Blend Of Both Worlds: Interview With Natural Perfumer Marie Aoun, Founder of Saint d’Ici

Marie Aoun of Saint d'Ici

My home town is associated with many things (not all of them positive), but it’s certainly not a centre of perfumery, natural or otherwise. So I was very intrigued to discover that Marie Aoun’s natural perfume company, Saint d’Ici, is based right here in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Marie was most kind to send me a sample pack of her natural Saint d’Ici perfumes. The metal box contained five scents. These included: The Company’s Garden, Myrrha Ambrata, Nomvikeli, Une Mandarine Pour Mon Homme and Mon Coeur Noir. At first I had to adjust to the raw earthiness of Saint d’Ici fragrances. But once I had done so, I enjoyed their unpretentious, almost “dirty” character. I use the word “dirty”, because many modern fragrances are overly sanitised.

Saint d'Ici Natural Perfumes

LITTLE BOTTLES: Samples of Saint d’Ici Mon Coeur Noir, The Company’s Garden, Nomvikeli, Myrrha Ambrata, and Une Mandarine Pour Mon Homme.

On the Saint d’Ici website, Marie explains how the name of her company came about. It also captures her approach to natural perfumery.

“The name, Saint d’Ici, comes from my earliest olfactive memories. I spent a great deal of time growing up at my grandparents’ house near the small village of Saint Jeannet in Provence. I distinctly remember rosemary, lavender and laurel when I think back to that time. It was these beautiful, classic, natural scents that first drew me to natural perfumery. However, as I started to explore African perfume materials, a whole new world of smells opened up to me. Rich, dusty, sweet-herbaceous, animalic and deep scents. Saint Jeannet was updated, it became Saint d’Ici (of here), a blend of both worlds.”

Saint d'Ici's Marie Aoun Lavender

OLFACTIVE MEMORIES: Lavender is one of the classic scents that attracted Marie Aoun to natural perfumery.

I was not able to meet Marie for an actual face-to-face interview, after my initial email questions. She had just become a mother for the first time, so obviously didn’t have much free time. I hope to meet her in the future, as I would love to learn more about her craft. In the meantime, though, this is what she had to say about her love of natural perfumes, “synthetics” and working with natural ingredients.

Marie Aoun of Saint d'Ici

PORTRAIT OF A NATURAL PERFUMER: All pics courtesy of Marie Aoun, except images of sample pack, lavender and sample bottles.

Where does your love for natural perfumery come from?

Quite simply, from my love of nature. My happy place is lying down under the trees in my garden. I believe most of us find nature therapeutic – we’ve been programmed that way. Perfumes are a sensual pleasure. I find that natural perfume ingredients affect me, mentally, physically and spiritually, in ways that synthetics cannot.

Why did you launch Saint d’Ici? And what do you hope to hope to achieve with Saint d’Ici?

I launched Saint d’Ici to create beautiful perfumes made exclusively from natural ingredients. Our perfumes are limited to editions of between 50 and 350 bottles per scent. This way we honour the seasonality and variability of natural ingredients. We also source most of our ingredients directly from farmers and artisan distillers in southern Africa. This way we ensure the purity of the ingredients and the ethics behind their production.

We created the hashtag #farmertofragrance to illustrate the importance that we attach to working this way. The added benefit of directly sourcing from small-scale farmers is that it provides us with access to lesser-known perfume ingredients that are only produced in small quantities. Our goal is to make all of these wonderful natural ingredients come alive through our perfumes in ways that will enchant the wearer.

Saint d'Ici iris harvest

FARMER TO FRAGRANCE: Saint d’Ici sources most of its ingredients directly from farmers and artisan distillers in southern Africa.

Are you totally against “synthetic” fragrances?

I wish I could remember where I had read this so that I could give the author their due. But the gist of what they said was: choosing a branch of perfumery is like choosing a religion. You cannot claim superiority. Clearly my religion is natural perfumes, but I am happy for others to practise synthetics. Having said that, I do take olfactory offence at the proliferation and strength of synthetic smells. I literally have to hold my breath until I’ve passed the candles and diffusers in most home stores.

“Clearly my religion is natural perfumes, but I am happy for others to practise synthetics.”

Saint d'Ici African perfume ingredients

THE OTHER HALF OF THE BLEND: African perfume ingredients.

What’s your favourite natural ingredient to work with?

That is a very tough question! I find that I go through phases. Lately I find myself adding a little bit of omumbiri or Namibian myrrh to most blends. I find that it helps seemingly disparate elements come together. It also lends expansiveness, modernity and masculinity to my mixes. One ingredient I never tire of smelling and working with is bergamot. Although true bergamot is from Sicily, I source mine locally from South Africa’s Western Cape province. It is just as beautiful.

Saint d'Ici Ingredients - Gemmerbos

FOLLOWING THE INGREDIENT: Fresh and dried gemmerbos.

How do you go about creating your fragrances? And how do you select the noses for your saint d’ici fragrances? 

I almost always start with an ingredient. My formula book has titles such as “Opoponax Absolute no. 11” or “Fever Tea no. 8”. I like to see how many different ways I can use a single ingredient and whether it works best centre front or in the chorus. I know that most perfumers start off with a story or fantasy, but I prefer to let the ingredients tell me where they’d like to go.

Saint d'Ici ingredients - clary sage

HERBACEOUS: Clary sage, one of the ingredients used in Saint d’Ici fragrances.

