An interview with Alec Lawless of Essentially Me

22nd February, 2010

In his capacity as the man who personally sources essential oils and absolutes for his renowned company Aqua Oleum, Alec Lawless has spent twenty two years learning about and selecting the best natural materials. He knows them exceptionally well. Now he has used his highly practiced nose to produce a line of ten perfumes under his “Essentially Me” label.


As part of the same endeavour, he has recently written a book “Artisan Perfumery, or Being Led by the Nose” which lays out many of his thoughts and experiences and describes the making of one perfume in detail. It contains wonderful illustrations, commentary and information about natural raw materials.


Also, he offers a bespoke perfumery service. Many others who do this seem to rely on esoteric approaches; Alec Lawless is distinctly more concrete. There is no spurious personality test or colour chart, it is about the smells which the customer likes. He offers his essences to sniff and asks for a simple, instinctive reaction of yes or no. From this he builds up a group and then establishes the main ingredients of the perfume. The essences are presented in careful order which minimises nose fatigue, leaving heavier ones until later. This is the preparation; later on, when composing, his imagination comes into play.


We spoke over tea in at the Country Living Christmas Fair at the Business Design Centre, Islington.


Walker: What makes your “Essentially Me” perfumes distinct?


Alec: The person that’s wearing them...some background to that: I believe there was a golden age in perfumery. If I had to put dates to it I’d say it was probably from about 1880 or 1890 up to the beginning of the Second World War...


Walker: ...So from the beginning of the use of synthetics in perfumery?


Alec: My golden age begins a bit later than their introduction. The first aldehydes were used in about 1840. There is a perfume house in London which is very insistent on the necessary use of synthetics in large quantity who are about to launch perfumes from recipes written in 1700. That is just a complete contradiction.


As far as we know, certainly in Europe, the early perfumes were very crude. People smelled bad so they had to put something on to cover that up. Europeans didn’t wash. In the orient the people washed so they have a tradition of scenting rooms, not the body because they were clean. The early European perfumes were pretty basic. There was no understanding of molecular weight. There was no understanding of top/middle/base.


As people moved from the land into cities and gained disposable income, some could enjoy things which had previously been restricted to wealthy industrialists and royalty. There was a flowering of artisan perfumery, especially in France where Napoleon was a supporter of enterprise. His second wife Eugenie was very glamorous and it became fashionable to use perfume. This developed until eventually my golden age began.


The perfumes were characterised by three factors: a very high proportion of natural raw materials, a very small amount of synthetics and animal fixatives. My perfumes are based on these characteristics except that while I retain samples of the animal fixatives for reference, I don’t use them.


Walker: So do you use the synthetic replacements?


Alec: No, I have made my own botanical musk fixative. I couldn’t find one that I liked. Civet cats are poked with sharp sticks to stimulate production so it’s a no-no. The musk deer is virtually extinct. I’ve heard stories of musk farms in China where the deer are treated very badly. There is no argument for using it.


Walker: What about Ambergris? That can be found on the beach...


Alec: es, if you can get it ...but I have also been offered large amounts which obviously haven’t come from the beech but from hunted whales. I can tell by the appearance and the way it is presented. From the Indian Ocean and in New Zealand you might get beech combed stuff...but put it this way, there is an illegal trade in it. If I knew the ambergris was genuinely beech-combed I may use it.


So to come back to what characterises my perfumes, it is those three factors borrowed from the golden age that make them smell different on different people. A lot of commercially produced perfumes will smell the same if you put them on a goat’s bum or Cheryl Cole. The more naturals there are in a perfume the more the smell varies on different people.


I use naturals as a minimum of ninety nine percent of my perfumes, an absolute maximum of one percent of fragrant compounds (all of which contain naturals as well as synthetics) and my botanical musk fixative. I choose to do that because I want to make the best perfumes I can. If I could get the same results with only naturals I would. With naturals, some things work really well and others are tricky. That is where I am with the natural/synthetic issue at the moment. I don’t wish to close any doors in the future I may change my position. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s there are none...


Walker: So what type of synthetics do you use and why?


