Primeval Forces of Perfume

In Quantum Demonology, there is a term for what the protagonist calls…primeval forces, a phrase that refers to those musical epiphanies that are above superstardom and even above musical gods on an altogether different plane of existence. The ones she can’t live without, ever. The ones who never leave her iPod playlists. Ever.

But I have them in perfume terms, too. And a recent Skype conversation with one of them brought the concept up again. Which made me think, something this particular august personage does quite well. So what creates such paragons of fragrant epiphanies – what does it take to elevate illustrious perfumers and creative directors into my nosebleed stratosphere? Who are they? And why do they loom so important – on my person, in my cabinet, in my perfume subconscious? Read on, and I’ll tell you.

Understand that once upon a time, although I used – and likely abused – a wide range of perfumes starting at age 14, I did not always have such a visceral, emotional connection with perfumes. I operated on the time-honored French principle of “Ça sent beau”… “It smells…good!”, and so long as it worked on my mood, my manner or my nefarious plans, often horizontal, then all was well, until…

Until I began reading about perfume on a scale I never had before. In those days, it was olfaction by proxy, since I couldn’t afford any, but at least I could educate myself, and so I did, right up to the moment I read about a certain Paris-based perfume house, whose perfumes were described as ‘bottled emotions’. For whatever reasons, that idea stuck in my receptive mind. How did you…bottle emotion? And which ones? What did they smell like? Would they be different than the ones I already knew and loved, if no longer owned?

If I only knew what I know now.

Since becoming a perfume blogger in earnest, I’ve discovered that emotions could indeed be bottled – good, bad, even horror! (Secretions Magnifiques, here’s looking at you!). My tastes have evolved to such an extent that I love all sorts of perfumes – greens, chypres, opulent Orientals, knock ‘em dead florals, woods, gourmands, ouds…you name them, I’ll love them. There’s still room for improvement – musk is a note I struggle with – but I’m all for…fragrant transport to …elsewhere and otherwise, to new horizons and time travel, too!

Primeval Forces, however, elevate themselves above the rest. These creations are the ones I will wear without fail and with total surrender, the ones that suck me into a vortex of wonder, the ones I never hope to be without again, the ones that define not just this perfume writer, but this woman – and this soul. Which takes a lot more than simply…smelling good!

1) In every peerless work of art, so say the discerning, there is a hint of..strange, some oddity that catches the eye, the ear, or the nose. True beauty will always be unusual, always make you pause and take another look, another sniff, another snag that catches on the cogwheels of your imagination and sends it down a new and unexplored path. So that whiff of…strange that compels you to breathe deeper, that stops you cold and fires your imagination, would be my first criterion.

2) Every artistic creation – or collaboration, and some of my Primeval Forces are – contains some detectable droplet of the minds that conceived it. You could say that there’s an invisible ribbon in these bottles that goes straight from the creator(s) to that secret, bedrock location in my soul that was waiting for this reminder to shoot towards the light of awareness. I have to sense the heartbeat(s) behind it, which could explain why I tend to gravitate towards the niche and independent lines these days. They rarely disappoint me.

3) All my Primeval Forces excel at transport and the unexpected…they surprise me, they show me wonders, they make me cry, they take me places I’ve never known before, and as they do, my world is somehow larger, richer and far more colorful for it. Some kind of seismic perspective shift occurs, and how I define ‘perfume’ will never be the same.

4) Last, but not least…inspiration! When the time comes to sift through my impressions and turn them into expression, do I find myself tearing my hair out, grappling with metaphor and simile, trying to say something new, trying to expand – if not explode – my limitations as a writer? If that’s the case, I know I’m on to something spectacular. The less control I have over my own creative process, the better the end result. The perfumes that remove that illusory ‘control’ and just write my review for me – these are the ones I know I won’t be able to live without!

5) Each of these houses and perfumers march to their very own and distinctive beat. This means they can be as ground-breaking and as creative as they please, and so they are. Each has their own style and signature, and each of them make only their own rules.

So here they are – my fragrant Primeval Forces. There is no hierarchy here, no order of preference – these perfumers and houses are all laws unto themselves, continuing to take my breath away and explaining in liquid and essence, why I love to live and live to sniff!

