My Current Beauty Product Favourites: they do what they claim

Top summer beauty product buysSo, I’m a beauty product junkie as well as perfume-obsessed. I trained as a make-up artist purely to justify having an enormous make-up and skincare collection.*

Over the years I’ve worked behind beauty counters, behind-the-scenes at brands and distributors; in product development and marketing. I love to try new products but there are some which I repurchase time and time again, and new discoveries which instantly go on my Top (uhh, 100?) Favourite Products Ever list.

Favourite products have to fulfil the following criteria: 1) Be reasonable value for money (nothing is priced based purely on the cost of ingredients, but I don’t look for prestige and status symbols, I look for good formulas, convenience and functional packaging), 2) Do what it claims, 3) Not aggravate my tendency for adult acne, 4) Smell mild or at least not obnoxious, 5) Have packaging which doensn’t leak, break or make the product annoying to use.

I am particularly picky about foundation products – they have to perform exceptionally well (I have ageing, very pale combination skin: foundation should not sit in pores, should not slip off, should not make my skin look old and flat and the product must not cause breakouts).

My current favourite products (from left to right, above):

1. Lily Lolo mineral foundation in Blondie (I use Porcelain Doll in the winter)
2. MAC Mineralize Skinfinish in Light
3. Vichy Aqualia Thermal SPF25
4. Bourjois Healthy Mix foundation in Light Vanilla
5. No7 Stay Perfect foundation in Calico
6. MAC Prep + Prime Transparent Finishing Powder
7. Clarins Baume Contour des Yeux Eue Contour Balm
8. Bourjois Happy Light Matte Serum Primer
9. Estee Lauder Advanced Night Repair Eye Serum Infusion
10. La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5
11. La Roche Posay Antihelios XL 50+ SPF
12. Vichy Idealia Smoothing and Illuminating Cream for Normal to Combination skin
13. Vichy Normaderm Anti-age
14. Bioderma Sensibio Micellar Water
15. MAC Studiofix NC15 (not pictured)
15. Bobbi Brown Creamy Concealer in Warm Ivory (not pictured)
16. Urban Decay Primer Potion (not pictured)

I switch my skincare and make-up products based on whether my skin is feeling oily, normal or dry. Even on my dry skin days, I avoid products too heavy in cocoa butter and silicone (the former seems to break me out every time and the latter when used in excess). During winter, I have a slightly different rotation (and for freezing weather absolutely swear by the rich creams for dry skin in the Swiss Louis Widmer range; available scentless or perfumed in old-fashioned Nivea-style).

Recipe for an oily skin day:

Clarins eye balm + Normaderm Anti Age face cream + a few drops of La Roche Posay SPF50 + Bourjois Happy Light Matte Serum Primer (to date the only primer which has actually minimised my pores, not interfered with my make-up and performed as promised).
Bobbi Brown concealer where needed. LilyLolo mineral make-up applied with a large kabuki brush (the one they stock is lovely) OR Bourjois Healthy Mix applied with fingers (Bourjois Healthy Mix is also fantastic on excessively humid days or when your skin is perspiring – ladies with hot flushes, take note – the water-based gel texture doesn’t crumble off and slide down your face if there is water on your skin). If using liquid foundation, finish off with the MAC prep + prime powder (roll and press down a powder-saturated puff on your face and buff off with a soft, large powder brush). If extra coverage is needed, a layer of MAC Mineralize Skinfinish, buffed on with a large kabuki brush will finish the job.

Recipe for a normal skin day:

Estee Lauder eye serum + Clarins eye balm + Vichy Aqualia SPF25 (with a few drops of the La Roche Posay SPF50 mixed in if going somewhere sunny). Concealer where needed + No7 Stay Perfect foundation applied with a beauty blender. Followed by MAC prep + prime powder (as above) and if extra coverage is needed, a layer of MAC Mineralize (as above).

Recipe for a dry/dull skin day:

Estee Lauder eye serum + Clarins eye balm + a face serum (here are the ones I like) + Idealia cream + La Roche Posay SPF50. Concealer where needed + No7 Stay Perfect foundation applied with a beauty blender. MAC powders as above. In addition, I might use some MAC Mineralize highlighter.

I also like the Clarins and Decleor face oils (as special treats – have to be careful with face oils or I get breakouts), but used instead of nightcream they work really well. I often use the Vichy Normaderm Anti-age at night. Vichy also does a fantastic retinol treatment product (Vichy Liftactiv Advanced Filler Cream), which I use about once every two months for a week (and then the following week the top layer of your skin rolls off – not attractive). Which brings me to my new top hero product: La Roche Posay Cicaplast Baume B5.

It’s an anti-bacterial skin repairing cream and it is so good I’m on my second tube and have ordered one for my husband, too. What I’ve used it for: 1) on that post-retinol treatment week when your face is peeling off; it soothes the reddened skin and moisturises the dry bits so you can apply make-up and not look like a decaying zombie (I carry the tube in my handbag for touch-ups during the day when I’m using it for this). 2) As a hand-cream (I wash my hands so much that my hands are sore – this is wonderful on them), 3) on my husband’s excema (it’s the only product to date that has cleared it), 4) on post-folliculitis skin on my arm (I had a long bout of sore skin on my right arm which is finally healing because of this product). This stuff is fan-tas-tic.

I’m 42 and don’t look bad for my age. I have fine lines around my eyes and on the forehead, my skin is starting to sag and I definitely look older than I feel I ought to (when you get older and look in the mirror, there’s a little double-take sometimes – this isn’t me…). My genes in this respect are good; my mother looked young for her age until cigarettes destroyed her looks and I’ve avoided excessive sunbathing all my life. However, I like to think (partly to justify my product obsession) that using good products and having a skincare regime from an early age has done something to help, too.

Top left: No make-up; straight after a Finnish sauna. Top right: Full make-up using a 50/50 mix of Chanel Pro Lumiere and Revlon Photoready. Bottom left: Soft make-up, using Shu Uemura Skin Architect. Bottom right: Everyday make-up using No7 Stay Perfect.

Selfies with and without make-up

*There may have been other reasons, such as creativity, travel, behind-the-scenes excitement and the ability to work freelance.

Pia’s (almost) annual perfume tour, 2014 edition

This has become an almost accidental tradition. I helped arrange the first ever Basenotes UK meetup (back in, uhh, 2008? 2009?) and since then, I’ve arranged an annual perfume tour for nose-nerd friends. I’m fortunate to know a lovely bunch of people who not only don’t mind, but positively relish spending the whole day talking about perfume, sniffing them, sniffing each other, and eating delicious things (sometimes all at once). I’ve also got to meet new people because  friends bring other friends. There are usually 8-12 of us and we tend to include a lunch or afternoon tea reservation into the day (somewhere decadent).

4160 Tuesdays before we trashed the place

4160 Tuesdays before we trashed the place

This year our group (Nick, Tara, Irum, Sarah, Ella + my husband Timo until his Arsenal match started + me) started at Sarah McCartney’s 4160 Tuesdays perfume studio and spent a couple of wonderful hours there, sniffing her new releases (absolutely adorable vintage-inspired scents and a completely bonkers bubblegum-ice cream-cola-mint bespoke perfume she made for a wedding recently); choice delights from her Wall of Scent (I feel like that should have a little tm after it); her latest Guerlain acquisitions (Sarah’s enviable lifestyle has recently taken her to Paris again; to the Friedemodin launch at Sens Unique; to the flat of Michael Edwards to deliver her fragrances; to the Guerlain boutique). Sarah served us some L’Heure Bleue tea (which tasted like a nice cup of tea with some animalic notes), chocolate caramel popcorn and boozy chocolates.

