Creative Conversations are interviews with artists, makers, and creators that strive to investigate each artist’s creative journey and process. This interview was originally recorded on March 30, 2022. Content may be edited for brevity and clarity. To listen to the interview, click here.
Helida Dodd is the founder and Chief Perfumer of Marbella Perfumes, a luxury perfume brand made for people who would normally avoid perfumes. Using carefully curated ingredients, Marbella Perfumes defines how luxury and nature can mix perfectly in a bottle.
As a former Industrial Engineer, Helida uses her engineering and chemistry background to create intricate perfumes. Her focus is to use raw materials that come from small farms and to NEVER work with anything that is endangered or environmentally damaging.
Helida ensures every single material is curated to the highest quality and each ingredient comes with its own certificate of safety, so you can wear your perfume with confidence – and no headaches.
You can find Helida’s products at Marbella Perfumes and on Instagram @marbellaperfumes.
I hope you’re excited to join me today to talk to Helida Dodd who is a former engineer and now a perfumer. My name is Gina Clark from Gina Clark Creative. And every now and again I like to have what I call creative conversations, where I talk to creatives and learn about their process and how they do things.
Helida is a very left-brained creative, so super close to my heart.
It’s seriously such a pleasure. I remember the first time I met you and when I saw what you were all about there was an instant connection there because it resonates 100% with me. Everything about that left brain and overachieving and perfectionism. I think we left-brained people think that our brains are just wired for math and science and that’s it. And when we realize they’re not it’s really just magical to discover that you are creative.
First of all, just growing up, and I’m not sure if it happens to everybody, but you’re almost caged into things. So you’re good at math. You’re good at this. You’re good at art. And it’s like if you’re good at one of the two you can’t be good at the other one.
We definitely go through our lives describing ourselves as such, and maybe not giving ourselves room for the other things. Now that I’m older and wiser, I think what if I had given myself a little bit of leeway in thinking that I was actually creative? I wonder how my engineering projects would have looked. Maybe the approach that I would have taken would have been different.
I was always creative because I had to be to design different processes, to come up with different answers, to present them, so maybe giving myself a little bit of credit would have been a great thing. Once you find out that the two go hand in hand together, honestly, science is incredibly creative. It has to be in order to make all those discoveries.
The same thing with art. I see it I see it over and over again. I see it when I’m making music or making perfumes or writing. And the funny thing that I realized as well is that things kind of click. So, for example, English even though it’s my second language, it always made sense to me. I think it’s because it’s very mathematical. Right? And I couldn’t understand why native speakers couldn’t get it. I was like, why are they getting this wrong? Because it just makes perfect sense to me.
I realized I always loved writing and I think just when you give yourself that credit or realize that the two go hand in hand it’s just such a great thing.
That’s awesome. I love that so much and how you’re finding math in everything too. I want to hear a little bit about your story and how you made the switch from engineering to being a perfume maker. Because that’s that’s quite a big one.
I never planned it, so I’ll start there. I used to love perfume and I think back to my college years when I walked out of the house and just spritzed myself from head to toe. I was always wanting to have the latest one, especially growing up. I remember spending my allowance on perfume and it was a great thing.
When I got pregnant with my first child and I had the worst morning sickness and it wasn’t just with perfume, it was really with everything. It was soaps and shampoos and everything, everything that had a smell, and I really it was the worst part of my pregnancy.
Afterwards, we stopped wearing perfumes. Everybody stopped wearing perfumes. If my parents wanted to visit me at the house, I would tell them if you guys want to come over you cannot be wearing perfumes. My dad was a big offender, “So what do you mean I can’t wear perfume?” and I was like you can’t.
I really couldn’t wear perfume again and I desperately wanted to have that. I wanted to have that beautiful scent, my signature scent whatever it was. And I couldn’t do it. I would go and smell the perfume at stores and think this is the one. I would buy it and two days later was just like, oh my gosh, take this away from me. My mom was the happy recipient of many perfumes
Two years later, my oldest son was about to enter middle school and we went on a summer trip to London. I asked a friend who’s English to send me to the best tea experience in London. She gave me a few names and then she said you know you need to go to Fortnum and Mason. That’s where the Queen has tea. And I was like, alright, I’m there.
