Becoming a natural perfumer…

How does one become a natural perfumer?

This is a question I am often asked and each natural perfumer has their own personal story to getting there; from Trygve Harris  and her quest for Omani frankincense to Alec Lawless and his passion for oenology and so many other colleagues all over the world, one common denominator is that we are all contributing to making people discover or re-discover the Scents of Nature with the main driving force being PASSION for NATURALS…. So as we celebrate the 5th Anniversary of the Natural Perfumers Guild, it is the opportunity for me to reflect on my own personal path to becoming a Natural perfumer.

Natural perfume is in my DNA!

I believe we are good at maths or we are not as much as I believe we are creative or not. It has all got to do with which part of our brain is more active and in my case, it is obvious that my rational/logical part has never been favoured by the stars!

On the other hand, my senses – particularly my sense of smell – have developed very early. It is probably due to my ‘melting pot’ origins! Born in the very capital of Beaujolais wine, Beaujeu… from a Mauritian /Madagascan father and a Belgian / Polish mother, it would be difficult to deny that my DNA was not printed with variety and scented genes! Yet, I probably fell in the Beaujolais wine pot because to this day, Beaujolais has never left me with any great memory nor taste! But it did leave me with a sense of appreciation of Nature and it is probably no coincidence that one of my sources of inspiration are the vineyards.

The few first years of my childhood that I spent in the Pyrenees and Basque country made me discover the smells of old school fireplaces, farmhouse animals smells, fields of daisies and forests of chestnuts and mushrooms and the powerful smell of tranquility but strangely enough, I remember more the smells of VETIVER and VANILLA  brought by our family visiting us from Madagascar.

A golden childhood in a Pacific island…

But my early passion for perfumes undoubtedly started at the tender age of 7 when I first set foot in the tropical island of New Caledonia. Each stop of the 34 hours journey in a DC-8 plane on the way to the island had been marked by memorable smells of some kind: petrol smoke in Bahrain; strong leather skin in Karachi; exotic flowers in Colombo; gunpowder in Saigon (our plane was the last one to be allowed to land there at the peak of the Vietnam war); humid and damp earth in Singapore and finally the smell that I will never forget upon getting out of the plane: NIAOULI essence! I can remember breathing that smell in deeply during the 70 km journey to Noumea, the capital city where I will live for 8 years.

First flowers, first perfumes!

First flower, first perfumeMy Tahitian friends and I were producing Monoi of New Caledonia!…

Those golden years in Paradise were spent with Nature in all its aspects: beautiful sandy beaches with the smells of coconut, mangroves with the smells of roots, rainforests with the smells of niaouli and sandalwood, woods with the smells of guava and passion fruit! One could not experience more exotic smells at one time than when visiting New Caledonia! It was not long before my Tahitian friends showed me how to macerate tiare flowers in coconut oil. As kids, we were doing this on the beach while the parents were preparing the local meal ‘bougna’… After experiencing the production of Monoi, I saw no reason why not to continue with other plants. My next successful trial would be the infusion of sandalwood, niaouli and camphor wood! I used it as a wax for my desk in my bedroom. That gorgeous smell still is strongly imprinted in my memory today… It goes to show how strong the memory of a scent can be!

Leaving New Caledonia and arriving in Africa!

My teen years were spent in a totally different environment and culture yet a fascinating one: West Africa. Once again, I will always remember the smells during the journey from the airport to our house: those smells were a blend of all kinds of smell that are difficult to describe and that anyone should experience at least once in their lifetime; alongside the roads in Togo, were small stalls run by women – the scents were composed of anything from resin woods for burning to Brazilian nuts, peanuts, grilled maize, charcoaled cassava, spices and herbs and the scent of SHEA BUTTER (slightly smoky) which – in its raw and unrefined version - is most commonly used in cooking meals and as a skin moisturiser… The smells were enhanced by the beautiful and vibrant colours of the fabrics and of Africa: earthy, yellowish, green! A real dance of the senses takes place when you visit Africa.

