If you've ever wondered what the dream brief for a perfumer might look like, or where summertime's strange wafts of green bell peppers comes from, then read on...!
This week's catch up is with the enormously talented, Penny Williams. A creative perfumer and self confessed 'nose nerd', Penny is also the founder of Orchadia Consulting and The International Perfume Academy: organisations that offer fragrance development and training for professionals in the fragrance industry and indeed, anyone that feels passionate enough about perfume to want to know more. Having worked in the fragrance industry for over 24 years', Penny has worked across many areas of creative and technical perfumery, including a role as Chief Perfumer at an international fragrance house and 19 years' experience as a creative perfumer. We couldn't wait to quiz her about her relationship with odour.
What’s your earliest ‘scent memory?’
My first really clear odour memory occurred when playing outside in the sunshine and basking in the smell of the privet hedge flowers. It was the same time I discovered the smell of ladybirds. They emit a bitter green odour when disturbed by curious 6 year old girls (methoxypyrazines, also found in green bell pepper).
What’s your absolute favourite odour? – No matter how unusual or unexpected?
The smell of Sandalwood is my absolute favourite, it’s so deep and lustrous and makes me go "mmmm". To admit this feels like confession because Indian Sandalwood has some difficult history; it's so revered in its native India and over harvested to the point that it is now a protected species. I admire sandalwood beyond its odour, too. It is a parasitic tree which, until it is established, needs to tap into the roots of a companion plant in order to survive. It’s a miracle plant. I use non-Indian sources of natural sandalwood plus some amazing aromachemicals – great sandalwood notes without moral compromises.
You’re a creative perfumer; what would your dream brief ask you to capture in fragrance form?
A project to interpret something well known, which people already have a relationship with, but from a completely different genre. I’d love to interpret a song into a perfume - perhaps The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony or even Pharrell Williams' Happy! Of our senses, I think sound is the closest to smell in the ability to stimulate our emotions and memories.
Are there any smells that you first disliked, but learnt to love?
Calone, which most people describe as a 'fresh marine ozonic note', smelled like a rockpool of dirty sea weed to me! In my early years as a perfumer Calone was a very popular note and I had to overcome my perception of it in order to use it effectively in fragrance creations. I didn't learn to love it, but learned to live and work with it.
… or the other way around?
I found it difficult to smell a particular sandalwood material, even though some people described it as strong I found it weak to the point that it was almost imperceptible. With practice, over time, it became stronger and stronger for me. More recently scientific study has demonstrated that intermittent exposure to odours can encourage the formation (or growth) of additional receptors in our olfactory system to enable us to smell them – fascinating or what?!
How did you start working in the fragrance industry and what do you most enjoy about it?
I arrived in the industry by serendipity, having just left a research job. Once in, I was hooked! I’m fascinated by fragrance and smell; the science and technology in addition to creative development and communication – it's one enormous scented playground. My favourite things about the job are the people and the fact that I learn something new every day.
What’s one ‘top tip’ that you could give to people wishing to learn more about fragrance?
Discuss what you smell. Talking about fragrance enables exploration, comparison, challenge and is a brilliant aid to understanding and memory.