Some of you already know that I hear scents in musical notes. I compose fragrances which smell harmonious.
Musical notes are like notes on a keyboard. I don't walk down the street overwhelmed with the sounds of everything I smell though. I have to listen for them specially but I could sing you the note of an individual material or finshed fragrance. This comes in handy when I've left the lids of a couple of bottles and have to put the right ones back on. I don't have to stop to check which is the lavender and which ones is the rosemary because they sound different.
I don't know why this happens, but perhaps it's because I started to play the piano at a very early age (although I was never any good at it) and in our house we had music on all the time. (Our dad really was very good at it.)
When I found my dad's old synth keyboard last week, I decided to illustrate some scent chords with musical chords to show the way perfumes sound to me. You might think this is complete nonsense, or it might give you a new way to understand scent construction. Anyway, here are four very short films of me playing chords and chatting a bit.
First: how top, middle and base notes all arrive at the same time, but we often only notice the top ones at first, and then perceive the others underneath as they gradually wear off.
Next, a modern linear fragrance chord.
Third up, a rich vintage fragrance chord.
Finally, the "fresh" light fragrances which people often describe as smelling natural. (As I hear them.)
Growing up, the poorest person I knew was my Grandma Bain.
The happiest times I had were at her house. I think about that quite often. She wore 4711 cologne.
Why mention this in a blog about making perfume?
Because perfume advertising and branding is – 95% of the time – aspirational. Fragrances are attached to designers or to a celebrities and imply that if we just had this bottle, then we’d be a little more like a rich person, one step closer to their success.
Perfume companies rely on customers’ aspirations – their hopes that wearing a scent which is advertised by Johnny, or created for Justin or was once worn by Cary or designed with Tom in the room - will rub off on them. Brand owners launch a fragrance which is an abstract embodiment of their spirit. Spray on their scents and a sniff of their success comes as part of the package.
However, those perfumes’ sales are slowly but inexorably falling. Perhaps there are just too many. Perhaps they are gradually disconnecting from their customers’ worlds.
Then there are the niche brands whose perfume designers bang on about using terrifically expensive ingredients, or about their rich famous customers (who are quite often dead and unable to argue the facts, or royalty - Hollywood or traditional - and won't stoop to argue), or rely on astonishingly costly packaging to get the point over. For the moment, these are growing.
Perfume houses with a history saw niche fragrance prices going up and decided to have a share of it; now you can find limited editions in smart stores of ranges which cost four or five times more than the same brands' high street offerings. Either that or they buy their competitors. Often, niche brands are set up using venture capital funding with the intention of building a brand (without actually having to make any perfume themselves) and being bought out.
As you know, we do it a bit differently here in London W3, and we like to think that with the rise of the indies, the world of perfume is changing a little, that people are drawn towards scents of the our everyday lives - the enjoyable parts anyway - not the unattainable worlds of fame, fortune and ostentatious bling.
Way back in 2009 I wrote a novel, “The Scent of Possibility”, about a woman who solves people’s problems and gives each of her customers a small bottle of scent to remind them of a happy time in their lives. I couldn’t find perfumes which smelled like the ones I was describing, so I decided to make my own. Ever since, I’ve been making fragrances that depict a place, a time or both (some real and some imaginary).
In May 2016 Luca Turin wrote that What I Did On My Holidays has “one of the most exhilarating topnotes in living history”. It’s the smell of a day out on a British beach – mint rock, suntan lotion and the seashore. It’s a smell that lots of us have experienced, or could experience for the price of a train ticket to the seaside. It’s the opposite of a perfumer’s vision of the scent of a slender model in a posh frock or the epitome of a pop princess’s luxury lifestyle.
