Talking Perfume with Saskia Havekes of Grandiflora Fragrance
This week I have been writing about recently launched perfumes, created by Australian perfume house, Grandiflora Fragrance. If you don’t already know something about these perfumes, I recommend reading the posts I published about Magnolia Grandiflora Sandrine and Magnolia Grandiflora Michel, before reading this interview with Saskia Havekes, the author and florist behind Sydney’s Grandiflora brand. Last month I visited Saskia at her address in Sydney’s Potts Point, and below is an excerpt of our conversation about her latest adventure into the world of perfumery.
WMSSL: Flowers to perfumes – it seems like a natural transition but really, it’s not that common right? Tell me how this new adventure started?
Saskia Havekes: I have probably only ever bought myself one fragrance, which was Antonia’s Flowers, many years ago. It was before I worked with flowers and I was living in New York. I found a beautiful little store down in the Village and I’ll never forget finding it, smelling it and thinking that it smelled like a flower shop. Antonia Bellanca was a florist and she lived in the Hampton’s. All of that to me at that age just seemed so glamorous and amazing. And it was such a simple bottle. I was really struck by the simplicity of the label because it was so understated. I always thought it would be incredible to do something like that but coming from Australia, perfumery is not so much in our culture. Later, getting to know Michael Edwards from Fragrance of the World, a conversation evolved and I thought – well if I could ever create a perfume, it would be the magnolia flower. I really love that flower. I love all flowers but that one is my favourite and I never tire of it. I’ve seen thousands of them and to me they are all different. They all have their own personalities in the different ways they open, move and fall apart. Michael Edwards introduced me to Sandrine Videault because he knew that we would click. We did the minute we met each other. I was so attracted to her. I thought she was such a beautiful person with her sparkly eyes and she was filled with lots of crazy ideas. She was a very enthusiastic soul and when we met, I knew she would be a good teacher. We spoke the same language although hers was a language of fragrance, which when we started was all very foreign. To pick out the notes and to describe them was a new thing for me. I needed a lot of quiet time. I had to settle down, find a quiet space at home and put everything out. I spent a lot of time going backwards and forwards, assessing things, writing notes and talking to her on Skype. I had the flower in front of me a lot of the time and I would describe what I could smell and she would give me some hints and I would say, “not really that, but I can smell this.”
WMSSL: What were the parts of the flower that stood out for you most? What aspects were you trying to capture with Sandrine?
Saskia Havekes: Sandrine’s fragrance represents more, the opening of the bloom. You can see with that flower, there is just a little bit of wetness on the stamens (Saskia points to the vased magnolia flower in front of us.) It has been open for a while and it is starting to flex close. I didn’t realise this until a couple of years ago. After the flower opens it partially closes and then it opens again. It gets very exhausted and it flies completely open and turns very leathery, very brown; a bit like the back of the leaves and then it just falls apart, making quite a loud noise when it does this. It’s very dramatic and some people won’t have magnolias in their home because they make such a mess.
WMSSL: When I compare Sandrine to Michel, I really pick up on the citrus facet of the flower.
Saskia Havekes: Sandrine’s fragrance is about the beginning when the flower opens and it is very fresh. It has a grapefruit aspect. When Sandrine first smelled the flower with me she was all about the grapefruit. For me that was just like, “what? Grapefruit?” I had not even begun my perfume education. I was way behind the start line. She was like, “oh yes, grapefruit, pamplemousse.” I was unsure but thinking, “OK yes, I can get that and the citrus.” There is a lot of ‘green’ as well. We talked about the cutting of the leaf and stem so it wasn’t always just about the flower. I said it would be lovely to represent this in the perfume so it’s not just the flower because the foliage really enhances the flower. When you take this away it is a different flower. There is also a little bit of an aquatic, watery quality there as well as we talked about the petals being near the ocean. We drove around, looking at different magnolia trees. I know a lot of them in Sydney. One of them is at Government house and you can see the water from there and that really struck a chord with Sandrine. It was very much a Southern Belle flower, very Gone With the Wind – Scarlett O’Hara, big dresses on the veranda. We talked about that as being part of the personality of the flower, very powerful, a strong, feminine strength. We did a lot of modifications and Sandrine seemed to really enjoy that. She said many times that this project was such a gift. I think because we were working so closely together and having lots of laughs. When she came to Australia, we filled the shop full with magnolia flowers. A big furore was created around the two of us getting together.
WMSSL: People that wear perfume always comment about perfume’s ability to connect them with their memories. With Sandrine’s tragic passing, I imagine this perfume is extremely personal to you. When you smell Sandrine’s perfume, do you smell all those modifications and the journey you took with her to make them?
Saskia Havekes: I think about her all the time because she is in that bottle for me. I remember her telling me the day she found out that she was sick. It became her last fragrance and it was such a sad, sad time. She was like a flower the way she dealt with her illness. She just rolled with it and accepted it; she did her best to try and get through it. I was really, really impressed. She set a great example and it sits in my mind all the time.
WMSSL: I think everyone following what goes on in the perfume world, be it through blogs or other forms of social media, even without knowing Sandrine, were very moved by her passing. Although it was undoubtedly a difficult time for you, it was during that time when Michel Roudnitska became involved in your perfumes?
