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Message in a bottle, by Jo Malone

As British lifestyle brand Jo Malone London opens its first store in India, we explore perfumery and its potent powers of association

Celine Roux, fragrance director (in blue), and Debbie Wild, lifestyle director, at Jo Malone London’s soft launch at Amanbagh, Jaipur, in April. Photo: Jo Malone London.
Celine Roux, fragrance director (in blue), and Debbie Wild, lifestyle director, at Jo Malone London’s soft launch at Amanbagh, Jaipur, in April. Photo: Jo Malone London.

In April, British lifestyle brand Jo Malone London had set up a two-day makeshift fragrance bar in the gardens of the Amanbagh boutique hotel near Jaipur, as an experiential precursor to its launch in India. It was called a fragrance mixing session. “I love the smell of peonies, but it’s a bit too floral, too nice for me. Can we make it a little bad, dark, add a tinge of a rainy, grimy city?" I asked them. To my absurd brief, Thomas Patterson—communications assistant at Jo Malone London, who was playing bartender at the fragrance bar—first dabbed some of the Jo Malone signature Peony & Blush Suede on my wrist. He tried mixing two other scents, with ambiguous results, until he brought out the Black Cedarwood & Juniper. “Fragrances react differently on different skins, and you have to give them a moment to settle in with you," he said as he dabbed the second scent on my other wrist. A warm base woodiness toned down the sweetness of peony. The scent, like a subconscious thought, lingered all day.

Jo Malone London opens its doors early August with a flagship store in Mumbai, followed by one in New Delhi later in the year. Founded in 1994 by British perfumer Joanne Lesley Malone from her kitchen, it was acquired by Estée Lauder in 1999. Through its 650 stores in 48 markets worldwide, Jo Malone makes scents, colognes, candles, bath and body products, diffusers and linen sprays.

In its classic black and white packaging, the perfume and candle maker is always elegant and understated, but not devoid of eccentricity. It puts together rare and unexpected ingredients, acting much like a chemist playing with various elements and compounds in the periodic table. Yet there’s a whimsy, a British quirkiness in making those intuitive associations based often on memory or chasing a certain visual, tactile or sensorial after-effect. Basil & Neroli, Myrrh & Tonka, Blackberry & Bay, Mimosa & Cardamom, Wood Sage & Sea Salt—Jo Malone’s line of fragrances cover the entire range from floral and woody to citrus, oriental and more. To understand this process of perfume making, of mixing scents, and taking a brand across borders, Lounge met Celine Roux, fragrance director, and Debbie Wild, lifestyle director, Jo Malone London. Roux works with master perfumers to create new fragrances. Wild travels to Jo Malone’s existing markets as well as new ones, introducing the brand as a lifestyle concept. Sitting in the lobby of Amanbagh, Roux and Wild spoke about their own relationship to perfumery and how the brand uses perfumery to articulate emotions. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about the making of any one specific perfume.

Roux: Every perfume has a story. I had just come back from maternity leave and we wanted to do something with peonies, but we wondered what could be the twist. Because peony is used for weddings a lot, the idea was to blend it with something aromatic or green that you will find in a floral bouquet. I first thought of white leather to make it a little rocky, a little cooler, but it didn’t quite work. So I switched to suede and you know that moment when you know that that’s it; that fits. Then I embarked on a journey with a perfumer, that went on for several months, to create the Peony & Blush Suede fragrance.

There is a lot of science to the art of perfumery, isn’t there?

Roux: Perfumers require years and years of training. They usually begin as chemists and learn all the ingredients, of which there are thousands, natural and synthetic. It is a technical process: how to combine, how to make it last long, how to balance the ingredients. The perfumers’ role is technical, and mine is more creative.

Are you experiencing the world with your nose? Where do you find inspiration?

