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Alexandra Carlin: Notes From A Perfumer On The Garden Route

alexandra carlin

Alexandra Carlin just finished packing her suitcase, filled with clothing from France and impressions of South Africa. She is all set to fly back to her hometown of Paris. But then—Carlin can scarcely believe her nose—there is a sticky-sweet scent in the air, at once soft and exhilarating.

She inches her way through the wild shrubs standing between the wall of the building and the garden fence, holding her gentle hands protectively in front of her face. Wild bees found it first: the honeybush, which grows only in South Africa and whose yellow blossoms are used in preparing tea.

Carlin is at a loss for words. She has spent day after day on the Garden Route in fruitless pursuit of this rare plant. And here it was all along—in the garden of the vacation home where she has been staying.

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alexandra carlin


Storytelling Without A Single Word

For the past nine years, Alexandra Carlin, 36, has worked for Symrise, one of the world’s major producers of flavours and fragrances. Since receiving her perfumery certificate in 2011, she has created a host of new fragrances, many of them for the global market.

“Some clients want too many scents in their perfume, which makes the composition restless. Then I have to determine which scent I can subtract,” says the perfumer, who works with up to two hundred scents at any given time.

Carlin’s original career goal was to become a writer and to move people through language. “But at the age of eighteen,” she says, “I was listening to the radio and heard perfumers talking about their work. I knew right away that it was the profession for me.”

“To compose a perfume, you have to be able to strike a chord with people and find the fragrance that will win their hearts. You are telling a story—without a single word.”


alexandra carlin targa


The 911 SC Targa on the Garden Route in South Africa

South Africa was missing from Alexandra Carlin’s universe of fragrances. This country is a perfumer’s paradise, with nature to breathe in, tree bark to examine, grasses to caress, blossoms to sniff.

Carlin does not ignore the tuft of wolf hair, either, left behind on a chain-link fence. She takes in the smell of the railing on Tsitsikamma Bridge, of the sand on Wilderness Beach, of steel cables, of car seats.

And it is love at first scent when she meets the 1978 Porsche 911 SC. Because it smells so wonderfully horsey.

“It reminds me of a vacation in Mongolia. Mongolian horses smell quite different from their cousins in France,” she comments. Once again, she presses her nose to the Targa’s leather seating: “Powerful and wild, the scent of adventure.”


garden route


Cruising Down The Garden Route

With the Targa’s top down, the Garden Route rolls by. Carlin heads toward Gordon’s Bay, then on to Knysna to the west. She has now left the fertile region and rolling vineyards surrounding Cape Town far behind.

She tilts her chin upward. There is a charred smell in the air; a fire is burning nearby. Time for a detour.

A perfumer knows that true adventures beckon off the beaten path, so she parks the Porsche and explores nature with notebook and pen in hand, all of her senses sharpened. “Every day,” she explains, “I have to re-educate my nose.”

This became particularly evident after the birth of her son Sasha. In the months following, she at times did not wear perfume.

“That is because if you use perfume, your baby will smell just like you.” This was a stark departure for Carlin, who says that she feels naked without perfume.

Carlin explains that every composition can be viewed as a pyramid. The top or head note is the scent that is perceived first, but it is also the first to evaporate.

The middle or heart note—the most significant component of a perfume—lasts a long while and has the strongest interaction with the skin. The base note is the one that reacts individually to the wearer’s skin, which is why wearing perfume is a different experience for each person.

Carlin has relied only on her senses and put the scents into words. Her final note is on the honeybush: “It’s the fragrance of freedom in your heart.”

Images by: Petra Sagnak 

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