Jessica Buchanan: Canadian olfactory artist extraordinaire

Fragrance is about passion and memory. Here’s how one Canadian woman’s nostalgia for a childhood candy helped make her dream job a reality

Jessica Buchanan: Canadian olfactory artist extraordinaire

Source: Best Health Magazine: November/December 2010

In the world of scent, there are few fragrance capitals. France is the main one, although the U.S. also has major fragrance houses. These are where the majority of the world’s perfumes’regardless of brand’are made and where teams of chemists create new molecules that can be used in them.

But Canada plays a role in all this, too: We have long been known as a producer of raw materials that are exported to fragrance houses. Those "woody" base notes you often hear about in perfumes? The fougères and balsams? Some of them come from our trees and plants. We export the scents of fir, cedar, spruce, hemlock, pine, birch and cranberry to fragrance and flavour houses around the world through companies such as Cedarome in Brossard, Que.

Canada also has a thriving industry in developing niche fragrances’these are produced independently of fragrance houses (and aren’t as widely available). Says Marian Bendeth, a Canadian fragrance consultant who is internationally renowned, "We’re seeing a lot of ‘smell-alikes’ in mainstream fragrances, so people are looking for something different, which is why the niche market is doing so well."

Personal care analyst Carrie Lennard, of market research firm Euromonitor International, concurs. "There have been a number of niche and exclusive launches lately."

Here, we follow the scent journey of one of Canada’s hottest olfactory artists: Jessica September Buchanan of Nelson, B.C.’soon to be living in Provence, France.

This fall, when Buchanan launched a unisex fragrance called Réglisse Noire by 1000 Flowers, it was after a dozen years of being immersed in the world of aromatherapy and making botanical skincare products. Success, however, unfolded quickly: Réglisse Noir has already been picked up by Los Angeles’based online fragrance retailer Indie Scents, which got word (through bloggers) of Buchanan’s foray into fine fragrance, and contacted her.

Buchanan, 40, began working on Réglisse Noire’French for black licorice’in 2007, while at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in Provence. The institute is one of the few independent schools in the world that teaches the marketing, chemistry and art of fragrance. (Many fragrance houses have their own schools.)

Buchanan had developed but not brought to market four all-natural scents while running her skincare company. She realized that perfumery is an art form, and that she needed formal training before launching a new fragrance. To help finance her trip to Grasse, Buchanan, who’s single, sold her house. "Studying classic perfumery in Grasse taught me how much I didn’t know," she says. For one, she learned that "synthetic" doesn’t have to mean "bad," she says, although she prefers the term "aroma-chemicals."

As part of her studies, the fragrance house Mane et Fils proposed the idea of creating a modern scent that connects people in a "scent line" (a kind of code that connects those who wear it to each other). That led to Buchanan’s eureka moment: At the Grasse institute, she learned about helional, a high-tech synthetic aroma-molecule that, to her, had a hint of licorice in its scent.

It took her back to her childhood, when she was almost never allowed to have candy. But her maternal grandmother lived nearby. "She always had a crystal bowl of licorice allsorts. They were a special treat," Buchanan says. Until she was six, Buchanan lived on Salt Spring Island, B.C., on a farm with a garden, fruit trees and small animals. Then her family moved to a cattle ranch in Chilcotin, B.C., so she has always been immersed in nature.

Buchanan essentially decided to take her happy childhood memories and capture them in a bottle. "I thought about whether I could connect memory and emotion and the past with the modern, current world," she says. "That scent of licorice allsorts, and the helional molecule, were the starting points of the formula."

She ran out to a candy store and scooped up all the licorice candy she could find’licorice allsorts, salted licorice and ribbons of licorice tightly rolled’and poured them into a quart mason jar. For two weeks, she opened the lid of the jar and inhaled’morning, afternoon and evening, because our sense of smell varies at different times of the day.

In a notebook she recorded her emotions and impressions, describing what she smelled as well as the raw materials she thought would achieve the same scent. Her initial thoughts: anise, cocoa, vanilla and musk’and mint, too, because she detected a fresh, cool sweetness. She wanted her fragrance to be an interpretation’as opposed to a literal replication’of the fragrance in the jar. "My goal in going to school was to come out with a fragrance, with all the raw materials available in that lab."

During the second half of her school year, she worked on the formula. She continued her training in the French perfume industry with internships at two fragrance houses: at Mane, where she organized a scent library; and at Robertet, testing formulas for "functional" fragrances such as room cleaning products.

Meanwhile, Buchanan tweaked the notes in 150 trials of her own fragrance. She added cocoa absolute (an extract of cocoa beans) because it rounded out the licorice notes, and a tiny hint of wild French fennel seed oil to give the star anise in the formula "a green spark."

With school and her internships over, she moved back to B.C. to work on finding bottles and creating a label. Buchanan didn’t want boxes to add to the recycling heap.

"I wanted packaging people will keep," she says. She sourced solid cedar boxes from a B.C. company and got a local graphic artist to create the design, which Buchanan applies by hand to the boxes after staining them with titanium dioxide pigment (because regular stains are too full of VOCs, she says). She offers refills on her bottles to cut down on glass waste.

Buchanan plans to move back to Grasse permanently in December. She fell in love with this ancient town and all it offers. Inside the walls of the old city, she likes to peek through a tiny boarded-up window in a stone wall, into a vacant perfumery. It used to produce raw materials for the fragrance industry. When her eyes adjust to the dark, she can see the green demijohn bottles still there, dusty and abandoned.

In her sunny, 400-year-old Grasse apartment, a breeze wafts in from the sub-Alps. Perfume from orange tree blossoms drifts through the air. The Mediterranean Sea is visible in the distance. Buchanan says that Grasse is the heart of France’s perfume industry’from the fields of flowers used to create the oils to the manufacturing of the final product. "Everyone talks perfume there." Her company is her baby, and she believes this is the place it will grow and thrive.

This article was originally titled "The Sweet Smell of Success" in the November/December 2010 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience’and never miss an issue!’and make sure to check out what’s new in the latest issue of Best Health