The language around our olfactory system comes with its challenges. From the complex mechanisms and terminology of neuroscience to the veiled descriptions in press releases, describing matters of the nose is not as straightforward as they seem. As the fragrance industry continues to boom, raking in $50.85 billion worldwide in 2022, and #perfumetok creates substantial sales buzz overnight, words matter all the more.
As founder of artisan fragrance brand 4160 Tuesdays and online scent school Scenthusiasm, Sarah McCartney is passionate about creating democratic access to the beauty, chemistry, and splendor that perfumery has to offer through perfume-making workshops, informative articles, and at-home perfumery kits. The former Head of Brand Publications for Lush, the London-based entrepreneur hopes to dispel the myths around scent for the public and industry alike. McCartney sat down with BeautyMatter to discuss the need for an overhaul in how we discuss all things olfactory.
How does the language around scent differ between perfumers, consumers, and retailers?
There's this huge crevice in the middle that doesn't always have the rope bridge slung across it, between what people put in perfumes and then what salespeople are told to say about them to customers. Customers come to me and say, “I’d like to make a perfume and put fig, peony, cherry, and all of these things on the notes list,” and you can't because that's not what perfumes are made from.
And how would I describe them? How would salespeople describe them? It might be useful for the people who are selling fragrances to know what they actually are made of. I had the head of Tom Ford sales training at the perfume workshop one day and he just kept gasping [at what was being discussed].
In terms of the information that does actually cross that barrier, now that there's the internet, there's all kinds of rubbish circulating that people pick up. How are you supposed to know what's true, but also what's useful? Difficult.
I like it when industry people come here, so that I can tell them, this perfume has notes of opoponax. Do you know what opoponax smells like? People think they do because they've got a perfume that somebody said has loads of opoponax, but they don't know because they've never smelled it separately. Is it a benefit for the people to come and smell the things individually? I think maybe yes.
There's the actual smell, and then there's a type of cultural conditioning around it. I remember being at a Le Labo presentation for their Lys 41 release, and they were talking us through all the single notes. We all smelled vanilla, and it was not as sweet as most people have come to know it.
Vanilla itself isn't sweet. Some people think it smells salty. It's an aroma, not a taste. But if anything, it’s bitter. With opoponax, some people immediately say cough medicine, because there's a certain kind of medicine from the UK mid-to-last century that smells a bit like this. But I started putting it in everything because I like it so much. It's restricted, but it's been used for thousands of years.
What kind of compositions do you favor this for? I guess that's almost like asking a painter, when do you use blue? You could use blue in every painting if you wanted to.
You could, but I would tend to put it in the heart of a chypre fragrance. I like it with oakmoss, patchouli, and bergamot. I wouldn't necessarily put labdanum in a chypre, which often people do. I've sometimes put opoponax instead, or as well as. And with any kind of amber fragrance as well, it does go very nicely with vanilla. If I'm trying to do any kind of fragrance with a vintage feel, I'd probably put it in there.
Sandalwood, for example, when you hand out the natural form of it to a group of people they go, “That’s not sandalwood.” But then if you give them the synthetic molecule, then they say, “Oh, yeah, that's it. Why didn’t you give us that before?” Because in the world of perfume, particularly posh candles, sandalo, santalol, Dreamwood, smell much more like the sandalwood that people expect.
Given the overharvesting and rarity of sandalwood, there's also the environmental and cost question around it.
In Australia, they've now managed to grow the Mysore sandalwood, 20 years since they planted them. That's being done as a joint project with the Indigenous people, bearing in mind whose land it actually is. When I was at Lush, the Indian partner there, she had a sandalwood tree in her garden and it had a 24-hour armed guard. When you get into those ethics of anything grown in Madagascar these days, there are many advantages to using the synthetic version.
I hear in Madagascar, the vanilla fields often get robbed.
There’s money laundering, child labor, murder. And some illegal logging of the forests for rosewood. But then you've got places where there's extreme poverty, and somebody thinks, “If I just cut this down and sell that, I could feed my family for three months.” Do you blame them? The simple question is, “Oh, is it natural? I want it natural without going through the whole background.” There’s just much more to it.
I don't know if you saw the Digital Scent Festival Yosh Han did recently with decolonizing scent. Once you start to go into it, there's so much to unpack.
