Translating scent into words – come see me at the Free Word Centre

Translating scentThe Free Word Centre in London is hosting an evening of language and scent exploration on the 2nd of June. I’ll be joining the panel discussion on translating scent into words and we’ll hear about a new autobiography told in smells from the author Philip Claudel himself.

Translating smells into words (and the other way around) is very close to my heart and I am looking forward to seeing how the panel and the audience respond to this topic and what we uncover.

There will be a writing exercise at the end where participants will receive scented jars (kindly on loan from Orchadia Solutions) and will be challenged to write about what they are smelling.

I am really looking forward to the evening – it starts at 18:45 and tickets are only a fiver. Maybe see some of you there?

YouTube shenanigans – Love to Smell launches today

Some of you may know that Nick Gilbert and I have been working on a new YouTube channel behind the scenes – we always get carried away when we’re smelling things and decided to get carried away on camera (what could go wrong?).

There’s a website with shownotes and we’ve got several episodes in the can already, with a diverse range of fragranced products to review and talk about. Vlogging is a new thing for us, so we decided to ignore how perfume vlogs normally work and just do our own thing. This may be for the better or worse.

Please give our intro episode a watch and check back again on the 3rd of June for our first official episode.

Holy Grail Interlude – these are the beauty products I never want to run out of

Holy Grail must-have beauty products

There are a few hair and beauty products that I don’t like to run out of. In fact, I get so twitchy about the prospect of being without these that I have been known to buy back-ups. There are a couple of tubes of Vichy Normaderm and several bottles of Matrix Biolage Hydrating Shampoo ‘in stock’ in my bathroom cupboard at the moment.

I’ve spent most of my life involved in beauty some way – and it’s given me plenty of opportunities to try things out. One of the most frustrating things about searching for and then finding a so-called Holy Grail (the ultimate; the perfect match for you in its category) product is that it’s not immune from being discontinued.

I’m looking at you, Clinique Gentle Light loose powder and you, Chanel Pro Lumiere foundation and you, Maybelline Lash Stiletto, and you Chanel Incognito lipstick…

And let’s not get into discontinued fragrances or I might just break down.

Sometimes it’s possible to find a replacement for a discontinued favourite; sometimes not and you have to make do with what’s available. On the Clinique Gentle Light front, I’ve come up with my own blend 50% Bobbi Brown Pale Yellow Loose Powder + 50% No7 Perfect Light loose powder. Where Pale Yellow is too yellow and too flat on its own, and the No7 powder too pink and too sheer – together they form the HG loose powder I never want to go without. (I’m a stickler for trying to get as close to my real skin tone as possible when wearing make-up. That can be challenging, when doctors have been known to squint at me and say: “are you always this pale? Let’s test you for anaemia just in case.”)

Being Finnish, I’m not as pale as our Celtic cousins, so there are some warm yellow and neutral tones that need to be carefully matched. Too ‘ivory’ and I look like a freshly awoken vampire – too ‘neutral’ and I look like a waxwork doll. Too ‘warm’ and my face looks dirty. Enter Bobbi Brown Warm Ivory Creamy Concealer – the perfect shade and the perfect concealer. It’s a creamy fully pigmented product that glides on, stays on, and blends incredibly well. No cakey appearance, no bulk, no problem.

Unfortunately blemishes don’t always vanish when you get older – at 40-something I’d really have hoped to only have to worry about wrinkles and sunscreen. But no, that would be far too easy. I struggled to find a skincare product that would somehow, magically, take care of both problems and turns out Vichy had one. I couldn’t have created a better night cream for myself if I tried. Vichy Normaderm Anti-Age is a lightweight hydrating cream with glycolic acid and I use it as a night cream for about half of the time (at other times I either use a lightweight serum with a moisturiser on top, or am treating my face with a retinol product).

With any kind of acid or retinol treatment (never mind with pale Nordic skin), you absolutely have to look after the sunscreen side of things. In fact, out of all the ‘anti-ageing’ products out there, sunscreen is the most effective. Yes, we need sunshine to be healthy and yes, a light tan can look attractive, but I don’t know a single skincare expert who doesn’t wear sunscreen on their face all year ’round and increase the SPF for holidays. With paler complexions, the SPF has to be quite high – I burn to a crisp in half an hour in full sun and even with a high SPF, I’ll get freckles no matter what. Finding a high SPF product that doesn’t turn any make-up you try to put on top into a gloopy mess – not so easy. Until you try Shu Uemura Underbase Mousse SPF35. I use the Beige one (there are shades for almost any skin tone). It’s the perfect base product  – it evens out skin tone,  makes my make-up last longer and takes care of the sunscreen problem. Now I just have to take vitamin D supplements to ward of deficiency.

