An Interview with Pia Long, the Perfumer of Zoologist Chipmunk

October 12, 2021

An Interview with Pia Long, the Perfumer of Zoologist Chipmunk

 

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.

Olfiction UK
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.

Accords Et Parfums Garden

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.