Zoologist Perfumes recently reformulated Beaver, one of the trio of perfumes that launched the brand. How they went about it is both novel and unexpected. The chief reasons for reformulation are cost savings and restrictions on materials. Changes to perfume formulae are most often done covertly and then denied by the perfume industry. Beaver makes the case that changing a perfume to accomplish specific goals is a valid option and need not be hidden or disguised.
The word reformulation might be the lightning rod of disdain, but it points to an even more complicated one: regulation. Regulatory agencies find their perch at the queasy spot where science and politics come together. There is no single, monolithic agency that sets all industry standards. Worse, there are many. When multiple sets of regulations are in play, the guiding principle is the least common denominator. All proscriptions apply, and in the case of overlap, the most restrictive measure wins.
Pia Long, indie perfumer, fragrance industry consultant and council member of the British Society of Perfumers, provides an overview of the web of regulatory bodies that address the safety concerns of perfume materials. Her piece at online perfume guide Basenotes.net, “What is really going on with EU fragrance regulations” takes the position that despite its shotcomings, the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) is possibly the lesser evil of inevitable regulation. IFRA’s voluntary self-regulation provides a backstop against the zero-threat standard of risk management that could feasibly become the rule.
Long notes that IFRA applies, “…the ‘no observed adverse effect level (NOAEL)’ of fragrance materials…” which is the, “…dose of the ingredient at which point no allergy starts to develop.” She also points out that existing regulatory agencies such as the EU Scientific Committee of Consumer Safety might take far more extreme measures. “They seem to think of fragrance as an unnecessary risk with no benefit to the consumer.”
All this is to say, reformulation might be undesirable, but it is preferable to a ban on fragrance in all product categories, which a number of EU dermatologists had called for. Such a ban would have been the coup de grâce not only for a number of popular aromachemicals, but for virtually all natural raw fragrance materials. IFRA might prove an easy target for my frustration when I smell the tinkering that’s been done to my favorite chypre, but if not for the organization’s mediation of hardline positions, my chypre might have become extinct.
Beaver’s reformulation, though, had nothing to do with the restriction of materials. Both versions are IFRA compliant. Zoologist Perfumes tried something new: a transparent, public reformulation of Beaver
Beaver 2014 was composed by British perfumer Chris Bartlett, owner and perfumer of the Pell Wall line of perfumes. Beaver 2014 was a musky animalic perfume with a linden blossom accord and a smoky background. It played with a number of musky tones and created a clever clean-over-dirty appearance that gave the perfume a dynamic olfactory presence. The lower range of tones were quite animalic, alluding to the castoreum that beavers are known for. The higher register emphasized the musky, detergent quality of linden flower. The two lines ran parallel to each other from the topnotes through the base, never intersecting. This high/low, dirty/clean dynamic gave the perfume a vibrancy, especially in the shimmering topnotes. Together, the two facets of the perfumes created a watery, woody atmosphere. Beaver was the most animalic of Zoologist’s three original perfumes, and the wet, musky, woody image suggested a beaver’s den.
Creatively, Beaver met the the goals laid out for it. It made a clear reference to its nominal animal, had a potent animalic edge and was distinctive and coherent. Unfortunately, it didn’t find a home with the buyer and didn’t sell as well as as hoped. Creative director and owner of Zoologist Victor Wong looked closely at the perfume and customers’ reactions to it in order to determine why the perfume didn’t connect with customers who were considering the brand. He came to the conclusion that on sniffing the caps (often a potential buyer’s first exposure to a perfume) people were smelling an ashy, charred base that they found challenging but missing the bright topnotes.
Wong approached Bartlett with his findings and proposed reformulating Beaver. His brief outlined the overall goal of making it more approachable to the potential Zoologist customer. Bartlett accepted and said they both, “… agreed it should be less challenging than the first and recognisably different, while retaining the essential character of the original.” *
For Beaver 2016 Bartlett and Wong returned to the drawing board. Bartlett kept to the idea of a floral musk but didn’t simply tweak the formula of Beaver 2014. He created a new Beaver from the ground up. Musk is integral to the concept of the perfume, but the animalism of the original version is one of the aspects that Wong identified as problematic. A revised musk accord favors richness over animalism and removing the smokiness of the original composition gives Beaver 2016 a more tailored fit. Beaver 2014 had a raspy, deliberately discordant tone that emphasized the raunchiness of the musk. The new version is no less complex, but is more harmonious. Bartlett says that in order to create a floral note that fit the new musk arrangement he needed to build an entirely new linden blossom accord. It has a more rounded quality than the sharp, detergent linden of Beaver 2014 and seems to hold its shape more cohesively as the perfume dries down. The formula for the new Beaver is more costly than the original, again bucking the perfume industry’s trend toward cheaper reformulation.
There are few models for revision not driven by restriction of materials or cheaper formulae. Slumberhouse has produced different versions of a number of their perfumes, indicating that a perfume is a work in progress, or at least on ongoing creative endeavor. Pierre Guillaume has produced revisions to a number of his earlier perfumes and released them as the Rework Collection. The reworked versions were availble as limited editions while the originals are permanent fixtures in the Parfumerie Générale line, which makes the revised versions effectively flankers, even if they are well considered.
Wong and Bartlett deserve credit for the integrity of their work. Wong’s honest assessment of the market shortcomings of Beaver 2014 and the transparency of the reboot are refreshing in an industry known for secrecy and subterfuge. Bartlett not only set aside ego and took on the project readily, he took the opportunity to reconsider the concept and build an entirely new perfume. He told me that the process, “… is a great example of how the dynamic between perfumer and designer works in practice and I think resulted in a better product.”
Independent perfumery prides itself on non-confirmity, even if the image of rebelliousness overshadows the reality. The goal of revising a perfume to make it less threatening and more broadly palatable could be spun as concession, but at the same time that Beaver 2016 was in the works, Zoologist launched Bat. Perfumer Ellen Covey’s perfume is the riskiest in the line, with a dense geosmin accored that recreates the dank atmosphere of a bat’s cave. Simultaneously launching Bat and performing a tactical reformulation of Beaver demonstrates Wong’s flexibility as an art director and bodes well for the Zoologist line.
* Comments from Chris Bartlett are from email exchanges and an online interview I had with him. I purchased samples of Beaver 2014 and 2016 from the Zoologist website.