Alec: For tenacity and structure. Some of the purely natural perfumes need to be reapplied often; I can understand that as a kind of ritual but the way I see it, with naturals we have got loads of really amazing base notes, a good arsenal of florals and heart notes but for top notes we are much more limited, some citruses and some herbal notes. For some perfumes there is no need, they work beautifully with purely naturals. I don’t want to be dogmatic though so if I find a very small proportion of these compounds can provide some help up top and some freshness, I use them.


Walker: The two main ideas which came into my mind when I smelled your perfumes were “soft” and “complex”


Alec: I’m very fond of herbal absolutes. A lot of people are unaware of them but for example, thyme absolute is like bottled Mediterranean sunshine to me. I like layering things, really layering things. The challenge is to get harmonious complexity. Maybe that is what you meant by soft? There aren’t edges. To achieve that in my blending I have to link things; I use ingredients to marry. For example, if I have a flower which I want to put with a wood I don’t just put them together so you smell wood and a flower. I think of something which has got facets of both. I may use lavender which is floral and herbal and thyme which is herbal and woody and form a link, I use very little so you wouldn’t necessarily smell them but this marries the flower and the wood.


Walker: That smoothness of the transitions was very notable to me. There is not a strict definition around the notes.


Alec: Space doesn’t end.




Walker: Tell me about the unique structural idea you have for your perfumes of “Heart, Intrigue and Nuance”. How does this compare with, or interact with the standard Top/Middle/Base structure, does it replace that or compliment it?


Alec: It really just evolved as a mental model. There are structural “rules” about perfume which are to do with tenacity. Some people are quite dogmatic about it – the base should be forty percent, the heart thirty percent and the top thirty percent or something like that. I don’t think you can say that categorically because it depends on the nature of the perfume and what you are trying to do with it. For example many Americans like very sweet top-heavy perfumes. So you may have to structure their perfume differently. To quote John Steel – “there are no absolutes in perfumery”. So while the top/middle/base thing is useful, I found I was thinking in another way too.


The Heart, Intrigue, Nuance approach evolved from me making bespoke perfumes for clients. I found this is a simple way to present ideas about perfume that people who have no background in perfumery can understand. The heart is the core theme of the perfume; it could be oriental, it could be floral, it could be floral-woody. I think of it as being like the theme in a piece of music. Like in an orchestra, I want everything to be in harmony rather than having the equivalent of someone on the bass trying to get noticed.


Also, I think that when you smell a perfume, it should invite curiosity, it should draw you in and it should have some mystery. You shouldn’t smell it and say “ah, that’s rose, neroli and jasmine with a bit of clove.” That to me is not a good perfume; it should trigger some inquiry. To achieve this I build nuances around the heart of it. These must support the heart, not fight with it. On the very outside of that, I put “intrigue”. That is really the “what the ..?? what??? ...what’s that??” factor. As you smell it, you should not be able to name it...or you name it and immediately say “, that’s not it” and then say something else and “that’s not it either”. The intrigue is that, it’s the mischief.


Walker: What about the IFRA regulations and the coming changes – will they affect how you compose? Do you stick to those regulations?


Alec: I have to. It would be irresponsible not to. At the same time we have to recognise that the global market is driven by six enormous companies. They have huge influence, perhaps more than governments.


Walker: Does it affect your work... does it make it more difficult?


Alec: It may do. A lot of people’s immune systems are depleted from where their ancestors’ ones were. There are complex reasons for that. People are going to develop more and more allergies...but I don’t agree with single causes. The government funds lots of research looking for a single cause, then often the plug gets pulled when the researchers come back saying there isn’t a single cause, it’s much more complex than that. The governments don’t want to know that, they want something easy to deal with, even if it isn’t there. Oakmoss has been restricted already but has been used for centuries safely. Also, though I know that peanut allergies are dangerous, we don’t ban peanuts, we label clearly.


I have been running an essential oil company for twenty years and I’ve never met anybody who has had an adverse reaction to Jasmine. Jasmine is going to be severely restricted.


Cinnamon leaf has a minute thing in there which is a known carcinogen. Now it occurs in cinnamon as a fraction of one percent. Anyone who has ever worked with that oil will know it is acrid, it is aggressive, it is loud, it is sharp and you will use less than a drop in a perfume. At those levels the carcinogen would not even be detectable. I would be using maybe one fiftieth of a millilitre of the whole oil to warm up some citrus for example, but it probably wouldn’t be allowed.


