‘There is an alchemy and magic to making fragrance’

Meabh McCurtin is an award-winning perfumer creating an exciting modern-day catalogue of fragrances. The Irish ‘nose’ talks about where she finds the inspiration for a new scent and why she loves the poetry of perfume

Irish perfumer Meabh McCurtin

Bairbre Power

Coco Chanel’s theory that “a woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future” might seem a bit of an overstatement but the canny couturier knew only too well the power of fragrance, and she certainly hit the right note when she launched her own scent, Chanel No 5.

Next year marks 100 years since Chanel introduced her iconic rose and jasmine-based fragrance and over the last century, consumers have continued to be seduced by similarly iconic fragrances such as Guerlain’s ‘Shalimar,’ Marc Jacobs’ ‘Daisy’, Chanel’s ‘Coco Mademoiselle ’ and Calvin Klein’s ‘Obsession’.

However, the days of the perfume industry being dominated by the big commercial houses have evaporated.

In recent years, smaller niche businesses have been enjoying great success and exciting new talents are emerging to assist both luxury companies and the independents to create bespoke fragrances.

One of those is Irish perfumer Meabh McCurtin, an exciting rising star in the world of modern fragrances. Meabh, who is from Ennis in Co Clare, has worked for International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) for the last eight years and was lucky enough to be mentored by the legendary French master perfumer Dominique Ropion — the nose behind ‘A Portrait of a Lady’ for Frédéric Malle, Viktor & Rolf’s ‘Flowerbomb’ and Lancôme’s ‘La Vie Est Belle’.

“There is an alchemy and magic to making fragrances”, says Meabh. “I do feel lucky to have a job that I genuinely look forward to doing every day. It is a passion.”

When she looks back now, there were clues to her future career in her childhood when a young Meabh, one of three sisters, used to make floral waters with rose petals from her granny Lilly’s garden in Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

And then there was the perfume-making kit that her parents bought her for her eighth birthday. She loved the pipettes and mixing beakers, but tells me that back then she probably equated the equipment with being a chemist.

After school, she went to NUI Galway to study science like her late father, Sean, who was a meteorologist.

However, it was only when she went to France to do a masters in molecular biology that Meabh read an article about a perfumer who, like her, had studied biochemistry. It was a lightbulb moment.

“The way she described her job, it was so beautiful and it was at this point that I realised this was the perfect thing for me because it tied together a lot of my interests. I love literature and poetry, something I got from my mum, Catherine, who has just retired as an English and history teacher and I really love working with the poetic side of perfumery,” says Meabh.

In Lyon, she a met a scientist who was carrying out MRI scans of perfumers’ brains and who put her in touch with Daniel Andre, an independent perfumer in Geneva who offered her a week-long internship.

It ended up lasting for a year and Meabh’s two part-time jobs with a Swiss chocolate maker and a Lebanese spice shop in Geneva helped her develop her sense of smell. She was edging closer and closer to her dream job.

“There are definitely a lot of overlaps between smell and taste,” Meabh explains. “It really expanded my palate. I was tasting all different things and all of that was an education for perfumery later on because when you are trying to make something like gourmand [perfumes consisting primarily of synthetic edible notes], you are thinking back to that time in the chocolate shop.

"The more you go and taste as many things as possible, you have a bank of references in your mind.”

Meabh says working with master perfumer Dominique Ropion was truly inspirational.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have been trained by him. He creates perfumes that have such a strong signature and in a way, that’s the holy grail of perfumery. He was very generous with his time mentoring me. He is very meticulous and has a really precise way of working, which helps me every day in my work,” Meabh tells me from her New York office.

Meabh, who is in her thirties, moved to Manhattan last year. She lives in Hell’s Kitchen and works in the International Flavors and Fragrances NYC office just a few a blocks from Central Park.

Her work involves drawing from a palette of 2,000 ingredients, of which one third are natural and two thirds are synthetic. When she starts on a commission for a new perfume, Meabh says usually there is a brief or a starting point idea but she is constantly working proactively on finding new inspirations.

