An Interview with Joseph DeLapp, the perfumer of Zoologist Dodo

January 27, 2019

An Interview with Joseph DeLapp, the perfumer of Zoologist Dodo

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:

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?

Ambitious, yes.

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?

Absolutely 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!

Joseph DeLapp at Art and Olfaction Award 2016

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