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An Interview with Christian Carbonnel, the Perfumer of Zoologist Camel

October 30, 2017

An Interview with Christian Carbonnel, the Perfumer of Zoologist Camel

I met Christian in May, 2016 at the Los Angeles Hammer Museum, where the Art and Olfaction Awards hosted their awards night. Christian is a perfumer, but also an “ambassador” for his family-owned company, Carbonnel, in Spain. While we were both competing for the award in the Independent category, Christian approached me (and other perfume houses) to talk about his company and the perfumery services it provides. In the end, it was a double win for Zoologist – Bat won the award, and also a collaboration opportunity with Carbonnel.

Christian works fast and professionally. It took us about three months to complete the Camel perfume project, but I didn’t launch it right away. I asked him if he was interested in redesigning Panda (the original scent artistically pleased a rather small group of people), and he obliged. The project was also completed brilliantly, in a short time.

We met each other again in March 2017 at the annual perfume trade show, Esxence, in Italy. He was there to showcase a few perfumes he’d designed for another brand. I caught up with him briefly for this interview.

Above: Victor Wong and Christian Carbonnel, at the 2016 Art and Olfaction Awards Post-ceremony Party

Your grandfather, Maurice Carbonnel, founded Carbonnel 1925. Can you tell us more about the company?

Yes. Carbonnel is a family business, as you say. My grandfather was a French perfumer who moved to Spain to produce essential oils. In the beginning, we were based in Alicante, but were only there for a few years, from 1921 to 1925. Now our company is located in Barcelona, and the business is in its third generation with me. The fourth is coming.

How big is your company now, and how many perfumers does it employ?

We have 50 people working in the company, and 17 of those are perfumers. We don't need more because we now put our investment focus on equipment, robots and technology. Now our size is more a question of space. As a family business, we want it in one place for quality control; we don't want branches all over the world.

It strikes me that your company is now very modernized. Everything is computerized from start to finish. Was the modernization a gradual process, or did your family decide one day to make a big investment to make it the business more competitive?

We have been adding high-tech equipment for the last 10 years. In fact, yesterday we just purchased a new robot for production. We like to reinvest our income in technology.

What kind of robot is it?

It's a new Roxane, and it's going to be my toy. It can blend 100 ingredients very accurately and efficiently. That is going to help me speed up my projects.

Roxane Filling Robot

Above: Roxane Filling Robots

What about the material sourcing aspect of the company? There are many essential oil companies in France, how do you make Carbonnel more competitive?

There are many essential oils that come from Spain, but the French say they come from France, because we are supplying them, if you know what I mean. We produce typical Spanish essential oils, and we supply to the world. There are a few ingredients that must be grown in Spain – for example, labdanum, and different grades of lavender and citrus that are endemic to our land. Each essential oil company has its own quality and unique products. We invest in lands in the Far East. We have our oud oils, for example.

In the perfume industry, 5 or 6 aroma chemical giants design and supply most of the designer fragrances to the world. My perception is that they are not interested in dealing with small indie houses, and even if they do, their minimum perfume compound order quantity is set prohibitively high. In my opinion, Carbonnel is a mid-size company that has accounts with some notable designer perfume brands, but also designs and compounds perfumes for smaller indie/niche perfume companies like Zoologist.

One of the main concerns of an indie brand is the problem of growth. You will face challenges if you want to produce your perfumes in larger quantities. But keeping the quality… that’s why you want to find a company like Carbonnel to help and support you. Unlike other bigger aromachemcial suppliers which close the door on you because they see you a small indie house, Carbonnel likes to give them a chance and see what happens. We try to push them and give them the same opportunities, for sure. We treat each customer the same. A small customer can be big one day, so you need to give them the same chance as everybody else. Naturally, it's nice to work with the big ones, but we also love to help or to be part of the small ones that one day could become big. So there is no separation between big or small. We try to give our best to both and help them to grow.

I first met you in 2016 at the Art and Olfaction Awards show, and we were both competing for the same award in the independent category. But before the show we were actually talking about a collaboration! So tell me: what’s your role in Carbonnel, besides being a perfumer?

Besides designing perfumes, I'm doing everything – public relations, I'm the marketing guy, I'm the son of the owner. It's a family business, so I do everything. I even answer the mail. I'm a normal guy.

I find it interesting that when we were developing the perfume, you often had to pause to travel.

Above: Christian and his father

I love to meet people. One thing I learned from my dad is that Carbonnel needs to be in contact with the brands. Visiting customers is a great way to nurture a business relationship; it’s like growing their business together with the people behind them. It's not like Carbonnel is just a brand, and that's all. We like to put the face to the products. So, yes, I like to design perfumes, but I am also the brand ambassador. A customer is more like a partner to us; we are in the same part of the business.

In fact, I design perfumes even when I'm traveling. My staff always ask for my schedule and itinerary, and they send me work-in-progress samples. In fact, with Camel, I was in Thailand. The samples were waiting for me in my hotel. I evaluated those samples, and I refined and formulated them from a distance with my software, and sent the formula back to them. They would then prepare new samples based on the new formulae, and determine where to send them based on how long I would be staying in that location. So that’s how I create perfumes while traveling.

How many perfumes do you usually design every year? Do you get a lot of freedom when it comes to design? Can you tell me some of the perfumes you’ve designed that you’re most proud of so far?

I never count…

Maybe 20-30?

Or maybe more. But I don't like to create too many for niche brands, because I don't want to become a mainstream perfumer. If I do, my perfumes will start to smell the same. So from time to time you need to stop for inspiration to come back.

