Thirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.
This interview is the last of five, weekly instalments of Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series for now. Today, London-based Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesdays answers the thirteen questions.
I want to let each perfumer speak for themselves about who they are, what drives them, and what they do with fragrance, so without any further ado, I introduce you to…
Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesdays
Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.
When I was two years old I liked the smell from our mock orange bush so much that I pushed some buds right up my nose. My mother shoved me in the pram and sprinted to the doctors.
What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?
It happened in stages. I’d been dabbling with essential oils because I needed to understand the materials I was writing about for Lush. I wrote and edited the Lush Times [a printed publication produced for Lush Fresh Handmade Cosmetics] for 14 years, and a lot of that involved describing scents. To cut a long story short, I took a short break from Lush in 2010 but never went back.
I left to write a novel about a problem-solving perfumer who would give each of her clients a bottle of scent to remind them of their happy times. I tried to find all the fragrances I was describing in the book but couldn’t find anything like them, so I decided to have a crack at making them for myself. Then, people would ask me how the novel was coming along, but instead of wanting to read my book, my friends and family kept asking me to make them scents to sum up their happy memories.
I met Odette Toilette [a “purveyor of olfactory adventures”, also from London] one day at a friend’s house, got out the fragrances for her to smell, and she organised one of her Scratch + Sniff events which featured them, and Liz Moores’ scents too. Jo Fairley of The Perfume Society was in the audience, and so were Claire Hawksley and Nick Gilbert from Les Senteurs. Jo wrote about me and Nick talked Claire into stocking my perfumes. That’s about it.
Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?
Often I’m described as self-taught. That’s not quite true although I haven’t been to perfume school, and I haven’t studied alongside any other perfumers. What I did do was read every book I could get my hands on – I was always the school swot – and I took Karen Gilbert’s courses, mostly to get my hands on synthetic raw materials which are very difficult to experience outside the big companies. Very hard to get in small quantities when you’re working alone. I also did the Perfumers World one week course in London a couple of years ago, and bought up over a hundred 10 ml bottles of synthetics to take away with me and study at the end of it. I’m about to start another course because you can always learn more.
Mind you, I think the advantage not having learnt the way that you’re supposed to do things means that I have approached my perfumes in ways which I have since been told are impossible. If I’d believed there were impossible perhaps I never would have tried them. Of course it turns out that many of them are perfectly possible; it’s just generally not done. Learning from someone else can make things a lot quicker but it can put the blinkers on you.
What I do is learn in stages. I’ll find out that I need to sit down and do another great stack of learning to take me to the next place that I need to be. So I sit down and do it.
Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?
I just look for scents that make me love them, then I’ll often find that their perfumers have also made other things I adore.
I like Jean-Claude Ellena’s deeper scents like In Love Again for Yves St Laurent, and Bois Farine for L’Artisan Parfumeur, and Olivia Giacobetti’s Tea for Two.
I love Lipstick Rose by Ralph Schweiger for Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle. For the same company Dans Tes Bras by Maurice Roucel, who also did the wonderful Tocade for Rochas, New Haarlem for Bond No 9 and Guet Apens for Guerlain. All quite brilliantly delicious.
It’s well worth looking on Basenotes.net perfumers directory and clicking on the name of the perfumer who made one of your favourites. Although some of their works may seem to have nothing in common with each other there will be something that links all, a common olfactory thread. That’s what I find, anyway.
Houses: I’m very fond of Guerlain, Frederic Malle, Serge Lutens and Les Parfums de Rosine.
Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.
As I started by trying to create scents which recapture people’s happy times, I had a habit of making things which have a certain retro feel to them. People and the press described them as “vintage”. I then discovered that the way in which I blend materials was in use in small perfumeries in the early 20th century to around about the 1960s, when the GCMS [Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry] machines started to take over. My style is to use a complex natural material (all natural is complex) enhanced or boosted by complimentary synthetics, and it turns out that this was the way perfumes were made for decades. I didn’t know that, I just did it because it suited me; it got me the results that I needed.
I don’t have a thing about using naturals or synthetics; I use whatever will make the right effect, as long as it’s safe, not endangered, complies with EU regulations, is cruelty free, available to me and affordable. Some materials are only available through the five major fragrance and flavour companies that manufacture them. I’m not worried about perfume fashion, as I seem to be ploughing this vintage furrow of my own, so it doesn’t bother me if I miss out on the latest magical molecule only available from one of the big guys.
As for the rest of the company, I aim to be kind, fair, and to keep my perfumes affordable. I am not a fan of that school of marketing which insists that you charge the earth for your products if people are daft enough to pay it. I’m not targeting the super-rich (except for one particular perfume, but what I do for bespoke customers is another story). I want my friends to be able to buy them. Even if I do make an extrait from super expensive materials I’ll still sell 4ml bottles so everyone can have a go. There’s a lot of poppycock talked about perfume; I don’t subscribe to it.
How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?
It all depends on the scent. Sometimes I think of a name, then I have to make perfume to fit it. Inevitable Crimes of Passion is one of them (that’s not out yet). Often, I’m trying to capture a place I’ve been to or a memory I have, like The Dark Heart of Old Havana or What I Did On My Holidays.
