We don’t often have discussions with perfumers which span ancient ruins, cricket, Parisian concièrges, emperors, classical music and cream buns.
But then we haven’t really had the chance to spend much time before with James Heeley. His is quite a story: after studying philosophy and aesthetics at King’s College London, he first became a designer. Now a successful – and self-taught – perfumer, he transplanted himself to Paris 14 years ago and has quietly made ripples in the fragrance world with his intriguing, often pared-down scents, which include Bubblegum Chic, St. Clements (oranges and lemons – and more), and Hippie Rose, with its you-can-almost-smell-it name.
As British as it gets (his life in France doesn’t seem to have rubbed off at all, either sartorially or accent-wise), he’s neat as a pin, smart as a whip. In terms of his fragrance creation, James has a love of freshness and clarity, no matter if he’s working on something quite exotic. ‘Even my interpretation of oudh isn’t particularly animalic, and smells “clean”.’
He also – like us – doesn’t at all mind breaking the rules by ‘combining’ scents. And as for the concièrge mentioned above? What also sets him apart from much of the perfume industry is that James doesn’t work with ‘evaluators’ – ‘but I’ll often ask the concièrge of my building…’
Fond of a challenge, James not long ago set himself the goal of creating an organic perfume – most of the industry will tell you it can’t be done – based on vetiver and using organic wheat alcohol (as opposed to beetroot alcohol, which is the norm for perfumery). The result? Vetiver Veritas, which has vetiver’s grassiness – but touches of geranium, mint and grapefruit, ‘which you get naturally in vetiver, so I accented them…’
He was in London to talk about Phoenicia: his latest creation: ‘an imaginary olfactive journey through Phoenicia.’ With notes of dates and dry raisins, it’s suffused with incense and woods, smokey with birchwood, lashings of labdanum resin, and (again) laced with Javan vetiver, one of his favourite ingredients.
‘I like fragrances that are sharp, clean, almost with an “intelligence”, he explains. ‘To research this I read endlessly about Phoenicia 1000 years ago, to the point where I felt like I was there, felt I could actually smell the place and see the crushed seashells which they used to produce a crimson-purple dye, for robes…’
Phoenicia has a richness – but it’s almost sunlit, too. Utterly contemporary (as with all his creations), it’s a beautiful introduction to Heeley Parfums – all of which take you on quite some olfactory journey. (Sometimes involving time-travel.)
As regular readers know, we like to ask about people’s most evocative smells and aromas. Here are James Heeley‘s…
1. Jasmine. ‘It reminds me of English summers: all-too-brief, but warm enough to wear a t-shirt in the street at night. And when you walk around on those warm evenings there’s jasmine tumbling over walls, and you smell the jasmine and can’t get enough of it…’
2. Fresh mint. ‘It smells alive and reminds me of the green countryside, without being a prisoner. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a prisoner, tied to the city. Mint isn’t just something from English country gardens: it’s a window on the world, it takes you to cocktails and ice cream… I love Corsican wild mint – but mint also reminds me of home, England, and the garden.’
3. Fresh-cut grass. ‘A classic: just a collective of memories of England’s green and pleasant land. I love the mowing of lines in a lawn, going up and down: there’s something futile but also beautiful about it, and it’s almost contemplative.’
4. Freshly-sawed wood. ‘Or even a just-sharpened pencil… I love the smell of planed wood, sawdust, whether it’s oak, cedar, sandalwood or fig. Fig wood is actually one of the most wonderful smells I know.’
5. Lime blossom. ‘I smelled it for the first time in Brittany, after I became a perfumer. Again, it’s so fleeting – just around for a fortnight or so, but all the more precious for that.’ He paused. ‘Am I allowed a sixth…?’
How could we refuse his charm? So…
6. Lavender. ‘The best oil is truly astonishing, blows the mind. And I love that Queen Victoria used to have it strewn it on her stone floors to crush underfoot as she and her guests walked…’
Phoenicia £170 for 50ml extrait de parfum