Not many perfumers can lay claim to creating a scent for Jarvis Cocker “to keep by his bed for emergencies”. (One can only speculate as to the nature of said emergencies.) Such is the world of 4160 Tuesdays and its founder, self-taught ‘nose’ Sarah McCartney.
Sarah started out in business at age 7, “buying wooden beads, making them into things and selling them on to my friends.” That is until her mother found out, was aghast and swiftly put a stop to it. Fortunately this didn’t dampen Sarah's entrepreneurial and creative spirit, and after stints writing for The Guardian, and LUSH (as editor of ‘The LUSH Times’) she set up in Acton as 4160 Tuesdays. (The name is taken from the number of Tuesdays we should expect to see if we live to see 80 – stressing the importance of making the most of every day).
The cheery offbeat spirit of 4160 Tuesdays is evident everywhere you look, from the colourful studio - complete with indoor swing - to the perfumes themselves, with names like “The Sexiest Scent on the Planet Ever” (think addictive notes of tart lemon and velvety cedarwood), “Damn Rebel Bitches” (an evocative concoction of blood orange, hazelnut and clary sage) and “Tarts Knicker Drawer.” The latter, described as a “fabulously voluptuous oriental floral”, was created in the style of the 1960s and was named in honour of Sarah’s strict Methodist grandmother. “She would say things like ‘the youngsters these days, they’re going out and smelling like a tart’s knicker drawer!’”
For many years, Sarah has become the go-to girl for niche perfumery and helping others engage with fragrance. Hailing from the North (“Teeside and then Tyneside”) her straightforward approach makes perfume less intimidating than its normal shiny department store dwellings. I recently spotted her at an event for Google, where she and her team were presenting “scented memories” in fishbowls for intrigued onlookers to stick their heads in and inhale. But it’s her workshops that have helped make her name, with enthusiasts coming from as far as Austria to get a sniff of Sarah's scented world.
“We started doing the workshops just to pay the rent! Now we’re collaborating with The Bloomsbury Gallery in London, as opposed to hosting them our little studio.” Sarah explains. “People want an experience of putting something together, not just a purchase. They normally go into shops and are terrified. They’re ducking their head down without having to smell any perfume. It’s most unfortunate – people who love perfume are afraid of perfume departments.” The workshops are comprised of a few hours attendees getting familiarised with various notes and accords and then concocting their own creations in the afternoon, with Sarah overseeing and occasionally helping to rescue a few near-disasters. “People choose materials they’ve heard of and like and put them all together. It’s like saying I’m going to make a cake, with all the things I like, such as marmite, chocolate, strawberries – lets put them all in together! But you also need stuff like flour – it might not be as appealing but it makes the cake work! With scent it’s the same principle.”
Sarah - described by fragrance writer and expert Lizzie Ostrom as a “punk perfumer”- is completely self-taught. “I’m familiar with about 300 ingredients. I’m not familiar with the other 9700 that actually exist. The way I started was like a guitarist practising in the shed. You learn a few chords, and see if you can get one song down so you can perform it. Then you learn a few more, get another song down so you can perform that. So in the same way, I learnt a few chords (or “accords”) and made a perfume. I learnt a few more and made another and so on. Whereas classically trained perfumers learn all the "scales", all the "arpeggios" so to speak, etc. and then they can do anything they’re asked. I can now make a decent pop song in perfume even if I can’t do an entire symphony! And that is my style - IFF isn’t going to offer me a job, but then I wouldn’t want to work there! I’m kind of happy with where I am.”
But as Sarah notes there are benefits to being a relatively little fish in a big pond. “As an indie perfumer you can take big creative risks and you won’t break the bank if you don’t sell any. If you’re a big company creating scents for the likes of Justin Bieber, you’re going to launch with 20 million bottles – that’s a massive financial risk, so you can’t take a big creative risk. The bigger the companies get, the bigger the launches are, so they’ve got to be really careful not to offend people with fragrance. Whereas I can make anything I like, such as “Apples and Pears” which isn’t very commercial, because “The Sexiest Scent on the Planet” sells enough for me to do that. We’re doing all the experimenting, we make the mistakes so the corporations don’t have to! Plus I really, really like making stuff. There’s a total joy in standing here watching things filter. We do the workshops and we meet people and they become friends and tell their friends. ”
Although Sarah’s unique approach to perfumery hasn’t always sat well with the rest of the industry. “A prominent journalist wrote that the world of perfume needed shaking up and that I was the girl to do it. What I didn’t realise was that deeply offended the world of perfume that I didn’t know was there - they didn’t think they needed shaking up. There were several damning reports about me, saying I wasn't following industry regulations, but I always have.”
