An interview with Chris Bartlett, the perfumer of Zoologist Elephant

September 08, 2017

An interview with Chris Bartlett, the perfumer of Zoologist Elephant

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!

Elephants in River

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.

Chris Bartlett Compounding Zoologist Elephant In His Lab

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.

Sandalwood forest reserve in Marayoor, Kerala, IndiaAbove: 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.

Cocoa Pod and Coconut Milk

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.

-Victor Wong

Zoologist Elephant will be available on September 30th, 2017