The good bits of 2016 – and my favourite perfume launches

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Yes, 2016 has been quite stressful in many ways (I’ve been in Britain for long enough to master the art of the understatement), but this post isn’t about any of the awful stuff this year. All I’ll say about 2016 in that regard is that I hope it has made many millions more politically aware and active; I hope it has encouraged people to donate to charity and volunteer; I hope it has made the people previously sitting on the fence realise that inaction and turning the blind eye are the real enablers of terrible things in this world.

It has been an ‘interesting’ year for me. Interesting, because in-between the stress, it has also been one of the best years of my entire life, and certainly one of the most memorable.

The Juice - Perfumer & Flavorist

My column in Perfumer & Flavorist magazine kicked off and has  been running every month since this May – and due to it, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to meet really interesting and colourful people with so many stories to tell that this alone would have made 2016 one of the most fulfilling yet. It’s been a privilege to be able to peek behind the scenes at companies like Givaudan and Firmenich; to meet Luca Turin and spend time talking to indie perfumers, evaluators and chemists; educators and marketers.

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It was also the year of our biggest perfume tour yet and our group of perfume friends spent a wonderful day out visiting London perfumeries and enjoying an afternoon tea with a champagne twist.

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In May, Nick Gilbert, a long-term fragrance friend and I got together to start a playful YouTube channel, Love to Smell. The first few episodes were a little wobbly on the production values (it took us a few tries to learn how to look at the camera and put on captions…), and our channel has been gaining a steady following of a few hundred people over the last six months. It absolutely makes my day when someone tells us they’ve watched and laughed along with us, so thank you to all of our viewers – and hope to see you in 2017!

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My favourite moments from the shoots are too many to count, but I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much as when we were filming the Halloween episode – and being able to invite other perfume pals in as guests for our Christmas special was a special treat that we’re sure to repeat. Of course we were also asked to appear on a bonkers new game show on ITV, so we got to be on real telly as well.  We may or may not have given the world one its derpiest TV moments as a result.

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We film the videos in my dining room. Some of the latest episodes were filmed using our new lights – we’ve also invested in a new video camera for 2017. Woohoo!

Nick and I had been talking about starting a business together anyway – we thought maybe in a year or two, but as life often has a way of doing, events unfolded in such a way that we had to grab the opportunities as they presented themselves and adapt. So while we’d already been working on a few projects together as freelancers, we also found that we were being approached by some of the same clients, and eventually it just made sense to start Olfiction. We’ve had a busy diary ever since and as a result of the kinds of clients and projects we’ve been working on, I am now spending the majority of my working time as a perfumer – something that I didn’t expect to happen so soon with our own business. Nick being an evaluator on top of his skills as a trainer and marketer makes our partnership extra special for me; I am very grateful to know him and to have an ‘extension to my nose’. I trust his opinion on fragrance like nobody else’s.

We have primarily been developing home fragrances this year, many of which will launch in the first few months of 2017 – and there are more projects in the pipeline for other clients, including some fine fragrance development and more, so it looks like we’ll be very busy on the creative front in the coming year, too. I am over the moon about that. 2016 was my 11-year anniversary of moving from fragrance sales and marketing to pursuing perfumery and all I’ll say to anyone starting on a similar path – be it with learning to play an instrument, writing novels or anything that takes a lot of practice and time – it’s worth it. Believe in yourself. Never give up.

Olfiction

In-between all of the above, I’ve been a big admirer of what the Perfume Society has been doing – the first real club for perfume enthusiasts – and have again had the chance to contribute to some of the issues of their magazine The Scented Letter. It’s a no-brainer subscription for people who’d normally flick through glossy mags in search of the parts about perfume or might be mourning the untimely shelving of ODOU.

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Speaking of perfumes – it’s been such a fabulously fragrant year with both behind-the-scenes access, discovering new launches, talking to people about their favourite smells and working on my own formulas that I don’t think any previous year can quite compete.

