The Burren Perfumery: the Irish beauty brand entirely inspired by the landscape
02nd Aug 2022
For The Burren Perfumery, natural, organic scents and skincare aren’t just a current trend, it’s simply how things are done, all inspired by the surrounding landscape.
Photography by Ralph Doyle.
The unique landscape of The Burren is at turns bleak and bountiful, the daintiest wildflowers found nestled against bare rock. These captivating contradictions drew Sadie Chowen in over 30 years ago, and she’s not only made it her home, but the centre of her whole business.
“I came to Ireland to visit a friend. I drove across The Burren coming from Shannon Airport and I had a really strong sense of connection. It was visceral. I felt like I had been here before,” she explains. Her childhood was spent in the South of France, and she had lived in Paris, New York and London, so the West of Ireland was not the most obvious place for Sadie to settle, but it wasn’t long before she had moved her life to this extraordinary part of the world, drawn by how “incredibly beautiful and extremely remote” it was.
Sadie always had a love of wildflowers and a fascination with scent, and soon began to work at The Burren Perfumery, which was established in 1972. She later trained at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery in France, honing her skills, and bought the business in 2001 when the owner retired. “I had a vision for the perfumery, which was to create something of beauty but also with a lot of integrity. We were doing organic products before people knew what they were. All the ingredients we use are real things that you can smell and touch.”
The Burren’s landscape has been at the heart of her products from the very beginning. “The first perfumes that I created were spring, summer and autumn harvest, followed by winter woods, based on the smells at different times of the year. I always loved The Burren’s changing landscape. The weather is quite maritime here, so everything is constantly in flux. It provides these sparks of inspiration.”
Trying to bottle something so ephemeral, so emotional as scent, is a long and difficult process, often taking between two and three years. Inspiration begins with The Burren, but most of the perfumes have between 40 and 50 ingredients, all of which have to be perfectly balanced. While plants that grow locally are often the main notes, Sadie also incorporates others from around the world to harmonise with and emphasise these scents.
But Sadie hasn’t just stuck to perfume. She and her husband gradually transformed the various outbuildings surrounding their farmhouse to house different workspaces as new products were developed. A blending room for making organic creams, perfume room and soap room all joined over time, as did many more staff. But with each new product, the ethos has stayed the same. Each product is made by hand using organic, natural ingredients.
The products, however, are not the end of the story. They’re in fact just the starting point for Sadie and her team to teach people more about the process. Visitors to the perfumery can take a tour to learn about how a product is made, discover the intricacies of The Burren’s unique landscape, or pay a visit to the herb garden to touch and smell the kinds of plants that make their way into the products.
“I like people to be able to go into the garden,” Sadie says. “For me, whether you’re picking lemon balm, thyme, or meadowsweet for a face cream or to eat, there’s very little difference. People suddenly understand the connection between the list of ingredients and real plants, and they can see it all come together. We find that’s one of the strongest interests – most people are fascinated by how things are made, but it’s unusual for people to be able to see that process.”
The vast quantities of natural ingredients needed for their products – around 400 kilograms of thyme are needed to extract one kilogram of thyme essential oil – means they do not grow their own ingredients, but instead work with growers around the world. The herb garden does however provide ingredients for the popular tearooms, where visitors can enjoy food made from scratch with simple, organic ingredients.
For a business so focused on providing experiences for its customers, it has been a tough few years in the wake of the pandemic. Although they had to close their doors numerous times, Sadie describes the Irish public’s support for small businesses as “phenomenal”. Making everything on site, they were able to fulfil the web orders that flooded in during lockdowns, while Sadie says that when they were allowed to open for brief summers, “it felt like we welcomed the whole of Ireland” as they stopped off on their staycations.
Despite this difficult time, she feels that it has cultivated an appreciation for things that have been made with time and care, as well as small opportunities in our day to slow down. Each product, whether a soap or a perfume, is a reminder of a larger connection to The Burren, as well as a chance to take a second for yourself. “During the last few years, people have looked after themselves a bit more, slowed down a bit, and gained an appreciation of what they like,” Sadie says. “It’s lovely when someone tells us they have discovered a perfume or a body cream that brings them joy every day.”
2022 marks the 50th year of the business, and true to form, Sadie isn’t resting on her laurels, currently developing two 100 per cent natural perfumes in the vein of her intoxicating Wild Rose scent, one based on neroli, the other on gorse. There’s also a range of body oils in the works, each with a delicate blend of essential oils akin to a perfume.
Smell is perhaps our most emotional sense, travelling more directly to our brain than any other trigger. “Scents can connect to feelings that maybe have been locked up for years,” Sadie says, “so I always find it really interesting what people like. Perfume also smells completely different on each person because of our body chemistry.”
This emotional connection is perhaps the reason why the perfumery’s products are so beloved, and it is connections that kept things afloat in tumultuous times: landscape, people and products all linked through careful and considered processes. Sadie’s love for this place underpins everything she does, and it continues to serve her well.
Photography by Ralph Doyle. This article originally appeared in the Spring issue of IMAGE Magazine.