John Blocki, circa 1880. Image courtesy of Chicago Veteran Druggists’ Association records, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections and Archives
The history of American perfumery might seem rather obscure, unless you happen to be a perfume-loving crazy person (I'm guilty!) who actually spends time researching these sorts of things. Many of us who are familiar with companies such Avon don't even know that the company began its days in business as the California Perfume Company. We hear the name Colgate and immediately think of toothpaste, but at one time Colgate was known for producing perfume as well as a whole catalogue of other personal items. Alongside these companies, nestled in the history of American perfumery, is Blocki Perfumes, a perfumery founded by chemist John Blocki, which first opened its doors in 1903 in a magnificent space at 189 Michigan Blvd. in Chicago.
Before opening Blocki Perfumes, John had already found success through his original business as an importer, wholesaler, and retailer of essential oils, pomades, and perfume. With his new perfume boutique thriving, carrying his own products, Blocki went on to achieve some remarkable things in world perfumery that are being brought back to the surface by his great-great-grandson and wife, Tyler and Tammy Kraemer, who resurrected the perfume house in 2015.
Ever-intrigued by Blocki history, including the stunning old packaging, I asked Tammy if she could chat about some of the history as well as their vision for the future of Blocki Perfumes.
Elizabeth (E): Did you or Tyler have an interest in perfume from childhood, or is perfume something you have discovered as you were researching family history?
Tammy (T): Tyler has always had an active nose. As a teen, he won an art contest for a sketch of the metamorphosis of a rose; kind of prophetic in hindsight. My teen bedroom was decorated with vintage Mavis ads and I wore Mure et Musc and LouLou. When we met in law school Tyler would complain about his nose being bored and I would surprise him with Demeter scents. We began distributing essential oils and floral waters shortly after we met, so perfume has always been part of our equation. As the family history unfolded it finally all made sense.
E: Are the perfumes in any way based upon resurrected formulas? If not, how did you come up with the concept, such as notes and genre, for each one?
T: The perfumes reflect a turn of the century spirit more than resurrected formulas. For the first three perfumes, inspiration was also drawn from poetic passages of a memoir written in 1872 by John’s mother in which she reflects on nature, grand celebrations and the American character. Violet was also a must since it was one of the most popular notes in the original Blocki perfumes (and has an earthy floral impression that is timeless); a multi-faceted floral was a must since John’s famous Esprit d’Amour perfume contained 27 different flowers; and vanilla since one of Blocki’s first businesses was importing vanilla beans from Central America.
Sanrovia [scheduled for release on 1/23/18] is not part of the first three fragrances that we refer to as the Emma collection. It has its own story rooted in an original Blocki perfume of the same name from 1911. John Blocki spent a lot of time in Italy and was inspired by the scents of the Mediterranean. This was the time when chypre-style fragrances emerged. Our new Sanrovia includes bright folded lemon oils from Italy and California. Its heart oscillates with both masculine and feminine notes, and the finale creates the sensation of sun-warmed skin. Its American free-spirit meets Italian chic!
E: Is there a paper trail of formulas, or was much of that documentation lost?
T: We have original Blocki fragrances and oils that are over 100 years old. With gas chromatography-mass spectrometry we could reverse-engineer the perfume and produce a very good approximation of the original formulas, maybe without the top notes that have long evaporated, but we’ve decided not to – at least for now – because we want to maintain a little mystery. So, we rely on the original fragrance names, advertising and, in some cases, the actual flower that is still preserved in the bottle. The perfect preservation of an actual flower-in-the-bottle was a secret of John’s which he patented in 1907.
For Sanrovia, we had more to work with, including descriptions of the original 1911 Sanrovia and travel logs prior to its creation. John spent so much time in the Italian Riviera that his chemist comrades nick-named him Giovanni Blockini. Who could blame him?
The history is inspiring, but not something we are simply replicating; our creative process is much more layered.
Antique Blocki bottles. Image courtesy of Blocki Perfumes
E: What are some things people should know about your fragrances?
T: Our technique is more like back in John Blocki’s day which gives our perfumes a lot of depth. We created vintage bases and accords using layers of rich natural materials. To lighten things up, we mixed in modern notes. The formulas weren’t linearized so that each ingredient could be fine-tuned. And we are fortunate to have open access to some really amazing fragrance ingredients.
