Jazz trumpeter and singer by night, natural perfumer by day – when Annette Neuffer sets her mind to doing what she loves, nothing can stop her. Not even European Union red tape. "Your sound is beautiful - dark and warm," Wynton Marsalis said of her trumpet playing and her impressive portfolio of fragrances suggests that "dark and warm" seem characteristic of her travels in scent as much as in sound. Blown away by the rich and sophisticated elegance of her work, Tom Clark was curious to learn more about this self-taught indie perfumer from Freising near Munich and her fragrance philosophy.
Annette Neuffer: Yes, I read Essence and Alchemy and it was very helpful for learning about proportions. But books are not something that would make you learn perfumery. That “100 formulas for perfume” literature, you can forget about it, because it’s never really diligently worked out. I have one book which I always highly recommend, Fred Wollner’s “Naturparfumführer” [natural perfume guide]. But basically, I just started by going into health food stores, buying some essential oils and it was trial and error from there - [laughs] there was a lot of trial and error. I didn’t attend workshops, but just experimented. I probably could have done this way more systematically, but I just threw things together and learned. I’ve been making perfume now for nearly twelve years and I’m getting to where I know what works and what doesn’t – the path is the goal.
But running this as a business, quite frankly, is really difficult. Producing and processing the perfumes, sourcing the (often very hard to come by) raw materials, fulfilling the EU legislation with all the required paperwork, making up a website, communicating with the customers, keeping the lab in order is all very time consuming and actually a job for more than one person. Last year I already learned that it isn't a great idea to accept gigs around Christmas, because it's quite stressful to handle all the orders and to deal with the entirely different thing required of a musician at the same time. This year I had to cut down my musical activities to get all the unavoidable things done to get started, but I will certainly not continue like this, because I simply love playing music too much to totally skip it.
TC: Is there a connection for you between sound and smell, between jazz and perfume? Do the two realms meet somewhere in your mind, heart or soul?
AN: By all means, yes, yes and yes! Recently a psychologically skilled singing student of mine asked me whether I see colours when I hear a certain note. I asked her back whether it was possible not to do so because I unconsciously connect all smells, sounds, musical keys, words, numbers and colours. My student laughed and straightened me out that this phenomenon is called synesthesia - honestly, I had no idea! Very often I get ideas from song lyrics or poems and the mood they transport. I do occasionally sing some Shakespeare sonnets with a big band and got the concept for my linden blossom perfume Sonnet 18 out of it. When I learned the lyrics by heart it appeared in my mind automatically.
Jazz is one of the most complex forms of music and I mostly prefer more complex perfumes over very minimalist ones too. To me aroma chemicals are the olfactory equivalent of digital sounds; naturals are acoustic sounds to me. This is completely value neutral though as it strongly depends on what you do with these.
Perfumery and music are both about bringing many different elements into a good proportionality. Composing music definitely has something in common with composing a perfume, picking single notes and chords that make sense together and ideally create something where the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that makes something authentic and creative out of it and hopefully pleases the audience too.
TC: Do you have "holy grail“ perfumes and (how) do they influence your own work?
AN: Well, there are a lot of "conventional" perfumes that I've always been fond of, for instance Féminité du Bois, Theorema, Must de Cartier, YSL NU, Dune and my all time male favourite Santos de Cartier, but since these are made of very different raw materials, I cannot transfer their concept to what I do and it wouldn't make sense trying to imitate these. But of course I’m trying to check out combinations of notes that I liked in particular perfumes and see how they turn out "en naturel."
TC: Many of your perfumes are oriental-themed and oriental-named: the Avicenna trio, the Per Fumum duo, Mellis, Maroquin, Arabica and others; also, the rose seems to occupy a special place in your work. What fascinates you about orientals?
AN: Mostly, oriental perfumes are very complex, and I love spices! But I think that most olfactory preferences are based on genetic disposition and socialisation, so I must admit I can't really give a rational reason for it. The rose - I use it in abundance - is an indispensable raw material for giving volume to a composition, especially when working without synthetics. It smoothes rough edges and rounds out and connects everything.
TC: How would you describe your signature style, what makes a Neuffer-perfume recognizable as such?
AN: Everyone does their perfumes according to their own inner vision and I cannot put in words what it is. I do think that the absence of synthetics makes quite a difference compared to what you buy at the mall. It certainly does not appeal to everybody, but naturals give a very different character to a perfume. One thing I can say is that I always use materials from all categories, a lot of top, middle and base notes, and that makes for a more complex structure than a base notes-oriented perfume. For example, Hepster has equally proportioned head-, heart- and base notes, which makes it appear more complex than, say, a floral perfume with only very limited top and base. The old classics, like from Guerlain, were about proportion and they always had a lot of different citruses, florals, animalics, everything that exists was in there and that gives them a complex, kaleidoscopic character. Some of my customers consider the combination of beeswax, sandalwood and vanilla to be the "Neufferiade", which is certainly correct since I use these quite often.
TC: Tell us a little more about your latest perfume, Hepster, which is not oriental or floral but green, masculine and, from my perspective, awesome!