There’s another primer I can’t be without – Urban Decay Primer Potion – the best eyeshadow primer in the world. One of the things they don’t tell you is that when you get a bit older, your eye make-up starts to misbehave. Eyeliner smudges. Eyeshadow gathers into creases. Not a good look. The UD Primer Potion stops this nonsense entirely. Your eye-make up will last until you’re ready to take it off.

Mascara can also run and smudge – even when it claims to be waterproof. Not so with the mascara that sounds like someone from the Fast Show invented the name of it for a Japanese sketch: Kiss Me Heroine Make Long & Curl mascara (try eBay and Amazon – I bought my first one in Tokyo a few years ago and have been schlepping it over by any means necessary ever since). It contains fibres and makes your lashes look like you’ve pinched them from an anime character. It does not smudge…or come off at all for that matter until you remove it with its special remover (which I suspect is mostly mineral oil in mascara packaging). Do not buy this mascara without getting the matching remover. Due to the difficult removal, this is not an everyday mascara (that discontinued Maybelline was… sigh), but for special occasions, it’s my HG product in this category.

Speaking of being Nordic, there’s the hair. Fine, mousey – high maintenance if you want to do anything adventurous with it. I’ve always been adventurous (even when I’m giving my hair a rest from colour and bleach, I still can’t resist getting highlights), so it requires a lot of looking after and well-chosen products. Matrix Biolage Hydrating shampoo is my Holy Grail shampoo, no doubt about it. There are others which are okay and I switch around sometimes (like the Klorane range, Redken and a few others), but I always have a bottle of the Biolage shampoo in my bathroom (and a back-up bottle or three in the cupboard). It leaves my hair feeling like hair. Like healthy, strong, clean, shiny hair. I know this sounds like it should be the basic function of all shampoos, but let me tell you – most shampoos leave my hair feeling like straw. Or stretchy plastic. Or fluff.

I use a number of ‘everyday’ conditioners which are fairly interchangeable (my shortlist of favourites: the matching Biolage conditioner, Matrix colour care conditioner, Redken, Klorane and Pureology), but when I feel my hair needs a treat or I want it to look as perfect as it can be, I reach for the Redken Heavy Cream hair mask. It might seem a little counter-intuitive to use such a product on fine hair, but a little goes a long way, and nothing makes my hair feel as healthy and soft as this product. I also have the matching leave-in conditioner for straw-hair bad hair day emergencies (though it’s easy to overdose, so go easy on it if your hair is fine like mine).

It’s not a good idea to wash your hair every day if you can at all avoid it – it’s one of the most damaging things you can do to your hair – so in-between washes, I like to use the Label M. Protein Spray to straighten out any kinks, refresh and protect in one go. Over-using a protein spray is not recommended because it’ll make your hair feel crisp and brittle, but moderate use every couple of days is just right. One of the bonus features of this product is its light and refreshing, herbal-style scent. It isn’t sickly or overwhelming like so many scents for these types of products (I don’t want my hair products to compete with my perfume and when working in the lab or evaluating other people’s scents, the last thing you want is for your hair to be a fragrant foghorn right near your nose).

I’m yet to find a replacement for the discontinued Chanel foundation (that’s a whole other blog post – I’ve spent a lot of time and money searching and tried dozens of foundations in the process), nor have I found a lip colour as perfect as Incognito (it was a mauve-y pink with gold shimmer). I’ll live.

This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning MAC Studiofix in NC15 which has been my trusty touch-up companion since it was first introduced in the 90s. I used to use it as an all-over foundation with just some concealer underneath, but with older skin, powder foundation starts to look ageing and flat, so this product has now taken a secondary role.

I have to mention some fragrances, too, or this just wouldn’t be a representative list – the three scents I have gone through several bottles of in the last few years are: Mandragore by Annick Goutal, Daim Blond by Serge Lutens and Alien by Mugler. Considering that my ‘regular rotation’ has 40 or so scents in it, and that I own over 80, going through a single bottle of anything is close to miraculous, never mind several.

What about you? Any products you simply *can’t live without?

 

 

[*clearly I don’t mean this literally. It’s good to acknowledge the fact that some of us are so privileged that a discontinued lippie can count as a ‘problem’. On the days when things seem gloomy, it’s good to remember how lucky we really are to get to play with beauty products and obsess over the perfect hair conditioner. ]

 

 

Inside Fragrance

Laundry evaluation

Evaluating laundry care?

