This South African Perfumer Smells a Rat in Synthetic Ingredients
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Tammy Frazer is making high-end fragrances, candles and soaps that are 100 percent natural and non-toxic.
The year, 2007; the place, Sydney. Life is good for South African-born Tammy Frazer. She has a marketing job at a forward-thinking bank, a mentorship that’s opened her eyes to the world of agribusiness and (almost) a master’s degree in communications. One Sunday a conversation with friends turns to perfume. The group moves on, but Frazer fixates. Unable to sleep that night, she fires up her laptop and slips through the looking glass into the nascent world of natural fragrances. The next morning, she quits her job.
Frazer Parfum, the company Frazer founded in 2008, is one of a handful of perfumers turning up their noses at the synthetic ingredients used by the biggest names in the business, choosing instead to make scents from nature. Relying on distillation innovations like CO2 extraction, the company turns roots, resins, flowers, leaves and citrus into all-natural essential oil fragrances. It’s still early days (“Most perfume shops don’t know what a natural fragrance is,” she says), but Frazer has captured the attention of New York Fashion Week, the Smithsonian Museum of African Art and model-turned-writer Sophie Dahl (who touted Frazer’s Rose & Tuberose in British Vogue).
The natural fragrance category has evolved “in tandem with the emphasis on healthier lifestyles,” says Jack Corley, president of the Natural Fragrance Division at Custom Essence in New Jersey. While the U.S. fragrance market dropped from over $4 billion in 2012 to $3.8 billion in 2018 — due to oversaturation, sameness and boredom with celebrity products — natural fragrances “have grown at an average of 8 percent per annum over the last five years,” Corley notes. With the overall natural/organic personal care market valued at $16.6 billion last year — 3.6 percent of which is spent on fragrances — natural aromas like Frazer’s represent a $540 million market. On the flip side, however, natural perfumes don’t last as long as their synthetic competition, they tend to cost more and are crafted from only 600 ingredients — compared to 3,600 used in regular perfumes.
Humans may be sophisticated creatures, says Frazer, “but we are still very clumsy in how we engage with smell.”
With four collections under her belt, Frazer, 40, is expanding her business from scenting people to scenting spaces as well. She’s devoted the last couple of years to developing room sprays, linen sprays and a range of 36 aromatherapy candles with names like Sleepyhead and Gardener’s Lawn — all designed to make a room smell not like a specific ingredient (à la Diptyque candles) but rather to evoke a particular emotion. Humans may be sophisticated creatures, says Frazer, “but we are still very clumsy in how we engage with smell.”
Clumsy is precisely how I feel when we meet in the heady laboratory above her home in Cape Town. Seated at a stainless-steel countertop and flanked by functional flasks on one side (production) and hand-blown glass and porcelain on the other (packaging), Frazer lifts the lid on a complex world I had never so much as sniffed. Example: Redheads, she informs me, have “this really fatty scent” that fights with most perfumes but “works amazingly with orange blossom and ambrette seed.”
Granted, Fraser had a head start on the rest of us. Her grandfather, Graham Wulff, invented Oil of Olay in 1952, and her dad worked for Swiss fragrance house Givaudan. While the Olay connection helped Frazer secure her first contract — with Harrods, no less — she’s since moved on because of the legendary department store’s “old-fashioned” brand, in Frazer’s telling, and increasingly high-cost shelf space.
Her first move was meeting the dean of ISIPCA, the international perfumery school in Versailles, France, for postgraduate studies in perfume. But with a curriculum offering just a one-week course on natural scents, she knew it wouldn’t provide the education she was after. So, “I decided to follow the farmers.” She started in Grasse, aka the world’s perfume capital, and connected with as many people as possible who could teach her about the ingredients and how they are used in fragrance making. From there, Frazer was introduced to mentors from Switzerland to Belgium, and soon she had built her debut fragrance collection.
For her second collection, she was the first to showcase natural resins found only on the African continent. Next up was Bok — which coincided with the birth of her first child and features a kids’ perfume, room spray and bar soap. INR, the company’s fourth collection, celebrates the importance of self. “We have come a long way since women wore perfume purely for others, namely men,” says Frazer. INR is “about how you feel. … It is about your memories, your tears, your smiles and overcoming the little daily fears that hold you back.” She’s also spent time putting together Skin Portraits, the first and only “scent novella” to be displayed by the Smithsonian that consists of photographs, essays and fragrances that capture nine notable South Africans.
More recently, Frazer partnered with Nandipha Mntambo, a visual artist known for using natural materials to explore female identity and the human body, to design “a scent that would evoke the smell and the feel of … cowhide,” as Mntambo puts it. Design consultant Gary Cotterell, who has known Frazer for years and oversaw the collaboration, was impressed by Frazer’s commitment to hand-crafting a beautiful product that’s 100 percent natural (“It’s much harder than it looks,” he says).
Silvana Bottega, a South African wine marketer who worked with Frazer to create a “parfum du vin” — a scent inspired by wine with hints of rose petals, splashes of ripe berries, light vanilla and the smoky essence of the barrels — praises “the depth of [her] sensory vocabulary” and her refusal to compromise.
Despite her success to date, “Tammy is still quite under the radar,” says Cotterell. “She doesn’t have a flashy personality,” and she’s so involved in every aspect of her business that there’s a self-imposed ceiling on how much she can achieve.
Ten years in, Frazer Parfum is only sold online, but Frazer is determined to crack the mainstream market — despite the substantial challenges inherent in her more expensive, harder-to-source products. She’s talking to a luxury South African homeware brand about stocking her aromatherapy candles, she recently created a fragrance for a South African clothing chain, and she’s planning a concept store in California, chosen because residents there “already live and breathe wellness.” She admits it’s been a steep learning curve, but the former marketing exec knows that producing at higher volumes is the key to reducing prices and extending her brand’s reach.
But she’d never sell out — would she?
“I’d love to ‘sell out’!” she exclaims, saying it would be “incredible” if a “bigger, knowledgeable industry powerhouse” were to purchase and grow the Frazer brand. That, it seems, would be the smell of success.