So where can one find 4160 Tuesdays outside of Acton? “We’re in Roullier White in Dulwich, they’re an independent shop with impartial staff and they just want to help people get the perfume they really love. Which isn’t the case with the bigger department stores, whose staff are mostly employed by other perfume brands, so they’re only going to recommend those ones to the customer. And it’s an issue that these bigger stores have - if they don’t have independent staff they won’t sell niche perfumes like ours, as there’s no one even to suggest them.”
However, this hasn’t stopped them getting on shelves abroad. “We’re in the Scent Bar in Los Angeles, and 10 Corso Como in Milan. We’re in the cool places – but not necessarily in London. We don’t mind if people drop into the studio here either. It’s not technically a shop, but they can come here. We do our absolute best to help people explore aromas and not have to spend an awful lot of money to experience it. In Grazia, we were part of their top ten high quality, low price products. We’re happy being in that bracket – low entrance price and high quality.”
She’s also no stranger to collaborating with other brands. “We made one about a monkey in a Japanese temple for the brand Zoology. They were happy to put me on the label as the perfumer. We made Perroni’s 50th anniversary fragrance, Rome 1963 and they book us every year to do events with them around the country. I’ve also done several versions of St Paul’s Cathedral Library for a PhD project.”
But most exciting sounding of all is an upcoming commission as part of the University of London's annual Living Literature event. “We did The Great Gatsby last year – quite a lot of bathtub gin was involved! And this year we did an event on Proust – covering themes of sexuality, jealousy and metaphors he uses about sight. They played music he would have been describing and there I was making fragrances that would have been around at the time. It was kind of an immersive party to get people back into reading him. (95% of Proust readers only read Volume 1.)” Next year is based on Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein - one can only wonder what types of smells that would involve...
The rest of Sarah’s team are just as unique as the perfumes they create. They spend their days literally immersed in scent. “Every time we bottle something, we squirt it to see if it works (sometimes the pumps fail), so we end up covered in fragrance!” As well as Sarah’s charming husband Nick, there’s “Max the clarinettist. He has amazing dexterity, he wraps perfumes like nobody’s business. He has perfect control of all ten digits!” And there’s also “Arthur the actor” – who by coincidence, I myself had encountered a few months previously at Kings Cross Station. He approached me on the escalators and presented me with a sample of the perfume “A Kiss By The Fireside” because he had "seen me looking sad". He had no idea who I was, or even that I was involved in the perfume industry. “Yes, that sounds like Arthur.” Sarah proudly notes, when I tell her about it.
After spending a successful decade in the industry, it’s clear Sarah is in no danger of slowing down. “Creating new perfumes that isn’t difficult apart from finding the time,” she explains. “When people ask me where I get my ideas from it’s more like how do I keep them in the cupboard and stop them taking over my life! I always have about 20 in my head at any given time.”
She in also in the process of working on another perfume brand called Our Modern Lives. “I created nine fragrances that bring together my yoga teaching and perfume experience. People keep asking us for all-natural perfumes, assuming because we’re little we only use natural ingredients. What they don’t know is that they are really dangerous and bad for your skin most of the time! However, we’ve made a series of “safe” natural scents, but they work better if you put the accompanying synthetic scents we’ve made to go with them. There’s a blogger called Scent Hurdle, who called it a “non-ideological approach” to naturals.”
So has Sarah’s many years in the industry changed the way she looks at (and smells) perfume?
“The more I learn about perfume, the fewer perfumes I dislike, which is great, but the fewer I love. I very rarely smell anything that I think is incredible...” - she hesitates - “Apart from next door’s palm tree. I’d really like to recreate that.”
Learn more about 4160 Tuesdays, buy the fragrances and find out about forthcoming workshops at 4160tuesdays.com