I also want to say I am not romantic about naturals; there are lots of very dangerous naturals. There is a long history of natural poison. We just need common sense rather than more bureaucracy which we all end up paying for.


Walker: Your “Chypre” scent has Violet Leaf in it. I thought this was very interesting.


Alec: For me Chypre is a green classic so the violet leaf fit right in. I’m very fond of violet leaf. I see it as a pair of green boots on florals, to ground them, to pull them down a bit, to sink them more into the heart of the perfume rather than leaving them up in the top. In Chypre I think the top needs to be citrusy. The flowers sometimes need some heavy boots to stop them from floating away; they’re green boots... but more Doc Martens than Wellies.


I think I sweetened the labdanum in Chypre with a smidgen of oppoponax. I love oppoponax, it’s warm, it’s deep, it has a long history of being used for embalming. One of the pyramids, that of Ramses II, I think, smelled of oppoponax when it was opened. This stuff has history. I love labdanum as well, particularly the way they used to harvest it. Traditionally they would drive a flock of sheep through the bushes and pick it off their fur at the other end.


Walker: Your perfume Souk, which I really enjoyed, has oppoponax in it....


Alec: Oh yes, definitely. I’ve travelled a lot around the Middle East and India. I love India. Some of those markets...I love the atmosphere and the smells. They are so complex. All the florals are there...the rose is used in sweets and there is lots of rose water everywhere, then there are all the spices and all the leathery smells and smoke.


I spent some time in Istanbul where Europe and Asia meet. There was a period of when the silk route went through there, the spice route went through there, the frankincense all went through there. All those travellers and merchants in a big melting pot...I have seen paintings and read accounts of the coffee houses there; it was such a rich and intellectually stimulating place. That really gets to me on an “imaginal” level. I wanted to honour that wealth of diversity. It is about my love of complexity. Tasting life fully, not standing at the edge of the pool thinking “I’ll jump in if he does...”


Walker: In the early part of the heart note there is a wonderful accord of cedar and sandalwood. Often I smell cedar used to “pad out” a sandalwood note but here the cedar seems to be the feature and the sandalwood is in support. It is a beautiful note – can you tell me about it?


Alec: Ok – a lot of what is sold as cedar wood is Virginian cedar wood. Its Latin classification is Juniper Virginian so it’s actually not cedar wood. It smells a bit like cedar wood ...or a pencil case. It’s a lot cheaper than the authentic one which is cedrus atlantica from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. I enjoy that as note in itself rather than as a way of extending sandalwood. They function slightly differently; the cedar will burn off, revealing the sandalwood underneath.


Walker: In your book, you mention Roudnitska, the legendary perfumer. Are there contemporary perfumers you admire?


Alec: Well, being in the trade I have some idea what the trends are but the larger brands are associated with celebrities not perfumers so be perfectly honest, I’m not really aware of them and nor is anybody else. Most information comes from P.R. companies and so tends to be spin. There are a few brands where the perfumer is used as part of the marketing, usually when they themselves established the house but otherwise we don’t know who they are. Also, the big perfume companies don’t actually want us to know; if the perfumers got too well known, it would be like the Michelin stars – they would all walk away from the companies with their I don’t know. I mean if any of them want to give me a call, I’m up for it...


The Essentially Me website can be found at





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About the author: Walker Minton

Walker Minton is a Jasmine award winning freelance writer and jazz musician with a lifelong interest in scent. He lives in North London with his partner and two sons.

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    • exquisitely me | 23rd February 2010 04:23

      Fascinating article!! Its a rare treat to see into a perfumer's creative process. I really enjoyed the blending techniques, and the "Heart, Intrigue, Nuance" model behind it.

      They must be incredibly complex, no wonder there aren't any listed notes in the directory.

      The response to the IFRA dilemma was refreshing. As a specialist in perfume raw materials, its probably all the more difficult to abide by decisions like the Jasmine restriction, that go against his own personal experience.

      Lovely imagery too, in his inspirations. Looking forward to sampling these!!

    • dmoran227 | 24th February 2010 13:02

      Love this article. This article was a blast for the perfume junkie in me.