Sarah recently created a wonderful vintage-style perfume, “Goodbye Piccadilly” for an event at the London Transport Museum. I left the studio with a 30ml bottle of it – instant love. I’ve come to realise I have somewhat of a suede and leather fragrance fetish (only in dry, powdery, fruity, iris and tobacco contexts. The overly animalic leathers and ones with a sweet, honeyed, herbacious tones cross the line from expensive-perfume-spilled-inside-a-leather-handbag to unwashed leather jacket). I like Daim Blond, Tabac Blond, Cuir Beluga (which is really a tarted up vanilla) and Iris Prima. In fact, I was going to buy Cuir Beluga yesterday but decided to spread my treat budget instead of blowing it on one purchase.

Nick and his G&T float at Fortnum & Mason

Nick and his G&T float at Fortnum & Mason

We had a lunch reservation at The Parlour restaurant at Fortnum & Mason and had savoury snacks, ice cream sundaes and alcoholic ice cream floats (the gin & tonic float was a huge hit. Try this at home: make a large G&T, drop in a lemon slice and a scoop of lemon sorbet – and enjoy!). The savoury snacks were nothing to wax lyrical about (small and overpriced for what they were, though tasty), but we were so hungry at that point that an ice cream on its own would not have been enough.

Sarah decided to try the most outrageous ice cream sundae on offer – the “Ultimate White Chocolate Gold” with salted caramel and white chocolate ice cream, honeycomb, dark chocolate sauce, gold leaf and Sevruga caviar.

The Ultimate Ice Cream at Fortnums

Caviar on ice cream? Yes, really.

I think Mugler missed a trick with Womanity marketing there; a caviar ice cream? Ok. The portion did look wonderful, with rose petals, gold leaf and a myriad of colours and textures. Sarah says she may be inspired to create a perfume based on it.

We had a lovely surprise at Fortnum’s perfume hall – the lovely Amanda Brooke from Grossmith was there in person. We had just met at the BSP functional fragrance evening two days ago, but it was great to see her in action and animatedly describing the perfumes.

After Fortnum’s, we headed to Selfridges and I splurged on Guerlain Aqua Allegoria Nerolia Bianca – a fresh neroli-orange-petitgrain citrus floral which is not too unlike Dior’s Escale a Portofino, minus the almond aspect. Nerolia Bianca fulfils my current everyday perfume criteria by being fresh, subtle, and luxurious. When working with fragrance materials during the week, I rarely get days when I can wear perfume to work (it would interfere with quality control and perfumery), and after work, I tend to be nose-fatigued and not in the mood for perfume anyway. On the days I am doing something else at work, or at weekends, I love to shop my perfume collection for something to cover myself in. With summer threatening to arrive in Britain, what better way to celebrate it than a scent bursting with every aspect of the orange tree.

My plan was to replace some favourite make-up items while we were at the Selfridges beauty hall but all three items I had hoped to buy had been discontinued! Distraught, I sought solace at the Shu Uemura counter and was served by a competend and friendly member of staff who managed to find replacements for two out of my three previously beloved products. Some of the other counter staff were either overly eager (thereby losing the sale by pushing too hard) or completely disengaged (one of the products which had been discontinued could perhaps have been replaced by another product from the same brand, but the sales assistant just stood there and didn’t even try).

Guerlain_Aqua_Allegoria_Nerolia_Bianca_and_4160Tuesdays_Goodbye_PiccadillyI also explored the express version of the Fragrance Lab, which probably wasn’t a good representation of the whole experience in which you’re taken through a sort of perfume exploration tunnel of love. In the express version, you do a personality test on an iPad by choosing one of three pictures presented and choosing one of three options shown (there are a couple of dozen questions in total); then you queue for a sales assistant in a lab coat to tell you what your personality is like and which scent matches it. They’ve developed scents specifically for the lab and mine was 267. Alas, the trouble about prescribing a scent without involving the sense of smell is that it’s quite hard to get it right. There were people ahead of me in the queue, absolutely delighted at their result and eagerly lapping up every word – so I am sure this will work for many, and it’s yet another way to push the boundaries of how perfume is sold and marketed.

On the other hand, a perfumista is going to be a nightmare customer for such an experiment – with my 70+ fragrances, each of them could be seen as representing an aspect of my personality but I wouldn’t say any are “it”. If pushed, I’d probably pick Mitsouko as a signature scent, but I feel it’s much nicer to choose a fragrance based on mood and circumstance rather than as a rigid representation of an image.

We’ve already decided on the main venues for next outing and the plans do seem just as fun as this year’s. Thank you to everyone who came this year for a wonderful day out in great company!

What is a perfumer and how to become one

Twenty years ago, the perfumer was a mysterious creature; probably male, probably French and not usually wheeled out to market his creations. That wasn’t quite true, even then, but the image of the perfumer in the public consciousness has shifted considerably since those days. As have the ways in which fragrances are marketed. The Internet changed many things, including how accessible information (and misinformation) became; and how easy it has been for a whole new movement of independent perfumers to establish themselves, without the traditional structure of a fragrance house -> brand -> consumer. Now perfumer-business owners or brand owner-marketers have direct access to consumers, and the doors are open for anyone to swing through. This has created a scenario in which everyone and their mum is calling themselves a perfumer and it has made some of those old French blokes a bit baffled, or even cross.

So, let’s look at the semantics of the word. What is a perfumer, exactly?

There are several kinds. That’s the trouble. I would propose, that for clarity, we ought to start using some qualifying terms to differentiate between the kinds that exist. On the other hand, if you don’t care about sticking with tradition (a valid argument; things evolve), then we should accept that the semantics of the word “perfumer” have now changed to include a much wider scope of activities. So, let’s have a look.

At this point, I would start with a dictionary definition, but the copy of 1) Concise Oxford English Dictionary does not have an entry for perfumer. The 2) Penguin Complete English Dictionary is no better. Both of them include an entry for “perfumery”:

1) The process of producing and selling perfumes. A shop that sells perfumes.

2) The manufacture of perfumes. A place where perfumes are made or sold (perfumer, noun).

Technically correct, of course. So why would anyone get frustrated if an independent person, self-taught, buys some materials, blends them, bottles them, sells them, and calls themselves a perfumer? That’s because within the industry, a perfumer is a term with a very specific meaning. It’s a job description.

Perfumer – conventional; industry

A person whose main job it is to produce scents for varying product categories. Functional fragrance: air fresheners, candles, cosmetics, detergents, laundry care, kitty litter, panty liners… Fine fragrance: (Usually) alcoholic fragrance blends; eaux de toilettes, colognes, perfumes. Functional fragrance perfumery dominates the industry and is responsible for the vast majority of perfume compound sales within the traditional industry. Just take a moment to think about how many products (and environments) around you are scented. That’s the work of perfumers. The perceived effectiveness of a product is greatly influenced by the correct choice of fragrance; and in some cases fragrance forms part or all of the product’s function (air care; deodorants). The usual way conventional fragrances get made, is that a client (a brand, or a manufacturer) approaches a fragrance house (or several fragrance houses) with a brief for a scent. The perfumer(s) are given the brief, or may even be directly involved in talks with the client about it. The perfumer(s) then submit fragrances for review, and depending on the structure and size of the fragrance house, there could be additional layers to the process (evaluators, consumer panels and so on). Once the client is happy with the smell and the cost of the fragrance, and once its suitability for the intended application has been tested (you can’t just do whatever you like with a scent going into a toilet cleaner, for example; the harsh base product will limit the fragrance materials which can be used), the fragrance is approved and sold. The client manufactures (or contract manufactures) the product, includes the fragrance compound, and usually does not disclose where the fragrance compound came from.