The Jo Malone brand (now owned by Estee Lauder) has been terrifically successful at selling down to earth depictions of fruit and herbs such as Lime, Basil & Mandarin, Mimosa & Cardamon, Earl Grey and Cucumber and the mysteriously named English/French Pomegranate Noir. (Why not Black Pomegranate or Grenade Noir? Never mind.) They do just about what they say on the bottle. Shay & Blue have followed in their footsteps - with a dash of Yardley’s and Penhaligon’s early simplicity added in – so that the name on the box is a good indication of what to expect when you spray it. Practical perfume.
Designer and celeb brands tend to go in for fanciful, emotional persuasion: Truth or Dare, Sauvage, Twilight, Realities or Romance anyone? My absolute favourite abstractly named aspirational perfume is Marry Me.
Every now and again descriptive perfumes come into fashion again. Taking the gourmande trend to the max, we have Prada’s crossover from abstract to practical: Candy; it smells like sweeties. It’s popular because it smells familiar, and it absolutely nails it.
Gourmande fragrances smell like deserts. Why not? We like puddings. The rise and rise of the salted caramel fragrance has been an interesting trend to watch. (Salt has no smell, by the way, but salted caramel sounds groovier, don’t you think?)
Demeter / The Library of Fragrance has led the way in affordable “smells like the name” fragrances since in 1990s, some great (Playdoh), some middling (Jasmine) and one or two are appalling! (Pizza anyone?) Some border on novelty – Baby Powder, Waffles, and Dirt – but what they do is marvellous. You should all have some.
There are celebrity and designer fragrances which smell like puddings too, but they don’t go all out and say what they mean. They stick with the abstract aspirational names: Forever Glowing – a honey toffee from Jennifer Lopez, Fame – honey apricot from Lady Gaga in a bottle that looked like an alien egg, Royal Desire – mandarin, blackberry, marshmallow from Christina Aguilera.
My prediction for the rest of the decade is for the herb garden to take over. We’ve had a few mints (let’s mention What I Did On My Holidays - launched in 2011 - once again), there’s sage and thyme growing in the herbaceous borders, and you’re going to get the vegetables any day now.
One of our new Four Mysteries contains onion essential oil, a magnificent material! We have to keep it locked up so it doesn’t take over the whole studio. We’re using pear, artemesia, mushroom, cardamon, sage, thyme and carrot. Any moment now the hazelnut and celery will appear (but probably not in the same scent). Where the indies go first, the big guys wait and see, and if it works, they follow. Our mistakes are in such small batches they won’t break the company; theirs could.
In these times of political, social and financial uncertainly, a recognisable smell can be welcome and comforting. Perhaps we need less aspiration, and fewer abstract attempts at capturing the scents of success. Perhaps the familiar fragrance of a garden, a beach, a sweet shop, a fruit bowl, the pub, family holidays and digging the allotment aren’t such a bad idea.
Rose, jasmine, violet, sandalwood, lemon, pear, apple, candy floss, tobacco and leather are stalwarts of the familiar fragrance shelf; whether they are natural or synthetic doesn’t matter, it’s the recognition that’s important. We’re just about to take it from the florist and the sweet shop to the greengrocer’s and farmers' market.
A note about the readies
There's another side to non-aspirational scents. I also want to keep our fragrances affordable so that my own friends can buy them. Splashing out on the natural jasmine and sandalwood is a lovely luxury, but you don’t always need expensive materials to make an excellent fragrance, just as you don’t need posh nosh to make a tasty meal. Forget your coulis magnifique of courgette flower and foam of distressed raspberry and absinthe. We’re heading for the buttered crumpets of the fragrance world.
We’ve learned how to make and sell perfume, legally, complying with the EU regulations. Today two of our perfumes have been shortlisted for the UK’s fragrance awards.
It’s not easy, but we love it. Have we given the impression that it’s a complete doddle?
Every day we get calls and emails from people asking for advice on how to do it themselves, so we’ve decided to tell you how. Just not here…
How did we get here?
In five and a half years we’ve built a very small but quite interesting perfume company with a huge range of scents and a constant need to make more and more. People ask where the ideas come from. Really, the difficulty is turning off the flow. Every day, there’s something I see, touch, smell of course, hear or feel that makes me want to blend a new one.
