– on the pleasures of finding misplaced treasures, and reviews of One Truly Great Facilitator
I am not by any stretch of the imagination the world’s most organized person. Although I’ve developed total OCD concerning my work and writing habits and my laptop hard drive is sorted to an electric fare-thee-well, my desk displays all the signs of an easily distracted artist…one catch-all notepad for incidental thoughts, one blue workbook for even bigger thoughts, one black spiral-bound notebook for notes on perfume reviews and blog ideas, one small perfume journal containing a review list with dates, and finally another notebook that contains immortality in 140 characters or less – my #Follow Friday diary, with dates, write-ups, people I add, follow and recommend. This doesn’t include my dictionary/thesaurus, books I’m reading, music CDs (yes, I buy them), things to tape to my Inspiration Wall of Fame, pens, pencils and samples in different stages of disarray. I admire the minimalist Zen mindset, really I do. But until that day I’m able to hire a personal assistant, forget it.
So it was…until I decided to turn a new leaf and get my derriére in gear and get organized. I sat down in my bedroom where most of my ‘fumes are located and sorted through a large pile of bubblepak envelopes, cards and sample vials. Somewhere in a decreasing pile of chaos, I came across a letter I had all but forgotten in the chaos of the last six months or so.
It was a letter from my very first Great Facilitator and indie perfumer Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids, and I was instantly hit with a large suitcase packed full of guilt trip.
It was – believe it or not – only a year ago I really began to write about perfume, to push my limits in terms of writing in general and writing about perfume in particular, and – true story! – if not for Doc Elly, it would likely never have happened at all. Not only is she one of the nicest people I’ve met this past year of discoveries, she is also – I’m not the only one to say this – one of the most unique. Just as all my favorite perfumers this past year have their own aesthetic vocabulary, so does she. She creates breathtaking true to life perfumes based on scented orchids – her Red Cattleya was spot-on, I discovered at the Orchid House of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Copenhagen last year – and has also made a wide range of mostly undiscovered wonders, some of which I’ve worn – and worn out. It’s a definite testament to her talent that all her masculine-slanted perfumes have instantly been purloined by the Ex and worn, not that I blame him. They’re that good!
Five sample vials glowed in her letter, named Emergence, Salamanca, Rose Chypré, and Café V 1 and Café V 2. She enclosed another sealed envelope with instructions not to open it until I’d tried them – and I swear, I didn’t. That letter is still sealed as I type. I know nothing of their notes, have blithely forgotten everything I might have read about them elsewhere, and have only my nose and my associations to go on.
Emergence is something I can recognize instantly, almost like finding an old friend in a crowded room…because it’s a sibling of another favorite of mine, Golden Cattleya. Golden Cattleya – I reviewed the prototypes here – is a thick, opulent, orange-centered Oriental, just as Emergence strikes me. But unlike Golden Cattleya and its airier, floatier base, Emergence is darker and plusher, with a headier, more animalic version of the drydown I find in many of Olympic Orchids’ perfumes. There’s a lot of labdanum and likely cistus* too in this – not my least favorite note, and it dances out of the vial on an orange-vanilla sunbeam and wraps its tendrils around you in the best kind of oomph-inducing, richly fragrant hug. It strikes me as an evening perfume, one for high heels and a little black dress and a gleam in your eye that might or might know how the night will end…
Salamanca is the most masculine-slanted of the five, a dry, grassy, slightly smoky leather. Leather! Lots of leather…black, soft, spicy yet not understated leather, maybe a touch of birch tar in the mix somewhere, and what I smell as vetiver? Calamus? Yerba Maté? Named for the Spanish town, I presume, it has a definite Latin lover, flamenco vibe…If it were a man, I’d say this would be perfect for Antonio Banderas, not that I would ever complain. It’s very classy, slightly dark, very sexy and very unlike most masculine, slightly clichéd leathers I can think of, and I make a point to try most of them. I absolutely love it, but it’s probably more for a man. This takes a certain amount of cojones, and alas, I don’t have any.
