March is Women’s History Month, a month where we celebrate the vital role of women in American history. The 21 st of March is also National Fragrance Day, a day where we celebrate all things fragrant. Blending these two together, it was kismet to curate a collection of all female perfumers that fearlessly charged into the often-secretive society of perfumery and made their mark. A gloriously fragrant mark that is!
For the 2022 March Collection, Gold Rush, we honor women in perfumery. Always inspiring, each one of these ladies rock the indie perfume world and it is our absolute honor to showcase them.
They’re gold. You’re gold.
Let's meet Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays and enjoy the gold rush.
Perfumer: Sarah McCartney
House: 1460 Tuesdays
Fragrance Selected for the March 2022 Box: Over The Chocolate Shop
Q: Who is the most influential woman in your life, past or present?
My grandmother taught me that the happiest times are with people who accept you for who you are, and not what you have or do. She didn’t mean to influence us, she just loved us. She lived in a tiny house, which she rented from the town council, and while there was always this cultural undercurrent that we had to strive to be successful so we could be happy, my gran’s situation gave me a practical example that it just wasn’t true. She had very little but was always generous and kind. She once got a postcard addressed: “Mrs. Elizabeth Bain, Somewhere in Middlesbrough, Please try to find her because she’s very nice.” That is a lifetime achievement worth more than diamonds.
Q: What do you think helped you the most to make a career as a woman? What’s the biggest factor that has helped you be successful?
This might sound strange but I never really thought of myself as a woman, just a human. I went to school with boys and girls, and was taught by men and women, went to a mixed college then worked in mixed teams. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was any option but to earn a living for myself and be completely responsible for my own future. My parents wanted my sister and me to be self-sufficient, and so that’s the way I went about my life. It never crossed my mind that I might rely on someone else financially so I have always looked for ways to earn a living while enjoying what I do. I also love making things, and set up my first business when I was seven making bracelets from wooden beads.
Q: Did you always want to be a perfumer? If not, what did you want to be growing up and how did the transition to become a perfumer come about?
I didn't have any plans or ambitions other than to explore whatever was next. I still don’t, and I’m not certain what I might do after this. I had been a musician, then went into planning at an ad agency, and marketing at The Guardian newspaper. I went freelance and spent 14 years as a writer with Lush, and 14 years seems to be the maximum that I can spend on one project (except my marriage). When I left Lush, I worked as a copywriting trainer, and I was writing a novel about a perfumer who made fragrances to remind people of happy times and get them through difficult ones. I decided to have a go at making the fragrances I’d described in my book, and I turned out to have some kind of inspiration or ability that got me there faster than others. I have been a perfumer for 12 years now, and I rather like the idea of opening a yoga studio and pillow fighting gym.
Q: When you did become a perfumer, were you self-taught or formally trained? Please expand on how that evolved, what was great about it, what was not great or things you wish were different.
I was mostly self-taught, but I say that I learned from people who weren’t necessarily there at the time. I used books, and also took every chance to listen to perfumers who have been doing this a lot longer than I have. I discovered that I have some kind of aptitude for it, perhaps from collecting different ways of telling stories and expressing myself - writing, playing music, making clothes.
I would love to spend more time studying with experienced perfumers, probably I would pick Maurice Roucel if I could sit next to someone quietly in a lab, compounding the samples and learning the way he does things. It could happen! I admire his work.
Q: How have others embraced or judged your profession as a perfumer?
My friends were really keen to smell everything, far more keen than they were to read the novel I’d written, and that’s how I got talked into taking it up as a job. I grew the business on personal recommendation, and by being introduced to the London scent adventurers by Lizzie Ostrom, author of A Century of Scents, and by coincidence a good friend of a close neighbour of ours.
Often people are just surprised to find that individuals can make perfume; it’s not something they ever thought about. The stuff just turns up on shelves in stores after strange TV ads depict beautiful people in expensive clothes. The idea that it can be a craft is quite a surprise to them.
I know there are some industry perfumers in the UK who don’t think indies ought to be allowed to make our own fragrances in case we do something dangerous. Or maybe they worry that we might make something really good, or even that we’re having a load of fun launching our own brands and creating new, amazing aromas.
The people who matter are our customers and we’re still slowly growing as people like what I do, and introduce it to their friends and families. Sometimes I’ll meet a friend I’ve not seen in ages, and find that they’ve been wearing my fragrances for the last few years and I had no idea.