First sight at arrival in Africa

Those smells are so addictive that it is very difficult to get rid of the powerful grasp Africa can have so, after my graduation in France, I decided to return there. And guess which sector I worked in: SPICES AND AROMAS! For 3 years, working for a Japanese food & spices company, I travelled all over West Africa, covering 16 territories, from cities to the bush, to source,  negotiate, buy and sell spices, green tea and herbs. These remain the most memorable years of my life, with so many tales and adventures that they could easily be contained in a book… But above all, this very intensive experience of the senses did set the basis for the perfumery path I am now on…

It is also during my years in Africa that I learnt about the essential oil and shea butter extraction processes in the bush! I also became the Secretary General of the Coffee/Cocoa/Pepper farming association in Togo and learnt a great deal on organic botanicals and farming. This explains why I do not accept to join any organic certified association in Europe or the West… Real organic farming using natural plants for fertilising should be learnt from developing countries!

Welcome to green England and back to the DNA theory!

I left Africa eventually as I felt I needed some Western professional experience in my career. I arrived in England where I lived for 4 years before embarking on more international travel from the Canary Islands, Spain and Mexico to the Indian Ocean islands of Reunion, Madagascar, the Seychelles, South Africa and eventually returning to Africa before ending up in France, Belgium and finally back to the U.K.  Even though the weather is so different to most of the exotic places I lived in, there was always something attracting me about England in particular…As I said, perfumery to me is in my DNA…

A few years ago, I did try to put together my family tree and discovered that one of my distant ancestors were Jean-Baptiste and Auguste Gellé, soapmakers and perfumers in the end of the 18th century in Paris… I also found out that another direct ancestor was a persecuted noble Huguenot who run away from France to England where my great-great-great grand father was born. He eventually left to Mauritius island as a trader on behalf of the Queen! Talk about DNA eh?

My family coat-of-arms

I am a self-taught perfumer and hold a diploma in aromatherapy from Oxford College, U.K. as well as an Indian head massage diploma. I also am a qualified lecturer (Hull College and University of the Arts, London) in the lifelong learning sector and regularly run perfumery and aromatherapy workshops and courses throughout the U.K.

Having always lived with and around pure Nature, I define myself as a true environmentalist and I believe in a holistic approach to the Beauty in general.

Perfumers:

Adam Gottschalk – Lord’s Jester
Alec Lawless– Being Led by the Nose
Anu Prestonia– Anu Essentials blog
Anya McCoy – Anya’s Garden Perfumes
Charna Ethier – Providence Perfumes
Christine Ziegler– A little Ol’factory
Dawn Spencer Hurwitz – DSH Perfumes
Denise Smith - Perfume Journal
Elise Pearlstine – Belly Flower Perfumes
Emily Pienaar – The Western Cape Perfumery Blog
Ida Meister – Ca Fleure Bon
JoAnne Bassett – JoAnne Bassett Perfumes
Karen Williams – Aromatics International
Laura Natusch – Olive and Oud
Lise Abdul-Quddus  – Blossoming Tree Bodycare
Noelle Smith – ElleNoire
Robert Tisserand – I’m Just Saying
Ross Urrere – Olfactory Rescue Service
Susan Stype – Aromatherapy Contessa
Trygve Harris – Absolute Trygve

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5 Responses to “Becoming a natural perfumer…”

  1. Wow Isabelle! I am so impressed by your story. When you mentioned that your adventures could be contained in a book I chuckled to myself because up to that point I was thinking ‘this could be a wonderful book’.

  2. I truly enjoyed your story, your exotic places you called home and your DNA theory…

    Thank you.

  3. chayaruchama Says:

    You leave me breathless !!!
    I will come back to reread your story; it fascinates me.
    Thank you !

  4. Oh, Isabelle, your story could be a movie. What an amazing life. We are so proud to have you in the Guild as a perfumer. I’m having a wonderful time surfing and reading everyone’s stories. This anniversary is one I’ll truly treasure.

  5. I loved reading your story! How I would love to smell the smells of New Caledonia and West Africa. My own early smells are of the wet woods of upstate New York, the compost pile, horse barns. — Laura

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