With fine fragrances, disclosing the perfumer and the fragrance house has become more usual in the recent years but it’s still an anomaly in the traditional industry. Many fine fragrances are made to a tight deadline and budget, and share similar bases and accords – partly to save time and partly because the brief might have included a reference to a popular scent – “We would like it to be Angel-type” or “It should be an oudh.”

Training for a perfumer working this way takes years and never stops. According to IFRA, there were 3059 materials used in the scents for fine fragrances and consumer products in 2011. It would be fairly unusual for one perfumer to know all of them, but it’s typical for an experienced perfumer to be aware of and to have worked with hundreds of materials. To get to know a material, you need to understand its nuances; its development; its appropriate use level; substantivity. Some materials smell obnoxious at 100%, so you must dilute them to 10%, 1% or sometimes even less to understand them. Some materials are fleeting; some stay on a scent strip for weeks. Some materials are not at their best when fresh (many natural materials have an unpleasant, vegetative “still note” when just made, and need to be left to air for some time before they become usable); some materials improve considerably when aged; some go off very quickly. Some materials need to be blended with a solvent (like dipropylene glycol) before they’re easy to work with (resinoids); some come in crystal form and need to be solubilised. Some materials discolour the finished product (vanillin; indole) and some materials react with others to form new chemical compounds, once blended (Shiff’s Base). Once you begin working with fragrance blends, you learn about what happens when you blend material X with material Y, and how to modify it. You learn what gives that awful off-note, or what adds a nuance of freshness to an otherwise turgid scent. You learn how to lift a fragrance; how to make it last; how to get a fragrance which sells a product in the shop (when the consumer sniffs the bottle) and performs well in use (when wet, for example). Many (if not all) perfumers develop their own shorthand and, inevitably, their own signature style – as much for time-saving as for artistic flair.

A major part of the job for a traditional fragrance house is administrative and bureaucratic. The regulations (which I am writing about separately; too vast a topic to include here) are easier to deal with for larger companies but are in danger of suffocating smaller businesses. Chemical regulations, health and safety regulations, transport regulations, packaging and labelling regulations – all affect the industry and take up considerable resources. A perfumer needs to be aware of fragrance material restrictions and regulations. IFRA, as crazy it may sound, is actually trying to prevent the over-regulation of perfumery. The problem is the EU, and people who don’t understand the industry trying to regulate fragrances out of existence. IFRA is acting as (currently the only) industry voice, negotiating directly with the EU for reasonable restrictions, rather than outright bans. One can argue about how IFRA is not perfect either, and it certainly isn’t, but as things currently stand, it’s our best hope for maintaining certain materials on the palette of perfumers. I have proposed that there should be an association of independent perfumers, looking after the interests of indies – and if you think so, too, drop me a line.

Conventional industry perfumers may have worked their way up from lab assistants, compounders or evaluators – or have come straight into the industry from having completed a degree in chemistry. A perfumer does not have to be a chemist, but there are specialist jobs in the industry for chemists; including roles in large fragrance houses who also develop their own scent molecules. A perfumer working for IFF or Givaudan may have access to new, patented materials at cost price (or before they are released to others), which gives them an edge over others. Once a material is out of patent, generic versions begin to pop up everywhere. That’s one of the reasons why there will suddenly be a “trend” for a particular accord or a note in mainstream scents – a perfume material might just have become more widely available and the trickle-down process begins. You can now get scented candles and body sprays fragranced with materials which featured heavily in fine fragrances in the early 90s.

Another way to become a conventional perfumer is to apply to one of the in-house perfume schools (Givaudan, Mane, IFF, Firmenich), or to ISIPCA for training, and to hopefully then gain a placement direct from such a school. Knowledge of chemistry is an advantage, as is fluency in French. If you want to apply to some of the perfume houses in other roles (e.g. lab assistant, manufacturing, evaluation, marketing), you may be able to get straight in after your A-levels or university. It’s worth a try – I met someone the other day who walked straight into a sales role at a major international fragrance house after completing her A-levels. The International Federation of Aroma Trades and Plymouth University offer an “MBA in perfumery” – ICATS Diploma In Aroma Trades Studies; a distance-study course for people already working in the industry. It’s an overview of every aspect of the industry and covers chemistry, marketing, origin of raw materials, the briefing process, regulatory issues and more.

Here is a list of some international fragrance houses (in alphabetical order):

Bell Flavors and Fragrances

CPL Aromas


Givaudan (largest company in the industry)

International Flavours and Fragrances





To learn more about how the traditional perfume industry is structured; and about people’s careers within it, I recommend British Perfumery – A Fragrant History (read my Basenotes review for more detail).

Working in the traditional mainstream perfume industry teaches you vast amounts about the technical aspects of perfumery; about working with a variety of base products (if you’re doing functional fragrances), and about the industry in general. You will also have access to a substantial catalogue of materials (something which is very tough to do as an independent, unless you have unlimited cash at your disposal). However, it is rare to get the chance to work on costly formulas, and so it’s not so self-indulgent or hedonistic; more about being practical, productive and creative within tight constraints.

Perfumer – Independent

Sub-categories: Artisan; Natural

The indie perfume scene has exploded in the last few years. Angela Flanders, the Cotswold Perfumery and Pecksniffs represent some of the forerunners of this category in the UK, but brands such as Miller Harris and Ormonde Jayne have helped to popularise it. Penhaligon’s, Floris and Trumper’s have become known through the perfume enthusiasts’ voracious interest in non-mainstream brands, tradition and independent perfumery (though, of course, scents for many indie brands are made in traditional fragrance houses, by traditional industry perfumers).

Globally, there are entire movements – the Natural Perfumer’s Guild, for example – and groups (Yahoo Perfume Making), dedicated to networking and supporting the self-study process of independent perfumers. Basenotes has a DIY section. Many perfume courses (of varying quality and depth) have popped up. Books have been written and published about perfumes and perfumery; Perfumes, the A-Z Guide probably being one of the most significant works in raising interest in perfumes to the status of a legitimate hobby. Whatever your opinion of that book may be, it was a turning point in the marketing of perfumes, and an inspiration to many writers, bloggers and perfumers (and a headache to many marketers; a gift to others).

One can now obtain perfume materials directly, in small minimum order quantities, from a variety of suppliers (buyer beware, though – the more middle-men your material goes through, the more likely it is to be adulterated somewhere along the way). Some indie brands get their fragrances made by traditional fragrance houses, or by indie perfumers who are set up with a lab, materials and the administrative side of getting everything to comply with regulations, and safety-assessed.


Image via Frederic Malle

Frederic Malle is a great example of a brand whose ethos changed how perfumers were used in marketing. Frederic set himself up very clearly as the artistic director and curator of his collection, but allowed perfumers some freedom of interpretation – and put their names on the bottles. This was quite a departure when the range first launched. There are also indie perfume brands which set up the brand figurehead as a “perfumer” in their marketing efforts, even though their scents are manufactured for them by a traditional fragrance house. This is still the norm, not the exception, but it’s beginning to be viewed as old-fashioned by many.

There are, of course, many pros and cons about wheeling perfumers out to participate in the marketing of a brand. Many perfumers are much happier being behind-the-scenes, and being allowed to get on with it, rather than to cultivate a public presence.

Some indie perfumers have built everything up from scratch by themselves – two worth mentioning are, of course Andy Tauer and the (world’s first?) crowdsourced perfume start-up 4160 Tuesdays by my friend Sarah McCartney. Some traditionally trained perfumers who have worked in the industry set up their own brands later. Ruth Mastenbroek is a perfect example (and her fragrances are glorious). There are many, many more – and this trend is set to continue.

