Like many of us, Sondrine Kehoe recalls happy childhood memories mixing up ‘perfumes’ in her family garden with petals and water.
But rather than leaving her ‘fairy potion’ mixing days behind, Sondrine instead swapped petals for essential oils and water for Spritus Vini (a natural grape alcohol), to become a self-taught perfumer and formulator.
From her converted garden shed studio on Boon Wurrung land in Cape Schanck, Sondrine runs Cygnet Perfumery; a small, considered perfume and skincare business that focuses on natural ingredients and hand-made methods.
‘My perfume style comes from merging contemporary insights and ingredients with 16th – 18th century French perfume techniques,’ Sondrine explains. ‘Many of the books I learned from were archived copies of perfume-making books from this era, which detail all the traditional methods.’
It can take over a year to create one of her carefully considered fragrances – and this is after formulation (which can also take up to a year!).
First, she weighs out the botanical aromatics on a high-precision scale and blends them together. Then, the blend undergoes a two-step ageing process for up to six months. Once ready, the perfume is taken through a filtering process to eliminate haze and particles, and then it’s eventually bottled.
This excruciatingly slow process means Sondrine doesn’t know whether a fragrance has worked until after it’s sat and aged for months. ‘I have hundreds of little vials full of formulation tweaks, some of which just didn’t work,’ she says. ‘But mistakes are the best way to learn which combination of scents smell like old socks, and which do not.’
Thankfully, her nose is so well trained now, these mistakes are few and far between.
‘I can easily smell a high-quality aromatic from an adulterated one,’ she says. ‘Or a fresh herb from an old one.’
Sondrine has always preferred to work with natural ingredients over synthetic ones. ‘I find them more dynamic,’ she says. ‘For example, most botanical aromatics will smell completely different depending on the origin, producer or even the season it was grown or extracted.’
Her current favourite scent is conifer; ‘it transports me to an old growth pine forest, a favourite to wear in Autumn.’