Could you tell us something about yourself?
As far as I know, I’m the world’s only Finnish globally active professional perfumer. I grew up in Helsinki and attended Finnish-Russian language school for 12 years. By 18, I was fluent in three languages (Finnish, Russian and English) and somewhat able to use French and Swedish. I was a total bookworm and grew up on old school science fiction and Russian classics. I had also been writing for publication since the age of 9 – so languages seemed to make sense as a career choice. I was going to be an interpreter and I even enrolled on a degree course towards that path, but a gap year turned into a big change - and here I still am, in the UK. I’ve forgotten my Russian now; I’d have to live there for a year or so and it would come flooding back.
I have a 9-month-old Finnish Lapphund called Taisto and I’m married to a Brit with Finnish and Northern Irish heritage. We live in Leighton Buzzard.
It’s easy to look back and think you see a pattern where there wasn’t one, but it did take me a while to realise that not everyone necessarily catalogues their memories with the odours first, memory second. Smelling everything and remembering the exact odours was second nature to me long before I even knew what a perfumer was.
How did you become a perfumer? Did you go to a perfume school?
My route to perfumery is unconventional and filled with side quests. It’s also a bit like When Harry Met Sally, in that perfume was a huge part of my life all along but I didn’t consider it as my one true love until I was in my 30s. The best summary is that while I didn’t attend ISIPCA or an internal perfumery school in a big fragrance house, I have assembled the equivalent of a formal perfumery education from learning on-the-job, academic study, mentorship, and self-study over a period of 12 years. I think the biggest acceleration in my learning came from starting the business with Nick – I was able to get the kind of help that would normally only be available to corporate perfumers. Learning perfumery and becoming more than just competent at it takes more than one human lifetime’s worth of work, so it’s good to have help.
I worked part time after school from age 13 to 20 for a superstore (the kind that stocks everything you can think of and also has distinct departments like cosmetics & fragrance). Over the years I gained a solid foundation of product knowledge in all the brands they stocked. I had also built what nowadays is called a “perfume wardrobe” (and back then in the 80s was considered excessive) – I had a minimum of 20 perfumes in rotation at any one time. Balahe by Leonard, Givenchy III, Paris YSL, Femme Rochas and Fendi were some of my favourites from that time. In the 90s, I wore a lot of Coco. It was my clubbing perfume.
I had always secretly wanted to be an artist, but an unsuccessful art school application in Finland left me thinking I needed to be pragmatic, so I enrolled in London College of Fashion. I graduated in 1996 and went on to work in film, TV, fashion, and theatre as a make-up artist and hair stylist. Our curriculum included cosmetic science and that was my first experience of product formulation. My dream career at the time would have been to work for Jim Henson’s creature workshop – but I had no idea how to achieve that goal.
Instead, I ended up backstage in theatre and fashion shows; magazine shoots and musicals; on a HBO film set in Hollywood creating 1930s hair styles, and creating body painting designs for a fantasy film that was really a thinly disguised soft porn film.
As much as that was fun and exciting, I started to crave some stability. My income had to be supplemented by continuing to work in – guess what? Cosmetics and fragrance. The scheduling of work on set often clashed with my shifts at London department stores (I worked in every single one of them during this time) and sometimes I ended up doing ridiculous workdays that involved an 8-hour shift at Dickins & Jones, then dashing to a theatre to get the actors ready – and finishing at 1am.
I got a job as a regional training manager for a UK cosmetics and fragrance distributor. Their main focus was fragrance, and this was the first time I saw what had been right in front of my nose all along. I started looking into who creates fragrances, where the materials come from and how the industry is set up. All of this was still fiendishly obscure, so it was not easy. The internet was in its infancy and there were no helpful websites like Basenotes and Fragrantica, nor any guidebooks like those edited by NEZ. What I would have given for a place like the Institute of Art and Olfaction back then! The inner workings of actual perfumery seemed like an impenetrable wall.
In the end, I found my way to a cosmetics company that was both known for its fragrances and – crucially - created all its own formulas, including the fragrances, in-house. I had to start from the shop floor and work my way up, but I became a junior perfumer there, through training and participating in all the fragrance activities (buying trips to see raw materials; learning how to quality control; even learning how to compound in bulk on the factory floor – that was such an eye-opener as they were doing everything by hand; your 2% of vanillin in a formula looks really intimidating when it’s a mound of powder you have to solubilise). I also helped train their in-store training team and participated in the launch of their own quirky perfume brand, which involved travelling around the world with their perfume gallery concept. Fell in love with Seoul, New York, and Tokyo.
The products that I worked on as a perfumer were varied, and the raw material palette was a mixture of expensive naturals and basic synthetics. I compounded all my own formulas and trials of course; there were no assistants. This was also very useful training. They funded my study on the ICATS Diploma in Aroma Trades course, on which I won the David Williams prize for best student in my first year.
I moved on after 7 years there, to a small family-run ingredient and fragrance supplier. My role was 80% technical management (fancy term for all incoming and outgoing quality control, plus all regulatory) and 20% perfumery. It was a crash course in the inner workings of the supply side and really educational in many ways; for example, I learned how to properly assess and analyse raw materials and how to detect minute differences in qualities by nose alone. Perfumery was completely different there – very cost conscious, focused on synthetic materials and on functional fragrances. But I did do my first candle fragrances there and realised I enjoyed that medium.
After that, I worked for a colleague from the British Society of Perfumers where I had been a council member for a few years by then; she needed lots of help with the regulatory consultancy and training side of her business and as a reward I also got to help her create fine fragrance accords and keep the lab organised.
Above, clockwise: Olfiction office, Nick Gilbert/Pia Long, Thomas Dunckley, Ezra-Lloyd Jackson/Pia Long/Marianne Martin
Can you tell us more about Olfiction?
One serendipitous bit of timing led to my good friend and sought-after fragrance expert Nick Gilbert becoming available exactly as I was starting to get frustrated at not having enough perfumery to do – and we had a boozy discussion at my dining table about “starting a business one day.”
Three months later, we had a business and our first big account. This was in 2016. We started the business with no outside funding and that’s how things remain to this day; Nick and I co-own it outright.
In the beginning, it was just the two of us, and our business was founded on a combination of our skills and dream projects: olfaction and fiction. Perfumery and storytelling. We shared these twin passions and had experience in both. Two years in, we needed to expand the team and Ezra-Lloyd Jackson joined as a lab assistant, and another good friend Thomas Dunckley (aka The Candy Perfume Boy, six-time Jasmine award winning fragrance writer) started helping us part-time with the storytelling and training side of the business. Soon after that, Marianne Martin, an experienced chemist, perfumer, and perfumery tutor at the London College of Fashion approached me to help her edit the perfumery module for the course she runs – through that collaboration, we clicked and enjoyed working together so much that she joined our team as an independent consultant. She has been instrumental in helping to train Ezra who wants to become a perfumer. One of the best things about our perfumery team is when we get together to smell materials and end up with three perspectives from three generations and backgrounds. It’s so inspiring that I still get goosebumps!
I knew right from the start of Olfiction that this was my opportunity to finally become a full-time perfumer and I did not want to add the bulk compounding, regulatory or filling to our business straight away. It also seemed too much to expect for us to immediately source and stock all the raw materials I wanted. Nick agreed. So, we knew we needed a partner and that’s when Nick suggested we should ask Accords & Parfums, as he had an existing relationship with them through his previous work for L’Artisan Parfumeur and Penhaligon’s.
Above: Garden of Accords et Parfums
Accords & Parfums was founded in 2004 as an extension of Edmond Roudnitska’s Art et Parfums, and they are almost like a publishing house for independent perfumers. They are based on the Roudnitska estate in Cabris, just outside of Grasse. We have an exclusive agreement as the only ones in the UK working through them. It’s such a privilege and it has helped us so much. They source and stock thousands of materials and we can have any we could ever want; currently our lab has around 400. They provide access to formulating software which allows me to do the precise work of the endless calculations required in formulating, reformulating and regulations. They provide stability and safety testing and use the same standard of quality control and precise robotics for manufacturing as the bigger houses. It’s an ideal situation.
Who are your clients? What are some of the perfumes and candles you have created? Which scents/candles you have created so far are special to you?
On the perfumery side: niche & luxury brands, hotels, home fragrance manufacturers (and sometimes unexpected businesses who wish to use perfume in PR or marketing) – on the storytelling and consultancy side: well-known luxury fragrance brands, fragrance industry organisations, larger fragrance houses, distributors and retailers. We also do one off events sometimes, for example with theatres, and provide education for some university courses that include formulation science or marketing. Ezra has been scenting music gigs and giving smell training and perfume making workshops for children. Our aim is to be a positive, enthusiastic force in the world for perfume and smells, and to get to do cool stuff. So far, we’re heading in the right direction.
One of the frustrating aspects of this trade is that there are still many projects under NDA, and also many that take a long time from the very first idea to the final product on the shelf; sometimes years. More and more now, we’ve been named as the perfumers or providers for even some of our bigger projects (like the Mach-Eau we just did for Ford). But this is still the exception.
My favourite smells are quite a contradiction – on one hand I love bright, dewy green scents (and I got to really explore that style in the recent collection I did for Designers Guild as well as in the Succulent candle for our own brand Boujee Bougies), and on the other hand, I love leather aromas so much it’s bordering on a fetish, so of course I had such a good time creating Terror & Magnificence for Beaufort and the Cuir Culture leather candle for Boujee Bougies. In the last few years, I’ve also created for Ghost, Mercedes Benz and Browns Fashion.
The pace of launches slowed right down in the last two years (and we all sadly know why), but conversely, this means there are so many to come in the next 18 months that it seems a bit silly! The first of the “next” list of launches just happened; two candle fragrances for La Montaña (Mistela and August Sunset), and in 2022, Boujee Bougies will see the launch of two new candle fragrances and four perfumes.
Of the recent work, I have adored working on Chipmunk (am I allowed to say that here? It’s true!) because I was able to draw on so many vivid scent memories and add such a twinkle in the eye of that perfume as well.
There are also two perfumes coming out in 2022 that are special to me. I created each with two separate friends in mind; I can’t wait for those to become real. One of those is part of a collection of seven perfumes for a new luxury niche brand, founded by a Mayfair jeweller.
How do you describe your perfumery style? What and who inspire you? What are some of your favourite perfumes?
Magic realism is the best way I can describe my signature style. I first aim for hyper-realism, then twist it. I often add little in-jokes or Easter eggs to the creations, regardless of the medium. Either word play or something to do with the concept itself. Of course sometimes the inspiration is completely abstract, and that’s when the instinctive feel for cross-modal interpretation is useful. Thinking in textures, colours, emotions, states of mind and translating those into scent, or vice versa. I also love decoding what the client really wants, although Nick is our main client contact and helps a lot with this process.
In a way, I did end up being an interpreter – an interpreter of another person’s imagination into scent.
Inspiration is absolutely everywhere, and always links seemingly disparate concepts or materials in that daisy chain of “what if” that all perfumers are probably familiar with – perfumery to me is a state of mind, a constant way of being, experiencing the world, the sensory input and the sensory imagination and memories in your own head as a continuous sea of inspiration. All I need is a command “think of this idea”, either internally or externally, and the cogs begin to turn, pulling inspiration from materials I may have thought I knew but now want to re-smell through the lens of this new idea, or an evening walk in nature, or the green tea I am sipping; a vegetable I’m chopping for dinner… art I see in a book. Everything. Everything is inspiring. If I have been working too much on output and creations, I sometimes deliberately stop to visit an art gallery or gardens or a forest, just to recharge the creative mind with new input. I am always reading (multiple books in progress at all times), and a lot of thoughts come from there, too.
Favourite perfumes are split into two types – the ones that I can wear without thinking about them (Annick Goutal Mandragore, Le Galion Eau Noble, Guerlain Cuir Beluga) and perfumes which to me are either linked to a special memory or just so beautiful in themselves that I need them in my collection even if I don’t get to wear them often – too numerous to list, but for example Ambre Sultan Serge Lutens, Mitsouko Guerlain, L’Artisan Dzongkha.
Let’s talk about Chipmunk! How would you describe Chipmunk? What are some of the ideas and inspirations behind this perfume?
The timing of this was so good. I had just received a sample of a material I hadn’t used before, oak barrel absolute, and I had gone on to create a smell-alike accord to study the olfactive qualities. I had also started working on a hazelnut accord – more like fresh, just shelled, not exactly fully gourmand. I constantly do little studies like this because I am curious. And exactly then, our talks about a Zoologist perfume landed on the Chipmunk and I got very excited.
The oak is the central trunk that I pinned everything else on in the perfume, and the hazelnuts are mixed with acorns, seeds and leaves inside the burrow. All the forests I’d ever visited came to whisper their stories to me and I almost felt like I was creating a scent for a Ghibli film, being the perfumer-Totoro, willing for things to sprout and grow into tall, towering trees through scent. I remembered the smell of still sticky tree sap from conifers from my childhood, and the resins in the perfume echo this.
Did you build it with different accords? How complex is this fragrance? What are some of the naturals used? Are they specials and your favourites?
With fine fragrance, perfume – I tend to work quite methodically. Starting with little accords of individual effects, then blending them in different proportions (even though at this stage they’ll be “messy”, I know what I’m looking for – the unique voice of the perfume). Once I know what to do, I explode the whole formula, tidy it up, do it again, and start to edit, edit, edit.
The key accords that I started with were the realistic oak warmed in the autumn sun, the forest floor and burrow, and the fresh hazelnut. For the burrow, I used an aromachemical called Terranol (a Symrise material that has aspects of fir balsam, moss and patchouli, and I think of it as luxury geosmin; more earthy, less beetroot). As I used natural fir balsam and patchouli, too, they formed a beautiful bond.
The camomile was a whimsical but useful addition - it sweetens the composition without becoming gourmand, it adds earthy notes without dirt, and it adds herbal floralcy without being overtly flowery. Plus, I enjoyed imagining her in a clearing in the forest, nibbling on a flower.
For the magic part of the magic realism, I used expensive, fuzzy synthetic musk for her fur, and added some fantasy woody materials as well as the naturals, for example Javanol which is just lovely. It added a kind of smoothness to the naturals.
There are a couple of hidden qualities that are a nod to her habitat and geographic location; I want people to discover them by themselves rather than to reveal all here.
Do you think Chipmunk is more for women, or is it unisex?
Perfume has no gender in itself – so, the end result can be worn by everyone. Of course, this concept was based on the girl scout chipmunk, so I wanted that combination of hyper-realistic nature and fun artistic interpretation of her to come across. This perfume has cute and fluffy elements and I wanted it to be a scent that should bring childlike joy and a sense of calm to the wearer. I suppose those can be feminine qualities. So, it’s a feminine-leaning creation that can be for anyone who wants to wear it. Having said that, because our individual odour perception is so based on our own receptors, memories, and context, for some people this could read as a masculine because of all the woody aspects and the animalic base notes.
What are some of the projects you are working on? Can you share them with us?
I am currently creating perfumes for a chain of barbershops, working on an oil-based perfume for a potential new offshoot of an existing project, creating a few dozen candle fragrances for various clients and preparing the Boujee perfumes for the stability and safety testing part of the process.
Hi Cristiano, could you tell us about yourself?
Hello everybody. My name is Cristiano Canali. I was born in Italy, and I work in the perfumery industry.
You have a Masters degree in Pharmacy, and I imagine it required a lot of hard work and dedication to achieve that academic level. But now you are a perfumer. When did you have a change of mind? Did you find foregoing all the effort and years of study a big struggle and still worth it?
