An interview with natural perfume ingredient master sourcer and author of the new book, In Search of Perfumes (available now via Booktopia)
Your new book, In Search of Perfumes, is such a beautiful story of the other world of perfume, giving voice and honour not only to the natural ingredients themselves, but to the people and communities that dedicate their lives to the cultivation of these materials. It’s a world that very few of us will ever get to experience. What aspects of your thirty years of sourcing natural perfumery materials did you find it difficult to convey in the book?
As there are so many natural ingredients and so many stories it was not easy to choose what was covered in the book! I was also careful to give each story its own individual angle so that the book didn’t read like an encyclopaedia.
What is your mission or hope in writing this book? And what do you see is the greater meaning of your work, beyond just the practical sourcing of extraordinary materials?
My ambition was to pay tribute to the people who weave this magical tapestry! Humble farmers or tree trappers are fascinating characters who carry on with centuries old traditions of distillation. More memories came back as I was writing, and my hope was to capture their skills and passion.
How has your work changed and shaped you as a person?
Working in so many different countries, many of them with workers on very low incomes, teaches you humility and fosters a great respect for the reality of the life these communities experience. This had a deep and long-lasting effect on me. The other lesson I learned was that is it possible to have a business relationship with producers at the source that is based on respect and understanding.
Reading the book, I was constantly pondering the irony and sense of disconnection of the perfume industry: two extreme worlds; the one of polished million-dollar campaigns and glamour and celebrity and mass production, and the one you present in your book - of intense labour, extreme patience, cultivation, tradition, devotion, ownership, and community. How do you think about the contrasts between those two worlds? And what do you hope readers will come to see differently after reading your book?
This amazing contrast has been in my mind for years. I feel fortunate and proud to have had the opportunity to bring this contrast to light. My job has included bringing some hard realities to light in luxury offices in New York, Geneva and Paris and I shared the stories of the amazing scents from the source and the stories of who I was meeting and what I was experiencing.
I hope to make readers aware that ingredients like rose oil, frankincense gum or Peru balsam extract are the true luxury in the perfume bottles they end up in. And that the people who make them are as luxurious as the perfumiers.
What do the growers you work with think or feel about the end-use of their materials? Is there ever a sense that they feel undervalued in terms of the price they are paid for their hard work and devotion and final harvest vs the consumer price of perfumes?
Today, at the farming level, there is still little knowledge about what the extracts will be used for or what they will become. Usually there is a vague notion that because it smells good it will end us as something used by rich people. Some progress has been made in recent years with the work of the producers being acknowledged through awards and there is more transparency than before in regard to prices and value sharing but the gap between the cost of patchouli leaves and a bottle of Angel is still so huge that it’s difficult for the people at the source to understand what is happening from a simple bush to a crystal bottle.
As someone with on-the-ground experience with the effect of changing climates and changing agricultural practices, what is your view on how these changes are affecting the production of natural materials, both for perfumery and for agricultural production generally?
Because of the geographical diversity of the sources, climate change is a deep concern. In agriculture, the main concern is about water, it’s availability and the possibility of irrigation. Productions that rely heavily on rain are at risk and while this has been managed in the past, like the rose in Bulgaria or Lavandin in France, the climate is becoming more erratic and difficult to predict.
Trees are also challenged. Some are quite safe when irrigated in large scale plantations, like Sandalwood in Australia but others, like citrus trees, will be affected. Learning to cultivate with limited water and in a pesticide free manner will be key for the future and will likely generate lower yields that may impact pricing.
Many artisans in the perfume industry don’t actually wear fragrance. Do you wear perfume yourself? If so, do you want to share with us some of your favourites? Do you have a favourite natural perfume material that you just keep coming back to?
I favour woody notes, including vetiver and oud, and I’m addicted to rose. Some favourites I like to wear from time to time include: Man Wood Essence from Bulgari, Grey Vetiver by Tom Ford and Nuit des Rois by Chopard.
There is a clear split of two pathways in the perfume world at the moment - one in which there is (and has been for some decades) a greater move toward replacing natural raw materials for synthetic ingredients, and the other rapidly growing segment of natural, “clean” perfumery, utilising more natural ingredients and avoiding synthetics. Do you have thoughts about these industry trends?
Firstly, I believe “fine fragrance” in its classic form is here to stay. For this, perfumers will keep using a blend or synthetic molecules and natural. They need the combination to keep depth and strength in their formulas. But this is a strong tendency to include more naturals, including the most expensive ones, because it makes the perfume much better and because the consumer is now wanting a “true story” behind their perfume.
Young people especially are starting to look for more natural perfumes, which is where perfumery meets aromatherapy, where are few essential oils are combined to form a scent. This is a are fascinating trend that raises many questions ahead!
When it comes to sustainability, there are some in the industry who would suggest synthetic production of perfume materials is more environmentally sustainable than the use of naturals. Do you have any thoughts about what that means for the perfume world, and how we can create a more sustainable product and fragrance culture without turning to synthetics?
The sustainability evaluation of perfume ingredients and bottled perfumes is…complicated. Many many criteria get in the way. Synthetics are looking for a better image through green chemistry (ways of production) or renewability, which is great but still only a portion.
Naturals are questions both on agricultural practices (waters and pesticides) and on the cost of energy production (boiling water for distillation). In my opinion, I believe naturals are globally very sustainable, but more progress can be done!
If you were to create your own natural perfume, what would be the key materials you would incorporate and why?
Rose because it’s the queen, vetiver because it smells like earth and wood, benzoin because it smells like vanilla coming from a tree and frankincense because it’s the first perfume of mankind.