I don’t want to do a ‘Best of 2016’ for perfumes; just the ones from this year I immediately wanted to add to my own collection and start wearing. I’m still switching hats between a perfumista and a perfumer – roles which are not as immediately compatible as one would think – and on the days I get to wear perfume and enjoy it as a fan, I have found the following fragrances the most enjoyable of this year’s crop:

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Le Galion Eau Noble (with a special honorary mention to Sortilège). Eau Noble is a crisp, unisex, eau de cologne-type scent with hints of leather and chypre tones. I wore it from a sample on a trip, not thinking anything much of it upon application, other than “oh, that’s nice”, but as the day progressed, I found myself doing that wrist-sniffing thing a lot of us nosenerds do: what’s that wonderful smell?  This might now be my holy grail hot weather scent. As for Sortilège, I have not smelled the original, so this is not an opinion on whether the modern re-telling of the tale is as good or not. Just that I adored the hints in it towards the old fashioned face cream smell of Dior’s Icone; Frederic Malle’s Lipstick Rose; the Nivea fragrance – and Sortilège is like a silent movie starlet with old world sex appeal, brought to present day and dressed in modern clothing.

The main image (above) contains my real superstar fragrance of the year. No, it probably won’t be on anyone else’s list; no, it isn’t revolutionary in any way, but did it feel like someone had sat down and designed a fragrance just for me? Yes. Did I almost skip around the room in joy when I discovered it? Yes. The fragrance I am talking about is Jardin d’Ombre by Ormonde Jayne.

Its combination of iris, which is usually austere, and of solar notes and sandalwood, which are usually soft skin scents, manages something rarely achieved in perfume: a sensual iris.

It positively glows, yet the iris grounds it. It is sensual without being banal. It is a serious fragrance without being standoffish and cool. I am a particular fan of iris notes, and of sandalwood, so these facts must be taken into account in my praise, but do try for yourselves if you can.

The other happy discoveries of this year include two from Atelier Cologne: Mimosa Indigo (dried mimosa twigs inside an expensive leather handbag) and Camélia intrépide (metallic tea; tart, fruity rose and leather), and Cierge de Lune from Aedes de Venustas (antique leather-bound books, fresh vanilla pipe tobacco leaves, one handsome owner of an opulent library).

You may have spotted that every one of my favourites either hints at or prominently features suede or leather notes. My name is Pia and I’m a leather addict.

What were your favourite perfume launches or discoveries from this year?

I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2017 and for anyone dealing with stress and difficulties, the strength to carry on and breaks of pure joy in-between. Even though my work is very important to me, let’s face it – perfume is no big deal in today’s world – it’s a frivolous luxury, and what I do for a living is of no huge importance in the bigger picture. I’m not saving lives here. But I hope in some small way I’ll at least be able to provide a welcome distraction in the form of enjoyable scents and funny videos. See you on the other side!

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Ruth Mastenbroek featured in the Juice

http://www.perfumerflavorist.com/fragrance/trends/The-Juice-Ruth-Mastenbroek-382257761.html

I interviewed Ruth Mastenbroek for this month’s Juice – an excerpt is available online at Perfumer & Flavorist and subscribers can read the full article in print or online.

Ruth’s story is full of twists and turns and anyone who has spent any time with her knows, Ruth is calm, warm and elegant. Her quiet determination to apply chemistry studies to perfumery took her from a South London Polytechnic course taught by the – now legendary – David Williams to Naarden, and she worked in the Netherlands, Japan, France and UK.

Her own brand currently has three fragrances, all of which I encourage you to try for yourself (the original is my absolute favourite; a stunning classic chypre).

 

Fragrant Roots and Neroli Macaroons

essential oil macaroonsThe British Society of Perfumers Annual One Day Symposium was held at Whittlebury Hall in Towcester again this May and had an accidental theme of fragrant roots – with two of the presentations focusing on a different kind of scented root accord unbeknownst to one another. One of the suppliers, Albert Vieille, also went beyond scent and served us delicious macaroons flavoured with essential oils of neroli, rose and mandarin which were perfectly accompanied by the Arabica Coffee Salvador alcoholic extract we smelled alongside them.