She got in touch about the book I co-wrote, The Perfume Companion, because we'd stripped out [the term oriental] ages ago. We've got [the fragrance family category] amber in there. This is a decision from 2018. She's holding it up as an example, against the “Oh, we don't want to change anything.” There's a lot of that going on. All “oriental” means in perfumery is that it’s got synthetic vanilla in it from Holzminden in Germany. It was all made up in the 1890s, there's nothing there to lose. Is that a conversation that people want to have over the counter around the shelves? Possibly not.
It breaks the fantasy, right?
This is another thing. I got told “you're spoiling the fantasy” once for telling people practical, down-to-earth kinds of things. Which fantasy is it? A lot of the time it seems to be people who make perfume, traditionally white men, believing that they're making things that women will want to wear to attract them. Is that still a thing? Apparently. I'm not really pro that romantic fantasy of why we wear perfume, but perhaps I'm in the minority?
It feels like an old-fashioned notion to say. On that subject, what are your observations on the language used in sales training?
The sales training wasn't about leaving the customer feeling that they'd had a wonderful experience. It was about making sure that the customer left some of their money in your till.
I've had it quoted at me by a trainer, “Oh, well, we all tell porkies [British English slang for telling lies] some of the time, don't we?” As my face dropped, they continued, “Well, if somebody says ‘Has this got rose in it?’ and they love it, you just say yes.” I kind of see your point, but then if they're going to look it up, they're going to tell other people. The spread of misinformation in every corner of the world is a bad thing. You say, “Oh, it’s only perfume, it doesn't really matter,” and then it spreads to, “Oh, but it's only climate change, it doesn’t really matter.” It can spread to anything. It’s a shame that a lot of people are scared of chemistry. What's really good is people starting to talk about molecules, and the thing about “molecule” is it sounds like such a cute little word. It's lovely and it smells nice. Somebody said to me once, “I don't mind the molecules that you perfumers use, I just don't like chemicals.”
Water is a chemical.
Salt is a chemical. Everything is a chemical. Oxygen is a chemical. We're all made of chemicals. But what they meant was things that smell harsh and have hazard warning labels. If we can openly say this has got the ionone alpha molecule in it, and that's what smells of violets, it’s not made out of flowers, it’s just made out of molecules … But it's probably going to take a little bit of change.
It's interesting because there is such a discrepancy between the language in scent. What smells one way to one person might smell a different way to another.
It has so much to do with what we've learned and our own experiences. Some people hate certain scents because they associate them with individuals. There was a chap who came in and said that Kouros gives him a headache. The thing is, these days, there isn't anything in perfume that can physically cause a headache. I asked him, where the headache started. He said his ex used to wear Kouros, and so now when he smells it, it gives him a headache. This is not the Kouros that’s giving you a headache, it’s thinking about your ex. It’s usually the memory trying to keep you away from something it perceives as dangerous.
People will say synthetic fragrances give them headaches when actually the allergen potential in the natural is so much higher.
The other thing is that they will generally believe that the fragrances that they wear are 100% natural and that's why they don't give them a headache. If you then said, actually, that one's 95% synthetic, they suddenly start getting headaches from it. Maybe that's why we don't tell people what's in things. But you do hear people saying, “Oh yes, this one's completely made of flowers.” It's like it's shorthand for “this is safe.” But in actual fact, that's not true.
Somebody says, “This is food grade, so it must be alright,” but we can eat a lot of food that we couldn't possibly put on the skin. Essential oils are made by plants as a defense [mechanism] to try and deter animals, molds, bacteria. We take them out of the plant 1,000% stronger, stick them in a bottle and go, “Oh look, this is natural.” It's not really. It's never meant to leap out of the plant into the bottle. It’s going to be slow progress, if at all.
What do you think are the keys to having a more foundational education around scents?
People have said to me, “If only I knew that if I paid attention in chemistry, it could have led to perfume.” I have gone into schools and talked about perfume to young people, and even if they don't end up becoming perfumers or working in cosmetics, at least they open their minds to the way that some molecules can smell absolutely amazing and wonderful. Then maybe some doors open into channels of the mind that allows some of that learning to go in earlier.
