SA perfumier Marie Aoun on why it makes sense to wear natural scents

The founder of Saint D'Ici perfumes may create her all-natural fragrances in a lab-like studio, but she's much more of alchemist than a chemist, writes Andrea Nagel

07 October 2018 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel
Founder of Johannesburg artisanal perfumery Saint D'Ici Marie Aoun creates a range of natural perfumes without the use of synthetic materials.
Founder of Johannesburg artisanal perfumery Saint D'Ici Marie Aoun creates a range of natural perfumes without the use of synthetic materials.
Image: Alaister Russell

When Marie Aoun decided to leave her career in the fashion industry to become a perfumier, she didn't know that the first step she'd take in that direction would be to immerse herself in the smells of pee, vomit, ball sack and anus.

"Whether we're aware of it or not, human beings love the smell of sweat, excretion, sexual organs and regurgitation," she says with a mischievous smile. "A lot of what we get out of smell is subconscious. We're really just animals in that way and we love the smell of pheromones."

Though it's generally assumed that humans are not as good as animals such as dogs at perceiving odours, in a study conducted a few years ago it was found that humans can distinguish among a trillion different smells.

The olfactory sense has, for a long time, been underestimated. "Man smells poorly," Aristotle wrote, and Charles Darwin thought that a sense of smell was of "extremely slight service" to the civilised human.

In fact, our sense of smell has far more of an effect on us than we're aware.

In a famous experiment conducted in the 1990s, the "sweaty T-shirt study", a group of men were instructed to wear the same T-shirt for two days. The shirts were then put into identical boxes and women were asked to smell them, and to indicate which smells they were most sexually attracted to. The results showed that women were most attracted to men whose genetic makeup was different from their own.

But, despite the fact that smells play a such a vitally important role in our lives, we tend to pay the olfactory sense less attention than the other senses - though it can save our lives.

Smell is the sense that most connects us with our instincts. A loud noise may cause us to jump, but a smell tells us what to eat and what to avoid, who to love, what to protect and, in a mysterious way, has the power to recall memories most vividly. Hellen Keller called smell, "a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived".

We're led by our noses. We can even take a sudden dislike to someone based on the way they smell
Perfumier Marie Aoun

"Smell is so under-utilised," says Aoun, whose journey into the world of perfumery began with a love of gardening. "We're led by our noses. We can even take a sudden dislike to someone based on the way they smell."

It's no wonder, then, that people have for centuries relied on perfumes to attract lovers.

Aoun started researching perfume-making on the internet and found that most sites suggest the use of synthetic aromas as they're cheaper, more predictable, better priced and more tenacious.

"Then I came across an article in the New York Times on AbdesSalaam Attar of La Via del Profumo in Italy. He's a Dervish and a Sufi and when I read his philosophy on perfumes I thought this is 100% the guy I want to learn from," she says.

Aoun spent weeks in a tiny village in the cool, green hills above the Adriatic just outside Rimini in northern Italy, learning from Attar about the soul of scent.

"The way you build perfumes naturally is very different to the synthetic process," she says.

"Most perfumes these days are synthetic, made from up to 300 ingredients because of the possibility of isolating different elements of scent into single molecules. Natural perfumery is like an ancient alchemy, there's a definitive art to the blending because each scent has in the region of 200 to 300 molecules. It's a much more rounded scent."

It's like comparing analogue sounds to digital ones - expert ears can hear the difference. Olfactory specialists, like perfumers or animal trackers, can detect far more scents than the average human, which indicates that with attention, we can get better at distinguishing a huge range of aromas.

"The process with natural perfumes is much more alchemy than chemistry," says Aoun.

The use of synthetic scents to replace naturals in the art of perfumery began in the 19th century. ''Since then they've become more and more generic," says Aoun. "The marketing takes over the artistry and you end up removing the inspiration. My belief is that the customer wants to be surprised and delighted. The longer I work with natural scents the more I believe the commercial perfumes smell like crap (in a bad way) ... or chemicals. Most perfumery is very industrial. It's nothing like what you think when you see the marketing."

Every man gives off a scent and that scent tells you how to act before your head does
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author

In the atelier in Italy, Aoun was introduced to the essences, extracts, tinctures and oils of pure scents: familiar florals like rose, jasmine and lavender, arcane botanicals like labdanum, Gaiac wood and agarwood, and unexpected notes like hay and seaweed.

Most unexpectedly she learnt about the strange and counterintuitive animal extracts that are part of most of the perfumes we love:

  • Hyraceum, "which is actually fossilised dassie pee", explains Aoun;
  • Ambergris, "it's whale vomit that floats around in the sea, goes hard and washes onto the shore" - it's very expensive and smells cold, fresh and curiously sweet;
  • Castoreum, "which is made from the beaver's ball sacks and smells like crotch sweat" (I thought it smelt of olives in brine);
  • Musk, not available anymore - it comes from the glands of the now-extinct musk deer; and
  • Civet, which comes from a cat-like animal's anus (actually its perineal glands) and smells, in large amounts, a bit like a dirty nappy, but is bizarrely floral in small doses.

Aoun keeps small amber-tinted bottles of these scents in her bottle-filled fridge. She takes them out for me to smell while we talk in her lab-like studio. She uses them as reference material, though she won't use them in her perfumes. "It would be unethical ... and expensive," she says.

"Civet is a particularly common ingredient in commercial perfumes, though," she tells me while I try not to think of the extraction process. ''I don't use the animal extracts. You can get the same effect from plant-based sources."

Odours have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will
Patrick Süskind, author

She uses natural tinctures like Himalayan cedar, vetiver (which smells of wet soil) and buchu. "Buchu is very strong, both beautiful and sickening," she says, applying a drop to my hand. "It's one of the first perfumes the San mixed with animal fat and rubbed on their skin - so probably one of the first perfumes that was ever created."

The Saint D'Ici perfumes Aoun makes are produced in small, limited-edition batches of between 50 and 500, never more. She sources directly from farmers, mostly in SA and Africa and she's just launched a layering range, composed of scent accords, which allows people to build their own scent.

But according to this experienced Nose, is there anything that can beat the smell of the human you adore?

"As cliched as it is, my favourite smell is the scent of my baby's head. It's pure love," she says. "I could never compete with that."