Interview with Cristiano Canali - Creator of Bee - Zoologist
Hi Cristiano, could you tell us about yourself?
Hello everybody. My name is Cristiano Canali. I was born in Italy, and I work in the perfumery industry.
You have a Masters degree in Pharmacy, and I imagine it required a lot of hard work and dedication to achieve that academic level. But now you are a perfumer. When did you have a change of mind? Did you find foregoing all the effort and years of study a big struggle and still worth it?
The high schools in Italy do not challenge you to choose the path needed to achieve the job you dream of. Most likely you find yourself after the diploma still building a plan. Following my family heritage and being gifted with scientific subjects, medical studies were the logical way for me. I chose pharmacy, like my grandfather did. The five years of university went well, and I discussed Ayurvedic products (the traditional Hindu system of medicine) in my final thesis, since I have been always attracted by plants’ properties. Thanks to those studies, during a trip to the south of India, I got in contact with some local producers of sandalwood oil who were supplying the perfumery industry. This initiated my curiosity in the art and science behind the scents. This is how, after some years of work, I decided to attend the prestigious ISIPCA school in Versailles to perfect my preparation and push me into the fragrant world of perfumery.
You once told me that you were ‘old’ when you started your perfumery career. I thought that was ridiculous. But why did you think that? Have you changed your perception since then?
More than old – I was already experienced and exposed to working habits, so it was challenging to get back to school, restart from scratch and leave behind a secure career and life. But the urge to express myself was too strong. Also, the connections between pharmacy and perfumery are many: both utilize formulas to find ideal solutions. Chemistry and botanical ingredients are my daily bread. Both involve glassware, pipettes, and balances to produce and fabricate; clients and their satisfaction are key in order to deliver the expected product; and, last but not least, developed sales skills are required in order to be successful. As you can see, there are many parallels. Overall, pharmacy taught me how to cure the body. Perfumery is teaching me how to heal the soul.
You are now working at Argeville. Could you tell us a little about the company and your work there? What is your goal as a perfumer?
It’s been one year since I joined Argeville, a leading company in the south of France. The region is well known for its moderate climate all year, for its beautiful nature all around, and as the womb and historical center of the perfumery industry. Argeville is a dynamic company founded in 1921 and owned since the '80s by the same family. It has a clear goal of global excellence, and to offer solutions in fragrances, flavors, and a well-esteemed natural extracts palette to a wide portfolio of clients. We have different facilities around the globe and a pool of talented individuals that together form the strength of this company. My daily job is to understand clients’ needs and translate them into fragrances, both in a creative and technical way. Our evaluation team supports perfumers to achieve these tasks and is the link between creatives and the sales team that interacts with the clients and deals with the commercial strategy. My goal is to evolve in my role as perfumer, diversify my efforts by becoming more prolific, intensify my presence in the market and, more than everything, bring new creative challenges to a wider pool of aficionados. I love my job because I learn and improve on a daily basis.
Zoologist Bee is the fourth officially credited perfume designed by you. That might not be a lot, but on the Internet I have encountered much praise from fans of your work who say they love your work and style. Are you aware of your own style? Can you describe it?
I take every opportunity to explore synergies and contrasts between ingredients and work them into new olfactive ideas. My creative drive comes from nature itself, which already offers all the answers in a minimalistic complexity. It's for us to just grasp the meaning. I like to invest time in the briefing proposed, to know the designers better, smelling their actual line, and understanding where they want to go. I focus my attention on perceptions and intuitions, silage and intimacy, simplification and faceting. Another benefit comes from supporting Osmotheque, the only museum of liquid perfumes in the world, where I have been exposed to iconic fragrances and forgotten gems of the past that allow me to understand the archetypes and the most unconventional creations in history. On top of that, I am not afraid stepping out from the actual market trends that I constantly analyze. I try to seduce the most exigent noses with unconventional fragrances and satisfy consumers’ expectations. Still, I think it is early to talk about a personal signature: it is more a graphism, or a beginning of calligraphy.
What are some of your favorite perfumes and why? Do you have a favorite perfumer(s)?
Having spent many years working in Paris, where the pulsating heart of the industry beats, I had the privilege to get in contact with the greatest masters as a daily source of knowledge. From them I have learned different creative approaches, aesthetics and signatures. There is no doubt that thanks to them I kept my motivation and passion high during those years. I have great regard for Carlos Benaim, Dominique Ropion, Anne Flipo, Sophie Labe, Bruno Jovanovich, Christopher Sheldrake, Olivier Cresp, Alberto Morillas, Sonia Constant, Marie Salamagne, Pierre Bouron, Michel Almairac, Jerome Epinette, Jean-Louis Sieuzac, Fabrice Pellegrin, Aurelian Guichard, Daniela Andrier, Alienor Massenet, Veronique Nyberg, Nicolas Beaulieu, Julien Rasquinet and some others. Those people are shaping the market and driving us into a new age of perfumery.
My overall most-appreciated fragrances include: Aprée l'Ondee by Guerlain; Tabac Blond by Caron; Femme by Rochas; Opium by YSL; Fumerie Turque by Serge Lutens; and Une Fleur de Cassie by Frederic Malle.