We make them for our own range, for other brands, for private customers, for events, corporations and weddings.
Today we found out that two of our fragrances, Maxed Out and Midnight in the Palace Garden, have been shortlisted for best indie scent in the Fragrance Foundation’s 2016 Awards. We crowdfunded them last year. 131 people backed us, had the courage to pay up front for perfumes that didn’t even exist, to help us buy unusual materials, some expensive and some not, so I could create exactly what I wanted.
Maxed Out was also one of LuckyScent LA’s top scents of 2015, and Dirty Honey won the EauMG award for best small niche fragrance 2015.
Thanks to all of you, these perfume not only exist, they are winning things. We’re doing it again this year, by the way. You can back the Four Mysteries here.
So, mustn’t grumble. But it’s a start-up. It’s like pushing a log up hill. Let go for a moment and it could all go crashing down again.
I was discovered by Odette Toilette; she invited me to bring some perfumes to her Speakeasy Scents Scratch + Sniff. Jo Fairley was in the audience and wrote about me. Claire Hawksley from Les Senteurs was there with Nick Gilbert, who kindly talked Claire into stocking six of our fragrances.
It took 10 months before I managed to get them all legal (IFRA and EU) so we could fulfil the order. It was another two years before we worked out how to ship overseas to IndieScents and LuckyScent who also wanted to stock the range. As I’d been working for Lush (not as a perfumer though, as a writer) and they operate outside the UK perfumery establishment, I found out later that I was regarded as a maverick upstart. I probably still am. But I’m a maverick upstart with a love of regulatory compliance, with a sense of responsibility and a strong desire to get things right. (I was the kind of kid who would get very upset if I got less than 96% in a maths exam.)
The Society of Cosmetic Chemists were marvellous though. I can’t praise them highly enough; they sent me in the direction of their members who could get my perfumes through their EU regulatory hoops.
Anyway, off we went.
Now, we get calls and emails every day asking if people can pick our brains for five minutes, or just ask a quick question about launching a perfume.
I’ve had to learn how complicated it is; it’s complicated. But perhaps we don’t make it look difficult because we enjoy ourselves so much.
Here are some of the questions we’ve been asked:
“I’ve made a perfume that’s 20% rose absolute so I just write ‘parfum’ on the label and it’s legal isn’t it, because it’s all natural?”
“I read that perfume costs about £5 a bottle, so will you make me 20 bottles for £100?”
“How many bottles would Harrods want to buy off me in a year?”
“My friends say the perfume I’ve made is the nicest thing they’ve ever smelled. Now all I need is to design a bottle and get the box printed, isn’t it?”
“Can I have the number of the buyer at Fortnum & Mason?”
“IFRA’s voluntary so I can just ignore it, can’t I?”
“Will you make me a perfume with no chemicals in it?”
“How do I ship to the US?”
“How do you get a thousand Twitter followers?”
“How do you do the EU regulations?”
“I’ve got a bottle designed. I need 100 of them. Where do I get it made?”
We want the indies to take over the world. We want to unleash the creativity and the new ideas and to have indie scents become the norm. Strength in numbers. An alternative to the mega brands.
But we do want them to be legal, and to be safe. Just bunging a load of rose, jasmine, bergamot and oakmoss into a bottle isn’t going to cut it, not in the EU. (And if you think that not being part of the EU would help, you’re wrong. The man in charge of pushing through the last round of regs was British. Imagine the damage he could do if he didn’t have the French to argue against the next round of regulations.)
So we're going to be running a workshop/seminar/bit of a chat about it all:
The 4160Tuesdays Brain-Picking Event
The first sessions will be on 30th June and 31st July 2016, with a follow up in September.
What we'll cover:
Do you really want to launch a brand, or just own a fragrance?
DIY or use an experienced perfumer? Most indie companies don’t make their own, despite what they imply.
