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Article  •  18 September 2019


Laurence Fearnley's Signature Perfume

In Scented, our protagonist Siân, fascinated by the art of perfumery from childhood and recently made redundant from her job, decides to build her signature scent note by note in an effort to better understand her identity. 

We asked Laurence Fearnley, the author of Scented, to tell us about four scents from her life that she might put in to her own signature perfume. 

Scent provides an important gateway to our memories and links to childhood: the smell of sun-dried cotton sheets, chlorine on hot concrete beside the school pool, eucalyptus on a dry hillside, or kelp at the high-tide mark. But scent also helps us to engage with our surroundings and tap into the present, the here and now. Scent invites us to attend to our natural environment. Like Siân, I am interested in smell, scent and perfume, and for years I have kept a scent diary, jotting down lists of smells I encounter each day and mapping plant locations. I would find it impossible to make a signature scent as my preferences change daily, according to my mood, the seasons, the temperature, and my surroundings.

So, my selection of four scents relates to my morning walk home, via the Dunedin Botanic gardens, after dropping my car off for a WOF in town.

1. Kāretu (Hierochloe redolens). This looks like a large clump of green grass, the type of long bladed grass that could be mistaken for a weed, or part of an unkempt lawn. But it has an incredible scent when picked and dried — Māori used it woven into neckpieces and belts (it is similar to sweet grass, buffalo grass and holy grass used in Europe and North America). The smell is a combination of a plump vanilla pod and gorse-like coconut, mixed with fresh hay. Coumarin is the chemical responsible for the scent.

2. Mairehau (Phebalium nudum). I crushed a few leaves from this bush in my fingers — turning them green —and sniffed as I walked up the hill towards home. The opening scent is strong, almost like turpentine. After a few minutes it mellows and become vaguely herbal and soapy. But after five or ten minutes magic happens and the scent transforms to something warm and spicy, like cinnamon and nutmeg. Again, a very important ingredient in Māori medicine and perfume.

3. Broom (Cytisus scoparius) and gorse both grow on the unkempt grass banks along my street, and at the moment they are in flower. Both bushes have an almost-creamy, pollen-honey aspect, but broom also surprises with a slight hint of spearmint (particularly noticeable on hot mornings after a strong dew) whereas gorse is more vanilla-coconut, like Krispie biscuits.

4. You can’t really talk about scent and spring in Dunedin without mentioning rhododendrons and magnolias. After a cool winter, the blooms on these trees seem somehow ‘lively’: sweet like jasmine but fresher and more vigorous, filling the air with their floral scent. One of the magical things about scent is that it carries on the air, and tracking down the source of the smell can be an entertainment in itself.

5. Finally, let’s celebrate the scent of books and second-hand bookshops. The dusty, woody scent of old paper. Add cedar shavings from sharp pencils and you have a perfect scent experience — for free!

Scented Laurence Fearnley

A fascinating novel about following one's nose . . .

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