This week, we had the pleasure of catching up with Jo Fairley. You may know Jo as a top UK editor and journalist, or the co-author of the bestselling 'Beauty Bible' series of books, or the co-founder of Britain's global chocolate success, Green & Blacks... or you may be familiar with her award-winning organic and natural food store, Judges Bakery, or her Hastings-based wellbeing centre, The Wellington Centre. Most recently, you may have become aware of Jo and former Harrods and QVC buyer, Lorna Mckay's latest endeavour, The Perfume Society, which is the world’s first ‘appreciation society’ for perfume-lovers. Together, Jo and Lorna have just launched The Perfume Bible. And after an introduction like that, you can well imagine how delighted we were to snaffle ten minutes of Jo's time to discuss all things olfactory!...
You’re well known for interviewing others about fragrance, Jo! When did you first realise that you had a specific interest in the subject?
I think I was obsessed with smells at a very early age – most of my childhood memories are smell-related in some way, and I sometimes feel I’m in a permanent time machine being whisked back there by a hint of a geranium leaf, or a sweet pea, or a tomato, or the smell of road tar. If they were tarring the road, I’d be late home always – having hung around breathing the fumes! It was an editor at Woman’s Journal, Deirdre Vine, who first asked me to write about fragrance – and my very first article won the Jasmine Award in 1991. From that moment on I think I knew I’d found my calling!
What is it about fragrance and scent that you find most fascinating?
It’s the power it has to Tardis us through time and space – and also bring back the dead! That sounds macabre, but when you smell a fragrance that a lost loved one wore, it’s almost as if they’re there again.
What’s your earliest ‘scent memory?’
Standing in my grandma’s greenhouse, with her getting me to rub leaves of rose geraniums and tomatoes in my fingers, and then smell them. (Rather aptly, for The Library of Fragrance!)
What’s your absolute favourite odour? – No matter how unusual or unexpected?
A full-blown summer rose from my Double Delight rose bush. I used to discuss this rose bush with the late Evelyn Lauder – it was her favourite too, and she had them growing high above Fifth Avenue in her apartment’s roof garden. It’s rose tinged with lemon. And the bush is equally beautiful: the roses start creamy and then become pinker as they age, like magic.
Is there a fragrance that you could describe, that you would love to discover, but that so far eludes you?!
I’ve smelled it. It’s Guerlain’s Chypre, which pre-dates the famous Coty Chypre by a few years. Their in-house ‘nose’ Thierry Wasser recreated it as a part of an exercise to explore the vintage Guerlain scents, so that he could further understand the heritage of that extraordinary house. He was able to use the correct materials of the period without worrying about restrictions on formulations, as they’re not for sale. I smelled it – and have literally been fantasising about breaking into 68 Boulevard Champs-Elysées like a cat burglar to get my hands – or rather, my wrists – on it. It’s so sensual and mossy and mysterious. Divine.
Are there any smells or notes that you first disliked, but learnt to love?...
I got an olfactory ‘shock’ the first time I smelled Thierry Mugler’s ‘Angel’, to the point where the PR said: ‘Jo, are you OK…?’ It took me ages to get my head – or rather, my nose – round Angel, but I actually really like it now. I don’t wear it – it doesn’t suit me – but I think it’s a fantastic creation and I love smelling it on other people.
… or the other way around?
I loved the smell of jasmine until I got very sick in Lamu, in Kenya, when I was 18, and lay feeling like I was dying on a bed over which a jasmine-scented breeze blew; it was scrambling all around the open window. It was literally 20 years before I could smell jasmine again without feeling physically sick. (I love it again now, but I’ve had to ‘train’ myself.) But that illustrates to me why there is no room for perfume snobbery in this world; if I can develop an aversion to an ingredient that is acknowledged as being one of the most beautiful in a perfumer’s repertoire, then there can be no ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ in perfumery. It’s so much to do with what’s happened to us in our lives, even our genes. I’d like people to feel more confident about their fragrance choices.
What’s one ‘top tip’ that you could give to people wishing to learn more about fragrance?
As part of our work with The Perfume Society, I host workshops around the UK on ‘How to Improve Your Sense of Smell’. They’re free to subscribers (who can bring a friend for £15), and we smell wonderful things – and I teach an incredibly effective exercise which you do for three weeks, and it totally turbo-charges your sense of smell and appreciation of aromas and perfumes. Some of the feedback from people who’ve been at the workshops is phenomenal. My real, underlying mission with The Perfume Society is to help people develop what Helen Keller called ‘the fallen angel of our senses’ – using, and enjoying, their sense of smell to its true potential.