Abel Organics grew out of founder Frances Shoemack’s need for a truly organic perfume. Unable to find one that didn’t sport any mystery ingredients on its label, Frances decided to create one herself. Abel is a blend between essential oils and food-grade grain alcohol, but more than that Abel is crafted as an indulgence or as Frances says: "A Good Vice, crafted for your pleasure". Each ingredient, responsibly and ethically sourced, creating a whole, other than the sum of its parts. A perfume, but good enough to drink. And, that’s exactly how it’s served at the Ritz in Berlin.
An Invitation to Explore
Named after Abel Tasman, a Dutch explorer who was the first European to discover New Zealand in 1642. The name is also a nod towards the link between New Zealand and The Netherlands. The former being where both Frances and perfumer Isaac Sinclair were born and grew up, and the latter where Frances is currently living with her husband, Dave, and their one-year-old son, Rufus. Abel Organics is a little unconventional for a small company in that their team and process is spread out across the world. With Isaac currently living in Sao Paulo and their product designer based in Mexico City, the logistics of developing Abel can be on the trickier side of things, but regardless of it, sometimes the right people for your project just happen to live on the other side of the world. And, that’s where the internet comes in to play, it allows us to connect to others, discover habits and cultures unlike our own, it covers a playground, as well as a mutual working ground. It allows us to physically stay put, or in Frances’s case, mostly stay put and jump a border every now and then to go and visit some of the lovely folk who support Abel, whilst at the same time offering room to explore. But, when it comes down to it, those roots are firmly planted as Abel in its essence rotates around Frances and Dave’s kitchen table, where experimenting is key, and a rather close eye is kept on baby Rufus’s wandering little hands.
Two scents, both concocted in collaboration with perfumer Isaac Sinclair. The first, VINTAGE 13, is warm and spicy with the grounding tones of Vetiver and Sandalwood. Frances describes it as 'a familiar blanket or cloak wrapping itself around you'. Vetiver and Sandalwood play a part in both perfumes, but it’s the size of their role that matters and how they relate to their bottled cohorts. In TONIC, vetiver’s grassier notes are accentuated by the melange of citrus fruits taking front and centre, along with peppermint, and the presence of another grass, palmarosa, which is closely related to lemongrass. In other words, they provide a strong backbone for the other ingredients to shine. Whereas in VINTAGE 13 their intoxicating scents are rounded out by the accompaniment of spices, and ginger and thyme.
With Abel, unique is a word that comes to mind. Authentic, quality, a love for plants, play, and experiments. Anything I’ve left out?
Frances - It's also a love of smells and our senses in general - the way our wood packaging feels in your hands, the beauty in clean lines, the taste of something we are so used to exclusively smelling. Experiment-wise, I can be contrary by nature and with Abel, I'm able to channel that energy into pushing boundaries. "An all organic perfume is impossible you say…let's see about that!" I think as a society we owe it to ourselves to be continually questioning, challenging, and from there, developing and growing - both as businesses, but also as people (and consumers).
Not everyone holds the same business practice and integrity that you do. Actually a great many don’t, sometimes people simply aren’t aware or they don’t want to be aware. There are many links that build up a product. From how and where it’s grown, to harvesting and transport, as well as the knowledge and understanding that goes in to dealing with plants. All those links and often many more. But, you have to want to know and you have to want to see. No one says it’s an easy thing, starting your own business, but to keep your eyes wide open, as well as your heart in appreciation towards the work, experience, and history that others breathe into it, is admirable.
Frances - I totally agree and I hope that there is a time in the future where we can control the entire process. Until that moment, we need to rely on things like organic certifications to maintain our integrity. I've recently had an experience (with Abel) that made me question my values. Business is hard, and when you are a young business, you want to look to others you trust for guidance. However at the core, you need to stay true to your values. When faced with a decision that didn't feel right to me, the decision became easy, because I owned up to my conviction. I realised that if all fails, but my integrity stays intact, there is nothing else. If success comes at the cost of your integrity, is it truly success?
Recently a book came out by Elle Luna: The Crossroads of Should and Must. This is what she says: Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us. Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. “You should listen to that song,” for example. At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently. When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves. The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful. Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires — unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises. I feel that Abel is your Must.
Frances - That's really sweet of you. I think like everything in life that's worth fighting for, you question whether it's worth it, relentlessly. Am I crazy? Do people really believe in what we're doing? Is it too hard?! It's nice to have others reaffirm things for you (or give clarity) once in a while. I need to read this book, too.
What was it like growing up in New Zealand?
