From Iceland — The Unlikely Perfumer

The Unlikely Perfumer

Published April 11, 2024

The Unlikely Perfumer
Photo by
Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

Meet an American immigrant who followed his nose toward the scents of Iceland

“I worked as a software developer until I was just so burnt out from it, I just hated that life,” Nicholas Brittain Shaber shares as we meet in his tiny office that also serves as his perfume lab. “I stayed with it, because the money was good. But I felt like I was, in a lot of ways, dying inside.” Fast-forward a few years and Nicholas has given up on a few jobs to find his passion — the natural Icelandic perfumery, Ilmur & Sjór. We met up with him to talk about the ins and outs of building a business in one of the most secretive industries.

A journey of discovery

Similar to the stories of many other immigrants, Nicholas’ love affair with Iceland began with his fascination with nature and music. Inspired by the likes of Björk and Sigur Rós, Nicholas first came here to do a summer study focusing on the music scene. After a few years bouncing between the U.S. and Iceland, Nicholas started a family, became a parent and ultimately settled in Iceland. 

Trying to be a responsible parent, Nicholas postponed quitting a job he didn’t like. “I always dreamed of the great big grandiose things and it looked nothing like that,” he reflects on his years working as a software developer. 

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

He knew he wanted a change. Having been fishing for one summer in Alaska, Nicholas reached out to a few friends in the fishing industry in Iceland and asked if they could get him on a boat. “I left the world of software development behind and said, ‘I’m gonna be a fucking fisherman.’” The harsh, physical, but honest work turned out to be exactly what Nicholas needed. “I needed to be out in storms in the middle of winter on a ship in the North Atlantic, just working hard and catching fish.”

He spent a couple of years on fishing boats, but eventually stopped — being away from his daughter proved too difficult. Nicholas was once again on the lookout for something else. “I started writing music again. Then about a year and a half ago, I started perfuming,” he says. This was the moment he finally realised, “This is it. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Birth of Ilmur & Sjór

At the beginning of his perfumery journey, Nicholas was working at a restaurant and was particularly inspired by his boss’ use of essential oils for cleaning products. “I borrowed a book from a friend and followed some essential oil recipes. Within the first two days, I made 11 or 12 scents and one of those is one of my best-selling fragrances,” he shares.

“My time at sea fishing, especially in Iceland, saved me in so many ways.”

At first, Nicholas decided to give a few perfumes as Christmas gifts. But then, as he describes, the little things propelled him forward, “It was one little thing at a time — first, I started sourcing nicer glass bottles. Within two months, I bought my first Aroma Chemicals kit. Before that, I had only been using essential oils and with essential oils you can only go so far. When I received this kit, it just blew my mind.” From not knowing anything about perfuming, Nicholas was quickly obsessed — “grabbing, reading everything I could, listening to podcasts and being on forums and all this.”

A pivotal moment came when his boss from the restaurant suggested he should do a scent for the restaurant. “The process of putting that together made me realise I should just be doing this on my own and start a perfumery,” Nicholas says. By that time, he felt confident he had a product he could market and sell. So, he took it a step further and rented a room at, where most of his perfume-making now takes place.

Inspired by his time spent on fishing boats, Nicholas named his brand Ilmur & Sjór (fragrance & sea). “My time at sea fishing, especially in Iceland, saved me in so many ways,” he reflects.

The idea behind Ilmur & Sjór is fiercely Icelandic — fragrances capture Icelandic countryside, using locally-made essential oils and tinctures hand-made by Nicholas. “What I make is so different from the average perfume that you would smell in the airport,” says Nicholas.

Art Bicnick/The Reykjavík Grapevine

At the moment, Nicholas sells his perfumes at pop-up events and is working to get them into stores. “It’s half of my job and it’s a constant struggle,” he admits. When not mixing fragrances, Nicholas works at the private terminal of the domestic airport to support himself. 

Cracking the insider’s code

“Being an immigrant I don’t have any connections here. I’m a totally unknown person that just popped up and said, “Hey, I am a perfumer. Here’s my business,’” Nicholas shares. While navigating the legal system of starting a company in Iceland was mostly straightforward, trying to collaborate with other perfumers turned out to be more challenging. “Oftentimes, in Iceland, things run through nepotism and connections. When you don’t have those connections, it’s more of a struggle,” he says. For instance, not knowing where to buy ethanol alcohol, an essential ingredient used in most perfumes, put his venture on hold for months.  

“Oftentimes, in Iceland, things run through nepotism and connections. When you don’t have those connections, it’s more of a struggle.”

Nicholas emphasises the importance of scratching off an illusion that your product is simply making art. Building a sustainable business is vital, he says. “You can’t just have a beautiful product and just be an artist. Five percent of my time is actually doing perfumery and the rest is everything else around it — from putting labels on bottles and trying to source materials to contacting people, advertising, putting numbers in a spreadsheet and figuring out percentages.” 

Nicholas’s advice to anyone thinking about starting a business, in particular while combining it with a day job, is to start expanding their professional network as soon as possible — reach out to people from Startup Iceland, attend their meetings, read about grants you could apply for, or find your creative community in places like

“The best thing that I could have ever done was becoming a member of,” he says. “Because even though I didn’t have Icelandic family and friends, I didn’t know the right guy to call at all times, I did have this beautiful community here,” Nicholas admits.

Ilmur & Sjór officially launches on April 27 during DesignMarch.

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