The Smell of Nostalgia with Maya Njie
"In the UK, there has been an uptick in people purchasing scents to curate a calming atmosphere in their homes. But for Njie, this has always been second nature to her."
For the first in a series of interviews, Jade speaks to London-based self-taught perfumer, Maya Njie, on her skilful way of capturing certain scents and smells to invoke memory and place. They speak about the untapped potentials of such a powerful sense and she offers some tips on how to choose the best scents and oils to your needs. Read on for the full story.
How do you get people to the warmth of the tropical beach without anyone breaking a sweat? Guided by memories of drinks and the universal holiday adage of sunscreen, niche perfumer Maya Njie began to unravel this riddle.
In Njie’s public collection, there are currently five fragrances - Nordic Cedar, Tobak, Vanilj, LesFleurs, and Tropica - which are heavily influenced by her Swedish and West African heritage. But with Tropica, it seems she managed to capture the warmth of a placeless daydream.
“It was important to have an element of care-freeness and escapism in my fragrances” she adds. “While I could do that for myself by invoking the smells of Gambia, you might not be able to relate to that so much. Whereas, that smell of pineapple and coconut… it just awakes something in people and it can be applied to so many different places”.
While admiring Njie’s portfolio, you can't help but be drawn in by her attention to place and memory. Alongside her perfumes, there are photographs that read like extracts from a family album. In some places, that is exactly what they are but others are snapshots from Njie’s more recent travels. At first, Njie says she was slightly reticent about this personal touch as she thought it might reduce her scents’ relatability.
However, the photographs have become like a visual prompt or a “starting point for someone and then they are able to go off on their own journey. When I put my images together, I was thinking about whether I should have a description alongside. Of course, I will tell people when they ask, but I like the idea of people wondering and using their experiences to inform who they could be. If you look at Tobak, you see the man and the little girl… you can create your own story around that. I don’t want it to be like… this is my grandad and his apartment during the 1970s, although I will tell them when they ask!”
In a unique moment where touch and travel are prohibited, Njie’s rare ability to distil a place into something vivid yet intangible seems likely to become integral to our wellbeing. Back in March, NPR reported that there had been a boom in cologne sales in Turkey due to people desiring it’s disinfecting and mood-enhancing qualities. Similarly, in the UK, there has been an uptick in people purchasing scents to curate a calming atmosphere in their homes. But for Njie, this has always been “second nature” to her.
As a child, she reflects that “I would be drawn to places that I really liked the smell of. I used to always try and persuade my friends to come with me to the commercial greenhouse where there were lots of pots and plants. The smell there was really earthy and I loved the powerful aroma of the soil”. Before lockdown began, she had been “trying to ascertain what the home smells of Gambia were because I desperately wanted to bring them back”. Luckily, one of her family members gave her a bag of Goji seeds and the smell of them burning filled the void.
Since then, she has been fusing the scent with incense alongside her own oils. “In the incense burners, the types of oils I use are woody and resinous smells”, she adds “or I might have Frankincense, Cedar, Vetiver or Patuaille… all of which are quite heavy”. She laughs “there's all sorts of alchemy going on, but it's nice to take a step back, not look at it from a business point of view and create your own space”.
Needless to say, Njie’s daily routine is still punctuated by smell. In the mornings, she has been using citruses and experimenting with various florals guided by the sunshine. “One of the things that has really helped me is Bergamot, it is really awakening and gives you a boost of energywhile also being cleansing. To combat some of the deprivation of movement, I have been using uplifting oils such as grapefruit and mandarin - it is all about the zest. If you feel like something more comforting and soft, I’ve found honeysuckle to be really effective”.
Although the mood-enhancing qualities of smell are far from secret, it seems Njie’s talent to create scents that exist between worlds takes this one step further. Fusing formulas that live between cultures and memories provides us with a sensual break that may transport us to the greenery of a Scandinavian wood, amidst leather workers in the West African heat or somewhere else entirely.
Find Njie's collection of fragrances here and take a little trip abroad with your nose.