Anna Johnson marvels at Saskia Havekes’ new scent, made from a tiny bushflower

By Anna Johnson

March 21, 2019

Saskia Havekes, 1972, Kenthurst, New South Wales. Photograph Louise Havekes.

My memory of boronia is of the flower’s tiny buds scratching against my legs in the back of a 1968 Land Rover driving home from Cattai Creek. I remember how it felt, cradling great armfuls of the rough branches stacked up on our laps, and the waxy dry scent mixed with the pale yet penetrative dust that covered our hair and the belting canvas flaps that served as our car windows. That was 1978, when boronia, like fresh mullet and Jacob’s Creek red, was our most affordable luxury. This was the scruffy abundant pink bushflower that we could swathe all over the house to make a weatherboard look like a Bonnard interior. My friend Saskia Havekes also grew up on a bush block in nearby Kenthurst. It was there that she folded sprigs of boronia into the tiny posies she and her sisters made to sell on the side of the road. As common as a daisy, the flowers individually are not so striking. Yet en masse they form a pointillist profusion, a dance of broken colour, like tiny dabs of paint.

About the size of the muguet flower (lily of the valley), the brown species of boronia (Boronia megastigma) looks a little bit like an upturned cloche hat designed by Jamin Puech. And, unlike its pale pink cousin, it possesses an intense honeyed aroma, known to florists as ‘heaven scent’. This flower is pollinated by just one type of small day-flying moth whose survival depends alone on the megastigma. To distil its essence is very costly. Harvested in a remote corner of Tasmania by just one botanical oil company, the elixir of the brown boronia costs upwards of fifteen thousand dollars a litre.

Simple yet rare, rustic and yet elusive, the boronia re-entered the life of Saskia Havekes in an unexpected way. One night she was sitting with Bernard Duchaufour in Grasse in Edmund Rudnitzka’s famous perfumed garden under the pink moon of the summer solstice. The pink moon occurs once every seventy years and the freshly minted perfumer Havekes was in formidable company. Rudnitzka is known as the Pablo Picasso of perfume. It was in his garden that Christian Dior knelt before a tenderly planted patch of muguet and was struck with the composition for Diorissimo. Perfume, at least in France, is dynastic. So, it was his son, Michel Rudnitzka, who composed Michel for Saskia Havekes, and few in her native Australia saw the gravity in this.

Grandiflora, the “little flower shop” at the bottom of Potts Point, branched into parfum as an organic way to expand upon and add to the life of Saskia’s brand and her philosophy that art is made from nature. As a result Havekes has now worked with three of the most influential independent perfumers in France, creating five distinctly botanical, almost hypernaturalist scents.

To create artisan perfume at this level is to stand as a very tall poppy indeed. Artisan independent perfume is a world almost as cabalic and effete as jazz and one into which not even the richest corporations can buy entry. I’d like to compare it to the art world, but I cannot. Deeply secretive and esoteric, perfume designers seem to have more respect and complicity amongst each other than painters. The analogy between artists and perfumers is also remote in the sense that a fragrance is not a spontaneous creative act or statement. It is, if anything, much closer to a piece of architecture, beginning with a blueprint and then composed of many, many rare, expensive materials (both man-made and natural) and the layering of time.

“That is the mark of a great perfume. It is the invisible theatrical.”

Rarity is the pollen that attracts perfume designers. Saskia Havekes and Bernard Duchaufour composed a perfume based on Queen of the Night without ever meeting. The Queen of the Night or Selenicereus grandiflorus is a cactus flower that blooms once a year for one night. And on the night they did finally convene, under that glowing pink moon, the perfumer said to the florist, “Tell me about Boronia…”

Havekes was startled. Here they were launching a heady, decadent oriental floral scent and the artisan inventor of such famous perfumes as Givenchy Amarige d’Amour and Aqua di Parma Colonia Assoluta was now interested in the oil of a scrubby little bushflower. Within weeks they set to work.

Boronia, the eau de parfum, took almost two years to develop. Sitting in front of a huge jar of waterlilies in the backroom at Grandiflora, Havekes unfurls densely packed reams of thin strips of paper, each ribbon a distinct scent. These are called notes. “This,” she tells me simply, “is how we work. Back and forth, back and forth. Smelling. Comparing. Composing. Gently arguing.”