The high schools in Italy do not challenge you to choose the path needed to achieve the job you dream of. Most likely you find yourself after the diploma still building a plan. Following my family heritage and being gifted with scientific subjects, medical studies were the logical way for me. I chose pharmacy, like my grandfather did. The five years of university went well, and I discussed Ayurvedic products (the traditional Hindu system of medicine) in my final thesis, since I have been always attracted by plants’ properties. Thanks to those studies, during a trip to the south of India, I got in contact with some local producers of sandalwood oil who were supplying the perfumery industry. This initiated my curiosity in the art and science behind the scents. This is how, after some years of work, I decided to attend the prestigious ISIPCA school in Versailles to perfect my preparation and push me into the fragrant world of perfumery.
You once told me that you were ‘old’ when you started your perfumery career. I thought that was ridiculous. But why did you think that? Have you changed your perception since then?
More than old – I was already experienced and exposed to working habits, so it was challenging to get back to school, restart from scratch and leave behind a secure career and life. But the urge to express myself was too strong. Also, the connections between pharmacy and perfumery are many: both utilize formulas to find ideal solutions. Chemistry and botanical ingredients are my daily bread. Both involve glassware, pipettes, and balances to produce and fabricate; clients and their satisfaction are key in order to deliver the expected product; and, last but not least, developed sales skills are required in order to be successful. As you can see, there are many parallels. Overall, pharmacy taught me how to cure the body. Perfumery is teaching me how to heal the soul.
You are now working at Argeville. Could you tell us a little about the company and your work there? What is your goal as a perfumer?
It’s been one year since I joined Argeville, a leading company in the south of France. The region is well known for its moderate climate all year, for its beautiful nature all around, and as the womb and historical center of the perfumery industry. Argeville is a dynamic company founded in 1921 and owned since the '80s by the same family. It has a clear goal of global excellence, and to offer solutions in fragrances, flavors, and a well-esteemed natural extracts palette to a wide portfolio of clients. We have different facilities around the globe and a pool of talented individuals that together form the strength of this company. My daily job is to understand clients’ needs and translate them into fragrances, both in a creative and technical way. Our evaluation team supports perfumers to achieve these tasks and is the link between creatives and the sales team that interacts with the clients and deals with the commercial strategy. My goal is to evolve in my role as perfumer, diversify my efforts by becoming more prolific, intensify my presence in the market and, more than everything, bring new creative challenges to a wider pool of aficionados. I love my job because I learn and improve on a daily basis.
Zoologist Bee is the fourth officially credited perfume designed by you. That might not be a lot, but on the Internet I have encountered much praise from fans of your work who say they love your work and style. Are you aware of your own style? Can you describe it?
I take every opportunity to explore synergies and contrasts between ingredients and work them into new olfactive ideas. My creative drive comes from nature itself, which already offers all the answers in a minimalistic complexity. It's for us to just grasp the meaning. I like to invest time in the briefing proposed, to know the designers better, smelling their actual line, and understanding where they want to go. I focus my attention on perceptions and intuitions, silage and intimacy, simplification and faceting. Another benefit comes from supporting Osmotheque, the only museum of liquid perfumes in the world, where I have been exposed to iconic fragrances and forgotten gems of the past that allow me to understand the archetypes and the most unconventional creations in history. On top of that, I am not afraid stepping out from the actual market trends that I constantly analyze. I try to seduce the most exigent noses with unconventional fragrances and satisfy consumers’ expectations. Still, I think it is early to talk about a personal signature: it is more a graphism, or a beginning of calligraphy.
What are some of your favorite perfumes and why? Do you have a favorite perfumer(s)?
Having spent many years working in Paris, where the pulsating heart of the industry beats, I had the privilege to get in contact with the greatest masters as a daily source of knowledge. From them I have learned different creative approaches, aesthetics and signatures. There is no doubt that thanks to them I kept my motivation and passion high during those years. I have great regard for Carlos Benaim, Dominique Ropion, Anne Flipo, Sophie Labe, Bruno Jovanovich, Christopher Sheldrake, Olivier Cresp, Alberto Morillas, Sonia Constant, Marie Salamagne, Pierre Bouron, Michel Almairac, Jerome Epinette, Jean-Louis Sieuzac, Fabrice Pellegrin, Aurelian Guichard, Daniela Andrier, Alienor Massenet, Veronique Nyberg, Nicolas Beaulieu, Julien Rasquinet and some others. Those people are shaping the market and driving us into a new age of perfumery.
My overall most-appreciated fragrances include: Aprée l'Ondee by Guerlain; Tabac Blond by Caron; Femme by Rochas; Opium by YSL; Fumerie Turque by Serge Lutens; and Une Fleur de Cassie by Frederic Malle.
I remember after you showed interest in designing a scent for Zoologist, we spent some time deciding which animal to base the perfume on. Your first suggestion was “Toad”, which I thought was not a very marketable perfume title…
It was a fun process to think of the animal you find the deepest connection with. Out of the various options, my attention was captured by toad. I find them cute, with those big eyes, their funny way to move on land, and their long hibernation time during winters; with their permeable skin, they are an index of environmental status, and when they are in groups they create great symphonies during the summertime. Also, they might have magical powers and hide a prince behind their uncertain look.
Later, I asked you what your favorite perfumery ingredients were, and one of them was beeswax. I thought that was something Zoologist had not explored yet.
Among my favorite natural ingredients, sandalwood has a special place for me: it is a fragrance itself and is my personal link between pharmacy and perfumer. I like to work with floral notes like magnolia, cassie, orange blossoms, tuberose, jasmine and violet for the complexity and sensuality they bring in composition, no matter the gender. I also have a predilection for animal derivates such as castoreum, civet, ambergris and beeswax for their unique odor profile and warmth, even in small traces. Beeswax is uncommonly overdosed in modern fragrances.
Do you know how beeswax is collected and processed as a perfumery ingredient?
The process of harvesting the waxes from beehives is more a ritual than an industrial production. Availability is very low, and not all the companies are capable of processing this royal ingredient. I am lucky it is one of the specialties in the Argeville compendium, and our Director of Ingredients has a special affection to it, being a beekeeper himself.
The process starts with selecting the best apiculturists. We have special partnerships here in France. Then the honey is extruded by centrifuge from the frame during a period in which the bee larvae are not in their hexagon cages. The wax is then treated under solvent extraction to obtain a golden butter, lately purified with ethanol to obtain the precious absolute. The smell is warm, opulent, waxy with flowery notes and tobacco / hay undertones. It is difficult to classify it in one single family, since it has so many facets: gourmand, balsamic, spicy, flowery, nutty, leathery, fruity... pure magic.
I suggested to you that it would be fascinating if Bee could take the wearer on an olfaction journey from a bee’s perspective – from leaving the claustrophobic beehive, to collecting nectar from flowers, and returning to the hive to deposit the goods. Do you think you have succeeded with Bee?
Bees themselves are amazing: they are so efficient, they fly all over, unstoppably searching, they delicately bathe in the flowers, providing pollination and hybridization, and magically they know how to go back to their hive to produce the honey and work as a collective to proliferate and survive in service of their queen. She was my inspiration. Once awakened, somehow she is selected among the others’ larvae. The noise is buzzy, light is low, temperature high; she is fed with royal jelly to promote abnormal growth and miraculous health; once ready to leave the small cell, she is constantly followed and supported by her sisters exploring her castle; after some time she is ready for flight and to explore her flowery and infinite kingdom, ready to start a new colony with a bunch of devoted followers. I find all of this poetic, charming, and nostalgic.
Could you tell us some of the ingredients that you have chosen, and their effects in the perfume? What is the “royal jelly accord” in Bee?
The royal jelly accord is the core of the fragrance. It has been the natural choice as the key ingredient to start developing the fragrance. Beeswax is the main component. This accord is perceivable vertically in the composition, to recreate this disorienting sound of wings flapping reverberating within the comb. I used in top notes an orange concentrated, an in-house specialty that captures the very essence of sweet orange. Also, a ginger syrup accord completes this fizzy citrus short opening. Of course, we wanted to adorn these magical ingredients with the most honey-dripping flowers like broom, an endemic bush typical from Italy, orange blossoms with their inebriating smell, and some other pollen-rich flowers such as Mimosa from France and Heliotrope. The bottom notes go into a comforting musky powdery atmosphere somehow, like when a bee flies over multicolored meadows: sandalwood brings creaminess and texture, benzoin kicks in a subtle smokey note that contrasts with the tenderness of vanilla, and labdanum gives this final warmth.
Many people have wondered if real honey is used in Zoologist Bee. Can real honey be used in a perfume? Why not? And what did you use to create the virtual smell of honey?
Personally, I have never smelled a perfumery-grade honey derivate, but I am sure you can find some small productions. Honey itself exists in so many different qualities like chestnut, acacia, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, pine, and others that it would be too much of a restriction. Sincerely, I was not really interested in using this ingredient, but more in recreating an atmosphere that could embrace the circle of life of those incomparable drones. Enchanting this kaleidoscopic beeswax absolute with some of the most precious flower extracts, we recreated a honey atmosphere without being overly sweet or sticky, overly flowery or waxy, but finding a harmony among all these qualities.
What is next for you? Do you want to create another scent for Zoologist? If so, what kind of scent would that be?
I am very glad I had the possibility to work with Zoologist and you Victor. For sure I would love to extend our collaboration, if there might be the occasion. Bee is a very direct and figurative-realistic fragrance, so in the future I would prefer to interpret a more conceptual animal, one that is dominating his environment and has been in the symbology of human legend since the dawn of time.
Hi Celine, could you tell us about yourself?
I grew up in Grasse, France in the ’80s, 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 for seasonal arrivals. No one in my family was related to this industry, and I didn’t go to ISIPCA (perfumery school). Still, as a child, I wanted to be part of this industry one day – on the brand side, though, because in the ’80s and ’90s 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 perfume creation. I LOVED it. From that moment on, my goal was to gain the olfactive knowledge I needed to become a perfumer.
How long have you been a perfumer? Did you always aspired to become one? What is your favourite perfume?
I have been a perfumer, including my time at IFF perfumery school, for 17 years. As a child, I had high interest in perfumes. My nanny’s husband worked in the Roure factory, and when he came back home his clothes were impregnated with the aromas of raw materials. I collected 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 the women in my family were either very sophisticated and loved rich perfumes that would leave a huge sillage, or adventurers who would bring back exotic olfactive treasures they’d found in some remote place. That’s why I have a taste for decadent, opulent, and sensual fragrances, mostly in the oriental or amber family. Otherwise, I like big white florals. Alas, my all-time favorite, Versace Blonde, has been discontinued.
How did you become a perfumer at IFF?
It was really after my internship at Mane that I suddenly put all my effort into getting olfactive training to become a perfumer. It was with this mindset that I joined IFF in Milan, Italy, where I studied for two years after work hours, smelling and classifying raw materials and market products with someone who trained at Roure’s school back in the day. I then passed the internal competition to enter the newly re-opened IFF perfumery school program, where I was trained at IFF creative centers in the Netherlands, New York, Paris, and Grasse. So my background is kind of unusual for a perfumer. I’m grateful to IFF for being attracted to an unorthodox profile like mine.
IFF is one of the most renowned big aroma chemical companies in the world. It hires a lot of people, but do they have a lot of perfumers? Is it hard to become an 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 across categories, including 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 for being trained are very slim. Then there is a lot of competition, and not everyone trained will become a perfumer. It is a very long and slow craft to learn. One needs to have not only artistic talent, but also a strong psychological mindset. About 95% of what we do goes into the 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 key qualities to have, as well as an indestructible faith in yourself and your work. IFF is constantly training a pipeline of young perfumers according to the category and geographical needs of the company. It’s also partnering with ISIPCA on a special program. Each year, some are hired by IFF.
Can you describe a typical day for an IFF perfumer? How many different work-in-progress perfumes do you juggle each day? What is the average number of revisions it takes to finish a perfume?
I usually like to start my day composing new formulae. I let the freshly compounded reworks sit for at least half a day (in the 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 is when we put the best reworks on skin and pick one or two to present to the brand. During my day I interact mostly with my lab assistant and evaluators, with sales to prepare strategy, with marketing to work on concepts and olfactive stories, and with people responsible for toxicology and consumer insight. One of my other favorite times during the day is when we meet with the brands to present our work. That’s when all the detailed work done backstage takes on 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. It’s like something is not aligned.
At IFF, perfumers have to juggle many projects, covering the whole range of the olfactive offerings out there: from specialty to masstige, from prestige to niche. Perfumers need to be agile to work on different segments. Sometimes one perfumer is working on several olfactive propositions for the same project.
There is nothing like an average number of revisions. Each project is different. It may take up to several hundred of revisions to create a blockbuster that will be tested in different markets, with often several perfumers collaborating on the same olfactive direction. This is not the case for less-complex projects. Usually, when a perfumer truly invents an idea that is not inspired from something that already exists, it can take several years of work to develop an edgy accord into a finished product. When I read 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, and then – and this is the difficulty – she or he has to transform it into a well-liked complex fragrance that is highly adopted in worldwide markets known to have very different olfactive preferences.
Above: Celine Barel at Perfumarie New York. Credit: Perfumarie Instagram
To my knowledge, in the perfume industry it is not common to credit the perfumer. Fragrantica’s database lists about 15 fragrances designed by you. That seems to be a small number. Is it safe to guess you have designed many more, but they are not credited? What are your thoughts on that? What are some of the more special perfumes designed by you?
It’s true. A few years ago, it was not a widely adopted trend to name the perfumer, especially if they were younger. Today, some brands still do not want to credit the perfumers, and we oblige them. Among others, I have created for Jo Malone, Tory Burch, Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Lancome, Loewe, Oscar de la Renta, Aramis, Dunhill, and 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. This has helped to bring back the “art of perfumery”, with this underlying idea there is 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 significant advantages and knowledge in terms of perfume composition? On the other hand, 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 a “perfumer-creator” is. Therefore, a few years ago, the French Society of Perfumers took the initiative to establish a strict code of what officially defines the skills and competencies of a perfumer-creator.
Receiving academic training has never stopped anyone from breaking the rules, innovating, or being bold. Quite the opposite. It is easy to shock and draw public attention when you pile up odours or/and overdose them through 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 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 allows you to collaborate with the person in full charge of the brand’s vision. Usually that person is a risk-taker who is passionate about fragrance and eager to innovate. Last but not least, we usually work in a niche with 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 in all its segments.
This “renaissance” is due to “riskier” fragrances driven by stronger olfactive statements, ones that are more creative and often more qualitative in terms of raw materials, have great marketing stories and /or packaging, and more selective distribution. Nowadays, people do not want to smell like everybody else, especially the younger generation. They’d rather stay away from 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 an office 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 a collaboration. To be honest, I was shocked, because I thought big aromachemcial companies like IFF were only interested in big perfume houses that sell millions of bottles. Of course, I didn’t want to pass up 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) asked me for some concepts for a perfume that I wanted to make. 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 had been snatched up by three different perfumers! I expected that only one perfume would be chosen. She also told me the names of the three perfumers and who would be designing which animal, and you were 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 does management make the choice?
Regarding high-stakes briefs, there’s a strategy from management to have this or that perfumer work 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 work on it is key. The customer-perfumer relationship is crucial and usually must be much tighter in order to create a strong olfactive statement.
In my case, I loved your brand. I loved how the animals were portrayed. It speaks to my “Peter Pan” side, a fantasy world where animals are true characters and have an olfactive identity. It reminds me of the Victorian age, one of my favorite historical periods.
And why did you choose Squid?
I absolutely wanted to work on Squid. Some people were saying to me, “Squid? Yuk! No one wants to smell like a fish market!” I cannot understand how people can get so literal!