This represents a bit of a nightmare in semantics: Indie perfumer, self-taught; indie perfumer, not-really-a-perfumer; indie perfumer, ex-industry…

If a self-taught indie perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a functional fragrance industry perfumer; they’ll be met with a blank stare. If an industry perfumer says “I’m a perfumer” to a member of the general public, it might evoke romantic scenes of sniffing roses and vanilla pods all day long, when the daily reality for that perfumer could be figuring out a cheap but still attractive scent which doesn’t fall apart in a new type of detergent product.

Self-study of perfumery is fraught with difficulties.

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. Other people are both a blessing and a curse. One of the advantages – maybe the biggest advantage – of traditional perfumery training, is the ability to learn from experienced perfumers; to be mentored and to learn the short-cuts; the problems; the dilutions; the accords. On the other hand, most self-taught indie perfumers focus exclusively on making fine fragrances, which means technical knowledge is not nearly as important. It also means that self-taught indie perfumers can approach their work with the eye of a novice, which can sometimes lead to wonderful discoveries and genuine creativity. Ideally, you want a sweet spot between naivety and experience – to have some tricks up your sleeve, but not be afraid to do things differently; to experiment. Many traditionally-trained perfumers struggle to break away from known accords and the sense of “this is how it’s done.” On the other hand, many self-taught perfumers are not able express quite what they want to through their work, lacking fluency in the language of perfume.

There is much more mis-information about how to make perfumes online, than there is really useful information. Many of the early books on perfumery contain deliberate red herrings. Trying to approach perfumery from a position of complete ignorance (not knowing what you don’t know) is a difficult task. Mistakes will inevitably be made in the beginning. Self-taught indie perfumery is an expensive pursuit and many of the mistakes might be costly. The barrier to entry is much higher than for many other professions. Just to get started, you’ll need a fairly substantial financial investment (materials, equipment, regulatory software, money to certify your products safe to sell, money for marketing, packaging, bottles, closures), and many materials and other equipment are sold only in large quantities (1kg is a usual minimum order quantity for most perfume materials; less for some costly materials – and many bottle and closure suppliers only supply in bulk). Initially, it’s hard to make a profit. Economies of scale mean that the larger manufacturers have an advantage, not  just because of in-house expertise. It is a completely valid strategy to decide that what you actually want to do, is to sell and market a brand; and to leave the physical manufacturing process to a company or an individual already set up to do it.

Being an indie perfumer is easier if you have substantial financial freedom, but it’s not impossible to set yourself up without it, too. One of the hardest parts of indie perfumery is getting yourself known; raising above the general hubbub and getting the sales in. For many, indie perfumery remains an expensive hobby rather than a viable business, but there are some excellent examples of good businesses, too. My advice would be to find a mentor, and to really go through your business plan, cost of goods, cost of labour, cost of distribution, and to decide whether you can make it work as a business before you start. Don’t ignore the regulatory and administrative burden – if you sell your products to the general public, you must follow the same laws and regulations as the bigger businesses, but without the same resources to handle them.

Some perfume manufacturers for indie fragrance brands in the UK:

Phoenix Fragrances

Seven Scent

Quintessence Fragrances

One of the great things about the recent surge in interest for this discipline is the increased availability of perfume making courses where anyone can turn up and try it out without spending hundreds (or even thousands), setting themselves up with a lab and materials, only to realise it’s not for them.

Some of the independent training on offer:

Perfume courses (now also online – though in-person is always best, for the aforementioned reasons) by Karen Gilbert

Perfume courses at the Cotswold Perfumery

Perfume training offered by Penny Williams at Orcadia

You’ll also occasionally see perfume courses pop up at the London College of Fashion, and by other providers – check whether the course is aimed at sales and marketing people or wannabe-perfumers, and whether the person giving the course has some traditional perfumery experience (it may be your only chance as a self-taught indie to get taught by someone who has).

Books which help with appreciation, understanding and learning of perfumery

Level – enthusiast

Level – nose-nerd:

  • What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert (a fantastic book about the sense of smell).
  • The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin
  • Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances by Michael Edwards (this beautiful book is a must-have for perfume enthusiasts, but it’s getting really hard to find, as it is out of print).
  • Fragrance by Edwin T. Morris (one of the best perfume history books around; out of print, so you need a bit of luck finding it).
  • Perfume, a Global History (a good, if somewhat disjointed collection of essays on perfume history, compiled for the MIP perfume museum in Grasse. I bought my copy from there for 50 Euros but looks like you can get it cheaper from Amazon).

Level – perfumer:

The above is, of course, just a small sample of books on the topic, but it ought to get you started. When working as a perfumer; particularly if on the side of perfume chemistry, many more technical books exist (Allured is a good publisher for these; as is Wiley).

So how did I become a perfumer?

The short answer: in a highly unorthodox manner; and I’m still just beginning. Looking back, it’s easy to create a clear path which has led me to where I am today, but in reality, it’s been a process of searching, learning, experimentation and elimination. There are a few definite milestones on the journey. I was working for a cosmetics and fragrance distributor as a training manager in the mid-90s. One day, the Tiffany rep brought in a miniature “perfume organ” (which, of course, was a fantastic piece of sales theatre, containing only tiny bottles of expensive natural materials in an attractive wooden box). Even though I had sold perfumes as a teen; had worked with them at the distributor; had written training manuals on the topic – the process of making perfume had never been part of my world. I was fascinated. Who makes this stuff? How?

Alas, life got in the way (as did a foray into the IT industry, to see whether I would like to work there instead), so I didn’t return to these burning questions until 2005, when, seemingly out of the blue, I decided I would find out the answers. One day I had that jolt of a realisation – I am a “nose”. I pieced together clues from the past and my yearning for something so interesting and diverse that I could dive into it and never come out (I am, what author Barbara Sher describes as a “scanner” – a person with many interests). I bought a couple of hundred fragrance materials (mostly essential oils and a few fragrance blends), stored them in brown boxes under my bed (I lived in a studio flat), and began experimenting, searching for literature on perfumery, and trying to satisfy my hunger for knowledge. I was looking for a needle in a 1000 haystacks, complete with several fake needles and fake haystacks.

My first blend felt like an attempt to speak a foreign language with a vocabulary of only a dozen words and no idea of correct syntax. I wanted to write a sonnet and I managed “Hello – I do pretty smell.”

Perfumery and writing are the only two disciplines which seem to circle and captivate me; to be ever-present. I naturally thought of making perfumes as writing them. Hence Volatile Fiction – to me, that’s what perfumes are.

Pia Long on the rose field -Turkey

Sniffing roses on the field in Senir, Turkey.

I was fortunate enough to work myself up the ranks at Lush to the position of a Junior Perfumer. I wrote about that here, so won’t go into it more now, but it was my first opportunity to create scents for consumer products (and I even made one fine fragrance). Watching the products for which I had created perfumes become best-sellers in multiple countries was surreal, to say the least.

I now work for a UK fragrance, flavour and cosmetic ingredient supplier as a technical manager and a perfumer. Perfumery represents about 10% of my job – the rest is quality control, regulatory matters, customer service, and solving technical conundrums. I create scents for candles, detergents and other functional products. I am still working freelance, but may end up staying at this company for longer than our initial contract states. It’s hugely enjoyable (I am motivated by learning – it’s like an obsession), and there is so much to learn, it nearly blows my mind. I now have access to materials I didn’t at Lush, and that alone is keeping my brain running overtime. I enjoy working on a variety of briefs (the client often has a specific requirement beyond just a “nice smell”) and though it would be a lot of fun to make up fine fragrances, I’ll have time for that later. For the moment, I am happy that this is the right place for me, and the right time to be here.

