IN THE CLUB OF GOOD SCENTS.
No time to hang about with a meeting lined up, but just enough for two quick squirts of perfume. A breath of sandal- wood and lemongrass rises to meet us and suddenly we feel the freshness, the warmth – and a new energy. Can a mere scent really do all that? “Fragrances that influence feelings,” says Tammy Frazer with a satisfied smile, “are the future of perfume.” Frazer, 42, was born and raised in South Africa. Now she is a rising star in the world of fine fragrances. She uses exclusively natural ingredients in the creation of her luxury perfumes – haute parfumerie with the stamp of organic quality, a very clever strategy, but also an immense challenge. Ethiopian incense, an iconic aromatic substance and one of Frazer’s main ingredients, smells different this year because the country is going through a dry patch. Still, her business model pays off because Frazer’s perfumes fetch about 275 dollars a bottle in the US. She takes us for a drive in her MINI Clubman, showing us her world northeast of Cape Town. The Hawequas Mountains tower skywards to left and right of the roadway in a region famous for its wine. Occasionally, baboons cross our path. With a press of a button, Frazer opens the side window and the smell of the mountains streams into the Clubman’s spacious interior. The perfumer is on her way to Worcester, to see glass blower David Reade, who makes the bottles for her scents – each bottle crafted in a 45-minute process involving hands and mouth. “Before I had children, I made the three-and-a-half-hour journey there and back more often,” says Frazer, “because I love driving. It’s a feeling of having all the molecules in my body swirling around, as though everything in me was suddenly turned upside down and rearranged.” Afterwards, everything appears clearer to her than before.
Even as a little girl, Frazer wanted to have her own business one day, or to go to Wall Street. In her school holidays, she would play with Monopoly money; she had her own briefcase, and when she wasn’t visiting her grandfather on his farm, she spent time with her father in Johannesburg. At the time, he was working as a perfumer for Switzerland-based Givaudan, one of the biggest producers of raw materials for the perfume industry. “I was nine years old and, instead of having proper holidays like other kids, I was sitting around in labs, sniffing samples,” Frazer tells us today, laughing.
Later, she studied finance, moved to London and then to Sydney for ten years. In her late twenties, she was a smart, trouser suited, high heeled team leader at a major bank and at the same time studying for a master’s degree in corporate social responsibility. One fine evening, she asked herself what she actually wanted to do with her degree, and that was when all the molecules rearranged themselves. “It was like a revelation,” she exclaims, as though it still surprised her, “I saw my family’s history. I realized that even when I was little, I had always identified people by sense of smell; I realised that I wanted to create my own fragrances.” So she handed in her notice and moved back to South Africa. Soon, she was sitting in on Belgian quality controls of essential oils, visiting farmers in France and rose growers in Bulgaria, and flying to Madagascar with 30 Japanese botanists. “This new world of perfume was so exciting for me!” She began developing and composing and then set off for London with fragrances in her bag to meet a perfumer who sold his creations at Harrods. Over tea with him, she gained entry to the world market. “Frazer’s perfumes were now stocked by a legend, one of the world’s most exclusive department stores.”
Frazer’s perfumes are for more than just a fleeting moment.
Purring softly, the Clubman’s four-cylinder engine moves through Cape Town’s evening rush-hour traffic as Frazer tells her story, aided by its Adaptive Cruise control and the navigation system that provides all the detour information that she needs. How very practical! We soon find a car park and Frazer manoeuvres the MINI into a space with ease. Then she opens the characteristic split rear door and reaches inside to grab a box of perfume bottles before heading to the lab. Many brands develop perfumes so that they will quickly lose their intensity. In the first few minutes on the skin, they set off a veritable firework display of fragrances aimed at persuading the customer to buy. Frazer talks about an “aroma consensus” to which vanilla belongs, the pod reminding people of their mother’s milk. Frazer wants to move in a different direction, creating perfumes for more than just a fleeting moment. She sends potential customers home with a fragrance so that they can see whether they still like it a day later. Frazer’s perfumes are complex. Not even she likes all of them at first. One, called “Omumbiri”, is named after a desert myrrh harvested by the women of the Himba tribe in Namibia. Frazer travelled to Namibia especially for the plant and found its smell repellent. It took countless samples before she became reconciled to the scent. Now mandarin and bergamot take the edge off the myrrh and the result is beguiling. “Omumbiri smells like a sunset,” says Frazer with a smile. It’s a bestseller.
However good it may feel to follow her own compass, Frazer also had to learn to see her passion as a tough business proposition. “Men have had the beauty industry carved up amongst themselves since the 1950s.” Despite her background, nothing has been served up to her on a silver platter. “I had to learn not to apologise for anything and to make myself heard when I wasn’t happy with some- thing.” Saying this, she sounds amused rather than angry. Perhaps that’s the attitude you need to turn the industry on its head, with fragrances that influence feelings. Climbing back into the Clubman, she drives off into the evening glow along Chapman’s Peak Drive, one of the loveliest coastal roads in the world. How might it translate into a perfume?