Allowing people to smell things like sandalwood by itself, it's helpful because then that misunderstanding that all chemicals must be harsh and all naturals must be lovely, it's quite clearly demonstrated if you can smell the difference. I have a lime oxide and lime essential oil. I give them to people [to smell] and never had anyone say that they think that the lime oxide is the synthetic, because it smells so much softer.
You can smell a difference between an all-natural fragrance and one that uses both [naturals and synthetics]. There are just different facets to it, a certain heaviness with all-natural.
They do tend to be. I made some more natural fragrances, but only after I'd gotten the hang of making a balance of synthetics and naturals. With naturals, people quite often come to it from aromatherapy, thinking you have to put fairly equal quantities of drops of things. What you need to do is to get a balance, big chunks of the ones that are more gentle and small amounts of the ones that are more intense. But if you took your 100% natural rather dense, full blend and added in something like hedione, which is methyl dihydrojasmonate, that makes things smell fresh and light, weirdly. It's an amazing thing. It gives transparency and clarity to very dense blends. Because naturals are made of hundreds of different molecules, there's not much space in there, so if you give them a little bit of extra air with some safe synthetics, like they would have if they were wafting out of the natural plants, they actually smell like much better perfumes, in my view.
I do find that term “safe synthetics” interesting. For a long time, synthetics almost felt like a dirty word, like it somehow denoted a lower-quality fragrance, when obviously now there are these beautiful bioengineered molecules. In some people's opinions, this is the better nature because you can take patchouli and take out some of the medicinal qualities, then you have your Patchouli Coeur and whatnot.
That's also one way to charge a hell of a lot more money for it. Patchouli is widely available. Nobody patents essential oils, no one spends money on researching essential oils for what they can do medicinally because there's no money in it. The money is in the patented processes, which the big perfume companies can use to produce things. So actually Patchouli Coeur, love it, but I equally love patchouli crude, the raw one that hasn't been messed with, and they're not that different. But that's a bit like you've got fashion in perfume making like you have in perfume wearing. Like, Oh, you mean you haven't tried that version of it? Have you not got the vetiver from somebody else who took out this? I mean, it's really handy when you extract the atranol and chloroatronal off from oakmoss so it's no longer dangerous. Molecular distillation for that is really handy because now we can still use oakmoss, although the EU proposed banning it because it's so dangerous. It's expensive to extract it, but at least we've still got it.
With green chemistry, I don't necessarily think they smell better than the original version, but I'm certainly switching to things as far as I possibly can that are sustainable and biodegradable, but not necessarily natural. The demand for natural has been created by people bigging up nature as if it's the answer to everything, and it's not. Now the industry is having to go back and find ways to justify that things are 100% natural, even though they're like really narrow and not 100% natural. By defining nature, you're really spinning it out on a long thin thread that could snap at any moment in that nature doesn't do it itself. On the other hand, people are using the word “natural” to generally mean something I feel comfortable with.
When it comes to the fragrance sale, how much of it is—and of course, this is highly dependent on the individual situation–down to the actual scent? How much of it is the salesperson’s interaction with the customer? How much of it is down to the inspiration or the story behind it?
I was told by one head buyer that no one smells the fragrance before making the decision about whether to stock it or not. What they look at is what the concept is. Most niche brands have a concept, get the packaging all sorted out, and then go to an established company in order to bring out the fragrance. And so it all matches up beautifully. But it is whether or not their aesthetic fits on the shelf in that shop.
All of our sales, pretty much, are online, so that's all about the stories and describing what they smell like. People really have to try to decide what are the funnels people go down in order to get to the point at which they want to smell the fragrance, which mostly in retail these days is: oh, that's quite nice. Everybody is aiming for that because this is where the money is. Unless you are Luckyscent in LA, or…
Or Bloom Perfumery here in London.
But even there, people will go in and they want to try or they want to smell Sécrétions Magnifiques [from Etat Libre d’Orange] or Bat from Zoologist, but they'll buy something else from the line that's more wearable. I like the stories. Brooke Belldon, who is a very good writer and knows pretty much everything about perfume that I can think of, said that fragrances, particularly these niche ones, have got to stop relying on their stories. The fragrance itself has got to stand up without everybody knowing exactly where it came from. But on the other hand, I have found that people can smell things without the story and go, I just don't know what's happening. You tell them the story, then they say, “Oh yes, I can see it now,” and then they like it. For me, it takes story and scent.