Immediately, in my mind I was in Jules Verne’s A Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, with a frightening giant squid coming from the deepest part of the ocean. It took me to Japan or China, as supposedly the giant squids live in those waters, so I knew there should be some incense in the accord. Squid bone is the starting point for ambergris: the sperm whale produces a fatty substance to wrap the bone. And coincidently, maybe a month before receiving the Squid brief, while I was 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. I brought the squid bone back and we did a headspace analysis on it.
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 also imagined that 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, in the end it will be worn by a person who needs to feel confident about wearing it. A fragrance is like a suit or a dress: it can be creative and edgy, but no one wants to feel uncomfortable wearing it.
Smells have been through centuries, cultures, classes. They are a powerful social marker. It is a matter of being accepted or rejected. Tell me which fragrance you wear, and I’ll tell you which social group you belong to – or, more realistically, which one you’d like to belong to!
What exactly is “Solar Salicylate” (a note used in Squid)?
Salicylates are raw materials naturally present in nature. They give an ethereal and powerful airy effect, ranging from salty to green or floral facets. In Squid, they are massively used to convey the salty effect and carry the formula structure.
How did you design the ink accord? Could you reveal a little bit what goes into that accord?
When you asked me to push the ink accord, I worked with the IFF tool “Scentemotion”, which helps the perfumer determine which raw materials are linked to the colour blue. From my own experience of preparing “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 it?
I love how with you we created this new kind of “marine” family, miles away from the typical marine citrusy ozonic accord found in the classics! Squid is a marine amber, fresh and sensual.
Did you surprise yourself with Squid? I was, 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 scents do you enjoy creating more, niche or 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, as I did 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 two workshops in Norway and in Switzerland on olfactive scenography.
Now I’m working much more on niche brands, and I absolutely love it. Stay tuned!
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. There’s one in particular I would LOVE to execute! It’s about speed.
Thank you so much!
Could you tell us about yourself?
I was born in Brazil, where I graduated in marketing and advertising before moving to France in 1993. In Paris, I did a Master’s in Semiotics, but graduated in with a degree in Cinematography from an art school. After a couple of years working as a set designer for films in France and Brazil, I decided to go for a new challenge in the perfume world.
Have you always been aspired to be a perfumer?
To be honest, I’ve never thought about this profession, even though smells have always been part of my life. You know, in that period, there were fewer perfumers than astronauts in the world. In 2006, at age of 36, I decided to see a coach for a career orientation, and I discovered the perfumer’s world after the many vocational tests she subjected me to. We worked together for three months. In the end, I was preparing my application for ISIPCA, the perfumery school in Versailles. Only 8 persons were accepted that year into the Fine Fragrance course.
Above: ISIPCA, a French school for post-graduate studies in perfume, cosmetics products and food flavor formulation
You went to perfumery school 13 years ago. Could you tell us about the program?
The program was entirely based on fine fragrances – six hours a day of studying ingredients and making perfume accords in a lab. We learned the basics of perfumery, studied and memorized ingredient after ingredient, and the main accords and structure of iconic perfumes such as Lily of the Valley and Diorissimo, Shalimar and many others. Then, the evolution of materials, regulations, the modern version of each accord and the perfumes’ structure. But when you study very old perfumes, you can’t get a precise idea of their smell, because you can get only the modern versions. So I started to buy vintage perfumes so I could have the original compositions and gain a deep understanding of each formula. Also, the perfumer’s style, the materials available at the time, and the social and political context of the year of the creation, because the industry was very influenced by that. Vent Vert was created in 1945 by the genius Germaine Cellier just after World War II, when people needed to be reconnected with nature. In this fragrance, you have nature in your face. It’s a very green, floral, impressive masterpiece with a huge amount of galbanum.
Some of my classmates from the ISIPCA class were Isabelle Michaud, whom you already know – she’s a Canadian perfumer and owner of Mon Sillage; Octavian Coifan, a historian and perfumer; Christian Dullberg, who has a perfume company compound in Germany, and a perfumer from Taiwan.
During our perfume training, we had access to the Osmothèque and private classes with Jean Kerleo and other perfumers. We also had access to the library, where we could do research on old books with formulas and other treasures of perfumery.
After graduation, you didn't become a perfumer…
After graduation, I didn’t work as a perfumer for big companies because the perfume industry in France was/is saturated and they don’t take people older than 30. If they did, they would send them to work abroad. Just before applying to ISIPCA, I called Frédéric Malle to get his opinion about the school. He advised me to do it and to go to Asia or Brazil (which are big markets).
Wait – you knew Frédéric Malle back then?
I just picked up the phone and called their office. He answered the phone, and I spoke to him. I'd been to his Rue de Grenelle store before and he was often there.
The other reason I didn't work as a perfumer for a big company was that I wanted to remain independent. In 2007 it wasn’t easy for me to start my own business, so I decided to work for perfume brands in the commercial, export and training areas to get more experience of the market. I started at Natura Brasil, passing by Dior, Chanel, Tom Ford, Nina Ricci, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Serge Lutens, Guerlain, Cartier, and many others until arriving at Frédéric Malle, where I stayed for five years. It was one of the greatest experiences of my career. The environment, the quality of each fragrance, the perfumers, the DNA of the company based on the sophistication of great French traditional perfumery, his experience, and his vision… As the company was very small, I was engaged for exporting and training, evaluating perfume concentrates with him, smelling a new project from beginning to end, and understanding the changes of each test until the final version. Sometimes, what you prefer is not what it has to be in the market.
A perfume or aromachemical company needs more than just perfumers for sure.
A perfume company needs many perfumers on their team, but not only for fine fragrances. It needs a team of perfumers for house products, cosmetics, toiletries, and olfactive marketing. The chance to get a job in fine fragrance compared to other areas is maybe about 5% or less. The volume of production in all the other areas is bigger and more important, even though it’s not as prestigious as fine fragrance. Another career is the evaluator, who is someone between the perfumer and the marketing team, responsible for translating all the concepts for both parts, perfumers and marketing.
Above: Perfumery Class by Daniel Pescio
You now hold perfumery classes regularly. Can you tell us more about that?
In 2010, I created my own company and started to build my own lab. I was still working for brands, but when I left Frédéric Malle in 2015 I was able to dedicate myself to develop all my abilities as an independent perfumer. I started creating for independent brands and private customers, being a consultant, teaching and organizing perfume workshops and professional courses for adults and children in France, Brazil, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Austria and UK and all around the world.
I’m a very curious person, and everything related to the sense of smell and taste interests me a lot. Wine, chocolate, teas, incense… all of them are new languages, but linked to each other. Tasting and smelling are completely connected and enrich our perception. At the beginning of learning how to taste or to smell and describe all the sensations, feelings and notes, it is hard. It needs patience, training and perseverance, but quickly you see that you are improving and the world becomes colourful.
Above: Kodo Incense Ceremony
At the moment, I share my time between teaching and creating, but also with my Kōdō practice and research. Koh-Do (the incense ceremony) appeared during the Momoyama period, known as a period of renaissance in Japan. It is considered one of the geido, or refined arts that are supposed to be performed according to certain rules and manners, like the tea ceremony and ikebana. Among aristocrats and high-ranking samurai, it shares popularity with the tea ceremony. In this respect, Japanese incense, or koh, is somewhat different from perfume in western countries. Later, Kōdō branched off into several schools, of which two leading schools survived: the Oie-ryu School and the Shino-ryu School, where I do my learning.
I have to mention how our perfume collaboration came about! In retrospect, I find it fascinating! A few years ago, through a perfume sell/exchange Facebook group, I bought some fragrances that you owned. When I received the package, I found a sample of your own work. When I smelled it, I thought it was excellent, and had to learn more about it from you! My initial reaction was that your work smelled very "French". It's a very abstract feeling. Could you describe your perfume style?
That’s a fantastic way of meeting and then collaborating, because when I sent you the perfumes with the sample, I never imagined you were the owner of Zoologist. I think at this time you had launched just a few scents of your amazing Zoologist collection. And then you told me you were behind this niche brand.
The sample I sent to you was my first creation after leaving Frédéric Malle. Fleur Cannibale was created in 2015, and the following year I participated in a perfume competition organized by the American Society of Perfumers. One hundred perfumers worldwide participated, with only one constraint: to use a minimum of 2% of Australian sandalwood produced by STF. Accordingly, I decided to take make Fleur Cannibale Santal Extrême, with 8% sandalwood oil in the formula. My creation made the semifinal, with 14 others. Fleur Cannibale is a contrasting fragrance, inspired by abstract flowers and orchids from Amazonia, creamy peach, spices, woods, patchouli, amber, musks, vanilla and frankincense.
About my style … it’s hard to define myself. Some people say they can recognize my style in all my perfumes. What’s is important to me is the quality of all the materials (naturals and synthetics), the balance (I’m obsessed with it) and the evolution of the fragrance, because this is the moment when the perfume will tell you a story.
Let's talk about Chameleon! First, I’ll tell you how I came about this concept of Chameleon as a perfume! I've always been fascinated by the fact that the island of Madagascar has the most species of chameleons in the world. And through a documentary on Chanel No. 5 and baking (yes, baking) I learned about the famous Madagascar ylang and vanilla, which are two important export commodities of Madagascar. When I proposed the concept of Chameleon to you, I insisted that it had to include ylang and vanilla. I also proposed that the perfume have a special quality of “colour changing”, which is probably the most notable characteristic of a chameleon. Have you heard of synesthesia – the ability to “see” colour when you smell certain things? I have always wondered if we could create a perfume that “shifts colour” as it develops on our skin.
Chameleon is an amazing project and was a true challenge for me. First, because I wouldn’t have created this perfume based on an ylang-vanilla scent as a main accord. Otherwise, it would be just one more ylang-vanilla perfume on the market. The challenge was to translate this concept to design a fragrance. Also, I was a bit scared by the fruity facets. My first thought was to produce an accord to give the impression of the scent of skin touched by the sun and the salty breeze by the ocean. I chose some "Ylang Ylang Extra" oil from Madagascar, which was already very fruity, and the fruity facets I worked not only with fruity notes, but also with floral notes having fruity facets. That’s the aim of Chameleon. And then you have other flowers, spices, exotic woods, amber, opoponax, vanilla, patchouli, musks…
It’s interesting to talk about synesthesia. I remember during my first class at ISIPCA. We were learning how to describe a scent, because normally we don’t learn to talk about scents. We don’t have a common vocabulary for it. The teacher said, "You can try to link each scent to a specific colour!” Well, I couldn’t do that, but now I do that with children, and it’s amazing! They can say different colours, but often they say them with the same intensity. The synesthesia process is very much used in my Wine, Chocolate and Tea workshops, because you need to use more than one sense to get a full perception of something. For example, when you take a wine, you have to describe the colour, whether it’s bright or opaque, and then you smell and then you taste. For this experience, you use four of your five senses: the view, the smell, the taste and the touch with our tongue, which has taste buds responsible for the perception of temperature and texture. When you are aware of it, the experience is very rich. You can enjoy every single moment of each sensation provided by your senses.
As we developed the scent, I thought the synesthesia concept might be too difficult to realize. (I don't have synesthesia, and the colours people "see" by smelling are very subjective.) However, you had a different idea of what Chameleon could be, and you persuaded me with your unique vision.
Yes, synesthesia and sense of smell are very personal, very subjective. There is no right or wrong, but only personal or technical way to describe a scent. If you say green for patchouli, I would say you can keep it as a personal reference. But the smell is not considered green to professionals.
The chameleon’s skin is a mirror of nature. That was what I tried to translate into a fragrance. The concept of the skin being the mirror of everything you can have on the island of Madagascar. To make this “skin accord”, I put Ylang Ylang Extra Madagascar oil with a lot of Salicylates and Cashmeran. These makes up almost 40% of the fragrance composition.
I worked very carefully with the vanilla accord, with musks and opoponax. I wouldn’t want to produce the same effect that we have in most ylang perfumes. Another challenge for this project was to give an abstract feeling, despite the presence of a huge amount of ylang in the formula.
People might say that Chameleon is a tropical fruity scent, but I think it is quite different from the typical tropical fruit scents I’ve come across before.
Ylang ylang is one of my favourite flowers. It has proper fruity facets, but it is also animalic, different from the indolic found in flowers such as jasmine, Lily of the Valley or orange blossom. Most of the ylang fragrances are very "Monoi", i.e., a vanilla scent with a huge amount of Hedione. And, in some cases, with woody facets of gaiacwood or very fruity and sugary. So, the moment I got the Chameleon brief, I thought of all these aspects and started thinking what I would translate into this creation. It was the beginning of a trip in my mind through Madagascar, feeling everything I could find on this tropical island. Beaches, sun, heat, ocean breeze, skin scent, sensuality, exotic woods, fruits, spices, and the daily life of the chameleon. My approach was to make the ylang ylang into a musky-skin-salty-sunny accord in the centre of the fragrance, like the solar orbit, with green-acidic exotic fruity facets combined with violet leaves and frangipani. Cashmeran and Salicylates are very important in this accord as the abstract feeling I would give to this fragrance, because of the effects of chameleons in nature. Sometimes it’s obvious they are there, but we can’t really see them.
Another point which is important is the evolution of the fragrance into something smooth, calm, with this musk-vanilla-amber feeling. It reminds me of chameleons losing the reflections of nature and becoming white.
What is next for you?
The most important project for this year is going to be in Japan.
In 2017, I started practicing Kōdō in Japan and France, and last year I decided to make an olfactive project related to this Japanese art and presented it to the Villa Kujoyama’s art project competition. The Villa Kujoyama is a French public institution set in the mountains of Kyoto. It’s a multicultural place of interdisciplinary exchange and aims to strengthen intercultural dialogue between France and Japan. Villa Kujoyama is the equivalent of Villa Medicis in Rome.
My project, "Listening the scents or the Art of the invisible", was the winner in the Fashion and Perfume category. I will be in Japan to do research, present the project and organize some perfume workshops from September to the end of December 2019.
Before that, I will be doing some fragrance creations for independent artists and brands, bespoke perfumes, education and training, consulting for brands and private projects, perfume, wine and chocolate workshops, and organizing my project to launch my perfume brand in 2020.
Wow, that’s wonderful! I can’t wait to smell your own brand of perfumes in the future!
Zoologist Chameleon will be released on March 15th, 2019
Please tell us about yourself!
First off: hello, everyone! Thanks for tuning in! 😀
Other than liking sunset walks on long, sandy beaches (that’s a joke, actually), I’m a bit of a foodie. Quite curious about learning about other cultures. Love tea. Enjoy coffee, though it makes me crazy jittery. Love to cook. Incense junkie. Live in a 220-year-old log cabin in the woods not too far north of Atlanta. I’m an old soul living in a modern world.
This is starting to sound like a dating profile!
Can you tell us more about your perfume company?
Rising Phoenix officially started back in 2011, while I was still in med school in San Diego, although it was 2014 before we really started launching products.
Many that follow my work know that I work in Chinese medicine. I’m in private practice in Atlanta. I spent some time working in three hospitals in Shanghai. In my earlier years I spent my last year in university in Avignon, and worked in Paris after college. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled extensively.
While in med school we had to memorize quite a bit of information about hundreds and hundreds of medical substances, including the Chinese pinyin, the common English names, and the Latin scientific names.
The Latin names started tugging at something in the back of my mind. It didn’t take me long to figure out that pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, fragrance, flavour, and the incense and spice trades were all built on the back of herbs. Herbs I was really diving deep down the rabbit hole on.
In my third year of school, something clicked and I realized, “I could be a physician. Or, I could be a physician, and… !” I wanted to tap into a much larger world that was built on the back of something most never think twice about: herbs. Foundations in a multitude of global modern-day markets.
