Sarah McCartney is unusual: founder of 4160 Tuesdays, she’s an entirely self-taught perfumer (if you don’t count classes taken with people like Karen Gilbert). When LUSH founder Mark Constantine – who copywriter Sarah wrote Lush Times for, over a period of 12 years – first handed her some ingredients (to make a scent for her sister as a gift from her nephew), he couldn’t have imagined the journey he was sending her on. ‘We created a simple cologne, with citrus and lavender but also a very special, exotic boronia oil…’
But as she played around some more, Sarah began to imagine turning a hobby into a business. Happy, this life-long scent-lover also happens to have a background in Maths and sciences – a rather unromantic but essential requirement for a career in perfumery. Combine that with Sarah’s marketing wisdom and experience, then, and you have a seriously exciting niche perfumery brand: 4160 Tuesdays – ‘because that’s how many Tuesdays we have in an 80-year-old lifespan. So let’s use them to write, think, make and do lovely things. Or if that sounds great but you don’t have time, to buy lovely things other makers have put together.’ And as she points out, it’s not as if she could have used her own name: Google ‘perfume’ and ‘McCartney’ and Stella’s name comes up about two billion times before you get to hers. For now, that is.
This is probably our longest ‘nose’ interview on the site – but we think you’ll love it…
What is your first ‘scent memory’?
There was a mock orange bush (philadelphus) in our garden at Redcar and I liked the smell of the beautiful white flowers. I liked it so much I shoved the buds up my nose and had to be taken to the doctor to get them taken out again. I was two, and yes I really do remember that, especially being shoved in my sister’s pram and being pushed at a great rate along the street to the surgery.
When did you decide you wanted to be a perfumer/create your own perfume?
I didn’t want to make perfume as a child; I wanted to be a witch. I started to blend my own essential oil combinations after I joined Lush as a writer in 1996; I’d been dabbling from 1999 and started seriously making fragrances when I left in 2009.
What are your five favourite smells in the world?
• The roasting coffee scent that used to come from the shop by Finchley Road tube station.
• Dior Diorella.
• Grapefruit peel.
• The aroma that wafts along the streets of suburban Ealing from the tiny white flowers on massive fronds of palm tree blossom.
• Rock pools at the beach.
What’s the worst thing you ever smelled. (Honestly!)
The dead animal that the cat bought in and hid under the bed to rot. By the time we found it, it wasn’t clear what it was, but it was about squirrel sized.
What is the fragrance you wish you’d created?
Lipstick Rose by Ralf Schweiger for Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle.
Do you feel (like us) that this is one of the most exciting times in fragrance history, because of the creativity being expressed by perfumers? Why do you think that is?
Abso-blooming-lutely I feel that too. The internet changed everything. It’s changed the way that we can find out and talk about perfume; it’s made materials accessible to small companies and people who just want to experiment. The internet made it possible for small organisations to operate globally, to share information and for us all to talk to each other: customers to perfumers to bloggers to suppliers. And we’ve got such great events running these days too. Because of the internet, people can get groups together to sniff new things.
There’s also the academic side for me. I’m part of the CenSes team with Professor Barry Smith of the University of London School of Advanced Studies and Professor Charles Spence of the Cross Modal Laboratory in Oxford. Right now we’re at the point where suddenly neuroscientists, philosophers and psychologists are looking deeply into how scent and the brain influence our perception. That’s probably my favourite part.
To be slightly controversial here, I also think that regulations force people to be more creative. If a company suddenly finds that 80% of its products are technically illegal because, say, jasmine absolute is restricted, they have to pull their socks up, get a perfumer into the lab and find a way to make products that they can still sell – or go out of business. Of course it causes no end of problems, but a regulatory rocket up the backside means that you have to have new ideas. Restrictions squeeze innovation out.
The one huge problem is that we can no longer send our fragrances around the world because of the new shipping laws, so just when you get excited about trying samples from an indie perfumer in Australia or the US, you can’t. But that will change because people will see the demand and rise to the challenge. Someone will crack the problem and make it happen. I’m thinking of setting up a scent mule forum. Legal and helpful. I live hear Heathrow. I might just do it.
If you could have created a fragrance for a historical figure, who would it be?
This is going to sound a bit arsey but I’m really not interested in the idea of making perfume for people I’ve never met, no matter how great their contribution to history. Trying a bit harder I’d say that if I could step back in time, I’d make a perfume for my Grandma Bain who was widowed in 1938 and at the time had four small girls, and fourpence in her purse, then spent the next fifteen years working dawn till dusk to get them through school and college. She deserved a bit of luxury.
What’s the first fragrance you bought. And the first bought for you…?
Aqua Manda, and I bought it for myself. I was way too young to have perfume bought for me! I saved up my pocket money.