There has also been a boom in prestige fragrance sales of fragrance. That's a whole other can of worms, isn’t it, this idea of higher price equating to higher quality, and branding on heritage?
Prestige, that’s not about the scents. It’s not about the quality or the cost. One of my clients came in with a bottle of perfume she just bought from Harrods. She let me smell it and said, “How much do you think it would cost to make a bottle of perfume about that size?” I said £10. She laughed so much she fell off the sofa because she just paid £300 for it. It was [made of] musks, and there were some very expensive musks, but 30ml of one, even at 40% strength, is still £10. You can spend as much as you’d like on the bottle and have your own bottle made, that's pretty expensive, but making people feel that they've got something expensive … now that we have mass production, you can get really top-quality stuff for not very much money. Let’s talk about [the fragrance brand] Creed, the whole fake history.
Oh yes, The Ghost Perfumer, I haven't read it.
I've read it, we've had a few chats with Gabe [Oppenheim]. It became apparent that Creed was assigning perfumes to dead people. Nobody was ever alive. Nobody they claim they've made perfume from was actually alive. I have this view that life is much easier if you just tell the truth because then you don't have to remember who you've lied to and what you said, unless your lies are very, very consistent. But if it's true, all you have to do is remember it.
Some people get really carried away in their stories. It turns out that if you put the crown on something in the UK and imply that the royal family have used it, that seems to be a thing. People like me don't care about that stuff, but I've got some American friends who are like, the royal family used it. They’re just people with big houses.
I actually made a room fragrance for a company that is in the super hyper-prestige whiskey market. This bottle of whiskey is £10,000 a bottle. This bottle of room fragrance was to make the atmosphere smell like you're in a whiskey warehouse in Dublin. I've brushed up on that market where people will spend that kind of money on those sorts of things, and it's quite spectacular. But if anybody asked me how much for the fragrance, I probably ought to say it’s a £1,000 a bottle, but I couldn't. Using expensive materials does not necessarily make a better perfume.
You mentioned a majority of your sales are through e-commerce. How much of business had to shift there that maybe wasn't there before the pandemic? What impact has that had on the language of scent and selling scent?
I'm a writer and love making people laugh mostly, but telling real stories. All of the fragrances that I make have a reason for being, even if one of them is just our really lovely Korean distributor saying, “Please make me one that smells of cherries.” That's the real story for that. I've been avoiding it [but] I've got to try and make a cherry fragrance that smells different from other people's and lasts.
And those like Saltburn Driftwood would be, it’s where I was born. It's the day walking down the beach in the winter when you don't really want to go for a walk, but you are glad you did. But the wind is so strong that you practically have the sand blast your face smooth, and the surfers have been trying to light a fire out of driftwood, but it hasn't lit, so there's just some scorched twigs. People smell the fragrance and they go, “Oh, yes, I'm there.” Whereas if they just smelt it by itself, then they might go, “Well, it's a bit woody and it's a bit salty, and I don't know what's going on.”
What really hit us during the pandemic was that we couldn't do the live workshops. All of that stopped. I shifted everything so that my workshops, instead of people making different things here and all comparing, they made the same things in their own homes, so that then they could discuss what they have in common. It took a long time for me to turn that around. I don't call it pivoting, I call it swiveling. Now we've got a screen upstairs, so we’re going back to half Zoom, half live.
What we found is that people were spending more time in online communities. We already have a nice Facebook group where people would just come to chat, and then we have a “Let's all wear one perfume a day” one. The fact that we'd spent six or so years building up a group like that—I built it just in case we had disastrous times, assuming that there were going to be disastrous times, not knowing what they would be. It was fun, and I would hope it survives through tricky times. We actually sold more perfume, I think because people couldn't go into shops. We sold lots more tester sets. Many companies suddenly brought out tester sets over the last two years, we've noticed.
Even companies that said, “Oh, we're never going to do tiny amounts of perfumes, you either commit to a full bottle or you don't deserve to be here,” suddenly they're doing tester sets, because otherwise how are people going to smell them?
