Why do some fragrances smell different on everyone, and why are some perfumes so damn expensive? We get the scoop from a scent entrepreneur…
Kate Crofton-Atkins hasn’t just taken a crash course in fragrance creation- she’s been living, eating and breathing perfumery since the founding of her luxury sustainable fragrance company Cochine in 2008. With roots in Saigon, Vietnam, where Kate initially moved with her husband for work, Cochine was born out of a lifelong love of fragrance, galvanized by a world of new scents, plants and exotic influences.
Kate teamed up with a renowned fragrance house in New York to hone the technicalities of creating fragrance, learning on the job and fast becoming a purveyor of fine fragrance. A natural-born ‘nose’, Kate’s take on creating a scent may not be as traditional as the protocol followed by conventional fragrance dynasties, but her sense for what makes something unique, interesting and beautiful is a talent that doesn’t come along every day (just light a Cochine travel candle and it’ll probably come across). Such intuition combined with a business background makes for savvy scent creation, so we tapped into Kate’s expertise to find out how fragrance is made, how to buy for others and just what leads to some of the extortionate price points out there…
Can you remember the first fragrance you ever bought? What's your outstanding fragrance memory?
I think it was Chanel Mademoiselle- I remember saving up for the Eau de Toilette when I was a teenager. My mother wore Chanel No. 5 and I think I thought that by wearing Mademoiselle it would transform me from a teenager into a grown up! The more I’ve worked in fragrance, the more I’m amazed by the power of fragrance to trigger memories and associations. Still now, if I walk past someone wearing Chanel No. 5, it takes me straight back to sitting on the stool by my mother’s dressing table as a child watching her put her makeup on.
I was obsessed with products and fragrance from a very early age, I used to keep my mother’s empty skincare and perfume boxes and arrange them on my dressing table, I think my family thought I was mad! I have lots of fragrance memories, but the one that stands out is when I smelt Champa Jasmine for the first time in Vietnam. I had just moved to Saigon and we were living in a villa on the edge of the city by the river, I used to bicycle in the early morning sun to the end of the road to get a baguette for breakfast and I remember being struck by the beautiful scent of jasmine floating on the warm morning air, it was unlike any other jasmine I’d smelt before- sweet and rich, yet beautifully crisp.
What does it take to create a fragrance from scratch?
I think that you need to have a clear inspiration for each fragrance, you need to know why you’re creating it and what memories or emotions you’re trying to evoke. This was really important when I came to develop fragrances. For example, our fragrance Frangipani & Neroli is inspired by weekends away at the beach. I used to walk down a sandy path to the beach lined with Frangipani trees and that for me was the scent of holiday and summer, and when I created this fragrance I wanted to capture that feeling of the morning sun on your back and the warm sea breeze in the air.
I was fortunate when creating Cochine fragrances to work with an amazing team of ‘noses’ and experts in New York who helped to guide me and teach me, however, one of the obstacles I had was trying to communicate what I wanted and how I wanted to change the samples that they sent me- you have to learn to speak their language and be able to identify the different notes and components of a fragrance. In short, it takes time to create fragrances, a lot of time!
You're not a trained 'nose'- how did you get into the fragrance business?
I’m not a trained nose but I’ve always been passionate about fragrance and skincare. I worked for L’Oréal in their skincare division before I founded Cochine, and honestly had I not moved to Vietnam I would probably still be at L’Oréal very happily. So for me, it was moving to a new country and experiencing the romance and elegance of Indochina first hand that inspired me to found my own fragrance company. It was moving to Saigon- discovering this beautiful mix of French and Asian culture, that gave me the inspiration to start blending fragrances using the new plants I discovered there.
What have you learned from 'noses' along the way? What can us fragrance novices take on board?
I’ve been lucky to work with incredible fragrance experts over the past few years through the New York fragrance house I work with. They are all hugely talented and inspirational but what I have learned is that you need to stay true to your inspiration and instinct when it comes to fragrance You need to be able to “picture” the fragrance, how it will look, make you feel, if it had a colour what would it be, etc? Once you start blending fragrances you open up a Pandora’s box of options and you need to have a clear vision of what you are trying to create. And my other tip is that it takes time, you can’t rush the process. Our first fragrance took over two years to create. It’s an evolution and you have to persevere until you get the balance of oils exactly right. All of our fragrances are made up of 30-40 oils, so it takes time to get the balance right.
