Girls Just Wanna Have Fern: 5 modern fougères forging the way

When science meets art, fireworks happen, and so it is in fragrance, with the question of ‘what should a man smell like?’ seemingly answered by perfumer Paul Parquet for Houbigant in 1882. The conclusion? A fern. Now, this once traditionally masculine smell is a hot topic in fragrances marketed to women or perceived as ‘gender fluid’, for those leafy ferns have come a long way…

The problem for Parquet was, ferns don’t exactly smell of anything much. His technological developments created a whole new fragrance family – fougère roughly translates to ‘fern-like’ – say it ‘foo-jair’, with the ‘j’ a little soft, almost ‘foo-shair’.

When you think of a fern, what smell comes to mind? Misty woodlands, verdant undergrowth still wet with morning dew, a sense of stillness and contemplation, leafy green shoots pushing their way through a forest floor? Whatever you imagine, that smell memory was originally encapsulated by Houbigant’s Fougère Royale – created in 1882 and much copied by those who clamoured to achieve a measure of its success.

Called the ‘greatest perfumer of his time’ by no less than Ernest Beaux, the creator of Chanel No. 5, Parquet can be said to have been the first perfumer to truly understand and appreciate the use of synthetic aroma materials in fragrance composition. First used as mere substitutes for naturally derived raw materials, Parquet saw a chance to use them as unique smells in their own right – alchemically poetic creations that sought not to mimic the natural world but to add to it – to improve on perfection. He was a fragrant revolutionary, and that revolution continues to this day.

So what did the traditional fougère consist of? Oak moss, geranium, bergamot, sometimes lavender and amber, and (most notably) synthetic coumarin form the main structure. But how many outside the industry would be able to describe coumarin’s smell?

Found in natural sources such as the toasted almond-esque tonka beans, the essential oils derived from cinnamon bark and the spicy cassia plant; coumarin cannot really said to be a sum of those parts. So what does it smell like?

Complexly layered, imagine the scent of sweet hay drying in the sunshine with a slight waft of warm horse; a cold glass of fizz sipped on newly mown grass, a fine cigar fresh from the humidor, even an unadulterated cookie dunked in warm milk – all of these things and not one in particular, truly something ‘other’ – the scientist’s hand working in harmony with the artful perfumer to amplify the magical realism in its synthetic form. The skill of the perfumer is to take these ingredients and transform them into something we think we already recognise – a swathe of leafy green ferns in a woodland setting, in this case – sparking scent memories and creating new ones to fill the gaps.

If you haven’t yet explored this fragrance family, now is the perfect time to begin. This in-between time of seasons, when we crave some freshness but still require depth and interest to the scents we choose, is ideal for seeking out something new to try, and that traditional structure has some interesting notes added for contemporary interest.

Here’s a selection of some more modern fougères – regardless of gender – to get your noses in touch with. Let your fragrant fougère journey begin…

Although classified as a leather (the clue’s in the name) MEMO actually describe this as ‘a frozen fougère’, and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s minus the oak moss (many moderns are) but features a whole host of frosted herbaceous greeness, with basil, rosemary, clary sage and mint amidst snow-covered drifts of ferns, pine needles, tonka bean and a deliciously dry, woody-leathered base.

Memo Paris Russian Leather £205 for 75ml eau de parfum
harveynichols.com

In this 100% natural perfume, Simone de Beauvoir’s novel is brought to life; the lingering scent of a questioning glance that shakes your soul, warm as a cat curling bare legs, shivering as the fur tickles. A composition of contrasts, we have geranium, basil and lemon rubbing up against Indonesian clove and nutmeg; a sticky patchouli slinking into the cool dryness of vetiver, with a lick of amber rich labdanum nuzzling oak moss and cedar to finish

Timothy Han Edition Perfumes She Came to Stay £120 for 60ml eau de parfum
timothyhanedition.com

Reminiscent of rifling through a forgotten cove of personal treasures, leather-bound diaries reveal sketches of ferns and dried flowers pressed between the pages, bundles of love letters are tied in faded silk ribbons, a lipstick kiss on a foxed mirror, silk scarves with a mingled scent of powder and the faint tang of a gentleman’s Cologne. Mint, lavender, juniper berries and black pepper are swathed in layers of rose and ylang ylang; curls of tobacco expiring into vanilla and cocoa.