Since natural oils distilled/extracted from herbs – what we call essential oils, “absolutes”, etc. – are really pharmaceutical-grade herb extracts, fragrance seemed like a natural place to start.
Have you always aspired to become a perfumer?
Ha! No. I have always wanted to help people. That was pretty open-ended.
As a kid, I wanted to be an archeologist. Or a spice trader. (Seriously, I was a weird kid). I worked in film and television before going back to med school.
It wasn’t until years later, when I was working as a physician and focusing on what I call my “golden triangle”– the point of intersection of the medicine, cosmetic/fragrance, and incense trades – that I realized I kinda DID become both an archeologist and a spice trader!
Many don’t realize that, historically, it was physicians and pharmacists that made fragrances. Up until about 100 years ago, if you were going to buy perfume, your local pharmacist was likely making what you were wearing. In the more distant past, fragrance (i.e., perfume and incense) were considered medicine first, as well as something that smelled nice.
Physicians have been behind fragrance since the dawn of fragrant time.
Ever drank a Coca Cola? When I was growing up in Atlanta, many folks know that Coke’s inventor, Pemberton, was a pharmacist. Sodas in the beginning were medical elixirs. What became Coca Cola was originally a treatment for morphine addiction, which was a huge problem in the 1880s, just after the Civil War. Dr. Pemberton was a war vet and an addict.
Who were Johnson & Johnson? Three brothers that sold medical and pharmacy equipment.
Who was Dr. Pepper? The inventor, Charles Alderton, was also a pharmacist in the 1880s. Dr. Pepper was also a medical-elixir-turned-popular-beverage.
Ever used Listerine? Dr. Lister’s work in England in the 1860s inspired Dr. Lawrence in the US to create a surgical antiseptic based on eucalyptus essential oil, menthol (likely distilled camphor at the time or camphor resin), methyl salicylate (better known as white willow bark, now synthesized and used as an over-the-counter painkiller), and thyme essential oil in an alcohol base.
Realizing that a lot of common household name-brand products of today really started from a place that I, myself, somehow found myself working in inspired me to apply my work in medicine to a much broader body of work.
Hence the name: Rising Phoenix. Giving new life to old practices.
So now you juggle between two businesses, acupuncture and perfumery. Do you wish to take your perfumery business to full-time?
In short, yes. It’s been moving that way since I launched. Fortunately, my work all comes from a common root.
I actually was a contributor to a research paper about ambergris, the first of several that will be published.
I am also part of a think-tank company called Botanical Biohacking, a US/Tibet company developing a variety of cutting-edge Chinese medicine pharmaceuticals for the western market.
Fortunately for me, whether I’m “sculpting or painting”, herbs are herbs. Whether I’m making fragrances or treating patients, I am doing the work from a common root. To me, it’s all the same.
To my understanding, your perfumery products at this moment are just attars. Why attars instead of alcohol-based perfumes?
That is mostly true, yes.
I have a larger commercial project that I’m working to put together the capital to launch. Given my unique background, it’s larger than “just fragrance”. I plan to be making some big waves very soon.
I also am involved in distilling some of the key components I’ve become quite well known for, and I’ve also developed some products for some other companies in the Indian and Gulf markets.
But for now, I’m growing my existing line of products organically.
Personally, I prefer naturals to synthetics and cater to a more naturally minded audience. I think naturals really shine in attar form. In alcohol/EdP fragrances, naturals tend to smell a bit flat, sometimes a little murky. But as I make my attars, well, you know. They get nominated for awards. After all, that’s how you and I met.
I’ve become the largest artisan attar maker in the world over the past few years. It seems that, more and more, I run into folks that are into commercial fragrances who are at the very least aware of the work I’m known for in the artisan niche market.
I’ve become quite well known in the artisan sandalwood, oud/agarwood, and incense scene, and currently offer the widest selection of niche aromatic products anywhere on the Internet.
My attars, in addition to my upcoming commercial EdP line, are all a part of my larger plan.
I have observed that there is a rise of attar culture and business in the world of niche/indie perfumes. What can you tell us about your customers and the subculture of attars?
I actually think that a community of artisans that I belong to might at least in part be responsible for that: www.ouddict.com.
Certainly, Amouage’s original attars, especially now that they are no longer making them, have sent folks searching for other attar resources. As have Claire Vukcevic and Kafkaesque, whom both love attars. Their reviews have also brought more attention to the style.
As I mentioned before, I’ve grown to become the largest artisan attar maker, possibly in the world, but at least here in the West. I’m quite well known for my artisan mysore sandalwood oils as well as my artisan oud oils. My attars are big sellers.
I think I’ve played a hand in inspiring many of these other artisans. I know they inspire me. As we are all colleague-competitors, as I call our little community, I’m commonly telling folks that we are stronger together than we are apart. Running a small business is already a practice in isolation. It’s nice to have a collaborative community. These guys are talented, and quite nice folks, as well.
I think our combined work has been helping to bring an old (and still the largest, albeit rather unknown in the West) form of fragrance appreciation to the West – that of attars.
Do you think more people from the Middle East are now wearing spray perfumes rather than attars, but more North Americans are wearing attars?
Yes. In the Gulf markets, “Western fragrances” (i.e. alcohol-based fragrances) are on the rise.
However, wearing pure (natural) oils and concentrated (modern perfumery) attars is still predominantly how much of the Middle and Far East wears their fragrances. This in large part has to do with the large Muslim population in the Gulf and SE Asia, and their tendency to avoid alcohol, even in fragrance form. And, particularly in the Far East, they still have a tendency to like lighter, more natural compositions.
Here in the West, I think there is a growing awareness and appreciation of older forms of perfumery. Alcohol-based perfumery is really French or British-style perfumery. It is not the only form of perfumery, and far from the oldest form.
I don’t want to make any ridiculous claims, but I do think the growing popularity and visibility of my work and that of my colleagues over the past few years has contributed to this growing awareness. Certainly, the artisans of the Ouddict Community are making this rather unknown form of perfumery much more visible in the West.
I’m thinking Dodo might need to be Zoologist’s inaugural attar!
I remember seeing your Facebook photos of oud/agarwood you have acquired from various sources. Can you tell us more about them?
According to the Internet (reliable, right?), ebony is the most expensive wood on the planet. In reality, agarwood is the most expensive. Sandalwood is the second most expensive. Agarwood usually refers to the wood, and oud often refers to the distilled oil obtained from agarwood. It is a regulated material, and I am licensed to both import and export it.
The root of “perfume” is Latin – “per fumum”. Meaning, “through smoke”. In many cultures today, the term “perfume” refers to BOTH incense and what you and I would call perfume or fragrance.
The backbone of both the fragrance and the incense industries is agarwood and sandalwood. Only recently is the West being reintroduced to agarwood, although it has long had a history in Europe and the Catholic church. King Louis XIV of France was known to wash his clothes with and douse his bed in oud hydrosol, for example. The Catholic church has been using agarwood in incense since the inception of the church, and Jews and Muslims alike have made use of “precious aloes” (i.e., aloeswood, a.k.a. agarwood) since their respective beginnings, as well. In the East, it has been well-known and used as both fragrance and medicine dating back long before the written word. Agarwood has close to 10,000 years of recorded trade. It is, by every definition of the term, one of the original global trade commodities.
Rising Phoenix is the premier resource for high-quality agarwood in the US and in the West at large. I definitely offer the most diverse selection of species and origins, as well as a wide diversity of forms through which to enjoy it. Agarwood, as it happens, has a terroir diversity similar to that found more commonly in tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, scotch and whiskey.
Agarwood has captivated the minds of people for millennia for a reason. See, a rose smells like a rose smells like a rose. Certainly, country of origin, species of rose, and extraction method play a role in how a rose oil will smell. But they will all smell of rose. Not too much diversity. Line up 10 different Oud oils and many may guess incorrectly that they aren’t all Oud. Depending on the origin, species, and the vast array of creativity used in distilling it, the oils have an almost limitless number of iterations in how it might smell.
Same can be said of the wood. There are many cultural differences in how it is used. In general, the Arabic tradition is to burn on coal. The Japanese (and as an extension, Chinese and Taiwanese and Asians in general) heat with an indirect heat source (like a coal buried in ash) or, more commonly today, on an electric heater with more gentle heat. Combustion vs. volatilization. There is also the method of “senkoh”, that of the incense stick without a wood core that’s most common in the Japanese tradition. Not to mention, it is used in Bakhoor (Arabic) and the wide range of Asian compounding traditions of incense using agarwood (and sandalwood) as the backbones upon which to build a blend.
The fascinating thing about this wood is the sheer diversity of ways to use and enjoy it, and the resulting vast array of how it may smell. One could spend a lifetime studying agarwood and oud and never exhaust discovering some new scent found within it.
In 2017, you started a Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to bring your business to a higher level. How did it go? What is your ambition?
The campaign itself wasn’t successful enough to raise the capital to launch what I’ve got planned. However, it’s continued to be useful, as I am actively working on raising the capital for my commercial launch.
I spoke earlier in the interview about my larger ambitions, and folks should know that I never stopped fundraising. I am getting quite close to having the capital to actualize what I’ve been working on these past years.
For the time being, I’ve been growing organically. The publicity from Dodo and my work with Zoologist will also serve as key signposts to the good work I’ve been doing and the growing success of Rising Phoenix as a brand. In other words, stay tuned!
In retrospect, did you think you were too ambitious, compared to much smaller startups that grew their business “organically”?
“Shoot for the stars and you might hit the moon”, right?
I shot a pilot almost 15 years ago for the Food Network as the host of a “Field to Fork” kinda food show with one of Martha Stewart’s former producers. The show didn’t get picked up, but have you seen Netflix food shows lately? I was also contracted a few years back for a show about ambergris being developed for The Discovery Channel. That also didn’t get green-lit. We’ve seen more and more documentaries, and even a show called “Perfume” on Netflix now. I’ve been making attars for years. Attars are now beginning to gain some mainstream appeal in the West. I’ve had a tendency my entire life to be ahead of the curve.
I am also a believer in Divine Timing. Things didn’t quite work out when I was hoping, but things are certainly building up to it. I have had a lot of opportunities thrown at me that I haven’t yet been able to capitalize on. But the time is coming. Of this I am certain.
The scents you wanted to release were actually alcohol-based. How come? Is Dodo your first “alcohol-based” perfume design?
It is not, no. I actually have a line of EdPs I’ve developed for Rising Phoenix that are part of my larger commercial plan. Luca Turin has had a peek at these, and he seemed to like them – ironically, especially the fougère I developed, Phoenix Fougère. You can read more about his thoughts on my brand over on his site, Perfumes I Love. These fragrances are, as of yet, unreleased.
I’ve also developed both EdPs and Attars for a few companies in the Gulf and Indian markets, although Dodo is the first where you’ll likely see my name attached to it.
Dodo is alcohol-based because that it was what you, the Zookeeper, asked for. Although I’m still trying to convince you that Dodo needs to be Zoologist’s inaugural attar release.
How different is it to design an alcohol-based perfume compared to attar? What are the challenges?
Most of my work for Rising Phoenix is natural, and my upcoming commercial line is “naturally minded”. It includes a line that I have planned that is more modern. Different lines will have different target market appeals.
Some of the other work I’ve done for brands overseas has been mixed media, usually with an emphasis on synthetics. I kept the work I did for Zoologist as natural as I could, although it is certainly a modern fragrance. Expect a modern work.
In a fragrance, I would say that synthetics have a much larger footprint than do naturals. So the quantities of synthetics are much more dose-sensitive. Naturals are much more forgiving, although some – like natural oakmoss or cinnamon, or smokey materials like cade – can bomb out a fragrance with a drop too much.
Dodo is attar-like in its density. It’s not a fragrance that will be understood by smelling it from the cap, pleasant though that is. It’s complex. It’s unexpected. It tells a story most aren’t trying to tell.
Let’s talk more about our collaboration, shall we? We’ve known each other on Facebook for a while, but the first time I met you in person was when we were both attending the 2016 Art and Olfaction Awards in Los Angeles. Your beautiful Musk Rose Attar was one of the nominees that year. After the event, we decided to collaborate on a fragrance, and I immediately suggested making a fougère. Zoologist didn’t have a fougère. Luca Turin praised your Phoenix Fougère highly, so I thought you would be the perfect designer for such task.
Fougère means ‘fern’ in French, and strangely, the first animal that came to my mind that was associated with fern was a dodo! Dodos couldn’t fly, and I imagined they ran amok in forests and woods covered with ferns on the island of Mauritius until they were hunted to extinction. I also associated fougères to a genre of scents of the bygone golden era, meaning they smell dated. Dodo seemed like a perfect match for that feeling. Do you agree?
Ironically, Luca Turin said in his piece on my brand that Phoenix Fougère is (and I’m summarizing here) the nicest fougère he’s smelled since their inception in the 1880s. I think once I get around to launching it, it will be quite a success.
I am quite proud of Dodo. As you mentioned earlier, it manages to be both iconic, yet modern. I think you, Victor, might be surprised with what I am hoping will be a commercial smash hit for your brand. I think Dodo might surprise everyone. Maybe it’s wishful thinking!
If you folks would like to smell a natural fougère/chypre, check out Man Musk. It’s already becoming somewhat of a cult hit. Real oakmoss, galore!
How did you approach the design of Dodo? What materials did you use to achieve that feeling?
At its basis, a fougère is formed by the interaction between oakmoss and bergamot. Together, they create an effect that doesn’t happen individually, and it is this interplay that forms the chypre/fougère fragrance family – a scent concept commonly known as “fern” (ferns have no natural fragrance of their own).
The classic fougère is centred on lavender, oakmoss and bergamot. I wanted to break some molds with a fashion-forward new take on an old concept. A Rising Phoenix, so to speak. Classic, yet very modern and fashion-forward, all the while staying true to Zoologist’s brand as a cutting-edge concept house.
The dry down, in particular, pays homage to my Attar style and design. I think you’re going to find it a killer fragrance to wear!
Dodo to me is kind of peculiar. It’s both modern and vintage-smelling. In your opinion, do you think it’s strictly a “fougère”?
By definition, it is a fougère, yes, but minus the lavender.
My goal at Rising Phoenix as a brand is to make old things new by drawing inspiration from the Phoenix: new life coming from the death of the old.
I wanted to apply this same kind of mentality to Dodo by drawing on historical DNA, but fleshing out the beast with new life. I think your impression of it being both modern and vintage is testament to the success of that approach. Dodo will feel both familiar and exotic, all in the same breath.
Dodo is the only perfume where I thought the first take was perfect. In fact, I didn’t want to believe that and asked you to give me one more round of revision, but in the end, I still went for the first version.
This was the source of quite a few laughs for me back when we were designing Dodo.
You handed over the concept to me, and I sent up my take on it. You loved it, and that seemed to bother you. I don’t think you were expecting to like my first go at it, and so you distrusted your own opinion. You had me take a few more goes at it, but in the end you circled back to my first rendition.
I have a tendency to do this with my own work. My first attempt is usually what ends up getting launched. I never really know how something will be received until it’s out there. Fragrances I worry the most about tend to be the biggest hits. Musk Rose Attar and Sicilian Vanilla were two of my first fragrances. It took me years to release them (5 years, to be exact). They've become two of my biggest sellers, and Musk Rose Attar ended up being nominated for an Art and Olfaction Award, providing the opportunity under which we both finally met. Go figure!
Currently, Man Musk is really gaining in popularity. Again, I never thought folks would like it. I was terribly wrong. I liked it so much that I thought no one else would. I held off for ages on releasing it as a result. Another home run.