In 2019, because of the way the economy was heading, I bought 15ml bottles. Aren’t they the cutest things? You could almost call it molecule, it's so cute. Also, it's substantial, and so we went one size down for this, so that people don't have to spend a fortune getting something that smells nice. We can't sell these through retail, there isn't enough margin. We can do most 30mls, 50mls, and 100mls, but these … the bottle, cap, pump, and box cost the same, whether it's a 15ml or 100ml, so that just eats all the margin. This is for us and our customers. People who like trying new scents, they don't need a 100ml bottle of everything.
It's more like a fragrance wardrobe. There are probably still people for whom it’s about a signature scent, but I don't see it as much. People are more experimental and a bit more mood-dependent with their perfume.
People have less of a signature anything these days. But it's partly because there's too much stuff, too much choice out there. Nobody's got a favorite television program any more. When I was growing up, there were four channels, now there's 873. People hop about lots of different things, with perfume as well. If you could be like Barack Obama and knowing that every day, he was going to wear a black suit and the white shirt, it saves time—I can see why people would go with that signature scent. But the people who come to us like to explore.
We are different when we're in retail. So say we've got 15 fragrances in Korea, they're lined up next to Atelier Cologne or whoever else there is. Nobody in Korea knows that there are just three of us [working] here and that Atelier Cologne is owned by L'Oréal. Once it's on the shelf, it's just a perfume in the bottle. We operate quite differently through retail from the way that we operate online, where there’s a community.
With Scenthusiasm, you’ve got an additional online community.
That's the scent school, and it's a subscription because I wanted to share the costs so that I could make it affordable for people. We've got Scent School here [in London], and it's five days, six people, and on-screen. It's really intense and people can learn a lot in those five days. But the Scenthusiasm Patreon is an online community for people to learn. Every month, I give them a formula to make up step-by-step so that they learn what happens when you have different things. Then I make the fragrances and they can make them, so they can compare my version or their version. Every four months those go out. We're exploring all kinds of different routes, and mostly communities. We even crowdfund things. People will blind buy in advance at half price.
I remember seeing posts on scents you were working on at the moment, or even gathering ideas for what the next scent would be through the community, in a co-creation way.
We did Aunt Pera’s Adventurous Past recently, and that was a collaboration with a horror podcast, At Your Peril, run by an author who works here some of the time. I wrote the story about a perfume company that doesn't exist, but it features my actual late great-aunt Pera.
The relative existed but she never worked in a perfumery—she worked in refugee camps and dog kennels and ran a large house in Cannes. She did have an adventurous past, so I made a fragrance with materials which were all around in 1939. We do things very collaboratively. Helping people understand how to put a perfume together, I enjoy that so much—that's why I set up the online classes. I set that up in 2019, and then it was just taking off when 2020 hit. It's hit 250 people; it might never get bigger than that, because people will stay for a couple years, learn a lot of stuff and then think, “Okay, I know that now.” Then we bring in new people, so who knows, it might hit 25,000 and by then I’ll retire. But I just really like smacking these myths out of the park. I started doing films on YouTube, because I saw so much dangerous rubbish.
What are the biggest misconceptions?
If people want to make perfume, they think that somehow you have to add oil to it. They don't realize it's made from essential oils, aroma chemicals, and ethanol. There's a lack of knowledge to what's actually in it. They think I go out and collect flowers and somehow macerate them and that there exists a magic formula that no one's telling people that will fill the room, last 16 hours, and attract people that they want to attract indiscriminately while not apparently attracting the others. Humans do not have pheromones. There are some which could possibly be considered as aphrodisiacs, but they won't do the job if it's attached to a horrible person. You’ve got to start somewhere. The scent might help, the clothes might help, but it’s attached to someone. The biggest myth is probably that if you read the notes list, that the perfume is made from extracts of those things, which if you take the nine notes—three at the top, three in the middle, and three at the bottom—put them together and you get that perfume. Also the fact that perfumes actually can be divided into top, middle, and bottom [segments], that is so damaging. People have to unlearn that when they come to make a fragrance.
In retail, that's what they use to show customers the fragrance because it breaks it down for people in a way.
