Interview with Perfumer Daniel Pescio - Perfume Creator of Çhameleon - Zoologist Interview conducted by Zoologist Owner Victor Wong

by Carlyn Mobbs April 03, 2021

February 13, 2019

An Interview with Daniel Pescio, the Perfumer of Zoologist Chameleon

Could you tell us about yourself?

I was born in Brazil, where I graduated in marketing and advertising before moving to France in 1993. In Paris, I did a Master’s in Semiotics, but graduated in with a degree in Cinematography from an art school. After a couple of years working as a set designer for films in France and Brazil, I decided to go for a new challenge in the perfume world.

Have you always been aspired to be a perfumer?

To be honest, I’ve never thought about this profession, even though smells have always been part of my life. You know, in that period, there were fewer perfumers than astronauts in the world. In 2006, at age of 36, I decided to see a coach for a career orientation, and I discovered the perfumer’s world after the many vocational tests she subjected me to. We worked together for three months. In the end, I was preparing my application for ISIPCA, the perfumery school in Versailles. Only 8 persons were accepted that year into the Fine Fragrance course.

Above: ISIPCA, a French school for post-graduate studies in perfume, cosmetics products and food flavor formulation

You went to perfumery school 13 years ago. Could you tell us about the program?

The program was entirely based on fine fragrances – six hours a day of studying ingredients and making perfume accords in a lab. We learned the basics of perfumery, studied and memorized ingredient after ingredient, and the main accords and structure of iconic perfumes such as Lily of the Valley and Diorissimo, Shalimar and many others. Then, the evolution of materials, regulations, the modern version of each accord and the perfumes’ structure. But when you study very old perfumes, you can’t get a precise idea of their smell, because you can get only the modern versions. So I started to buy vintage perfumes so I could have the original compositions and gain a deep understanding of each formula. Also, the perfumer’s style, the materials available at the time, and the social and political context of the year of the creation, because the industry was very influenced by that. Vent Vert was created in 1945 by the genius Germaine Cellier just after World War II, when people needed to be reconnected with nature. In this fragrance, you have nature in your face. It’s a very green, floral, impressive masterpiece with a huge amount of galbanum.

Some of my classmates from the ISIPCA class were Isabelle Michaud, whom you already know – she’s a Canadian perfumer and owner of Mon Sillage; Octavian Coifan, a historian and perfumer; Christian Dullberg, who has a perfume company compound in Germany, and a perfumer from Taiwan.

During our perfume training, we had access to the Osmothèque and private classes with Jean Kerleo and other perfumers. We also had access to the library, where we could do research on old books with formulas and other treasures of perfumery.

After graduation, you didn't become a perfumer…

After graduation, I didn’t work as a perfumer for big companies because the perfume industry in France was/is saturated and they don’t take people older than 30. If they did, they would send them to work abroad. Just before applying to ISIPCA, I called Frédéric Malle to get his opinion about the school. He advised me to do it and to go to Asia or Brazil (which are big markets).

Wait – you knew Frédéric Malle back then?

I just picked up the phone and called their office. He answered the phone, and I spoke to him. I'd been to his Rue de Grenelle store before and he was often there.

The other reason I didn't work as a perfumer for a big company was that I wanted to remain independent. In 2007 it wasn’t easy for me to start my own business, so I decided to work for perfume brands in the commercial, export and training areas to get more experience of the market. I started at Natura Brasil, passing by Dior, Chanel, Tom Ford, Nina Ricci, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Serge Lutens, Guerlain, Cartier, and many others until arriving at Frédéric Malle, where I stayed for five years. It was one of the greatest experiences of my career. The environment, the quality of each fragrance, the perfumers, the DNA of the company based on the sophistication of great French traditional perfumery, his experience, and his vision… As the company was very small, I was engaged for exporting and training, evaluating perfume concentrates with him, smelling a new project from beginning to end, and understanding the changes of each test until the final version. Sometimes, what you prefer is not what it has to be in the market.

A perfume or aromachemical company needs more than just perfumers for sure.

A perfume company needs many perfumers on their team, but not only for fine fragrances. It needs a team of perfumers for house products, cosmetics, toiletries, and olfactive marketing. The chance to get a job in fine fragrance compared to other areas is maybe about 5% or less. The volume of production in all the other areas is bigger and more important, even though it’s not as prestigious as fine fragrance. Another career is the evaluator, who is someone between the perfumer and the marketing team, responsible for translating all the concepts for both parts, perfumers and marketing.

