Meet Frances, founder of the 100% natural perfume brand Abel. We went to visit their new showroom in Amsterdam and sat down to talk about the magical and complex world of scent. Too bad you can’t smell their beautiful scents through your computer screen…!
Hi Frances. What perfume are you wearing today?
Hi! Today, I am wearing the scent ‘Golden Neroli’. This perfume is very special to me, because I used to wear it a lot during my pregnancy. It has a soft and floral touch to it.
Is ‘Golden Neroli’ your absolute favorite Abel perfume?
It really depends on my mood. If I have a big meeting, I tend to wear the scent ‘Grey Labdanum’. It makes me feel edgy and energized. I wear different scents for different occasions.
My favorite is the ‘Red Santal’ perfume.
I hear that a lot! It has a very warm and comforting quality to it.
How did Abel start?
I grew up in New Zealand where I had a background in wine making. I moved to Amsterdam to do marketing for something completely different, but realized quite soon that I did not really like doing marketing for things I was not passionate about. At that time, I had just bought some beautiful niche perfumes and was starting to become more health conscious. I had difficulties finding a perfume that was 100% natural and I found myself becoming more interested in the world of scent.
How did you turn your interest in perfume into your own business?
A friend introduced me to Isaac Sinclair, who is a master perfumer. I remember him talking about how perfume is very similar to wine. You can imagine that this only sparkled my interest! We ended up meeting and started working on Abel together.
What are the similarities between wine and perfume?
Both wine and perfume require a lot of technical knowledge. There is a certain geekiness in how both are manufactured and there is so much to discover once you are into it. There is this emotional connection that people have towards both wine and perfume. Also, both have a certain intangibility to it, making some people feel unsure of what they like at first.
Abel is a 100% natural perfume. How does this work exactly?
Normally, a fragrance is made of a mix between natural and synthetic ingredients. Usually, 90% or more are synthetics because they are cheaper to produce. When you work with a compound that was created in a lab, there are a lot of different compositions that are designed to mimic a certain scent.
When you work with a natural compound, you work with the compound as a whole. These are very complex and act much more dynamic and unexpected. They are alive on your skin and evolve throughout the day. Also, they will not smell the same on every two people. For a perfumer, these are super exciting to work with as you never know how things will turn out.
That sounds like a lot of research!
It was definitely a journey. Normally, brands work around a concept and aim to mimic a certain smell. Because we work with natural compounds, our aim is to not mimic, but instead work with the natural qualities the compound has. Just like wine, you have a selection of grapes that you are going to try and make the most beautiful wine from. We approached the design process for Abel the same way. For example, we had this beautiful sandalwood; lets try and make the most beautiful perfume from it!
Are there also health benefits when choosing an all natural perfume?
Every ingredient has their herbal qualities. Sandalwood, for example, is being used in arabic countries as medicine. Neroli has been used throughout history to balance hormonal phases and I have seen many pregnant woman responding to the scent very positively. I would never call them healing, but they can definitely have an effect on how you feel.
The visual language of Abel gives a feeling of exploration. Where does it come from?
When I first told people that I wanted to do an all natural perfume, people responded skeptical. They argued that the product would never be able to produce a consistent scent. However, I see this as something positive. In wine making, we call this a vintage. I feel that the versatility and dynamic qualities of the perfume is an absolute strength!
I am inspired by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered New-Zealand. In English, we pronounce Abel as ‘able’. This made his name feel very empowering and I felt that an uplifting name mirrored the journey that we have undergone with Abel.
Is it difficult to describe a scent?
Because of my background, I tend to describe a perfume from a technical perspective. However, some people just want the experience. This is understandable, as you tend to pull apart something that is so romantic. My colleague Charlotte describes a scent according to how it makes you feel, leaving much room for imagination. She does a much better job than I do (grins).
What is next for Abel?
We have a new perfume in development, but we really like to take our time for it. I am also looking at other products at the moment. Scent has been my starting point and making a perfume was a logical first step. However, I am starting to become more open to other options. People have said to me that I should develop a candle. Who knows!