Salt and cherry air

ODOU4We’re in love with stories. Our brains prefer a narrative structure to information. Communicating about smell is hard. Perfumers, evaluators, marketers, sales people and perfume bloggers have to do it all the time and our ability to do so is limited by language.

In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been doing a lot of smelling in the lab.

“Why am I getting a marzipan note?”

“Oh yes – but it’s not marzipan – it’s the air above a jar of maraschino cherries.”


“It’s very white.”


“I need a salty smell.”


“It’s got a coriander note, or more specifically, the dry heat sensation of coriander.”

Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt.
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world
Ludwig Wittgenstein

My article in ODOU Issue 4 talks about the reductionism of perfume to its ingredients. On one hand ingredients are, of course, of great interest to perfumers at the point of creation (odour, cost, impact, regulatory issues, stability). A perfumer may get deep into discussion with another about a new aroma chemical and its use levels in different applications or about a natural material which they have found exciting in recent work. Whole conferences are dedicated to showing off new raw materials to perfumers.

Sometimes the spark of inspiration for a new perfume is a single raw material. In some cases a particular note may strongly influence how the finished scent smells. Some brave brands have even started mentioning aroma chemicals in their marketing. Still, these are technical discussions. They are useful to perfumers and to product creators, but won’t convey how the complete perfume smells. One can’t even say “I know blue suits me, ergo, this new blue dress will suit me” because perfumes aren’t made up of blocks of smells, nestling side-by-side. When you add smell 1 + smell 2 you don’t get 3. You get a completely new smell. Perfumers are illusionists. Listing fragrance notes in a pyramid or on press releases is never going to be as good as smelling the thing itself.

And since we do love a good story, romantic stories of ingredients (where they came from, what they smell like, who discovered them, where they’ve been used before…) can help sell a fragrance. Sure. It’s all part of the theatre and it works.

However. Should we insist that the value of perfume is entirely about the value of its ingredients? Do we want consumers to start calculating how much the juice in the bottle costs and thinking “hold on a minute, I’m being ripped off here.” Of course not. Should books or paintings be reduced to their raw materials? Is that what they’re worth? Did the author or the artist not have something to do with the value of the end product?

Read ODOU and let me know your thoughts.

A Moomin interlude

Finland moomins volatile fictionI’ve just had a wonderful two week holiday in my native Finland and returning to the UK after what was, apparently, the best weather for the whole summer has been quite the culture shock. It’s like being inside Tupperware here. Grey and moist. I had a bath yesterday morning, opened the window to ‘let the moisture out’, and the air got wetter.

The first week was gloriously sunny and spent at Villa Eino at Hawkhill Nature (which I can’t recommend enough – though take my recommendation with the disclaimer that these cottages at Nuuksio National Park are owned by my husband’s cousin). The water was warm enough for daily morning swims. We grilled sausage. Picked litres of bilberries (the smaller, purple-fleshed ‘wild blueberry’). Enjoyed many sauna sessions. Then my husband flew back home and I spent another week in Helsinki and Tikkurila meeting family and friends.

The markets and shops are bursting with fresh berries and mushrooms right now. Due to the late arrival of warm weather, we hit the bilberry season head on and the lingonberries should be arriving soon – lots of partially ripe berries everywhere. Lingonberry is not too dissimilar in flavour to the cranberry, but sharper. I really miss them over here (they go wonderfully well with meat and liver dishes, as well as baked into delicious pies). Finnish strawberries are wonderful and still available in abundance. They get the nightless nights of summer and have a muskier flavour (similar to the wild strawberry) than the British and Spanish varieties we eat over here. Chanterelles are another delicacy; my friend made a delicious sauce with chanterelle mushrooms in butter, served with new potatoes. Simple things like that – and the bread, the glorious variety of different kinds of bread – is what I miss most from Finland, food-wise. I also miss some of the junk foods and flavours from my childhood (meat ‘donuts’ filled with rice, onion and minced beef; pear flavour ice cream, Fazer chocolate).

