On perfume | with Sarah McCartney30.08.2021
We've met Sarah McCartney back in May 2020, when Namsû was nothing more than an idea and she quickly became the 'nose' behind our products.
But Sarah is not your usual perfumer - as a child, she wanted to be a witch; now, she hear smells as musical notes. We've sat down with her and chatted about all things perfume.
Q: So tell us a bit about how your journey into perfumery began?
A: I guess it I first started when I was copywriter at Lush. I worked for Lush for 14 years and trained up a team of writers, mainly so I wouldn’t feel so guilty when I left. Anyway, I always wanted to make things but as ‘the writer’ I wasn’t allowed. I started to potter nonetheless and learn about essential oils, what they smell like and all about synthetics.
Q: You were also writing a novel?
A: Yes, I was writing a novel about a perfumer who made fragrances that remind people of happy times and places. Everyone that I told about it said ‘I’d love a perfume like that’, rather than saying ‘I’d love to read your book’! That’s when I realised all the things I’d written about in the book didn’t actually exist; you couldn’t buy them. There wasn’t a smell of walking into a conservatory, or sitting on the beach in Scotland. So I set out on a quest to make them myself and by the time I’d finished doing that I’d been accidentally ‘discovered’ by Lizzy Ostrom, who wrote ‘A Century of Scents’. She was running various perfume events and invited me to present my fragrances at one of those. Jo Fairley, who runs The Perfume Society, bought a bottle and wrote a blog post about me, and so that’s that! I spent a year or so freelance writing, training and finishing my novel before I became a full-time perfumer.
Q: You mentioned learning about essential oils and synthetics; what are your thoughts on ‘clean beauty’?
A: I think that when it comes to this idea of only using natural ingredients, there needs to be more clarity. In the EU and UK, we have to comply with regulations and only put things which have been thoroughly tested and are approved ‘safe’ into cosmetics. If you look at a safety data sheet for a synthetic ingredient, the ‘toxic’ sign you see on the side is actually a shipping declaration. Basically, it means that if you’re transporting this ingredient at a 100% strain on the road or at sea, it has to be packaged to ensure it doesn’t spill. However, if you look at Lavender essential oil, it has exactly the same sign, the same with Rose Absolute.
Q: Anything at 100% strength is essentially just as dangerous?
A: Yes. I am more than happy to have a conversation with anyone and really talk about the science behind perfumery.
Q: So, using essential oils alone in a fragrance isn’t necessarily the best idea?
A: Yes, mainly because going from plant to essential oil, you lose a lot of product. The plant is distilled at a high temperature mostly with steam; some of the fragrance will disappear into the water, some might just evaporate completely. That’s why using synthetics can create that ‘brightness’. I guess you could say it’s making things smell more natural than they would on their own; it makes the scent project further and stronger. For example, fruits just don’t produce a fragrance using that process, aside from blackcurrants. It’s about enhancing the natural ingredient rather than putting the chemical at the forefront.
Q: Is that partly why fragrance is just listed as parfum in an ingredients list?
A: Well, it’s largely because people would just copy other people’s formulas! There’s no intellectual property law in perfume.
Q: Is there any particular experience or moment in time that you would love to bottle that you haven’t already?
A: Last year I made the fragrance I’d always wanted to make, called ‘Meet Me On The Corner’. The name is taken from a Lindisfarne song from 1971 and the fragrance evokes that era; a time when you were going on a date and you had to just hope your date turned up to meet you, because obviously, pre-mobile phones, internet, all of that. Some of my favourite fragrances I’ve made are New York in 1955, or a Great Gatsby party. I think what I’d love to do would be maybe St Paul’s Cathedral library (although it has since been restored and that aroma doesn’t really exist anymore). Or the Paris Metro in the 1970s; rubber wheels of the trains braking, the smell of Gauloises cigarettes and perfume.
Q: How do you think COVID has affected the perfume industry?
A: Well lots of people started shopping online. Luckily we were already set up for that; we had sample sets or ‘discovery kits’, which is a great way of trying different scents before coming back for a bigger size.
Q: And lastly, is there anything exciting coming up for you in the pipeline?
A: We’re set to release a new perfume on the 21st of June called Complicated Shadows. It’s sort of named after an Elvis Costello song but it’s also the eighth in a series of variations on clouds. This is the darkest of them, but with sunshine just beginning to peek from behind the clouds, leaving lots of complicated shadows behind. I describe it has having notes of Iris, Narcissism and Irony…. that kind of covers my thoughts on fragrance notes and that they are meaningless! Fragrance notes are just what someone smells, which can be subjective; they aren’t the ingredients.
Herbert James Draper, "Pot Pourri", 1897
Henri Matisse, "Elle y pose sa joue, elle l'embrasse", 1944
J.W. Godward, "The new perfume", 1914