Australian House & Garden
Notes To Self Stylist Sibella Court embarked on an olfactory adventure and blended her signature scent.
Scent is the key to capturing the spirit of a special time or place, writes Sibella Court.
While gallivanting around the globe gathering images and ideas for my book Imaginarium: A Compendium of Inspiration, it occurred to me that I could, in fact, gather so much more than what I could see, so I began listing all that I could smell. Each country smells so very unique, and each town, each season, smells different again. But regardless of those layers and varieties of scents, the combination remains within you, transporting you back instantly on smelling it again. It’s a magic carpet kind of travel that transcends space and time, triggered by the power of scent memory.
I recently visited the Aftel Archive of Curious Scents in San Francisco to attend a three-day workshop with natural-fragrance custodian Mandy Aftel. As I open my notebook to pen this article, a rich blend of perfumes from that time is released: labdanum, ambergris, spikenard, lapsang souchong, benzoin resin, ti aré,onyc ha. A cauldron of magnetic – and somehow very familiar – scents: caramels and other grassy, smoky, heady, thick, warm, exotic and inviting whiffs.
Mandy’s fragrance library, referred to as her ‘perfume organ’, takes pride of place at the archive and is the central hub for fragrance creation. (Each organ is bespoke to its creator, the embodiment of how they like to work.) With more than 400 scents in the archive, Mandy encourages her students to dip into, smell, try anything and everything and play with the invaluable and irreplaceable ingredients that are steeped in history, secrecy, intrigue and adventure, as they familiarise themselves with the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of each scent.
The oils are categorised alphabetically into top, middle and base notes, all in different glass-stoppered vials – I think the process of selecting and organising becomes as much of an addiction as collecting the fragrances! The room is lined with an incredible selection of reference books – many rare and antique – all on perfume, scents, fragrances and their histories, which you are encouraged to peruse.
Mandy has unlocked a magical world of scent, alchemy, romance, language, history, intrigue and adventure, and it has already infiltrated my dreams as I try to capture an elusive note. I feel she has given me the key to a Narnia-like world that I can visit and explore for the rest of my life.
My recent endeavours into armchair travelling have been in pursuit of perfume ingredients from their country of origin. Plants unearthed by botanical explorers have been traded around the world for centuries, but I want to seek out the places where they were once best-kept secrets. Vanilla from Madagascar, cinnamon bark from Sri Lanka, saffron, Turkish rose, sandal wood, tea, frankincense and myrrh, ginger, vetiver, oud (agarwood), frangipani, jasmine, pink pepper, oakmoss, nutmeg, allspice… the endless wonders of wandering. And what goes hand in hand is sourcing the best botanicals, and the distillation of flora and fauna to concretes( waxy masses ), absolutes (alcohol removed) and oils, an endless pursuit as I build my own fragrance library.
We were encouraged to create our own fragrance by the end of the workshop; mine is called Become a Pirate. It’s inspired by HMB Endeavour’s adventures of the 1700s, collecting botanical and marine specimens as well as charting the stars on its journey from Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America, to Tahiti – a voyage of about four months.
It is rumoured that after being at sea for many moons you can smell land weeks before you sight it: soft corals, fresh water, green leaves, happiness. So I built my fragrance around visions of a seaweed forest and clothes crunchy with salt, a musty, deep base that lightens as the ship sails shoreward. Base notes of onycha (Red Sea mollusc powder), tree moss, celery, agarwood and ambergris; middle notes of octanol-3 (a mint extract), cinnamon absolute, violet leaf, tiaré (Tahitian gardenia) and Turkish rose; and top notes of sugi wood (Japanese cedar), pink pepper CO2, aged linden blossom and ginger. As fragrances go, it’s no masterpiece, but I will build on it for the next 30 years or so as I wait for my sandalwood tree to mature and learn the trade of a perfumer (or ‘nose’, to those in the know).
I am so honoured to have been gifted a golden key to such a magical place, Narnia in scope but not quite as cold. I am still learning the lay of the land, but I like it a lot and know I will adventure here for the rest of my days as I work toward being a nose in my next chapter.