Above: Perfumery Class by Daniel Pescio

You now hold perfumery classes regularly. Can you tell us more about that?

In 2010, I created my own company and started to build my own lab. I was still working for brands, but when I left Frédéric Malle in 2015 I was able to dedicate myself to develop all my abilities as an independent perfumer. I started creating for independent brands and private customers, being a consultant, teaching and organizing perfume workshops and professional courses for adults and children in France, Brazil, Hungary, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Austria and UK and all around the world.

I’m a very curious person, and everything related to the sense of smell and taste interests me a lot. Wine, chocolate, teas, incense… all of them are new languages, but linked to each other. Tasting and smelling are completely connected and enrich our perception. At the beginning of learning how to taste or to smell and describe all the sensations, feelings and notes, it is hard. It needs patience, training and perseverance, but quickly you see that you are improving and the world becomes colourful.

Above: Kodo Incense Ceremony

At the moment, I share my time between teaching and creating, but also with my Kōdō practice and research. Koh-Do (the incense ceremony) appeared during the Momoyama period, known as a period of renaissance in Japan. It is considered one of the geido, or refined arts that are supposed to be performed according to certain rules and manners, like the tea ceremony and ikebana. Among aristocrats and high-ranking samurai, it shares popularity with the tea ceremony. In this respect, Japanese incense, or koh, is somewhat different from perfume in western countries. Later, Kōdō branched off into several schools, of which two leading schools survived: the Oie-ryu School and the Shino-ryu School, where I do my learning.

I have to mention how our perfume collaboration came about! In retrospect, I find it fascinating! A few years ago, through a perfume sell/exchange Facebook group, I bought some fragrances that you owned. When I received the package, I found a sample of your own work. When I smelled it, I thought it was excellent, and had to learn more about it from you! My initial reaction was that your work smelled very "French". It's a very abstract feeling. Could you describe your perfume style?

That’s a fantastic way of meeting and then collaborating, because when I sent you the perfumes with the sample, I never imagined you were the owner of Zoologist. I think at this time you had launched just a few scents of your amazing Zoologist collection. And then you told me you were behind this niche brand.

The sample I sent to you was my first creation after leaving Frédéric Malle. Fleur Cannibale was created in 2015, and the following year I participated in a perfume competition organized by the American Society of Perfumers. One hundred perfumers worldwide participated, with only one constraint: to use a minimum of 2% of Australian sandalwood produced by STF. Accordingly, I decided to take make Fleur Cannibale Santal Extrême, with 8% sandalwood oil in the formula. My creation made the semifinal, with 14 others. Fleur Cannibale is a contrasting fragrance, inspired by abstract flowers and orchids from Amazonia, creamy peach, spices, woods, patchouli, amber, musks, vanilla and frankincense.

About my style … it’s hard to define myself. Some people say they can recognize my style in all my perfumes. What’s is important to me is the quality of all the materials (naturals and synthetics), the balance (I’m obsessed with it) and the evolution of the fragrance, because this is the moment when the perfume will tell you a story.

Let's talk about Chameleon! First, I’ll tell you how I came about this concept of Chameleon as a perfume! I've always been fascinated by the fact that the island of Madagascar has the most species of chameleons in the world. And through a documentary on Chanel No. 5 and baking (yes, baking) I learned about the famous Madagascar ylang and vanilla, which are two important export commodities of Madagascar. When I proposed the concept of Chameleon to you, I insisted that it had to include ylang and vanilla. I also proposed that the perfume have a special quality of “colour changing”, which is probably the most notable characteristic of a chameleon. Have you heard of synesthesia – the ability to “see” colour when you smell certain things? I have always wondered if we could create a perfume that “shifts colour” as it develops on our skin.

