An Interview with Shelley Waddington, the perfumer of Zoologist Civet

December 21, 2016

An Interview with Shelley Waddington, the perfumer of Zoologist Civet

Hello Shelley, good to chat with you again! How are you?

Hi, Victor! It’s great to hear from you. I’m doing well, and hope you are too!

I’m feeling a little nervous, because I’ll soon be launching your new scent, Civet. But otherwise, I’m fine!

You moved from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon about a year ago. How do you like it?

I came to Portland primarily to be with my new little grandson. This is a great place to live and work.

Shelley Waddington and Her Perfumery Studio in Portland
Shelley and her perfumery studio at home in Portland. © Photo: Steve Ross

Does Portland have an active fragrance community? I know that you recently hosted a gathering called “Portland Sniffa”!

The Portland perfume community is lively and growing. The Portland Sniffa was something I put together to commemorate a huge membership benchmark for Charlotte Scheuer’s “Facebook Fragrance Friends”.

Several Portlanders attended, along with perfume-lovers from Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado. We visited three perfumeries, including my own, En Voyage, and then ended up in a luxurious room for dinner and our perfume swap.

The stores we visited reported that we were the largest perfume group they’d ever seen. Every minute was an absolute blast, and we’ll be back next year by popular demand.

Portland Sniffa Event 2016Portand Sniffa 2016 Event Photos © Steve Ross

And you showed the final version of Zoologist Civet at the event, too! I know people loved it!

Yes. I introduced Zoologist Civet for the first time at our evening soiree! It received unanimous raves. Robert Hermann, of the popular fragrance blog "Australian Perfumes Junkies", fell so in love with it that he couldn't wait to share the news with the world. He went home the next day and wrote a terrific review, even though the launch was still two months away.

Let’s talk about Zoologist Civet, shall we? What came to your mind when Zoologist asked you to design a perfume called Civet?

My first thought was, ‘Uh-oh, I hope Victor knows how nasty civet smells and I hope he has a darn good brief.’ (He did). Victor also understands my wheelhouse as a perfumer quite well. His ideas were very similar to how I would have conceptualized it myself, so Civet turned out to be a very pleasant collaboration.

I know a lot of people love Hummingbird, the floral nectar perfume you designed for Zoologist a year ago. How does Civet compare to Hummingbird?

Mood-wise, Hummingbird and Civet are worlds apart, almost opposites.

Where Hummingbird is aerial and all sunshine and flirtatious shimmer, Civet is swanky, a little sly, luxuriously furry. A creature who prowls and growls.

Genre-wise, Hummingbird is a unisex woody floral; Civet is a glorious chypre. What do they have in common? They’re both attractive, amusing creatures who each have huge attitude.

Civet surprised me. I think people will be surprised. But that’s all I want to say. I don’t want to ruin the surprise!

Do you often use civet musk in your own perfumes? Can you tell us a bit about the nature of civet musk and what effect it brings to a fragrance?

The civet is a very pretty small animal, about the size of a cat, that lives in the jungles of Africa and Southeast Asia. Civet musk is extracted from their anal glands. Until quite recently, the process of obtaining civet musk was egregiously cruel. Modern civet farmers, under pressure from animal-rights groups, are now kinder to the animals and their methods of extraction more humane. But because of general ethical perception, most perfumers prefer to use synthetic civet.

I use civet in some of my perfumes. The addition of mere traces of this substance exalts and fixes the fragrance, fortifying it and making it more diffusive. It also adds to the wearability and longevity of the perfume.

By the way, remember we tested the idea of making a civet “musk bomb”? But we quickly came to a meeting of minds that even the tiniest increase was decidedly ruinous!

Civet in the dark

Since we are not using real civet musk, what can you tell us about the quality of the synthetic musk you picked for this perfume?

Civet musk smells disgustingly urinous and fecal in its pure form, whether it’s natural or synthetically reproduced. A close whiff of the pure stuff is an assault to the nose and guaranteed to snap your head back. But a tiny amount, diluted down to less than one percent, has the effect of a magic elixir when added to perfume.

