NZ Life & Leisure

From forests to fragrance

Forester by training, teacher by career, Francesco van Eerd found his true calling distilling, blending and selling perfumes with fragrant Victorian flair


FRANCESCO VAN EERD has always enjoyed aroma. As a young forestry student, he wrote his thesis on perfumery products that come from 387 trees and shrubs. But never did he ever consider becoming a perfumer.

“My professor did suggest I do practical training in perfumery. But that would have meant going to France for another three years of schooling, and I’d had enough. I was 26 and wanted to get out into the real world.” Soon after, he met his Lower Hutt-bred (and now former) wife in Scotland, and then moved to New Zealand.

But Francesco’s timing was off. He arrived in New Zealand in 1986, two weeks after the government privatized the Forestry Department, causing 16,000 forestry workers to jostle for employment. Francesco applied for 187 jobs in 18 months.

“I first applied for forestry jobs, then anything to do with parks and greens, then anything outside. But I got nothing.” Eventually, a friend suggested teaching, so he taught science, then computer science. Years later, when his children left home and his marriage dissolved, “the perfume bug started biting again”.

Francesco traveled to Grasse, in France, the world’s perfumery capital, for some training at Fragonard, one of the city’s 35 perfumerie­s. While he liked what he saw — the traditiona­l methods and Victorian vibe — the training was expensive, and not what he wanted.

Back in New Zealand, Francesco discovered the work of British perfumer Steven Dowthwaite, who agreed to come to New Zealand to teach a practical course in perfumery. In 2012, Francesco left teaching, dedicating himself to making and selling perfumes.

Although he started small — selling in markets — his shop, Fragrifert Parfumeur, the Victorian Perfumery, has been at the top of Wellington’s Cable Car since 2013. “It’s perfumery as it was done 100 years ago,” he says to all his customers by way of introducti­on. The shop’s interior is heavy on the Victorian theme — Francesco is always impeccable in a Victorian threepiece suit and puff tie — and the handy perfumer has constructe­d it all himself.

Likewise, he makes all Fragrifert’s perfumes. While that requires a good nose and a great memory, it also takes patience. “I never get the first version right. So it’s a matter of starting somewhere and making versions until I get it right. It can take five or six months to formulate a new perfume, partly because there’s no ‘undo’ button. If I add a couple of drops of patchouli, rose, or nutmeg, and it’s not as good as I’d hoped, I can’t take it out and mask it with something else. I must start again.”

Francesco says the Victorian vibe and way of working suit him as he’s “old-fashioned” in his tastes. “I don’t like most modern perfumes, which are virtually 100 per cent synthetic.” Synthetics do have a place, however, as they’re easier to control for allergens, which are numerous in natural materials.

Synthetics also replace “animalic” perfume ingredient­s, such as ambergris (from sperm whales), civet (from civets), musk (musk deer), and castoreum (from beavers). “I use only manmade replacemen­ts for those as the natural materials are bad news for the animals, and chemists create good copies.”

Ever the teacher, Francesco teaches perfumery to chemical design students at the University of Canterbury and runs workshops at Fragrifert, nurturing perfume hobbyists. “With a basic set of materials — that’s only 50 or so, not the 764 I have — anyone can make lovely perfumes.”

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