It’s been quite a week here at Volatile Fiction land (what a fun land would that be? I have a mental image of a fragrant theme park x Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory now. And, as it happens, there may be a reason those images were so readily available to my imagination).

I’ve been working behind-the-scenes for almost a year and a half to get to say: this week sees the launch of my new column, The Juice: Inside Fragrance at Perfumer & Flavorist. The May column is a two-parter with online and a print articles – and the June issue will feature a profile of a British perfumer whose career is truly unique and fascinating. The Juice will run in Perfumer & Flavorist monthly and, as with this week’s column, there will occasionally be online articles popping up, too.

The first (set of) Juice column(s) is about fragrance evaluation. It’s a bit of a hidden career in the fragrance industry and is a fascinating blend of fragrance expertise, project management, communication and many other skills.

What does a fragrance evaluator do?

Evaluators work with perfumers, sales, marketing and laboratory teams to make sure that the right fragrances are selected and created for customers. The job involves keeping up-to-date with fragrance trends and being able to effectively communicate about smells. Sometimes evaluators also conduct consumer panels and focus groups. They usually manage the internal fragrance library and may be assigned to a specific product category or to just one customer.

Smelling with perfumers and being able to offer useful, objective feedback about the technical aspects and overall impression of the fragrance are at the heart of the job. Good evaluators form strong teams with the perfumers they work with and perfumers appreciate the objectivity and organisation that evaluators bring to fragrance creation.

In leading fragrance houses, evaluators choose the perfumers for each fragrance brief, task the perfumers and project manage the project’s course.

It is possible to work your way up from other roles in the company to a trainee or a junior evaluator, or enter into the role directly with some relevant external qualifications or experience. Initial training takes one to two years, depending on previous experience and the fragrance company in question.

Skills and qualities of a good evaluator:
• Passionate about fragrance
• Excellent interpersonal skills
• Confident communicator
• Balanced judgement
• Diligence; attention to detail
• Project management
• Ability to make sense of vast amounts of data and interpret it for others
• Highly organised (evaluators are in charge of the company fragrance library)
• Experience of the consumer fragrance market; knowledge of trends and product categories

Givaudan

Expertise is relative and everyone has their own areas of excellence. I seem to have a knack for hoovering up lots of information and communicating it to others. I’m also interested in fragrance and everything about it (ok, obsessed). It is inevitable I have learned a lot along the way. A great deal of the learning has been quite deliberate and hard-earned by study and practical experience. I still don’t consider myself an expert (daily access to the true experts of the industry – research chemists, senior perfumers with decades of experience and many more walking perfume encyclopaedias besides is a great constant reminder of just how little I really know).

But I know more than the ‘earlier me’ 10, 15 years ago. And that’s who I’m writing these blogs and ODOU articles and Basenotes features for. The trade writing blossomed out of that almost by accident – but the real driving force was always to somehow get more information and insight out there to people who don’t know about the careers available in fragrance but would thrive in them if only they did.

I also like to myth-bust a little bit. Not to the detriment of storytelling and marketing (I like to be taken along on an evocative ride, too, and part of the pleasure of buying an everyday product with a hint of luxury like a fabric conditioner with an exotic scent – or an actual luxury product like fine fragrance – is that you want the whole experience – the courting, the dating, the flowers; the lot).

I like to myth-bust the chemophobia and the utter nonsense out there. And to illuminate who makes these fragrances and how. I like to show how passionate these people are about the tiniest details, what lengths they go to for that perfect scent, how much thought is put into something that could end up in a hand wash. I think that’s brilliant. Never mind all the wonderful fine fragrance perfumery – all the artistry, poetry and creativity and bloody hard work that goes into it. As much as I like to get taken along for the ride and seduced by marketing as the next consumer, I do occasionally wish perfume marketing wasn’t so quick to rely on the old tropes of tits and ass. I guess it’s an important aspect of what makes perfume appealing and why people wear it but sometimes it feels like marketers and brands forget it’s not the only one.

The stories on the large corporate and tiniest artisan side to be told are in their thousands and really fascinating. I am going to be able to tell you at least a few of them over the coming months. But I also love it that there are so many great people quietly squirreling away, making your homes smell like a tropical forest and people whose whole life is devoted to making sure that the towels come out of your specific brand of washing machine smelling just right.

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Laundry care evaluation is a little bit more serious at Givaudan.

