Interview with Sarah McCartney of 4160 Tuesdays

22nd October, 2012

Sarah McCartney began her career sniffing hot newsprint at the Guardian newspaper. She went on to write and edit the Lush Times for nearly a decade. Here a new British talent tells Lila Das Gupta how novel writing and perfume making inadvertently went hand in hand.

Tell us a bit about your first olfactive memory.

I was two, I was playing in the garden in Redcar and I smelled the mock orange blossom (Philadelphus). Then I decided I wanted to smell it so much I shoved one of the buds up my nose. I ended up at the doctor’s with my mum in a right old panic...

How did you come to work at Lush?

I’d been working at the Guardian newspaper, organising events – the smell of hot newsprint is one of my favourites – and I left to take a master’s degree. One of the essays I wrote was on retail marketing, and the only retailer I knew was Mark Constantine. So he told me about his business and I wrote it up with some suggestions on his future, and where he fitted in the market. (At the university I had access to loads of market statistics that he didn’t). I sent it off and heard nothing. Still nothing, then one day I got a call.

“Can you write?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you want to write the Lush Times?”

It turned out that my stats had got him his funding to expand his four shops to achieve his ambition to have 25 shops in London. So my reward was work.

The Lush Times was a cult publication. It had a ‘voice’ like no other, a sense of humour and the power to describe how people felt about the things they were smelling. How did you develop that ‘voice’?

Well, the voice felt genuine because at the time it was mine. The directors were the creative heart of the company, and invented all the products themselves. They would tell me their inspiration and the stories behind the products, and the essential oils they’d used to make people feel a certain way, and I’d then see them from the point of view of someone who might be thinking of buying them.

I would write each edition with a different reader in mind. That way it would stay fresh and interesting.

The nice thing was that it was unedited. I could write whatever I liked. And I’ve always had a sense of humour so I liked put in a few jokes – lots of jokes and quirky things. I suppose my inspiration was Nancy Banks-Smith, writing for the Guardian’s television pages (where I had worked organising events). She wrote exactly what she saw and felt, and not the way you were supposed to. Most cosmetics writing is so serious. Why not make it fun, like going into a Lush shop? My favourite moment was seeing someone laugh themselves silly on the tube while reading it.

Possibly my favourite product description was about something with juniper oil which was there to revive tired people. I wrote that Elijah had rested under a juniper tree when he was exhausted and added “see Bible for details”. I just liked messing about with the usual marketing conventions and surprising people. That got a few letters (praise, fortunately). It turned into the house style, with customers and staff copying the way I wrote, and contributing their own reviews too.

What perfumes have you admired and why?

My first real perfume was Diorella. It is just glorious (and I’ve got a bottle of the old stuff in the fridge for special occasions). Now I know that it’s the chypre I’m attracted to, even when you’d scarcely notice. I love O de Lancome, and Trophee Lancome too, Eau de Rochas – lots of scents made by Roudnitska, I found out later. I was gobsmacked by Poison, and In Love Again, then I just dabbled for a while until I found Lipstick Rose at Frederic Malle’s shop in the Rue de Grenelle. For me, it’s got to have fruit.

What made you decide to make perfumes yourself?

Of course I’d dabbled when I was at Lush. I always fancied being a witch when I was a kid, not a perfumer, but I do love making things if I can’t get hold of what I want. That’s why I leaned to knit and to sew and to make jewellery.

Then what happened was that I left Lush to follow some ideas I had, including writing a novel. In the book, there’s a women who makes perfume to remind people of a time when they felt happy, to help them through their problems. I spent too much money trying to find perfumes that matched what I was describing, and still they weren’t right, so I set off on my quest to make them myself.

Then when people asked me how the novel was going, I’d tell them what it was about. They’d either ask if they could read it, or if I’d make them a perfume. So I turned into a perfumer.

How do you go about making a bespoke perfume for someone, when half the time people can’t find words to describe what they want, or may not be aware of their likes or dislikes?

The simple answer is that you get them to smell stuff and see which things make them say “mmmmmm”. You can pretty much guarantee that if people say they want something fresh and natural, they want it synthetic and stuffed with hedione. That’s fine though. You need to interpret the language they use and not take it literally.

