Scents of Time: An Interview with David Pybus. Part I. Historical and Ancient Perfumes
During my last trip to London, I sojourned as always to my favorite haunt, the British Museum. This time I actually made it to the gift shop before I collapsed from cultural fatigue, and noticed a display of three perfumes by a company called Scents of Time. They were delightful and intriguing, so I managed to make contact with the chemist/archaeologist/perfumer/mastermind of Scents of Time, David Pybus, aka the Indiana Jones of perfumistas, and he agreed to a few Q&A sessions for this blog.
David was a longtime chemist at Boots and ICI, then in marketing in Quest International (now Givaudan) with a passion for archaeology and history, and when he left Givaudan, he founded Scents of Time in order to recreate historical and ancient perfumes. Nenufar and Ankh are his and hers scents of ancient Egypt, Pyxis is based on constituents found in the ruins of Pompeii, and his newest, Maya, is based on the fragrant rituals of that ancient people. David has also studied incense making with the famous house of Baiedo in Japan, and has published extensively on the history of incense.
Marla: What started you on the path to perfume, and what came first, perfumery or archaeology?
David: Chemistry came first with the degree and I have always been in the business of chemistry. But as a youngster I was fascinated by books and stories on Lost Cities, Conan and the like. Leonard Cottrell was an inspiration.
Marla: What is the most outrageous thing that has happened to you while you were pursuing an ancient or historical perfume?
David: In Pompeii I had the feeling I was dealing with the Mafia with one of the companies down there, but it may be their Neopolitan mentality of work – all local control. I always get major stomach problems when visiting Egypt! In Mexico I was chased by a taxi full of police trying to get a “mordida” (bribe) for failing to stop at a red light. It wasn’t on red- I was just another gringo target.
Marla: What is the hardest part of recreating a long-gone scent? How do you cope with that? Can you give an example?
David: Ensuring the perfumer sticks rigidly to the brief to re-create as best as possible, and not go off on an exploratory tangent. Only regular management can control this. With Ankh the formula clearly gave the ingredients, but making a liquid fragrance smell like a burning incense was a challenge
Marla: Say I was fascinated with Medieval Japan, and the Tale of Genji. I want to make a perfume and incense that reflect that era. How would I go about doing that?
David: Read my book “Kodo the Way of Incense”. I spent some time in Japan with Baiedo making incense. I think in this instance I could research either the specialist incense formulations made in the game or research along the Silk Road (which was also the Incense Trail). Either way, aloeswood/jinko/eaglewood (El Oud in Arabia) would have to be apart of it as that is the prize aromatic material of them all in this part of the world.
Marla: Has the internet made things easier or more complicated in searching for, and recreating, scents?
David: The ten scents I have were early created from finds or reading mostly in pre- internet times, but the Internet certainly widens the area of search. My first two clues (the Titanic and Pompeii) were picked up from newspaper articles.
Marla: Assuming human civilization continues for a few thousand years more, what do you think the archaeologists of the future will have to say about mainstream perfumes of our time?
David: Some classics (about one a decade) and lots of unadulterated (and adulterated) rubbish. Pandering to the cult of celebrity and dramatic designers. Aromatically described by “marketing lovelies” who use terms like “pink musk “and mahogany” with absolutely no knowledge of what they’re talking about. And an industry which has prostituted itself for the sake of the Emperor’s clothes. The age of scent saturation. But more science coming in, more use where feasible of natural products and an effective use of about six of the over one hundred elements of the universe (that is pretty restricted creation).
Also it is a watershed where some in the industry (notably Michael Edwards) are trying to open the magic box of perfume and educate the consumer. Many in the industry don’t want that to happen. They want consumers to be brand loyal…and so the less said about what’s in the perfumes and how they relate to one another the better it would seem.
Marla: How have recent IFRA regulations shaped scent recreation? Many key natural ingredients such as bergamot, and historically important aromachemicals like nitro musks, are now highly restricted. Can a historical scent be made as accurately as possible, solely for display in a museum or for educational purposes, or is this no longer possible either?
David: Put simply, a balance has to be struck. In my case, obviously with a commercial objective, I need to approach the aroma as well as possible whilst remaining toxicologically safe. Also I use the universal modern solvent of choice – alcohol, not olive oil, argan oil, almond oil. I don’t see any point (apart from an academic one) in recreating a historical scent to put in a museum where no one will be able to smell it.
Marla: What perfumes are you researching for possible future releases?
David: I can’t be specific with this at the moment. Suffice to say on a time line, one is at 2100AD, and the other at around 1550 BC.
One I would love to find but think improbable is that of Genghis Khan. They say a whole river was diverted to hide his burial place, and all those who saw the procession to it were murdered. I’m sure there will be lots of choice incense there along with other treasures. And Cleopatra’s tomb remains to be found. As does Alexander’s, both lovers of fine incense and perfume.
To be continued next Wednesday.
Scents of Time can be purchased through the British Museum Shop, and within the UK in various sizes at David’s own website, scentsoftime.co.uk
Image source, Scents of Time.