Notes from a small island

04th March 2020

The history of fragrance may be dominated by French names, but if you’re looking for true innovation, British perfume brands are leading the way, using surprising local ingredients such as seaweed and peat.

Words by Lucia van der Post

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When most people think of fine scents they instinctively feel the French have the upper hand. There are of course all those wonderful old classic houses that flourished in the early 20th century – Coty, Patou, Poiret, Guerlain (ah, Shalimar, Mitsouko, L’Heure Bleue swoon the fans) – as well as stellar perfumers like Ernest Daltroff at Caron and Ernest Beaux, whose partnership with Coco Chanel led to the creation of the world’s best-selling perfume, Chanel No 5. Nobody can deny that between them these great pioneers came up with some of the finest, most elegant, most desirable scents the world has ever known.

But speak to experts such as James Craven, perfume archivist at niche fragrance boutique Les Senteurs, or Michael Donovan, who runs Roullier White, another purveyor of niche perfumes, and they both feel that much of the innovation in the world of scent is coming out of Britain these days.

We have something unique to offer the olfactory world. Firstly we are rule breakers and are quite anarchic in our approach

Not that this has happened overnight. Way back in the 18th century Juan Famenias Floris, a barber and perfumer based in St James’s, came up with the notion of scented talcum powder and after him came those classic English names, Yardley, Cussons, Pears, Atkinsons and Grossmith. In recent times Jo Malone, Miller Harris, Clive Christian and Roja Dove have all made waves and collected fans.

Today, though, a new generation of younger perfumers is breaking new ground. What makes them special is the fact that they bring to their craft a willingness to do things differently. Because many of them are not classically trained they approach the matter of creating artful eaux in an entirely original way.

Michael Donovan has long been a champion of British perfume and sells several from his Roullier White base. He thinks that “we have something unique to offer the olfactory world. Firstly we are rule breakers and are quite anarchic in our approach, for example, [British brand] Union’s use of peat – clearly inspired by the whisky tradition – in their scent Celtic Fire is a first in perfumery.” They are also more willing to take risks and move the industry forward. Donovan’s own St Giles range has five fragrances that are designed to make the potential customer understand immediately how each of his perfumes should make them feel: The Tycoon, The Actress, The Mechanic, The Stylist and The Writer, each original, strong and unlike anything else on the market.


As with the contemporary food scene, there is also an emphasis on the local, and the provenance of ingredients. Donovan believes that “we hail from a rather bucolic culture that loves animals and plants and our landscapes, which in turn provide a wide range of inspiration”. Anastasia Brozler, the “nose” behind Union, for instance, turned to the moorlands of Yorkshire, the mountains of Snowdonia, the damp fens of County Derry and the windswept heathlands of Scotland to gather her bog myrtle, blue ground ivy, watermint, quince, pine, peat and birch. She only uses ingredients grown in the British Isles and one of her fragrances, the aforementioned Celtic Fire, even has a dash of Marmite complementing the peat. Most sought-after of all is her Gothic Bluebell, said to be the only fragrance in the world to use real English bluebells.

Caldey Island, a tiny but much-loved perfumery off the coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales, produces the highly acclaimed Island Lavender Water, described by Luca Turin in his book Perfumes: The Guide as “the best lavender soliflore on Earth”. It is made by monks, who combine local herbs with an excellent lavender oil, resulting in something pure and exceptional.

The new wave of artisanal British scent-makers are experimenting with ingredients such as seaweed and thistle

Up at Castle Forbes in Scotland, meanwhile, Lady Forbes runs the smallest haute parfumerie in the world, and its scents, created together with Andrew French, are often inspired by Scottish pine and oakmoss, precious woods and green herbs.

British Master Perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek launched her first fragrance in 2010 but she has already established herself as one to watch. With her Oxford Eau de Parfum – based round basil, rosemary and vetivert – she has attempted to capture the essence of golden stone buildings, grassy quads and the excitement of undergraduates taking their first steps into adulthood. Her latest, Dagian (the Old English word for dawn) uses lime, lemon and mint to capture English exuberance but has a seductive heart of jasmine and sandalwood.

Down in Dorset, Julia and David Bridger have planted some 50 acres of land around the River Stour with more than a thousand different plants – lavender, bergamot, vetiver, mint, wild flowers, herbs and shrubs – all of which are used to create a small range of limited-edition fine and intense scents that make up what they call Parterre Fragrances. Jacques Chabert, the “nose” behind Guerlain’s Samsara and Chanel’s Cristalle, helped them create this exquisite little collection. Their first eau, Run of the River, was inspired by Keyneston Mill, which is on their estate, and is a sparkling citrus with fresh notes of bergamot mint, clary sage and lemon thyme – all home-grown. The idea is to show that British soil can provide essential oils and essences as fine as any from Grasse.

The idea is to show that British soil can provide essential oils as fine as any from Grasse

Meanwhile, at Mitchell and Peach in Kent, another Frenchtrained nose, Jeanne-Marie Faugier, has helped the Mitchells come up with a small range of clean and fresh English fragrances, making beautiful use of the special lavender grown on their farm (famous for its sweet, peachy scent – hence the “peach” in the name). English Leaf is probably its most soughtafter fragrance but it also produces a range of body and beauty products, one of which, Flora No 1 Fine Radiance Face Oil, uses home-grown Kent cobnuts to create this cult beauty oil.

Haeckels is another of the new breed of British companies inspired by the immediate world around it and a desire to somehow encapsulate something very British and very natural. Based in Margate, with the sea on its doorstep, and moved by a desire to create products that are pure and effective, it has gradually developed a range of skincare products along with some fine fragrances. The names alone – Botany Bay, Pegwell Bay, Dreamland, Blean Woods – speak of a certain sort of Englishness. Take Blean Woods – it’s inspired by an undisturbed ancient forest, the sound of a stream, ferns and purple orchids, silver birch, hornbeam and crab apple trees, as well as the smell of charred wood and ashes. Other fragrances feature local seaweed, which gives some idea of how deeply immersed in the world of the sea and forests around Margate

Haeckels is. It has a very special place in the world of fragrances. British perfumery, it seems, is gaining a newfound confidence and developing a path of its own – more locally focused, quirkier, more oriented towards the natural and the home-grown but every bit as fascinating as that of its peers across the Channel. It’s a story that still has a long way to go.

This article was taken from the Winter 2019/2020 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.


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