It’s been three years after its design and your initial worry about how Dodo would be received, and you’ve been getting fantastic feedback on it from those who have smelled it. And only now are you getting around to launching it. I dare say, you sound a lot like me!
Above: Reconstruction of a Dodo, issued at the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 3.0
The opening of Dodo is fresh and tart, but as it reaches dry down, it becomes very musky, with smell of feathers!
Indeed. Many of the notes used in Dodo aren’t available to me as naturals, and I wanted to take advantage of this as I was composing it.
A lot of commercial fragrances are overly sweet, or overly musky, or overly… well, overly everything.
I like to cook, and the fun thing about cooking is using very dramatic ingredients like salt or vinegar on their own to really brighten up a dish. I made use of some tart ingredients – lime, lychee, and raspberry – like I use vinegar, or sourness. A dash to brighten up a dish and cut through any heaviness.
Ambergris and musk are salty ingredients. They are like umami. They give a dish body, rich mouth feel, and a savoury component.
Just like in food, sour and sweet (from the amber) counterbalance one another, as do sweet (ambergris) and salty (ambergris and musk).
I think we successfully pulled off using some juxtaposing and polarizing ingredients to make a very balanced meal for our noses. As for “feathery musk”… well, Dodo is a bird, after all!
Actually, how do you describe your style? Do you think your fragrances tend to smell more on the “mature” side? Who is the target audience of Dodo, in your opinion?
My style is really inspired by the phoenix. I make old things new.
The core of my style is near and Far Eastern, drawing a lot of inspiration from historical times and places. But I aim to do it in a way that feels both familiar and exotic to everyone who tries my work.
My Gulf Muslim and diverse Asian clients feel familiarity, as Attars are a part of their cultural experiences. But they feel exotic to them, as they aren’t purely Asian- or Arabian-smelling.
On the other hand, to my Western clients, they feel exotic, as these clients are not culturally used to attars. But I draw on cultural and historical themes they are familiar with, and somehow manage to balance both this exotic and familiar selection of scents.
Rising Phoenix aims to fill a gap for more natural products. I tend to target folks that don’t want as many synthetics in their products, but I have a growing appeal among frag-heads, as well. It’s a niche, certainly, but a rapidly growing one.
Dodo, on the other hand, appeals to a wider fragrance market that doesn’t have the expectation for mostly or all-natural fragrances, yet still wants a uniquely wearable artistic scent. I expect Dodo will be well received for its artistic take on scent, but it may surprise folks at just how commercially appealing it wears.
What is next for you?
“What we do every day, Pinky… trying to take over the world!”
~ Pinky and the Brain
Note: Zoologist Dodo will be available in March, 2019
Could you tell us about yourself?
That’s the most difficult question! I am an architect and a perfumer. The two professions don’t appear to share any connections, but I think they share a common sensibility – to experience something. Say, the shivers you feel when for the first time you walk in the Michelangelo library entrance in Florence, or the shiver you feel the first time you smell tuberose absolute. They are obviously coming from very different origins, but they are so deeply human – and so beyond what you know, your culture, your skills, your prejudices, your knowledge. It’s the pure power of nature, and here nature expresses itself through matter and space, and through flowers. It's easy to find yourself in a beautiful mood with the right light coming through the tree branches; it’s an experience of a space. It doesn't matter whether if it's designed by humans or by nature.
You are an architect first, perfumer second.
I am an architect first because I've been doing architecture longer. I had been feeling safe for a long time in the architectural world than in the perfume world, because it was something I knew better. Now I feel unsafe in both of them, for they are completely different fields coexisting in my life at the same time. They really have helped me know myself better, and I enjoy both of them. Don’t be bothered so much about what you do “officially”.
Above: Various Architectural and Interior Design Works by Antonio Gardoni
When did you become interested in perfumes and perfumery?
Eight or nine years ago. And I have to say I have never been a “perfume person”, never been that geeky about the perfumes that I wore, or genuinely interested in the subject. I got interested in perfumery because at one point I was a very interested in plants – trees, bushes and flowers. I had a “crush on nature” and tried to understand it. I got into perfumery because I was “experimenting with nature”, like chopping things up, extracting things, playing with raw materials; and eventually I really felt, okay, let’s try to simulate certain aspects of scents that nature delivers with the materials I have on hand. And that's how I started formulating, in order to reproduce an idea of nature, and I quickly moved from it because it was too difficult. For nature does it better. So I started playing with making perfumes in an unexpected way.
For years I had played with naturals, for it was easier for me to connect them with a source visually – if you picture a garden with pines, roses or grasses, etc., you could think of the materials to mix together. There were many private experiments to recreate such mini landscapes, and I called them landscapes because one of the fascinating things about architecture is abstraction. So I have realized that the “garden” I tried to create was not anymore a visual garden, but an ideal garden; furthermore, it's not anymore an ideal garden, it's a landscape, an idea, a concept.
It's very critical for me to understand the results of my private experiments. I had faced a lot of questions while studying them. I was trying to achieve a certain effect for the concept that was in my mind, and sometimes I was unable to do so. So I started studying organic chemistry from super-boring organic chemistry books, and most of the time I could find possible answers to some of my questions. While studying, you think about other ways, too, so you also learn in some non-direct ways. I'm still studying, and it’s continual process.
How long had you been experimenting with scents before you decided you wanted to publish your first perfume?
There were a couple of very early experimental “perfumes” that I had given to my family and friends. But Maai is the first official, “proper” perfume, and it was released about five years ago.
I remember when it first came out, it made a splash in social media, and of course, it was a hit! Did the positive reception surprise you?
The positive reception and reactions I received from people whom I had never heard of were a massive surprise. I really felt people were mad at liking Maai that much at the beginning! I couldn't believe it for it was really one more big experiment in my own little world. And suddenly people from all over the world started sending me e-mails, “Can I have a sample? Can I have a sample?” At the same time, I started reading things about Maai, and they were shocking – in a good way. The comments and reviews from the good ones actually helped me a lot in learning and understanding what I've done, because I wasn't that conscious about my creation process and what that perfume meant.
What is Maai about?
Well, I personally still don't know! I trust a lot of other people’s opinions on Maai. To me, Maai has something to do with the big conflict that I still have with tuberose – it’s a fight between me and tuberose and how Maai could expose certain aspects of certain smells, when they were in an interlocked play of hide-and-seek in a perfume.
When you were building Maai, had you already learned about the classic perfumery structures and used them as a reference, or have you never followed any rules or used any references?
This is a very tricky question, because if I answered “yes”, everything makes sense. If I answer “no”, it might sound like there was no ambition. But the real answer is, I actually don't know, because I didn't know that much about classic perfumes back then. I think it was almost an accident that it happened to smell like an old big chypre from the past. It was very surprising for me to find out that people reference it to perfumes of much older style. I thought I was doing something new! I don't smell that many perfumes, not because I don't want to, it just that it doesn't happen. I am interested in perfumes, but I'm not interested as well. There isn’t something that I am desperate to smell, be it a new perfume or old perfume. I mean, I can live without smelling perfumes.
Above: Bogue Maai and Aeon 001 Perfumes
After Maai, you created AEON 001 for a different perfume company and they intentionally made the perfumer anonymous. (Ironically, this is what most perfume companies had been doing in the past, and in recent years, they are doing the exact opposite by revealing the perfumer's name.) A lot of people guessed correctly that it was your work – in fact, people often say your perfumes have a distinct style. Do you agree? How do you describe your style?
How can I not agree? I believe when people say I have a signature style, I'm not fighting against it. I mean, if you want to call it a style. We are what we are, and we can't fake it. I'm not trying to pretend to be different from what I am, so that probably applies to perfumes as well.
AEON 001 was a fantastic project. The idea of hiding the perfumer was actually mine, because I believe that the perfume itself should be stronger than its creator. I think that in this little world sometimes you are a bit too obsessed about knowing who made it, and that doesn’t help us approach the perfume itself.
And how would you describe your style?
I don't know. The only way I can describe it involves a bit of a technical process – I try to create mini clashes between each ingredient that I use. Each ingredient smells different with its counterpart, so if you use a material together with its “enemy”, and achieve a balance, you get interesting results, kind of like you use the citrus to counterbalance its worst enemy…
What's the worst enemy of the citrus?
Well, it depends. It depends on the battlefield. The worst enemy of a citrus could be a deep animalic note. It could also be a “too-generous flower”, so generous that the flower is pushing to come out, and the citrus tries to kill at the beginning but the citrus dies fast and the flower wins.
People often describe your perfumes having bombastic projection, with very long-lasting quality. What's the trick to it?
Use a lot of materials! (laughs) Essentially a high concentration of perfume! For me, anything below 20 percent is very difficult to make work. I work with a lot of naturals, and somehow they need bigger quantities to deliver a certain effect.
What about synthetic aromachemicals?
I learned a bit how to use aromachemicals, and they are absolutely functional. I love aromachemicals, but I can't say I'm using them 50/50 in any formula. With all naturals, it is like a battlefield from the 17th century – but with aromachemicals, suddenly you take on someone with a laser gun or atomic bomb. So it's really interesting and exciting for me to mix both together.
You also create bespoke perfumes for clients. Can you tell me more? Do you enjoy creating them?
That's probably what I have enjoyed the most for the past four or five years, because it's a very different job from creating and selling your own perfume., When you work with a private client on a bespoke project, you have a very intimate one-to-one relationship, and you try to learn things – first of all, from the person in front of you. And at the same time you try to liberate the person from certain prejudices and certain preconceived ideas. So it's a very challenging process, because the number of time I've been approached by people saying, “Oh, the perfume I want has to have this material, that material,” and they end up with something completely different because through the process they found out that the material or an idea of a certain perfume that they used to hate was actually a fixed idea – but experienced in a different way or challenged in a different way, it could change their mind.
Also, designing a bespoke perfume also provides me a great opportunity to experiment with materials that are too expensive to use in bigger proper productions. And each of my private clients really has given me the possibility to explore notes, materials, process, ways of doing things, and at the end, they received the most diverse perfumes for weddings, for lovers, for very famous people, or completely anonymous people. It’s so challenging, interesting, super fun – and sometimes these bespoke processes gave me inspiration for something for my own perfumes.
Occasionally I see you post photos of your non-perfumery work, such as faucet design and shop interior design on Facebook. It seems to me that you are never short of projects. Do you ever intend to take your perfumery full-time and expand the distribution network?
I think my perfume passion needs architecture to survive, not because of the financial side of things, but it provides some sort of counterbalance. Fragrance is like a piece of cloud – ephemeral and extremely difficult to be bring down and to track. But when you go inside a building that you design, you see pure, physical, heavy concrete steel structures, and that physicality creates a counterbalance.
Above: Retail Space Design and Industrial Design Works by Antoni Gardoni
I don't think I would ever leave architecture behind and make perfumery a full-time job. I don’t not even plan to expand my retail network or increase production, etc. You know, as in a formula, you try to reach a good balance of things. It doesn't mean it has to be a pleasant balance. But it's my own balance.
For me, the distribution network has always been very, very, based on personal relationships. I've been lucky enough to work with some amazing people. And I don't believe in having two or three more doors opened in order just to sell 10, 20, 30 more bottles. I know it takes time and concentration, and focus on good things to establish a good business relationship.
You have been one of the judges for the Arts and Olfaction Awards (A&O) for the past few years. How did that happen?
This happened because of Maai, essentially, again. Maai was involved in a very interesting and fun project about an old 1960’s “smell-o-vision” movie, “Scent of Mystery”. The Institute of Arts and Olfaction, together with producer Tamara Burnstock, were rereleasing it, and they tried to create a new scent for the “scent track” to the movie. In the original movie, the main female character was Elisabeth Taylor, and she wore a perfume called “Scent of Mystery” by Elsa Schiaparelli. They decided to use Maai as her perfume in the movie. And when we got in contact with the institute I met Saskia Wilson-Brown (the director of A&O). That’s how we became friends, I later got involved in the judging process.
Above: At the 2017 Art and Olfaction Award Finalists Annoucement Event at Exsence, Milan Italy
What did you observe? Did you gain any insights from evaluating so many perfumes?
I did gain some experience from some other people's work. But it's an activity I don't do much on my own. Being a judge almost forces you to evaluate and smell things that you will never smell, and that's super interesting. Sometimes I really struggle to understand what I'm smelling, but I rarely smell a perfume that I find wrong. However, it’s very important for me to understand what the creator is trying to say through the perfume – some people are so soft spoken that you can almost not hear what they are saying; some people are too loud, and some people are talking in vulgar words, etc. For the past three years I've been a judge for A&O awards. There’s always something worth listening to in each perfume. So that's what I have learned. I’ve learned to listen by being a judge.
Have you come to a conclusion of what type of perfumes tend to win the award?
No idea! I've seen the most different things winning over the years. I'm so happy with the diversity and peculiarity, and, you know, when Zoologist Bat won the award (in 2016), I thought it was amazing. It was a very important thing for me, because Bat was a perfume not meant to win an award in any way. It was too extreme in certain aspects, too conceptual, too hard to experience, and it demanded a lot of process from we are used to experiencing, and sometimes difficulties are not a good thing when you want to win an award. Sometimes going on an easy way makes life easier, you know? And I think it demonstrates the possibilities of winning an A&O award are very varied. It really challenged the perception of who can win or lose. I think it's a very exciting process, and it really helps people understand new possibilities and new directions.
Let's talk about Tyrannosaurus Rex!
I remember vividly how this project began - I first met you in 2016 during the Arts and Olfaction Award, and we exchanged our perfumes. I gave you a bottle of Bat and you gave me a bottle of Maai! About a year later, I met you again at the Milan perfume exhibition, Esxence. I jokingly told you that if I could rename a vetiver-themed perfume of yours, I would call it T-Rex, because it smelled very primal and dangerous to me. I said maybe you should develop T-Rex for Zoologist, and we both immediately laughed it off. The next day, early in the morning, you messaged me over the phone that you wanted to work on this project because it was stuck in your head. We later sat down in a restaurant and talked for hours about what it should smell like.
Above: Victor Wong and Antonio Gardoni (2017)
My vision of T-Rex was a loud, chaotic, primal, dangerous scent. I wanted the scent to be an olfactive version of a fantastical, colourful illustration one would find in a junior science textbook – fascinating, lots of things happening in the background like volcanic eruptions, forest fires, crazy gigantic flora and fauna, and of course, T-Rex tearing a poor victim's bloody body apart. As you might already know, I'm a very visual person, and I like to send perfumers a "mood board", or photo collage when a project begins. With that, hopefully the perfumer would take on the clues and incorporate the feelings that it evokes into their creation. Then you told me you were not a visual person when it comes to perfumery; to you, perfumes have more of a "sound" quality. Could you elaborate on that? And what does T-Rex "sound" like to you?
It is difficult to talk about perfume, because we don't have the language to properly describe scents. So there is nothing wrong about referring to images or art. To me, sound is the closest reference because it has an ephemeral presence. It starts, explodes, expands, then leaves. Doesn't matter if it is the sound of a car passing by or it's a sound from a Mozart concert. It's more about the way sound manifests itself, how it demonstrates its physicality through the vibration of air. So sometimes for me it's easier to think about the “vibrations” of a perfume in sound than images. Perfumes need a space to work – with no space, there will be no “sound”, and we will not smell anything. So they need architecture in a way, something to reverberate, like you go against the wall and jump back.
So what does T-Rex “sound” like to you?
To me, T-Rex sounds like a very gentle noise. A gentle, continuous, annoying almost, noise. It's like continuous drops of jelly substance coming down from a leaf, or blood coming down from the mouth. The sounds of swallowing, violent sounds of falling water coming down from the river into the lake, different sounds of water from a very faraway distance… it's very visual actually. (laughter)
And which ingredients did you choose to achieve that?
