Thirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.
Today’s interview is the second of five weekly instalments of Thirteen Thoughts, a Perfumer Interview Series. Today’s interview is with Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes, based in Adelaide, Australia. Future instalments will feature O’Driù’s Angelo Orazio Pregoni, 4160Tuesdays’ Sarah McCartney and PK Perfumes’ Paul Kiler.
I want to let each perfumer speak for themselves about who they are, what drives them, and what they do with fragrance, so without any further ado, I introduce you to…
Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes
Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.
I’d love to be able to regale you with stories of fragrant holiday locations and smells that tear me back to momentous events in my past, but I’m afraid the truth is I was raised in a regular English immigrant family in the seventies in suburban West Australia where money was short and such things as perfume, holidays and aesthetics just didn’t play a part (proven by the lurid purple bedspread and orange carpet in my bedroom as a teenager). Two smells that I guess do take me back to those times are the smell of woodchips and potting soil from my first ever job in a plant nursery and the other would be the smell of body filler putty stuff that was used in a panel beating shop where I had another job sweeping the floors. Not sure I could get more prosaic if I tried but really, the world of the senses or art of any sort was just not a thing back then – you worked hard, ate a meal, watched TV and went to bed. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I managed to shake off that mindset and discover that there was so much more to experience from life and the senses and the world around me. The gradual discovery of perfume was certainly a driving force behind this revelation – it corrupted me completely.
What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?
One day in my thirties I found myself re-reading over and over the chapter relating to smell in Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses, particularly the part where Sophia Grojsman visits IFF (International Flavors and Fragrances) and describes experiencing perfumes being developed there. I had no idea why, but I found the whole idea fascinating and I became incredibly excited to throw myself into this completely unknown world – it was like something inside my psyche that had lain dormant had stirred, woken up and started shouting at me! I remember being confused and even a little concerned at the time; nothing had prepared me for the strength of this sudden obsession that was so foreign to my normal life as a geeky computer tech. Maybe this is just how it is when you stumble across the thing you were destined to do. Just a pity that it happened to me so late.
This new obsession was magnified ten-fold when I finally managed to obtain samples of some actual perfumes (I certainly couldn’t afford whole bottles and wasn’t confident to go into a shop to smell the testers) and was incredulous that such beauty could be contained within a smell!
Being of a scientific bent and having a huge curiosity, I needed to find out about how these smells were put together and so I started exploring any way I could. And so here I am, ten years or so later and that excitement hasn’t abated in the least. By the way, I have no qualms about waltzing into Mecca Cosmetica and spraying with abandon now!
Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?
I’m completely self-taught. Thank goodness for the internet, hey? There’s a bunch of communities online devoted to learning perfumery and it’s only because of their existence that I was able to make any progress at all. I was also lucky to come along at a time when these communities were still young, very active and enthusiastic. The learning curve has been incredibly steep and it has taken many years of fanatical devotion, but I like a good challenge and here’s hoping that I’ve managed to succeed a little. Of course there have been many influences and diversions along the way. It seems that every few months I smell something and decide that the rest of my training needs to head in that direction. Until the next influence comes along, that is.
Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?
Without thinking too hard, names that come to mind include Christopher Sheldrake for Serge Lutens, Jean Paul Guerlain, Isobelle Doyen for Annick Goutal & Lez Nez, Thierry Mugler, and Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès.
I’m thinking about what could be the common factor between these (and many others, of course) that appeal to me. I think it must be that the perfumes they create or release are all extraordinary, as in extra ordinary. The perfumes grab your attention and force you to think about them. You can’t spray them casually.
Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.
I guess when you study perfumery, there naturally comes a point at which you think about taking the scary step of baring your soul and letting others smell and even pay for your creations. I’m an introvert and so taking this step was especially scary – more like a headlong leap into the unknown.
When I was thinking about some sort of consistent brand image and name (I certainly couldn’t use my actual name for the brand like many other indie perfumers do, can you imagine – Evans Perfumes, hahaha) I wondered if I could use the actual descriptive word evocative – it described what I wanted to achieve with my work and when I found that no one else seemed to have used the name (and the internet domain was available) I went for it. It’s kinda daggy I know but I’m hoping the Evocative name will eventually become associated with quality and creative perfumes.
The perfumes themselves are a mix of different styles and types that are released as I experiment with and learn about different styles of perfumery. One day in the future hopefully they will settle down into a more consistent range when I find a style that particularly suits me.
How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?
Yes to all of them. Ideas can come from anywhere and at any time but I think that they mostly result from smelling incredible ingredients and wanting to ‘do something’ with them. Like my Olibanum which resulted from smelling an amazing frankincense and needing to break it down to its elements and highlighting them within something that is wearable as a perfume.