4160 Tuesdays The Lion Cupboard from £50 for 30ml eau de parfum
4160tuesdays.com

Inspired by the river that runs through the heart of Keyneston Mill, where this UK house uniquely grow and distil many of the ingredients they use; this is a bare-foot meander through clover-strewn lawns, a budding freshness in the air signifying Spring. Squeezes of lemon and lime shot through with bergamot, mint and lemon-thyme are layered on herbaceously dry clary sage and soft orange flower, as an aromatically dreamy wisp of incense encircles oak moss in the langourous base.

Partere Run of the River £95 for 50ml eau de parfum
parterreatkeynestonmill.com

A bright young thing, in a gown too sheer to be decent, dances the night away at a discreetly riotous nightclub. Surrounded by velvet ropes, garlanded by blossoms, she sleeps until noon. Based on the traditional composition, it’s far from historic smelling – the geranium, oak moss, coumarin and bergamot are naughtily nudged in the ribs by a rather wanton orange blossom, given a shot of luminescent freshness with neroli and snuggled in a bosomy amber.

Mugler Fougère Furieuse £140 for 80ml eau de parfum
harrods.com

By Suzy Nightingale

7 of the women to thank for your favourite fragrances

There are reportedly more women now joining the famous French perfumery school, ISIPCA, than men – an about-face for the time women in the perfume industry were either not employed at all, or remained somewhat faceless behind-the-scenes as their male peers were lauded as genius perfumers in gleaming white lab coats, then the respectable (and respected) face of fragrance.

The perfume world – and all fragrance fans – have many pioneering women to thank for the centuries they spent, tirelessly working their way to the top. So, for International Women’s Day, here are just a few we’d like to put our hands together for, and whom we should all celebrate, not just today, but every single time we spritz…


Germaine Cellier was a pioneering nose from the 1940s who created scandalously daring scents such as Balmain‘s Vent Vert – overdosed with galbanum and considered the first “green” perfume of its kind – and Robert Piguet‘s Fracas, a bombastic, room-filling, man-slaying tuberose. Cellier believed in doing her own thing, and as such it’s often reported her male colleagues found her ‘difficult to work with.’ For ‘difficult’ read ‘opinionated’ and just wonder if those male colleagues were similarly chastised for daring to disagree. Here’s to ‘difficult women’ everywhere.

Had she been male, or growing up in an age of equality, Patricia de Nicolai might have become the next generation of the Guerlain family’s master perfumers (the title traditionally being passed from father to son). Undefeated, de Nicolaï has gone on to found an eponymous fragrance brand – Parfums de Nicolai – is a member of the technical committee of the French Society of Perfumers and now president of the prestigious Osmothèque scent archive. Having won the International prize for Young Perfumers (Prix International du jeune Parfumeur Créateur – Société Française des Parfumeurs) in 1988, her fragrance Number One garnered her the position of their first female laureate. Top that? She did. In 2008 going on to be decorated as a knight of the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur. It’s fair to say de Nicolai is one of the all-time (if mainly still unsung) great perfumers.

Josephine Catapano is considered a mentor by many female perfumers working today, and when you read her list of accolades, it’s not hard to see why. In 1980 Capatano was granted the Cosmetic Career Women’s Award followed by a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Perfumers in 1993. Working during an era when perfumers were kept firmly within their labs, no names emblazoned on bottles, and most especially if they were female; creating the all-time classic Youth Dew for Estée Lauder, the original Shiseido Zen and Fidji for Guy Laroche; it is only now truly Catapano’s name has even begun to be truly acknowledged.

There are certainly more historical female pioneers we should hoist the bunting for, but we’d also like to pay tribute to just a few of the contemporary noses who’ve risen in the ranks to become distinguished perfumers we follow the careers of with fascination, and much respect.