Roux: Everywhere. I have a fond childhood memory of going blackberry picking every year with my family. I still do it with my son. Your hands get all dirty, you eat the berries, you get all messy, it’s lovely. In the UK, everyone goes blackberry picking. It’s a part of life. That was my inspiration for the Blackberry & Bay cologne. Sometimes colour is an inspiration. I like the purple and green of blackberry and bay leaf. It’s also about how it sounds. Words have to go together. Blackberry and bay went well. Or for Wood Sage & Sea Salt, it is crafted to capture the feel of being at the coast. I come from the south of France, where it’s sunny and you go to the beach because you are going to be in a bikini. When I went to the English coast, I was really far from wearing a bikini even though it was end of May. But it was lovely. I went with my son and my dog and though it was raining and windy, the landscape was beautiful. With Wood Sage & Sea Salt, I wanted to re-create that mineral, salty feel of the sea.

Wild: Yes, at Jo Malone it’s about recreating a feeling, a time, a memory. We start with a mood board: it may be an English garden with an old bike leaning up against it or a ripened fruit lying on the floor. It might be (the line from John) Keats’ poem (To Autumn), “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", that we all learn in literature. Once Celine worked with a perfumer to create something very autumnal, very English but she put patchouli in the heart, as the base note, it was hypnotic and you almost want to follow a person wearing it. In England, bluebells grow only for two weeks in May. It’s a magical two weeks when we take our children bluebell picking and you feel like there should be white bunnies to complete the scene. With Jo Malone, it’s using the art and science of perfumery to mimic that magic, that spirit, to feel like you’re walking in a bluebell forest. So we take an evocative memory and put it in a bottle for you.

We do these workshops to encourage people to try new and different fragrances that they wouldn’t normally use. It exercises the olfactory muscle. Your sense of smell gets tired very easily. - Debbie Wild

You have been visiting India over the years. Tell us something about the landscape here that you may have felt drawn to?

Roux: There’s so much. The flower markets for starters. I go to a lot of flower markets around the world, but there is really nothing quite like the ones here. The colours are so bright. The marigold comes in so many varieties, dark orange to yellow. The roses are extremely fragrant. The white jasmine is so crisp and lovely. The other day I went to a Hindu temple in Jaipur and the scent of sandalwood mixed with rose petals was just lovely.

Jo Malone is known for its nose workshops. What are those?

Wild: We do these workshops to encourage people to try new and different fragrances that they wouldn’t normally use. It exercises the olfactory muscle. Your sense of smell gets tired very easily. It can become accustomed to the same fragrance if you do tend to wear one all the time. So we like to change it up and mix and match. It’s a bit like fashion styling. We scent-style you.

How do you remain true to a signature style when you are taking a brand beyond borders?

Wild: Since the very first day, we have never changed our philosophy. Whether you are in Tokyo, Toronto, Australia or Brazil, if you go to a Jo Malone store, you receive the same boutique. We make sure that everyone who touches our brand experiences a consistent story.

Roux: Even while we constantly explore, the brand sticks to its DNA. When I smell something, I am able to say this is not Jo Malone because it’s too heavy or it doesn’t have a fun twist. For instance, I did this fragrance Oud & Bergamot. It was lovely and very Middle Eastern. But I made sure I did it in Jo Malone way. It has to be relevant for the market, but the Jo Malone way.

Do you find that different cultures respond differently to scents?

Wild: Yes, people across cultures have different preferences. People in Japan or Asia love their blossoms. In the US, people like fruity fragrances. They are not so keen on spicy ones. In Europe and the UK, we love citrus and a bit of spice. In India, people have grown up surrounded with scent. We love that because we know that Jo Malone will resonate with Indian culture. Sometimes there are myths as well. When we were launching in Australia, people told me we can’t launch bath products there because baths are not common, showers are. Just like in Brazil. But when we launched there, the bath line became the No.1 seller, because people were pleasantly surprised and loved to soak themselves.

The writer was in Jaipur at the invitation of Jo Malone London.

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