Chameleon is an amazing project and was a true challenge for me. First, because I wouldn’t have created this perfume based on an ylang-vanilla scent as a main accord. Otherwise, it would be just one more ylang-vanilla perfume on the market. The challenge was to translate this concept to design a fragrance. Also, I was a bit scared by the fruity facets. My first thought was to produce an accord to give the impression of the scent of skin touched by the sun and the salty breeze by the ocean. I chose some "Ylang Ylang Extra" oil from Madagascar, which was already very fruity, and the fruity facets I worked not only with fruity notes, but also with floral notes having fruity facets. That’s the aim of Chameleon. And then you have other flowers, spices, exotic woods, amber, opoponax, vanilla, patchouli, musks…

It’s interesting to talk about synesthesia. I remember during my first class at ISIPCA. We were learning how to describe a scent, because normally we don’t learn to talk about scents. We don’t have a common vocabulary for it. The teacher said, "You can try to link each scent to a specific colour!” Well, I couldn’t do that, but now I do that with children, and it’s amazing! They can say different colours, but often they say them with the same intensity. The synesthesia process is very much used in my Wine, Chocolate and Tea workshops, because you need to use more than one sense to get a full perception of something. For example, when you take a wine, you have to describe the colour, whether it’s bright or opaque, and then you smell and then you taste. For this experience, you use four of your five senses: the view, the smell, the taste and the touch with our tongue, which has taste buds responsible for the perception of temperature and texture. When you are aware of it, the experience is very rich. You can enjoy every single moment of each sensation provided by your senses.

As we developed the scent, I thought the synesthesia concept might be too difficult to realize. (I don't have synesthesia, and the colours people "see" by smelling are very subjective.) However, you had a different idea of what Chameleon could be, and you persuaded me with your unique vision.

Yes, synesthesia and sense of smell are very personal, very subjective. There is no right or wrong, but only personal or technical way to describe a scent. If you say green for patchouli, I would say you can keep it as a personal reference. But the smell is not considered green to professionals.

The chameleon’s skin is a mirror of nature. That was what I tried to translate into a fragrance. The concept of the skin being the mirror of everything you can have on the island of Madagascar. To make this “skin accord”, I put Ylang Ylang Extra Madagascar oil with a lot of Salicylates and Cashmeran. These makes up almost 40% of the fragrance composition.

I worked very carefully with the vanilla accord, with musks and opoponax. I wouldn’t want to produce the same effect that we have in most ylang perfumes. Another challenge for this project was to give an abstract feeling, despite the presence of a huge amount of ylang in the formula.

People might say that Chameleon is a tropical fruity scent, but I think it is quite different from the typical tropical fruit scents I’ve come across before.

Ylang ylang is one of my favourite flowers. It has proper fruity facets, but it is also animalic, different from the indolic found in flowers such as jasmine, Lily of the Valley or orange blossom. Most of the ylang fragrances are very "Monoi", i.e., a vanilla scent with a huge amount of Hedione. And, in some cases, with woody facets of gaiacwood or very fruity and sugary. So, the moment I got the Chameleon brief, I thought of all these aspects and started thinking what I would translate into this creation. It was the beginning of a trip in my mind through Madagascar, feeling everything I could find on this tropical island. Beaches, sun, heat, ocean breeze, skin scent, sensuality, exotic woods, fruits, spices, and the daily life of the chameleon. My approach was to make the ylang ylang into a musky-skin-salty-sunny accord in the centre of the fragrance, like the solar orbit, with green-acidic exotic fruity facets combined with violet leaves and frangipani. Cashmeran and Salicylates are very important in this accord as the abstract feeling I would give to this fragrance, because of the effects of chameleons in nature. Sometimes it’s obvious they are there, but we can’t really see them.

Another point which is important is the evolution of the fragrance into something smooth, calm, with this musk-vanilla-amber feeling. It reminds me of chameleons losing the reflections of nature and becoming white.

What is next for you?

The most important project for this year is going to be in Japan.

In 2017, I started practicing Kōdō in Japan and France, and last year I decided to make an olfactive project related to this Japanese art and presented it to the Villa Kujoyama’s art project competition. The Villa Kujoyama is a French public institution set in the mountains of Kyoto. It’s a multicultural place of interdisciplinary exchange and aims to strengthen intercultural dialogue between France and Japan. Villa Kujoyama is the equivalent of Villa Medicis in Rome.

My project, "Listening the scents or the Art of the invisible", was the winner in the Fashion and Perfume category. I will be in Japan to do research, present the project and organize some perfume workshops from September to the end of December 2019.

Before that, I will be doing some fragrance creations for independent artists and brands, bespoke perfumes, education and training, consulting for brands and private projects, perfume, wine and chocolate workshops, and organizing my project to launch my perfume brand in 2020.

Wow, that’s wonderful! I can’t wait to smell your own brand of perfumes in the future!

Carlyn Mobbs
Carlyn Mobbs