Sophie Labbé spent her childhood between Paris and the Charente-Maritime area of France, encountering contrasting smells: the odours of a capital city, against the scents of the countryside, living to the rhythm of grape-picking and harvesting, swept with a salty breeze… She studied at IPSICA, and at the Givaudan Perfumery School in Geneva for six months. In 1992 she joined IFF as a junior perfumer, and since then Sophie has worked on fragrances including Bulgari Jasmin Noir and Mon Jasmin Noir, Calvin Klein Beauty, Estée Lauder Pure White Linen, Salvatore Ferragamo Signorina and Signorina Eleganza. We asked whom she’d most loved to have created for. Her answer? ‘Cleopatra – a powerful female figure whose legendary status is drenched in perfume!’ And which, we wondered, was her favourite bottle of all the perfumes she’s composed? ‘Givenchy Organza, with its beautiful feminine, goddess like curves.’

Ruth Mastenbroek was born in England, spent some of her childhood in America, and graduated with a Chemistry degree from Oxford University. Having been classically trained in Grasse, she’d studied alongside brilliant perfumers such as Olivier Cresp, who created Angel, and Jacques Cavallier who created the Jean Paul Gaultier ‘Classique’ fragrance. In the late she 70s worked as a perfumer in the UK and Netherlands with Naarden International (which later became Quest and is now Givaudan – one of the largest perfume suppliers in the world…)Ruth worked in Japan and in the perfume capital Grasse before returning to England to work for a small company, where she created fragrances for up-and-coming brands like Kenneth Turner and Jo Malone – including her Grapefruit candle. Ruth set up her own perfumery company, Fragosmic Ltd., in 2003 – the year she became president of The British Society of Perfumers. In 2010 Ruth launched a capsule collection of scented products featuring her signature fragrance – RM – and also became the first perfumer to use advanced micro-encapsulation technology… in a scented bathrobe! Inspired by her travels, ingredients she grew up with and most of all by her seemingly tireless zest for life, Ruth’s perfumes are shamelessly romantic, but still with a contemporary edge, and we’re always thrilled (and proud!) to wear them.

‘I didn’t want to make perfume as a child; I wanted to be a witch,’ says Sarah McCartney, founder and perfumer of the gloriously unconventional 4160 Tuesdays. ‘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.’ The ‘dabbling’ as a hobby combined with her marketing experience, bag loads of energy (and bravery!) led to Sarah becoming an entirely self-taught perfumer with boundless imagination. Having written a novel about perfumes, readers asked if she could create the scents she’d invented, ‘This turned out to be impossible – and pretty expensive – because no one was making exactly what I wanted, so I started another quest to see of I could make them instead.’ And so she rolled up her sleeves and did just that. Her guilty pleasures include ‘playing on the swings at the park [in fact, she’s installed a swing at 4160 Tuesdays HQ, and invites visitors to have a go – did we mention unconventional?], red lipstick, watching Nashville, and drinking champagne…’ Now winning acclaim the world over, Sarah still delights in having fun with fragrance, and in making scents that work the way she wants them to. Bravo.

From the first time she met a ‘nose’, that’s what Christine Nagel knew she wanted to be. So she trained as a research chemist and market analyst, and in Paris, in 1997, was launched on a seriously distinguished career that’s included creations like the blockbuster Narciso Rodriguez for Her (with Francis Kurkdjian), Jimmy Choo Flash and Guerlain’s Les Elixirs Charnels collection. After several years at Jo Malone London, Christine joined Hermès, to work alongside the incredible perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena. Strongly believing that fragrance should be genderless, she asserts that ‘In reality, anyone can wear whatever he or she likes – even if the fragrance is supposedly “masculine” or “feminine”. There’s no right or wrong…’ Her desire to ‘pare down’ fragrances chimes perfectly with Jean-Claude’s, and she describes her scent style as ‘characterised by simplicity, which mirrors their philosophy’. ‘Favourite’ notes go in cycles: ‘I’ve phases when I’m deeply into a single type: woody, oriental, green facets. It can turn almost into an obsession, until I have the feeling I’ve found what I’m looking for, and then I move on.’ And move on she certainly did, for in 2016 it was announced that Nagel would now succeed the much-beloved Ellena. With enviable shoes to fill, she began not at a trot but full gallop – Galop (a stunning blend of leather and rose) proving a huge hit and ensuring the perfume world is on tenterhooks, and our noses are primed, for whatever she next creates…

For more female pioneers of perfume, read a selection of our exclusive ‘working nose‘ interviews by searching for that term, above, or browse our perfumer interview archive – that just happens to be bursting with talented women, and which we’re constantly adding others to.

