With an eye on Charleston’s storied past, Alexandra Saad creates organic, natural fragrances utilizing the botanical bounty of the Lowcountry.
In a small converted attic space, perched high above the streets of Charleston, Alexandra Saad is hard at work in her studio, the home base of Charleston Botanicals. With online orders pouring in, and weekend markets for which to prepare, Saad measures, fills, labels, and packages her signature fragrance blends, checking off her tasks with practiced efficiency. Scents fill the air, mingling with one another delicately: an experience far removed from visits to department store perfume counters, where the overabundance of heady mixtures can often overwhelm the senses. Here, among the rough-hewn beams of this attic studio, one cannot inhale deeply enough.
The child of a military service member, Saad spent her childhood exploring new towns and cities, continually entranced by the differing surrounding landscapes. Her British grandmother often regaled her with stories of castles and fairies, fostering a deep appreciation within Saad for all things ancient. After a brief stint studying History at Miami University in Ohio, Saad followed her heart to Europe to study for her Masters Degree in Anglo-American History at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Enamored with the area, she explored to her heart’s content, and she fell deeply in love with the Scottish Highlands, spending her summers among its hills and valleys. She took up herbalism and studied wildcrafting, becoming an expert at harvesting plants in a sustainable manner. A chance encounter with a woman who spent her life gathering herbs and flowers in the Scottish Highlands furthered her passion, and Saad began to study historical applications, receptions, and perceptions of scents and perfumes. From there, she immersed herself in the world of traditional perfumery: how perfume-making looked before the industrial revolution and synthetic chemical fragrances. After completing her education in Glasgow, Saad went on to Italy, France, and Germany, studying ancient perfume and cosmetic creation methods and historical aromatherapy. Eventually, she returned to the United States, settling in Charleston to be close to treasured family members. After working at a number of local museums, she finally created the company born from all of the passions and studies of her adult life: Charleston Botanicals, a micro-perfumery based in the heart of the historic Holy City.
As the founder and main employee of Charleston Botanicals, Saad wears many hats, but it all starts with the harvesting. Eschewing often-dangerous synthetic fragrances for the genuine, locally sourced article, Saad goes out into the wilds of the Lowcountry to harvest many of the herbs and flowers she needs, always doing so in a sustainable manner, intent on not damaging the plant or impeding its ability to grow as it should. She also cultivates many plants for her own use, and has a working relationship with the team out at Sea Island Savory Herbs. After harvesting the most fragrant plants she can find, she rests the sprigs and flowers in containers of warmed carrier oil and lets the aromas develop over a couple of weeks. The results are fresh, infused blends: among them, tea olive, noisette rose, magnolia, rosemary, lavender, sage, and lemongrass. Saad mixes these handcrafted essential oil blends to create perfumes, colognes, room sprays, diffuser oils, and beard oils.
She never has prepared stock sitting around her studio. Instead, she crafts each of her products to order, allowing for repeat customers to request their favorites with individualized modifications, such as asking for a room spray to be a little heavier on magnolia or a perfume to have stronger notes of bergamot. Just like a microbrewery, Saad’s micro-perfumery is a place where everything is done by hand and in small batches, and experimentation is common practice.
Forever inspired by her surroundings, Saad focuses on paying homage to the surrounding area within her work. In addition to using only locally grown and harvested plants, she utilizes her penchant for historical facts and stories to influence her fragrance names and aromas. Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem “Annabel Lee” now shares a name with a perfume reminiscent of the flowers one would find in the Charleston churchyards he mentions within the work. “Debut” is a perfume that evokes feelings of youth, much like the classic debutante balls of the South. Others are more obvious: “Broad Street,” “Old Money,” “Garden Party,” and “Southern Belle” are among the names of perfumes and colognes available at Charleston Botanicals. Now firmly rooted in the South, Saad says that a key part of her mission is preserving elements of the Lowcountry through her work; that intent is apparent with her focus on sharing oft-forgotten legacies of the area, as well as bringing awareness to many native botanical species. For the latter, she regularly holds workshops, sharing her knowledge of the local flora and encouraging appreciation and safe harvesting practices.
Connecting with her customers one-on-one is an important aspect of Saad’s vision, and her appointment calendar is often booked solid with individuals wanting a personal consultation to create custom fragrances. In the Spring and Summer months, her studio is a regular stop among savvy Charleston brides. In addition to offering unique bridesmaid gifts and wedding favors, Saad works with each to create a custom fragrance blend based on their wedding bouquet, ensuring that the scent of their special day remains with them long after the main event. She also works with local businesses such as Harold’s Cabin, collaborating with them to create custom blends based on their own brand and surroundings. Stockists for Charleston Botanicals are based in Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and Summerville, and Saad is a regular at the Johns Island Farmers’ Market. The Charleston Botanicals online boutique is always open, and it features an appointment booking option for those who want to visit her studio in Charleston.
The concept of alchemy has always been a strong interest of Alexandra Saad’s: the act of transforming a metal into gold, or a base element into something else, is an exciting one to think about. Her work with Charleston Botanicals, transforming the natural bounty of the Lowcountry into fresh, individualized, and organic scents, is a task she pours her heart and mind into every day she climbs the stairs to her cozy attic studio. With the melding of her studious mind, her healing intentions, and her ethical and sustainable focus, the scent of the Holy City is now elevated in its beauty.
by Jana Riley