“If I am walking around the city and I smell or I taste something new, like a lychee and juniper cocktail, I might start proactively to see how they smell. In the background, you are always building up your own catalogue of interesting ideas so that when somebody does come to you, you can pull things out and say, ‘oh, actually, what do you think about this, what do you think about that?’” says Meabh.

It is understandably a big source of pride that the Róisín Dubh fragrance she created for Maggie Mangan, creative director of the Cloon Keen Atelier in Galway, won the Best New Independent Fragrance at the prestigious Fragrance Foundation Awards in 2019. The two ladies were in good company as other winners include Chanel, Dior, Diptyque and Acqua di Parma.

But how do you translate a simple idea into a compelling perfume that people will want to wear?

“Maggie Mangan came to me with the idea of making a fragrance about Irish writers abroad and I was living in Paris at the time, so it was really perfect. It was the first thing that we worked on together. We talked about it, exchanged pieces of writing that we had read. I started on this tour of Paris, looking at the different bars and cafes writers like Joyce went to, just trying to immerse myself in their world. I went to the archives in the Centre Culturel Irlandais and read letters written by Beckett to get an insight into his everyday life,” Meabh explains

In the end, she translated all these experiences into Róisín Dubh by using rose essential with a suede and ink accord to form the main axis of the fragrance.

Meabh’s work does not take place in a white coat in a lab, as some might expect. She has software on her laptop and each day, she refers to her formulas and after training in Paris, has memorised all the ingredients .

“It is in your mind, you are making it from your memory,” Meabh explains.

Once she thinks a formula is ready and she wants to smell it, she sends it to the lab where a technician will compound the formula and bring it back to her to smell at her desk.

The top notes are the lightest and when you have them in alcohol, they are the ones that will evaporate off the quickest so are the ones that hit your nose first.

Underneath you might have heart notes like rose, jasmine and maybe some spices and then you go down to your base notes, which are the heaviest molecules of all, like musk, woods, ambers and those are the ones that stay the longest on your skin.

I’m curious if Meabh has to be careful about staying away from strong smells, in case they throw her off the scent. What about blue cheese, I ask?

“Oh, I love the smell of cheese shops,” Meabh laughs, adding that she is always about smells and open to new experience.

“Every day is a whole cacophony of smells and I think that makes the experience richer. I feel like good smells and bad smells are just part of the life of a city. In Paris, the metro has its own particular smell and here in New York, in a hot summer, there are all types of smells,” she says.

As one might expect, Meabh herself doesn’t wear perfume during the week because it interferes with her work but come Friday, she will cover herself in a fragrance.

“I mostly wear what I’m working on, just because when I’ve got that chance and that window, it’s a really good opportunity to see how it smells on the skin. It’s really interesting because when you are working on a fragrance, somehow towards the end of the process, this happens time and again, but all of a sudden, people will start noticing it. It’s like people perceive it when it’s ready and that is a sign for me. It’s strange because it’s not that different from the weekend before and nobody might have said anything about it and then all of a sudden, people notice it. That is a sign then that it resonates with people,” says Meabh.

“I love getting feedback from people and I take it as a good sign because it is unprompted. They don’t know that you are working on it so there is no incentive — it’s honest feedback.”

Meabh says she is fascinated by chypre fragrances, which are known for their compelling mix of oakmoss. patchouli, bergamot and floral heart and follow in the footsteps of the enduring fragrance structure launched by Francois Coty in 1917.

I ask if, like Saoirse Ronan, Meabh finds that many Americans struggle with the pronunciation of her Irish first name. Over the years, she tells me, she has been tempted to change the spelling but is happy she didn’t give in.

“This is part of my identity and I wouldn’t have liked to have changed it so I explain to people that it’s Meabh, like wave. I have to explain it a lot but I do think in a way, it is conversational starter. It’s lovely when I fly into Dublin and it’s just the nicest feeling when the person behind the immigration says ‘welcome home’.”

Meabh stores her own perfumes in a cupboard, out of direct sunlight, but you will find two special nostalgic bottles in her fridge.

“I have an old bottle of Opium that my dad gave to my mother years ago that she hadn’t opened and I have Loulou by Cacharel from grandmother, so those ones that are important to me, I would keep in the fridge to preserve them.”