Throughout my perfume-obsession years (which really started when I was about 16, but I am referring here particularly to the must-become-a-perfumer-years, which started in 2005), I have participated in various perfume-enthusiast activities – Basenotes was transformative in particular. I think what Grant has done there is amazing, and a service to the entire industry; never mind to us smell-obsessed weirdos who were able to talk about the topic with others, at last. Since Basenotes, many scent-related projects and events have popped up and many prefer different communities (Fragrantica, for example). I’ve been a Basenotes contributor for a while, and was also featured in the BSP book, as a very kind gesture of John Bailey, the current president of the Society. Liam Moore, whom I met while we were both at Lush, asked me to contribute to ODOU magazine, and the second issue is due out soon (I wrote a bit of an anti-chemophobia rant for it, if you’re interested). I suppose one major advantage of having worked my way through part-time jobs behind the perfume counter as a teen; to training, marketing, perfumery direct at a brand, and now to being behind-the-scenes at a supplier, is that I have had an overview of almost the entire value chain first-hand. It helps to have a good idea of the sales, marketing and consumer side of perfumery; not just the technical aspects.

The reason I wrote this post was really in the hope that someone, somewhere, having that gut-wrenching eureka moment of “wait a minute, I think I should be a perfumer”, will have an easier time figuring out what kind of perfumer they might like to be, and how to get started. Good luck!

Copyright Pia Long. You may not reproduce this article in any publication without explicit prior written permission. If you want to use this post for staff training, or for any internal educational purpose (at a school, university or any other organisation), please use it under these conditions: 1) it must remain complete, unaltered and include this notice, 2) you must include the complete URL to this page and my name, 3) you must not include it as part of any training for which you are charging a fee.



Congratulations to the 2013 Jasmine Award winners!

The 2013 Jasmine Award

The 2013 Jasmine Award provided by Lalique

The Jasmine Awards started at 8.45am (which meant I had to get up very early to get there on time – serves me right for not living in London any more). Our ODOU gang was there – Liam Moore, Paul-André St-Georges, Neil Chapman and me – and a whole host of other nose-nerd buddies (Grant Osborne from Basenotes, Nick Gilbert from Penhaligons, Persolaise, Thomas Dunckley from Candy Perfume Boy, Louise Woollam from Get Lippie…). I had a glass of orange juice from a champagne flute and ignored the decorative breakfast canapes. I was quite excited to be at BAFTA on Piccadilly though I didn’t feel nervous about the ceremony itself because I had no expectation to win; just to be there to admire the proceedings and cheer my buddies on. Nominees were supposed to sit on rows 2-4 but when we made it to the screening room, there weren’t enough spaces left for all of us, so our ODOU group decided to go right up the stairs to the back row.

When the awards whittled down to the last – original and most coveted – literary award, head judge Joanna Norman read out the shortlist:

  • “Your Nose Is A Snowflake” by Pia Long for ODOU
  • “Perfume Haters” by Neil Chapman for ODOU
  • “Diary of a Perfumed Ponce” by Richard E. Grant for GQ
  • “Chanel The Nose behind the Egoiste” by Tony Marcus for 10 Magazine
  • “Scents with Spirit” by Amerley Ollennu for Psychologies
  • “The Perfumed Home” by Hannah Betts for Elle Decoration

All the shortlisted nominees were splashed on screen.

Jasmine Award shortlist Neil Chapman

Neil Chapman for his article Perfume Haters

Pia Long for her article Your Nose is a Snowflake

Pia Long for her article Your Nose is a Snowflake

All the nominees were shown on screen and as Joanna opened the envelope, she said: “The award goes to a magazine in its first year…” we all had a moment of shock – wait, what? Neil was the most charming contender to go up against – just as our names came up on screen, he shook my hand and said “good luck”. It was clear he meant it. So losing to him was almost as good as winning the award myself and I was absolutely over the moon that Liam’s magazine scooped this much-admired prize. (Issue 2 is out at the end of March, by the way, and I’ve written another geeky article for it if you’re interested).

Neil’s article “Perfume Haters” was sublime; well-written, engaging, informative, and a worthy winner of a literary award. My article was more of an essay, and as much as people have told me they have enjoyed reading it (thank you), I do think the judges made the correct choice. Congratulations once again to Neil and Liam!

I was also delighted that Thomas Dunckley from Candy Perfume Boy scooped up the Jasmine digital award – it is simply fabulous to see wider recognition for excellence in digital fragrance journalism and for the judges to pick up on rising talent. Of course, the seasoned journos from mainstream press may have found our whooping from the back row a little crass. Apologies.

Jasmine Award winners

From left to right: Neil Chapman, Liam Moore, Thomas Dunckley.

Below is our gang before the award ceremony (shows how old my PR photo is – a couple of years working mostly from home = massive weight gain. I am on a slow but steady diet. You have my permission to laugh and point if, by the end of this year, I am found in a pile of Ladurée macaroons, weeping, not having lost a pound. I will soon no longer be predominantly home-based, of course – I have a new, exciting job! More about that soon…).

ODOU wins Jasmine Award

Team ODOU – Neil Chapman, Paul-André St-Georges, Pia Long and Liam Moore (Photo stolen from the ODOU blog)

Almost everyone I chatted with commented on my nail polish so here’s what it was: Revlon in “Sassy”. A great colour for spring!

Revlon nail polish in Sassy 510

Revlon nail polish in Sassy 510

BAFTA, Piccadilly

BAFTA, Piccadilly

After the Jasmine Awards, I mooched around London for a while (I popped to Waterstones, Piccadilly, and to Oxford Street deparment stores) and headed home at lunchtime. My next London trip will be a week from now – I will be at the British Society of Perfumers/IFRA one day regulatory workshop and will do a low-down of the key points from the day for Grant at Basenotes, so look out for that in just over a week or so.

Induced phantosmia – the future tech of digital scent transmission?

Induced phantosmia illustration by NukapaiSo, I was listening to episode two of the new Basenotes podcast, in which the colourful cast chatted about smell-o-vision, and what the future tech for transmitting odours digitally might be like. All sorts of possibilities were covered. Fledgeling attempts at this are already happening (for example, the oPhone), never mind all the various scented concerts and whatnot. All of these require physical aroma materials to be present. As the podcast participants quite rightly pointed out, one of the difficulties with the idea of sending odours digitally from one device to another, is the complex nature of scents themselves. Can you make an approximation of rose with just a handful of materials even though rose oil contains over 350 constituents? Absolutely. Can you more or less get the smell of chocolate with vanillin and a couple of other materials? Sure – especially if you are a masterful olfactory illusionist like Jean-Claude Ellena. (His book The Diary of a Nose includes a delightful section on his fragrant shorthand). Perfumes, if compared to art, could be classed into those which most resemble a detailed oil painting at one end, and images suggested to us by just a few lines of ink at the other. (Of course some perfumes feel more like they’ve been drawn in crayon).

Liam Moore pointed out that maybe part of the charm of fragrance is its fleeting nature; to be able to digitise and endlessly preserve a smell would surely take something away from the experience. (Online perfume retailers would probably disagree).

Well, this was all very thought-provoking. I started thinking in sci-fi terms – how would you actually be able to do this without having to distribute a set of clunky devices with hundreds of aroma materials pre-loaded in them? How would you get around the fact that if you code a scent for such a transmission, the formula will surely not remain secret? Would you ever be able to transmit a full perfume?

