An Interview with Sultan Pasha, the Perfumer of Zoologist Sacred Scarab

June 04, 2022

An Interview with Sultan Pasha, the Perfumer of Zoologist Sacred Scarab

Please tell us about yourself?

The maternal side of my family is Farsi and Indian, whilst my paternal side is primarily from Bangladesh.

My paternal grandparents settled in the U.K. in the 1950s, but they also travelled all over the Middle East visiting the holy Islamic shrines. During these trips, both of them collected many attars and various other memorabilia.

One of my earliest memories is venturing into my grandparents’ room as a toddler and opening their huge antique oak cabinet... and smelling an enchanting, funky perfume. Unfortunately, for them, the tray of attars and mukhallats was on the lowest shelf, and I proceeded to open each one and pour them all over the oak counter, then splat the oily mess over my entire body. To say my grandparents were not pleased is an understatement! I guess that was my first ever chemistry experiment, which led me to having a deep interest in the sciences, especially biology and chemistry.

Later, I studied biochemistry to degree level and then went into retail banking to support my family, as my mother was a single parent at that time. I had to soldier through banking for the next ten years, but was constantly looking for something else to do, especially related to my passion for sciences. To help me cope on a daily basis, I started purchasing small amounts of oils and absolutes with the little money that I had. I would bring them to work and smell them at my till during the very brief respites we cashiers were afforded. Those oils gave me that little sense of serenity and sanity to help me survive the work environment.

During my last years in banking, I became ill and had to take time off work, which, although awful at the time, turned out to be a blessing. I was prescribed lots of antibiotics and immunosuppressants that made me nauseous on a daily basis. After some time, I found out that I had been misdiagnosed, so I stopped the medications and gained a new lease of life. Somehow, my taste and smell seemed enhanced, and I remember smelling my favourite perfume and being able to see, in my mind, how the composition was structured and created. All those times smelling individual oils and isolated molecules at my till had suddenly paid off in volumes! I had unwittingly been amassing knowledge and was now able to recall it at will. From then, in 2012, I started creating my first composition, and the rest is history!

What inspired you to become a perfumer? What are some of your favourite perfumes and genres? Did living in London influence your perfumery journey?

I always wanted to do something biochemistry related but did not know what, and I always enjoyed perfumes, even when I was little, but becoming a perfumer was never in my mind. I always thought that to be a professional perfumer you had to learn French and study perfumery in France, and that it was extremely tough and rather elitist. After my illness, I realised that I needed to follow the subtle directions my life was showing and taking me towards. I was always planning and fighting against the tide that is time… and before I knew it time was over and nothing was achieved. But I was achieving something and each day was a lesson in patience. Eventually, I learnt to relax and go with the flow, instead of going against the tide, and see where it took me… and, fortunately, this is where I’ve ended up!

In terms of favourite perfumes, I love classical perfumes, especially those made by Guerlain and Caron. I’ve been avidly collecting pre-1960s extraits from houses such as Guerlain, Caron, Lucien Lelong, etc. for a very long time. Some people collect stamps, books, watches, cars, etc.; I collect vintage perfumes. For me, each of these cherished bottles is like a precious volume written by a master decades ago, to be studied astutely and to be worn and enjoyed. My favourite perfume has got to be Guerlain’s Djedi. I will never forget the first time I smelt this intoxicating elixir and the effect it had on me.

My favourite genre has to be chypre, as it is so complex and multifaceted.

Sultan Pasha Attars

At which point did you decide to start selling your perfume? What’s so special about them? 

I first started creating my compositions in 2013. By early 2014, I realised that there was a rising demand for my work, so I just carried on. At the time, I had a small eBay shop where I used to sell rare compositions from named brands, and when I used to send those to customers I would include small samples of my own work. As a result of this, a lot of the customers enquired about these oils, asking how much they were and if I could sell them some. At first, it was a few U.S. customers, and then a lovely person called Dorje created a thread about my work on Basenotes fragrance forums, and from there it just spread like wildfire! That really gave me a huge boost, psychologically and physically, so I carried on! Eventually, the demand grew so high that I no longer needed to work at the bank, and I dedicated myself to my passion on a full-time basis

It was at that moment, thanks to Basenotes, that I met my best friend Nathan, who has been a great mentor and big brother to me. I learnt a lot about fine art and refinement thanks to him and he has been a huge positive influence in my life. So much so that I believe I wouldn't have achieved as much as a perfumer and above all as a person without his wisdom and kind guidance. I praise God everyday for all the kind, wonderful souls that I have crossed paths with.

Why did you focus on attars? 

I focused on attars as I felt that they were the most accurate way to convey my inner psyche. The intensity of the oils matched what was within me and thus allowed me to quieten my soul. I also focused on them out of sheer loyalty to the craft, as it was oils that had changed my life for the better.

Sacred Scarab is an alcohol-based perfume. Is it very different from attars? What were some of the design concerns?

To be honest, I designed Sacred Scarab in the same way I normally design my concentrated perfume oils. At first, I was worried about the dynamics, as the medium is quite different. However, it was just a case of rearranging the proportions of the different materials. At every stage of the design, I was concerned with fine-tuning the message and story, making sure that this was accurately conveyed when sprayed.