I don’t like to make things easy for myself, so I’ve based the majority of my fragrance articles on primary research. What this means is that I’ve interviewed people face-to-face – mostly in person (sometimes over Skype). Email interviews do happen but I don’t like them. This has resulted in a lot of travel and interviews conducted in the offices and meeting rooms of fragrance houses, posh London hotels, coffee shops, people’s homes and many more locations besides. This week I travelled to France to tour Givaudan’s Paris sites and interview several people in one, intense day. I was also happy to finally meet a long-time reader of this blog there and receive a great gift for a bookworm-perfume nerd: Givaudan’s new perfume book which weaves their story with global perfume history and some philosophical musings about perfumery and flavour.
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I spent some time with the Givaudan perfumery school director and students – and will be writing about that soon – will let you know where.

Givaudan_Perfume_School_photo_Volatile_Fiction

Givaudan perfumery school

Soap Stars: Kate and Rebecca at Seven Scent

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Top left: Rebecca, Kate.

Kate Williams (perfumer) and Rebecca Mulcahy (evaluator) work for Seven Scent in the UK.

“My mum always says ‘you could have a proper job – like a vet or a doctor!’ with the years I’ve spent training,” says Rebecca Mulcahy, fragrance evaluator at Seven Scent.

“And every day you still come across things that are new,” echoes Kate Williams, perfumer at Seven, and the current president of the British Society of Perfumers.

I met with Kate and Rebecca to talk about their work and careers.

“When I first came for my interview, I didn’t know there were people born into this; practically training from birth – that’s what I was up against,” Kate reminisces.

She had a series of interviews and smell tests at PZ Cussons, the parent company for Seven Scent – this was after Kate had completed a masters in evolutionary psychology. Kate’s special area of interest was the role of smell in mate choice and whether males could detect female fertility levels. This led to the obvious question – why do we use fragrance? Is it to mask body odour or to advertise it?

“I sort of stumbled on the fragrance industry through that,” says Kate.

Turns out, the answer to that burning question was that we seem to choose fragrances based on advertising our natural body odour; not masking it. When we choose a fragrance – be it a deodorant or a fine fragrance – based on our genuine preferences (rather than pure advertising or marketing), we are amplifying our natural, unique body odour fingerprint. This also leads to increased confidence, positive body language, and enhanced sexual attractiveness.

When Kate arrived to her smell test, she was faced with endless rows of smelling strips set out on a shiny mahogany table at the old PZ Cussons office. “We were told to sit one chair apart and write down our answers and suddenly I thought- what am I doing here?” says Kate and laughs.

“I suppose in a way it was good that I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do – and how much time it takes until you are allowed to create something,” says Kate.

Rebecca studied forensic science at university and her industry placement was at Unilever. This gave her a glimpse to what it’s like to formulate deodorants and antiperspirants and opened the door to an interview for an evaluator role at Seven.

Evaluators have become increasingly important in modern fragrance supply houses due to the vast number of fragrances to keep track of and to select from, and due to the hectic schedule and other pressures perfumers have to work under.

In many fragrance houses evaluators are project leaders, assign
fragrance briefs to perfumers, as well as manage the company fragrance
library and sit down with perfumers to evaluate fragrance modifications. Read more at Perfumer & Flavorist about what the role of an evaluator involves; what makes a good evaluator & routes to the job – and how Rebecca and others work. This is the launch of my new monthly column “The Juice”  and the first column has two parts; online and in print. The May print issue  features insights from independent fragrance evaluators in the article “Fragrance Evaluation for Niche Brands – Passion Above All”.

“If you are working on a laundry detergent fragrance for the African market, you have to test the fragrance in its base in water because you hand-wash so much over there. In the UK, you’d smell the scent on the clothes as they came out of the washing machine,” says Rebecca.

AFRICA_ELEPHANTKate and Rebecca have travelled all over the world to test their fragrances in real-world conditions and to conduct market research. There are many issues to consider – right from the creative language and clarity in communication to better understanding of the actual ways in which the finished products get used by consumers.

“Our biggest customer is Nigeria,” says Kate, “and they have the most wonderful concepts. They asked for a smell that was like an angel descending from Heaven. On a shoestring! I want that, too!”

“It is a great feeling when you’ve managed to achieve that level of creativity with all those cost and other constraints,” says Rebecca.

Kate nods: “More constraints can in fact make you more creative.”

We talked about the difference between producing something beautiful, practical, best-selling and commercially viable for a detergent product versus creating a fine fragrance.

