An Interview with Sarah McCartney, the perfumer of Zoologist's Macaque

September 05, 2016

An Interview with Sarah McCartney, the perfumer of Zoologist's Macaque

Hi Sarah, thank you for taking the time to do this interview!

You started your perfume house 4160 Tuesdays in London, UK in 2013 and it has been 4 years since then. How are you liking this new page in life and new profession? How is business lately?

We moved into our building in 2013, but the perfumery started up in one end of our attic bedroom in 2010, while I was still working as a freelance writer and writing trainer for big corporations. That was the most terrifying thing I'd ever done, followed by employing people. I really just wanted to make perfume but now I find myself running a business; mind you I have a great team including Brooke Belldon, who knows far more about other people's perfume than I do and blogs as BGirl Rhapsody, Arthur McBain our resident actor and trainee heartthrob. He's going to be very famous soon but in the meantime I've just signed him as the face of The Sexiest Scent on the Planet. Ever. (IMHO).

I recently got back into some very serious making because I've had some fascinating commissions from lovely people (not least you, Victor, and Macaque), but there's Underhill for Misc. Goods Co., Damn Rebel Bitches for Urban Reivers, a couple of very secret private commissions, and two scents to celebrate a woman swimming from England to France to raise money for refugees. There are another few collaborations coming up which I can't tell you about yet, but I do love working with other people to make their ideas happen.

We're poised to double the space we have by moving into next door's building too. I need to run more making workshops and with more people as they all sell out now, after The Guardian wrote a piece about them. We'll have bottling, packing and shipping next door, and my lab and the workshop are in the current one (if it all goes well).

I'm also working with the Facebook Group Mrs Gloss & The Goss; we're on to our third perfume together and I’ve made them an extra Christmas bonus too along the way. That's group bespoke creation and we crowd-fund it so that each group member can have a scent at a sensible price and 20 of them have a hand in its creation. I'm all for embracing the new commerce, using the internet in ways we didn't have 20 years ago. (Too many business models are based on a 150 year old method.)

So right now I'm not sure which way it will go. It's Pitti Fragranze next week – our first time – then there are the workshops, bespoke, collaborations and our online shop.

4160 Tuesdays Studio Activities

Above, Clockwise: 1. Arthur 2. Team at Studio – Anastasia, Helena, Sepphiah 3. Sarah at Work 4. Bespoke Perfume Party

I see that there are a lot of fans of 4160 Tuesdays raving about your perfumes on your Facebook page. Do you have something to say to them?

Hello! Come and visit.

Really I'm delighted by all the mentions we get, and I can't always keep up. My husband Nick aims to keep track of them, and to point me in the direction of any questions I need to answer.

I never mind if people don't like my perfumes, because when you push perfume into areas that people haven't smelled before to make things you hope some people will love, then you're going to get others really not liking them at all. That's to be expected. But when people really get what it is that I'm up to, and go totally nuts about one of them on Facebook, Twitter or their blogs, then I feel as if it's all worth the bother.

I must say it had come to us by surprise that you contacted us and proposed a collaboration in late 2015. Where did you hear about Zoologist and what triggered the thought of a collaboration?

I thought it was quite daring of me. I had no idea you'd say yes and I was delighted when you wrote back. You could have told me you weren't interested. I didn't know. When I got the EauMG best upcoming brand in 2014, you were second so I looked you up. Of course I know Chris Bartlett, that stalwart of the UK indie perfume team, so we'd heard about Beaver. Chris does a lot of PR for you over here. Then one day I saw that you'd got distribution in Poland and I thought “Wow, I want to work with that man; he's getting his fragrances everywhere!”

Did you enjoy the collaboration?

It was excellent working with you. What was great was that you warned me about wanting lots of mods (perfume prototypes) and not being able to make up your mind, so I was expecting that. I was delighted that you said Macaque was like nothing you've ever smelled before because I feel that this is my perfume role in life. I'm just not interested in releasing fragrances which smell like other people's, not on purpose anyway. Getting permission to make something unique and still wearable was right up my street. What shall we do next?