When someone comes in and says, “Have you got any fig,” I can give you a thing that will smell of fig, I'll give you a note of fig, but the material we're going to use is Green Tea Givco, or stemone, fructone, and verdox mixed together. Materials go in, notes come out. If you add something that feels as if it doesn't really smell of anything, that will suddenly make your perfume come to life. Smelling all the almost unsmellable things, the Iso E Super, the hedione, the musks, cedar, amber, the things that make a huge difference, but nobody really knows that they’re there. But the biggest is that people think natural is good and chemicals are bad.
How do you, with increasing digitalization, see scent semiotics developing in the future?
We are still a good distance away from being able to have a digital stimulus and scent response in the brain. It's happened, but you have to have a hell of a lot of electrodes actually stuck in there. We know that the scent response is memories. Sometimes if we're half asleep, we can get a smell in our head, some people dream in smell. The ability is in the brain to convince you that you're smelling something, and a lot of interesting research has come out through COVID through things like phantosmia, people not being able to smell anything and then suddenly they can smell smoke which isn't there. Some of the neuroscience which has come out as a result of the research caused by lack of sense of smell from COVID might help lead into how we stimulate the brain to smell things when the actual aroma isn't there.
But all this AI designing perfumes, that's just a way of speeding up the process so we can get rid of the juniors. But AI is not artificial intelligence at the moment. It's mildly artificial idiocy, it just repeats things it thinks are a good idea until it disappears down its own dark passage. It might get better, but at the moment, you can't predict exactly what's going to happen. Even top perfumers can't think of exactly what's going to happen when they're working with new materials and put them in different combinations. They make a thousand variations to see which one comes out alright. It's all very well having a lovely interface where you can wave things about a screen. It speeds things up, but it doesn't necessarily make things more beautiful. The machines haven't got intuition yet, and they don't have the psychophysics. Everything smells different. We smell from our own memories. A machine doesn't know that. A machine goes, that's got this quantity of that, that, that, that, and that, so that's probably come from that perfume. It can recognize the perfume and make a fragrance, but it can't make people like it. I think there's still room for humans and their noses.
In terms of enhancing that experience, I don't think we'll ever get to a completely universal language around scent because of those factors of difference in perception. But there is something to be said for having a lot of those myths that you just mentioned dispelled and having a general knowledge around smells, descriptives of smells, and origins of smells.
If we’re looking at the future of scent and experiences, then it's when we tie things into visuals, sound, and touch. I love working on multisensory projects. Steph [Stephanie Singer, founder of music company Bittersuite] and I did a multisensory experience during lockdown. I did the aroma, she had music, we had stories. That way of using scent is a lovely way forward. I'm working with a very interesting typography specialist, Sarah Hyndman, who runs Type Tasting. She can make you think that you are eating something different by showing you its name written in different fonts. You wouldn't believe it until it's happened to you, but by seeing a sharp jagged font, you can make something that you're tasting more bitter. If it's soft and fluffy, you can make it feel sweeter. It's like how your food served on a white plate tastes sweeter than if it's on a black plate. This is no doubt oversimplifying, but that is [part of] Professor Charles Spence’s work, and he introduced me to Sarah. We're working together on some fragrances; she's doing the labeling for them to get the impression over.
The scent itself has got to stand up on its own. But the moods we can change … I get emails from people saying, “That made me so happy. I was having a terrible day, this turned up, it reminded me of this, and I wanted to write and thank you.” As long as that happens in this world, I'll continue to make them. It's not about the money. I know some companies make scents because they have to make money, and maybe they're not making money, so they're forced to make perfume.
There's something really special about the moment you give someone something to smell and their face lights up because they like it so much. It's the most pure joy.
It's like hearing a beautiful piece of music that makes you feel things. That’s why we do it. Does it matter, as long as people get something that makes them happy, if they know what's in it or not? I think it matters if somebody lied to them about what's in it. That's what I have a problem with.
The power of once you've been equipped with that certain level of knowledge, it also helps you in your own search. Sometimes you do just need to drop the notes and actually smell it, not have that extra outer layer forming your perception of it. But once I started to see behind some of the myths, if I ever went fragrance shopping, I felt a little bit more solid in myself.
The more you know, the more you really can't stand the bollocks.
2 Article(s) Remaining