“I suppose there is some artistic quality in plucking a fragrance from your mind,” says Kate, “it’s amazing when you think about it. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn into the fragrance industry – I love words – I love describing things and I think that’s been absolutely key for me. It’s an industry where you talk a lot,” Kate says and bursts out laughing.

“All that describing and different ways of saying things to make people understand… I had a stage where I couldn’t smell the individual materials in a perfume, just the whole perfume – and eventually I got to this point, like Magic Eyes, where I could switch between smelling the individual raw materials and the full perfume. That, to me was an amazing step. I could go oh, it’s a peach, but I can also pick out that lactone – it was a massive step,” says Kate.

Understanding fragrance descriptors and what clients actually expect is not a one-size-fits-all skill and working with international markets means constantly having to be on your toes about what your customers really mean. Market research is an important part of the process at Seven Scent.

“We were doing competitor analysis for another brand in Nigeria and the slogan was ‘wrap yourself in passion’ and we thought – who wouldn’t want a fragrance with that sort of a theme? What a demand from a talcum powder fragrance! I think fine fragrance terminology is coming down to all levels and people expect a lot more from their fragrance in every other product, too – their shower gel and body lotion and fabric conditioner. They expect the fragrance to support how nourishing it is for the skin, or how suitable for sensitive skin it is, or how high-quality the brand is, so there is a lot riding on it,” says Kate.

It is a well-known fact in the cosmetics and fragrance industry that the type of fragrance chosen for a product can and does alter consumer perception of the product’s effectiveness. If a shampoo marketed as ‘deep-cleansing’ has the correct type of fragrance, consumers will perceive the deep-cleansing effect to be stronger. If a ‘nourishing’ body lotion has been matched with just the right sort of soothing scent, its users will feel their skin is smoother.

“We even have differences in each geology on how these claims translate, but we test for that,” says Kate.

“There is also a difference in the language on descriptors – if the team in Nigeria ask for ‘fruity’ they don’t mean what we mean,” says Rebecca.

AFRICA_WATERFALL“Citrus vanilla! Fresh spicy” laughs Kate, “But what’s fresh to them? When we think of fresh, we think of watery, green… I once took a presentation to Lagos for them to give me colours of freshness. They didn’t understand the green, lush freshness that we were trying to do. We’d been giving them all these green grass top notes and they just didn’t get them. They also had only a very vague concept of what we would think of as watery, marine freshness, but fruity freshness – yes! So we went with that.”

“Images really helped, so we took along an image of a waterfall,” says Rebecca.

Indonesia

INDONESIA_childrenKate travelled to Indonesia to investigate how consumers were actually using products in the baby ranges.

“It was such an eye-opener what they do with those products – I don’t know how they get their kids to stay still!” says Kate, “They do this twice a day: a full body wash, shampoo, body cream, face cream, nappy cream, oil on the chest. They use a separate detergent and fabric conditioner on their clothes. They use oil on their hair. Then sunscreen and anti-mosquito. That’s the minimum products for a child under the age of seven. I can’t get mine to have a wash! Teeth – they use gum wipes if the children haven’t got any teeth yet. So the product usage is enormous. This has implications on fragrance development. If you’re going to use all of your fragrance budget into the body wash, it’s going to be drowned out ten minutes later. And they don’t layer the fragrances; they choose different fragrances. So understanding stuff like that is absolutely great.”

Lagos

AFRICA_VILLAGEKate and Rebecca also experienced how consumers in Lagos use their detergent products.

“I melted… I had to just go ahead and do the washing on the hot roof to see what actually happens in situ with the fragrance,” says Kate, “and it was tough, really tough. The water smells. So I had to make sure I understood the smell of the water. Understood that this water was then used for different functions in the house, with my fragrance in it. So, fine, we might be providing a fragrance used in a detergent powder, but after it’s been used to wash the laundry in smelly water, it’s then going to be used to wash the floor, then it’s going to be used to wash the kids, and then it’s going to be used to clean the toilet. And it has to perform all the way and leave a nice fragrance on the floor as well. So that’s your challenge – and you suddenly understand why your client has been rejecting your previous fragrances,” explains Kate.

“It makes such a difference getting there, seeing how people actually use the product,” says Rebecca. “You can take something that you think smells great here in the UK, but once you’re there and open the sample, the humidity can just crush it and you can’t smell a thing. We also went around different locations in Lagos and smelled the environments in which people were living in and saw some people washing their laundry in buckets by the busy roadside with car fumes mingling in – and you realise you’ll have to try to counter that somehow as well.”