The things to look out for when over there are all things textile design – Marimekko, Vallila and so on – and even normal supermarkets can have a lovely selection of home textiles. There are outlet stores with good discounts so if you get a bit of local guidance, you can make some great discoveries. Then there’s Iittala glass design and wooden jewellery, and Moomins everywhere, of course.

I brought back lots of books and sourdough rye bread and chocolate and they’ll keep me connected to Finland a little while longer. I’m already planning my next trip (which will probably be a family gathering in 2017 – and I might need to do two trips that year, seeing as the Helsinki WorldCon bid was successful!).

Ruth Mastenbroek launches Oxford – giveaway!

RMF_Oxford_100mlJust a quick heads up and a giveaway for you – Ruth Mastenbroek launched the third perfume under her own brand last week and its warm, ambery scent is wafting from my skin as we speak. Oxford is described as a unisex scent and is exclusively available from Fenwick of Bond Street, London.

I have a sample vial to give away to a lucky reader – leave a comment to let me know why you’d like to try this scent and I will draw a winner at random next weekend (19th of July) and edit this post on that day to announce the winner, so please check back if you participate.

From the press release:

Inspired by her time as a Chemistry undergraduate at Oxford in the 1970’s, Ruth’s latest fragrance captures the essence of discovery, being exposed to things you have never come across before… a feeling of self awareness and learning, the negatives and the positives; coming out the other side richer, wiser, more mature. This fragrance is the story of an awakening, a personal discovery of becoming a complete person.

Oxford will be EXCLUSIVELY available from Fenwick from 8th July 2015.

“Oxford is inspired by the French cigarette brand Gitanes – chic, rough, and exotic. Oxford captures that moment in life when you discover you can make your own choices, you can make mistakes. It is your life and no one else’s.

“Oxford…the scent of an awakening…the discovery of life’s extraordinary adventure.”

Ruth has been creating fine fragrances for over 30 years. The invisible ‘nose’ behind some of the world’s most well known brands and designers, Ruth has also created scents for some of Britain’s finest premium fragrance brands including Jo Malone and Kenneth Turner. In recent years Ruth has also launched her own range of exquisitely blended luxury fragranced products, the culmination of her decades of experience in perfume alchemy.

An Oxford University graduate in chemistry, Ruth went on to learn her craft in Grasse.
Ruth has also spent time as President of the British Society of Perfumers.

Oxford Eau de Parfum
50ml RRP £60.00 / 100ml RRP £80.00

Top notes: Bergamot, Galbanum, Basil
Heart notes:  Clary sage, Rosemary, Jasmine
Base notes: Amber, Vanilla, Vetivert, Oudh

Disclaimer: Ruth is a friend via the British Society of Perfumers and I have received two samples of her fragrance to blog about – I’m keeping the other one! ;)

WINNER: Congratulations to Zenimue – you won! I used a random picking tool and your name came out of the digital hat. A sample of Oxford will be on its way to you very soon.

Pia’s (almost) annual perfume meet, tube strike edition

Valerie, Thomas and Freddie at Penhaligon's

Once upon a time I co-arranged the first UK Basenotes meet with Grant Osborne and a whole bunch of people came – many of whom became good friends. It’s the friends from that day and a few new ones each year who amble around London perfumeries with me. We also tend to indulge in nice things to eat – cake, afternoon tea, or exotic snacks (or lunch, ice cream, gin and chips like yesterday).

This year we changed the date from a Saturday in May to a Thursday in July because Valerie Cookie Queen Sperrer was going to be in London and we all wanted to meet her. To add to the serendipity, Odysseusm from Basenotes was in the UK all the way from Canada and I was so happy to have him join us.

Then the tube strike was announced. Irrespective of solidarity, the general reaction was very sweary. Of ALL days, it had to be the one that had been in the calendar for months AND could not be changed because we had more than one person from overseas! However, everyone shrugged it off. Ok, so there’s a strike – so.what.