When I made ‘Lion Cupboard’ for my sister, it was because she told me one of her favourite smells was a cupboard we kept at home that belonged to our father. I already knew what it smelled like. It is an oak cupboard with lions carved on the doors and our dad kept his hats, scarves and gloves in there. It smelled like a hug. When he died my sister used to go there and open the doors to inhale dad. Then my mum threw everything away and cleaned it out.

The perfume has a very woody smell of course, lots of vetivert, some patchouli and cedarwood, and a drop of real oud, grapefruit because that’s what he ate for breakfast, a cologne accord because he liked his 4711, and a little spearmint to remind us of his toothpowder.

How do you yourself perceive smell?

I have this cross-modal perception with scent and sound which means that I can hear a musical note when I smell something. I have to listen for it; it’s not as if there’s a symphony playing when I walk into a perfume shop. But it does make it easier for me to feel and hear when accords are right, as well as just smelling them.

With ‘Sunshine & Panckakes’, I was asked ‘Can you make something that smells of sunshine. And pancakes!” I had three goes at it before I was completely happy with it, which is surprisingly few. It was a hit with the client.

For our friend Katie, (for whom I made ‘What Katy at Weekends’) I had to come up with a scent that smelled ‘fresh’ and ‘natural’, in her view. It was a bit of an adventure for me because it was much more modern and accessible than I usually go for. That said, it’s got a mass of violet in it, which people avoid for fear of the cry of “Granny!”

There may come a time when I can’t make what someone needs. I hope that people will come to me because they like what I do, and not ask me to reproduce something they’ve bought at Boots.

How difficult has it been for you to set up as a perfumer? There seem to be quite a few barriers to entry in this trade.

I have a favourite way of starting and business. I did it first when I was seven, then again when I was 19 with jewellery. I make things for myself, then friends ask me if they can buy them, then their friends ask me and eventually I get approached by shops. That’s the way I feel comfortable. I’ve ignored the usual bank loan, venture capital and funding routes - I’m growing organically, and I’m not giving up the day job just yet. I’ve got the website up, for bespoke scent and for my vintage collection which I sell decants of – but I’m still going through the process. I’ve invested a lot of money on materials, and bottles, flasks, pipettes, all the kit, and it does add up.

I’m currently saving up for the investment of EU safety certificates, after which I’ll be able to supply shops. I’ve already got a niche shop in London waiting for supplies, and a Japanese company that specialises in European cosmetics brands.

You can’t just make a nice smell and take it down the shops.

What do you think about the state of perfumery today?

There are thousands of scents that are really nice, but that’s all. They’re just really nice. They don’t smell beautiful. I want scents that make me want to fall in love with them. The most recent one I bought was Une Rose Vermeille by Andy Tauer.


You can meet Sarah at Gone But Not Forgotten: The Vintage Collection of Sarah McCartney, a Perfume Lovers London event in association with Basenotes.

The event is at 7pm on the 24th of January, 2013 at the New Cavendish Club.

Tickets cost £15 and are non-refundable.

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About the author: Lila Das Gupta

Lila Das Gupta is a London based journalist with an interest in all things olfactory. Lila also organises the Perfume Lover's London meet-up group.


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    • Francop | 23rd October 2012 08:23

      What a Brilliant Article ! Go for it Girl! Thanks very much :-)

    • Nosebud | 23rd October 2012 15:59

      I wish I could be in London to meet her! She sounds awesome.

    • Nukapai | 23rd October 2012 20:18

      As a former colleague and a fellow fragrance lover, I am delighted to see Sarah's current success with her venture and wish her all the best! I may even be able to attend the event in January (but it's impossible to plan my diary that far ahead as Sarah would very well know ;) ).

    • Francop | 24th October 2012 07:38

      I live in Manchester and will not make it either but am sure it will be a memorable one...keep us posted with photos and a short chronicle please...thank you :-)

    • michailG | 24th October 2012 12:38

      A very nice article indeed. I am not convinced that perfumery is as easy as Sarah McCartney makes it sound. Or if it is for her she must be very talented and/or fortunate. One observation: beauty of which McCartney often talks is very much socially constructed. Snobbism apart olfactory perfumes may be more desirable to perfume lovers because they are more true to some notes that are difficult to compose nowadays due to rarity of raw material or regulations. Many may find some of these olfactory treasures "ugly" and unwearable.

    • 4160Tuesdays | 26th October 2012 13:26


      Thought I'd just drop in to say hello.

      Nosebud, where are you? Maybe I can visit.

      Hi Nukapai, you lovely talented creature. Cheers Francop.