On arriving to Lagos, Kate and Rebecca got stuck at customs. “We were flying Air Nigeria which in itself was the maddest experience, ever,” says Kate, “we weren’t sure whether we’d make it or boil to death. And the customs were grilling us, too: ‘why are you here?’ – ‘fragrance’ – ‘what sort of fragrance?’ – ‘Zip detergent powder…’ – ‘That’s your fragrance? Well, why didn’t you say so! Come on through, ladies!’ and they treated us like stars.”

Zip detergent powder is a big brand in Nigeria; as well-known as Persil in the UK and people have possibly even a closer relationship with the fragrance there than with any kind of detergent fragrance in the UK.

“That fragrance has a massive following – and how many people is it on? These people are wearing it and relying on it. It’s a crazy climate, so it’s an important part of their lives,” says Kate.

“You are genuinely making a difference to people’s lives – I know that sounds a little bit cheesy, but it’s true,” says Rebecca and smiles.

Oud to Joy

AgarwoodThere are several kinds of agarwood which, when infected with the parasitic mould (Phaeoacremonium parasitica), can produce one of those perfumery perversions – something heavenly out of something unfortunate (see, also: whale vomit, natural musk).

Alas. You can already see this ingredient isn’t going to be easy to mass-produce, no matter how much we’d like to. Trees take a long time to grow. Infected heartwood from a specific subset of trees  – which then has to be cut down to be processed into oil (so no more tree; no repeat harvest like with oranges or roses) – it doesn’t bode well for price and availability. Oud oil is one of the most Milli Vanilliexpensive perfumery raw materials still in use today. Which is why the majority of oud scents on the market are interpretations of the theme with a little bit of real oud in them or no oud in them at all. Sometimes another material called nagarmotha or cypriol (Cyperus scariosus) is used in oud accords. All kinds of other naturals can help tremendously – a bit of patchouli; other woods. Often oud accords are made with the help of synthetic materials – various animalic, amber and woody notes, and the results can be beautiful. And, as with all perfumery – these fragrances range from the tragic to the sublime. We get everything from the Milli Vanilli of oud to actual oud.

Real oud oil comes in a few varieties, too. There are at least a couple which have strong animalic notes and at least one which has a strong whiff of camel undercarriage dipped in gorgonzola. That oud variety is very difficult to mimic in the lab without the real thing. I’ve tried. It also doesn’t usually appeal to Western noses.

Oud as a word has been a big marketing hit for a while now. I’ve spoken to several indie perfumers who claim to have started the trend. You know something is truly popular when everyone claims credit. And you know a trend is meant to be over when it has trickled down to deodorants and fabric conditioner. We’ve had absolutely everyone and their mum jumping on the bandwagon. Let’s not pretend otherwise. I’ve smelled a fragrance which was a cringeworthy combination of a Barbie-pink fruity-floral with a bit of fake oud thrown in, pushed to me on a scent strip at a posh London department store by a sales assistant whose demeanour was a cry for help: “I don’t like it either!” I’ve smelled an impressively authentic cheesy-animalic oud scent in an equally posh London department store. The fragrance felt serious, expensive, well-made and completely unwearable, bar to a highly niche group of connoisseurs.

As a consumer I don’t really care if an oud fragrance has real oud in it, but I do want the fragrance to hang together. I don’t like the idea of bandwagon-jumping, so the transparent attempts at throwing oud in just to be ‘on trend’ make me sigh. As do the scents which feature oud in the name and haven’t really managed to create an oud impression at all. On the other hand, I don’t find the ultra-authentic oud scents my cup of tea either (even though I like the smell experience itself – as an experience – just not on my skin. But I also like to smell new glossy magazines and the tar of old railway tracks and I don’t want those as a perfume either).

Something has happened to the way Western noses are calibrated towards the oud accord, though. The other day I spoke to my hairdresser about the kinds of perfumes she buys and was completely shocked to find that she buys Arabian Oud. I had her down as a happy-go-lucky celeb fragrance wearer (nothing wrong with that, by the way). My jaw dropped. What did I like to smell of when I was 21 years old? Coco Chanel. Not of camels. But here we are.

So when I was invited to meet the people behind a new brand Amouroud, I was a little concerned. Uh-oh. Aren’t they a little… late to this trend? Is this going to be a really cynical attempt to cash in? Are those glossy-looking black bottles going to cost £250? Are they going to have even a hint of oud in them?