We booked it and everything from Miami because you had to do it many months in advance. And when we got there we realized it wasn’t just a tea room, they have our other floors as well, and they have the women’s centre and the beauty floor. We went to the beauty floor and they had all these beautiful perfumes and all these other things.
I started talking to the lady and I told her my woes. And she said you know there’s a lot of designers that make perfume with natural materials. I knew nothing about the perfume industry, to be honest. I said okay, show me. So we went around and sure enough, there were beautiful fragrances. The next day I asked my husband before we went touring for the day, we’re going to be around Fortnum and Mason again. I want to go back and smell some more of those beautiful perfumes.
So we did. I came back to Miami thinking. Just so you have a little bit more background on me, I grew up on a farm in Nicaragua, where everything is made from scratch, and my mom made us our baby foods. I kind of did the same thing with my kids even though we didn’t live on a farm anymore. I love to make their food, so we make a lot of things from scratch here. We love to cook and I think that kind of goes hand in hand together as well.
My wheels started turning. I’m like why do you think you can make perfume? This daydreaming lasted like three years. So I bought some books. Three years later we went to Ireland. We wanted another beautiful trip and I ended up in this great perfumery where they showcased all of their ingredients in their garden. They gave us a tour and they told us how they made everything by hand.
These people were very small. There were in the middle of Ireland and even tour buses couldn’t fit the roads to get there. I realized that they had just won the best new scent in all of Europe. Meg Ryan and her entourage had been there the day before. There were people from Australia. It was us and people from all over the world. I realized that this very tiny place in the middle of nowhere was making a big splash all over the world.
They told us on the tour, that they do everything in-house. They had their café, their gardens, their everything and she said we only have thirty employees here. It was so funny because in my head I was thinking “Thirty?”. I looked at my husband in the middle of the tour and said, “Thirty I can do that.”
Am I equal to 30 people that I can do that on my own? You know, being an engineer, I’m thinking conveyor belts and robots and factories. And none of that was there to make such a big splash. It was almost definitely when the light bulb went off. I was just I was sure that day that I could do it.
But, not just that. There’s this book called The Art of Possibility. It’s really true because sometimes you just need that person or that something to show you what’s possible. I said, you know I can do it. I came home and I looked for a course and found one in England. And that’s it. It’s been three years. That’s how I ended up here and it’s been an incredible journey, to be honest. That’s a destiny story like it was meant to happen, right?
That’s so cool. I was smiling a few times when you were telling that story because I’m thinking back to myself and I’m sure a lot of people can relate. Every time I got pregnant, my scent sensitivities and just sensitivities to things, in general, got worse and worse to the point where I was the same and I get headaches.
I can’t go by the air fresheners in the grocery store aisle or whatever. They just make me sick and but there are some scents that I really, really like and I’d like to be able to wear. But, it seems like so many of the commercially produced scents out there are reactive. You can probably tell us what kind of things are in them that make people react like that. I was so excited to hear that you’re making these natural perfumes and that you had the same issue. And obviously, you don’t with your perfumes.
I don’t and I have to say that one of the markers for me was that I’m going to make a bottle of perfume that I can finish from start to finish. Not where after two days I’m going to give it away or that’s going to give me a headache. But, I’m going to put a parenthesis here because natural and commercial it’s not that one is bad and the other one is good.
I have learned so much about natural materials that I can tell you that there’s chemistry too. It’s just natural, but there are a lot of chemical components. For example, in rose, you have about 400 chemical components. They’re incredibly complex. Actually, the raw natural material, it’s very complex, whereas when you’re using aroma chemicals, you have one really it’s almost like a linear set.
So, when you purchase commercial fragrances, it’s more linear and it lasts a long time. It’s designed to do that. There are fixatives in there that make it last that long and basically almost smell the same from when you put it on to when you finish. It doesn’t have the evolution that a natural perfume might have because that’s how it is. You kind of get it in waves. You get your top, your middle, and your base notes and they all sort of come and go. It’s just a beautiful fine dance.
