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  1. lavender & bee 2

    That bee just wouldn't sit still.

    Fougère, the French and the Aromatherapist

    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.

  2. 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.

    magical fairy dust

    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…

    magical unicorn juice

    So is there a magical aphrodisiac fairy dust we can put into our perfumes?

    We can put ourselves into them.

    Cliché? Maybe.

    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.”

    The appendix:

    The ones I make with jasmine absolute are:

    Midnight in the Palace Garden

    Babylon Sunset

    Raw Silk & Red Roses

    Sunshine & Pancakes

    Sleep Knot

    Pillow Talk

    Iso E Super is in:

    The Sexiest Scent on the Planet. Ever. (IMHO)

    Silk, Lace, & Chocolate

    Sleep Knot

    Pillow Talk

    Hedione you'll find in:

    Ealing Green

    London 1969

    Rome 1963