Q: Perfumers that have their own brands like you do, many times have to wear many hats. Is this the case for you? And if so, what hats do you wear the most? Which ones do you love, hate?
I rarely get enough time to work on making fragrances. I love working when it’s quiet and it’s never quiet. When I’m in the studio I seem to be constantly answering questions from my team or from customers. You will need help. My biggest hat is the decision making hat because while we run a flat structure and we can all ask for help from each other, when there’s a big problem to solve, it kind of rises up like a volcano and the founder is the one in the hot seat.
During the first lock-down when we were all working from home, I got two more creative work done then than in the following 18 months.
So much time is just spent writing to people who can’t seem to find a search function on a website, and every 30 minutes I spend answering an email I could have been making a variation on a new fragrance. I only get to do creative work after 6pm in the evening when I find I can concentrate.
Q: What advice or words of wisdom would you give a young woman who wanted to be a perfumer or start her own perfume company?
I give everyone the same advice: write everything down, always put the lid back on and really get to know your materials.
I would add to look very closely into whether or not doing this professionally would ruin the fun. I have several talented perfume-maker friends who decided to keep their main jobs because they really enjoy them, and decided to have perfumery as a pleasure, not a responsibility.
If you do decide to take it up as a career, then you either have to be very good at the calculations you need, or to have someone who will do that for you. If you don’t know what to do with percentages, you will make mistakes, so unless you’re good at figures, perfumery will be difficult.
I’ve had people get quite angry at me when I’ve told them this because they think it’s an art and that they will be able to get away with dropping things into bottles when the romantic inspiration taken them. They might be able to do that once, but they won’t be able to do it again. If you don’t want to keep neat records of all your calculations, then have a math nerd to sit next to you while you’re doing it.
Also check all the obstacles that lie between the dream and the reality. Most people with their names on the bottle do not make the actual perfume. If you want to spend your time doing the actual making, then you probably don’t want to run your own business, you might want to train and work for a bigger company. The big perfume companies are employing more women these days worldwide.If you want to run your own perfume business, you might want to be more like some of the indie brands and invite perfumers to work with you to bring your ideas to life.
Q: Over The Chocolate Shop was chosen for this month’s collection. Can you tell us more about this fragrance? The inspiration, the key notes, how it makes you feel when you wear it, why customer’s love it, etc.
I actually made this for a friend’s daughter, someone I've known since she was born. They lived in a Georgian townhouse in Highgate, north London, and when they bought it, it was a bargain because it was above a dry-cleaner’s and the smell wasn’t that good. After that, the shop was taken over by a Belgian chocolate maker, so they literally lived Over the Chocolate Shop and I wanted to capture that aroma.
It is really annoying to make, although the studio smells amazing while we filter it four times to remove the sludge from the cacao extract. I also used hazelnut extract, coffee absolute and vanilla absolute on top of musks. It has become our second best selling fragrance, although I really wish it weren't quite so popular.
I actually don’t wear it because I think of it as belonging to Bella not me. It would feel like knitting her a scarf which I’d designed specially for her, then wearing one exactly the same.
Q: What in your life has brought or given you the greatest satisfaction or fulfillment? Looking back, what would you have done differently? What would you do again?
In the past it was playing live music; there’s nothing like being in a well rehearsed band or an orchestra, getting to the last moment, the silence before the applause starts, knowing that everyone worked to make it flow beautifully. Of course I probably wouldn’t have done anything differently, unless I’d known, understood and interpreted all the life clues in other ways. Perhaps I would have fought to keep more music in my life if I’d know that it could slip away so easily.
Now, I get the most reward from people telling me how happy it makes them to smell something I’ve made that brings them delight and happiness.
Q: What do you do for fun these days?
Over the past two years, I’ve been spending a great deal of time only in West London, and work has grown to take over all the time I used to spend at concerts, talks, traveling, seeing friends and visiting museums. I wonder how I’m going to be able to fit it back in again when the world becomes safer. My fun has become smaller and more repetitive, walking around the local parks, watching the seasons change and visiting all our local coffee shops.
My favourite thing for the last six years has been a festival we go to every summer; it’s called Also and it’s in a field by a lake at Compton Verney, near Stratford-upon-Avon. As it is one of the smallest but most inspiring festivals in the UK, it got safety clearance to take place during Covid, so it ended up being the UK’s largest legal gathering in 2020. Each year I teach a perfume making class and scented yoga, and in 2022 we have gone quite crazy and hired an 18 foot yurt, The Scent Tent, in which we’re going to be running two days of fragrant events, talks and classes.
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