It’s also true that I would like to fill in gaps in the range: it would be great to have a leather and a woody aromatic masculine.
What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?
Maybe your readers would be surprised that an indie perfumer with limited funds has to do it all themselves. Everything. Not only do you have to actually learn and practice perfumery itself for years, you have to source small amounts of the hundreds of hard to find ingredients from all corners of the globe. Researching where the best quality ingredients come from and then begging, borrowing and stealing what you can and even making your own when necessary.
You have to liaise with suppliers of these ingredients as well as the producers of bottles and label printers etc. Then comes learning web design and eCommerce, creating the website yourself and then handling all the logistics from payments to packaging and shipping. Then there’s the marketing side of things, getting your name out there and answering interview questions 😉 coming up with a brand, an image and so on. It’s a lot of work and there’s a lot to learn!
What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?
I could go on about the mundane reality of never having enough funds to fully realise my dreams for Evocative Perfumes, but I guess that’s the case for any venture – you do the best with what you have available to you. Funnily enough, although it has been a huge challenge getting my hands on the many, many ingredients needed to make perfumes, I really enjoy that side of it. I think of it as the same way that a collector loves scouring around and finding their prized items. I’m a collector as well, it’s just that I collect smells and I love the thrill of the chase and the excitement of finding that one rare extract that no-one else has.
Another hard thing for me has been the whole business of getting the finished perfume from the big flasks here into the hands of the wearer. Hassles of sourcing bottles and labels and packaging and dealing with restrictive postal services and taking money from people and so on and so on. So tedious.
How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?
It has affected my smell perception to an amazing degree. After the years of concentrating on how my experiments are smelling, the relevant parts of my brain must surely have laid down new pathways and I’m aware of the smells around me constantly now, like you on one of your smell walks, Polly.
I’ve also started occasionally perceiving smells that I know aren’t actually there. Sometimes I’ll actually get a whiff of bacon if I see an advert on TV or something. Not often but it does happen.
I read somewhere that a study was done on the brains of perfumers and although their olfactory nerves were normal, they had more neural pathways leading away from the olfactory part of the brain to other parts. So it wasn’t so much their sense of smell that was enhanced, but the associations that resulted from the smells.
Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?
Patchouli – can you imagine? And labdanum absolute!
A lot of the materials used in flavours are exactly the same as used in perfumery so it’s highly likely that we’ve all consumed most of them in our food already!
Here in Australia we have musk candy that really does taste like ethylene brassylate smells.
If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?
I’d have to say the 1940s and 50s: such an amazingly creative time for the couture houses and perfumers.
If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?
This is a hard one. You hear of the new technologies attempting to transmit scents via phones or the internet, but knowing what goes into complicated smells, this simply could never work for perfumes – they might work for a range of generic smells, but nothing too complex or original. In fact I think that these devices are a bad idea. I really don’t see much use for them beyond novelty – surely they could only promote the standardisation and cheapening of scents.
What is the purpose of perfume?
Talking about fine perfume as opposed to functional perfume…
I’d make a distinction between deliberate and casual perfume wearers here. For those who grab and spray a trendy celebrity scent on the way out the door, perfume is just an additional part of the wardrobe – a final touch, a boost to self-confidence and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.
For the deliberate wearer, though, I think perfume is first and foremost about personal pleasure. Whereas the casual wearer wants to smell good for other people, the deliberate wearer sprays or dabs firstly for themselves and if those around catch a whiff, then that’s fine too. So in this case the perfume acts more as an artistic medium – the wearer is sharing the perfumer’s vision and it’s our job to try to take the wearer on an emotional journey through bliss and remembrance and even intellectual curiosity.
That’s what it’s all about for me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the second instalment of Perfume Polytechnic’s Perfumer Interview Series with Mark Evans of Evocative Perfumes. Warm thanks to Mark Evans for his fascinating answers! If you’d like to find out more about Evocative Perfumes and Mark’s fabulous creations, visit the Evocative Perfumes website. For those seeking more in-depth information about Mark’s creative practice including detailed information on how his fragrances are made, visit the companion blog to his website, which is great reading too. You can also find Mark’s fragrances listed on Fragrantica.
If you’d like to catch up on last week’s instalment of Thirteen Thoughts with perfumer Emma Leah of Fleurage, click here.
NEXT WEEK’S Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series will feature Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driù. Make sure you visit Perfume Polytechnic again this time next week to find out how Angelo answers the same thirteen questions! You are in for a singular experience.