I almost feel like it’s a little story that’s being told. At first, you’re going to get all of your citruses and then you slowly start having the coming and going of your middle notes. Your rear florals especially are in the middle. And then in the base are the woods.
You’ve got to play around with these materials so that they don’t become too heavy because imagine, in rose you have 400 components. You have to be careful sometimes and that’s where the math comes in. There is so much math behind perfume. I can’t even tell you.
Obviously, not all perfumers are engineers, but I do have to say I’m so thankful that numbers are not a foreign concept to me. You have to see the spreadsheets behind this formula, and the ratios and the percentages, and it’s very precise. There’s a ton of math behind it because you want to make sure that all of these materials that are on this list, find balance. And that when you mix loads, they don’t overpower one another.
If you have a citrus and then you have a floral, you have to really balance them out so that it almost becomes a completely new set. It will not be let’s say orange and rose anymore, it will be one new thing when you combine them together.
I’m sorry I went on a tangent a little bit but I’m really careful because I remember when I first started in perfume, I thought I’m going to make it natural because it’s going to be better. But as I walked this journey a little bit more and learned a little bit more, I actually realized that I have a huge responsibility because just because it’s natural, it doesn’t mean it’s better.
In Europe, a lot of the limits for safety are very, very strict. So what I’m doing is I’m formulating to the European standards, because I want to make sure that above all that this is safe. It doesn’t matter if I live in the United States where maybe it’s a little bit more relaxed.
I am formulating to the standards, but I do notice that I didn’t have that sold to my senses. Sometimes when you put some of those perfumes on to me just feels like a total assault. Sometimes I even have to go shower because I can’t stand that smell. I don’t feel that with my perfume and I think I have to for the pickiest customer, to be honest.
That’s awesome. I love that you brought that point up about natural ingredients because I’ll sometimes have people say to me, well, why can’t you just use essential oils because that’s all-natural? I’m allergic to like certain plants, so it’s not just because it’s not natural. It’s just that there are certain things that are more reactive.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had the pleasure of being able to check out your perfumes yet. Can you get into a little bit of why that is because I’m in Canada and you’re in the United States. I just adore the way it looks in the packaging. AI can just imagine getting that in the mail. It must be so fun and feel like such a treat to your customers because it’s just stunning.
Thank you so much. Yes right now, I can’t ship internationally because it’s considered hazardous because of the alcohol. There are ways around it and I need to sit down and research how I’m going to get around that.
I want to touch a little bit on the allergens because you’re absolutely correct. That’s the reason why there are limits on how much you can use certain materials. Some of them are notorious for being allergens or for skin sensitivity, so when I formulate, I’m well below all of these limits. I mean, no one’s checking me here unless I wanted to sell my perfumes in Europe and then I would have to go through a check.
Here in the United States, no one checking me but I know, so I’m formulating as if I was going to be selling in a European market just to make sure that it’s safe, especially for the allergies and all of the other things.
Thank you so much for your comments on the packaging. I wanted to make sure that the material was just as natural. Most of them are small farmers most of them have been in business for generations and generations that’s been passed down from family to family.
I wanted to also apply that to the packaging. Of course, I cannot be 100% sustainable, it’s impossible, but I wanted to be wherever I could. I wanted to make a difference. So for example, in the packages for the nine-and-a-half-ounce size, I made sure that was just 100% paper. There is no plastic lining in there. So it’s compostable and it’s also recyclable.
It’s the same thing with when I packaged whatever is going to go in the mail. All of the tape is water-activated. The inks are soy. So that can be compostable or it could be recycled. For the 50 ml bottle instead of having a box, even though it’s beautiful, it goes in the trash, right?
During COVID, I stopped wearing purses because we wouldn’t go really anywhere and if I went to the supermarket, I wanted to have my credit cards really accessible. So I just put my credit cards in my jeans and go off to the supermarket. I was thinking about that and I said well what if I made a little cloth, kind of like a purse so that if people just want to go on a quick trip, they can use it.
So I looked for a local lady. She’s from Brazil. She used to be a seamstress and used to make wedding gowns and other fancy dresses. And, she still does. She’s my friend’s neighbour. I just lucked out. I asked her if she would make these bags for me and she said yes. I was just so happy that it was close to my house.
