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An interview with Celine Barel, the perfumer of Zoologist Squid

October 10, 2019

An interview with Celine Barel, the perfumer of Zoologist Squid

Hi Celine, could you tell us about yourself?

I grew up in Grasse, France in the 80’s when the heart of the city was still beating thanks to the fragrance industry, and the entire city’s smell varied according to the distillation of raw materials seasonal arrivals. No one in my family was related to this industry, and I didn’t go to ISIPCA (perfumery school). But since being a child, I wanted to be part of this industry one day, on the brand’s side though, because in the 80’s and 90’s the ad campaigns and launch events were stupendous! Therefore I went to business school and interned at Chanel, Dior, Vuitton and… Mane, where I discovered the “backstage” world of perfumes creation, and I LOVED it. From that moment on, my goal was to gain olfactive knowledge to become a perfumer.

How long have you been a perfumer? Have you always been aspired to become a perfumer since young? What is your favourite perfume?

I have been a perfumer, including IFF perfumery school, for 17 years. As a little child I already had high interest for perfumes, my nanny’s husband worked in the Roure’s factory, and when he would come back home his clothes were impregnated with raw materials aromas, and I was collecting fragrance bottles really digging for the rare ones, and my grandfather who loved gardening used to tell me: “a garden, you have to smell it, look at it, taste it, touch it and hear it”, so I received an education in Nature’s beauty and resources. Plus all women in my family were either very sophisticated and loved rich perfumes that would leave a huge sillage, or adventurers and would bring exotic olfactive treasures found in some remote places. That’s why I have a taste for decadent, opulent and sensual fragrances, mostly in the oriental or ambery family or else I like big white floral, my all time favorite being Versace Blonde alas discontinued.

How did you become a perfumer at IFF?

It’s really after my internship at Mane that I suddenly put all my efforts into getting an olfactive training to maybe one day become a perfumer. That’s with this mindset I joined IFF in Milan, Italy, where I studied for 2 years after work hours smelling raw materials and market products with someone who trained at the Roure’s school back in the days, classifying them, and then pass the internal competition to enter the newly re-opened IFF perfumery School program, where I have been trained cross categories in IFF creative centers in the Netherlands, New York, Paris and Grasse. So my background is kind of unusual for a perfumer and I am grateful to IFF that they’ve been attracted by an unorthodox profile like mine.

IFF is one of the most renowned big aroma chemical companies in the world. It definitely hires a lot of people, but do they have a lot of perfumers? Is it very hard to become a IFF perfumer? What does it take to become one? Do they train and hire new perfumers every year?

At IFF we have worldwide around 120 creative perfumers cross categories, among them around 30 in fine fragrances.

Fun fact : there are actually fewer perfumers in the world than Nobel Prize Winners!

It is very hard to become a perfumer, first because the opportunities to being trained are very slim, then there is a lot of competition and eventually not everyone trained will become a perfumer. It is a very long and slow craft to gain, and one needs to have not only an artistic talent, but also a strong psychological mindset. 95% of what we are doing is going to garbage, and we interact with people all day long whose job is to criticize our creations.

Hence resilience, patience, combativeness and being a good listener are some key qualities to have, as well as an indestructible faith in ourselves and our work. IFF is constantly training a pipeline of young perfumers according to the category and geographical needs of the company, and is partnering with ISIPCA on a special program. Each year, some are hired by IFF.

Can you tell us what is a typical day for a perfumer at IFF? How many different work-in-progress perfumes do you juggle each day? On average what is the average number of revisions it takes to finish a perfume?

I usually like to start my day composing new formulae, letting the freshly compounded reworks sit for at least half a day (in case of rush projects we usually don’t have much time!). I am very productive in the morning and don’t like to be disturbed. I am always excited to smell my work with evaluators, the most exciting part being when we put on skin the best reworks to only pick one or two to be presented to the brand. During my day I interact with my lab assistant and evaluators the most, then with sales to prepare strategy, with marketing to work on concepts and olfactive stories, and with people responsible for toxicology, consumer insight, and one of my other favorite time during the day is when we meet with the brands to present our work. That’s when all the minutious work done backstage is taking life in the proper context. There is constantly this dual dialogue: internal and external. When one of them is missing, it shows in the final product, something is like “not aligned”.

At IFF perfumers have to juggle with many projects, covering the whole range of the olfactive offer out there: from specialty to masstige, and prestige to niche. Perfumers need to be agile to work on different segments. Sometimes one perfumer is working several olfactive propositions for the same project.

