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.
Last Monday we were at the beautiful church turned concert hall St John’s Smith Square in Westminster, making the space smell of monsters - one monster in particular, Polyphemus from Handel’s opera Acis and Galatea.
As usual, it’s a long story. Essentially, our lute playing nephew, Alex McCartney, got into a conversation with David Bates, director of La Nuova Musica about how great a Couperin piece would sound if it were scented. Alex said, “funny you should mention that,” and introduced us.
For the first act, before the audience came in, we wandered around the seating, wafting a pastoral idyll into the air.
The orchestra and singers could tell that we’d make the place smell like a walk in the park. When they were rehearsing that afternoon it still smelled like the slightly damp, cold, stone, three hundred year old building that it is. The audience didn’t seem to notice the difference, although they might have got a clue from the programme or St John’s Smith Square Website.ame in, we scented the hall with our Pastorale perfume, the scent of Galatea, a lovely water nymph who visits earth dressed as a shepherdess and falls in love with the equally gorgeous Acis. We set a country scene in perfume. It was low tech; Brooke and I used the traditional atomiser and thumb method and just wandered about a bit. A lot. It only took about 80ml of perfume at 10% strength to change the whole place.
During the interval we crept around the balcony trying to avoid being seen by the audience members who refused to leave their seats. This was when we really made a difference. Polyphemus was about to enter the action; this is a character which doesn’t score highly on the emotional intelligence scale, but spots Galatea, falls in love and is driven to mad rage by his rival Acis. He tries to rape her, and kills him with a rock.
Our task – set by David Bates - was to create a sense that it was all about to turn nasty. It was working.
One of the audience had despatched an usher upstairs to ask what we were spraying the hall with. Brooke answered simply, “Foreboding.”
As the audience and orchestra returned to their seats there was a definitely a change in the atmosphere. From our perch upstairs all I could focus on was a Japanese woman who covered her face with her sleeve for most of the second act, apparently horrified, and not realising that if she just allowed her brain to get used to it, the smell would have worn off. The point wasn’t to smell lovely though. It was to smell of monsters.
David was so excited at the end he forgot to tell the audience to look out for scent number three, Acis, the river. Galatea turns him into a stream so she can still be with him after the unfortunate fatal stone incident. It’s Greek mythology; it’s like that. While I was shuffled on stage to take a bow, Nick dashed out and scented the café, covered up the lingering broccoli and cheese bake nicely with fresh water.
Handel was writing operas at a time when all perfume was natural. Churches would be a mass of well perfumed rich people, poor people smelling less lovely, bouquets of flowers and scented handkerchiefs to disguise their smell, plus lavender and rosemary on the church floor to release fragrant (and antiseptic) wafts as they were trodden underfoot.
We weren’t attempting anything of the like.
Someone along the way had asked if there was a danger of allergic reactions, so to avoid any possible objections, I told them I would make fragrances avoiding all of the EU stated allergens, and IFRA’d up to their eyeballs. You could swim in the stuff at 100% strength and it would be safer than water – just a lot stinkier.
I reported that this meant severely restricting natural materials and that the fragrance would be totally synthetic. That surprised them, but I like surprises.
To the monster then. What did he smell of?
Veramoss – a synthetic replacement for oakmoss.
Iso Butyl Quinoline – a sharp leathery smell that all the early leather smells were based on, from Knize 10 onwards.
Floralozone – a weird, chilly, threateningly bright scent of iced flowers.
I did add some natural patchouli as I wanted an earthy, muddy, sodden feeling for this lumbering creature.
The seaside. A sunset. The scent of fresh air with a hint of seaweed.
Lists of notes and the traps they set
Last week I got into two internet conversations, one about snow and one about marijuana - as you do.
For Doe in the Snow, our icy peach chypre, I wrote "snow" in the list of notes, and often describe is as a peach sorbet chypre as as smelling like it's been stirred with an icicle. Last week I got a question through, "Do you really put snow in Doe in the Snow?"
I list seaside and candy floss in the notes list for What I Did On My Holidays too.
Maxed Out was launched and we listed (sightly tongue in cheek) notes of rum cocktails, marijuana cigars, high class escorts, backout and regret. Unlike Grenouille in the book and film Perfume, no humans were harmed in the making of this fragrance. Yet it smells like Max's Ferragamo leather jacket after a wild night out in New York 2003.
I also specified a notes list that included lime, coconut, rum, tobacco, cannabis, vanilla, musk, cedarwood and coffee.
One of perfumes biggest puzzles is the notes versus materials conundrum. A professional perfumer will make the smell of a rose from its component parts; individually they don't smell like roses, but they're like a rose jigsaw puzzle; put them all together and the rose becomes clear. Which notes do you list? What does it smell of? Rose. Are there any roses in it? No. The notes? Roses.
