Fragrance Friday: talking to the fascinating Jamie Frater of Frater Perfumes

Described as making “extraordinary perfumes for extraordinary people”, New Zealand-based fragrance house Frater Perfumes creates rich, completely unique scents that most definitely go beyond the everyday and into a realm of magic and mystery.
The Wellington-based house is proud of the fact that it uses golden-age methods and materials that are seldom used today due to their high cost or rarity. “We have revived many historic perfume bases (building blocks of fragrances) and blended them with the very best the twenty-first century has to offer: whether natural or man-made”, says their lush website. “This is all done with a care for detail that is almost never seen in modern perfumery.”
At its head is Jamie Frater, Frater Perfumes creative director and chief perfumer who was born and raised in New Zealand. An autodidact with a keen love of fragrance, Frater has spent many years accumulating a library of historic perfumes, perfume bases and rare essential oils. Given the chance to chat with him, I couldn’t wait to know more…

Jamie Frater, Frater Perfumes creative director and chief perfumer

I have heard that you have sailed successfully through many careers, including as an opera singer! Was music your first love?
I grew up in a very musical family. All of my siblings were active in music in some way, and meals often ended with family sing-alongs around the dinner table. In my earliest teen years in the ‘80s I pored for hours over old 78 records that had belonged to my grandparents. I was especially drawn to music from the 1920s. Excited by an old record of Jimmie Rodgers I taught myself to yodel, and at school I took up the flute and the viola, then the piano and then voice. This ultimately led me to enrol in the school of music at Wellington Polytechnic (now Massey University). While I no longer sing professionally, classical music is part of my life every day. I even select pieces of music which I consider a match for many of my perfumes and I suspect these will one day appear in marketing.

How did your fascination with perfume come about?
As a very inquisitive boy I would seek out mysterious objects hidden away in the backs of wardrobes and drawers. My grandmother died when I very young, but my mother kept her old fox fur coat, perfumes and various other objects she had loved. I would smell those things and imagine the time from which they came. They seemed so magical: a connection to history and people long gone. I seem to have an acute and long-lasting scent memory as I can still smell those things when I think of them now. For many people memories have a colour – faded, yellowed, perhaps even monochrome, but for me, memories have a smell. Those memories permeate my perfumes.

What is your earliest fragrance memory?
My mother, Lois was a talented artist and she spent hours hand painting porcelain. In a small storage room she had a large chest in which she kept her paints, brushes and essential oils: china paint is frequently blended with these oils to slow its drying time. My earliest memory of smell is the medicinal spicy scent of clove bud oil in that dark room beneath the stairs. It was exotic, warm and comforting.

Why did you decide to become a perfumer?
I think I woke up one day and realised that I was a perfumer. It was always there growing in me and being nurtured without me really knowing it; I never made an intentional decision to do it. Having come to that realisation, the inevitable next step was to commit myself entirely to it. That happened in 2022 when I began the process of putting together a selection of twelve fragrances to put into the retail market.

I believe you are a self-taught perfumer, have you ever made the pilgrimage to Grasse, or been tempted to enter full time study there?
I haven’t been to Grasse, though I have been to France numerous times. My previous visits were during my years living in London whilst studying music. I wasn’t perfuming at the time but I did already have a love of fragrance and classic French style.
As a perfumer I now have many contacts in France, and Grasse in particular as I purchase many raw materials from there. My next trip to Europe will be entirely perfume focussed and will most certainly involve a lengthy stay in Grasse to tour the flower fields and meet the people I communicate with every day.

What inspires your perfumes – people, films, music?
My fragrances have all been inspired by moments, people or experiences in my life. Bedlam was partly inspired by the opera The Rake’s Progress by Stravinsky, based on a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman in which the main character, Tom Rakewell, ultimately ends up in the Bethlem Royal Hospital (an 18th century insane asylum). The story had links to a personal experience I had with a young man who underwent a similar experience. Other perfumes have been inspired by the scents of my childhood and family.
I am working on a triptych of fragrances for 2024 based on faith through history; the first, Abydos, is an amber scent inspired by the Ancient Egyptian city of the dead, the second is a rich woody scent with an overload of incense — inspired by medieval cathedrals, and the third is yet to be confirmed. Inspiration for fragrances can be found almost everywhere. I keep a notebook in which I write down ideas as they come to me.

You have a software background, and use your computer to create fragrances. How exactly that does one take that approach as opposed to the more traditional route?
Fundamentally I work in the same way as perfumers of the past by constructing fragrances in my mind. I then use software I have written myself to keep track of cosmetics regulations and their impact on my formula, and to keep track of iterative changes. Once I am happy with a formula on paper (so to speak) I blend a sample in the lab. I then analyse this sample over the course of days and weeks and make tweaks which become new iterations. Most perfumes take between five and 50 iterations with outliers at either end. Candy Mouth, my most recent release, had no iterations — the formula in the bottle now is the formula I wrote down when I first conceived of the scent.

You have excelled in so many things, would you say you are an overachiever?
I wake up each day at 4:30am and do whatever I most urgently feel a need to do. Once completed, I repeat the process with the next task, taking time out only to address external issues as they arise (such as dealing with emails from suppliers or clients or undertaking the necessary activities of living). I work rapidly and jump from thing to think. This probably appears a touch frenetic to others but it works well for me. It is something of a family trait, I think, as my late mother was very much the same.

Do you have a favourite from among your creations, or is that still to come?
I think my favourite is always “the one I’m working on right now”. Currently that is a fragrance which brings together my love of perfume with my two other loves: luxury and rare oils and absolutes. It is built around a heart of the most desirable 100 year old Mysore sandalwood spiced with red ginger and Bahamian cascarilla bark. It has the most expensive rose de Mai oil from France and a vintage tincture of New Zealand ambergris. Until now I have made the perfume in small batches for my own exclusive use, but I decided to mark the one year anniversary of Frater by making it available to the public.

To discover the world of Frater Perfumes for yourself, head here.


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