It’s such a crying shame rose perfumes have become such clichés, because if you do a rose right, it can satisfy as no other flowers except maybe tuberose and jasmine. I love roses, I love rose perfumes, and I’m not surprised at all this was an instant favorite. This is – I’ll hazard a guess – a Damascene rose, a velvet-red, plush, almost photorealistic rose with a green, mossy pulse beneath it, but not so green as, say, a relation, which would be Etat Libre d’Orange’s Rossy de Palma. I did like Rossy the perfume very much, but I have to say it – I love this so much more for being so perfectly balanced. Delicious. Not so long ago, I tried YSL Paris, knowing it would end in tears, which it did, and bemoaned the fate of the classic, stellar rose. No more. So if you love roses…and chypres that won’t carpet-bomb you to the floor with the patchouli blends that pass for chypres these days – run, don’t walk! Try it and you won’t regret it.
Coffee, anyone? Coffee in perfume gave me all sorts of headaches, once upon a time. This was well before I ever encountered Aftelier’s ‘Tango’, which sold me on coffee. Café V-1 is nothing like Tango, instead it’s a flowery, spicy caffeine jolt to the nose, very different and not in the slightest gourmand. It intrigues me no end as it dries down for getting spicier and darker. I detect cinnamon and more than a touch of patchouli and maybe myrrh, and over and under this little marvel blooms that lovely coffee note – which is dark-roasted and strong yet delicate. If this were a coffee, it would be a single estate Ethiopian mocha bean…full-bodied, floral and with a slightly sweet finish, guaranteed to pick you up and jolt you out of the January doldrums.
Version 2 is a very different cup of java, an effervescent blend – so sayeth my Dimbo nose – of what seems to be a touch of chocolate, coffee and…wait for it! Mint! Tea?Something that makes me think green. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t work at all, and yet, it does and beautifully so, accentuating the floral aspects without damping down the coffee, except maybe this is more vanillic – coffee with a dollop of cream?. It is decidedly more floral and less spicy than version one on my skin, and I would be hard-pressed to choose between them. It blooms into a smokier, more emphatic coffee as time goes on, and stays closer to the skin. Both of them are coffee notes done right…with respect and enough intrigue to keep you interested and on your toes, and nothing – let me repeat – nothing like so many throwaway coffee perfumes I’ve tried.
I could continue to extrapolate here and say that Olympic Orchids are all…nothing like anything else. Ellen Covey has a definite Orientalist, classic approach to perfume, and a dedication to maintaining her own uncompromising creative vision regardless of what everyone else is doing, which should be both applauded and appreciated. I really don’t know why she isn’t famous, since I think she should be!
Meanwhile, there was that sealed envelope…I quote from the contents:
When cattleya orchids first start to bloom, their fragrance is often indolic and camphorous. Emergence represents the first days of the golden cattleya flower. Notes similar to Golden Cattleya, but also include civet, indolene, methyl benzoate and camphor.
It is based on the scent of dry, dusty grass and weeds with hints of old stone buildings, hand-crafted leather, and the jamon that hangs in so many of the shops. (Jamon is the air-cured, spectacular ham of Spain)
A classic chypre composition centered around the fragrance of rose. Specific notes include a cocktail of musks. Oakmoss (!!), clear labdanum, patchouli, rose de mai absolute, cyclamen, bergamot, ylang ylang, petitgrain, aldehydes, red mandarin and red thyme
Café V 1 & 2
Named for a famous café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, specific notes include balsams, myrrh, cedar, coffee absolute, cacao absolute, a vanilla accord, Madagascar vanilla tincture, a leather accord, nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom. Version 2 also includes a creamy note.
So I guess I got a lot of the notes right, and not a few associations, too. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…if not for Ellen Covey, my nose, that questionable collection of cartilege, would be far less educated. It began with Olympic Orchids. It seems only fitting that a year later, I found her again. Her perfumes merit all the praise they can get – and so does her dedication! If you’re bored with the present sorry state of ho-hum perfume releases, if you’re in search of something truly original, if you’re looking to expand your horizons or even if you’re such a niche diehard you’re looking for new talent, give Olympic Orchids a try.
* Labdanum and cistus – although they both stem from the same plant, the Mediterranean rock rose – are by no means the same thing. Both come in several different varieties – absolutes and CO2 extracts – that on their own are so rich and complex, it’s hard to believe they’re from the same source.
Images: Painting: A Lady Writing a Letter, Jan Vermeer, 1665-66
Illustration: “Square’s Waldo”, by Jonah Block, courtesy of Society6