Imagine a future in which we’ve moved beyond Google glass and smart watches. Imagine having nano-technology seamlessly fitted into your body (I’m reading a Peter Hamilton novel at the moment, so the concept seems natural).

Still with me? Ok, now consider this: odours are a construct of our mind (for a full explanation of this, I shall now pimp Liam’s ODOU magazine to you once more). Our minds put odours together from various cues. Have you ever experienced the bizarre sensation of phantosmia? Not just imagining a smell, but actually smelling it. In some cases, phantosmia can be a sign of a neurological disorder, so if you get this often or suddenly start experiencing it, you might want to seek medical advice. I get random bouts of phantosmia which don’t seem to be an indicator of anything sinister, but it’s quite bizarre. I’m suspicious of some synaesthetic effect. A particular scene might suddenly taste of tomato. Sometimes I choose my perfume for the day by phantosmic guidance – I might be physically experiencing the smell of Shalimar upon waking. The first time it happened I was convinced someone had been at my perfume drawer.

What if neuroscientists and nano-engineers would collaborate and create a chip which would induce phantosmia in the wearer? Forget about sending orders to a digital device which then puffs a few aroma chems at you. What if you could send messages directly to the brain of the recipient and create the illusion of a specific odour? If our understanding of odour interpretation improves and if we manage to map what actually happens in the brain when we smell something, this could be a viable future technology. Imagine receiving a digital odour signal from anywhere in the world and being able to instantly smell what the sender wants you to.

Of course, as Grant Osborne pointed out, people would undoubtedly use any such technology to send each other farts.

Illustration by Pia Long based on stock images, including green circuit board by botheredbybees.

Jasmine Awards 2013 Shortlist – which magazine earned three nominations?

Jasmine_award_nominations_volatile_fictionIn some of our early chats with Liam Moore, he expressed his desire to create something completely new – he wanted to put together a magazine with high-quality content about perfume and our sense of smell, expressed in a multitude of ways, using factual articles, opinion pieces, poetry and photographs. Well, he did it. Liam’s magazine has probably just broken some kind of record. It has earned not one, not two, but three Jasmine Award nominations for its first issue. I am so happy for Liam and encourage every scent-enthusiast and nose-nerd to check out the magazine if you haven’t already.

Of course this announcement is also self-serving. I happen to be one of the writers who was nominated from ODOU. My article “Your Nose is a Snowflake” was shortlisted in the literary category. I am thrilled about it; also amused and bewildered – in what kind of plausible scenario would my name appear on the same shortlist as Richard E. Grant?

Yeah, I know. Hilarious.

The Jasmine Awards are managed by the Fragrance Foundation, and this is what they have to say about them:

The Jasmine Awards were created in France and launched in the UK in 1990. The first Jasmine Awards ceremony under the Chairmanship of Julian Greenway, Managing Director of Guerlain, saw an audience of around 50 and was held in Mosimanns Club, Belgravia. There were just two prizes – a Jasmine Literary Award and a Jasmine Visual Award.

In 2010 the administration of The Jasmine Awards was taken over by The Fragrance Foundation. Today there are ten award categories, with all prize-winners receiving a crystal trophy and a cheque.
The Awards are now recognised as the most prestigious journalistic awards in the beauty industry. They recognise and reward the talents of journalists and visualisers whose difficult task it is to translate the complex art of perfumery into words and pictures.

A new panel of judges is recruited annually. The panel of judges includes a leading retailer, at least one designer, and writers – either a journalist or an author, or a representative of the publishing world.
The judging panel meet at a lunch in London in October when their role and the scoring process are explained to them. They are asked to read a large quantity of articles solely on the subject of fragrance published between 1st January and 31st December each year. These articles are sent to judges mid-December. They are asked to complete a score sheet for each and return them to the Jasmine Awards Office, where a shortlist is compiled. The shortlisted articles for each Awards category are re-presented to the judging panel for final assessment shortly before the awards ceremony and only at this point are the final winners chosen.

At the annual Jasmine Awards ceremony the perfume industry shows its appreciation to the Beauty press for the efforts it has made to acquire and communicate this specialist knowledge. Each of the judges is invited to present one of the prizes. The Jasmine Awards are held in Spring each year at BAFTA, 195 Piccadilly, London W1.

The Fragrance Foundation on behalf of the Jasmine Awards also organise training days to assist beauty journalists in learning more about the fascinating subject of fragrance.

Here are the shortlists I know of so far:


  • “Your Nose Is A Snowflake” by Pia Long for ODOU
  • “Perfume Haters” by Neil Chapman for ODOU
  • “Diary of a Perfumed Ponce” by Richard E. Grant for GQ
  • “Chanel The Nose behind the Egoiste” by Tony Marcus for 10 Magazine
  • “Scents with Spirit” by Amerley Ollennu for Psychologies
  • “The Perfumed Home” by Hannah Betts for Elle Decoration


  • “Away From The Nose, Away From The Heart” by Paul-André St-Georges for ODOU
  • “Weird Science” by Lee Kynaston for Men’s Health
  • “Soulmate Scent” by Charlotte Jolly for Stylist
  • “Scent Icon Series: Narcisse Noir by Caron” by Amy Bradford for Elle Decoration
  • “Scent Icon Series: Cuirde Russie by Chanel” by Amy Bradford for Elle Decoration
  • “Scent Icon Series: Fracas by Robert Piguet” by Amy Bradford for Elle Decoration
  • “Confessions of a Fragrance Floozy” by Gem Royston-Claire for Company Magazine


  • Dries Van Noten by Katie Chutzpah for
  • Carven Launches Le Parfum by Katie Chutzpah for
  • Ylang 49 by Persolaise for
  • The Power To Make Your Heart Kinder by Persolaise for
  • Tommy Girl? Davidoff Cool Water? Evocative Scents Of Youth by Joanna McGarry for Never Underdressed
  • The Candy Perfume Boy’s Guide To Violet by Thomas Dunckley for
  • Let Us Spray by Nicola Moulton for

I would also like to congratulate Persolaise for being nominated (again), and twice this time! Is there any other person currently writing about fragrance who manages to so consistently produce interesting and award-winning work? Probably not. I am also extremely happy for Thomas Dunckley, otherwise known as Candy Perfume Boy who has also been nominated in the digital category. (The award ceremony will be a great chance to catch up! And I think the odds of a 2013 Jasmine award winner being on our May perfume tour just went up. I hope Richard will enjoy it).

The Perfumes I Actually Finished in 2013

Perfumes I finished in 2013 volatilefiction
I haven’t counted my perfume collection recently but I think it keeps hovering at about 60-70 bottles. I don’t count the various decants and samples, of course. There are three small boxes and one cute Angela Flanders shopping bag full of them. The thing about being a perfume collector, no scratch that, a perfume fan, is that one ends up with more perfume than any normal person could possibly use in a year. Scratch that again; I am sure many of the customers I used to serve in Harrods could go through more than a bottle of perfume a day (used liberally; given away as gifts).

Us regular schmoes, then, regular, apart from our perfume obsession. We tend not to finish many bottles because our drawers, dressing tables or special perfume refridgerators are just overflowing with choice. Smaller bottles are better when you’re not hoarding one of  your Holy Grails, because you don’t want to have a huge container of juice slowly deteriorating while you have affairs with 99 others. By the way, here’s a real tip: if you are running low on a fragrance and there is only very little of it left, use it fast. The more air there is above the juice, the faster the juice will deteriorate.