What gets you going fragrance wise? Any particular loves or sources of inspiration?
What I have really enjoyed in my personal fragrance journey is finding new and different plants to use in blends that give Cochine fragrances a point of difference. I mentioned before the Champa Jasmine that I discovered when I first moved to Saigon and which we used in our first fragrance White Jasmine & Gardenia, but once I started researching plants in southern Vietnam I found so many others which had incredible scents and weren’t being used in fragrance, such as Water Hyacinth oil which we extracted from a reed you find floating along the Mekong river. They use the bark to make furniture- it’s like rattan- and I had two armchairs made out of it in my house in Saigon, I used to love the scent of the wood so we looked into extracting the oil from the plant and using it as a key note in one of our best selling fragrances, Water Hyacinth & Lime Blossom.
I also use Agarwood, which is a resinous wood from Vietnam, to give the rich depth to our Agarwood & Amber fragrance and I use a beautiful scented orchid from central Vietnam, the Delenatii orchid, in our Vietnamese Rose fragrance. So I would have to say that Vietnam has been a great source of inspiration for our fragrances.
What's the hardest thing to get right when creating a fragrance?
Getting the right balance is something that takes the most time for us, I am lucky that in south east Asia I have been able to find beautiful and original oils to use in our fragrances, but what is difficult is working with them not only to create a perfectly balanced scent but also to manage the volatility of the oils. For example, we work with amber in one of our fragrances and the first oil I sourced was a clear liquid, the second oil I received from exactly the same plantation, was deep brown- apparently it’s due to the weather at the time of harvest but working with natural essential oils means no two productions are ever the same.
I'm buying a fragrance gift- any tips on how to nail it?
Gifting fragrance is difficult, I have spent hours at a counter trying to choose fragrances for people. It’s such a personal thing and I really do think it’s very hard to get right- and if you don’t get it right, it is such a waste to have a large bottle of scent sitting untouched on someone’s dressing table, which is why I often recommend gifting a candle which is as thoughtful but not as personal.
However, if it is fragrance you want to give, a nice way to go is with a collection of a few smaller ones. We have just launched our Fragrance Collection Set of three of our most loved eau de parfums in 8ml each - I think this is a really nice gift idea as it gives a taster of a few fragrances, and they’re really handy for people when they’re travelling, too.
Is it true that fragrance smells different on everyone? Also, when a fragrance 'dries down', is it likely to change in smell?
Yes, when a fragrance dries down this means that the top and middle notes lift, allowing the base notes to come through. When you first smell a fragrance, the first notes you detect are the top notes- these are normally floral or citrus- then the middle, or heart, notes come through which often set the style of fragrance (eg. woody, citrus, floral) and then as these lift the base notes come through which are the notes that last the longest.
A well-balanced fragrance shouldn’t change too much. And it is true that fragrances smell different on different people. This is due to our body chemistry which pushes certain notes over others, and it can be due to genetics or diet, or just the PH of your skin. We all detect smell differently, we smell with our brain, so how we each experience a scent depends on how our brain interprets scent. And this also means different scents will trigger different memories for people. I read somewhere that we make all our scent memories in the first ten years of our lives, although I don’t think this is true, I feel like I’m making new associations all the time.
Why is there such a vast different in the pricing of fragrance? If I were to invest in scent, what notes or elements should I look out for? What's worth paying for, and what's not?
It is largely driven by the quality of oils and the complexity of extracting the oils. In our latest fragrance, Tuberose & Wild Fig, we are using Tuberose Absolute from the south of France which is one of the world’s most precious oils, it takes over 2kg of Tuberose blossom to produce just 1g of the essence and this is reflected in the price of the oil which can be as much as €10,000 per kg.
What do you think will be the 'next big thing' in fragrance?
I wish I had a crystal ball for that answer! In the past few years alone we’ve seen hard fragrances, roll-on fragrances and all sorts of other developments but I think spraying a beautiful atomizer will always be one of the great luxuries in life and I’d like to concentrate on doing that well first. As for actual scents, I think that there’s a large and growing interest in fragrances that seem a little more out of the ordinary, harder to pinpoint and so more personal to the wearer. I think that people are more interested in the history of the fragrance they’re wearing and going on their own journey of discovery.