AN: Thank you, I'm glad you appreciate it! I only made “feminine” perfumes for years because I just did it as a hobby for myself. Then I got asked for male scents more frequently so I had to do something about it. I wanted something in a more retro “gentlemanly” style and the colour code was "green". So I picked mastic, juniper berry, rosemary, silver fir, vetiver and oak moss that evoke this colour. Also, the geranium essence I used is not overly floral but more on the fresh side. The little animalic twist comes from the hyraceum, a cruelty free animalic excretion from the rock hyrax that has petrified for presumably several thousands of years and smells of civet and castoreum. I’m not so into animal products, because they are rarely produced cruelty free, but hyraceum, which came up about ten years ago, really fills that gap pretty well. I like to use it, because I love to have an underlying animalic tone: that’s what makes a perfume fascinating - a warm skin character - very hard to produce without a material of this kind. And Africa stone is not quite as funky as civet. For the woody base I used two Robertet speciality materials where Virginia cedarwood is co-distilled with frankincense and pine resins.
I was very surprised that it was so well received since it's certainly not a trendy fragrance - but it seems to appeal to folks who are into "British" scents.
TC: One could assume from what you’ve said that you’re not a great fan of contemporary minimalist perfume styles, like Jean-Claude Ellena’s…
AN: Oh, I admire that certain transparency he is able to create, he makes clear impressions. We had a music theory teacher at the Graz conservatory who always said: “simple is not easy.” Ellena has developed a distinctive style out of that, but much of the stuff today is too lazily minimalist and that kind of simplicity does not appeal to me. But you can put in too much. I do not use excessive amounts of materials - my number is about forty - because with naturals the trace elements add up to thousands of distinctive molecules and that makes things very complex. I don’t know how many rose oils I’ve tried, but you find some that have a special quality, even if they are double the price. Good raw materials provide a lot of complexity – some are a perfume on their own.
TC: Some musicians are not avid listeners, some are great fans of other performers. Are you heavily into smelling the work of other independent and natural perfumers or do you find that distracts from a focus on your own work?
AN: I am an avid listener and also love to smell the work of other perfumers. It is always inspiring to see what other artists come up with; it is also a source of new ideas. Mostly the fragrances of independent perfumers are harder to come by or not even available at the extremely well sorted Munich niche stores. But sometimes I trade with the perfumers directly or somebody sends me something. Of the perfumers that use naturals I especially like Roberto Dario (Esperienze Olfattive), who has a very distinct joyous handwriting, Charna Ethier (Providence Perfume Company) and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. Dominique Dubrana once sent me his Gringo and it’s a fabulous perfume and I can say that this guy is great. He has the best materials and he is very sincere, very humble in his way and doesn’t consider himself a great artist. I found that very sympathetic because in perfumery a lot of people make a big deal about themselves.
When I'm very busy at the lab it would indeed distract me, but when I have the time I will often pull out the samples I've been sent. They don't necessarily have to be independent or ultra niche, as I find many niche perfumes quite "mainstream" and some "conventional" perfumes highly original.
TC: You live in Freising, Bavaria, not far from Munich. How important is your olfactory environment to your work?
AN: Freising is an official "City Of Roses" and the location of the University of Applied Sciences Weihenstephan. Thus there is a most amazing abundance of gardens that you wouldn't find elsewhere. The most famous is the University's Experimental Garden where you can find sensational arrangements such as the "Lindensortiment," an alley with all sorts of linden trees, planted in the 1950's. When they are in bloom, it's heaven on earth. I discovered American varieties of linden there that differ greatly in scent from the European ones (Tilia Americana and Tilia Henryana). Very narcotic, very honeyed. That was my "linden model" for Sonnet 18. So it's a fabulous and inspiring place for a nose to live, as you can discover very uncommon scents there that can become a hook for a new idea.
AN: I have recently read Andy's great essay "The Price Of Things" and couldn't agree more on all the points he makes so excellently. I think that a lot of people cannot imagine all the labour that goes into making perfumes as a single person. And also the risk one has to take to keep them available, even if materials and other cost factors increase heavily.
When I have worked out a formula that I'm happy with and it starts to sell, it happens quite often that some of the most important raw materials are all of a sudden unavailable.
This year my favourite vanilla extract costs an insane 30 Euros per gram, and even at this ridiculous price it's not available anymore! In 2012 it was 5 Euros! There’s been a vanilla crisis going on for two years due to bad harvests and other factors that skyrocketed the price for a kilo of raw Vanilla from $20 to $450. Rose and orange blossom prices have also increased heavily. So I have the choice: stop making the product or spend my last penny on drug-level priced amounts. This year I went for the latter but it's certainly not a business model I can continue. When I work as a vocal coach, I get a decent hourly fee, have no risk at all and don't have to buy anything...
Another difficult issue is to get decent packaging in smaller amounts, since any non-pedestrian bottles are offered in pallets of 20.000 pieces for 30ml bottles, maybe 8.000 for 100ml ones. Independent perfumers are often blamed for their less fancy packaging, but that's the reason.