2013 was a highly irregular year for me in many ways – not least because I got back into actually wearing far more perfume than in the recent years (being in the lab at Lush meant a ban on wearing perfume during perfume making days – it really interferes with the work). Last year, I worked freelance, mostly from home, and could not only wear whatever I wanted, but in large quantities and  in the foghorn and “whatever were you thinking?” categories without worry. (So one day I had the Clinique Aromatics Elixir candle burning whilst wearing Youth Dew. Another, I doused myself in the death-by-eugenol Gloria Vanderbilt that reminds me of good times behind a fragrance counter. I’m sure it used to be softer…).

The perfumes I actually finished in 2013 are all in the easy-to-wear category – I could put any of them on for any occasion and not worry too much. It looks like Annick Goutal’s Mandragore has become one of my all-time favourites. I now seem to go through a bottle a year. Mostly a warm weather scent, it works any time. It’s just a perfect balance between fresh, sweet and herbal/spicy.

Daim Blond has been my favourite from Serge Lutens since I first encountered it. I have many other scents from the range, too. I love the apricot-wrapped-in-suede effect of this scent and it just purrs on my skin. Le Chefrefeuille is too easy to finish fast because the longevity is just so poor. Not much you can do about that for a scent reminiscent of a flower stem but it’s still frustrating. Buing it feels like buying expensive eau de cologne; it isn’t really a perfume. E. Coudray’s Musc et Freesia has been in use for at least a couple of years now and last year just happened to be the one I finished it. Having said that, I went through a couple of weeks of wearing it almost every day. It’s powdery, a bit mumsy, but still elegant enough. Very easy to wear. Finally, Alien Edt – sufficiently different from the Edp to merit owning both, has featured so heavily in my rotation this year that I bought a 75ml bottle in the Escentual January sale to replace the one I’d used up. Others, well, I may not replace immediately because I was a very lucky woman and had three perfumes for Christmas: Elie Saab Le Parfum Intense, Iris Prima and a Molton Brown refreshing spritz. Regular readers might spot that two of those featured on my favourites list from last year’s discoveries.

How does one get any real use out of so many bottles of perfume? It would be easy to forget many of them. I have a system. Every few weeks, I take out about a dozen bottles from my perfume drawer and display them on my dressing table. They’ll be what I will pick from for the next few weeks. The rest are stored away (and stay unspoilt for longer this way). The weather has been stormy but not cold and my “cold weather rotation” hasn’t quite taken off the way I had imagined. It seems that I now leave Alien Edt and Mandragore on the table no matter what, so that’ll be one reason why they get used more than the others. At the rate I’m going through it, I suspect the Elie Saab will feature in this year’s finished bottles (even though it’s the big bottle).

How do you rotate your perfumes? Do you have enough to worry about that? Do you think there is such a thing as owning too many?

Unique Christmas Presents for Perfume Lovers

It’s tough to buy perfume as a present unless you have specific instructions. If your loved one is seriously into perfume, my tips will make you look like you have gift-buying superpowers.

Christmas 2013 gift ideas for perfume lovers Ormonde Jayne Discovery Set1. Go for discovery sets. If you’re extra generous, add a gift voucher – the gift recipient will be able to choose a perfume that smells great on their skin and buy the full bottle at their leisure. My favourite perfume discovery set comes from Ormonde Jayne. All the scents in it are stylish; the packaging is elegant and it’s an indie perfume house which means the scent won’t be worn by millions of others. Many perfumeries now offer these types of sets, so consider this option if you want to buy a perfume but aren’t sure which scent the recipient might like. Also check out Penhaligon’s miniature tins and the Etat Libre D’Orange discovery set.

2. If you can, write down the names of the perfumes they already wear (if you live together, a sneaky peek at the perfume collection should be easy). Then go to a well-stocked perfumery (Les Senteurs, Harrods or online at Escentual or LuckyScent and ask for help. These stores should have knowledgeable enough staff to suggest scents based on the existing perfumes your gift recipient owns). There are a couple of problems with this approach: 1) You might not live together and might not get a chance to spy, 2) If they’re a full-on nose-nerd, their perfume collection might be eclectic and have scents from more than one scent family. They might have very specific wishes for scents they’d like to add to their collection (in this case, you could just ask whether there are any perfumes they’ve been lusting after. Be prepared for eye-watering prices).

3. Buy a perfume discovery day from Sarah McCartney (your gift recipient needs to be able to get to London for this). Sarah is a friend and an ex-Lush colleague; a polymath and a perfumer. Her 4160Tuesdays indie perfume brand kicked off with crowdfunding and she has set up a scent studio for events and exploration. Sarah has an impressive collection of vintage perfumes and all the tools and materials to make custom scents. Check out her perfume days here.

Christmas 2013 gift ideas for perfume lovers Karen Gilbert classes3. Perhaps the answer to what to buy for a perfumista who has everything is a course on how to make perfume. Karen Gilbert, also a friend and a perfumer is an ex IFF-evaluator, a best-selling author and a perfume trainer. She runs new online training courses (so, for that, any location will do) and also hosts regular perfume training classes. Some are better for beginners; some more advanced. Check out her perfume training courses here.

4. If you are buying for just about anyone who likes beautiful scents, getting a candle from Diptyque is almost guaranteed to be well-received. They started as an exotic goods and knick-knack store in France and have become very well known for their candles.

5. If your loved one can’t travel to London or doesn’t fancy an online training course, Perfumer’s Apprentice has been packaging basic perfumery materials into beginner’s kits for a while. One of these will make a great present to anyone interested in exploring perfumes further. Some of these kits are only available for US-residents.

Christmas 2013 gift ideas for perfume lovers British Society of Perfumers Book6. The British Society of Perfumers celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and worked together with its members to produce a unique book, cataloguing the past, present and future of the British perfume industry. The book was produced in-house and written by the members themselves. The contributions therefore vary from warm and informal to quite corporate – but the picture you get of the British perfume industry is really interesting and there are some great stories in there. This would be a good addition to any perfume enthusiast’s library. Disclaimer: I am featured in the book and a student member of the Society. You can read my full review of the book at Basenotes and purchase the book for £45 directly from the BSP.

What’s on my wishlist this Christmas? I am lusting after Iris Prima, Elie Saab le parfum and Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle. I also have my eye on the gorgeous NARS gift sets at Space NK and I would love the Noisette candle from Diptyque. Hint, hint.

Zombie Scents: A Real Horror Story

Zombie scents - a real horror story about perfume that is no longer the sameThe walking dead are among us. They sound the same, they sometimes even look the same, though in many cases you’ll spot something odd about their appearance. Unlike a flesh zombie, a perfume zombie appears polished and modern, stylish and clean, suspiciously so…suspiciously so.

Perfumes get reformulated for many reasons. Cost of materials may have become prohibitive (or just undesirable). The scent may be re-adjusted to better match modern tastes. One or more of the key components may have been banned or restricted. Sometimes justifiably so; sometimes using the “let’s crack this walnut with a hammer”-approach. IFRA, despite popular opinion to the contrary, has actually managed to save many perfume ingredients from getting removed from the perfumers’ palette completely. When the EU and individual governments are left to ban and restrict materials, you end up with what happened in Denmark (the government banned parabens in products for children – not because there was any new science on parabens being harmful, but because there was a data gap. So they banned parabens “just in case”, partly to stop mothers worrying. Of course people who stand to gain from anti-paraben scare-marketing will triumphantly quote that the Danish government has banned parabens without putting the statement in context).

The point is: as suspicious as IFRA may seem from the outside, it’s acting as a barrier between NGOs, pressure groups and overzealous governmental ingredient regulation. On the other hand, if a fragrance material is applied undiluted to shaved rat skin or fed to an animal until it dies, does that really reflect what happens to perfume in normal everyday use?