The smell that you put into a perfume isn't necessarily the smell you get out.
Perfume works like painting. You can make every colour you need from blending red, yellow and blue pigments, although paintboxes often come with them ready made. Mix red and blue and you get purple. Who'd have thought? Mix grapefruit and patchouli and you get the smell of Terry's Chocolate Orange.
So imagine you're in a gallery and a small child points at a still life of a fruit bowl and says, "Did they squash up real apples and oranges and stick them on the wall?" Its parents smile and say, "No, it was a very clever artist who mixes up paint an makes it looks like real apples and oranges."
Then the small child smells a fruit perfume and asks "Did they squash up real apples and orange and stick them in the bottle?" Its parents say, "Yes they did."
But no they didn't. It was a very clever artist who mixes up perfumery materials and makes them smell like apples and oranges. Why is the painter appreciated, when the perfumer is not?
Notes are things that the perfume smells like. Materials are things which are used to make it. There is no point listing the things that perfumes are made of, because very few people know what they smell like. Besides some of them smell of almost nothing, and others smell godawful. They only work when they are blended to produce another note something completely new, like grapefruit and patchouli making chocolate and orange...
In the notes, do we list grapefruit and patchouli, which are in there but which you can't smell? Or do we list chocolate and orange, which aren't in there but of which there is an olfactory illusion? The convention is to list the chocolate and the orange.
With Doe in the Snow, I make the illusion of snow and frost by using some lightest of light materials which give the impression of coldness, like the scent of opening the front door and stepping out on an icy morning.
With What I Did On My Holidays, I use two materials, Calone and Veramoss, to make the smell of seaside rockpools. Most people have no idea what those two smell of individually, and besides I use them together to make my seaside scent, so I list seaside in the notes, and seaside is what people smell.
As for Maxed Out, it's the cannabis which has caused some of the bother. I've had to explain that marijuana's botanical name is cannabis sativa, and the plant has the common name of hemp - the stuff that string and rope is make from. I used cannabis essential oil which is pungent and herbal. Combined with the cumin in Maxed Out, it really smells quite intense, but it wasn't a smell that perfume fans could identify. It was the smell that dope smokers waft by when they think you haven't noticed that they've put weed in their roll-ups; it's the smell that their clothes have, that they can't smell any more because they've stopped noticing.
We ended up calling the smell which they were expecting, the "romantic marijuana note". This is a dark, woody, oudh-like smell which usually turns up in any perfume called "noir", but it doesn't really have much to do with cannabis.
What we need to clear up is that notes can bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to the materials which make up the perfume.
Sometimes the brand owners don't know that; their PR companies don't know that and their sales people have no idea. But that's not important. We buy perfumes because of the way they smell, not because of what they are made of. Sometimes lemon perfumes are made with lemons. Sea salt perfumes are never made with sea salt. (It has no smell.) Lily of the valley (muguet) perfumes are not made with lily of the valley; they never have been. Not ever. But there's no point listing Lyral or hydroxycitronellal in the notes because no one outside the industry knows what they smell of. The problem is that perfume companies have been pretending for years that they really do make their perfumes with the things they smell of: coconuts, apples, figs, ferns... all synthetic. Now with the cult of the natural, they are terrified to admit it.
For that reason, for the last 130 years perfumers have been using their skills to paint beautiful scents in the atmosphere, using materials which were created by both nature and chemists and a combination of the two, and no one has given them the credit.
Notes aren't the same as materials. Know that and set nose free to appreciate these works of art for what they are.
The fougère fragrances are a family of “man smells” which came into being at the end of the 19th century, all containing lavender. (Traditionally, anyway.) Fougère is French for fern, but ferns don’t really smell of much. What the fougère is, when you find it in a perfume bottle, is inspires by Houbigant’s original, imaginary version of what a fern ought to smell like.
As well as lavender, your fern fragrance will have bergamot, oak moss, and coumarin. The French think of lavender as of traditionally male fragrance, and use it in all manner of cleaning products too. The British dismiss it as a granny scent. Naturally this means that it’s due a comeback, like violets, roses, lily of the valley and honeysuckle.
Fougère fragrances have been around since the 1870s, and were only possible because William Perkin isolated coumarin in a chemical reaction in 1868. You also find it in tonka beans, but natural tonka costs an arm and a leg to extract. Yes, that’s right, every single fougère fragrance ever made for almost the last 150 years has been a mixture of naturals and synthetics.
Houbigant’s Fougère Royale, Penhalligon’s English Fern, and everyone else’s ferns have coumarin in them, thanks to a Victorian gentleman with a very large beard.