Do you have a favourite bottle design, from those that have been used for your fragrance creations?
That’s not my world. All my bottles are those lovely ‘look there’s a London indie brand; ones from Pochet, who have made the wise business decision to sell small quantities to indie brands they hope will grow with them. There are at least four of us using Pochet’s Variation bottle with the same lid. I’m just taking one step up to getting them printed. Very exciting. It’s ever so different when you have to fork out for them yourself. It must be fascinating to have a brand team working on your scent’s positioning strategy and your fragrances might appear in the latest whizzo bottle design. It’s just not the indie arena.
How many perfumes might you be working on, at one time?
I have six on the board at the moment. If I had my own way, I’d be doing more but I’ve got to rein myself in and concentrate on distributing the ones I’ve already made.
Does your nose ever ‘switch off’?
In that question I’d put ‘nose’ in the inverted commas, not ‘switch off’. It’s the brain that switches off, and it really does do that. But it doesn’t switch off all at once, it just switches off parts that it’s used already to identify what’s around it. (Do you think I’m spending too much time with neuroscientists these days?)
So yes, my capacity to identify a smell correctly does switch off, but all I have to do is walk outside and talk a breath of fresh air and it’s like clicking the reset button. On the other hand, I do dream in smell. Apparently only 5% of people do that. I’m not one of the 25% of people who can imagine a scent in my head. Some perfumers have that, and that really must be difficult to switch off.
How long, roughly, does it take you to create a fragrance?
I can give you an example or two. I made Says Alice, my 90s-style fruity floral which I love to bits and back again, in about half an hour. That was because I already had the sandalwood, rose, jasmine and honey accord made, and also the 1990s base which Karen Gilbert and I had experimented with on one of her courses. I slung in my favourite citrus fruits and raspberry leaf absolute and it was pretty much there.
For Time to Draw the Raffle Numbers I wanted to celebrate Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France in 2012. It took me six months. I couldn’t decide which parts of the tour to include, and was looking at mountains, avenues of poplar trees, the Champs Elysees, the hot sun of the south, sweat, bicycles and ginger. Eventually, when I narrowed it down to one moment – the point where Wiggo led the peloton into the final straight for Cav to cross the line first – it only took another couple of goes.
Is creating a fragrance ‘visual’ for you, as well as something that happens in the nose/brain? If so, in what way…? Is a mood-board helpful?
Scent is sound for me. I hear it as musical notes. I can see it too, but I feel no need to express it in picture form for anyone else to see. I would if I were asked. I love making mood boards, but I do them for my life not my perfume.
I’ve made perfumes to recreate picture that someone else has given me. Lady Rose Lion (Monkey Unicorn) is based on the medieval tapestry series The Lady and the Unicorn; I took each element, imagined what it would smell like, and assembled them.
What can each of us do to enhance our appreciation of fragrance?
The most important thing is to learn what you love. People often disappear where the sun doesn’t shine when it comes to identifying perfume notes. Smell often and widely. Decide what you like. Then go and look it up and see what other people think of it. (Not the other way around.) I’ve heard people announce, ‘I won’t wear anything you can buy in Duty Free,’ which is just plain scent snobbery. The world’s best perfumers have made those scents. To ignore the entire works of the Estée Lauder, Chanel and Dior perfumers, or the dippy delights of Thierry Mugler? Sinful.
Do explore the classics. There are a lot of modern fragrances which are terribly samey – a few too many insipid pink things out there for my liking, or things with pictures of water on the box. The classics have survived because they’re good. Go in with your nose and your mind open.
What is your best tip for improving a person’s sense of smell?
Practice. Concentrate while you’re smelling. Then smell again and concentrate more. Then come back and smell it next week. We all know what mint smells like. Why? Because we smell it all the time. We need to smell things we can identify every day, then we get better at it.
It’s a little bit like music. I’ve heard people say, ‘I love that piece, the bit with the trumpet,’ and I say, ‘That’s an oboe.’ It doesn’t stop them enjoying the music just because their ears and brains don’t tell them exactly what’s playing. I do workshops where I let people smell the individual materials so then they can smell the difference they make in a perfume. Learn individual notes, and then they are easier to identify. That said, in some ways it’s completely different from music. A trumpet added to an orchestra will still sound like an orchestra with a trumpet.
Smell patchouli by itself and it smells like hippies did in the 70s. Put patchouli in a perfume blend and a lot of the time it smells like chocolate. Perfumes often smell of something that the perfumer hasn’t actually put in there. The nose doesn’t communicate with the brain the way the other senses do.
If you had one fragrance note that you love above all others, what would that be?
I love raspberry leaf absolute. It smells of jam.