Sarah McCartney is equal parts fragrance whimsy mixed with perfumery wisdom. As the founder of 4160Tuesdays, her creativity knows no bounds. Seaside mint chocolate chip ice cream cone? Give the delightful gourmand What I Did On My Holidays a try. A soul cleansing after a wild night out? Wash Me In The Water, bursting with mint, frankincense, and clary sage, will be your potion of choice. Her geographical references range from cherry blossoms blooming in Japan (Tokyo Spring Blossom) to cheap hookers in NYC (Maxed Out) — a diversity in creative vision that is a sight to behold.
Her online platform, Scenthusiasm, shares fragrance formulas, dispels perfumery myths, and offers insight into the daily runnings at 4160Tuesdays, with plans to create smelling kits that allows subscribers to create their own fragrances at home. It’s the ultimate antidote to the closed door, mystery-driven etiquette of traditional perfume houses. Some of her latest posts include creating a floral composition without flowers, a fragrance ingredients glossary, and an update on her newest fragrance, Goldhawk, inspired by the eponymous road in West London (her studio is located in Hammersmith). Notes include blooming spring gardens, freshly mown lawns, and the spiced amber of Middle Eastern market stalls.
McCartney is especially passionate about updating the language of the fragrance industry. She has a three-part series entitled “Forget Everything You Know About Notes” dedicated to the subject. “Christophe [Laudamiel] wants to bulldoze and destroy the notes pyramid because it has been irrelevant ever since the first synthetic was introduced,” she states. “If you use 100 percent naturals, the top notes do disappear first, then the mid notes, then you are left with the base notes. But when you use synthetics, you can get things that smell light and fresh but last three weeks on a strip. Technically perfumers would call that a base note, but it smells as if it ought to be a top note.”
Notes pyramid aside, the ingredients themselves also require demystification. “Here is my most important thing that I like to say to everybody: materials are input, notes are output,” McCartney explains. Simply put? You may smell notes of freesia, but your bottle of perfume doesn’t actually contain it. Often several accords are strung together to create an illusion of a certain material which otherwise doesn’t exist in natural form. However, these facts often remain a secret for the sake of marketing — something which can only be fixed by overhauling the industry-at-large. “The brands don’t ask what’s in it because they don’t want to know, the perfume manufacturers are not going to say because they don’t want somebody else to find out. What you then get is the PR people dealing with a tiny bit of information that they have and trying to make a story out of that,” she says.
When it comes to her own process, the perfumer enjoys a “mixed media” approach. “When I was a writer at Lush, they used to say, ‘We use the synthetics to help the naturals do their job’. When you come to perfumery you use hedione so that people can smell the individual materials, musks so that they are wrapped in a blanket of smoothness, phenyl ethyl alcohol so that your rose goes further and last longer,” she explains. Many a myth has been constructed around the idea of natural fragrance, but as McCartney emphasises, “Everything is made of chemicals; they’re made by nature. Human bodies are made of chemicals; the oxygen we breathe is a chemical. Natural essential oils are made of chemicals. Of course they are; everything is,” she writes in a 4160Tuesdays blog entitled “Clean Perfume — The New Non Existent Thing”.
“All our big problems come down to: people don’t learn science,” she proclaims. It isn’t just the chemistry which most people get wrong, our noses can lead us astray as well. In her workshops, attendees are often surprised by natural-smelling synthetics and vice versa. “I do the test with lime oxide and lime essential oil,” McCartney elaborates. “Lime essential oil is really spiky, lime oxide is much smoother. Everybody will swear that lime oxide is definitely the natural.” The future of fragrance development will give way to amplified naturals, whereby chemical processes are harnessed to smooth out, intensify, or otherwise rework a terrestrial raw material. “It’s so difficult now to get approval on the testing and safety certificates for a new synthetic. The development work now is in what chemical processes can you use on the naturals so that they’re still called naturals,” she says.
Speaking of her own future, McCartney is taking her sustainability efforts one step further. While 4160Tuesdays already offers initiatives to reuse, recycle and minimise packaging on the customer side, she hopes that her Scenthusiasm network will enable fragrance fans to create their own scents at home. “What’s wrong with the industry? It’s the waste, people buying things they don’t need. Call me an idiot but I feel very strongly that I don’t want someone looking at my box of perfume and crying because they can’t afford them. Excessive packaging also offends me, ”she states. “I want to set up the Scenthusiasm network with the hope that we have people making our [perfumes] so that we don’t have to ship them. We give them the formula and then they could go to specific centres, or come to our studio and make it here.” One could say McCartney isn’t simply content with making superb fragrances, she is looking to create a perfume democracy which puts the power back into the consumers’ hands via transparency and knowledge.
However, that isn’t to dismiss the immensely gratifying effect of her creations. One of her latest launches, Meet Me On The Corner (named after the song by folk rock band Lindisfarne), is a modernised take on the fragrance of McCartney’s adolescence and early 20s: Diorella. “I am totally besotted with it because it smells like the fragrances I wore when I first started wearing perfume,” she admits. The result is magnolia flowers and leaves wrapped in a plethora of citrus: lemon, mandarin, clementine and the orange/mandarin cross-breed, mandora. Despite the heavy dose of citrus, there is nothing sharp or acidic about the fragrance; instead it’s harmonious and soft without being overbearing. “It’s my citrus chypre interpretation of that time but using new materials which didn’t exist then. I am not trying to recreate a vintage, I’m trying to recreate the joy that I felt putting it on before going out,” she pauses before adding: “I want perfume to be that for people.” Perhaps, at the end of the day, our desire for fragrance can be distilled down to that one simple word: joy.