EU regulations are also a very laborious affair that causes a lot of paper work and cost and I had a hard time finding qualified and affordable safety assessors. Any little indie guy within the EU has to come up with the same documentation and safety assessments as huge companies. Theoretically this also applies to producers outside the EU who send their products into the EU via online sales, but I can't imagine that an indie perfumer in the USA would start the hassle for a few online sales overseas. So it's more expensive to produce within the Union, at least if you're selling legally.
AN: Unfortunately I haven't been there, but I would love to go someday. I have already thought about it, but the main reason to exhibit at these fairs is to make contact with retailers. In my case, I don't aim to find retailers because this would mean that I am selling for 50% of the retail price which wouldn't cover my cost. The other option would be to double my prices, which I don't think is a good one. I only have capacity to produce fairly small amounts, which I can easily sell myself, so it's a win-win situation for my customers and myself. To sell via retailers, it is necessary to move larger quantities at lower margins, and that is something I don't want to be pushed into. I make batches of 300g, about 360ml, it makes no sense to do larger ones. I like to make everything as fresh as possible, and then also, since the materials cost a lot of money, I don’t want to put them in a liter of a batch that maybe will not be ordered - I may need the material for some other perfume. You never know what is going to sell. I made some perfumes with frankincense, like Ambra Luminosa, and people are buying that a lot; I had no idea that a frankincense would be so popular, because it polarizes a lot.
TC: You've said that you more or less drifted into natural perfumery without an “ideological agenda.“ Your perfume line is all-natural, but do you still occasionally play around with synthetics and do you think you may at some point return to employing them, e.g. if some really interesting new monomolecular material came along?
AN: Never say never, but for over ten years my synthetics have been leading a sad life in a storage box in the cellar. I keep them to demonstrate differences between natural and synthetic products in my workshops, for instance vanillin versus genuine vanilla and such. I think there are a lot of interesting monomolecular materials but I guess that others are by far more skilled and determined to make something out of them than I. They don't move me. It's like picking a certain musical instrument that attracts you more than others but you don't really know why. I also have to admit that synthetics are being so overused in our daily life that they often bother me. On the other hand it would also be disastrous if everybody wanted natural raw materials exclusively. Since their availability is limited, it would lead to price levels that are even more insane than what we have now.
TC: Where do you draw the line of what is natural and what isn’t?
AM: Not everything that is being called natural I consider natural. I know ambroxan is being made from clary sage, but when you smell it, you know it’s [monomolecular]. Lots of things are labelled as natural, but that natural strawberry yoghurt is made with flavour grown in the lab from fungi. Natural for me means that when I say vanilla it has to be sourced from a vanilla pod. Vanillin can be sourced from wood, cloth, rice. Rose components like citronellol or nerol can be sourced from natural sources like lemongrass. And the laws for what may be called natural differ from country to country. Of course a perfume can really benefit from rectified qualities of natural materials. But for me “rose” must come out of a rose.
TC: Are you frustrated sometimes by attitudes that aesthetically dismiss natural perfumery as “aromatherapy” while celebrating niche products assembled from low-cost synthetics? On your website you point out the fantastic price differences between some high grade naturals and their synthetic substitutes.
AN: I figured out that some people are not able to describe what is not familiar to them, so they call it aromatherapy; because from their scenting habits they cannot relate to naturals and they just use a label to put it down. It’s like when you listen to a very complex kind of music for a long time and you can pick all the elements apart rather than saying that jazz is just a lot of cacophonic doodling around. Exactly the same. I am not trying at all to be a missionary, but when people step into my lab they go “Oh my God, these smells, this is not at all like in a perfumery!” They are taken by it and it makes them think about the smells around them everyday, like a fabric softener that will keep your clothes “fresh” for twelve weeks. And I’ll have people compare a real and a synthetic jasmine or orange flower and I have never seen anyone prefer the artificial version. But in our day people don’t have the opportunity to get in touch with these substances, so for many people rose becomes phenethyl alcohol.
For others natural perfume seems to be a problem of diminished returns. They tell me: “why should I pay so much money for something that doesn’t have the half-life of plutonium?” I read a lot that people want powerful sillage, but for me that’s like judging the quality of music by its volume. So, to each their own, but I do not care to “project.” One has to like the perfume for oneself and what you project then is that you’re a person in tune with yourself.
Back to your question: it does not frustrate me, because I just think it’s a matter of fact that people who produce perfume as purely a business concept will always select their materials from the perspective of profit margins. And although I’m no Florence Nightingale, I’m just absolutely not into that, because, as I already told you, I did not start making perfume as a business. I just did it for pleasure, just like I play jazz because I love the music. I make perfumes from these more expensive materials because it’s my lifetime I spend on it and I love it. So I do it, and do not really care whether they become a success or not. And sometimes you’re more successful with things if you don’t care about what everybody may think. Life is too short to drink bad red wine and preoccupy yourself with things you’re not into. I do the things that I like now and if somebody else likes them then that’s great!
Annette Neuffer’s fragrances and samples are exclusively available through her website: http://www.naturparfum.net