Let’s talk about Sacred Scarab, shall we? I remember we discussed about making a perfume inspired by ancient Egyptian perfumery at the beginning.

Yes, if I recall correctly, and we settled on Sacred Scarab as we both realised that so much could be explored with this creature. I have been a fan of Egyptology since I was a kid, avidly reading about mummies and their tombs after learning about the boy king, Pharaoh Tutankhamen. This project provided me with an opportunity to delve in deeper and learn much more about one of my favourite subjects!

During our discussion, we realised that I needed to try to tell a story not only about the insect but also about its connection with ancient Egypt, and somehow create the perfect juxtaposition. The sacred scarab looks like a big, juicy plum, and it sits on top of a dung ball and rolls this into a cosy underground den before laying its eggs inside it. Kyphi was rolled into balls after kneading, reminiscent of the dung but with a much nicer smell! So, our idea was a sacred scarab on top of a kyphi dung ball rolling it into an underground tomb!

How do you describe this scent? Some people say it has a modern opening but the base is ancient.

Modern is a good way to describe the first stage, as blue lotus is such a novel flower to many. Few have had the privilege of experiencing its delicate scent, and fewer still its essence. I would describe Sacred Scarab as a modern floral chypre, but with ancient roots! Ancient because it includes my recreation of kyphi, the ancient Egyptian incense. When I was composing The Sacred Scarab I had the intention of making the composition as regal as possible, something that even Cleopatra would be proud to wear… fit for a Queen.

So what is kyphi? Does kyphi have any common perfumery ingredients? And how does it work in Sacred Scarab?

Kyphi is an ancient Egyptian incense. It was so famed that ancient Greeks and Romans such as Pliny the Elder wrote about it and its various benefits. In Egypt, it was burnt for religious and medical purposes. It was also purportedly used as a chewing gum! It was incredibly popular and there were many ancient Egyptian manufacturers, but each manufacturer had a slightly different formula. However, these were all based around the same ingredients in different proportions: wine, honey, raisins, frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, styrax, cassia, labdanum, benzoin, juniper and cedarwood.

For this most auspicious project, I did a lot of research into the various kyphi formulas through the ages, but focused primarily on those recorded by the ancient Egyptians. I read various literary sources about this mystical substance and also attended seminars given by the renowned Egyptologist, Dora Goldsmith, who, by a stroke of good fortune, just happened to be talking about the ancient Egyptian smellscape and kyphi!

From attending these seminars, studying kyphi balls created by reputable sources, and creating my own kyphi balls, I gained a good understanding of how kyphi smelt. Early on, I realised that although wine was used as a binding agent in kyphi it also provided the sweet fruity note found in the incense. From there, I decided that kyphi must be the base and foundation of the entire composition, and that I had to use the pronounced wine sweetness as the backbone of this composition. I have got to thank my good friend Johanna Venables of NOT Perfumes for helping me source and study some of these kyphi incenses, and also letting me try her own kyphi balls, all of which really helped with the overall research.

Blue Lotus

In the perfume there is also aldehyde and blue lotus. Can you tell us why you chose these two ingredients? 

Aldehydes are used in the composition to convey brightness and sunlight, mirroring the hot climate of our sacred scarab. The citrus materials in the perfume also contain aldehydes, but specific aldehyde molecules were added to synergise with the citrus so that, when first sprayed, the composition appears extremely bright. Alternatively, the sacred scarab was associated with the divine manifestation of the early morning sun, Khepri, who was believed to roll the sun disc over the eastern horizon at daybreak.

The blue lotus was chosen as it was so revered in ancient Egypt. After studying very rare and expensive blue lotus absolutes and essential oils, I realised how absolutely perfect this flower was for this project, as it had the exact wine note that I needed to connect and juxtapose with the wine-like backbone of the kyphi. I have to sincerely thank fellow perfumer Joseph De Lapp for kindly sending me various samples of these super precious blue lotus absolutes and essential oils for free, so I could cross-reference them with the ones I had collected over the years. Knowing how terribly expensive and rare these materials are, I had to accurately recreate a facsimile blue lotus in all its delicate glory.

Once this accord was created and added to the kyphi base, I needed to really bring it alive. This was achieved with an overdose of peach lactone aka Gamma Undecalactone, enhancing the fruity character of the two main accords so there was a rich plum-like aura. To me, the sacred scarab looks like a ripe, purple plum!

Later, I came across a wonderful academic article posted by my friend Olivier Pierre David from the Osmotheque, and he just happened to be talking about scarab beetle pheromones. That was coincidence enough, but there was something even more incredible... it went on to say that Gamma Undecalactone is secreted by scarabs as a sex pheromone! Honestly, I couldn’t believe it! It was like, this composition is an absolutely perfect fit… conceptually and literally.

What is next for you? I believe there is exciting news from you?

Yes, indeed, I am releasing my own collection of spray compositions in September/October. Plus many other exciting projects in the near distant future.