It can be someone else’s idea. I would never have made Rome 1963 if Peroni hadn’t asked me to create it for them, and sent their stylist, Silvia Bergomi, to work with me. She had a really clear idea of what she wanted which was great because we only had a day to make it. So then I ended up with a white flowers, woods and tobacco fragrance which I probably wouldn’t have started because I was never that fond of white flowers.
Centrepiece is made with frangipani that I had bought in specially for a bespoke project, then when my new friend Mohammed Fawaz visited the studio, he picked it out, with a handful of other materials he liked and said, “please would you make me one that smells of these?” So I blended them with some other materials to make it all work, and the result was what I suspect will be our next bestseller.
It’s not in my nature to create something to fill a gap in the range, but it happens like that because of circumstances.
Sometimes I just wake up in the morning knowing I have to make something. Midnight in the Palace Garden (in progress) is one of those. Occasionally I do it as an intellectual exercise, which is actually the way that The Sexiest Scent On The Planet. Ever (IMHO) came about. It was a base that had to provide smoothness and softness for blending with gin botanicals. It just turned out that this smoothness and softness was exactly what people wanted – by itself.
What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?
Perhaps they would be interested to realise how important the maths is. I spent 20 years thinking that my two maths A levels and half a maths degree had been a complete waste of time, and although I never use advanced calculus these days, when I have to do some scaling up or down and some averagely complicated maths to work out what proportions of different blends I need to use, or how to create the final formula for materials I’ve used at different concentrations, that’s as easy as falling off a log. I’ve seen people turn pale at the idea of just having to multiply their formula by a factor of 10.
If you want to make your own perfumes, and you’re not that hot at maths, you’ll need to get someone to sit next to you who is.
What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?
I do hate sales. I’m not good at picking up the phone, leaving a message, then picking it up again the next day, and the next. I don’t really like negotiating, or having to make new contacts.
I love it when shops call me and ask if they can stock my scents. Fortunately that happens quite a lot, but I still have to allocate time to getting out there and into more shops.
I spend too much time answering people’s emails, doing the accounts, doing the stock checks, chasing up all the EU safety data I need for certification, sending links to press photos, getting deliveries to the right places at the right times. I just want to be in my creative corner making lovely things.
Creatively, I don’t really mind the regulations, as they force you to use your ingenuity.
Distribution, as you well know, is a complete nightmare now that perfume is classed as Dangerous Goods. How I wish I could get mine to Australia. Every box I pack to Lucky Scent, our biggest stockist in the US, plus the goddamn paperwork, takes half a day.
How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?
Everyday smells are a constant source of inspiration. I walk past the Acton water processing works every morning and evening, so sometimes there is a very strong smell of poo, and I just think, “Hmmm, indole.” Cat pee is buchu essential oil or blackcurrant bud absolute. Yesterday on the bus someone stank more of garlic than I thought it was possible to stink; I just find it interesting. Shrubs can stop me dead in the street. Some beguiling flower will be wafting a glorious fragrance and I have to track it and trace it and stick my head into its source. One day I’ll probably get arrested.
I’ll also spend a lot of time with my nose stuck in my husband’s glass of port, until this starts to irritate him and he asks if he can please drink it. I used to be very sceptical about people who said they could detect caramel or black currants in wine, but now it seems obvious. Scents have stopped being good or bad to me and have just become more interesting.
Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?
I’d like to eat opoponax.
If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?
I’m quite happy working now, in the style of the 1920s to the 1970s.
If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?
I would invent the process that enables rose absolute, jasmine absolute and geranium essential oils to smell exactly the way they do and not be restricted for cosmetic use.
What is the purpose of perfume?
Perfume is for making new memories and recalling distant ones.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the final instalment of Perfume Polytechnic’s first Perfumer Interview Series with Sarah McCartney of 4160Tuesdays. Further series of Thirteen Thoughts will feature on Perfume Polytechnic in the near future!
I want to thank Sarah for taking time out of a very busy schedule to answer these questions. I loved all of her interesting and amusing answers, but particularly loved reading about how her idea for a novel turned into a new career as a perfumer! I also like how Sarah aims to make her fragrances affordable to all.
4160Tuesdays is currently crowdfunding to create a new range of seven fragrances: The Crimes of Passion series. If you’re keen to read about the project and help out, click here.
You can buy Sarah McCartney’s novel The Scent of Possibility here.
Last week, Paul Kiler of PK Perfumes was interviewed. You can catch up on his interview here. In week three, Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù answered the thirteen questions. You can read his very unconventional answers here! If you’d like to catch up with week 2’s interview with Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes, click here. Emma Leah of Fleurage was interviewed in week 1 of Thirteen Thoughts. To read Emma’s interview, click here.
I’d like to extend a warm and hearty thank you to all of the perfumers who participated in this first series of Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series. I hope to be back shortly with a new series of Thirteen Thoughts, featuring interesting perfumers from across the globe. Suggestions on who you would like to see interviewed in the future are welcome, please share your ideas with me in the comments section below!