Perfumer’s Workshop

Custom blending conceptPerfumer’s Workshop International was founded in States in the early 70s and has been creating highly commercial and successful fragrance concepts ever since. They were the first to think of bringing custom fragrance blending to department stores (long before Aveda and others had a go) and they were talking to Arabs about oud fragrances at their Selfridges perfume counter back in the 80s when virtually no other fragrance marketer in the West had heard of it.

I met the co-founder Donald G. Bauchner along with his team William Skinner and Denis Roubinet in London last week to talk about Amouroud. It’s always interesting to talk with real industry veterans and I was open to be convinced.

Trying my best to ignore all the official marketing and focus just on their own words and the scents themselves, piece-by-piece, note-by-note, the concept opened up to me. These guys have watched the oud trend be handled by others in the variety of inconsistent ways we’ve seen – and spotted an opportunity to do something better.

Has it worked?

Amouroud packaging conceptThe concept is this – use oud as an amplifier to add intrigue to other fragrance themes. Blend the notes in such a way that oud is not what jumps out, but it does something to all the other materials in the scent; something good, hopefully.

One could say that where Jo Malone scents are for people who want an elegant fragrance but find typical perfumes too heavy, the Amouroud range is for people who wish their designer perfumes had a bit more depth and interest. Amouroud is also attempting to sew together everything that is good about the oud trend and make it accessible. Those glossy black 100ml bottles? £140. For a luxury niche brand, that’s a jaw-droppingly good price. Consider that the current UK best-seller Paco Rabanne 1 Million Eau de Toilette for men retails at the equivalent of £69 for 100ml and we’re talking about a mass-market EdT strength designer fragrance. For that price point alone; that lack of cynical cashing in on ‘niche pricing’ this brand deserves some attention. They have done everything with care – worked with some fine perfumers (Cecile Hua, Patricia Choux, John Mastracola, Claude Dir and Irina Burlakova), packaged everything in beautiful bottles and cartons and have not rushed to be the first on the oud train but watched and learned from other people’s mistakes and chosen to do things their own way. I suppose in this they’re not the innovators, but the potential success story – not the Myspace and LiveJournal, but maybe the Twitter and Facebook. Remains to be seen.

Their sales technique is designed to show off the drydown – a good approach when you’ve invested money in your base notes and the main theme of your collection rests there. You are given a scent strip which was sprayed yesterday and has been kept sealed in a glass jar. So you skip to the end where the oud accord is on full display, but remnants of the main theme are still lingering. I enjoyed testing the scents I had samples of fresh, too – the comparison gave a full picture. I do think the top note and heart are an important part of the experience as well.

The packaging is perfect for the concept. The boxes are heavy card with a metal label affixed to the front (great attention to detail) and the bottles are heavy black glass with a metal label. When you purchase a 100ml bottle, you are given a travel spray of your second most favourite fragrance as a gift. How very cheeky of them to marry you to one scent and immediately enable a love affair with another.

So what about the scents?

TobacconistSay Harrison Ford was playing an incredibly wealthy Russian businessman walking past the Harrods tobacconist eating pear drops while wearing a classic woody masculine fragrance – that scene would smell of Safran Rare. This scent is old-fashioned in the best possible way. It’s a little bit showy but not trashy. It absolutely does have that luxe Harrods oud fragrance signature that one would assume from the look of this brand – perhaps more than any other in the line. But it still manages to have lightness, space and a degree of playfulness that is not what one would expect. Every one of these scents has an American twinkle in the eye.

Oud du Jour – a modern raspberry-apple fruity-floral meets oud – and is done well. What could be a mismatch is actually a seductive tango. It’s like watching a film where an older actor is paired with an actress 20 years younger and you fear they won’t be plausible as a romantic couple but instead the chemistry sizzles on screen and later you find out they had a real off-screen romance. I can’t decide if the name is meant to feel a little playful in your mouth when you say it out loud, but it does. This fragrance is full of genuine fun and contrast. I have nicknamed it Oud to Joy.

Midnight Rose opens with a popular rose – lychee theme which sings in crystal-clear tones from the top for a good while and swells to a classic green-tinged rose melody at the heart until the oud accord joins in – and doesn’t break the tune. It just provides a thrum of bass line; an amplifier. It’s like listening to a fully orchestrated cover version of a pop song. It’s beautiful. Do not be fooled by the name and expect a typical Middle Eastern rose + oud combination. This might be the most accessible of the line-up for the oud-curious.

