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A Moment with Captain Blankenship

Jana Blankenship knows that nothing is permanent.

That’s an essential truth, especially for someone who has built her career around always ephemeral scent: The onetime curator of visual art discovered her fascination with fragrance and beauty at an early age, mixing her mother’s perfumes. An allergy to synthetics stymied that passion, until later, in Northern California, when she stumbled upon a natural incarnation.

Excited, Blankenship first studied herbalism, soap-making and natural perfumery and began concocting organic and wild-harvested products for friends and family. The hobby soon grew into a full-fledged company. Now, based in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Captain Blankenship is a thriving collection of everything from lip balms and perfumes to shampoo and her signature Mermaid Sea Salt Hair Spray.

Here, the fragrance lover gets honest about the challenges of starting a business and the comfort of scents:

Live The Process: How do you think your upbringing influenced your trajectory?

Jana Blankenship: I was the kid who was outside infusing pine needles and roses in water and making potions. The natural world and its beauty captivated me from a young age. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and my mom was a fashion designer and would go to couture shows and return with lots of perfume bottles. It was the 1980s and her mirrored vanity was stocked with Giorgio, White Linen, Cher and Madonna fragrances. I was so fascinated by the ornate bottles. She didn’t care about them, so she let me mix them into my own signature scents; I ended up developing a sensitivity to synthetic fragrances. I still get a headache and visceral reaction when I smell fragrance.

I abandoned my love of smells until I moved to Northern California. I had studied fine art, art history and curatorial practice and was working as a curator in San Francisco. While living in the Berkeley hills, the smell of the jasmine, eucalyptus, rosemary, citrus and other natural plants was totally intoxicating. One day, I wandered into a friend’s store in North Berkeley and saw this beautiful silver compact of solid perfume. It smelled of fresh jasmine, blood orange and grapefruit, like the hills behind me. I found out it was a natural scent made by local perfumer, Mandy Aftel. I was so fascinated. I started studying natural perfumery and took a class with Mandy and didn’t look back. I had discovered this rich, natural palette with which to work that was powerful, experiential and invisible. Scent is our first sense to develop in the womb, but it’s the most overlooked. It felt so exciting—and still does—to be able to work with such amazing raw materials that are so evocative.

LTP: How and when did you come to conceive and launch your line? 

JB: I started making perfumes, hand balms, lip balms, bath salts and other products using essential oils and organic plant-based ingredients for myself, family and friends. Scent was always at the heart of them, and it was important for me to only use the best organic and wild-harvested ingredients possible. My friends owned an amazing store in San Francisco called Gravel & Gold and wanted to start carrying some of my products. Without really thinking about it and without a plan, I decided to start a business in 2009. Looking back on it, I am grateful that I didn’t labor over the idea too much. Running a business is so much work and I don’t think I would have decided to do it then if I knew what it entailed. I drew the logo, made a line sheet, used my savings and off I went. 

LTP: How has Captain Blankenship grown from the beginning? Do you have any new products?

JB: It has always grown organically, which I am grateful for. In the beginning, it was through word-of-mouth and it was slow, which was the right speed for me. I ran the business on the side while continuing to work full-time, until we moved to the Hudson River Valley in 2012. When I put more energy into the company, it really began to grow. We started working with a lot of new stockists and refined our website. Now, I have a team of six ladies I work with and a lot to manage, but I am still as passionate and excited about the company as when I started.

We do have many new products that launched in late November about which I am over the moon. We are finally launching shampoo and conditioner after working on them for years. They are called Mer-Mane and are nourishing and texturizing. We are also launching organic Castile soaps in two scents, Grapefruit & Palmarosa and Lemongrass & Mint. We are offering both in full-size and travel-size, which is exciting. I can’t wait to be able to bring the soaps with me when I travel and not have to succumb to public bathroom and hotel room blue and bubblegum pink soaps. 

LTP: Aside from your own line, what are some beauty and wellness obsessions or rituals that keep you feeling balanced and healthy?

JB: I love using essential oils to uplift, calm or clear depending on the situation. I can’t help but feel happy when I smell organic jasmine extract or red grapefruit essential oil. They instantly brighten my mood. I also love to take walks and hikes with my husky. Any anxiety seems to drop away when you are standing by a waterfall or surrounded by trees. I feel so lucky to live somewhere where I can be in the mountains in minutes. 

LTP: What does happiness look like to you?

JB: Being present, first and foremost. Happiness would look like a day spent outside with my husband and children. It would be a day that isn’t delineated by plans, pressure or deadlines—just time to wander and wonder and be together.

LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?

JB: To me, it means remembering that everything is a process; it is always happening, unstoppable. Nothing is permanent. This is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Living the process means being able to drop into the flow and appreciate the moments, not feel bogged down by an untenable whole. By being present and watching the process, we can cultivate wonder and see true beauty.