Lavender oil is also one of the leading lights in aromatherapy. The story goes that René Gattefossé, a chemist working with raw materials to create new synthetics in the late 1800s, burned himself in a laboratory accident. He plunged his hand into the nearest vat of liquid – lavender oil handily enough – and found that the pain went away quicker, and his hand healed far faster than he was expecting.
Knowing this, one day when I dropped a casserole straight out of the oven on to my bare feet, I doused myself in 100% undiluted lavender oil after running them under the cold tap. I wouldn’t go doing this with any old essential oil because I’ve seen their safety certificates, but in extreme circumstances lavender is the one you want.
I wouldn’t recommend that anyone puts this to the test, but after two days the scalds had stopped hurting and I didn’t get any scars. I was pleasantly surprised, and I’ve carried a bottle of lavender oil around with me ever since.
Mind you, up at the Vintage By The Sea festival last year, I met a chap who approached our perfume stall warily. He told us he had to be a bit careful with scent (and at this point he stood back a bit) because he is allergic to lavender.
He told me that he had mentioned this to an aromatherapist friend and she had scoffed at him, telling him that it’s impossible because lavender is calming. It is not impossible. People can react badly to lavender and I’ve now met two of them. It’s rare, but it happens.
Anyway back to René Gattefossé. He was so impressed by the effect lavender had on him that he stopped trying to isolate individual aroma chemicals and turned his research to what he called Aromatherapie (he was French) the medical use of plant oils. It was only in the 1970s that aromatherapy began to take on its modern, somewhat spiritual holistic aura, with the rise of the “back to nature” movement.
There was some recent research on lavender (I’ll try to find the source) to test whether or not the essential oil could calm people waiting for a dentist’s appointment. What happened was that they just started to associate lavender with feeling nervous. Any calming properties that it might have is entirely displaced by the new associations created by circumstances. (I think this is quite funny, but I do have an odd sense of humour.)
The point is that lavender is complicated. It does appear to do marvellous things to sore skin, burns and scar tissue. However no one is allowed to mention this on their product packaging or marketing materials because the compulsory 10 years of medical research hasn’t been carried out. It probably won’t be because no one wants to invest the money into it if they can’t patent it and keep all the financial benefits for themselves.
The scent of lavender is a complex mix of chemicals grown naturally. You can get lavenders grown at altitudes that smell different, some species which hardly smell at all, others which are grown entirely for their fragrant properties. It’s tangy and herbal on its own, rather than gentle and floral. There are synthetic lavenders too; never assume that your perfume contains a natural one.
Yardley’s English Lavender, by the way, used to be a fragrance for men. It swapped sexes somewhere in the middle of the 20th century.
I use lavender in two of my most British fragrances, The Lion Cupboard and What I Did On My Holidays. The green tint in Holidays comes from lavender absolute which is a deep dark pine colour, a heart note. The lavender essential oil in The Lion Cupboard is much paler, a light topnote. I use the first as a reference to children’s suntan lotion and the second is a reminder of the traditional colognes and aftershaves that my dad very occasionally used.
I’m about to use it in something new.
On my way to work, I walk past lavender bushes in the Factory Quarter and front gardens along Valetta Road in Acton. That’s where the photograph comes from. They are always buzzing with bees. This leads me to another point. Whether or not you like the smell in your fragrances, whether or not you like to use the essential oil, if you have even the tiniest spare plot of earth in a plant pot or your garden, give it to a lavender plant. The bees need all the help we can give them.
Last week at 4160Tuesdays we had two completely different bespoke perfume days.
For the first I made a perfume for Deborah, one of our best customers. Her partner had chosen this as a secret present. We arranged last December for me to send up an empty bottle, with a note explaining that she was to spend a morning with me making her perfume. It only took six months to organise, which gave Deborah time to think about it.
In the second, two friends arrived at the studio, brought out a collection of bottles and asked me to smell them. They were all basic musks, ranging from inexpensive to excruciatingly costly but made with pretty much the same materials. It turned out that one friend wanted me to make a perfume like this and to start her own business. They were very interested in what it would cost to make a small bottle just like the one they had bought in Harrods perfumery so I tried to explain that it would depend how many bottles they wanted. Basic GCSE level business studies.
They already had plans for the bottle design – people with dreams of setting up their own perfume companies often design themselves a bottle which will cost £50,000 to tool up before thinking about what to put in it – and for the perfume? The brief was quite simple.
They wanted a fragrance which would appeal to everyone in the world, and contained the mystery material which everyone thinks is sexy.
Photo: probably not the kind of magical fairy dust they were thinking of.
They also wanted me to come in at the weekend to make some as it was urgent.
Let’s go back for a moment to Deborah. She described the kind of perfumes that she likes (fortunately quite a few of them were mine, so I know how they were made), and the occasions on which she wears them. If you want a bespoke perfume, it’s always a good idea to go to someone whose creations you like already.
