Many boast of being spontaneous, as they on a whim head out for last-minute drinks, buy that bag they fell in love with at first sight, or indulge in a hot chocolate with all the trimmings, just because, but Sadie Chowen, CEO and Creative Director, The Burren Perfumery, really shows how spontaneity is done.
British born Sadie, who was raised in the Dordogne in France, was visiting a friend in Ireland and whilst driving across the Burren, Co. Clare, one evening felt such a sudden pang of belonging that she abandoned plans to buy an apartment in London and opted instead for a crumbling cottage in the heart of the ancient karst lanscape.
That was the summer of 1991, and she has lived in the Burren ever since. She truly set down roots when she bought The Burren Perfumery, which was first founded in 1970, in 1998, with her husband Ralph Doyle.
As well as spontaneity, creativity and drive can be listed among her many traits, both of which are apparent in how she has completely transformed the Perfumery’s offering.
Undertaking training with highly-regarded perfumers in Paris, she developed a fresh line of signature scents, and has gone on to create a 100-product strong range that includes organic face, hand and body creams, castile soaps, body lotions, teas and soy candles.
Today this family-owned company employs 30 people in rural Clare, and welcomes 50,000 visitors annually to its charming premises where visitors can watch products being made, watch Sadie demo how she makes her products, and re-fuel themselves in the on-site Tearooms.
We chatted with Sadie, a creative, business woman, and mother, among many other things, about the fine art of perfume making, how she thinks French and Irish women’s approach to beauty and style differs, and her marathon training.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?
Selling my forever home in the Burren to raise the money to buy The Burren Perfumery in 2001. It felt like stepping off a cliff into the unknown but I knew that I had to do it.
What brought you to Ireland originally and what made you stay?
I came over at the invitation of a friend who was holidaying in Kinvara and while driving across the Burren on a late May evening, I had a very strong sense of connection.
“It felt like stepping off a cliff into the unknown but I knew that I had to do it.”
It was as if I’d been here before. Although I had been in the process of buying a flat in London, I gave that up and three months later I had bought a ruin in Carron. A decisive life moment I suppose you would call it.
How did you get involved in the world of perfume and where did you train?
I became interested in perfume when I started working at the Perfumery and I found that it came easily to me. I was clear about the perfumes that I wanted to create, but initially I lacked the vocabulary to bring those concepts into being.
I trained in Paris with Sylvie Jordain and Katell Plisson of Créassence to gain the methodologies and techniques of the parfumier.
I am constantly trying to widen and deepen my understanding and I will often go over to France with a specific focus, say to learn about a particular set of raw materials.
How has The Burren Perfumery evolved since you took it over?
From the beginning I had a fundamental belief that we could create products on a par with anything I could find on a shelf in Paris or London. I knew where I wanted to go and we worked steadily and continuously toward that.
At each iteration our products got better, we gained confidence in our own abilities, we built upwards and outwards on our strengths.
From four perfumes and a staff of two in 2001, we now have over 100 products, over 30 staff. We made a lot of mistakes along the way for sure, but there isn’t a single product in our portfolio today that I am not proud of.
Can you explain briefly how a perfume is made?
It starts with an idea. I have a smell that I can ‘see’ in my mind that I want to create. And this will include the feelings or context I associate with that smell, like a picture in scent.
From there I choose the raw materials, the building blocks that I think will work and begin trials of formulas. One might make say 10 initial concepts, then refine 3 of those, and then refine them again, ecetera.
“We made a lot of mistakes along the way for sure, but there isn’t a single product in our portfolio today that I am not proud of.”
This phase usually takes 2 years. A perfume is really in three parts: the top notes, the heart notes and the base notes and all these notes must be harmonised to create and fulfil the whole concept.
It is much less Google Maps and much more like wandering through a trackless forest, knowing where one wants to go, but finding unexpected paths and turnings, trusting your intuition.
What products are in The Burren Perfumery range?
All the products in our range are inspired by the Burren landscape. There are really two main branches: the perfumes with their associated body lotions and natural castile soaps, and then our certified organic skincare range in six skin-type families.
Alongside these we offer a range of ‘home and living’ products such as natural soy candles and organic herbal teas. Everything is made here on site at the Burren Perfumery in small batches. It keeps us all pretty busy!