There is nothing like an average number of revisions, as each project is different. It may take up to several hundreds of revisions when we work on creating a blockbuster that will be tested on different markets, with often several perfumers collaborating on a same olfactive direction. It is not the case for projects that are less complex. Usually when a perfumer truly invents an idea that is not inspired from something already existing, it can take several years of work to develop an edgy accord into a finish product. When I read some reviews, it makes me laugh when people think that mainstream projects are easier to win. It is completely the opposite! Because the perfumer usually has to start with a strong and innovative accord, with a great story then, and that’s all the difficulty, she/he has to transform it into a highly liked complex fragrance, highly adopted on worldwide markets known to have very different olfactive preferences…

To my knowledge, in the perfume industry, it is not very common to credit the perfumer. On Fragrantica’s database, it has listed about 15 fragrances designed by you, and that seems to be a small number. Is it safe to guess you have designed many more but they are not credited? What is your thought on that? What are some more special perfumes designed by you?

It’s true. Few years ago it was not a widely adopted trend to name the perfumer, especially not when it was a younger one. Today still, some brands do not want to credit the perfumers and we oblige them. I have created among others for Jo Malone, Tory Burch, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Lancome, Loewe, Oscar de la Renta, Aramis, Dunhill, Jil Sander…

Lately thanks to the niche world, with Frederic Malle being the innovator in the matter, perfumers, like designers in fashion have started to become an acknowledged asset to promote the universe of a fragrance, and this helped to bring back the “art of perfumery”, with this underlying idea there is a true craftsmanship and a visible creator behind a perfume creation.

The fragrance industry has changed a lot over the past few decades. There are now many niche perfume brands and self-taught perfumers creating their own indie perfumes. Do you think a “professionally trained” perfumer has some significant advantages and knowledge to perfume composition? On the opposite, do you think indie perfumers are more likely to create more unique, creative or bold scents because they are not bounded by vigorous training?

The fragrance industry has suffered for many years because of the absence of a clear definition of what is a “perfumer-creator”. Therefore, few years ago, the French Society of Perfumers took the initiative to establish a strict code of what defines officially the skills and competencies of a perfumer-creator.

Receiving an academic training has never impeached anyone to break the rules, innovate and be bold. Quite the opposite. It is easy to shock and draw the public attention when piling up odours or/and overdosing them by a lack of knowledge; it is another one to translate a vision, an intention, through a composition and find a new “disturbing harmony” where the shock is right, the balance is right.

The ability to create fragrances that are considered more unique, creative or bold comes from two main conditions: first, the absence of olfactive tests; second, the opportunity to work directly with the brand founder or artistic director, which allow to collaborate with the person in full charge of the brand’s vision, usually that person being a risk taker, passionate about fragrance and eager to innovate. Last but not least, we are usually working niche at a much higher price point and with no filtering layers to please at different stages, whose individual tastes may not be always aligned.

So, independently of being created by professionally trained or self-taught perfumers, the niche/indie market has done an amazing job at reinvigorating the whole world perfumery market on all its segments.

This “Renaissance” is due to “riskier” fragrances driven by stronger olfactive statements, more creative and often more qualitative in terms of raw materials, great marketing stories and /or packaging, and a more selective distribution.

Nowadays people do not want to smell like everybody else anymore, especially the younger generation. They’d rather stay away of the “best testers” to explore more scents “off the beaten track”.


Let’s talk about the perfume, Squid, shall we?

The collaboration between Zoologist and IFF was perhaps very serendipitous – About a year ago (2018) a perfume shop opened in New York and Zoologist was one of the brands that they carried. Since IFF has a headquartered in New York, they discovered Zoologist when they visited the store. Subsequently, the management of IFF New York contacted me to ask if I was interested in collaboration. To be honest I was very shocked, because I thought big aromachemcial companies like IFF were only interested in big perfume houses that sell millions of bottles. Of course, I would not want to pass the opportunity, for I had always wondered what it was like to have a perfume designed by “the big one”. The very kind client manager (who was the middle person between me and the perfumers) had asked me for some concepts for a perfume that I wanted to make, and I gave her three. Those three fragrances were all very challenging to design and the briefs had been sitting on my computer for a few years. A week later she told me that all of them were snatched up by three different perfumers! I was expecting only one perfume would get chosen. She also told me the names of the three perfumers and who would be designing which animal, and you would be doing Squid.

Now, I have to ask, how does a client’s brief usually funnel down to a perfumer? Is it common that a perfumer gets to choose which perfume she wants to design, or the management makes the choice?

Regarding high stake briefs, there’s a strategy coming from the management to have this perfumer or that perfumer working on it. Clients can also request specific perfumers to work on their creations.

