An Interview with Chris Bartlett, the perfumer of Zoologist's Beaver

November 20, 2014

An Interview with Chris Bartlett, the perfumer of Zoologist's Beaver

Could you tell us something about yourself and your passion for perfumery? When did you first start making perfume?

Making perfume has been a lifelong interest, going back to my early teens. Like many people I started by blending essential oils. I read-around the subject extensively - in those days I virtually lived in the library - we're spoiled now that the internet makes access to knowledge so much easier. By the time I was in my early twenties I'd made my first 'real' perfume as a gift for my mum - I rather suspect it was dreadful, but she wore it a few times anyway.

Shortly after that I got a proper job and pursued a career first in IT, later customer satisfaction, leadership, national security by way of intellectual property, human networking, training, sales and Government relations (I still do some consulting in most of those areas). Perfumes continued to be an interest in the background throughout this period, but wasn't my primary focus and I did a lot more buying than making. The background I gained in legal and regulatory frameworks has proved helpful in getting to grips with the many rules and regulations that surround perfumery, and a there's some other carry-over in terms of some of the basics of running a business in retail that have stood me in good stead. Even so it's hard to imagine a bigger change than between national security and fragrance creation.

Chris Bartlett in Lab

One thing I have found is that understanding requirements is much the same whether you are selling a big computing deal or designing a bespoke perfume: it’s all about asking the right questions and listening carefully to the answers.

Along the way I discovered it was possible to get some formal training in making perfumes, and what's more I could get it from the perfumer who made an exclusive personal perfume for HM The Queen - with qualifications like that who could resist? My partner bought the first course for me as a birthday present and there was no stopping after that.

I was made redundant for the second time and it seemed fated that it was time to return to the early passion and make something of it: so I started making things I thought might sell and as luck would have it, most of them did… so I made more, learned more and that cycle continues: the more you learn the more you realise how much you don't know. I've always been driven to collect knowledge - whether of the not-much-use-except-in-trivia-competitions variety or the more directly applicable sort - I can't imagine stopping that until I'm packed into a (scented) pine box!

What is your approach to making a perfume? How would you describe the style of your perfumes?

I suppose it’s intuitive in the sense that I sort of know what to put together to get an effect, although there’s a fair bit of analysis there too: I start any new fragrance with a list of potential ingredients in a spreadsheet. Actually that’s not true because before that it’s an idea in my head that gradually develops into ingredients, that then get listed in the spreadsheet with first draft proportions. It’s only once I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the fragrance in this virtual state that I make up the first version. When I say quite a bit of time, that can be a couple of days or months depending on how hard I’m finding it. Once the first version is made then it’s either a case of chuck it out and start again or tweak to get to the scent I imagined. Tweaking can be a few versions or dozens – depending on both me and the client, if there is one.

Beaver Swimming

What were your initial reactions when Zoologist Perfumes approached you to make a perfume based on an animal theme, and a perfume named "Beaver"?

Well to start with it’s always flattering to be asked to realise someone’s concept, to turn a dream into reality: it’s a great privilege to be able to do that. In this particular case though there was also the animal theme, which I loved from the start: animal ingredients have been a traditional part of the perfumer’s palette for generations (now mostly replaced with synthetic equivalents for ethical reasons) but it’s uncommon for any fragrance since the 18th century to feature animalics as the main theme.

But then there’s the beaver business and I must confess I was in two minds about that: the common euphemistic use of the term made it impossible to avoid a snigger at the idea, but the brief made it clear that what we were talking about here was the Canadian national animal – not just any animal and not a comedy fragrance: that made it a great challenge that I enjoyed working on.

I’m still hoping to be asked to do Arctic Fox by the way – one of my dogs (Jazz) does that characteristic pounce we’ve all seen arctic foxes do on wildlife documentaries – it reminds me of the idea every time I see her do it.

Could you tell us what makes Beaver special? Is it a big deviation from other perfumes that you've made in the past, or even from most perfumes in the market?

Beaver is first and foremost an animal fragrance: a complex of musks and animalic materials. I wanted to capture the claustrophobic closeness of the inside of the den as well as watery notes to reflect the beaver’s well known practice of damning and of course some distinct woody notes to get the sense of the felled trees used in building. But most of all it’s the animal: not dirty (beavers are in and out of water all the time after all) but not sterile or washed either. There are a few animalic fragrances on the market, a very few, but there’s nothing quite like Beaver: he’s a very civilised, sophisticated chap, but he’s still an animal for all that.

Castoreum has been a common musky ingredient for perfumes for decades. What is its special property and what role does it play in the Beaver perfume?

Castoreum is one of the traditional animal ingredients – very few perfumers now use the natural extract of beaver glands – there are no animal parts in Beaver. However I did use a very fine quality recreation to give the uniquely leathery-musk, faintly sour scent that is so uniquely beaver, it just had to be present in Beaver. Unlike Civet there is no faecal quality to castoreum, it’s clean but darkly animalic and very, very interesting: it adds a wonderfully complex undertone to the play of water, wood, musk and maple leaves that make up the heart of this characteristically Canadian scent.