise watercolor life. It’s not that Adam doesn’t embrace creativity; he co-founded Oranje, an annual event showcasing progressive artists and musicians. But his experience in commercial real estate gave him the background to handle contracts and standardize operations. At his suggestion, for instance, Crockett logged each recipe for her products and secured them in a safe-deposit box. And although she maintains creative control, Crockett does value his input on products as well; she removed the phrase “IT’S THE BOMB, BALM” from her lip remedy after Adam suggested that high-end retailers might be turned off by the kitsch, playful though it is.

During a recent meeting with Rachel Davidson, the former Pillow Talk owner, Adam led the conversation. In the spring, Davidson sold her Carmel boutique to teach yoga and explore the world—and wants to place Ambre products into retail outlets along the way and get reimbursed for some travel expenses. Immediately, Adam hands Davidson a contract: “The deal is 15 percent first order, then a 10 percent residual, and we don’t pay for travel.” Crockett softly interjects. “Well, it’s all up for discussion,” she says, gazing at Adam. Then she pauses. “Hang on,” she
continues. “Let me not talk first and think later—like I’ve been known to do.”

Crockett’s freewheeling approach may continue to be curbed by degrees as her business grows. But the almost mystical attitude she, Adam, and the rest of the staff have about the company still shines on shipping days, when the team packs up the lab’s chrome shelves—metal bottles of spritzers, plastic bins of perfectly stacked lip balms, glass jars of oils and tonics, organza-wrapped soaps, tubs of moisturizers and creams, and candles—for worldwide delivery. The five women and Adam gather in the sun-drenched entryway. They bow their heads and place their hands on the dozens of cardboard boxes to bless the meticulously crafted products inside. Some stay silent. Others murmur, “May these products arrive safely to the right hands.” Whispers another, “Thank you for this opportunity.”

The ritual may sound New Age cheesy, but Crockett doesn’t care. She isn’t taking any chances.

This article appeared in the August 2013 issue.