What started out as a request for product info* (for some reason, I decided to send my email to the PR contact on the Ormonde Jayne website) turned into a fully-fledged Zoom interview the next day with Linda Pilkington.
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Good fortune! I’d put the founder of the London-based niche brand on my interview wish list a couple of years ago, thinking it would probably take more time to materialize. So I’m not gushing (okay, just a little bit) when I tell Linda Pilkington it’s such a “thrill” to speak to her. Good timing too, I must add, with the October 2023 launch of Ormonde Jayne Arabesque EDP (a collaboration with Expressions Parfumées).
My love for all things Ormonde Jayne can be traced back to one perfume specifically – Ormonde Jayne Ta’if EDP (2004) – and several others I’ve tried after that beauty.
Although Linda Pilkington says she’s more “thin-skinned” than people realize, I get a strong sense of her grit, determination, humor, graciousness, and entrepreneurial spirit. These qualities have taken her from an ice cream parlor founder and Chanel candle-maker to the owner of one of Britain’s leading niche fragrance brands.
*I assumed, erroneously as it turned out, that Ormonde Jayne Ta’if Elixir (2019) was created by Geza Schoen, who created the original. I discovered during the interview that Linda Pilkington is a bit of a perfumer herself, “largely self-taught, at the very beginning of Ormonde Jayne, going through volumes of Poucher’s Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps, working with Geza Schoen and researching in Grasse part of the experience”.
What fragrance are you wearing today?
I’m wearing Ormonde Woman EDP. When I wake up, I think through the day ahead. What have I got? What do I need to wear? Am I meeting people?
If I’m going to be with lots of different people, I like to wear Ormonde Woman because it makes me feel like I’ve got a protective shield around me. I can function because it’s the black hemlock absolute, this kind of mysterious poisonous wood [I laugh].
No offense, by the way, it just makes me feel more special than, let’s say, if I was going out for a romantic dinner with my husband, and I may wear something a bit more alluring and floral.
I could see why you would choose Ormonde Woman to give you that feeling. And that’s also the power of a beautifully created fragrance.
That’s right. Because sometimes a perfume can make you feel a certain way. I’ve done a bit of research in this area where scientists have proven certain ingredients have an effect on the brain and, therefore would technically affect how you feel about something. It’s a concept I’m quite interested in looking into because it’s a lovely new dimension. How does this perfume make you feel?
You started your company in 2000 and here you are 20 years+ later. What’s kept you going through all this time?
The company, because it’s privately owned by me, is quite agile, therefore you haven’t got to explain to a committee or to investors, this has happened, that’s happened.
We’ve got the 2008 financial crash, a terrible Christmas and the whole of Bond Street was absolutely dead. And, of course, you just invested in a lot of components, oils, and boxes, and now you’ve got to pay the bill. We’ve had covid, Brexit. One year I took a 300% rent increase because the shop opposite my boutique had accepted a 300% increase in their rent.
So you have all these moments that you’ve got to deal with and I’m actually quite thin-skinned. People always think I’m quite tough, tough as old boots, but these are things that keep me pondering all night long. What’s the best move? And then I run it by several people who I trust, like my husband and other people in the trade, and then I go with my own gut instinct which would be the right thing for Ormonde Jayne, taking into account what everybody’s told me.
We’ve had a few hair-raising moments, but now we’re in a good strong position because after Covid, I felt the need to strengthen the company, so I’m not suddenly finding myself with 350 points of sales closed and rent to pay. I thought: if this ever happens again, I need to have that resilience that I can shoulder it, so I built up a war chest of finance that’s there for unforeseen circumstances. And that makes me feel restful and peaceful within.
You can’t prepare for all eventualities, but at least have something to fall back on. Linda, I was reading on the website that Madame Rochas had a big influence on you in terms of your love of fragrance. Do you still love it? [Gets up and brings a Madame Rochas box to the screen]. Or can you find a bottle there? Ah, there it is.