Saskia Havekes: Yes, Sandrine encouraged us to meet Michel Roudnitska. He is a lovely man. He is a very quiet person who has travelled a lot. He is interested in nature and the natural world; quite removed from technology, deliberately so. He is very much in his own world. Sandrine insisted we meet him. She said to me that he has a true fairy garden. The garden there, you have to see it! It is so beautiful. I feel so honoured as I now realise what a huge reputation, certainly his father has and Michel has as well. He was so generous. It was so moving. There is no way that we could ever thank him enough for what he gifted to us except to try and put it into the world in the best possible way. I feel really proud when I can send him a little bit of press or a little story that someone told me (about an experience with Michel’s fragrance). All these things mean a lot to him as well. He loves to hear little bits and pieces on how it is doing in the world. It is like his baby.
WMSSL: And from what I have already read his baby was 20 years old when he introduced you to it?
Saskia Havekes: Yes, he had the formula for 20 years. He was quite reserved about sharing it but we did a tour of his place and it was an extensive tour; we did not anticipate that. He could have easily said, ‘hello, lovely to meet you and I’ll see you around the property.’ In the end we looked at every single plant and we talked about their flowers and he showed us through the house and the upstairs office where his father worked. It was so beautiful and we were very lucky. Later he said, “Did you know I created a magnolia perfume 20 years ago?” I said, “no, I didn’t know that. Would you mind at all if possibly…” (Saskia laughs and motions that she hinted for him to allow them to smell it) Michel found a little vial wrapped up in paper. We smelled it and it struck me just how different it was to Sandrine’s. It was interesting that they had such different interpretations of the flower. With Michel (the fragrance), I always think of the tree in his garden. It is like the flower when it is starting to open right out, going to its leathery-textured phase. It is a fuller, deeper floral experience. You get less of the freshness that is present at the very beginning, when the bloom opens. Michel still has the citrus notes in there as well. It has bergamot in the top note, which is very different from Sandrine and then there is magnolia, ylang ylang, jasmine and rose. So it is much more complex with the florals and in the base notes there is patchouli, vetiver and musk. So both of them have musk, I think Sandrine has more musk on the top notes. That was something we changed because it was much more of a stinging citrus in the beginning, which we toned down a little with musk. It was later after Sandrine passed away, Michel’s colleagues came to Sydney and they brought Michel’s formula with them and they gifted it to me.
WMSSL: That’s an amazing story! From the language you use now, I can see you feel very comfortable talking about perfume. What are some of the biggest learning’s you took from this experience of creating a perfume?
Saskia Havekes: I have constantly been on a giant learning curve but I feel like I have stepped over to another side. It’s hard to explain but I feel like I have stepped onto another island and I am now looking back at the flowers in a different way. I feel like they are much more precious than I did before. I always felt like they were precious but they are even more precious now that I see they have even more to give. I see them as being more multi-faceted. Now I see them all the way around, rather than just a beautiful surface. I can really see what they hold right down deep inside them, into the heart of the flower. I really loved discussing this with Sandrine. We could talk about the personality of the flower and for lot of people; this is a new concept for them to see that a flower really has a lot to say. To give someone a flower can change his or her life, it can change their relationship, and it can change so many perceptions of who you are or who they might be. It is a very powerful language and moving from that to put it into a bottle, showing someone that idea in a different form, for me, is powerful.
WMSSL: I love that description of flowers. So I am hoping there is more to come? What can we expect next from Grandiflora Fragrance?
Saskia Havekes: We like the idea of the soliflore. People have asked us if we are going to continue with the magnolia theme – like just do magnolia, magnolia, magnolia. I hadn’t thought of it until somebody brought it up, and then another person bought it up, mostly overseas. I suppose it was already starting to look like a range because there were two magnolia perfumes together. That intrigued people. We didn’t anticipate that happening. So the whole journey has unfolded like a flower in front of us and it has been really rapid. It’s like the petals are just flying out, opening all the time.
WMSSL: Are there any flowers in particular that excite you from an olfactory point of view?
Saskia Havekes: I have a passion for transient flowers. Many people will come to us to buy flowers saying, ‘we want something that lasts, we want the flower that keeps giving for two weeks or whatever’ and I am thinking ‘yes, I know what those flowers are but…’ I am always looking at and I prefer the flowers that may only explode for an hour and they are over, they are spent. They have tried to attract an insect to reproduce and it’s all finished. These flowers are often the most spectacular because they’ve got to do their work in such a short period of time. One of the next flowers we would like to create a perfume around is a night flowering cactus, which is Queen of the Night. If we are to make a new perfume, most of them will be based on unusual flowers that not many other people have thought of.
WMSSL: So we should not hold our breathe for a classic tuberose or jasmine soliflore?
Saskia Havekes: Well we do have a jasmine in mind but it is a Madagascan jasmine so it’s a more unusual variety, the waxy Sephanotis jasmine. We have already committed to Michel to create our third fragrance. We are getting our first essays in April and we are very excited about that. (At the Roudnitska’s property) they have a cabinet where all of their fragrances are displayed and ours now sit in that cabinet. For me this is a real honour. Both of them sit there and soon the next one will be there because we aim for it to be finished towards the end of the year.