There’s a little story there. I love, love stories. She made me these bags, and I know that maybe those bags, maybe people will not be so inclined to throw them away. Maybe they can find a little bit more use for it. That’s also the reasoning behind every component and not just the perfume but also how it’s packaged, how it’s mailed.
Trying to make a difference and also show people that to be upscale and to be fancy and treat yourself to beautiful things. You can do that and not necessarily be wasteful. So that’s the simple thing behind this.
That was a very creative idea you came up with, the little pouch. I think that’s so cool. Can you tell us a little bit about your products and what you offer? And do you do custom scents?
I do. So right now I have one perfume that’s available on the market and it’s called Ever Present. For most of the COVID year I worked on it and I just had a chance to imagine how all of our lives changed and I think we were forced to really be present with ourselves, with our lives, with our priorities, with our likes and dislikes, with our families. We had no choice.
It’s one of those things that people say – just be present. It’ll alleviate stress. It almost bothered me to hear just be present because I’m like, how am I supposed to? What does that really mean? You know? I remember it was my daughter’s first year in middle school, and we were going to a parent-teacher back to school.
We were meeting all of the teachers and there was this young coach that introduced himself and the first thing that he said was, this is my first job out of college. My husband and there’s this room full of parents, and my husband and I looked at each other like oh my gosh, this is gonna be a train wreck because you’re hoping that he doesn’t say the wrong thing, right?
And he proceeds to say all these amazing things that he’s doing in the PE class for the kids. Everybody has to open the door. The kids have to go by one by one and say thank you and if one of them forgets they have to go back and go again and say thank you as they go. And he says at the end, “Really the only thing that I want to teach them this year, is I want them to be present. And that means where your two feet are. I want them to be where their two feet are.”
That was like a couple of years before COVID and I remember one time right before it had just hit. We were outside, super scared like what if we get sick? What’s going to happen once somebody dies? What’s gonna happen with the food? A million questions. We were walking around my block and in front of me was my husband with the dog and my two kids and skateboards. I was kind of trailing behind and with a million things in my head.
For some reason, I just thought about this moment. I said to myself, in front of me I have my husband and my dog. I have my two kids on skateboards. The day is beautiful, with perfect Miami weather. I’m right here where my two feet are. This is my present.
I didn’t have to be thinking about all the what-ifs with COVID and that’s how the name came about. Really, you just have to look around to see what’s there. I made sure that all the materials that I picked were things that really meant something to me. So, a lot of citruses are there.
There’s so much jasmine around my house, and all those other things and so what this perfume is about is enjoying what’s really around you because that’s what it really means to be present exactly where you are. Maybe this perfume will take the users to a moment that’s very dear to them. Which scent does by the way. That’s another topic because it is very scientific how scent and the brain are wired.
There are two sizes. We have a purse spray that it’s nine and a half ounces. I think people will hopefully not be inclined to throw that one away because it’s easy to store the perfume. And then there are the 50 ml and I also do bespoke fragrances. I’m working right now on a room fragrance for an Italian store.
The plan is also to make bespoke scents and there’s a whole consultation that goes on with the client. It takes about four to six months to come up with a story and also pick the scent that makes sense to the wearer.
Oh, that’s amazing. And that’s a beautiful story about how you came up with the name. I love it so much.
I’d really like to know what your favourite scents are. Since you’ve started working as a perfumer, are there some that have become your favourites or have there been some scents that maybe you weren’t really aware of until you started doing this work?
With the ones that are very, very strong, as a perfumer, I have to play around with everything. So I cannot just say I don’t like that because it’s a little bit unfair. And besides, I also know that things change when mixed. I have to bury some of the notes that are so strong they can only be used as accent notes. You will not know if maybe just a tiny bit of it is going to change the entire formula to something better.
So, even though I won’t like some things, I will still try to work and see if I can find something magical about them. Of course, if I’m working with someone that likes something I don’t if we’re going to honour the client’s wishes.
I am in absolute love with jasmine. I found a distillation process that’s called CO2 distillation and jasmine comes to me it comes as a solid, so it’s really very difficult to work with.