As far as Niche’s briefs are concerned, the perfumer’s desire to to work on it is key as the relationship customer-perfumer is crucial, usually much tighter, in order to create a strong olfactive statement.

In my case, I loved your brand, I loved how the animals were portrayed, and it talks to my somehow “Peter Pan’s” side, in a fantasy world where animals would actually be true characters and have an olfactive identity. It brings me also to the Victorian age, one of my favorite historical period.

And why did you choose Squid?

I absolutely wanted to work on Squid. Some people were telling me “Squid? Yuk! No one wants to smell like the fish market”. I cannot understand how people can get so literal!

Immediately in my mind, I was in Jules Verne’s A Thousand League under the Sea, with frightening giant squid coming from the deepest part of the ocean, it brought me to Japan or China, as supposedly the giant squids are living in those waters, so I knew there should be some incense in the accord. Squid bone is the starting point of the genesis of ambergris: the sperm whale is producing a fatty substance to wrap the squid bone… And coincidently a month maybe before receiving the Squid brief, while swimming in Nikki Beach in Dubai, I hurt my foot walking on a huge squid bone. I smelled it and it was beautiful, more pungent, sweet and grainy like Tonka, very salty and rawer than ambergris. So I brought the squid bone back and we did a headspace analysis.

Therefore Squid is really based on three pillars: the Living Squid Bone (or headspace) accord in the dry down, the solar saltiness (an airy salty ethereal floral impression) in the heart and mystical frankincense on top. Then you asked me to emphasize the melancholic and inky feeling, as well as the spicy intro. It brought me back again to Jules Verne, who wrote at the height of Romanticism. So I envisioned an olfactive impression that would translate at the same time a calm and stormy mind, going from a deep dark mood to a bright happy place, I was listening to Beethoven a lot to put me in this Romantic mood. And we did it …!

I’d imagine no one would like to smell like a fish market or a fishy squid, so how did you tackle this project, a perfume named Squid, to make it representative but also wearable?

When I create a fragrance, I always keep in mind that no matter how creative the initial concept is, at the end it will be worn by a person that need to feel confident about wearing it. A fragrance is like a suit or a dress: as creative, as edgy as it could be, no one wants to feel uncomfortable wearing it.

Smells have been through centuries, cultures, classes, a powerful social marker. It is a matter of being accepted or rejected. Tell me which fragrance you wear, I’ll tell you to which social group you belong (or more realistically you’d like to belong!) lol

What exactly is “Solar Salicylate” (a note used in Squid)?

Salicylates are raw materials naturally present in nature for most, that give an ethereal and powerful airy effect, ranging from salty to green or floral facets. In Squid, they are massively used to give the salty effect and carry the formula structure.


How did you design the ink accord? Could you reveal a little bit what goes in that accord?

When you asked me to push the ink accord, I worked with the IFF tool “Scentemotion” that helps the perfumer determining which raw materials are linked to blue colour, and from my own experience preparing the “nero di sepia” sauce for pasta, it had to smell salty and velvety at the same time. There is a proper density to achieve in the olfactive texture of the ink accord, I used a combination of resins and balsams.

Now that the scent is finished, how do you describe the scent?

I love how with you we created this new kind of “marine” family, miles away from the typical marine citrusy ozonic accord found in classics! Squid is a Marine Amber, fresh and sensual.

Did you surprise yourself with Squid? I was surprised, because when I first learned about the perfumes designed by you, they seemed to be more on the mainstream side, but people who had smelled Squid all told me it was very “niche”. (What kind of scents do you enjoy creating more, niche or more commercial mainstream?)

Working on the American fragrance market, I was asked to focus on the more commercial segments. I rarely worked for niche brands in the past, except for Aesop, Jo Malone, Atkinsons or Diana Vreeland. But I did a lot of artistic collaborations to quench my desire to create edgy fragrances, like with D.J. Kid Koala when I did his olfactive opera for the Luminato Festival in Toronto, Canada, or with Robert Wilson on the theme “Voluptuous Panic”. And Serge von Arx with whom we did twice, in Norway and in Switzerland, workshops on olfactive scenography.

Now I am working much more on niche brands and I am absolutely loving it. Stay tuned!

Now, if you would design any perfume for Zoologist, which animal would you pick?

Aaaaah! I have some in mind with the full olfactive story! One is very very edgy! My work on olfactive scenography helps me a lot to give a strong olfactive context linked to the animal. One in particular I would LOVE to execute ! It’s about speed.

Thank you so much!




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