Just my little reminder. It’s not the love for the perfume by a long shot. It’s just literally that moment where I’m a little girl, I like fragrance, but I’m on The Body Shop White Musk at this point in my life. My mum gave me that Rochas bottle mainly because she’d been given it by a man and she didn’t think it was proper to accept a perfume from a man, given that she was a married woman.
It was a beautiful big bottle – heavy, crystal glass, lovely cognac color – and it looked so optically smart in my bedroom on my dressing table. I always wanted to have beautiful things in my bedroom, which I used to pay for myself.
When I visited the Biba department store in London – all black, gold, purple, peacock feathers, stalks on the roof in the roof gardens – I was so blown away, I wanted my bedroom to look like a Biba boutique.
My Madame Rochas perfume really fit the bill and I thought it would be great to have more perfume bottles around my bedroom. Then my mum’s friends gave me all theirs and slowly but surely, I had this lovely collection of perfume bottles, which, at that point for me, was all about aesthetics.
And then, of course, somebody says, “Well, which one’s your favorite?”, so then you start smelling them all and I got into this whole thing of going to department stores and getting samples. And in those days the sample was made in the same style as the bottle. I was an expert on how to con the sales assistants out of these samples, poor women. They thought this girl knew what she was talking about, so we will give her some samples. I used to collect all these tiny bottles, which I’ve still got today, and it kind of went on from there. This passion happenstance and that was the result of it.
I can’t think of a better way to start with such a special fragrance. Let’s talk about working with Geza Schoen, the perfumer who’s created a lot of your releases. Why has that been such a successful collaboration so far?
We both go back a long time, 23 years – it was a match made in heaven and good timing.
Geza was working for a big German company, Haarmann & Reimer, and wanted to do his own thing. He popped into the shop one day, introduced himself, and told me what he needed. As it turned out, he lived five minutes away from my studio and when he saw it, he said, “Can I actually make my perfume here?” So I said, “Yeah, of course. Why not? You’re welcome.” We kind of became friends because of that. He was there for about two years, but not every day.
Because he had the training and I knew the technical-legal side – the dos and don’ts, where you get bottles from, where you get that made – it was good for both of us.
I had an idea of what I wanted to do, which was to use ingredients nobody else was using and to give people an option if they came into the boutique. If they said I like cedarwood, I would say I’ve got hemlock. And if they wanted jasmine, I’ve got Sampaguita. I had been on a lot of trips looking for unusual ingredients, sometimes successful, sometimes not.
Geza saved me a lot of time and effort when he told me these are specialty oils – far more expensive because they’re in small quantities and the big companies can’t use them because they don’t make enough of it. And you can contact companies and ask them for their list of specialty oils.
So that’s what I did, and then suddenly they came through on the fax machine, all these specialty oils, and I was really excited. The first thing that came out said hemlock and I said, “I’m having that straight away.”
We’re very different in personalities, which, in a way, is a good thing because we’re not copying each other. Geza is very much his own person and does not want to be dealing with complications like a shop. He thought I was nuts spending so much money on perfumes and ingredients that might not be available one year.
When Geza went back to Berlin, he still stayed in touch – in fact, we were exchanging yesterday and the day before. Now, I’ve maintained my vision and, of course, I still want to use certain ingredients so I had to find some of my own suppliers farther afield. So he doesn’t mind if I do my own thing when we make perfumes for, let’s say, Fenwick, Harrods, Selfridges, the department stores, they only want maybe 200 bottles, 300 bottles. So we do it ourselves, in-house, and that works very well.
There’s lots of inspiration happening and you take it quite freely from London, your travels. Do you ever struggle with that?
No [she says emphatically]. My brain doesn’t stop churning. I take inspiration from everything, Richard.
I used to have a camera, but now I just use my phone. Before all the security at airports, I always had a little pair of scissors so I could snip things.
I’ve got pages and pages of names of perfumes that don’t even exist yet. They’re just beautiful names that we like (my husband’s very good at this too) that we know we could find ingredients to make a perfume.
And so I’m constantly collating and bringing together all different walks of life. I’ve got literally books and books and books and pages and pages and photographs and photographs and file files, files, files, files of everything. I’ve got enough to last about 100 years [laughs].
