Luxury has lost meaning over time, and that which used to be rarified and extravagant simply has become a marketing term to refer to something mediocre or as in the case of many mass-produced perfumes, simply toxic.
One only has to walk into the ground floor of a typical brick-and-mortar department shop to become inundated by the raft of headache-inducing scents to realise how "luxury" for many people is defined by the labels of brands that market these perfumes as imaginary catalysts for sexual desire.
True luxury is something that is uncommon and unique that is rooted in artistry; something that sets a standard and often has a pervasive history of tradition or a break away from tradition.
Nicholas Jennings, Founder of Sharini Parfums Naturels in his South of France workshop. Nicholas only uses organic, eco-validated ingredients free of petrochemicals and toxins.
There is something that I've always admired about artisans, because they take time to carefully craft something that other people might take for granted or may not even be aware of its existence. I had an opportunity to talk with an artisan parfumeur, Nicholas Jennings who creates fragrances from the South of France on a world heritage site near Montpellier. Nicholas is the founder of Sharini Parfums Naturels, which produces small batches of perfumes from organic, natural materials. Many commercial perfumes that are produced for the luxury market are often inundated with synthetic ingredients and chemical toxins that appear in a very long list of ingredients which might also hide toxic ingredients that are simply listed as "fragrance" due to an oversight in the law in which companies do not have to list the specific ingredients as they are considered trade secrets.
However, this is not the case with Nicholas' perfumes. All his ingredients are listed for full transparency and he only uses natural and organic ingredients which are eco-validated.
Nicholas had studied in the UK and moved to France fifteen years ago when he spent a summer on a biodynamic farm. He learned the basics of distillation, and it suddenly became a revelation to him as he studied the way perfumes were made in the 18th and 19th centuries that this was something that he felt compelled to pursue. There was something about getting his hands dirty with the actual process of gathering the flowers and the plants in the field that lead him on a journey to which he is still on today. Whereas, most other perfumeurs macerate plant and flower oils for 3 weeks, his process takes around 8 months to produce the oils he uses for his perfumes. He uses old techiques to extract flowers and does not use petrochemicals and parabens as preservatives, which is a common practice in many commercial perfumes.
Nicholas tells me of his philosophy on perfumes, in which the ones he produces are meant to be delicate and intimate, evoking emotion and memory, as opposed to the overpowering scents where one can smell someone from 5 metres away in the street.
"Perfume is an emotional thing, not a territorial invasion." -Nicholas Jennings, Founder of Sharini Parfums Naturels
His perfume philosophy is similar to his food philosophy, in which it was his choice to use natural ingredients with no pesticides and consume only good, healthy organic food. "Sometimes people have a tendency to overcomplicate a perfume- and the simplest compositions with the best ingredients make the best perfumes." One of Nicholas's favourite ingredients is a vintage sandalwood that is 16 years old.
My personal stash of a couple of my favourite Sharini perfumes. Some of Nicholas Jennings' perfumes are only made in batches of 25 bottles.
His workshop or atelier in the South of France resembles a medieval chamber with a rustic aesthetic. As Nicholas gives me a video tour of his workshop over the internet, he shows me all the limited edition perfumes which are not on his website, such as Vanille & Cacao, and other perfumes, such as the one made from Ambergris in which only 25 bottles had been made, and have all sold out. Ambergris, although not a vegan ingredient, is one of those coveted materials of parfumeurs around the world, which is made from the vomit of whales and has had a rather colourful history in previous centuries as people found the material on the beaches to use for perfumes due to its alluring scent, and it wasn't until the last century when it was discovered where it actually came from.
Nicholas tells me more about one of my favourite perfumes, Musc D'hibiscus, something I used religiously all spring and summer. Musk typically originates from animals, but for this particular concotion, Nicholas used a botanical musk from hibiscus flowers in which he had distilled all the hibiscus seeds himself in his workshop using an 8-foot tall, 200 litre alembic copper distillation apparatus.
An alembic copper apparatus is typically used to distill ingredients utilised for perfumes and wine.
"I am not trying to make perfumes for 2 million people. I don't feel a need to please everybody; I only make small batches, around 500-600 bottles at a time." In addition, Nicholas explains to me that there just aren't enough flowers to produce 2 million bottles of the same perfume, which is why "luxury" brands always use synthetic ingredients. In the modern day fragrance industry, the majority of the cost goes into marketing and communications and the actual product does not take more than 3% of sales prices. Once you take out the marketing costs and the packaging, the perfume would probably actually cost around 50 cents.
Nicholas Jennings in a field of lavender as he takes samples to gather for his new batch of ingredients for his perfumes. He macerates his plant and flower oils for 8 months to create a more sensual, evolving fragrance whereas the other parfumeurs only typically macerate for 3 weeks.
The majority of Nicholas' clients are people who stopped wearing perfumes and dislike commercial perfumes. He also produces personalised perfumes that require a 2 hour appointment in his workshop. Many people just walk into his workshop randomly, and ask about his perfume process which he will happily explain to people who are unfamiliar with the artistry involved in producing these rarifed, subtly intoxicating scents.
Nicholas tells me that he has no aspirations to build a big business. "I want to make good, quality things, focus on the artisan side of perfumery, and by being a small scale independent producer, I get to be actively involved in all the process and still have enough time to enjoy a leisurely life."
We talk a little about that parable about the Mexican fisherman and the American businessman and how there is this cultural belief towards putting a life on hold to sometimes work unhappily to save up for a retirement that might never exist.
"One thing I love is that I wake up everyday doing what I love and live in a beautiful country, close to the côte d'azur. It certainly doesn't feel like work to me. My philosophy is to have fun, discover new things and be continually learning."
- Nicholas Jennings, Founder, Sharini Parfums Naturels
Outside of his workshop, Nicholas spends a lot of time on his 4 acre land, plays music and spends time with his 2 children. I ask him if his children will one day become heirs to his perfume heritage? "I don't try to impose my work onto my kids, I rather try to get them excited about things, whatever that may be."
Nicholas Jennings, working on a custom fragrance for a client at his South of France studio.
Currently, Sharini Parfums are available in 17 organic shops as well as on its modest website. "I suppose they could be available in more shops, but I'm not interested in reselling and margins." As much as there is a creative side to the art of parfumerie, there is a rigorous, scientific side based on chemistry and formulation of ingredients. All his perfumes are registered, logged and meticulous in its attention to detail. "Like wine, I have a grand cru (good years)," Nicholas explains wistfully, "sometimes a particular year will produce more exquisite lavender (or another flower or plant) than another year."