Jess Jones is founder of Birch & Brook, a niche brand of atmospheric scented candles that can be found in some of the coolest retails stores in Europe, including Nose and Merci in Paris, Hallesches Haus in Berlin and The Shop at Bluebird in London. She’s also just launched in Fortnum & Mason. We caught up with her to discover the stories behind her love of scent.
My dad used to work with wood a lot. He was always doing things like making all the furniture in our house, so the smell of freshly cut wood just reminds me of when he was younger and carefree and a bit more hippy-ish. It’s my strongest scent memory of growing up. My mum always wore fragrance, her father was always travelling and bought her fragrance from wherever he went. The one I remember the most was Rive Gauche, I can’t really wear it now because it’s her perfume.
I grew up in Suffolk and we had a huge honeysuckle bush, which I always loved, and lots of lavender too. My first fragrance was Anais Anais, which was quite sophisticated for someone growing up in Suffolk at that time.
The idea for Birch & Brook came while I worked for a fashion house which was trying to set up a home collection. The company wanted Diptyque candles but you couldn’t have the candles without the rest of the range, so I was going around the shows trying to find a candle that fitted their look. And there weren’t any.
I thought ‘why don’t I do an English Diptyque?’ I went on a crazy research journey, discovering what it meant to have an English candle. I mostly looked at the design references from 1930s Britain, a period I love, so the Bright Young Things, Virginia Woolf and textile designs from the period.
I looked at what it meant to be British, but I didn’t want it to be obvious. It also had to mean something to me, so Dressing Room is about my grandmother’s dressing room, where I used to watch her put on her lipstick, I’ve used that violet scent of lipstick and old fashioned make up smell. It’s a personal reference for me, but I found it really resonated with other people. The essence of Birch & Brook is to capture a sense of place, to capture the nuances of growing up in Britain.
I’m slightly obsessive about fragrance. I pick up on smells and can figure out where people have been because of how they smell. I’d love to do a fragrance one day, Library for example is quite a complex fragrance and lots of guys ask me to make it into something they could wear.
We are in some great shops, I literally rang people up and pestered and I got a really good response. I started with small stockists like The Cross, I think buyers genuinely liked the product, they liked that it was hand made here in the UK and it was authentic. It also had a different USP, it wasn’t just another lavender candle.
We’re more about an atmosphere and feeling and lot of people connected to that. With Dressing Room people who smelled it said it really reminded them of old fashioned make up and that Library, which is our best seller, smelled of mustiness and leather bound books you get in old libraries.
I think about how I smell to my son Henry, I remember my mum used to smell of a lovely Vichy face cream, with its waft of light fragrance, we used to go to France every year and she’d stock up. I want Henry to remember the smell of me. Even though he’s only two, he does stop and smell the flowers. It would be great if he has a good sense of smell too.
I like to open the windows and I like the smell of fresh summer air. The philosophy behind scenting each room is not about a particular smell, it’s about a feeling and a sense of place. Every fragrance for me reminds me of a certain time in my life, it’s that association that really excites me, rather than the ingredients. In the evenings, I prefer something woody, dark and smoky, during the day I go for something lighter fresher andI just burn one candle fragrance, I don’t like mixing and layering with candles.
I used to burn a lot of incense, in fact Festival is a way of creating that incense smell without the smoky residue. I really like Nag Champra, it reminds me of being young and carefree and burning incense sticks in my room when I was 16. It’s about revisiting and remembering.
I wear Amber and Lavender by Jo Malone, my husband bought it for me when we first got together without realising I loved it. If I was picking now, I might not choose it, but it’s so full of memories. I like a more masculine fragrance and Jo Malone said she created it for her husband, although I do think fragrance should be gender free.
I tend to like more woody smells, I like Windsor, by Dr Harris, my husband wears this but I could easily wear it if he didn’t! Agent Provocateur also reminds me of a great time in my life and it’s a distinctive, empowering smell. I feel quite sexy wearing this of an evening, it’s too much for the day, but in the evening it makes me feel ‘grrrrr’.
Years ago I went on holiday with my best friend and she bought me Escape by Calvin Klein at duty free on the way over. We had the best holiday ever, and it reminds me of being very carefree, not worrying about anything, I’m currently wearing Penhaligon’s English Fern, I love quite powdery, musky, woody fragrances and I like to chop and change. Apart from the Amber & Lavender by Jo Malone London, I do like to change a lot, keep things moving forward.
Are we at ‘peak candle?’ There seem to be a lot more niche candle brands emerging, but I think it will continue to grow. Candles make great presents, we sell 70% of our candles at Christmas. You might not buy a fragrance for someone because it’s such a personal thing, but it’s easy to buy a candle.