R&D: Meet Tom

There’s a great exchange in one of the best movies ever made, The Life Aquatic, when Bill Murray’s Jacques Cousteau-esque character is trying to recruit his son onto his rag-tag team of documentary marine biologists and his son is hesitant. It goes something like this:

Would you like to join my crew? I want you, on Team Zissou.

I don’t think I can do that.

Why not?

Well, it’s not my field, I don’t have the background for it.

No one here does! Klaus used to be a bus driver, Wolodarsky was a high school substitute teacher. We’re a pack of strays, don’t you get it?

This is what it’s like to talk to a lot of us here at Juniper Ridge. No one is going to tell you how what they majored in got them straight here or how they wanted to be in the fragrance business since they were 5. Sit down with most of us and you’re way more likely to hear about travel, about the odd jobs we had before we got here, about heavy metal and motorcycle projects and the virtues of being a freak, a label our founder is almost evangelical in his support of. It’s an unexpected mix of people and backgrounds, but it’s what makes our work so interesting and authentic.

Take our Research and Development Director, Tom Accettola, who doesn’t not resemble Bill Murray above, if you take off some years, add some beard and swap out that beanie for navy blue. Tom is the mad scientist of the Juniper Ridge team, the man responsible for steaming, smoking and otherwise coaxing the essence out of every stem, bark scrap and flower in the JR apothecary. And while Tom does happen to have a degree in chemistry, his life before he joined Juniper Ridge four years ago is peppered with the experience of a true renaissance man: a little pre-med, a little emergency medicine, some stay-at-home parenting and Napa Valley concierge work, just enough construction to balance out the acting, and one extremely important (in retrospect) soap making workshop, which he respectfully describes as more “crafty” than anything.

But visiting Tom in his workshop is anything but crafty. He spends most of his time heaving drums of myriad botanical mush across the warehouse against the backdrop of hundreds of vials and beakers and flasks labeled simply and in quick scrawl for the plant they originated from. Behind his scales and whiskey stills, repurposed into double boilers, a massive ad hoc chemistry set bubbles away over the whir of the vacuum and to the side, a whole host of ongoing experiments designed to extract every possible expression of a plant. “Plants are withholding,” Tom says, “and what you might learn about them through steam you’d miss in enfleurage.” The only solution is to try them all.

So that’s what he does.

Tom’s last four years at Juniper Ridge have seen him originally brought on as a soapmaker and eventually made R+D guru, a trajectory that changed the products themselves as well, as now Tom’s consistent presence means that as the plants change, so can the formulations. Recipes, he says, don’t work when you’re using real, living plants. “You have to stay flexible and change the plan to reflect what the harvest brings. You can’t get stubborn. But you also need to be able to know what to do to achieve consistency.”

This balance between flexibility and intention is what drives every part of our perfume making process, even the harvests themselves. While our founder, Hall, a virtual encyclopedia of what’s growing where, often has a sense of what to expect on each harvest trip, Tom says that after spending a lot of his life in Ohio, his trips into wilderness are more of an organic process. He arrives, sees what’s there, and only then starts thinking about the direction of a certain formulation. This marriage of experience and intuition is what rounds out what we do, making sure no opportunity gets overlooked because one way of thinking has taken over. We’re a pack of strays for sure, but the results are brilliant.

We’ll do more features on Tom and his awesome work in the future, but in the meantime, if you run across him, say at our upcoming Desert + Denim un-tradeshow, ask him about the soap molecule. He loves it. And if you really want to hear from someone who has found their calling, ask him why.