Linda Pilkington On…
Ormonde Jayne Four Corners of the Earth Collection
We’ve got Qi, the breath of life of the Chinese, Tsarina for the opulence of Russian ladies, Nawab of Oudh to celebrate the intelligence of the Nawabs of India, and then we had the Montabacos of South America, the tango, the leather, the cowboys, the cigars and everything.
The Four Corners of the Earth is actually about London, embracing the rich diversity and all the rich cultures. The whole world lives in London. We learn from them and they learn from us.
That was with Geza Schoen.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan was a book that I read just before lockdown. A great education for me about all the merchants coming out of China through Constantinople, Babylonia, Europe, to Florence, to the markets and bringing gunpowder, mathematics, silk, and their silkworms.
Off the back of that, I thought I would love to learn more about the Silk Road flowers, trees, and shrubs. It became a bit of a road map on my kitchen table, all these different areas – the Levant, Babylonia, Tanger – and ingredients.
I did that project with two guys and two ladies from Expressions Parfumées in Grasse, because it was complicated and it was more than one perfume. We work with a combination of people but always use a house palette.
We always want something for everybody and people kept saying we want something stronger.
For the Elixir Collection, we picked Osmanthus because we noticed that if we pulled the Osmanthus for 42%, you could smell nuances in it that the 30% EDP didn’t have. As well as obviously the longevity, it just changed a little bit. So you have the option to show somebody this is at 30%, this is it at 42%. They could do the Pepsi Challenge and decide which one is for them. We did the same with the Ambre Royal EDP and Royal Elixir.
Ormonde Jayne Ta’if mixed with pure Cambodian oud for the elixir. We have an oud trader and we buy Cambodian oud from this particular gentleman. And we have that checked with the chemist to make sure it’s pure, the real thing before we pay the bill. It’s pretty strong and we do that in our studio.
One of our best-selling perfumes, a short formula, and originally made for my husband when he was 40 years old. He got so many compliments on it, that I had to bring it into the range.
When it came to the Isfarkand Elixir, we couldn’t use the pink pepper in the quantity I wanted to use it in due to IFRA (International Fragrance Association) rules, so Geza and I went back to the original (what we called the “Velvet Underground” formula) and put that at 42% without the pink pepper top note.
Some stores want exclusivity on it, so maybe we’re going to make changes: these shops have it, nobody else has it, because they sell the most and that’s what clients want.
Like I said, we can move quickly, we don’t have to have lots of board meetings or anything like that. We can just have a five-minute conversation and decide let’s do it.
Back in the day, you couldn’t just buy a ticket and get a visa. You had to have an invitation from a company or a family in Saudi Arabia approved by their ministry first. And then, of course, you had to think about how you would conduct yourself as a woman – separate accommodation, clothing, a chaperone.
When I got to Arabia and the airplane door opened, there was this really different scent in the air. There are lots of date palm trees there, so I was given a lovely date drink when I got to my hotel and a beautifully decorated box of dried dates next to the bed in my room. At my meeting, lots of beautiful oranges and fruits were all sliced up.
In the gardens of the Al-Raddaf Park was a celebration of the Taif rose [the damask rose varietal, grown in the Taif region of the country, is celebrated annually during the Taif Rose Festival]. The people pick the petals themselves, their baskets get weighed and the king gives money that day to his subjects. The little petals get poured into a distillation and on the other side of the park, you see the oil coming down into cauldrons.
It meant something very special to me. So Ormonde Jayne Ta’if was taif oil with date oil with orange blossom. Everything that I felt from that beautiful trip.
Now you can just fly to Saudi Arabia, by the way, it’s changed completely. It was wonderful then as well, but everything was a little more exciting and mysterious.
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Richard Goller is a fragrance and grooming blogger. His blog is called Fragroom. A senior editor with 20 years' experience, his blog allows him to combine two of his passions: engaging content and the always-intriguing world of fragrances. When he isn't blogging, you'll find Richard indulging in his newly found passion for balcony gardening.