Some brands will come to you with a direction you need to follow. Sometimes I am required to rework a classic, and I will give them some ideas and start playing modeller with them. I will build some of accords and do different combinations; it’s like a puzzle. There are some other projects I can do whatever I want. But typically I get a lot of freedom when it comes to perfume design. I can work with an open formula from customers, I can work with a briefing. With Camel, you had given me a lot of freedom. I presented what I liked, and you picked what you liked. After that, we did a lot of polishing. I'm very flexible, and I think I love all the different ways to design a perfume. In the end, each perfume is like a baby to me.

Are some perfumes you designed more memorable to you?

For sure, some of them are more memorable. I'm not going to mention their names, but I can tell you that they were made initially for my wife and my daughter - in fact, one became worldwide bestseller for that brand. Recently, a brand released my very first fragrance, which I created a long time ago. One day he came to the office and smelled a sample of it, and he loved it so much he decided to launch it for his brand. This year, here at Esxence, he's presenting it. That perfume is like one of my first kids, so I'm proud.

When I go to Fragrantica.com and search for perfumes designed by you, I don’t see many. You mentioned before that you actually use a different name. Why is that? Did your client ask you not to use your own name?

I'm using both at the same time; it depends on the brands. Christian Carbonnel and Chris Maurice are both my real names; Christian Maurice Carbonnel is my full French name. There are some brands who want to use Chris Maurice because they think “a perfume designed by Christian Carbonnel from Carbonnel” is a bit too much. I suggested removing one Carbonnel – but Chris can be anyone, so I included Maurice.

Let’s talk about Camel! What came to your mind when you knew the perfume would be named “Camel”?

I really liked it, because camels are often associated with the Middle East, and I like oriental perfumes. And the way you wanted Camel to smell was really very suitable to, let’s say, my character. It is quite opposite to the technique in most “French Oriental” perfumes, because often it means vanilla. For me, Oriental is Arabic, and Camel is very, very Arabic.

I remember you mentioned that your bigger clients are from the Middle East.

In the ’80s, when we decided to grow, we meant to export Carbonnel products into the Middle East. The people there are religious, and they burn a lot of fragrant materials in their rituals. They love their attars, and we proposed fine fragrance as an alternative. They loved the idea.

As we were doing this interview, Christian’s lab assistants, Blanca and Laurita, walked by to say hello.

Above: Christian and his perfumery assistants, at Esxence 2017

I have been working with my lab assistants for many years, and they provide me with valuable ideas. They prepare my samples based on my written formula, but also give me ideas and feedback. So many of my perfumes are products of a melting pot of ideas. Some perfumers you cannot work with, because they don't want to listen. With me it is very simple. I like to listen to them.

So they suggested which ingredients to use?

No, it's not just a question of ingredients. It's more about the proportions of the ingredients. Boys and girls smell differently, so it's nice to have a different point of view. It’s kind of like a duel.

Do you have a favourite perfume genre?

For me, it must be very woody, with incense. I don't like too much “freshness”. You know, there are some ingredients I really don't like… commercial things. I like heavy notes, because I've been training with my dad. My dad has been doing Oriental fragrances for the Middle East with heavy notes, and those are what I have been smelling since I was a kid.

So you would not wear a cologne or a “freshie”?

Never. I remember when I was small, my mom put a lot of cologne on me, and now on my son. I would say no, no, no, no! I understand it’s a school environment, and you want to put on a normal cologne that is standard to everyone. But I would make my son a heavier cologne that is going to be another style.

How do you usually tackle or start a project? Do you build different accords?

You know, everything has already been invented. I don’t need to build everything from scratch. I don't need to start with a base – I can go directly into the middle accord. Depends on my mood. Some days I arrive at the lab and I put four or five ingredients together, and I have my base. Then I will say, okay, now I have this musky base I want to work with, I will put in this, this, this and this. I list the items. I make a rapid formula. It’s like building the frame of a house. I cannot say all the perfumes I'm making follow the same rule. Some projects I start from scratch, from a to z. Sometimes I just play with accords based on the client’s requests – they often tell me a particular aspect of what they like or don’t like from some existing perfumes, and I will try to understand what is in common. Then I will make a base, and start building the rest.

Above: Frankincense Tree Resin "Tears"

In the ingredient list for Camel you’ve given me – there’s frankincense and incense – how are they different?

They come from two different origins. I'm using frankincense from Oman. We deal with a person in Oman that makes only three kilograms of frankincense a year. He cuts the tears from the trees and distills them for us. Very, very niche. We cannot use this ingredient for mass-marketed products, only in niche perfumes. And I'm using incense from India, so we have two grades of incense in Camel, from two different origins, two different qualities and smell. You could put them in the same family and simply call them “incense”, but I want to stress the difference.

Also, the dates we put in Camel are not “normal” dates… 

Oh wait – they are real dates?

Yes, date tinctures, from real dates! They come from a farm and are grown by one of my providers. He's not selling these dates to the market, just for family consumption. I can tell you they are from the plantation area of Al Ain, United Arab Emirates.

Above: Dates Plantation in the Middle East

Camel also contains a little bit of oud, but it is never really strong or “fecal” smelling.

We source our ouds from all the Far East oud-growing countries, and each oud has its own greatness and qualities. We also have our own farm in Laos. It is our site, and we have our standard method of production to ensure the quality remains the same.

Laos oud is very interesting – it is very sweet and long-lasting, and it has a “joker” quality. Normally you bring one or two different ouds and add some Laos oud to it to make the blend more “rounded”.

Finally, what are your thoughts about indie perfumes vs perfumes designed by companies like Carbonnel?

Indie perfumes are very interesting, because they are often very creative. You do what you like, and it’s pushing the art of perfumery. Sometimes big perfume companies look from afar and steal the great ideas from the indies.

Zoologist Camel will be released on December 8th, 2017

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