I remember after you showed interest in designing a scent for Zoologist, we spent some time deciding which animal to base the perfume on. Your first suggestion was “Toad”, which I thought was not a very marketable perfume title…
It was a fun process to think of the animal you find the deepest connection with. Out of the various options, my attention was captured by toad. I find them cute, with those big eyes, their funny way to move on land, and their long hibernation time during winters; with their permeable skin, they are an index of environmental status, and when they are in groups they create great symphonies during the summertime. Also, they might have magical powers and hide a prince behind their uncertain look.
Later, I asked you what your favorite perfumery ingredients were, and one of them was beeswax. I thought that was something Zoologist had not explored yet.
Among my favorite natural ingredients, sandalwood has a special place for me: it is a fragrance itself and is my personal link between pharmacy and perfumer. I like to work with floral notes like magnolia, cassie, orange blossoms, tuberose, jasmine and violet for the complexity and sensuality they bring in composition, no matter the gender. I also have a predilection for animal derivates such as castoreum, civet, ambergris and beeswax for their unique odor profile and warmth, even in small traces. Beeswax is uncommonly overdosed in modern fragrances.
Do you know how beeswax is collected and processed as a perfumery ingredient?
The process of harvesting the waxes from beehives is more a ritual than an industrial production. Availability is very low, and not all the companies are capable of processing this royal ingredient. I am lucky it is one of the specialties in the Argeville compendium, and our Director of Ingredients has a special affection to it, being a beekeeper himself.
The process starts with selecting the best apiculturists. We have special partnerships here in France. Then the honey is extruded by centrifuge from the frame during a period in which the bee larvae are not in their hexagon cages. The wax is then treated under solvent extraction to obtain a golden butter, lately purified with ethanol to obtain the precious absolute. The smell is warm, opulent, waxy with flowery notes and tobacco / hay undertones. It is difficult to classify it in one single family, since it has so many facets: gourmand, balsamic, spicy, flowery, nutty, leathery, fruity... pure magic.
I suggested to you that it would be fascinating if Bee could take the wearer on an olfaction journey from a bee’s perspective – from leaving the claustrophobic beehive, to collecting nectar from flowers, and returning to the hive to deposit the goods. Do you think you have succeeded with Bee?
Bees themselves are amazing: they are so efficient, they fly all over, unstoppably searching, they delicately bathe in the flowers, providing pollination and hybridization, and magically they know how to go back to their hive to produce the honey and work as a collective to proliferate and survive in service of their queen. She was my inspiration. Once awakened, somehow she is selected among the others’ larvae. The noise is buzzy, light is low, temperature high; she is fed with royal jelly to promote abnormal growth and miraculous health; once ready to leave the small cell, she is constantly followed and supported by her sisters exploring her castle; after some time she is ready for flight and to explore her flowery and infinite kingdom, ready to start a new colony with a bunch of devoted followers. I find all of this poetic, charming, and nostalgic.
Could you tell us some of the ingredients that you have chosen, and their effects in the perfume? What is the “royal jelly accord” in Bee?
The royal jelly accord is the core of the fragrance. It has been the natural choice as the key ingredient to start developing the fragrance. Beeswax is the main component. This accord is perceivable vertically in the composition, to recreate this disorienting sound of wings flapping reverberating within the comb. I used in top notes an orange concentrated, an in-house specialty that captures the very essence of sweet orange. Also, a ginger syrup accord completes this fizzy citrus short opening. Of course, we wanted to adorn these magical ingredients with the most honey-dripping flowers like broom, an endemic bush typical from Italy, orange blossoms with their inebriating smell, and some other pollen-rich flowers such as Mimosa from France and Heliotrope. The bottom notes go into a comforting musky powdery atmosphere somehow, like when a bee flies over multicolored meadows: sandalwood brings creaminess and texture, benzoin kicks in a subtle smokey note that contrasts with the tenderness of vanilla, and labdanum gives this final warmth.
Many people have wondered if real honey is used in Zoologist Bee. Can real honey be used in a perfume? Why not? And what did you use to create the virtual smell of honey?
Personally, I have never smelled a perfumery-grade honey derivate, but I am sure you can find some small productions. Honey itself exists in so many different qualities like chestnut, acacia, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, pine, and others that it would be too much of a restriction. Sincerely, I was not really interested in using this ingredient, but more in recreating an atmosphere that could embrace the circle of life of those incomparable drones. Enchanting this kaleidoscopic beeswax absolute with some of the most precious flower extracts, we recreated a honey atmosphere without being overly sweet or sticky, overly flowery or waxy, but finding a harmony among all these qualities.
What is next for you? Do you want to create another scent for Zoologist? If so, what kind of scent would that be?
I am very glad I had the possibility to work with Zoologist and you Victor. For sure I would love to extend our collaboration, if there might be the occasion. Bee is a very direct and figurative-realistic fragrance, so in the future I would prefer to interpret a more conceptual animal, one that is dominating his environment and has been in the symbology of human legend since the dawn of time.
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!