In T-Rex I tried to use some materials that I considered “enemies and friends”. I have used some very earthy materials like patchouli to create a thick ground, or horizontal surface. Right above the horizontal surface is some sort of a balsamic floral layer made out of very different materials like ylang ylang or champaca. It is lighter, aerial, but not light enough to go up in the sky, just light enough to go up and come down in droplets to create some sounds. When the droplets hit the ground, or muddy lake, certain materials such as smoke bounce back and evaporate, while the patchouli gets absorbed. These matters go up and down, creating a scenario of interest to me.
When I did my research on dinosaurs, I read that at their height of their existence (the Cretaceous period), plants started blooming for the very first time. I insisted that T-Rex should have a big floral accord. Did that throw your original vision of T-Rex off? Do you think we have sacrificed the ferocity of the perfume by adding florals to it?
Not at all. I actually found florals absolutely essential in T-Rex. If you think about it, we actually have no real references to use to design a perfume called T-Rex. In fact, originally I wanted to make T-Rex smell of plastic toys, because that’s the first smell we associate dinosaurs with. We rely on the studies published by scientists, but to be honest, we have no idea what flowers smelled like back then. You have no idea of what those big animals smelled like. Actually, not a single smell you can truly refer to, because that world was all gone a million years ago. So it is important to indulge in the stereotyped idea of what things you imagine would smell like, be it gigantic flowers with super-thick petals covered with dripping nectar; forest fire and exploding lava moving down volcanoes and into cracks, animals killing each other and eating gigantic leaves… but what's the smell of that leaf? What’s the smell of those flowers? What's the smell of Earth?
I think T-Rex needed to have all the traditional Chinese elements – metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Not that the perfume smells like Chinese medicine, but those five elements needed to be there. So there is a pungent aspect of metallic notes of blood. Some kind of flowing muddy substance to represent water, smells of smoke and fire for the volcano exploding, earth as in a moving hearth that the blood drips on. And the air during T-Rex’s time fascinates me – there should also be some aspect of the sky in it, because you always think about big trees, big animals, big earth – but can you image the sky in that period of time? It had to be completely mad! We probably had two moons crossing and clouds blocking the sun and strange rains and stones coming from down! Who knows! I mean I don't know, but probably some scientists think they do. So that's why florals didn't affect it badly at all. Actually they helped. I mean, it was obviously easier for me to picture a perfume that was very earthy and very floral in a way, but the way I use florals in T-Rex is not exactly a pleasing easy way. I believe it's showing the generality of a certain idea of the flowers in a vulgar way.
At some point during the development of T-Rex, I suggested toning down the perfume a little bit to make it less avant-garde, but more wearable. Did that compromise your original vision of what T-Rex should smell like?
I think the first version was a very interesting representation of “T-Rex”. As I have already said, this subject can only refer to itself. So how does it compare to something else? Is your face more real in a photo than in the mirror? Or is it more real when after you’ve shaved, or is it more real when someone caresses your face, or when you bang your face against the wall? I think T-Rex is still T-Rex, and it has been T-Rex all the way along. We are just representing the same thing in a different way. You can tell the same story in an hour, in two minutes or with a haiku. I know it's the same story.
I am very proud that this project is going to be the only animal in your collection that is extinct. We're dealing with an animal that is very difficult to relate to… say, you look at an alligator now. Not big enough. Look at an elephant now. Still not enough. To me, it's a very conceptual animal. It's like playing around an animal, but that animal is really just a concept. It's so distant from what we know from experience. So that was really exciting for me, because if you asked me to make a Zebra perfume and said it was interesting, I will say, whatever! You can’t argue that with a T-Rex!
What is next for you?
This summer, I am going to teach some young kids, 6-8 years old, for a couple of days. We will be playing around smells, telling stories with smells. It will be very liberating and amazing because they have no prejudice against smells. You know they can sniff their own poo and feel happy. We will have a very interesting time exploring different materials, mixing them, etc.
The school is a little place up in the mountains, north of Italy, where they do some classes on very different subjects. They asked me if I wanted to do something interesting with them on perfumes. They do classes for adults generally, but they have one week dedicated to kids. It's actually something really challenging to me, for it's not easy preparing the materials because of safety issues.
Thank you so much for your time, Antonio!
Zoologist Tyrannosaurus Rex will be released in Fall 2018.
Hi Tomoo, how have you been? Anything new since our last collaboration?
Yes. I have to say thank you for letting me compose Nightingale for Zoologist. It opened the door for me as a perfumer, and led to my second perfume creation, Tuberai, for a new brand called Beau Kwon based in California. Tuberai is one of three fragrances they released this spring.
That’s great! You are very talented, and you definitely should create more perfumes for the world!
Let’s talk about Moth. Shortly after our first collaboration in 2016, you sent me a few perfume prototypes for consideration. One of the them was called “The Night”, if I remember correctly?
It was my original composition, Kagaribi (The Cressets / Watchfire), which was inspired by an old Japanese poem, the same way Nightingale was.
The poem was written by Onakatomi no Yoshinobu Ason (大中臣能宣):
Like the warder's fires
At the Imperial gateway kept,
Burning through the night,
Through the day in ashes dulled,
Is the love aglow in me.
I see burning fire in darkness in this poem. I tried to express this with labdanum, patchouli, rose and a spice accord.
I liked that prototype instantly. It did smell dark, mysterious and a little powdery. And I think the spice accord you built was very novel. It’s strong and unconventional. You suggested calling it “Black Panther” if it was published under Zoologist. However, I had had a hard time picturing that spice accord being called “Black Panther”. I immediately thought about calling it Moth! What was your reaction?
I thought the name “Moth” didn’t sound very cute!
In the original formula, I used many spices from India, which led me to form an impression of a black panther. However, now I think “Moth” is a better fit than “Black Panther”. If it was released as Black Panther, you might have a hard time acquiring the trademark because of the recent release of the movie of the same title, even though the perfume was created a year and a half ago.
I always wanted to create a “smoky and powdery perfume”, and for a very long time I couldn’t come up with an animal whose characteristics had any association with smoke. But with that prototype, I could picture adding a smoky accord to the base to symbolize a moth flying towards flames and killed by them. It’s a bit tragic, but I think it suited the perfume’s overall mood. In Japanese culture, there is a lot of folklore around moths, correct?
In Japan, we have a proverb: “Like a moth flying into the flame”. That image fits perfectly for this perfume composition, for it reminds me of a person burning him/herself in a fire of everlasting love. By the way, I guess many Japanese would associate Moth with the movie, “Mothra vs. Godzilla”!
I want to talk about the three major accords you built for Moth. Let’s talk about the top notes first.
The opening is quite spicy, but I never feel it that much. I just wanted to create an impression of an image of burning fire with crackling sounds, and I thought I needed to use not only some smoky notes, but also spices. As you might know, it is trendy to incorporate cumin in perfumery, but it is never easy to use it effectively. I tried different materials, including natural cumin oil and the aroma chemicals cuminaldehyde (or cumin nitrile) to achieve the result I wanted. Oh, do you remember the early prototype that was overdosed with cumin? You said it smelled like the Chinese dish Beijing Duck!
For the middle notes, you have built a very interesting flower accord. I believe the powderiness of the perfume comes from this accord. I’d like to associate it to the little scales on the wings of a moth.
I used heliotropin and iris to express the scales on a moth’s wings. And I added a red rose accord (the same accord used in Nightingale) for the “passion” with other florals, too. Moth contains a lot of flowers, more than people would imagine. I needed them to make the composition softer in order to unite the notes.
I thought the smoky base accord was fantastic – it’s woody, sweet, additive, and a little “high pitch”. It almost smells like a thin, very focused funnel of smoke shooting high up to the sky. How did you achieve that effect?
Generally, birch tar and cade oil are used in perfumery to express smokiness. But I chose Guaiac wood oil instead, which itself has a spicy and smoky touch. It was a perfect fit for Moth. I also used the earthy-smelling nagarmotha (it’s widely used in oud compounds) and Indian vetiver (called Khus in India) that was matured in copper pots. Together, all those create a unique smell.
I have received some interesting and opposing feedbacks from people who have smelled Moth. Some think it’s feminine, some think it’s unisex, some think it’s very modern and avant-garde, some think it’s retro. How do you describe Moth? Who do you think will wear it well?
It has a feminine side and a unisex side, and also a masculine part! Maybe classical, or maybe modern! As you know, a fragrance has many different aspects, so people can feel anything and never be wrong, meaning all feedback gives perfect answers. I am a fragrance maniac, so I'll be happy to learn that anyone who is bored with mainstream products chooses to wear Moth!
By the way, I must say thank you to the illustrator. I am so grateful for her artwork. Her illustration turned the Moth into something cool and cute!
Thank you very much!
Zoologist Hyrax Deluxe Bottles and Travel Spray will be available in mid-June 2018 through this web shop and Luckyscent.com. Samples are available now.
Could you tell us about yourself? When did you become interested in perfumes and perfumery?
I studied pharmacy at the beginning of the ’90s, and was impressed by the novel Das Parfum. I visited Grasse in 1991 for the first time. So I started studying raw materials, reading books about perfume composing. During the 18 years I worked as a pharmacist in the family-owned pharmacy, I was always addicted to scents.
How long have you been studying perfumery? Are you a self-taught perfumer? Did you have any mentors?
I finished studying pharmacy in 1995 and became a pharmacist by profession, but I also started to become a self-taught perfumer, through passion, at the same time. I made contacts with some people in the industry to learn more about special molecules. Dr. Philip Kraft (Givaudan) and Egon Oelkers (Symrise) were the first professionals who ‘reviewed’ my first perfume compositions more than 10 years ago and encouraged me to go my own way. Later, I met Maurice Roucel with my Pink Patchouli on a blotter. He said I should commercialize it, that it would be a perfect niche scent. That was in 2013.
What is the fragrance market like in Germany? Do Germans wear a lot of perfume, and do they have a perfume culture like France’s? Do you know if there is a fragrance-making community in Germany? Are there any notable local indie or niche perfumers to your knowledge?
I think the perfume market in Germany is a copy of the French market. It’s difficult for niche labels, but there are people who are interested in what we do. There are not many self-taught artisan perfumers with their own brand; in Germany I know only of Tanja Bochnig of April Aromatics.
When did you decide to create your own perfume house? Was there a catalyst to making that decision? Were they any perfume brands or successful indie perfumes that inspired you?
In 2012, we sadly closed our pharmacy. There were many reasons for that, but it’s another story. After that, I was burnt out because of some bad things that had happened. But it was still my big dream to give perfume to the people, so I started my adventure by founding SP Parfums in 2016. I started with my “Essential Collection” – five fresh and five woody scents, and also published my book, Duftspuren, in German.
As far as brands that influenced me… I think I was inspired by Comme des Garcons with my interest in new molecules, but also fascinated by brands like Le Labo because of their style and marketing.
What is your book Duftspuren about?
I wrote Duftspuren as a guide for those people who are interested in perfume composing. I wanted to give them some inspiration for their studies by telling them my story. It’s about my way to learn about perfumery and perfume composing.
Can you tell us about SP Parfums? What is its olfactive style and philosophy? Are your perfumes modern or classic? Do you prefer natural ingredients or prefer mixed media?
Some scents from my childhood memories are the main ingredients of my creations. So, you can find my grandfather’s shaving soap in Lignum Vitae Forte, the smell of old pharmacies in Liquorice Vetiver… and wood, wood, wood. And animalics, vintage-style classic perfumery combined with new molecules in a (hopefully) unusual modern interpretation. That’s me, SP PARFUMS.
I first met you in Milan in 2017 at the perfume show, Esxence. You had a booth there. You were introduced to me by Fragrantica editor Miguel Matos from Portugal who spoke very highly of you. He told me I should collaborate with you. In fact, you two just had had a collaboration and you were showcasing the new scents. But first tell me, how did he know about you? What was the collaboration about?
When I presented my ESSENTIAL COLLECTION in Düsseldorf in April 2016, there was that moment when things happen… I met Miguel Matos, who was impressed by my Civette Intense. He was the first to write about my perfumes at Fragrantica. I asked him if he would be interested in creating a kind of ‘private perfume’ with me and writing about the process. Miguel was very interested in that project, and he wanted me to do a perfume with the vintage scent of suntan lotions of the ’70s/’80s and the glam of the beach life on the Algarve at that time. Three months later, Suntanglam was born, and we did two more scents together, Lisbon Blues and Funfair for “SP Private Perfume with Miguel Matos”, both also related to Portugal, Miguel’s home and home to his childhood memories. Miguel and I became friends and ‘scent twins’ while working together. It was an inspiring and exciting time for both of us.
Do you enjoy designing fragrances for someone else? Why?
It’s always a challenge to create with someone. I love to learn about someone’s scent memory. The process is always a gift of love, life and open-minded inspiration.
Above: At the Art and Olfaction Award Show 2017, Berlin. On the left, Victor Wong of Zoologist Perfumes, Andy Tauer and Sven Pritzkoleit of SP Parfums.
We decided to have a collaboration shortly after Esxence, and I met you again a month later at the Arts and Olfaction Award ceremony night, as both of our perfumes had been nominated. (Yours was Liquorice Vetiver and mine was Zoologist Civet.) By that time, you already had some quick prototypes for me! But first, please tell us more about your nominated perfume.
I was surprised about the A&O nomination of Liquorice Vetiver, because it has that kind of medicine smell. But there is that link to my profession as a pharmacist, and I think Liquorice Vetiver fixes that memory of an old pharmacy with herbal tea boxes.
I remember, of the many perfumes samples of your own line, the one that stands out most to me is Civette Intense. I mean, just the name itself gives me both shivers and excitement. It tells me that you have guts and you are not afraid of bold and animalic scents. Can you tell me more about that scent? Did you use real civet in the scent? Did you ever consider people might not wear it in public, and that you designed it purely for the wearer’s own pleasure? Are your other perfumes also very animalic?
I think Civette Intense is one of my signature scents – and a perfume of desire, too. The civet is absolutely in the focus with Himalaja Narde, which brings that green and vegan-animalic contrast. I love to combine animalics and woods. It’s some kind of natural-born instinct, which gives power to our soul. I think Civette Intense is absolutely wearable as a perfume to attract as well as a mood-modifier scent to give power, energy, freedom.
At SP PARFUMS, I use high-quality synthetic reconstitutions of animalic scents, so no animals were harmed for that.
You have smelled Zoologist Civet. What was your reaction? Did you find the civet note too mild?
I like Zoologist Civet. It’s different from Civette Intense, because civet is not in the focus. It’s another style.
I love to have a potent focus as a theme, which is present for hours, and I love to have contrast, like harsh and smooth or sweet and earthy, like I did with Lignum Vitae Forte.
What was your reaction when I told you I wanted to make a perfume called ‘Hyrax’?
It was a challenge to create Hyrax, absolutely!
Hyraxes are little rodent-like mammals that live in African mountains. Their closest relatives are actually elephants! Hyraceum is the petrified and rock-like excrement composed of both the urine and feces excreted by them. It ages and petrifies over hundreds of years, and now it’s a sought-after material for perfumery. In the perfume industry, people like to call it African Stones. Can you tell me what hyraceum tincture smells like?
The smell of the tincture of Hyraceum / African Stone is like a combination of civet and castoreum, plus that urinous smell.
Civet and castoreum are two popular animalic notes in perfumery, but not so much for hyraceum. Can you tell us more about the ‘hyraceum accord’ you initially built?
First, I tried to make my own accord that smells like hyraceum with different materials so I could get it in contact with other raw materials and see how it works in them. Also, authentic hyraceum tincture is not strong enough to have the power of civet/castoreum to last for hours, so I created my own animalic mix.