Saint d’Ici currently works with three other noses, all of whom I met whilst studying natural perfumery in Italy. I selected them because they are all talented and each bring a different aspect of natural perfumery to the table. Maurice Val nails unisex perfectly. Andrea Dittler brings vintage, old-world charm. Constance Beck-Treadway has the creativity to try radically new combinations together, with the ability to make them work.

Saint d'Ici Nomvikeli Constance Beck-Treadway

CREATIVE COMBINATIONS: Constance Beck-Treadway is one of the noses Marie Aoun works with.

Do you have a fragrance hero/heroine?

Not specifically. I am much more likely to be inspired by traditional cultures and their use of perfumery. The San’s use of buchu [a South African medicinal herb], the Sudanese matrimonial perfume ceremonies, even the Dogon’s love of the scent of fried onion are far more interesting to me than a fragrance master. They remind me of the instinctive response that we all have to raw and natural perfume ingredients.

Saint d'Ici Ingredients - Orange Bigarade

INSTINCTIVE RESPONSE: Marie Aoun takes her inspiration from natural ingredients.

What’s next for you?

I am currently researching the various ways in which people fragrance their homes that are perhaps a little less obvious than scented candles and diffusers. I am look forwarding to doing more custom projects in the future. All the while I continue to work on new blends, to explore new ingredients and connect with various farmers and distillers across the continent.

Dunhill Icon Fragrance Reviews: Dunhill Icon, Dunhill Icon Absolute, Dunhill Icon Elite, Dunhill Icon Racing

Dunhill Icon, Dunhill Icon Racing, Dunhill Icon Elite, Dunhill Icon Absolute

It’s intriguing to watch the evolution of a fragrance range from the launch of its pillar fragrance (Dunhill Icon) to the roll-out of its flankers (Dunhill Icon Absolute, Dunhill Icon Elite and Dunhill Icon Racing). It tells you something about the heritage of the brand and where it’s now re-staking its claim.

Dunhill Icon, Dunhill Icon Racing, Dunhill Icon Elite, Dunhill Icon Absolute

ICONIC: The Dunhill Icon fragrance collection, from left to right, Dunhill Icon, Dunhill Icon Racing, Dunhill Icon Elite and Dunhill Icon Absolute.

Dunhill has released many memorable fragrances since the launch of the superb Dunhill For Men in 1934. But the quality of releases over, say, the last two decades has been erratic, even for the most devoted fan. The launch of Dunhill Icon in 2014 was the esteemed British brand’s reclamation of all the iconic descriptors associated with its fragrances. “Quality”, “elegant”, “craftsmanship” and “British gentlemanliness”.

Dunhill Icon

CRAFTSMANSHIP: Dunhill Icon was launched in 2015.

With the recent release of the latest addition to the Dunhill Icon range, Dunhill Icon Racing, I sniffed out all four fragrances. These are my impressions of each of the EDPs.

Dunhill Icon Racing

RACING GREEN: Dunhill Icon Racing is inspired by the British brand’s motoring heritage.

DUNHILL ICON EDP

Launched in 2015, Dunhill Icon makes its debut with this complex scent created by master perfumer Carlos Benaim. It’s so much more than its aromatic-woody profile suggests. Notes of neroli, bergamot, cardamom, lavender, black pepper, leather and oakmoss feature in this effervescent EDP.

Dunhill Icon

DUNHILL ICON ABSOLUTE EDP

This later 2015 release ventures into more opulent territory. It’s the Dunhill Icon take on the oud trend, while not going the whole shebang. This is a refined treatment of agarwood, with bergamot, black pepper, jasmine, saffron, black rose, leather and tobacco leaf notes adding to its appeal.

Dunhill Icon Absolute

DUNHILL ICON ELITE EDP

An unapologetically woody fragrance, with ebony and sandalwood notes featuring prominently. There’s also a smattering of citrus, cardamom, black pepper and suede notes in this 2016 release. It’s smooth, seductive and modern, without being overly trendy. We’re talking Dunhill bespoke suit kind of stuff.

Dunhill Icon Elite

DUNHILL ICON RACING EDP

Complete with stripes on the top of the bottle, Dunhill Icon Racing is inspired by Dunhill’s motoring heritage. To my nose, Dunhill Icon Racing is not as immediately impactful as its predecessors. Give it time, though, and this Laurent le Guernec composition make an impression with vetiver, lavender, cardamom, citrus and musk notes. I normally like my vetiver dark and dirty, but this fresher and younger interpretation is a winner too.

My conclusion? This is not a range, but rather an evolving fragrance collection that warrants its higher-than-the-average perfume price.

“Mark Eisen’s award-winning cylindrical metal and glass design for the Dunhill Icon collection gets it right on so many levels.”

I must also mention the design of the Dunhill Icon bottle. The fragrance industry has no shortage of beautiful bottles to behold. But South African Mark Eisen’s award-winning cylindrical metal and glass design for the Dunhill Icon collection gets it right on so many levels. Paying homage to Dunhill’s motoring heritage, its solid and classic design is a sophisticated statement that Dunhill Icon is a collection with longevity. You can read more about fashion designer-turned-industrial designer Mark Eisen (picture below) here: http://fragroom.com/2017/09/15/south-african-beauty/.

Dunhill Icon Racing EDP, R1 095 for 50ml and R1 595 for 100ml.