By Alison Robertson
Amber Lenihan has a keener sense of smell than most people. It’s something she’s worked at; growing up on a Martinborough winery, then studying oeneology and viticulture, and becoming proficient in wine evaluation when she worked in London as a sommelier. Today, that talent for “scent recognition” has seen her launch a new business – Circe perfume.
It’s been a lesson in patience, determination and endurance, but what Lenihan has now is a natural perfumery, products that avoid the chemicals and synthetics that go into most mainstream products.
It was something she’d wanted to do for a long time and with encouragement from family and friends she started studying natural perfumery online.
“It’s a hard skill to learn because smell is not a sense we’re encouraged to use as much as the others. I’ve been lucky – my parents were keen gardeners and taught me about plants and identification, and growing up on the vineyard and in the garden encouraged me to develop my scent memories from a young age.
“But there’s still been a lot of trial and error along the way, learning all about blending and how each raw material sits in a blend.”
Creating a perfume involves a lot of different processes. “A big part for us is sourcing certified pure ingredients from New Zealand and overseas. They make up between 20 percent and 30 percent of the finished perfume. They’re arranged as a composition of base, mid and top notes, a bit like arranging a piece of music. We then blend this with natural grain alcohol and water to create the finished perfume. There’s the creative aspect too, where I create the initial blend, procurement, packaging and marketing.”
Lenihan has a large range of plants in her Frankton garden and, where she can, uses native New Zealand plants that she steam distills, or uses in tinctures for R and D, such as manuka honey, kawakawa, kowhai and harakeke.
There was no established perfume industry in New Zealand when Lenihan started Circe, so the challenge was first to find credible and ethical suppliers of the niche products she needed. It took 18 months to decide on and have the bottles shipped from France.
“And then because perfume has alcohol in it, it’s considered a dangerous good and finding a logistics company to move it for a reasonable cost was almost impossible. It’s taken two years, but now we have dangerous goods certification.”
Circe (pron: Sir-see) is based in Frankton and at the moment it’s Lenihan and her partner Tim dealing to all aspects of the business. Much of their product is sold at expos, markets and online. Next year, the focus will be on building Circe’s wholesale network and exploring offshore opportunities, developing a plan to scale the business and executing that plan.
Meanwhile Lenihan would like to see more widespread information and education about perfume in an industry she says is largely unregulated.
“At Circe we believe in transparency so we list all ingredients on our website. Currently, the industry only has to label their ingredients under ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfum’ under the guise of trade secret. We believe that by listing our ingredients it gives our customers confidence in what they’re buying. We’ve also worked with suppliers to make sure our packaging is as sustainable as possible.”
(And in case you’re wondering, Circe was a Greek goddess/sorceress who created potions using plants.)