But in the end you still added some real hyraceum to it. Why?
I used authentic hyraceum not just because I want to have authenticity, but because there are some side effects – like that urinous aspect, and some special tar-woody notes, which are unique.
Zoologist uses only synthetic musks, but in Hyrax we use hyraceum. Apparently, Hyrax is no longer a ‘vegan’ perfume, but can you reassure the wearer that no animals are harmed with the use of real hyraceum?
With using hyraceum tincture, no animals are harmed. Hyraceum is a kind of olfactoral 'fossil', the excrement of hyrax.
Can you tell me what other notes you’ve picked for Hyrax and why? What’s the olfactive theme or effect you want to achieve with this fragrance?
While ‘playing’ with some hyraceum tincture, I got an association of oud from Laos, which has that animalic smell. The idea of an “oudy perfume” with hidden florals was born, and I tried to find some molecules to construct that. In the end, I decided to do an animalic floral oud with a harsh mineralic, peppery, razzle-dazzle start to represent 'Hyrax is coming, look at me!', then soften it with hidden lilac-hyacinth florals, coming up more and more with tonka, woodsy and musks and a slightly soapy touch in a skinny musk dry-down.
I have to say when people look at the notes pyramid and compare it to the actual scent, many might not be able to tell they are in the perfume… as if the notes have all fused together to create a single scent.
A friend of mine, who is really not a big fan of animalic scents, tested Hyrax and he wore it in public without any fear! And he didn’t wear it as an animalic scent.
I think Hyrax is abstract in the sense of being typical animalic – it’s an ‘oudy’ concept with the effect of a real oud attar with a hyraceum focus, but is much more than extended hyraceum. And I tried not to destroy the hyraceum focus with the additional notes.
Yes, it’s a fusion. The structure of Hyrax is not a pyramid – it’s done with a focus and layerings to move it, but not to destroy the main theme. I hope, it will move people, too.
Now I have to mention the cost of the perfume compound based on your perfume formula! When the compounding house gave me the quote, I was shocked! It was so high that I had to ask you to replace some materials with less expensive but similar-smelling ones. In the end, you successfully persuaded me to use the original formula.
Hyrax contains high-quality animalic reconstitutions and natural raw materials like tonka bean and Turkish rose oil, which are expensive. I always use the materials a perfume needs so it will be as unique in smell, volume and quality as I want it to be. You were a bit concerned about the costs and determined to change it. I was really sad to lose that spirit we created. Any changes in the formula would destroy that unique oudy fusion spirit. But in the end, you used the original formula. I was happy, and you felt the same.
Compared to other Zoologist scents, I must say the opening of Hyrax will be very confusing to most perfume wearers, including perfume connoisseurs. Some might be repulsed! What would you say to them? Who’s the target audience, in your opinion?
The opening of Hyrax is a peppery, "razzle dazzle" animalic, a hyrax declaring, 'Here I am, it’s me!' scent. I love that shock! I love perfumes that open with a shock, because I am excited to find out what comes next. In the case of Hyrax, it changes to a smoother floral oudy type on the skin! Take your time. You won't believe it’s the same perfume after the first two minutes.
I don't think there is a special target client. I think every meeting with a perfume is a play of trial and error. It’s the same with people. The same in real life.
What’s next for you?
I just finished a new perfume with Miguel. It has the working title Nowhere Fast, for an exhibition in Lisbon. And now I am working on two new floral perfumes, hopefully to be launched late summer.
Thank you very much!
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.
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…
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
Hello Chris, thank you for taking the time to do this interview! It’s been almost four years since our first collaboration (on Zoologist Beaver)! I notice that over the years you have put more focus on your perfumery ingredient distribution business than your own perfume business. Could you tell us more?
Yes, I seem to have become an ingredients supplier, more or less by accident! It started with me offering for sale materials I had to buy in much larger quantities than I imagined ever using because, quite simply, no one sold them in smaller amounts. That part of the business has grown in leaps and bounds as both the amateur perfume-making community has grown and the indie professional community has grown worldwide. As a result, I’m in the process of having major building works done, partly to fix a collapsing roof but also partly to convert areas of our home into secure ingredient-storage areas. I’m pleased that Pell Wall now supports so many up-and-coming perfumers while also supplying much more established businesses and providing access to some of the most interesting ingredients on the market. I believe I’m the only working creative perfumer who is also a major ingredients supplier, and I think that is part of the reason why that aspect of the business has been so successful. I don’t sell anything I wouldn’t use myself.
Are you still teaching perfumery and making new perfumes? And speaking of teaching, you once mentioned that the renowned perfumer behind Mason Francis Kurkdjan had actually travelled to the UK and given talks on perfumery to other perfumers. I thought he was so busy that he wouldn’t have time to share his perfumery knowledge.
I do still run teaching workshops and take on occasional interns, though I don’t do as much of that as I’d like to. It’s an aspect of the work I enjoy. My ambition for the Pell Wall ingredients website is that it should be an educational resource as well as just a shop, so on it I include quotations from other perfumers about the materials as well as my own scent impressions and thoughts about usage. Fortunately, I also still get commissions to create new fragrances for other brands quite regularly (though few are as willing as Zoologist to have me talk about it!), and I still release new fragrances for my own brand at least once a year. I believe when I attended a Perfumer Lovers London talk by Francis Kurkdjan he was promoting new perfumes he was releasing. It was very interesting, but, sadly, no secrets of the perfumer’s art were shared!
Let’s talk about Elephant, shall we? This perfume has taken us more than a year to develop. I remember back in April 2016, when you accepted the project, we thought we could get it designed in three months. In the end, it took us much longer. During this period we both got distracted by many things, and I didn’t really rush you (I think!).
I enjoyed working on Elephant very much, despite the distractions. And no, I certainly didn’t feel I was being rushed. One of the joys of this kind of work is that there is plenty of freedom for creativity to emerge over time.
The initial concept of Elephant was a rich Indian spice/chai tea/sandalwood themed perfume, because I felt that elephants and Indians traditionally have a strong connection. By the time we had reached the third prototype, however, we changed direction – we “opened the windows” to let the air in in the new prototypes, so to speak… now, to me the perfume smells like a herd of elephant walking through a forest and foraging on tree leaves.
I think we were right to change direction, both because where we ended up was much more original and also because it played to my particular strengths as a creative perfumer. As time went on, we moved more and more away from chai and towards fresh air, greenery and leafy effects (an area I think of as one of my strengths). I spent a long time getting the tropical forest effect right and used some very unusual materials to help me do so, alongside more conventional green materials such as violet leaf absolute and Mintonat (which also has an enhancing effect on other materials by the way – many materials have more than one effect in the fragrance). Creating the illusion of fresh air sounds as though it should be easy, but it’s actually quite challenging in a perfume and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time working on. Small amounts of material that in pure form don’t smell very nice are key to making it work, alongside transparent materials that ‘open up’ the perfume and make it sing. In Elephant, I used 6% of Kohinool to help get that effect. It’s a lovely material, with soft woody-amber and floral aspects. Plus, its name is derived from that of the most famous diamond in the world – and who couldn’t be inspired by that?
You mentioned that Elephant was your most complex perfume to date.
Yes. It didn’t start out that way. But as time went on and we added more complex accords, it finished up with hundreds of individual materials. One of the more complex accords is the sandalwood, made up of 26 different ingredients including natural sandalwood from Vanuatu, which, being a natural product, is itself made up of dozens of aroma chemicals. Almost as complex is the chocolate accord at 23 materials, including several very high-impact materials that need very careful dosing to get right and appear in vanishingly small amounts. Most perfumes I’ve created contain less than 50 ingredients, which is pretty typical for commercial fragrances. I hope wearers won't be aware of the complexity at all, except in the sense that the fragrance should hold their interest better and seem more natural. In my view, if you can pick out the individual notes in a perfume too easily, it’s not finished yet. A perfume smells like itself. If it still smells of its ingredients, then it’s still only a blend.
Above: Sandalwood forest reserve in Marayoor, Kerala, India
Many people who love fragrance say one of their favourite ingredients is sandalwood, and yet not many people have smelled real, pure sandalwood oil. Also, there are different kinds and grades of sandalwood oil. To me, the scent of sandalwood is mildly woody and creamy, definitely distinct, but not very strong. Can you tell us more about the effect of sandalwood in perfumery, and your sandalwood accord for Elephant?
Natural sandalwood is very expensive and hard to come by now, and the type widely regarded as the best – Indian sandalwood from Santalum album heartwood – is not legally available anywhere outside India. So, if you’re offered any, it’s either been smuggled out or, more likely, it’s fake. In my view, Vanuatu sandalwood from Santalum austrocaledonicum is the next best, and the government of the island began actively encouraging community farming and planting about 10 years ago. That oil, too, has become very expensive, but fortunately I bought a small store of it 6 years ago that I’m still eking out. Next would be Santalum spicatum or Australian Sandalwood, now extensively imported into India for distillation. Finally, there are other unrelated species such as Amyris balsamifera – sometimes sold as West Indian Sandalwood – which is deceiving. But despite being a completely different plant, it is possible to produce a very fine oil from it. The wood oil is widely sold, but personally I think the oil extracted from the bark is superior. Elephant contains Vanuatu sandalwood, as well as Amyris bark oil and two dozen other ingredients combined to make a convincing imitation of Indian sandalwood, but with a bit more strength and power. Many people can hardly smell real sandalwood, but almost everyone should be able to smell the blend used in Elephant.
I also want to touch on the coconut milk and cocoa ingredients you used in Elephant. I know they’re in the perfume, because we developed the scents together, but I think most people might have a hard time detecting them. These two ingredients have a distinct strong food/smell association, and yet in the perfume it’s lightly used.
I tried to use these elements in a way that would allow them to integrate into the perfume as a whole. I remember when you first asked me to add a chocolate note – something that wasn’t part of the original brief – I said it was certainly possible. What I envisaged was a chocolate that would enhance and work with the sandalwood to give it added richness and depth. If you look for it, you can certainly find chocolate in Elephant – but if you’re not looking, I don’t think it jumps out at you as it might from something like Chanel's Coco Mademoiselle, for example. In the same way, I saw the coconut milk element acting in support of the milky, soft elements of the sandalwood core of Elephant. I didn’t want it to smell like food. After all, most people enjoy the smell of frying bacon, but few people want to wear a perfume that smells like it!
May I assume that Elephant is your proudest work? What should the wearer expect from this perfume?
I guess if you ask most perfumer-creators what their favourite work is, they will usually say it’s the one they most recently finished. I’m certainly a bit like that! I suppose part of the reason for that is that, like any artist or craftsman, I’m always seeking to improve the quality of the work I do. Elephant has benefited from all my mistakes and successes that went before it. I hope it will be a grand commercial success – but even if it isn’t, I believe we’ve created something genuinely original and I’m extremely proud of that. In a crowded perfume market, it’s not easy to come up with something that is new, beautiful and has something to say. Elephant is all of those.
Thank you so much!
Note to reader: It might seem odd that I call Elephant “the scent of deforestation”. Elephants have big appetites, and on the surface they are quite destructive to their habitat. In 2013, I watched a TED Talk by the biologist Allan Savory on the subject of desertification. He confessed that in 1950s, when he was young, his research indicated to him that in order to stop the deterioration of the land in Africa’s national parks, the number of elephants had to be reduced. The government agreed, and subsequently 40,000 elephants were killed to “stop the damage”. Later, he discovered that his research conclusion was faulty. He described it as “the saddest and greatest blunder of my life, and I will carry that to my grave.” This sparked a stronger determination to find a solution to desertification. Eventually he figured out that the constant grazing and movement of large herds is essential to the regeneration and protection of the natural ecosystem. This talk left me with teary eyes and is forever etched in my mind. I subsequently watched more videos on elephants and learned that their “purging” behaviour plays an important role in the dispersal of seeds and the clearance of areas for new plants to grow.
When I smelled Chris’ fourth revision of Elephant – the aroma of fresh air, green leaves, woody dry down – in my mind I immediately saw images of leaves and bark being stripped from trees by elephants. I knew this was the right scent direction we should move forward with. I hope you will enjoy this scent. It’s one of Zoologist’s proudest creations.
Zoologist Elephant will be available on September 30th, 2017
Hello Juan. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. How are you?
Hi Victor, I’m fine. Thank you for inviting me to do this interview.
How’s the weather in Puerto Rico right now? Toronto in April is still a bit chilly, and bulbs have just started sprouting.
Right now the weather is moderately warm. Puerto Rico is a tropical island where extreme temperatures are very rare. Our maritime tropical weather prevents major temperature changes. The most obvious seasonal change in weather is from the dry to the wet season. However, the difference between the dry and the wet seasons is not extreme. There can be dry spells in the wet season, and it can be rainy in the middle of the dry. I live in the central mountains, and the weather here is usually cooler and more humid than the coast. The mild weather and the beautiful sunny beaches, which receive the trade winds, makes it an excellent tourist destination.
San Juan, Puerto Rico Coast
It seems like Puerto Rico is a horticulturist’s paradise!
Although Puerto Rico is a small island, we have very diverse flora. Our tropical rainforests have a very high number of plants species compared to temperate climate forests. Our year-round warm weather and frequent rainfall allow us also to grow many exotic tropical plants and flowers. As a professional horticulturist and gardener myself, the weather is perfect for growing many plants outside with little extra protection. Only some of my orchids need to be grown in a greenhouse that is protected from too much sunlight and rain.
That’s why I often see you post beautiful photos of your orchids on Facebook!
Yes! I think about 80% of my Facebook posts are about my plants. The rest is probably perfumery related. I just have a very limited backyard garden, mostly fragrance flowers, herbs and spices. Orchids are certainly the most abundant plant family in my garden. I grow and collect several orchid species and hybrids.
Would you tell us what you do?
My professional studies are in plant sciences and horticulture, but I’ve been dedicated full-time to my local fragrant bath and body product business for about 12 years. I started making scented soaps, but quickly added other products like lotions, body splashes and scented candles. Most of the fragrances of my bath and body line are just basic and uncomplicated scents. My business took a more complex perfumery approach in 2012 when I launched my first group of perfumes under The Exotic Island Perfumer line.
I first heard about you through Shelley Waddington (perfumer of Zoologist Hummingbird and Civet), who speaks highly of you! She mentioned that she, you and a few self-taught perfumers studied perfumery together.
I so much admire Shelley’s perfumery work! Her style is so unique and inspiring. I met Shelley and other fellow indie perfumers several years ago, before the Facebook era, in an online perfume-making forum. Together we started gathering and locating basic and rare aroma-chemicals and naturals, and discussing our impressions of each material, their potential uses and effects in a composition as well as safety issues. We worked with basic accords and classical formulas. Later we started exchanging our own compositions for further discussion and constructive suggestions. It was a very fun and helpful group with very diverse background experiences in perfumery. Some of us just studied perfumery as a hobby, with no particular business interest. Others, like Shelley, Paul Kiler and me, kept going with perfumery to a business level. My first perfume debut was in 2011 as a guest collaborator for Shelley’s EnVoyage perfume line. I created Nectars des Iles as part of a wedding fragrance duet inspired by the tropics. Nectars des Iles is the island floral fruity nectar counterpart to Shelley’s Vents Ardents, which is a woody amber with sweet touches of rum, citrus and tropical fruits.
Wow, that’s amazing, particularly since the Internet wasn’t mature at that time. I learned about your perfumery work through your “Exotic Island Aromas” webshop on etsy.com, and I think they are beautiful works! Can you tell us about your perfumes and styles?
