Isaac Sinclair is working from home during a visit to his family in Dunedin. Photo by Gregor Richardson.
While many mothers receive perfume and other types of
fragrances from their sons at this time of the year, one
Dunedin mother is feeling quite special this week. Not only
did her son arrive home carrying her favourite fragrance, but
he had made it especially for her. Business editor Dene
Mackenzie talked to Brazil-based master perfumer Isaac
Without knowing that Isaac Sinclair grew up in Waitakere, it
would be impossible to tell where he is from by his accent,
which, he says, is a mix of the languages he needs to speak
as he carries out his work.
Based in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Mr Sinclair (33) has had to come
to grips with Portuguese, French, Italian and various other
European languages. His accent, although sounding like
something European, is just a mixture of all the languages,
he said, while laughing at this reporter's question.
Mr Sinclair is on a rare working trip to New Zealand after
being approached by listed company Ecoya to become the
company's master perfumer and nose.
He was genuinely excited to be working with the fragrances of
New Zealand he grew up smelling in the West Auckland bush and
''I usually work on big Hollywood blockbusters and the big
brands don't take risks. When Ecoya approached me, it was
`woohoo, I can work from home'. Ecoya is more creative. They
just said, do what you want,'' Mr Sinclair said.
While he had been here, he had ''played around'' with feijoa
as a fragrance but was unhappy with the result and turned
back to the green bush smells he loved. The fragrances he was
developing were based on manuka and kanuka with a backdrop of
''When I think of New Zealand, I think of the creeks and
rivers and the aromatic green bush smell.''
Although brought up in Auckland, Mr Sinclair has lived and
worked in Paris and Sao Paulo for more than 12 years. His
parents moved to Dunedin about 10 years ago and he enjoyed
heading back to New Zealand to see his family.
Living in a city of 20 million had its disadvantages.
It was the world's third-largest city and the financial
centre of Brazil, not the cultural centre. Walking down to
the Otago Daily Times for the interview took him about
10 minutes, something Mr Sinclair could not quite believe.
After living and working in Paris for 10 years, Mr Sinclair
moved to Brazil, initially for six months. Brazil had
overtaken North America in terms of perfume sales, with only
the combined countries in Europe having a bigger market.
The six months turned into a year before he had to go back to
Paris and work in the French capital again before receiving a
permit to move back to Brazil. Mr Sinclair described himself
as a French ex-pat, living in Brazil, from New Zealand. He is
employed by Symrise, one of the four big fragrance
manufacturers in the world.
Not many of the large fragrance brands made their own
perfumes, he said. Chanel was one that did, but many of the
world's well-known fragrances were made by four large
''When you look at the perfume counter and see all the
fragrances, you can divide it up by quarters.''
Firms such as Calvin Klein licensed out their brands for
others to make. The same went for other ''big names'' in the
fashion and fragrance industry.
''Those companies come to us with a brief for a new
fragrance. It could be masculine, feminine, aimed at youth or
an older market.''
All four fragrance companies were briefed before their
perfumers started creating a fragrance they believed best
fitted the brief.
Each would show between five and 10 different fragrances
before the client made the final choice.
''It's a tough market, with winner takes all. You can work
for a year on a fragrance and the client goes with the
opposition. It's tough when you put in so much effort. There
is no second prize.''
However, the eclectic type of work was satisfying. This week,
Mr Sinclair was creating fragrances for Ecoya. Last week, he
was creating ''seductive'' fragrances for Brazil and Latin
European countries and next week he could be creating fresh
fragrances for Australasian and North American markets.
While North America, northern European countries and
Australasian countries wanted a fragrance that said ''I'm
just out of the shower'', Latin countries wanted one that
said ''Whoa, what's going on here?''While he would like to
work on more New Zealand brands, Mr Sinclair acknowledged
there was very little work here. Ecoya was leading the way in
the development of fragrances and he hoped more companies
All of that seemed a long way from the West Auckland bush.
Asked how he got into his career, Mr Sinclair said his
mother's garden and the bush always had smells he liked. He
started collecting fragrances while still at school and had
about 50 by the time he was 16 or 17.
''I decided then that if I had all of these fragrances, then
someone behind the scenes was making them. Then it clicked,
like a `eureka moment'. I knew right then what I wanted to
Realising he could not create fragrances in New Zealand, he
decided the next best thing was selling them. He phoned every
pharmacy he could find in Auckland asking for a job selling
fragrances but was told to forget it because he was a guy.
After finally getting a job in Auckland department store
Smith & Caughey, Mr Sinclair used his free time to get to
know the fragrances and their distinctive characteristics.
But the desire to create rather than sell still drove him and
he made contact with fragrance expert Michael Edwards, in
Australia, and asked him whether or not he should study
chemistry in his quest to become a perfumer.
Mr Edwards instead urged him to attend a conference in the
south of France, where he met the man who still employed him.
In a typical ''Kiwi makes good overseas'' tale, he was urged
to stay in Europe to study at the Universita dell'Immagine
(school of five senses), but he told his soon-to-be boss that
he had no money. No money, no problem as Mr Sinclair was
given an internship and then a scholarship to the school.
''I phoned my parents and told them I was not coming home.''
After graduating, he worked in Paris with master perfumer
Maurice Roucel, co-ordinating all projects between Paris and
New York, developing fragrances for international brands
Guerlain, DKYN, Lancome, L'Oreal and Natura.
''The only thing I had going for me was that I was from New
The company believed he would bring a point of difference to
the fragrances because while most of the French perfumers had
grown up smelling lavender and roses, he had grown up
smelling feijoas and manuka and his mother's garden.
''They gambled on the fact that I could bring something new
to the table.''
And he believed he had done that. When he created a fragrance
using feijoa, it was seen as ''totally off the wall'', Mr
On his last visit home, he went to Moeraki, where banana
passionfruit plants were growing wild. Because there was no
passionfruit in Europe, the smell was seen as exotic.
For New Zealand, Dunedin was seen as a cold place. But for
Europeans, it was temperate and passionfruit was exotic.
With up to 500 fragrances launched globally each year,
competition for success was fierce, he said. Three years from
launch, only about 10% of fragrances were still on the
market. In five years, that fell to 1%.
He described the celebrity fragrance market as out of
control. A major company had found a successful formula that
it kept rolling out with each new celebrity. The market was
aimed directly at the teen market. Anyone older would not be
seen out wearing those types of fragrances, Mr Sinclair said.
Asked how he kept ahead of the competition, Mr Sinclair said
you had to remain creative and innovative. If you started
following trends, you were losing.
Mr Sinclair continued to make a unique fragrance for his
mother called ''Ode to Jacquline'', which she proudly told
all her friends they could not buy anywhere in the world. She
often called to ask when he was coming home because she
needed more perfume.
However, he did not believe the fragrances he made for his
sisters were quite so successful, as they had not requested
any more deliveries.
In a couple of years, Mr Sinclair must decide whether to
return to live and work in Paris full-time or stay in Brazil.
Many people thought New Zealand was so far away from
anywhere, but the same applied to Brazil, he said.
It was easier to get back to New Zealand from Europe because
of the number of flights.
''You can't leave Brazil for the weekend but if you live in
Paris, you can get on the train and be in London in three
hours. That has its attractions.''