It has to go through a little bit of a heating process. And then it has to sit there to macerate for a while because as soon as I’m mixing alcohol, it will dilute but it’s going to be very chunky. So those chunks and particles are going to go away but it takes a long time. So that’s the restoration process. As soon as I smelled it, I knew I wanted to work with it because it’s almost as if you’re going up to a little jasmine flower. If you think about it, that’s not going to overwhelm your senses, right?
If you go out and you snip a flower, it’s going to smell beautiful with the raw materials and because of the distillation process, it changes a little bit sometimes. It’s not going to be 100% true. Some of them will, some of them will not. I tried a whole bunch of different jasmines and then I said okay, I love this one but it was such a pain to work with that I said oh my gosh, I’m never going to be able to mix with this thing because I’m gonna have to wait months and months for it to become something that I can use.
So went back and I tried like four more different jasmine’s and I couldn’t do it. I was not the same. So I am working with that Jasmine CO2. I’m putting myself through the pain of the whole process because I feel like it’s so beautiful that I just cannot get away from that. I really, really love it. It’s one of those materials where there are a lot of limits on it so I can’t use it as much as I would want to. But it’s there. So I love it. That’s I think that’s hands down my favourite.
I really love the white flower of the orange tree. It’s also very delicate. It’s kind of funny it’s a little tiny flower, but it has such a presence. You definitely know it – it’s almost like it says, “Hello, I’m here.” I love neroli. I think it’s also just so beautiful and I am using that in my perfume as well. I think those are my two just that I really, really love.
Mimosa’s a little yellow flower. It’s just beautiful. Mimosa reminds me of baked goods. That’s my weakness. So when I smell mimosa, I feel as if I’m standing in front of one of those beautiful displays in France of all those croissants and all those delicious smells. And, you know, we’re all different. You’ll probably smell it and think there are so many notes. There are some green notes in that flower. But for me, the first thing that I feel is I’m standing in front of the most delicious baked goods.
Patchouli is another one that’s beautiful but that I don’t like. It’s very popular and a lot of people love this scent, but that’s one of my worst offenders for a headache. But, I will have to work with it because I’m a perfumer and there are so many formulas we put patchouli in. But, I do love woods. There’s a whole bunch of woods that are very smoky, and so delicious.
I’m going to be working with other woods right now. One I worked with is Tonka. I worked with another wood that I love. That’s Copaiba a South American wood that has just amazing qualities. It’s great for your skin. It’s great for so many things. In Brazil, they use it a lot. It’s native to the Amazons and I worked with it. I love it. I think it’s a very soft calming wood. I wanted to use a little bit I wanted to use a little bit of it in this perfume to help it as a base and to help it with longevity and Tonka does that as well.
I use Tonka and I also put a little bit of vanilla in there which is also a great texture. I use yuzu which I love. It’s really delicious. And, another citrus one that I really like it’s called Litsea Cubeba. It’s another citrus that’s kind of like pepper and it also helps with the longevity in the top notes. So that’s what the perfume contains. Those are my favourites right now.
This has just been fascinating for me. I love hearing about all of this. You talk about the scents like they’re all your kids. Like it’s so cool. Somebody left a comment saying that they’re even able to wear your perfume when having a bad headache. I think that’s a testament to how wonderful it is for those of us who might have sensitivities.
It’s been absolutely wonderful having you on. I learned so much and I’m sure everyone else did. Why don’t you tell us where we can find you and where people can get your fantastic perfume?
You could find me on my website. You can find me here [Instagram] of course, but also my website and it’s marbellaperfumes.com. You can order the perfume through there as well.
Okay, perfect. Thank you so much for coming on today. It was so fun and I can’t wait to talk again.
Thank you so much for inviting me, Gina. You know that I’m a huge fan of your work. Thank you for everything that you do for your audience and for all the people that are waiting to get to know you.
Thank you. That’s beautiful. I’m so glad that we met because I just have so much fun when I talk to you.
All photographs courtesy of Helida Dodd.
For more on being creative and why it’s important, read:
How to Approach Creativity Like a Scientist: Here are 4 Essential Ways
Quality of Life and Creativity: Increase Both with these 3 Fundamental Tips