If you love the works of Manet, you wouldn’t ask Picasso to paint a portrait. (I am not likening myself to Manet or Picasso here, just using a handy metaphor.)
By lunchtime we had created two new fragrances, one for staying in and being herself and one for going out, which she can add to the staying in one, like putting on her coat and hat. I think we both had a great time, then we all went along the road for noodles at CJ’s cafe. I got a beautiful thank you note from her partner. There’s quite a bit of pressure in making the perfect perfume for someone, but I do really enjoy it.
The two friends wanted to know: would I bottle it for them, would it be guaranteed that everyone in the world would love it, how much would they get for the money, if they wanted a different version would they have to pay me again, would it be exclusive to them, would I promise that it would be exclusive to them, would I promise that no one else could ever copy it, and would it have that thing in it which everyone says makes you irresistible to the opposite sex or the same sex or anyone who happens to be passing?
When we went upstairs to my workshop, they looked around and asked,
"Where's the machine?"
“What machine?” I asked
“The machine that makes the perfume.”
“You’re looking at it,” I said.
They seemed surprised.
Late on Friday night they were still emailing me about price and volume, about how they couldn’t find the right place on the website to pay me, and if they could pay cash. Finally on Saturday afternoon, when I was already at the workshop, I got an email to say that they were going to have to reschedule. To be honest I was relieved. It never goes well with me when the questions are all about money, and nothing to do with the smell.
Anyway, what about “that thing”, this magical ingredient that makes everyone smell irresistible?
For a few years the rumours were that it was Iso E Super (IFF’s trademark), also known as Methyl Cyclo Myrcetone or patchouli ethanone, or “the molecule”. A variation of it was used in Eccentric Molecules’ Molecule No. 1. This perfume was brilliantly sold as working “like a pheromone” (I quote the salesman at Liberty), “You can’t smell it, because it’s a molecule, but you can smell it on other people.”
In fact, Iso E Super is a lovely velvety woody material, used in thousands of modern fragrances, which makes pretty much everything smell better, including people, bunches of flowers, fresh air… You can smell it, as I tried to explain to the salesman, but the poor chap eventually confided, “but that’s what they told me to say!” so I thought it best to leave him alone.
The marketing cleverly picked up on what happens to all of us when we become accustomed to an odour. Our brains just stop reminding us that it’s present. After a few minutes, none of us can smell the perfume that we’re wearing unless we give it a good sniff and try harder. There’s nothing wrong with our noses; there’s nothing wrong with our skin; there’s nothing wrong with the perfume. It’s just the way that the human brain interprets scent. Other people can still smell it on us. This can be an issue when we wear the same perfume every day. We think it’s worn off, and everyone around us knows that it really really hasn’t. More about this another day.
So yes, spot on with the marketing for Molecule No 1.
More recently, Hedione (also a trademark) has been tipped as the sexy substance. Methyl dihydrojasmonate, to give it one of its many catchier monikers, has appeared in almost every perfume since it hit the headlines with Eau Sauvage. Jean-Claude Elena uses so much of it in his watercolour-esque scents, you could probably fill several Olympic size swimming pools with the amount he used for Hermes. It smells of almost nothing. Seriously. But it breathes air, life and sparkle into flowers and citruses. It can take me hours to talk my workshop students into putting it anywhere near their perfumes. I usually describe it as like putting baking powder into a cake; without it you just have a flat biscuit.
But does it make the wearer irresistible? Not in my experience.
Talking of my experience, the best aphrodisiac perfumery material that exists is jasmine absolute. However, you’d have to use it in amounts about 30 times stronger than anything allowed by IFRA these days. Anyway, what works for me might not work for anyone else and I definitely wouldn’t want to wear a perfume that drips jasmine – they are pretty unsubtle. The person you’re trying to attract would probably have been knocked sideways by the strength of it before you got close enough to seduce them. Practically speaking, you can’t put enough jasmine into a fragrance to have an effect, and even if it were legal it would be excruciatingly expensive. That doesn’t stop me blending it with Atlas cedarwood though…
So is there a magical aphrodisiac fairy dust we can put into our perfumes?
We can put ourselves into them.
You put your perfume on and you’re ready to take on the world. For me it’s like that song, “I put my new shoes on, and everything will be alright,” or the Blues Brothers putting on their sunglasses.
This is why episode number one in personal perfumery worked out beautifully, and why episode number two was doomed from the moment they told me that they wanted “that thing” in their bottles.
You can’t decide for other people what “that thing” is going to be. It isn’t something you can spray on; but if you find a fragrance you love so much that you feel naked when you leave the house without it, wearing it can give you “that thing”.
All together now, “I put my perfume on, and everything will be all right.”