Frances - I had a wonderful childhood and I owe that almost entirely to my parents. A farmer and a yoga teacher with six children. If I allow my memory creative licence, I remember it as carefree - roaming the farm and garden with a plethora of siblings! But, it's not the truth. My parents are hard workers, who didn't have the opportunities they presented to us. So alongside the 'free range', strong values were taught, hard work was enforced, and achievement was recognised and esteemed. I hope I can do the same for our children. In regards to New Zealand itself - thirty years ago, New Zealand was a lot more like the New Zealand most people picture (a little backward, quaint, innocent clean, safe)…The perfect place to grow up! Dave and I both want to return to NZ in time for our children to grow up with all it has to offer…I hope we can still find a little piece of paradise that fits us.
Both perfumes you’ve created so far have a limited run. 2000 bottles of Vintage’13 —the first perfume—and 1693 bottles of TONIC by Abel. The limited run lies in line with the embrace of change.
Frances - Yes, to me it was obvious - if you're working with natural ingredients, every time you create something new (no matter if the recipe is the same), it will taste/smell/look/feel different. It's the beauty in working with nature. Limited Edition wasn't about creating something 'exclusive', it was about recognising the craft. It also came from my experience in wine - celebrate seasonal nuance - use it as an opportunity to experience, evaluate, appreciate with fresh eyes.
Abel is unisex. Leaving it up to the wearer to decide which scents allures to them the most. And, room—because of it’s organic ingredients—to uniquely blend with the wearer’s own scent. For me, the difference between synthetic and natural is this: a synthetic colour gives you what you ask, most of the time it’s even the exact colour on the box. You can dilute it in water, but if you want it to surprise you, you’ll need to start mixing it with other colours. But, even then there’s a kind of predictability about it. When you work with natural colours or you brew or mix your own batches made from plants, it’s almost a study in patience, a relationship you build up. You learn that natural colours can be stubborn, with a seeming will of their own, and almost no batch will turn out exactly the same. It runs closer to the idea that the only constant is change. So, it teaches you to appreciate the now. This colour right here, right now. This scent, in this moment mingled with you. But a few moments later it might have changed, deepened or faltered, growing with you.
Frances - Firstly, I absolutely love that you work with plants and food for your colours. Secondly, your question is extremely poetic and I want to do it justice with my answer, but am not sure that I can! You've really hit the nail on the head - natural ingredients are temperamental, unpredictable, difficult to source, etc, but they are ultimately so much more complex and beautiful than their manmade counterparts that you are willing to forgive the extra work, cost, and any compromises (for example in perfume, natural ingredients don't last anywhere near as long on your skin as synthetics - which I like, but many don't!).
I think on a deeper, subconscious level people are afraid of change. There is a safety, even in dissatisfaction. Pasteurisation came around on the one hand to keep consumers safe from spoilt batches, but it also came about to ensure the same product over and over, and to extend shelf life. Open the can, know what to expect, open the jar, know what to expect, over and over. Giving up experience—good and bad—for mundane satisfaction. Clothes tear, thin, and discolour. Bodies age, scar, gain and lose weight. Cups are smashed to pieces, and plates get nicked. Change makes flowers swell into fruit and plants set to seed. You have to completely appreciate the nowness of it. There is a teaching by Ajahn Chah: “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.” It has to become night to appreciate day. And, it has to become winter for life to flourish, life dwelling down into a dark, muddy melting pot, to be reborn after.
Frances - It's a really interesting observation and one that I can only really expand on by drawing on my own experiences and those of the people close to me. I believe some of us are scared of change, but I also believe some of us are scared of standing still and observing, looking inward. I think we see this dichotomy present itself in modern life - people unwilling to exit a negative relationship or workplace, but desperate for the latest iPhone. You have to ask yourself, from where would the most fulfilment come?! Perhaps the key to happiness is finding the balance between growth and reflection? I think a good manifestation of this can be drawn from yoga practice - where constant practice results in gradual (physical) progress in mastering postures. But, true progress at a deeper level (particularly in postures like Savasana - which many would claim to be the most difficult to master) needs to come not from physical progress, but by drawing in and allowing yourself true silence.
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Thank you to Frances Shoemack for the email correspondence and the package containing both Abel scents after I invited her to an interview on The Hungry Child, it has been truly wonderful getting to know you and the company you created.
Full Disclosure, I paint with both homemade dyes (veg, herb, and fruit based), as well as with more synthetic and semi-synthetic based colours like acrylics, watercolours, and pastels. I appreciate each of the tools I use for their unique qualities and what they can bring to the table. It’s a process and a journey, and one still very much to be explored.