As with all the fragrance materials that I use, I only procure my civet directly from a reputable fragrance manufacturer.

Besides civet musk, there’s a lovely coffee note in Civet, too. I want to include this note because Asian palm civets are famous for the coffee beans that they defecate! Farmers collect them and use them to brew “Kopi Luwak” coffee. Have you had that before?

I was initially skeptical about the “coffee + civet” combo. It sounded very acidic. I’ve worked with coffee before in one of my bestsellers, Café Cacao, so I know it’s a challenging note to work with. For Civet, I sourced the darkest, least acidic coffee available, and then worked in other Eastern materials that would offset the remaining acidity factor. (I’ve described the resulting accord below. It was even better than I’d hoped for.)

As an aside, I purchased some Kopi Luwak online, so that I could experiment with tincturing the beans. My thought was that if it worked, it would be an ideal way to obtain civet musk in the most humane way possible. Unfortunately, the coffee never arrived, so that part was disappointing. I was really looking forward to tasting that coffee!

I know that you’ve spent some time on each of the top, middle and bottom notes layers separately and getting the proportions in the mixture right. Did you have a solid idea of what the perfume would smell like in the very beginning and designed the layers accordingly?

Shelley Waddington Smelling Test Strip

My work is sometimes thought of as leaning towards vintage, but I think a lot of that belief is because I use a high percentage of fine naturals, as was commonly done with vintages. People get a similar vibe from mine and associate it with the vintage perfumes.

But stylistically, I didn’t start out deliberately seeking to create Civet as a vintage. The civet and his environment are timeless and unchanging. So I was aiming towards making more of a Realistic Classic.

I never start blending until I’ve completely conceptualized the story and the final fragrance in my mind. But I always leave a space for surprises to arise. And it was indeed a nice surprise to find that coffee, musk ambrette, opoponax and cinnamon were so incredible together. I didn’t expect the combination to work so well!

For Civet, I was also looking for a specific mood and texture. I found several jungle botanicals from Thailand and Asia that really filled the bill.

I began by laying my canvas with the base, looking for the thematic notes that provide not only the mood and texture, but also the sillage and longevity. I wanted ones that creep up through the heart and top in the ways that I wanted them to. In this case, several auxiliary notes were added to complete the profile of both the civet and his habitat.

The heart is the headspace of the civet’s surroundings – the kinds of smells he smells as he walks and climbs through his environment, and the foods that he eats. As he strolls through his forest grocery store, other animals take notice. They smell him and stop him to ask what he’s wearing.

The top is the glamour he sends out to signal his presence.

But the story only flows properly when the top, heart, and base are perfectly balanced in relation to each other. I hope I answered your question. It’s a little complicated.

Who do you think would enjoy wearing Civet?

It’s hard for me to think of anyone who wouldn’t like this fragrance, although it may contain too much “sex and violence” for the very young. So I’d give it a “Unisex Adult” rating.

I also think it’s a good example of a fragrance that incorporates a lot of natural ingredients in a fairly classic perfume structure. So it would be a great starter perfume for anyone who wants to try something sophisticated with an artisanal vintage vibe.

When we decided on the final formula, we experimented with different perfume concentrations. We tried 20% and 25%…

To me, every perfume has its own ideal point of dilution – it's the point at which everything comes together and blooms in the best way possible. We were surprised that a difference of 5% gave it a much fuller, richer, sultrier sensuality.

(We called Bat, Hummingbird and Civet “Eau de Parfum”, but they are, in fact, “Parfum”. We might rename them to “Parfum” in the future.)

What’s next for you? Will you be releasing any new fragrances in 2017?

All I can say is that each new perfume is a fresh surprise. The next one is underway and I’ll be launching it in early 2017. It’s bringing a wholly new kind of treat. Stay tuned!

Zoologist Civet will be available 2016/12/31.