Candy in FinlandDark Orchid – well, I am just going to have to be honest here and say my immediate impression was Tom Ford Black Orchid x Covonia cough syrup x Finnish dark liquorice … and I ADORED it from the first sniff. Adored it. There is something unsettling about Black Orchid to me, whereas Amouroud Dark Orchid is just right. This fragrance amps up all the dark, medicinal, ambery notes and that flips the scent from an apologetic attempt at a Halloween costume to a full-on drag queen out and proud, head held up high and killing it. If you’re going to dress up, go to town or go home. The more Dark Orchid blooms, the less it looks like its wallflower of a
cousin and the more it takes on its own, fabulous personality.

You’ve got to make a choice about how to lift a sandalwood – do you
stick with a woody theme (oh goodness, that was an accidental pun,
wasn’t it?) or do you build a bouquet which reveals a sandalwood
drydown? The perfumer for Santal des Indes has chosen the former
strategy and leads us to the idea of sandalwood through a woody theme –
we get that almost fizzy cola aspect of a cedarwood and incense accord,
which develops over time to a sensation of heat – the scent feels
like hot spice and the colour orange. If there is a fatty sandalwood
note, I can’t quite detect it, but then sandalwood does tend to take the
first opportunity it can to sneak backstage and let others hog the
limelight.

Nancy PorterMiel Sauvage made me giggle with delight when I first smelled it (I have witnesses) and this is a good sign (and the last time a fragrance did that to me I bought it immediately). I also love it when the name of a scent is completely at odds with what pops into my head when I smell it (as regular readers will know). The image Miel sauvage conjured for me was that of a saucy pinup lolloping about in an abundantly overflowing bubble bath, coyly managing to keep the bubble cover just a smidgen too low around her cleavage. This scent makes me think of Camay soap ads from the 50s; of glamorous film stars on just the wrong side of saucy and fruity goings-on in a chiffon dressing gown and fluffy slippers. It’s fantastic; every time I smell it on my skin, I find myself smiling and feel the champagne bubbles of laughter beginning to form in my chest. I’m calling this Pinup and it may become one of my treasured signature scents. I love it that much. Oh – and the honey note? It’s not the urinous kind. It’s the waxy, soapy kind. Just in case my florid description didn’t make that clear.

Oud to Joy

Amouroud has nailed it. At least for people like me who were sitting on the fence about oud and were thinking it wasn’t for them. And there must be millions of us left. If you’re one such person and any of the above made you think “hmm…” run, don’t walk to a store where you can smell these scents and have a play. I think they’re worth the money and I think these guys deserve to do well.

Amouroud will be available at Harrods in the UK first. You can already explore the range in Sweden (this might have something to do with the fact that Donald’s wife Gun is Swedish. They got first dibs).

Just one more thing

I’m wondering something about oud. I’m wondering whether what we’ve got here isn’t a trend at all, but the birth of a whole new fragrance family. That would explain a lot.

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Agarwood, Milli Vanilli and  Nancy Porter images via WikiMedia Commons

Travel samples and one full bottle of fragrance provided for review purposes by Amouroud. My policy is not to review at all unless I like the fragrance(s) in question and freebies do not influence this decision in any way.

Easter Sundae Interlude

You’ll forgive me for the pun once I share the recipe for this Easter-themed chocolate sundae with you. It combines the tart juicyness of pears with chocolate liqueur and malted chocolate.

Green & Blacks chocolate ice cream has a slightly malted flavour and goes particularly well here. My favourite chocolate liqueur is the Mozart one but I had an unopened bottle of Bailey’s limited edition chocolate liqueur here instead, so that’s what I used (and can report that it was very tasty in this context indeed).

You need pear quarters in fruit juice (or halves, then cut them to smaller pieces yourself), chocolate ice cream, chocolate liqueur (chocolate sauce if making for kids or alcohol-free friends), good-quality whipped cream, something crunchy on top (I used edible golden flakes to evoke the colours of white daffodils) and some kind of chocolate wafer (mine was a Malteaster Bunny because Easter Sunday).

1. Pick out four pear quarters from the juice, drain, place in a fanned shape at the bottom of the sundae glass.
2. Pour chocolate liqueur or sauce on top until the pears are covered
3. Add two scoops of chocolate ice cream
4. Add whipped cream
5. Add gold flakes and bunny

Regular readers know that I have a bit of a thing about ice cream (we do go to Fortnum’s on the perfume tours a lot and I enjoy making sundaes for visitors). Here’s a lemon meringue recipe if you’re looking for more.

Happy Easter!