What is your favourite smell?
For me, smells are seasonal. I love light delicate smells in the summer like meadowsweet, elderflower and wild thyme. In the colder months I favour richer, warmer smells: juniper, woodsage and wild ivy are some of my favourites.
What are your three desert island beauty essentials?
A great natural moisturiser would be essential, and luckily, a desert island would likely contain all the ingredients I would need to make one.
If I could extract some virgin coconut oil, shea or cocoa nut butter, find fresh water and some monoi tiaré flower. I’d be all set!
How do you think French and Irish women’s approach to beauty and style differs?
Having lived in Paris for a number of years, there is no denying that French women are stylish and invest much time and effort in their apparently effortless style!
After a while however, you realise that, whilst enviously well groomed, it can be quite boring and regimented with a lot of black.
What I love about Irish women is that they’re adventurous. They take great pride in themselves and love their style. They dress much more for their own pleasure and to have fun.
By contrast, the French tend to dress to fit an expectation and that’s very limiting, however polished the result.
What other women in Ireland are inspiring you right now?
There are so many! I am continually inspired by the strong women around me and those I hear of working through their lives, balancing careers, children, community and dreams.
I very much admire Darina Allen and the wider community of Ballymaloe that has grown around her. She has created and maintained something especially Irish, without getting stuck in a particular niche. They innovate and create and evolve while keeping a core ethos and identity and have managed to keep to their ideals.
If you could raid anyone’s wardrobe, whose would it be?
I lived in New York for a year in the 90’s and had a great time collecting vintage designer 60’s dresses from the street markets in midtown. My favourites were vintage Puccis for their colour and pzazz, so really, if I was going on a wardrobe raid I’d like a time machine and a couple of penthouse addresses around Manhattan.
And what is the most treasured item in your wardrobe?
I have a stunning vintage rainbow coloured coat with bold CND symbols that was handmade for Woodstock, it’s pretty much a museum piece by now. The owner’s name is embroidered in huge letters inside. I love that coat and the sense of connection with another person in another time that it gives me.
“What I love about Irish women is that they’re adventurous. They dress much more for their own pleasure and to have fun.”
Where is your favourite place in the world and what makes it so special?
After 25 years in the Burren I still love it. The changing seasons, the colours, and the quiet. But I will always have a fondness for Paris and a need for some city time to keep me sane.
To whom did you last say ‘I love you’?
Our eldest daughter Fionn, who is studying at Trinity.
What is your phone wallpaper?
A picture of our other daughter, Celeste, 7 years old, swimming in the turlough behind our house last April. Laughing uproariously despite the icy cold – she’s so hardy!
What would your super power be?
Right now? To run a marathon without training – as I’m currently training for a half marathon! Otherwise, the ability to make the sun shine on demand.
“Best piece of advice? Step back, look at the biggest picture you can. Always ask “Why are you doing this?”
What is your greatest fear?
My father died of cancer when I was a child; my greatest fear is losing those I love most.
If you could invite four people – living or dead – to the ultimate dinner party, who would they be?
My husband, the wittiest man I know. Lady Gregory who started the Abbey Theatre. Frédéric Malle the perfume connoisseur, so that we could talk perfume. Charlotte Gainsboroug… wait, no, maybe not if my husband’s going be there!
What do consider your greatest achievement?
I feel very lucky to have been able to build a personal vision into a working business, and tobalance my work and family (well mostly!) along the way while still getting enjoyment and
satisfaction from what I do.
What trait do you most dislike in others?
Insincerity and lies. I value straightforwardness and honesty in others.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Now if it was me…” my husband always, always makes fun of me for it.
How do you relax?
I go for a run each morning with my dog, and I recently watched all eight seasons of ‘The Good Wife’, back-to-back!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Step back, look at the biggest picture you can. Always ask “Why are you doing this?”
What’s in the pipeline for you and The Burren Perfumery in 2018?
I am working on new perfumes. 2016 was about design, 2017 about expansion, but now I willmreturn to my favourite part, product development and exploring new smells. As the business keeps growing, I need to remember to keep doing the things that I love and not get swallowed up by the day-to-day.