An Interview with Juan M. Perez, perfumer of Zoologist Dragonfly

June 14, 2017

An Interview with Juan M. Perez, perfumer of Zoologist Dragonfly

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 CoastSan 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.

Juan Perez In His Garden

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, 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.

Dragonfly on flower

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.

Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond and Weeping WillowWater Lily Pond and Weeping Willow, by Claude Monet - flickr, Public Domain, Link

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.

Misty Morning

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.