We are all about blending and composition. Our fragrances are intended to change dramatically between first spritz and last-call. If they had a human personality they would be stylish, complex, with diverse interests and some surprises.
Each perfume contains something distinctly vintage like the Ambrolene base in In Every Season that dates to the early 1900s. And something distinctly modern like grapefruit instead of bergamot in This Grand Affair.
Sustainable ingredients are really important to us. We use Texas and Virginia cedarwood for its eco-positive sourcing. Our Haitian vetiver comes from small farms where they plant it to prevent soil erosion and protect their mainstay crops. Some ingredients are just really beautiful, like davana oil and the folded citrus oils.
Our perfumes are not tested on animals and are free of phthalates and parabens. We also do not add artificial color to our perfumes.
Vintage poster. Image courtesy of Blocki Perfumes.
E: Which fragrance is your favorite?
T: We are so excited about Sanrovia right now!!!
E: How long was the process from the moment you decided to re-open the House to the release of your first three fragrances? What was that process like?
T: Well…early 2000 until October, 2015 is the short answer. We imported and exported (from Bulgaria) flower oils and waters beginning in 2000. We also created the most amazing all natural rose water mist around in 2001 – we may recreate that one someday. But eventually we had to put it aside to reality and to have our two amazing boys. We really became obsessed with reviving the Blocki Perfumery in 2013. The team came together seamlessly: perfumer, fragrance house, creative design and manufacturing. It was meant to be.
Most enjoyable is being in the thick of the creative process. Tyler, of course, was in heaven working on the perfumes, but we enjoy all of it...from the first brainstorming sessions down to checking every little detail such as how the paper on the carton feels or how deep the engraving on the cap should be. We wanted people to feel the history, so the tactile elements were really important.
The biggest challenge is telling our story. We were at a show in New York and several people that stopped by assumed we were a fictional 19th century brand. One person even admonished us for ruining an antique perfume bottle by printing our name on it. It was an authentic Blocki bottle from 1907! Funny but also a lesson in focus.
E: Blocki Perfumes is quite significant, not only in American perfumery, but in world history of perfume, including at least one patent that I remember reading about. Can you tell us about some of Tyler's great-great grandfather's achievements?
T: It is tough to sum up his achievements since his entire life was dedicated to American perfumery; starting with apprenticing as a chemist when he was 14 years old. He created hundreds of fragrances and had a line of toiletries named Esprit d’Amour. He also formulated and manufactured fragrances and toiletries for other brands such as Franco American Hygienic and Donna Lee. That his business survived two depressions and continued for over 80 years is pretty amazing. He sourced his own materials from around the world, so he was his own fragrance house as well as perfumery and manufacturer. In addition, he opened the first perfume store in Chicago.
A few of his most popular perfumes were Brazilian Lily, Sanrovia and the Flower-in-the-Bottle and Empress series.
He did have a patent for a perfume presentation involving preserving a real flower in a bottle of perfume. The Blockis were early conservationists, and this innovation served John’s instinct to let nature showcase its own beauty. There is mention of the spirit of the flower remaining in the bottle, so maybe a touch of naturalism as well.
Overall, he was a pioneer perfumer that kick-started the American beauty industry. He was a passionate advocate for the industry from formal training for chemists to tariffs that support local manufacturers. He also believed beauty was the way to boost women’s independence. Similar to California Perfume Company (now Avon), Blocki perfumes and toiletries were sold through a network of women-owned beauty shops. Blocki also hired women to work in the bottling and labeling departments.
Antique Blocki bottles. Image courtesy of Blocki Perfumes.
Tyler and Tammy, thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview and share some of your photo archive with us. John Blocki clearly had about as much of a swashbuckling life as one could ever have in the perfume industry! I am sure I'm not the only perfumista who is really grateful that you have decided to revive Blocki Perfumes and share so much of your knowledge with us. As an American perfumista, it's nice to know that Chanel, Coty, etc. in Europe were not the only innovative perfumers. You're doing an absolutely amazing job, both in bringing history to light while also creating truly unique, high-quality fragrances that carry on John's incredible legacy. Best of luck for continued success and with your new release, Sanrovia!
Note: AVÉ PARFUM will have samples of Sanrovia as well as 10 ml travel sprays available on 1/23/18, with 50 ml bottles to follow later this year.