There is a perceived danger to hosting any kind of raw material-focused conference on a World Perfumery Congress year because suppliers will inevitably want to save their new launches for that (who wouldn’t?), but this did not cause any difficulties for the BSP ODS as every session managed to find ways to showcase existing materials, new production methods, or to introduce new variants to the UK market. One of the best things about going to these is the group smelling – sitting at a table (or walking around interactive demo sessions) with seasoned perfumers and sharing observations is like gold dust; you learn so much and find all kinds of inspiration and insight.

Wolfgang from BASF showed us a very well-known material, DL-menthol, which he nevertheless felt was unfairly neglected in perfume creations, and called it “the under-estimated baby of the industry.” His quips and style had the room guffawing away and every time I hear him give a presentation I feel a little bit wistful that he didn’t become a chemistry teacher because he would have inspired generations. On the other hand, I’m glad he didn’t because now I get to listen to his presentations at BSP events instead. We also smelled dihydrorosan in demo formulas – it really boosted fruity notes in unexpected ways.

Symrise took us through an interactive presentation where tables were laden with demo formulas showing off Jacinthaflor – an interesting white floral-type material which can bring indolic aspects to fragrances without the discolouration issues, Nerolione – as the name suggests, a high-impact ingredient for orange blossom creations and Irisnitrile – a diffusive iris note booster. I have come to accept that I adore iris scents of all kinds (am yet to encounter one that I don’t love) and the accords we experienced here had interesting cucumber and fresh facets and bloom which can sometimes lack from iris-type notes. It seems clever use of Irisnitrile can really add extra dimension to these accords.

If you think you know what cedarwood should smell like, I wish I could send you some of the Firmenich cedarwood oil Alaska through the screen because it took many of us by surprise – a sparkling grapefruit top with lots of smoky and aromatic nuances and no ‘pencil shavings’ feel. I’d love to create a masculine scent just around this material and expand every aspect. We were also shown Pepper Sichuan supercritical fluid extraction, Lilyflore, Ambrox Super and a Honey Signature base which is a blend of natural materials and synthetic captives. The honey note was so realistic that some visitors were overheard asking for a slice of toast to go with it.

And, to the next fragrant root – vetiver. Emerald Kalama Chemical showed us Azuril, Osyrol and Vetimoss (there is a clue in the molecule names to which one went into the vetiver accord) and we smelled demo formulas including blackwood and fantasy citrus. Vetiver is another one of my absolute favourite smells and I’d love to get a chance to experiment with vetimoss – there were many nuances besides straight-up vetiver that came out at me from the demo.

Pierre rolling out the red carpet

I caught Pierre personally rolling out the red carpet for the winner just before the gala dinner

If any of you follow Pierre the Perfumer on Twitter, you won’t be surprised to hear that he would be up to mischief at an entirely serious event such as the annual Perfumery Excellence Awards, and, indeed, this year he launched a whole new award: “Pierre the Perfumer Award for Most Daring Fragrance (in any category)”. The idea being that at least one of the awards should be for risk-taking in fragrance creation; putting products on the market with scents that have the potential to be divisive (many legends have been born from love-or-hate fragrances; even entire fragrance families). We asked our members to nominate and vote for all the awards in advance of the symposium which meant the awards could be engraved in time for the gala dinner. Want to know who won? Check out the winners at P&F online.

 

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.

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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

Abstract smoke

There are several kinds of agarwood which, when infected with the parasitic mould (Phaeoacremonium parasitica), can produce one of those perfumery’s perversions – something heavenly out of something unfortunate (see, also: whale excrement; 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 on top,
which develops over time to a sensation of heat – and after a while conjured another Finnish reference for me: sauna benches. If there is a fatty sandalwood
note, I can’t quite detect it, but if it’s there, I wouldn’t be surprised if it stayed close to skin, as sandalwood often does.

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.

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.”

Or:

“It’s very white.”

Or:

“I need a salty smell.”

Or:

“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.