Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Interview with a Perfumer: Linda Pilkington of Ormonde Jayne

Talking to the woman behind the heady array of exquisite scents circulating under the brand name Ormonde Jayne proved to be not only deeply stimulating but also utterly delightful. Linda Pilkington has the well-bred, kind voice that matches her tiny attractive physique and her romantically auburn hair and she has all the charisma of someone who is pursuing her high standards with conviction and confidence in pursuit of elegance and quality. Becoming a mother for the second time recently, she radiates the warmth and –dare I say- the slight panic that such a position unavoidably entails, yet her generosity with her time was enslaving. Her honesty is palpable as she admits to me that all this attention from the Internet community is something new and exciting to her, as she has been so late in computerizing her business (only about 2 years ago) which retains the artisanal character that has helped made it a sensational underground success. “We learned the hard and slow way”, she laughs heartily. Indeed her reception of the Internet perfume community boom has been one big surprise, as she reflects when asked her opinion on how the market has changed in the last few years thanks to online criticism and discussion: “There I was making the first tentative batches of Orris Noir and a lady came into my shop and tried it on herself. She loved it and then went on to Makeup Alley and talked about it, how it was so wonderful and very new. At the time I knew nothing about this. Soon after I was getting calls asking about the new scent and I was going crazy: 'But how did they know? It hasn’t been featured anywhere yet!' It was only later that people began to tell me my fragrances were talked about online and I became aware of how truly changed the market has become”.

So, why Ormonde Jayne? Linda explained to me that “Ormonde Studio has been my first laboratory’s name and when I thought about creating my own boutique 6 years ago I found it rather daunting to have to go into a shop that bore my own name on the ledge every single day. So I picked Ormonde and Jayne which is my surname and thus emerged Ormonde Jayne”. This is such a British attitude, that my Mediterranean ears have a difficult time grasping, especially when looking at Ormonde Jayne’s revamped boutique look, fascinated by the vibrancy and the drama: Black glass chandeliers hang decadently from the ceiling, while the ivory stone floors welcome the weary traveler into a haven of luxury contrasting beautifully with the black shagreen perfume boxes in mandarin-colored packaging, tied with black satin ribbons. And if you’re tempted to look in the hidden drawers, little treasures shall reward your curiosity. The Ormonde Jayne store features wonderful candles and bath products, one of which is the indulgent Parfum d’Or Naturel (a gel-like mix of natural sugars, oils and finely milled gold leaf), as well as traditional extrait de parfum and parfum concentrations. Indeed Linda was first noticed for her intensely fragrant candles, a faithful client of which is Annouska Hempel who uses them for both her home and her hotels. Her first commission on such a candle came from another house, namely Chanel, through a long-time friend who wanted a candle to burn in their boutique interiors. This got her noticed, as she was previously working at Nihon Noyaku, a London-based agrichemical company and soon after the vision of her own business started materializing.

Going now through my notes kept during our conversation I can’t help thinking that her dedication to traditional values translated in a modern way is exactly what is needed in an oversaturated market. I was eager to find out how she positioned herself as almost everyone is doing their own version of niche now. She quickly elucidated that “Although there are lines with products that have a very limited distribution, such as Armani (Privé) and Prada (exclusive blends), they mainly work from a marketer’s angle, especially since they have to ultimately answer to big conglomerates. We, on the other hand, place 95% of our budget in the ingredients; there is only one person, Sarah, doing our marketing. I don’t have my hands handcuffed by accountants who want to produce something to please everybody and thus we can also use more exotic raw materials. And because we’re such a small company we have no problem locating small-yield, erratic supplies of rare and unusual oils, such as the black hemlock which we get from a Canadian supplier. We are therefore able to use 3 to 4 kilo of compound for 150 bottles (25% essences in Eau de Parfum and 30% in extrait), where for the same amount of oils bigger companies {she names a huge one here which I won’t repeat} produce millions of bottles! This makes a great difference in the finished product’s quality. Some people laughed when they heard we used black hemlock for our signature perfume Ormonde Woman ~but that’s the secret of our success: daring to go where no other perfumer has gone before”. A tireless traveler, Linda has fostered relationships with growers all over the globe from Laos, Madagascar and the Philippines to Morocco and France, gaining her remarkable access to the most exquisite oils. Ormonde Woman, whose fans include broadcaster Susan Hitch, features black hemlock: a femme fatale ~ black feathers, felt capes and illicit affairs aplenty. Tai’f is the combination of rose with precious saffron, dates and luxurious orange blossom absolute while Osmanthus features the precious absolute and doesn’t merely claim it as a “note”. Tolu featuring real civet tincture in a market full of the ersatz ~as does Orris Noir as well~ is an amalgam of animalic warmth and come-hither radiance.