We made our way in groups and alone to our first stop in Covent Garden by various means (mostly on foot) and actually, tube strike London was gloriously empty and quiet.

Covent Garden on tube strike dayWe also lucked out on the weather – warm, sunny; not too hot.

Nick Gilbert from Penhaligon’s had kindly agreed to host us in their basement and we spent the morning trashing it, more or less. Perfume bottles… perfume bottles everywhere…

Penhaligon's basementWe headed to Bloom afterwards and had a great time sniffing our way through scents and chatting. Had I known in advance that Antonio Gardoni from Bogue Profumo was going to be there at 4pm, we’d have arranged our visits another way, but our group was very good about going with the flow, so we just went to Bloom twice in one day. As you do.

Bloom Covent Garden

After our (first) Bloom visit, we had lunch at Bill’s in Covent Garden and I can’t recommend them highly enough after our seamlessly organised and tasty experience. They accomodated our large group very well and the food and service were both excellent. Will definitely be going there again!

Bills Covent GardenWe walked over to Fortnum & Mason because I wanted to take everyone to check out the revamped perfumery.

Our perfume meet group

Nick, Valerie, Freddie, Hannah, Grant, Pia, Thomas, Penny, Suzie, Steven, Samantha, Tara, Danny, Lisa, Andrew

Ice cream was also purchased (to go) from the Parlour (I had a blood orange sorbet which was perfect) and we walked back to Bloom to meet Antonio.

Ice cream at Fortnum's

Antonio is such a charismatic man that I think we all swooned a little bit… he let us smell various blends and components he uses for his perfumes which was an interesting insight into his process.

Antonio Gardoni

Some of us felt thirsty, so we headed to Nook and spent a couple of hours taking advantage of their two-for-one cocktail offer (I only had mocktails, by the way – the same can’t be said for the others…).

Strawberry mocktail

It was an absolutely fantastic day and I can’t wait to do it again next year (we’re also hoping to make some other trips in the future; tad more ambitious, but when there’s a will, there’s a way…)

Thank you to everyone who came!

An illustration interlude

Feeniks illustration by Pia Long

Hymy illustration by Pia Long

I have a whimsical hobby. I draw, paint and create photo manipulations for fun. I’m no professional artist, but have always been doodling and did originally consider some kind of art career (with hindsight, I wish I’d known about textile design when I was a teen. On the other hand, I am very glad to be working with perfumes now, and with sites like Society6 even amateurs can have a go at popping designs onto various products).

The way the templates are set up is a little bit limiting (for example using the same template for both laptop and iPad skins). My favourite template on the site is the all-over print t-shirt – I had a lot of fun designing those.

Editing t-shirt

Feeniks all over print by Pia LongEka all over t-shirt by Pia LongLento all over t-shirt by Pia LongHymy all over t-shirt by Pia LongI use Copic Ciao markers on paper and tidy any smudges from the scan in Corel Painter. That’s it for these – so the illustration quality is definitely hand-drawn and not defined and solid. I think it works for these images.

Copic markersPop over and take a look at the available products – I’ll be adding new designs from time to time (I doodle in the evenings and weekends when I want to do something creative and useful. It’s a bit like my version of knitting).

I’d really appreciate any tweets and Facebook posts to spread the word!

In futile search of the Bad Guys

EU regulations foot by Grant OsborneYou know what would be easy? If we could all join forces to fight the Dark Lord of Anti-Perfume and drown him in a special potion of oakmoss and alpha damascone.


The reality is that the regulations squeezing the juice out of fragrances are complex, inconsistent, overlapping, hard to understand even for professionals and not black-and-white. They all stem from good intentions.

Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions. T. S. Eliot

Are fragrance regulations evil? They certainly seem to be if you’re a perfumer, struggling to reformulate a classic scent to fit IFRA or a perfume fan whose favourite fragrance has been discontinued because it could not be changed without destroying it.