It’s a process I love to imagine. The florist in her truck at five am in Sydney smelling like wet grass and moss leaves and half-sipped coffee. And the perfumer hunched in an oak-lined library in Paris, wafting thin slithers of cognac and toasted hay beneath his nose like a modern-day incarnation of des Esseintes in the decadent novel À Rebours.

To the author Joris-Karl Huysmans, perfume is the obsession of a noble orchid collector and dandy who abhors nature but desires its distillation. I imagine perfume in the Paris of 1888 was something like subliminal erotic art. Folded away in heavy woollen gowns, cosseted in crystal bottles: pervy, and concentrated, and expensive beyond reckoning. Perfume in the nineteenth century was a luxury yet also a transgression of norms. Now that fragrance is a diffusion line for major brands and an industrialised product it takes a deft hand to return it to the realm of rare things. Many critics who write solely about scent use their own arcane terms.

The potential for perfume to dissolve inside its own snobbery is intense but Havekes always has her feet in the garden. Her perfumes pay homage to the complexity of living plants but never attempt replication. And she tends to gravitate to flowers that are monumental, intense and (perhaps) innately impossible. Clearly her choices are not commercial. The niche of artisan perfume is sustained by experimentation.

The conception of a perfume made in this very contained, secretive way between just two creative souls sounds quite roundly like a love affair expressed through notes that are smells. It certainly could not be more opposite to the way corporate perfumes are developed for global sales campaigns: with thinktanks, and trend analysis and the marketing department in full gear.

Brown boronia, Boronia megastigma

“Harvested in a remote corner of Tasmania, the elixir of the Brown Boronia costs upwards of fifteen thousand dollars a litre.”

Closing the door on fashion, Havekes and Duchafour seemed to focus all of their energies on the flower itself. Duchafour, writing from Paris, described the boronia as a small flower containing many chambers of light. “Boronia is a beautiful ingredient, rich and faceted, but not that easy to use… It is at the same time full, dense, deep. It can be a like tuberose absolut, contrasted and even somewhat disbalanced, and because of that it is not simple at all to exploit it and to magnify all its qualities.”

His description of this single bloom’s evocations is dizzying: “Boronia is floral, like a tuberose, a champaca, or a broom absolut. It is also fruity like the osmanthus, with an obvious apricot side, yet it is also green, like violet leaf absolut. It is herbaceous, aromatic – yes, there are a lot of aromatic notes: of roman chamomile, hyssop, carrot or angelica root. It is just amazingly complex. So the idea was to link everything in a multi-accord fragrance.”

Did they succeed? I lifted my wrist to my nose and it was… Scrumptious! They call the ‘foody’ perfumes ‘gourmands’ and this one is so greedy, it’s like feasting on apricots soaked in cognac [while lying] in a silk bed scented with amber. As I rambled into the day the Boronia settled into my skin and hair. The commonplace smells, of ink and washing-up liquid and taxi exhaust, didn’t dislodge the romance. On the train I furtively cupped my lips to my inner arm and let my nose rest there like a lover’s cheek on a window ledge. At dusk the perfume was still expanding, mellowing into a powdery warmth, and no less complex. The architectural ambition of the artisan French perfumer and the truthful homage sought by the sensitive florist were having a conversation on my skin. And the rare Tasmanian wildflower was in there somewhere. Bertrand told me that there was “an aromatic head with a leathery, resinous background, then within in its heart all the fruity and floral effect of this flower: iris, violet, apricot, broom, honey, beeswax, jasmine, tuberose, and so on…”

My. I do love those words. But this is smell. My nose is not nimble enough to navigate just where in the pyramid of notes the boronia was hiding. The parts form the whole in this scent yet they also fracture and weave. By about nine pm I wanted to take a drop of Boronia and put it into a glass of champagne and drink it. Standing in the kitchen squeezing lemons, I yearned to be wearing a better dress. Something made out of rusty ruffled silk. Fortuny? I thought about dying my hair red and lighting an autumn fire with pinecones and olive branches. And that must be the mark of a great perfume. It is the invisible theatrical. You wear it and want to rise to the occasion of it. Bravo little bushflower.