The peanut thing. This topic always turns to “But lots of people are allergic to peanuts and they’re not banned. Why can’t perfumes just have a warning label?”

It does seem to make sense. Alas, peanuts are food and perfume is considered a non-essential luxury product (non-essential! Yes, this story is a real chiller). As far as regulators and safety experts are concerned, it is easier to eliminate any potential risk from perfume than to remove peanut products from sale. There is also some misunderstanding about how allergies to perfume form and how many people get them. Only about 3% of the EU population is allergic to fragrances but some of the cases can be quite severe and result in permanent skin conditions or damage. According to Lisa Hipgrave from IFRA UK, perfume allergy develops over time, so you could use the same fragrance for years and suddenly become violently allergic to one of its ingredients.

Some perfume materials are more problematic than others: Lyral (a common lily material) is significantly more problematic than many other synthetic ingredients. A shame because I really like the way it smells. Some materials contain constituents which cause phototoxicity: bergamot oil naturally contains furanocoumarins which, if left in, would cause skin discolouration when exposed to sunlight. Furanocoumarins are now removed from bergamot oil in most cases as part of its processing for perfumery use.

I think the main problem with the fragrance allergen issue has been the perfume industry’s secretive nature. Trying to engage, educate and participate in the allergen discussion when we’re already so far down the road of restrictions and bans seems like the old “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.” I don’t personally think it should have to be necessary to restrict so many materials so severely. I do think we would be better off with warning labels and perhaps a return to the fashion of scenting scarves and handkerchiefs, or wearing little nosegays and scented lockets.

It is heartbreaking to encounter a Zombie Perfume. My beloved Diorella, secretly squirted from my grandmother’s dressing table, now a shadow of its former self due to so many restrictions on lily of the valley materials. Tabac Blond, so anemic; now a leather handbag with an electronic cigarette instead of a smouldering jazz club in the 30s.

And what of Mitsouko, such beauty of a mossy forest with naked nymphs frolicking, now a tight-lipped executive woman who sometimes dreams of the woods. Poison, the outrageous 80s power dresser, now wearing a purple bathrobe and sipping Ribena in front of the telly. Destroyed by restrictions on damascones.

Some of the Zombie Scents are still wearable. I have a modern Mitsouko and it still gives me pleasure. I’ve encountered some older perfumes which have survived very well and retained their original character. Some others (Byzance by Rochas being one of them) are just painfully sad to smell in their current form.

Would it be better to remove the walking dead from sale? Is it not a travesty that when you describe how gloriously vulgar or sexy or stunning some vintage perfume or another used to be, then encounter a blank stare from a person who has only ever smelled the current juice… would it not be kinder to leave our scent memories be instead of milking more money out of a zombie? The alternative is trying to campaign for the status of perfumes to be like works of art and rightly preserved in their original state (as much as the availability of materials permits).

Happy Halloween!

Images from: Vieux Papiers, Lord Price, Fragrantica, Yesterday’s Perfume

Nick and Pia Sniff London: Our Perfumery Day Out

My picks from our London sniffing dayNick Gilbert and I have got to know each other through Basenotes over the years and have had the chance to attend a few perfume events together (some I’ve arranged, some a little more formal). Anyway, after writing about how well and truly behind I was on perfume sniffing and lamenting about it to my nose-nerd friends, Nick and I ended up hatching a plan for a catch-up sniff day. He has been busy as a perfume professional at Les Senteurs and now at Penhaligon’s and I spent my last few years in a blissful state of flow at the Lush perfume lab and working on getting Gorilla Perfume started. Nick has certainly been in a better position to keep his nose informed of what’s going on but I’ve not been completely in the dark, instead relying on serendipity, recommendations and the occasional British Society of Perfumers’ event (another one of which is coming up in November).

So, last Saturday, we met up in central London and worked our way through Liberty’s, Penhaligon’s, Avery and Selfridges. We stopped for lunch after Liberty’s at Le Pain Quotidien and I had delicious (if overpriced) hazelnut flute with hummus and a green salad. Getting to chat and compare notes with a fellow perfume enthusiast is my favourite part of perfume nerdery. It’s so entertaining and you gain many new insights from comparing your experiences, listening to someone else’s impression of a scent and smelling it on someone else’s skin. More about that last part later.

There is no way I could list everything we smelled that day without this becoming a 3000 word essay, so I have picked my personal favourites:

Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle
I can’t remember the last time I smelled a perfume that gave me goosebumps. This is so good I burst out laughing out of sheer delight. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for removing any anxiety I had about the state of modern perfumery. Dries Van Noten par Frederic Malle is complex, yet wearable, floral, yet not cloying and has distinct stages without seeming out of balance. One of the few I actually put on my skin: once it had been there for a few minutes, saffron appeared. This is worth seeking out on purpose.

Iris Prima by Penhaligon’s
When Nick took us to Penhaligon’s (mostly to inspect how the window displays were looking), I had the opportunity to try Iris Prima. Always suspicious of scents that get a lot of hype, this was a delightful surprise. On the blotter: a black and white film about a ballerina with a sad ending. A melancholy floral. My grandmother’s handbag with violet sweets and expensive perfume. I liked it but didn’t love it – not until they gave me a sample to take home and I wore it a couple of days later. I have a tendency to turn everything sweet (which is why Angel on my skin is like the death screams of a thousand pink barbies melting) so I tend to do something to suede-type scents (Daim Blond by Serge Lutens is one of my all-time favourites) and most chypres wear very well. I’m now so keen on Iris Prima that this has gone on my “must buy” list along with the Dries Van Noten.

Oeillet by Prada
The perfumer here has either used real oeillet (carnation) absolute or is very good at creating the impression of it. Forget most “carnation” scents you’ve smelled; the cheap shorthand for carnation is eugenol and if you’re not fan of the quite blunt hit that it can create, you might have been put off from carnation notes even when they’ve been done like this, like burying your face in golden flowers.

Jour d’Hermes
Extremely beautiful, transparent but not anemic; another straight on the must-buy list. For the record, the Jardins series hasn’t captured me (although I can see the style has merit) so I was surprised at how much I liked this.

Elie Saab Le Parfum
A mainstream gem; if you want to smell pretty but don’t want to tackle a difficult-to-wear niche scent, this is a feminine floral done well. I got completely confused by the different presentations of this. It’s the Le Parfum I like. I think.

Alien Liqueur de Parfum
Speaking of different presentations, Alien definitely suffers from flankeritis but after reading about Liquer de Parfum having rum notes, I had to sniff it. I’m glad I did. If I was running out of my (other two bottles of) Alien, I’d have bought this on the spot. It’s Alien with a bit of boozy-woody va-va-voom and a gorgeous bottle to boot. I didn’t feel it was sufficiently different from the original for me to purchase it (though I still might given that it’s a limited edition. On the other hand, I hate falling for limited editions because, well, they’re limited).

Bottega Veneta pour Homme
A stylish, understated masculine (smelled great on Nick but I was also keeping a nose out for a new scent for my husband). This has a soft backbone and would also smell nice on a woman, I bet.

Reiss Black Oudh
Forget the “black”, forget the “oudh” – this is a good, woody masculine fragrance head and shoulders above many mainstream launches, manages to tap into the oudh trend without going too far into camel poop territory and smells great on the skin. The price tag is reasonable and the bottle doesn’t look too bad either. Definitely one of the best things to come out recently – good AND accessible.

Noisetier candle by Diptyque
I love Diptyque candles and my favourite is Opoponax – but this new one might just become a new favourite. Imagine a sort of drier, woodier version of Nutella as a candle. That.