It’s very easy to cast IFRA in the role of the Bad Guy, but it really is not that simple. It’s complicated and nuanced. Understanding what is really going on with the EU fragrance regulations is tough.

I’ve written a long piece for Basenotes about the topic. It came out of sheer frustration – as some Basenoters of old will remember, I’ve had a long journey from a perfume enthusiast to perfumer, much of which has been documented here and in various blogs and articles over the years. In the sorts of jobs I do now, I have to understand what is really going on behind the scenes and therefore attend training courses and symposiums and whatnot.

I went to an IFRA day a while back now (must have been 2013!), hoping I’d come out of there a little wiser. Well, I suppose I did, but I also came out of there with pages and pages of notes and more questions than I went in with. It was obvious that many of the industry representatives in the room were frustrated about all the restrictions; didn’t feel that the EU’s actions – while well-meaning – were really protecting consumers as intended and just causing lots of extra pressure… and nobody seemed to be able to present a comprehensive overview of how all these parallel regulatory requirements fit together. So I decided to have a go at gaining a better understanding.

What became obvious was that there are no “good guys” and “bad guys” and that there were lots of inconsistencies, even loopholes, and the whole thing seemed in parts to be over-protective but in others, curiously obscure. I needed to learn more for my work anyway, so read through everything I could, asked subject matter experts to help spot errors in my facts (hence the fabulous Penny – who since has offered me a job; nothing to do with this piece, just the fact we’ve had a growing friendship and mutual respect over time and I happen to have skills which she can use).

I held back from finishing the article until I’d attended lots of extra training and spoken to many people who know more than I do.

And yet, any failings (such as the sad way in which this piece seems to have come across as scaremongering or propaganda to some of the Basenotes readers – or most confusingly, as a piece advocating the use of synthetics over naturals… that’s certainly not the message)… any failings are mine alone, and it’s been an interesting education to see just how tough it is to communicate complex topics like this from an informed position. The irony is that in order to understand something like this, one has to get knowledgeable enough that to many people one can appear like an industry shill. That I am not. My desire is to understand and I certainly don’t speak for the industry.

I hope this piece will generate healthy debate and discussion. I’m not the slightest bit offended by some of the more frustrated comments on the article; it is to be expected and I understand.

What I’d love to hear is your take on the final question I pose. “So now what?”

What do you all think would be a reasonable and realistic way to protect perfumes from over-regulation while protecting the consumers? Is it a totally naive idea to reason with the giant bureaucracy monster? Who do you think would be in the best position to protect the industry’s interests AND reassure consumers that their products are safe?


I’m joining Penny at Orchadia

Orchadia SolutionsA small interlude if you’ll allow – I have such exciting news that I have to tell you all right now! Penny Williams has been a friend and a mentor for some years now. She is an experienced perfumer and a respected consultant. I’ve watched her business blossom (pun intended…sorry; I couldn’t help myself) over the years and I’m delighted that she has asked me to work for her at Orchadia Solutions.

Orchadia is based at Colworth Science Park – it’s a great place to work with a pristine perfume lab, office space and conference facilities set in beautiful parkland.

Colworth Science Park

Penny also runs The International Perfume Academy which provides workshops and distance education.

I’ve set up a team Twitter account for us (which will be shepherded by Penny, Richie and myself) – would you do me a favour and add @OrchadiaS on Twitter to help us get started? Since we’re all obsessed by the science of smell and perfumery there will be a steady stream of geekery and behind-the-scenes stuff.

In other, related news, I was surprised and honoured to be invited by Kate Williams, current BSP president, to join the council at the British Society of Perfumers. I’ve got my tea making skills ready. @BSP50 is also on Twitter so while you’re following perfumery-related things…

So it’s been a bit of a crazy month! I don’t think any of this has sunk in yet.