My maths teacher wasn’t the friendliest of creatures. She was rather convincing too. If she told you that you had no head for algebra, you believed her. Sometimes she would smack you for emphasis. Once science started involving too much maths, I dropped chemistry and physics, fully believing that I’d never be able to cope with them. It never occurred to me that I was capable of handling other complex topics and had top grades in biology, psychology and more. Good job I’ve always regarded perfumery as an art first, science second. Or perhaps, if I go back far enough, I should say that I’ve regarded perfumery as something potentially tasty. My first word was “kukka” (Finnish for “flower”), uttered whilst reaching for a pansy to eat from my grandmother’s garden.
I’m sure many people who go on to become perfume enthusiasts have some wonderful memories to do with fragrances. I can’t recall any specific incidents, more a general feeling of always being hyper-aware of scents and apparently having a rather good memory for them. My mother was probably a big influence, with her clouds of Rive Gauche, Shalimar and Y by YSL. Many of my fragrant memories relate to danger: once, at a very young age, a friend’s mum had left us home alone with a pot on the stove while she popped out. We escaped from the resulting house fire because I smelled smoke long before we could see any of it upstairs.
As a teenager I worked behind perfume and cosmetics counters, later trained as a make-up artist at London College of Fashion, and now, having spent over 20 years in the beauty industry, I’ve finally encountered something that has knocked me almost speechless.
You see, about five years ago, I had a real epiphany. I’m not the slightest bit spiritual, so I can’t embellish this with choirs of angels or any other such deus ex machina; in fact, thinking back, I am not sure why it was that one day I realised: I think I’m a nose.
Some of it might be to do with a wonderful book called “What Do I Do When I Want to Do Everything?
Of course one doesn’t just “become a nose”, a fact I quickly learned. In the strictest sense, I was immediately disqualified by not having been born in Grasse. Not too long ago, I would also have been disqualified for being a woman.
Determined nevertheless, I started self-study, and like any good autodidact reached out via every channel to discover as much as possible. The patchwork of information I managed to gather gave me confidence that I could, perhaps, at least develop an understanding of essential oils. So I ordered 250 and started experimenting.
Some time later, I’d started working for Lush (the sister-brand to Be Never Too Busy To Be Beautiful). When an opportunity presented itself, I decided to be brave and just walked up to Mark Constantine (one of the founders and head perfumer, pictured right) and handed him one of my first blends. I squirmed and apologised for its obvious lack of finesse. He sniffed and didn’t say a lot at first. Then he said: “This is very nice. And don’t be so hard on yourself – everyone starts out as an amateur.”
I decided to tackle chemistry whilst I was at it. The Open University provided a gentle re-introduction to science and yes, to mathematics. I decided that maybe one day I could go on a real perfumery course after all, and found one that seemed sensible, given that I’d want to study part-time: the IFEAT Diploma in Perfumery (now re-designed and re-named to Diploma in Aroma Trade Studies).
This all still seemed a little far-fetched, as I had absolutely no idea whether I could do any of it – financially or otherwise – but I’ve never let obstacles like that stop me from going ahead. Somehow, when you decide, act and don’t give up, the world around you presents the paths you thought were impossible. In Labyrinth, the 80s puppet film with David Bowie in those leggings, when the heroine is trying to find her way into the Labyrinth, it is only her own perception of the surroundings that stops her seeing the openings in the wall. Once she is nudged to just walk straight forward, she sees the gap and gets in.
I realise that from the outside I must have looked like a fool – “you’re going to study what?” - but that’s okay, because by common sense, what I was trying to do was more than a little foolish.
Work was getting more and more interesting, though nothing whatsoever to do with perfumery, until one day I was invited to the mothership of Lush and B Never, the 29 High Street labs in Poole, to spend a day with Mark and his son Simon (head of Creative Buying and, depending on who you ask, also the head of perfumery). Mark had set up a lovely day for us. We talked through his “old box of junk”, which contained such treasures as original formula Tabac Blond, Serge Lutens Ambre Sultan, several other gems and a whole set of Frederic Malle scents. I was so nervous about spending time with them because for me it meant so much. They knew it and made it just a nice day out. I left with the Frederic Malle set and a big grin on my face, never expecting anything further to come of it, but nevertheless hoping that something might have sparked off.
I was invited back to spend another day with Mark, and later, I was able to pop in more frequently. Never anything official, just the odd thing here and there. Then I had an opportunity to work with one of our product creators for a week, and together we made several prototypes, some of which ended up in the shops. I felt privileged and excited, but nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
There aren’t official job descriptions for most roles at Lush and B: people end up working in areas where they are most needed and best suited to, and sometimes this means hybrid-roles. All I knew after last Christmas was that my job would be changing, but I didn’t know what to. You could say that being told that I would be sponsored to go on the IFEAT diploma course might have been a clue. At the time it just seemed so unbelievably lucky that I could hardly take it in.
The jaw-dropping moment came in another meeting with Mark and Simon.
“So, as a trainee perfumer, we feel that the best place for you to start would be with the quality of raw materials, don’t you?” said Simon.
From that moment, everything has been like a Hollywood montage: working in the compounding department and coming home surrounded by wafts of jasmine; receiving all the course materials; starting to do “nose push-ups” (as Simon calls them) in the lab; helping the B Never gang with perfume sales training - and attending the Society of British Perfumers symposium, during which I met Tony Curtis, my course tutor and co-author of An Introduction to Perfumery. Tony is retiring next year, so this is the last opportunity to study under him. He told me that I’m one of only 6 students and that for each presentation of the course, the top student receives a gold medal, awarded to them in a ceremony arranged by IFEAT (The International Federation of Essential Oils and Aroma Trades). Having rifled through the materials, I’ll be celebrating if I pass. The syllabus is impressive and complex, including a thorough final dissertation.
I’m becoming more and more aware of just how much I still don’t know and how tiny the corner of hope of ever becoming professional at this is that I’m gripping on to. I’m staring into this depth - a vast lake of knowledge, one could say - and preparing myself to jump in head-first. I know I will. Maybe I’ll find my old maths book in there. I need it now.
Pia Long is a lifelong cosmetics and perfume enthusiast and has been involved in the industry for twenty years. She qualified from London College of Fashion in 1996 and currently works for Lush and B as a researcher, writer, trainee perfumer and a junior product developer.