This brings us to the perennial discussion of how tastes and perceptions shape our choices: “We don’t always reveal everything, because ladies buying fragrance might not like knowing that [civet] is the animal’s anal glands’ produce that we put in the mix, but the effect is there. Some materials are not used for their own smell per se, but as a way to open the bouquet, to let it gain in depth and texture, like with wine”. To the question of whether the mainstream cult of “clean” or the resulting antipode niche snobbism of embracing “dirty” notes has affected her vision, she does not have an answer: she strikes me as someone who doesn’t even let herself be influenced by trends and she tries not to smell the competition, so as to keep her integrity as much as possible.

Origins and background play a big role in our olfactory profile. Linda’s interest in smells has been active since childhood: she used to gather herbs and oils from around the world, growing flowers from seed and collecting perfumes, some from big houses like Guerlain or Dior: one of her favorite combinations a long-time ago was layering Eau Sauvage with Diorella, two of Roudnitska’s cool masterpieces, making her “feel extremely sophisticated”. Little by little her interest took a more formal path, engaging in one-to-one tuition in perfumery and collaborating with a German perfumer by the name of Geza Schoen (of Escentric Molecules), whom she met years ago through their combined love of Iso-E Super, an aroma chemical patented by IFF which has a complex odor profile of woody, floral and ambergris notes, used as a supreme floralizer. Geza didn’t have a laboratory at the time, Linda had the equipment, so she asked him to come onboard and allowed him use of the facilities and welcomed his acting as a consultant. “He really gave me some great advice, I remember. He vetoed one note I wanted to include in Frangipani and he turned out to be right. Reversely, he OK-ed the use of pink pepper, which proved to be very successful”.

Linda was also preparing delicious chocolates and immersing herself into the world of a full-blown foodie all the while. As I also am a fellow cuisine enthusiast, I couldn’t help asking her what her favorite culinary aroma is to receive an immediate and startling in its candor answer: “It has to be basmati rice! I find it so nice, so warm, so cozy! I was living with Chinese neighbors who prepared it and the steam of it wafting through the windows smelled like coming home. So it brings me comfort...” No wonder her post-modern gourmand for serious perfumephiles is Champaca, entwined with the unusual trail of a plate of hot basmati rice steaming up. And that was before anyone even thought of putting rice notes in a fragrance! It is with some distraught that she divulges that Space NK, the mega-store of beauty owned by the Gap, has just launched a fragrance also named Champaca; which of course is rather unkind, seeing as there was already her own successful fragrance on the market. It is the way of “big fish eat small fish” again and this casts a slight gloom at this part of our conversation. I can see that it’s not possible to copyright such a generic term as “Champaca”, the name of an exotic flower, but still it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Another incident which aggravated her was the claim posted online that her body products had not been tested for risks of allergy, a claim that she is adamant is completely inaccurate and damagingly false although it was retracted later on in light of the facts. But this is where the responsibility of a perfume writer comes in, I guess: doing one’s research, corroborating facts, asking for data verification...

To revert to our previous, happier subject of favorite smells Linda also admits a predilection for truffles, the intensely fragrant mushrooms that have me enraptured too; their shreds on any plate give a heavenly aroma of earthy delights. “I also tremendously enjoy the deep, liquorish smell of the very green, very wet odor of a vast, dense forest, like those I walk in in Bavaria, Germany and Austria”. Another one of her favorite smells she hasn’t ingrained in her line is gardenia, her absolute favorite blossom: “The best gardenia I have ever smelled was in California during a trip. You know how Americans try to do everything bigger and better! Well, this was an amazing, envelopping smell. I know there is a very costly and limited supply of natural absolute and I have found a supplier {which I can’t divulge}, so options are open. And prepare for a new men’s fragrance which Nick Foulkes, a loyal customer and friend, is about to write on”.