Macaque in Hotspring

At the beginning we had spent good amount of time brainstorming which animal to make a perfume of. Ultimately we picked macaque. I know that you love monkeys. Can you tell us more about that?

I'll send you a photo of me and my toy chimpanzees when I was a child. I studied primatology at university too. What's not to love about monkeys and apes? Gorillas are peaceful, misunderstood and endangered; so are orang utans - we visited a rescue centre in Borneo - while chimpanzees are fascinating because they're like humans with a weaker moral compass. I'd love to live somewhere with monkeys in the garden. West London is not that place.

Young Sarah McCartney and parents

Above: Sarah and parents, and chimpanzee "Sylvester"

Perhaps to a lot of people monkeys are very mischievous, active and they love to eat bananas, yet Macaque the perfume evokes a different kind of feeling. Can you tell us more about your design and choice of ingredients?

Galbanum from Wikipedia

Above: Galbanum Illustration. Source: Wikipedia

Monkeys are intelligent and fascinating. Neither of us wanted to go for the cliché tourist monkey. The first ones I met were in Africa and they would steal sugar lumps from afternoon tea in the hotel garden. They have a hand to mouth existence, and some species are ingenious enough to form relationships with humans for food. Macaques are one of them. They come to temples because people leave offerings of food there. The Japanese ones don't eat bananas because they don't grow in Japan. Many people joked "What's it going to smell of? Bananas?" imagining I hadn't heard that before. Ours wasn't going to be a cartoon monkey. So yes to the fruit and vegetable smells, but yuzu and apple. Next, the scents of a Japanese temple. I've been to several in Kyoto, Tokyo and Kamakura so I had an idea of where to set it. Incense making is an ancient craft in Japan. They have whole shops devoted to it and some handmade precious ones are $1000 a box. They are made with as many different materials as we make fine fragrance. I wanted to honour that tradition by using woods and spices including frankincense and cedar. Then there is the warm furry smell of the monkey himself. They wash and groom so the ones I've been close to smelled more like fruity cats than strong animalic perfumes. Galbanum is for the carefully trimmed foliage. I remember John Stephen saying that he thinks galbanum is the sadly underused in modern perfumery and when I was on one of Karen Gilbert's courses in 2011 she recommend galbanum as a material which always seems to answer the question, "What's missing?"

Like other non-industry perfumers I started by learning about naturals then added synthetics to my scent vocabulary (olfacabulary?) to achieve effects which aren't possible with naturals. There are so many interesting naturals in Macaque that without synthetics it would be too intense to wear, even for you Victor. Now that my perfumery is big enough to attract attention I'm getting essential oils companies and the synthetics suppliers coming to me with new discoveries and creations. With Macaque I was able to use some adventurous new things to create what we wanted.

Do you have any favourite perfumery ingredients and perfume genres? And what are your own favourite creations?

I'll reach for the opoponax, pink grapefruit, raspberry leaf absolute, rose absolute, cedrat, maltol, methyl pamplemousse, mandarine and lemon petitgrains I've just got hold of, blackcurrant, coffee absolute, cognac absolute, cedramber and broom absolute.

Genres: fruity chypres and unusual gourmands. The apple and celery herb I just got in will appear together in something soon, probably with cucumber and peach.

My favourites are Tokyo Spring Blossom and whatever I just made. Right now Rosa Ribes, a limited edition I made for myself, Mother Nature's Naughty Daughters and Midnight in the Palace Garden. (We like smelling that one on Arthur – it's his favourite – although I had Aiden Turner in mind when I made it. Don't we all?)

Recently perfume reviewer Luca Turin described your perfumes as “jubilant and unpretentious, a happy wallowing in the richness and beauty of fragrance materials.” Some people generalize your perfumery style as happy, whimsical, full of humour and of simple pleasures. Do you agree? Did you design them that way so that the wearer would feel happy, or do you simply enjoy making happy-smelling scents? Will you challenge yourself and make something is not typical of your style?

