Back to School


26th June, 2009

When I threw my maths book into a Finnish lake one summer camp, little did I suspect I’d willingly study the subject as an adult, decades later in another country. Chemistry and physics were never really a problem at school; in fact, I rather liked knowing how things worked. During my first trip to the zoo, I spent most of the time with my nappy-padded bottom up in the air, head deep in the plumbing and other interesting paraphernalia of the cages. Animals? What animals? How do they get the water in?

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?

” by Barbara Sher. In it she explains that for people like me, who are interested in too many things, unable to choose that one thing to pursue and excel at, there is a solution. Yes, writing and illustrating and beading and gardening and websites and software are all very nice, sure thing, but you can’t be brilliant at everything because there simply isn’t the time in the world. You can refuse to choose, as long as you focus on one thing at a time. All that energy – previously splintered out of fear of losing some essential part of you – can be focused on one goal at a time. Then you simply swivel the spice-rack of interests around and focus on another thing for a while. And so on. I’m sure clever people work this out by themselves.

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.

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About the Author

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.

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About the author: Pia Long

Pia Long is a perfumer, freelance writer and an experienced cosmetics industry professional.

Originally from Finland, she has been in the UK since 1992 and qualified from London College of Fashion in 1996. For her continuing professional development she has read the entire CLP and COSHH regulations and several EU Opinions; completed a CLP course, is studying on an IFRA course with Orchadia Solutions and attends every lecture on olfaction and fragrance chemistry she can. She won the first David Williams Memorial Award for her work on the IFEAT Diploma in Aroma Trade Studies, is a Council member of the British Society of Perfumers and has been nominated for the Jasmine Award twice.

While working for Lush Cosmetics, Pia created some of their best-selling product perfumes, including HQ “the smell of a Lush shop in a bottle.” She is a regular contributor to Basenotes and her own blog can be found at volatilefiction.co.uk

Website: http://www.volatilefiction.co.uk

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Comments

    • Nostalgie | 26th June 2009 14:09

      Your story is inspiring and beautifully written. too! Not to mention that adorable illustration.

      Thank you. Pia!

    • mikeperez23 | 26th June 2009 17:46

      Great!

      The visual image of you hunkered down at the zoo, oblivious to the animals and more interested in the cages made me smile (and reminded me of how I was when I was a kid). :)

    • Hebe | 26th June 2009 22:07

      Brilliant article. I was wondering today exactly how people end up being noses, and hey presto! Looking forward to reading more.

    • Nukapai (article author) | 26th June 2009 22:20

      Thanks guys :o

      Props to Grant for the CUTEST ILLUSTRATION EVER and to Dani for coming up with the lovely double-meaning titular for the series.

      Already working on the next one; hopefully it'll be a monthly thingy.

    • VM I hate civet | 26th June 2009 23:14

      Can't wait for the next absorbing instalment... We can all be virtual - or do I mean vicarious? - apprentices by reading your column!

    • Nukapai (article author) | 26th June 2009 23:20

      Let's hope we're heading somewhere good together! :D (And that the somewhere good has chocolate).

    • chaelaran1008 | 27th June 2009 00:03

      Loved reading your column Nuka! I'll be searching for that Barbara Sher book. I've always been interested in umpteen subjects/projects and found it impossible to just focus on one 'vocation'. You have a great attitude and I look forward to reading more 'study notes'.

    • Nukapai (article author) | 27th June 2009 10:49

      It's got a different name in US, but over here it's called "What do I do when I want to do everything?" Barbara is also on Twitter and generally interacts with her readers.

    • tigrushka | 27th June 2009 11:27

      Thanks for the great article! Looking forward to reading the follow-ups. :smiley:

    • nenugal | 27th June 2009 20:00

      Very nice article, I'm looking forward to reading more :-)

    • Nukapai (article author) | 28th June 2009 01:14

      Thanks guys :D

    • ECaruthers | 28th June 2009 15:16

      Poa/Nukapai,

      First congratulations and good luck and have fun! I won't ask you to tell us things that might harm your employers. But there is so much we all want to know about the industry.

      Please tell us anything you learn about the way fragrances interact with skin chemistry. Is it acidity, how much I sweat, my diet? Are there ingredients in some fragrances that make them more sensitive to these variations?

      Thanks.

    • Nukapai (article author) | 28th June 2009 19:31

      I'll try to find out :)

      Will be sharing anything I can, but trying to avoid the boring stuff. Hopefully.

    • Redneck Perfumisto | 28th June 2009 20:14

      Yes, great reading, Pia. And I have to say, your enthusiasm for tackling new challenges is inspirational. The general love of learning at Basenotes is always at a high level, but I think your case is among the bravest and most exemplary! Looking forward to many updates as you explore new territory! :D

    • Nukapai (article author) | 29th June 2009 20:51

      Thank you, that's high praise and a tad embarrassing, Redneck :o :p

    • BlackCat | 29th June 2009 22:10

      Great column and, I agree, very inspiring!

    • ECaruthers | 2nd July 2009 12:52

      Pia,

      If you can learn math in a way that relates to subjects that interest you (like how fast different aromachemicals evaporate) I think you'll be delighted to discover that you have a good head for math. Most people do. I've known other people who had to give up on math after one bad class left them without the foundation for the next class. This happens way too often. Good teachers are treasures worth their weight in Joy. Bad teachers should be dropped into your Finnish lake. Most, unfortunately, have too little time (or too little imagination) to think of another explanation when the first one isn't understood. Remember the magic words: "I didn't understand that. Can you explain it in a different way?"

      Have fun.