Formulating for IFRA and for EU compliance
Cosmetics Safety Reports, Product Information Files and the EU Portal
Getting what you want from a perfume company
Making your packaging legal
Distribution and shipping regulations
Social media, PR and marketing
Costings – the maths you need to know to run a perfume business
The reality of retail
Suppliers, contacts, information sources
If this is for you, get in touch. These days, thank goodness, our brains are too busy to be picked on an individual basis, but if you’d like to come over to Acton and join in, take a look at this.
Vetivert is one of the biggest shockers when it comes to smelling individual raw materials, compared with perfumes which bear their names.
“I love vetivert!” we’ve been told more than once, “It’s so fresh and citrusy.”
Oh no it isn’t. It’s just that many fragrances which are named Vetivert or Vetiver or Vetyvert or similar, are made with a tiny amount of vetivert at the base, then lashings of lemon, orange, grapefruit and bergamot with woods in the middle. This gives people the impression that it's the vetivert itself which is light, herbal and green.
Vetivert varies but it's got elements of mud and smoke (some more and some less than others); it's earthy, deep and dark. It’s made from the roots of a strong grass which was originally grown in the far east, and then farmed all around the tropics. It’s a handy crop; the strong roots help to stop soil erosion and the grass smells lovely too. Before corrugated iron took over, it was used as roof thatch for tropical huts. It protected against the rain, and then filled the air with its delightful aroma as the water evaporated in hot sun. These days it’s still used in India to make window blinds so that scented air wafts in on the breeze.
The brain is wired to be wary of the scent of smoke; that’s one of the reasons why vetivert fragrances can appear to last longer than others. Our brains are running a little commentary between the olfactory bulb and our consciousness. “Is there a fire? I can smell smoke. I think we should run away. Where’s it coming from? There’s definitely a smell of smoke. Can you smell smoke? There might me a fire…”
With most scents the olfactory bulb tells the brain, “Ooh, that’s lovely isn’t it?” and the consciousness says, “I smelled that 20 minutes ago, shut up and let me get on with smelling something different.” And that, dear friends, is why you’re convinced your perfume has worn off even though someone who passes you in the street can smell you from ten paces.
Vetivert does vary in smell. There’s a lovely one named bourbon because it’s grown on the island of Reunion near Mauritius. Reunion used to be named Bourbon, but after independence they didn’t fancy being named after the French royal family, but their vetivert kept the original moniker. I heard once that was named Bourbon by the French royal family because it’s the finest quality. No. That’s like saying that Tudor Crisps were named after Henry VIII because he decided they were the best in the world.
At our workshops we’ve a bottle of vetivert labelled “Vespas and hot tarmac” because it smells like crossing the road in summer in the centre of an Italian city. There’s a little of the Inspector Montalbano about it, which is always a good thing.
We have a vetivert absolute here and two different essential oils. We use them for the smoky earthiness, with a hint of added living forest and as a fixative; that’s why you find it at the base of citrus scents; it gives them stability. Vetivert feels active to me, as if there’s a lot going on down there.
There’s something about smelling natural materials which is inherently interesting. It’s like listening to a note played on a piano compared with the same note on a 90s electronic keyboard; it ought to sound the same but it doesn’t quite.
Here's at 4160Tuesdays, we use it sparingly. It’s in Who Knew? where we blend it with green tea absolute to give a lapsang souchong note. It’s in Evil Max - who is returning soon in Evil Max 2 – because we want him dark and dirty, and it's in The Lion Cupboard as part of the Victorian aged oak note. Finally, making an appearance as the smell of melting tarmac, there’s an overdose of vetivert in Time to Draw the Raffle Numbers, our homage to Sir Bradley Wiggins risking his place on the Tour de France podium so Cav could cross the line first. Fresh and light that's not.
On the suggestion of an American fragrance friend, we made a litte film on how to pronouce French perfume names while speaking English: not so badly that you feel like a numpty when you find out how it's done, but not overdoing it so you sound like a right pillock.