I found out about that blog piece while being filmed by an Italian TV crew for a documentary on a perfume I'm making; I cried with happiness. They filmed a close-up… of course they did.

I started the perfumery to make the scents I'd written about in a novella, The Scent of Possibility; they were all to make people think of a happy time in their lives. So 4016 Tuesdays is really only here because I wanted to make happy perfumes. I widened the scope to make fragrances which capture a time or a place or a concept (and these can be imaginary). With Maxed Out (made for Max Heusler, a Youtube fragrance reviewer) we weren't being so happy smelling. Rome 1963 (for Peroni beer) I made stylist Silvia Bergomi's interpretation of a moment from a Fellini film. When I work with others, I'm very happy to go away from my usual style. I think it's a bit like acting. You can get typecast, but you do like to challenge people's assumptions and your own limits. I think that Macaque is a perfect example of my collaborative style; take what someone else wants and do something they didn't realize they could have.

A lot of perfume companies or indie perfumers choose to release only one or two perfumes each year. On Fragrantica, it says that in a span of 3 years since 2013, you have created over 37 perfumes. What are your thoughts on that? Do you have a “perfumer’s block”? How does the development time of Macaque compared to your other scents?

4160 Tuesdays Perfume Raw Silk

Ah yes, I'd do one a day if I had the chance, maybe two; I have many ideas. I wake up most mornings with more, unless I don't have any money in the bank, in which case it all dries up. That's one of the reasons that I work with other people, I need to make so I like to share. I was aiming to cut down to two a year, then in April Brooke pointed out to me that I'd already launched eight. Franco at LuckyScent said to me, “Stop. Seriously, stop!” But then in his next breath he got all excited about doing something together so I made him three for him to try out. This morning I got an email from one of our lovely stockists about doing a collaboration with him. Creative block… not yet. There are so many materials to blend in so many millions of combinations.

With Macaque we had to go in a particular direction so I would think and think, then blend, then wait and blend a bit more; then we had to do the shipping thing, and get feedback, then do the blending again so it took a little longer. If you'd been in the room, we'd have cracked it sooner.

Finally, what is your opinion on the current indie and niche perfume market?

I can't keep up, Victor. What's happened is that it's the next big thing with the venture capital companies so like Internet businesses 20 years ago, there's funding out there if you want it as long as you structure your business correctly. Mine is totally wrong for that, as I actually do have everything made in my own studio. Since Frederic Malle sold to Estée Lauder people have piled into niche from all directions. You've got the big guys making “niche” fragrances - meaning that they only sell it in a few shops and charge four times more than they do for their mass market lines. They do it because they've seen that the only area of the market that's growing is niche so they're going to control it. You've got small ambitious brands setting up, all with their venture capital funding, their concepts and stories and innovative packaging, and they go to the same top fragrance companies as the big guys to get their perfumes made. They'll pay for the big name perfumers too. It's all good stuff, but some of them have surely got to crash and burn.

In the UK Robertet are doing really well picking up new brands as they make fragrances for some of the better known UK niche houses, and do a beautiful job. Everyone wants to get distribution in the same few stores, then to get noticed and get bought; they have their investors nipping at their ankles asking when they're going to get their money back.

For the actual fragrances, I prefer the real indie work. I like what Ruth Mastenbroek is doing, Liz Moores at Papillion of course, Andy Tauer, the late Angela Flanders, Grossmith - who are open about using Robertet to recreate their phoenix fragrances and to make their new ones, Ex Idolo…

Niche, I like Frederic Malle, Annick Goutal, Les Parfums de Rosine, L’Artisan Parfumeur. Of the big guys, I love Guerlain. I admire courage, richness, a vintage touch without an overly classical heaviness, and originality.

You can find it if you try. I like to think we have those things too.

Zoologist Perfumes Macaque Coming Soon Fall, 2016