      My dear MichailG. Don't get your knickers in a twist.

      Do I make it sound easy? It's not. A lot of my attempts go into the jar named 'general air freshener' when they don't work out the way I wanted. And yes I am very fortunate after a long time working at other things, to find myself in this position. It's not for me to say whether or not I'm talented, but I do love it when people enjoy wearing my scents.

      I read the interview again very carefully and I mention beauty just the once, not often. And I used it specifically to describe scents that I find to be more than just 'nice', like many of the fashion scents around today. (Not the entire western concept of beauty.) For me a beautiful perfume is one that has a depth of feeling beyond just smelling nice. I stress, for me. I don't expect people to like exactly what I like. As for perfume snobbery, perhaps you've read a little more into my views that I intended.

      Of course we all have different tastes in scent. I love a dash of gamma undecalactone or alpha ionone, I love rose, I'm not so fussed about jasmine; most of the scents I adore are chypres. But I only found that out thirty years after I first bought one. I've always bought them because they make me want to hug them, or for reference.

      I can't stand Diorissimo, and that's an olfactory treasure. I'm chuffed to bits with Une Rose Vermeille and that's ultra modern. We lose some treasures, we gain some more. Some lose their character when they are reformulated to keep up with the regulations. For me, the regulations have been a pain in the backside, but watch this space...

    • joshuaang | 29th October 2012 16:50

      Hi Sarah,

      Just read this interview and had some questions for you! (if you're checking back on this space!)

      1. How do you think your time at Lush has influenced you as a perfumer?

      2. Does writing about perfume and having an extensive vocabulary about perfume help you when creating perfumes?

      I've read your blog (the one about attending Karen Gilbert's masterclass) and think it's absolutely wonderful that you're so humble and willing to keep learning! And looking at your website I'm thinking of getting some samples to try out! Despite your warnings about not trying out on skin, I'd say I'm passionate and foolhardy enough to risk a skin rash to experience beauty. It's also great that you mentioned your love for chypres - they are most certainly my thing as well!

    • Nosebud | 30th October 2012 10:13

      Oh wow I feel so special! I live pretty close to San Francisco if you are ever doing something in the area let me know. In the meantime I will just have to order some samples to feel closer to you (I am not a stalker I promise- maybe just a little infatuated.)

    • 4160Tuesdays | 10th November 2012 14:15

      Hi Josh,

      Just dropped in to answer your questions below. Sorry it's taken me a whole but I've just kicked off a new project, of which more later...

      1. Absolutely. At Lush I had to learn to recognise and describe scents and I also learned about the natural ingredients' aromatherapy benefits. Lush are very open and honest about what they use. They never pretended to be 100% natural and are open about using synthetic materials to help the naturals work better. But they are also mad passionate about using natural materials whenever they can. For most Lush products it's the therapeutic benefits which are important, and the scent comes second (although now Pia's on the case, I think they've started to smell a lot more sophisticated). I only make scents, not any other products, so I concentrate on the smell, but the effect also interests me a great deal.

      If you look at a GCMS analysis of a synthetic rose compared with a natural rose, you'll see that the natural is a great deal more complex; there are molecules in there that don't have a scent, but who knows what else they do to the body and mind? I'm interested in that, and my 14 years at Lush definitely helped provoke my curiousity.

      2. I think having an extensive vocabulary help with creating everything. I still run writing workshops, partly because I love it, and partly because I've a mountainous mortgage to pay off and 4160Tuesdays is very small. Learning to define your thoughts in a precise way, and express them fluently give you a way to get where you are going faster. It doesn't make you more creative or more intelligent, but it gives you more options. I think. But I also think that knowing how to play music has the same effect. The more ways you have to express yourself, the clearer your thinking will be. Clarity gives you a smoother ride to where you're heading.

      (And very soon, I'll be taking away the warnings as I'll have my safety certificates in place.)

      Long live oakmoss, the king of chypre.

      - - - Updated - - -

      I would LOVE to come back to San Francisco. I was there for my birthday once, met the delightful Lush forumites, and found myself engaged to my wonderful husband, Nick. (He just gave me a ring and giggled, so as it was my birthday I really wasn't sure if he was asking me to marry him or not...)

      - - - Updated - - -

      One more little thing while I'm here. I've got a crowd funding project going for my next perfumery adventures. Do take a look if you get a moment: