We interviewed James Heeley, the nose behind the luxury French perfume house Heeley. Read on to discover how his travels inspired his creations including Cardinal, arguably one of the best incense fragrances in the world.
Before being a perfumer, you were a designer. How is the creative process different?
The similarity is the process of turning the immaterial ‘idea’ into a physical form. But of course the techniques involved are very different and require different skills.
You studied Philosophy in your college days. Do any of your fragrances have philosophical meanings behind them?
No, but Philosophy has definitely helped me. It teaches us to be patient, rigorous and to think differently.
After more than 15 years in the industry, have you achieved everything you set out to? What still alludes you?
I never set out with a specific objective. I set out on a journey and I am happy to still be on it! Scent is by definition elusive but none more so than the perfect scent that I will undoubtedly never achieve.
Heeley is one of the few owner-founder and independent luxury perfume houses in Europe. What is the most challenging part of building a niche fragrance house?
I think the most challenging part of building any independent business is the everyday management. No matter how passionate and good your product, the business has to be well managed to survive.
Which fragrance is the hardest or took the longest to create?
They can take a day to two or three years – the longest part is always the balance fine tuning. This generally takes months because it is good to live with a scent. I often think that a good scent is very similar to a good piece of music. It’s one we don’t get tired of.
Cardinal is considered one of the best incense fragrances in the world – what is the story behind this fragrance? What were you trying to create?
A feeling of spiritual, ethereal light - uplifting and elegant.
If you could only wear one of your fragrances for the next 12 months – what would you select now and why?
I wouldn’t recommend wearing a scent repeatedly over a year because we become blind to our own scent and we tend not to appreciate it. The best way to enjoy scent is to have a few - its no different to enjoying music or food. But if I would have to choose one it would be something like ‘Sel Marin’ or one of my citrus based scents.
Do you have a wearer in mind when you’re creating a fragrance? or is always more deeply linked to the environment and other influences?
I think of nature and although I always think of creating a notion of elegant timelessness I always try to build in a subtle ‘twist’ to make it distinguishable and different.
What makes an exceptional fragrance?
Balance, elegance, individuality.
What genre of music do you think your fragrance(s) most aligns with and why?
Perfume and music share many similarities but I think matching a scent to music is very subjective. ‘Cardinal’ which contains incenses would work equally well with a Gregorian chant or an album like ‘Faith’ by the Cure through to electronic house. There really are no rules.
Are there any specific experiences and travels that have been the catalysts for some of your creations?
Of course, travelling and new experiences are a constant source of inspiration. And sometimes you need to travel far – it’s very important to observe all the time. Cardinal is based on burning incense, Esprit du Tigre is based on Tiger Balm, Note de Yuzu that I smelled for the first time in Japan … probably 50% of my scents are based on new or unusual experiences whist travelling.
One of your best-selling fragrances, Note de Yuzu, is a collaboration with fashion brand Maison Kitsune. Are there any future collaborations in the making?
I have worked in past for LVMH (Dom Perignon) and Maison Kitsuné and I have new, ongoing projects with both.
Can you share any details of new fragrances you have in the works? Anything exciting we can look forward to in 2023?
I have finished one new scent which I hope to release soon or perhaps next year. It's based on lavender, thyme, rosemary and sage with a very clean edge to it and is inspired during my stay over five years ago with a friend from Marseille.