And how shall we give thanks? Seek out some of the perfumes created by these women, or treat yourself to a new one by an up-and-coming star. Now there’s an on-going reason to celebrate. Yaaas, sister! *fist-bump*

Written by Suzy Nightingale

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent opens at Somerset House… follow your nose!

The perfume world has been abuzz with news of the Somerset House summer exhibition –always a treat, this one had fragrance fans practically fainting with pleasure at the mere prospect…
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent seeks to explore modern perfumery in an artistic setting – bringing together (hashtag alert) #PerfumePioneers renowned for their challenging, ground-breaking work. Treated to a press preview yesterday, we packed into the East Wing Galleries and couldn’t wait to follow our noses…

10 landmark fragrances greet visitors in the first room of the show

Somerset House say: ‘These pivotal perfumers have been carefully selected by Curator Claire Catterall and Lizzie Ostrom, the fragrance writer also known as Odette Toilette, for the creativity and ingenuity they bring to their work. Whether self-taught or classically trained, each perfumer within the exhibition challenges a long-held convention in scent-design – from creation and communication, to gender and good taste – pushing their craft in daring olfactory directions.’
The 10 perfume provocateurs in the exhibition are a veritable who’s-who of contemporary perfume: Daniella Andrier, Mark Buxton, Bertrand Duchaufour, Olivia Giacobetti, Lyn Harris, Antoine Lie, David Seth Moltz, Geza Schoen, Andy Tauer and Killian Wells… We could list all the perfumes featured but don’t want to spoil your scented surprise, because as you walk in you’re handed a blank sheet for impressions. And knowing what they are definitely shapes your impressions.
The room setting for Daniela Andrier’s Purple Rain for Prada

So what can you expect? Well, again, we don’t want to give too much away – this truly is an exhibition where you need to encounter the scents first hand (well, nose). But during your fragrant travels you will encounter rooms reflecting the inspirations of the scents in their design – from the heat of the desert to the wild Scottish Highlands, with a lover’s boudoir (ooh la la!) followed by a trip to a Catholic confessional, and even a water theme-park! Each fragrance is experienced in a differing, uniquely interactive way, and taken out of context (with no bottles or perfume notes guide) you really are forced to challenge your expectations and concentrate on the smell alone.
It’s not all about the newness, though. Homage is paid to the classic perfumes that have shaped the way we feel about fragrance, fittingly arrayed in the first room you come to – an olfactory time-travel through ten of the most trailblazing scents of the time, one for each decade of the 20th Century.  Beginning with the legendary L’Origan de Coty (1905) – a hallmark perfume, now out of circulation, but specially recreated by Coty for the exhibition – this whisk through the ages ends with ck one (1994), the original ‘unisex’ fragrance that gave us the whole ‘clean’ scent trend.
An original bottle of Coty’s iconic L’Origan

At the end of the exhibition there’s even a mini perfumers’ lab, complete with noses going about their business of carefully creating fragrances, weighing the materials and more than happy to explain the process and let you sniff as they do.
A working Givaudan lab has been transplanted to Somerset House

Following our noses all the way to glorious gift shop, we must admit swooning somewhat at the plethora of perfume books, scented postcards (genius idea!) fragranced pens – with, we’re delighted to report, many of the fragrances available to buy.
Blogger/journalist Persolaise makes sure to exit via gift shop

If the world of fragrance used to be a stuffy old secretive place, we believe the past few years have seen a tide-change, with perfumers stepping out from their laboratories and becoming superstars in their own right. The Somerset House exhibition is a fragrant tour de force that continues this wave of accessibilty: the very ethos of The Perfume Society, in fact!
The organisers worked in association with Coty and Peroni Ambra, with additional support from Givaudan and Liberty London – clearly many hours (weeks, months… years!) have gone in to making this a feast for all the senses.
We cannot urge you enough to go along and sniff for yourself.
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent 21st June – 17th September 2017/tickets £11 (or £9 concessions)
Somerset House, East Wing Galleries
Written by Suzy Nightingale
Pictures by Jo Fairley
A confessional has been created for Bertrand Duchaufour’s incense-rich Avignon

Paints and a classroom have been chosing as the setting for Andy Tauer L’Air du Désert Marocain