In Conversation With: Karen Gilbert

For the second installation of the ‘In Conversation With’ series, I invited Karen Gilbert, author, teacher, and perfumery and skincare specialist, to share her journey of evolution from industry insider to entrepreneur. 

I first met Karen in 2014 at one of her perfumery workshops at Les Senteurs in London, and by the end of the day, I went home with much more than the perfume I created. Karen was so incredibly generous with her knowledge and advice that it was just the impetus I needed to start creating my own product range.

Karen has experienced first-hand the shifting sands within the industry, which she has been a part of for so long, and which speaks to her refreshingly objective and realistic perspective on the naturals vs synthetics debate. Karen is also a women in business, having navigated away from big industry to forming her own business and making her mark sharing her wealth of knowledge. Below is just a snapshot of this knowledge, and I do hope you enjoy reading what Karen has to say.


I attended one of your perfumery courses back in 2014, and remember distinctly your view on the essential oils vs aroma-chemicals in perfumery debate, which is that there is room for both given certain, inescapable commercial realities. I loved the balance, and the lack of judgement in that. Do you feel the same about synthetic replications in personal care products?

Ooh great question, for me it really depends on the product and what it is designed to do. Is the fragrance designed to support the products therapeutic function or is it designed to create a sense of wellbeing and pleasure. How we feel about a product and the way it smells depends on our associations with that smell so it can be very personal. If a product reminds you of a happy time and gives you a feeling of joy when you use it, that is beneficial to me. I’m most definitely not a naturals extremist, I believe in balance in all things.

I am not a huge fan of overtly fragranced products (strangely enough!) if they are to be left on my skin - natural or otherwise. The problem we have got ourselves into with sensitivity and allergies to fragrance is more about the layer upon layer of fragranced products we can sometimes use rather than whether those fragrances are natural or synthetic. Personally speaking I am more likely to have a skin reaction to a natural than I am to a synthetic fragrance in a product.

Your career has taken a few different turns, from working with big retailers such as M&S on their own label ranges, to product development at Neal’s Yard Remedies.

In a sense, they seem world’s apart. How much did these worlds collide in reality? And where did you feel most ‘at home?'

In those days (the mid 90’s to mid 2000’s) they seemed polar opposites and worlds apart but if you look at the industry now we have come a long way. In the 90’s I was frustrated that big perfume houses were fragrancing faux aromatherapy ranges but now consumers won’t stand for that. I think Neal’s Yard played a big role in pioneering “ingredients education” which has filtered out into the mainstream. Looking back I have always trod a middle path so I never felt completely at home in either camp. I believe in education and personal choice over dogma and wish there wasn’t such an us and them divide.

I love naturals and also know that they also have the potential to cause harm. I love many synthetic fragrances too and don’t buy into the “all synthetics are toxic chemicals” argument. Working for both a huge fragrance company and an organic pioneer gave me a great insight into the myths that surround the beauty industry.

Where do you see the world of natural skincare heading now that it's becoming more readily available to the masses? Do you see the giants such as M&S branching out to meet the demand?

Karen Gilbert

Karen Gilbert

Totally, it’s become a huge trend. Market research companies are predicting that the global natural and organic personal care industry is expected to be valued at US$ 21,776.9 Mn by the end of 2024. Fragrance ingredients manufacturers are investing in naturals too. The naturals industry is being led by small independent companies but the giants have already stepped into the arena with 100% natural product lines.

I always look forward to receiving your regular emails as the content is personal, with you often sharing your successes, and how you overcome those day to day challenges running a creative business, and helping others to do the same. When did you feel that you were, in a way, adding the mentorship string to your bow?

I think it really happened when I committed to writing a regular weekly newsletter or blog post and realised that there was only so much I could say about perfume making. I used to sit down at my computer and stare at the flashing cursor thinking “what shall I write” and nothing came. I saw people getting stuck on the same things and realised I could offer some insight as I had been there and come out the other side.

At first I was a bit nervous of sharing my story or anything “non perfume related” in my emails but the first one I ever did got such a great response I carried on. Nowadays I tune in to what I feel intuitively needs to go into the newsletter. Sometimes it is based on a perfumery question somebody has asked me that would be relevant to lots of people and sometimes it is just an insight I’ve had or something I’ve read that might help someone though a particular challenge. I’ve always included my personal development and spirituality in my business and now I feel called to share that with others too. I have a Facebook group called Creative Business Alchemy where I share more of that stuff.

What would be your advice to women wanting to start their own enterprise in this field?

I would say make sure you have a clear plan, enough capital and a great story plus lots of passion and stamina. The skincare and fragrance industry is competitive and it isn’t enough to have a great product, you need to also stand out from the crowd. Be prepared to be very visible as the brand owner and connect with your customers to grow your audience and create loyal fans. I would also love to see more beauty brands using inspirational stories to sell their products rather than the fear based marketing that has become the norm.

Lastly, what role does aromatherapy play in your day to day? Can you share some of your favourite rituals?

The main way I use aromatherapy now is in the bath. I don’t use lots of products but I always have a 25kg tub of plain Epsom Salts in my bathroom. The oils I choose really depend on how I’m feeling vs how I want to feel. If I’m struggling to write or decide on something and need some clarity I like Rosemary. If I’m feeling the need to spoil myself I use Sandalwood and Rose Absolute. My most often used oil is Clary Sage as I have a really close association with it from my teenage years. Sinking into a hot Epsom Salt bath with a lit candle and some Clary Sage always brings me back to my centre.

Many thanks to Karen, and thank you for stopping by and taking the time to  read! To share your thoughts or to ask a question, leave us a comment below!