In 2012, I debuted my first perfumes. Flor Azteca and Oudh Nawab were the first two perfumes I launched and were part of the Primordial Scents 2012 perfume project hosted by Monica Miller of Skye Botanicals, where several perfumers submitted various perfumes inspired by the elements Air, Water, Earth, Fire and also Spirit. Flor Azteca – a tuberose with incense, balsamic resins like copal, benzoin and frankincense with touches of piquant spices and cacao – was submitted as a “Fire” perfume. Oud Nawab – a deep, oriental resinous woody amber with precious notes of Kalimantan oud, sandalwood, cypriol, myrrh, earthy Persian spices and dried fruits – was submitted as an “Earth” perfume. Later in the same year I launched two soliflores, Magnolio de Verano and Gardenia Exhuberante.
Donna Hathaway, a perfumer reviewer in Portland, loves your perfumes. She gave you the nickname “King of Flowers”!
Donna is a lover of plants and flowers, just like me, and was one of the earliest reviewers of my work. As a gardener and plant collector since childhood, my initial interest in scents was via fragrant flowers and herbs. My first perfumery projects were decoding the constituents of some of my favorite flowers, like gardenia, tuberose and plumeria, and making my own versions of them. I enjoy making reconstitutions of flower scents a lot, but I also enjoy deep woody and balsamic orientals. Currently I have some ongoing projects in these genres. I still struggle with heavy animalic notes and patchouli, but I’m learning to appreciate them more with time.
Let’s talk about our collaboration, shall we? I remember we had no struggle agreeing on naming the fragrance “Dragonfly” and starting the project right away. I knew you would make an excellent fleeting aqueous floral scent.
Sure! I’m very honored to be a collaborator for a Zoologist fragrance, and yes, I remember you asked me if there’s a particular animal that I’d be interested in. I quickly said a bird or an insect, but an insect quickly got your attention, and the name “Dragonfly” was your almost immediate suggestion. I liked it a lot, and we quickly discussed possible notes for the perfume. We also considered “Swan”, but thought a “Dragonfly” would be more fun or unusual.
What perfumery notes did you immediately conjure up in your head when designing Dragonfly? Did you draw any inspiration from classic perfumes for this project?
When I think of a dragonfly, my obvious thoughts are a pond, water lilies and lotuses, iris and water reeds. Beautiful pastel watercolor paintings of lilypads and dragonflies perching over iris flowers. I’m sure many people think the same when they think of a dragonfly. So I wanted to incorporate all those elements in the perfume, but not in the traditional “aquatic spa” set of notes we often find in perfumes inspired by these elements. As for classic inspiration, one of my inspirations for Dragonfly was Guerlain’s Apres L’Ondee, the way such a beautiful perfume conjures up the idea of a garden after the rain, without using the traditional modern concept of “aquatic”, which not available by the time the perfume was originally made. Although it was not a direct or obvious citation, Apres L’Ondee was an initial inspiration for the Dragonfly’s watery surroundings.
I think a lot of people associate dragonflies with “carefree flight” and joy, but what fascinates me most about them is that they need to live near a water body. They spend half their life as nymphs underwater, and emerge to undergo a metamorphosis. I want to make a perfume that evokes the beauty of ponds and aquatic flora. There are two particular perfumery notes, rice and papyrus, that I have always wanted to use, and in Dragonfly you have brilliantly incorporated them.
Appearances can be deceiving. Behind what appears to be a light and carefree existence, frittering away time over the pond in joyful flight, lurks the much darker reality that dragonflies are efficient and ruthless predators, veritable dragons of the insect world, always alert to the opportunity to catch unwary prey. They are in a constant hunt for small insects like mosquitoes and other small flying insects. They perch on the taller reeds, looking for prey. The nymphs, out of the water, look weak and defenceless, but when one sees them in their habitat it becomes apparent that they are equipped with a nightmarish set of jaws that can open wider than their head and gives them an alien and frightful look when they attack their prey. They are fully as cold-blooded predators as the adult form.
Yes, I think rice and papyrus was a very nice choice of notes from you, considering both plant species grow near aquatic environments or bogs. But initially it was also challenging to make them work in the formula. Both notes have their own particular effects through different stages of the perfume. When you told me about rice, I brought you a cooked rice note, which wasn’t the exact note you were looking for, so the original outcome was more like stale rice in a muddy pond and quite strong. Something similar happened with papyrus. The initial direction for papyrus was focused mainly in cypriol or nagarmotha (Cyperus scariosus), which is a close relative of the Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus). The oil obtained from the nagarmotha plant is very rich and exotic, very dry and woody, with vetiver and peppery facets. It’s often used in oud accords. Such deep dry woody note was difficult to incorporate in the formula, but later the use of a less dense cypriol extraction combined with other green ingredients did the trick for the Papyrus accord we were looking for.
Another aspect of Dragonfly I find fascinating is its three distinct phases of scent development – they paint a living picture of an Impressionist pond painting. The opening is airy, moist, and mildly sweet, like the morning mist. The middle is strong and green, like the afternoon sun beating down the greens, and the ending is peaceful and tender – like a quiet night. Can you tell us how you achieve that?
Yes. Dragonfly has various facets through its development, where many of its ingredients are interconnected and complementary in multiple accords at different stages. You get the fresh and airy opening, where the almondy heliotrope has a fresh flower quality supported by a sparkling “solar accord” of salicylate-laced florals and a touch of aldehydes. As the fresh opening fades away, the anisic sweet elements of the heliotrope accord with a very special French mimosa absolute rearranges, complementing the aquatic green floral heart focused in the lotus flower, which also is naturally soft and anisic. This heliotrope-mimosa-lotus trinity intertwines with iris/rice powder and green stem notes, then making a transition to mossy woods, mineral earthy notes and amber, wrapped with white musks. Although it’s a fragrance inspired by life in a pond, it’s not a typical aquatic composition at all. It’s a very rich fragrance with many contrasts; it can be airy, it can be dense, sometimes fresh aquatic, sometimes dry and earthy. The richness of its woody base and the use of ingredients that can be “drying” – like cypriol, iris and the slight powderyness of mimosa – prevents the composition from becoming a transparent aquatic composition.
I must mention that we’ve spent one year developing the perfume. Initially, we both thought the concept was clear and it would take three months to design, particularly when we agreed it was going to be a floral heavy scent (which is your forte)…
We wish it would be that simple, but in perfumery things do not always work the exact way we wanted or planned. There are many factors that influence how fast a perfume is finished. Besides the distance and the time it takes for you to receive my prototypes, perhaps one of the factors that influenced me the most was figuring out how each of us think. For example, when you told me you wanted a “rice” note, my mind thought of the scent of cooked rice, which wasn’t exactly what you expected. Later we found that it was really the fantasy scent of rice face powder. And when you said “iris”, I gave you a very abstract earthy orris note, completely different to the classic powdery accords rich in floral ionones that you were expecting as “iris”. I guess I took it too literally. Another issue was making the cypriol work in the papyrus accord. The first cypriol source was too dense and earthy, and it was quite difficult to blend it without overtaking the formula. Finally, another grade of cypriol which is greener and not as dense, did the trick. It’s not uncommon for a perfume to take longer than expected to develop. Some of my perfumes took more time than Dragonfly to get finished. It took me a couple years to have the tuberose accord the way I wanted it in my Flor Azteca perfume. Sometimes I take a very long pause in certain perfume compositions until I find the right ingredients for it.
So do you think this perfume is very ambitious? Is it a simple or a complex perfume, in your opinion? Who do you think is the target audience?
The composition has about 60 individual ingredients, so I think Dragonfly is quite a complex formula full of contrasts. I think anyone can wear it, but I think people who enjoy green floral perfumes, or love reading fantasy stories, might find Dragonfly particularly mesmerizing. The scent has a dreamy, impressionistic-painting, fantastical quality.
Do you think you would consider more collaborations with other clients?
Of course I would! It’s the second time I’ve done a collaboration project, and I really enjoyed the process in both. It gets me out of my comfort zone to experiment with new ideas.
What is next for you?
I’ve been in sort of a pause. I still need to make some improvements to my perfume line. As for new perfume creations, I’m currently working on two new perfumes. One is a more masculine aromatic/gourmand woody that I expect to release by next fall. The other fragrance is a floral that I expect to release probably by late winter/early spring. There are more ideas and projects in mind, so stay tuned!
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview! I wish you the best and good business!
My pleasure. All the best to you too!
Zoologist Dragonfly will be available in late June 2017.
Hello Shelley, good to chat with you again! How are you?
Hi, Victor! It’s great to hear from you. I’m doing well, and hope you are too!
I’m feeling a little nervous, because I’ll soon be launching your new scent, Civet. But otherwise, I’m fine!
You moved from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon about a year ago. How do you like it?
I came to Portland primarily to be with my new little grandson. This is a great place to live and work.
Shelley and her perfumery studio at home in Portland. © Photo: Steve Ross
Does Portland have an active fragrance community? I know that you recently hosted a gathering called “Portland Sniffa”!
The Portland perfume community is lively and growing. The Portland Sniffa was something I put together to commemorate a huge membership benchmark for Charlotte Scheuer’s “Facebook Fragrance Friends”.
Several Portlanders attended, along with perfume-lovers from Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado. We visited three perfumeries, including my own, En Voyage, and then ended up in a luxurious room for dinner and our perfume swap.
The stores we visited reported that we were the largest perfume group they’d ever seen. Every minute was an absolute blast, and we’ll be back next year by popular demand.
Portand Sniffa 2016 Event Photos © Steve Ross
And you showed the final version of Zoologist Civet at the event, too! I know people loved it!
Yes. I introduced Zoologist Civet for the first time at our evening soiree! It received unanimous raves. Robert Hermann, of the popular fragrance blog "Australian Perfumes Junkies", fell so in love with it that he couldn't wait to share the news with the world. He went home the next day and wrote a terrific review, even though the launch was still two months away.
Let’s talk about Zoologist Civet, shall we? What came to your mind when Zoologist asked you to design a perfume called Civet?
My first thought was, ‘Uh-oh, I hope Victor knows how nasty civet smells and I hope he has a darn good brief.’ (He did). Victor also understands my wheelhouse as a perfumer quite well. His ideas were very similar to how I would have conceptualized it myself, so Civet turned out to be a very pleasant collaboration.
I know a lot of people love Hummingbird, the floral nectar perfume you designed for Zoologist a year ago. How does Civet compare to Hummingbird?
Mood-wise, Hummingbird and Civet are worlds apart, almost opposites.
Where Hummingbird is aerial and all sunshine and flirtatious shimmer, Civet is swanky, a little sly, luxuriously furry. A creature who prowls and growls.
Genre-wise, Hummingbird is a unisex woody floral; Civet is a glorious chypre. What do they have in common? They’re both attractive, amusing creatures who each have huge attitude.
Civet surprised me. I think people will be surprised. But that’s all I want to say. I don’t want to ruin the surprise!
Do you often use civet musk in your own perfumes? Can you tell us a bit about the nature of civet musk and what effect it brings to a fragrance?
The civet is a very pretty small animal, about the size of a cat, that lives in the jungles of Africa and Southeast Asia. Civet musk is extracted from their anal glands. Until quite recently, the process of obtaining civet musk was egregiously cruel. Modern civet farmers, under pressure from animal-rights groups, are now kinder to the animals and their methods of extraction more humane. But because of general ethical perception, most perfumers prefer to use synthetic civet.
I use civet in some of my perfumes. The addition of mere traces of this substance exalts and fixes the fragrance, fortifying it and making it more diffusive. It also adds to the wearability and longevity of the perfume.
By the way, remember we tested the idea of making a civet “musk bomb”? But we quickly came to a meeting of minds that even the tiniest increase was decidedly ruinous!
Since we are not using real civet musk, what can you tell us about the quality of the synthetic musk you picked for this perfume?
Civet musk smells disgustingly urinous and fecal in its pure form, whether it’s natural or synthetically reproduced. A close whiff of the pure stuff is an assault to the nose and guaranteed to snap your head back. But a tiny amount, diluted down to less than one percent, has the effect of a magic elixir when added to perfume.
As with all the fragrance materials that I use, I only procure my civet directly from a reputable fragrance manufacturer.
Besides civet musk, there’s a lovely coffee note in Civet, too. I want to include this note because Asian palm civets are famous for the coffee beans that they defecate! Farmers collect them and use them to brew “Kopi Luwak” coffee. Have you had that before?
I was initially skeptical about the “coffee + civet” combo. It sounded very acidic. I’ve worked with coffee before in one of my bestsellers, Café Cacao, so I know it’s a challenging note to work with. For Civet, I sourced the darkest, least acidic coffee available, and then worked in other Eastern materials that would offset the remaining acidity factor. (I’ve described the resulting accord below. It was even better than I’d hoped for.)
As an aside, I purchased some Kopi Luwak online, so that I could experiment with tincturing the beans. My thought was that if it worked, it would be an ideal way to obtain civet musk in the most humane way possible. Unfortunately, the coffee never arrived, so that part was disappointing. I was really looking forward to tasting that coffee!
I know that you’ve spent some time on each of the top, middle and bottom notes layers separately and getting the proportions in the mixture right. Did you have a solid idea of what the perfume would smell like in the very beginning and designed the layers accordingly?
My work is sometimes thought of as leaning towards vintage, but I think a lot of that belief is because I use a high percentage of fine naturals, as was commonly done with vintages. People get a similar vibe from mine and associate it with the vintage perfumes.
But stylistically, I didn’t start out deliberately seeking to create Civet as a vintage. The civet and his environment are timeless and unchanging. So I was aiming towards making more of a Realistic Classic.
I never start blending until I’ve completely conceptualized the story and the final fragrance in my mind. But I always leave a space for surprises to arise. And it was indeed a nice surprise to find that coffee, musk ambrette, opoponax and cinnamon were so incredible together. I didn’t expect the combination to work so well!
For Civet, I was also looking for a specific mood and texture. I found several jungle botanicals from Thailand and Asia that really filled the bill.
I began by laying my canvas with the base, looking for the thematic notes that provide not only the mood and texture, but also the sillage and longevity. I wanted ones that creep up through the heart and top in the ways that I wanted them to. In this case, several auxiliary notes were added to complete the profile of both the civet and his habitat.
The heart is the headspace of the civet’s surroundings – the kinds of smells he smells as he walks and climbs through his environment, and the foods that he eats. As he strolls through his forest grocery store, other animals take notice. They smell him and stop him to ask what he’s wearing.
The top is the glamour he sends out to signal his presence.
But the story only flows properly when the top, heart, and base are perfectly balanced in relation to each other. I hope I answered your question. It’s a little complicated.
Who do you think would enjoy wearing Civet?
It’s hard for me to think of anyone who wouldn’t like this fragrance, although it may contain too much “sex and violence” for the very young. So I’d give it a “Unisex Adult” rating.
I also think it’s a good example of a fragrance that incorporates a lot of natural ingredients in a fairly classic perfume structure. So it would be a great starter perfume for anyone who wants to try something sophisticated with an artisanal vintage vibe.
When we decided on the final formula, we experimented with different perfume concentrations. We tried 20% and 25%…
To me, every perfume has its own ideal point of dilution – it's the point at which everything comes together and blooms in the best way possible. We were surprised that a difference of 5% gave it a much fuller, richer, sultrier sensuality.
(We called Bat, Hummingbird and Civet “Eau de Parfum”, but they are, in fact, “Parfum”. We might rename them to “Parfum” in the future.)
What’s next for you? Will you be releasing any new fragrances in 2017?
All I can say is that each new perfume is a fresh surprise. The next one is underway and I’ll be launching it in early 2017. It’s bringing a wholly new kind of treat. Stay tuned!
Zoologist Civet will be available 2016/12/31.