But perhaps the most interesting and entertaining anecdote about the Ormonde Jayne fragrances was the following, which I leave you to savor through the witty wording of Linda Pilkington herself: “Some years ago, Tattler magazine asked us for samples of some of our fragrances for a 4-page story they were doing. It turned out they did an evaluation test featuring Dr.Luca Turin, in which he was supposed to pick his top 3 favorites out of 63 presented fragrances while blindfolded! The definition of a blind test, so he wouldn’t be influenced by brands and names. He picked up one of the Joy fragrances (I don’t recall whether it was Eau de Joy or EnJoy) and another mainstream fragrance from Guerlain. And the third one was my Frangipani! The rest-as they say- is history”.

Ormonde Jayne has been chosen by The Walpole (the trade body that represents British luxury goods brands) as one of the six Brands of Tomorrow and the masculine Isfarkand has been awarded Wallpaper’s "Best Scent". Linda Pilkington is opening a second perfumery in Dubai's shopping emporium, Boutique 1. For now Linda's fragrances are exclusively available through the Ormonde Jayne boutique at 28 Old Bond Street in the Royal Arcade, London (map image here), or through the Ormonde Jayne website.

Pics provided by Ormonde Jayne, not to be reproduced without permission.


  1. Hi Helg,
    I really enjoyed this interview. I really admire people like Linda Pilkington who keep their businesses within their own grasp and therefore retain creative control.

    Outside of the perfume world I think Manolo Blahnik is the same. A real artist who has kept to just a couple of shops rather than over expanding or selling out and become a legend.

  2. What a coup, Helg!! Brava on your wonderful review, I enjoyed it so much.
    And Linda comes across as someone who is faithful to her high standards, not compromising like other brands. I am now very much inspired to test her whole line!

  3. Anonymous13:17

    Very interesting interview, well-done and addressing the points I would have liked to ask myself, if I had your connections, guess we think alike in some ways, hahaha.
    So the notes in her fragrances are not synthetic, did i get this right or not, it's confusing trying to decide which company uses natural extracts in it's fragrance and which not.

  4. Hello, E -- thanks for that lovely interview. Ms. Pilkington sounds absolutely charming, and I'm a big fan of her fragrances. The photo of the store looks beautiful too.

    I love the smell of basmati rice too, although have not yet sniffed a fragrance with "rice" notes that I find compelling. I have not yet sampled Champaca, though.

  5. Thoroughly engaging and chock full of information. Thanks for that.

    And now my day is off to a delightful start, what with thoughts of chocolate and basmati rice wafting around visions of artistic energy surrounding the creation of scent potions in a specially outfitted lab...all capped by the happy thought of a successful blind taste test!

  6. The real question though is when is the US website going to be up; this was announced two years ago and well it still hasn't shown up.

  7. stella polaris15:19

    Thank you for an interview that coupled with the rest I have read about her perfumes, will put her fragrances high on my to-try priority list. And luckily :), I will be able to: have a work-related trip to London in October. Now I know I must visit her Royal Archade shop, in addition to trying to find time to visit les Senteurs

  8. Dear R,

    she is a very charming lady! It was such a pleasure talking to her, laughing heartily...
    I sensed that she really is focused on her work, not just sales.
    I admire Blahnik as well: no comporomises and the shoes are actually comfy which comes as a surprise (and a "pain": who would really take them out for a walk??)

  9. Thank you Sue.
    You should definitely test the line, there's something for everyone :-)

  10. A,

    thanks for the compliment, wonder why you became confused though, LOL.
    What I said is that Linda uses high quality oils (and yes, many natural essences are included, since floral "notes" especially have to be naturals in order to be high quality; although that's not an aphorism, there are some that have to be synthetics or which are quality-smelling synths), but it's not an all-natural line.

  11. J,

    thank you for commenting in such a complimentary manner: she deserves the credit for the gentle pace of the conversation.
    The store looks fab, doesn't it?
    I think you should definitely give Tolu a try and Champaca too (although my own preference is for Tolu over it).
    I believe Kenzo Amour has rice notes (as do others), but done differently, a la rice pudding.

  12. S,

    you're very welcome and thank you for being so nice saying so. Linda provided LOTS of info, I don't think I have even covered everything. Perhaps there will be tidbits down the road.

    What a lovely image, that is, you paint... :-)

  13. J,

    my understanding is that things at the OJ cosmos move at
    a very s l o w pace. They are not a high tech company; which is not always bad!!
    I do realise that the thought of distant shipping is daunting though. :/

  14. S,

    thanks for stopping by, hope you're well and enjoying good weather.
    Her frags are good quality and respected. You must definitely go to the Bond Street boutique and see her and say I sent you over(I am sure they will be extra attentive).
    Have fun in your trip and report back when you come home :-)

  15. Anonymous21:22

    Thanks for the clarification Helg, I didn't know what to make out of the part when you talked about osmanthus and civett and all these ingredients, now it's clearer.

  16. This is a wonderful article, E. Your sensitive questions and investigative style provide a great look at an artisan perfumer who surely has made a lovely fragrant imprint on the world.

  17. Lovely lady, wonderful interview, what I wouldn't give to stop by her boutique every week or so!

  18. I have never smelt or seen her perfumes but anyone who loved to spray eau savage with my beloved Diorella is worth seeking out! Just wish someone would import it here.
    A great read Helg!

  19. You're welcome, A :-)

  20. Anya,

    thank you for your wonderful compliment, I appreciate it.
    Linda places high value on good natural products (as attested by her quest to even get natural gardenia absolute which you well know better than me how erratic it is) and this makes me inwardly smile a bit: isn't it so much better when something that can be got through nature's vast treasure is used? :-)

  21. P,

    thank you. It's well worth the trip down the boutique.

  22. My dearest M,

    they ship worlwide!! And they have an awesome sampler set with generous samples of all the frags: click here!
    ~and don't call me enabler...you know you want it!! :))

    And thank you for your warm words about the interview.

  23. M,

    I forgot to highlight that postage to the above sampler set is complimentary worldwide: you only pay for the samples itself. Isn't that marvellous?

  24. OMG Helg - FREE? This lady is a saint!
    Must do!

  25. What a refreshing interview! after smelling myself silly in department stores chasing after the perfect 'me' fragrance (and finding they all smelled alike), I decided to look for more 'exclusive' and high quality fragrances. I started out with Le Labo and am very happy with the result :) Now my next victim is Ormonde Jayne!

    I noticed Linda loves truffles... which is a note I simply die for in perfume. do any of her perfumes have a truffle note?


  26. Sara,

    thanks for stopping by and commenting, hope you like it here and find it a cosy corner.
    Yeah, isn't it a shame that everything smells the same?
    OJ is a line worth sampling. I don't think Linda has entered truffle in her commercila -at least-line yet, but we're giving her ideas! (a propos, have you tried Une Rose by Frederic Malle?)

  27. wildflower21:01

    "We don’t always reveal everything, because ladies buying fragrance might not like knowing that [civet] is the animal’s anal glands’ produce that we put in the mix, but the effect is there. "

    Does this mean Ormonde Jayne is using real civet in fragrances? This is sad news to me, I thought this was a thing of the past by now considering the cruel practice. Please correct me if I misunderstood!

  28. Wildflower,

    let me clarify:

    1.Real covet can be used via an old batch, back when everyone was using it. Doesn't mean it's fresh, from new animals, necessarily.


    2.Producing civet doesn't really harm the animal (unlike natural musk or castoreum), although it does irritate it and makes it angry (the process is like the cleaning of the anal glands of dogs, if you're familiar with that). The conditions in which the civet cats are farmed in Ethiopia are not the very best either. I suppose that could be ameliorated.

    I think there's a glow rendered in the formula from real civet which is incomparable, but I do understand the apprehension of some people who do not want any animal derived essence.
    That said, I don't think OJ uses it in all of its fragrances, just a couple (Tolu being one).

  29. "civet" of course, not "covet" (though that's a word too).

    Sorry about the typos. Thanks for commenting!


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