Parfums Serge Lutens/Serge Lutens & Christopher Sheldrake

When I first read about Serge Lutens perfumes, I had this cold chill of intuition…there was something there, some secrets I needed to know. Not many understand quite so well the compelling beauty of strange and spectacular, of redefining by deconstructing. When I finally had the opportunity to try them, my world view changed…forever. I’ve been amazed ever since and I remain amazed every time I wear a Lutens, for familiarity does not take away that thrill of discovery and epiphany. I haven’t loved all of them, and in a few cases not at all, but of those I fell for – nearly twenty at last count! – I’ll love them for as long as I live.

Aftelier Perfumes/Mandy Aftel

Encountering the marvels of Mandy Aftel was one of the happiest ‘coincidences’ of my life. Mandy’s perfumes are nearly impossible to categorize, which qualifies her right there, but that’s only where she begins to pull those rabbits out of her hat. Strangely beautiful, beautifully strange, earthy, shockingly sensuous and opulent or ethereal as dancing moonbeams, she always surprises me and never compromises on her artistic vision. I have yet to encounter an Aftelier that hasn’t blown me away. They compel me and inspire me and fortify me in ways very few other perfumes do, so much that I usually have one drop of an Aftelier somewhere on me regardless of whatever else I wear, just because it’s the final cross on this T!

DSH Perfumes/Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

Right when I thought I was fast becoming my own living anachronism, mourning the death of Immortal Green Chypres, along came hope in a bottle in the form of a sample sent by Lucy of Indieperfumes. That sample was Vert pour Madame, and repercussions could be detected as far away as Buenos Aires at least. Dawn’s epic range and vision don’t stop there. Her knowledge of perfumes through history is unparalleled, her recreations and her own creations are…peerless, and just as Mandy, she knows just how to pull the rug from under my feet and expectations and swipe me sideways in all the best ways. I’ve yet to meet a DSH creation I couldn’t instantly fall for with a vengeance. As indeed I have! She’s simply…THAT…great!

Amouage Perfumes

Luxury in this day and age has become such an overused, over-hyped word. Ridiculously overpriced, average perfumes sold on pretentious PR copy are not how I define it. My perfume budget is so low, it’s a joke, yet I’m not laughing. I was laughing the day I caught myself ordering two fated (and outrageously expensive) samples of Amouage with the thought that I would be impervious to the hype, I would simply let these two speak for themselves, and despite many warnings from the Greek chorus of my fellow perfume bloggers (who knew precisely what I was in for), I was convinced Amouage couldn’t possibly be that stupendous. Famous last words, for heaven help me – they are. Every single one of them! Since the arrival of Creative Director Christopher Chong, Amouage has made perfumes so plush, unique and persuasive (if not addictive!), that all I can do is shrug at my own bloody-mindedness and surrender to their charms. In the case of Amouage, I’m so easy, it’s ridiculous. Or I am!

Opus Oils/Kedra Hart

Opus Oils, to my line of thinking, should be a smash success if there were any justice in this world. Because Kedra Hart makes perfume – always in danger of being just a little precious and high-minded – f-u-n. That might make you think they couldn’t be complex, tell stories, or take your breath away. Not so. Look past the tongue-in-cheek vintage-inspired copy (not that I’m complaining) and you will find perfumes as stellar as any others on my Primeval list, as rich and as surprising and evolving. As I work my way through my samples of Kedra’s creations, my FB wish list is getting ever longer. That they are all so easy to wear and to love can take away the fact that they are so masterfully constructed, with a sleight-of-hand that makes the very difficult look so very artless – always the sign of a true, dedicated, epically talented artist!

Neil Morris Fragrances/Neil Morris

Neil is a recent addition to my Primeval list, although I’ve been aware of him for quite some time. My introduction to Neil’s art was through a Vault collection perfume, and it literally wiped me off the floor in a swoon. But distracted as I am by all the details of my quotidian life, even I can feel that cold chill brush of intuition that sings… “Here we go – again!” For since that fatal discovery, thank all the perfume Gods!, Neil and his titanic talents have joined the Devilscent Project, and what a revelation they both have been! No neophyte to the Dark Arts of perfumery, he has reduced me to tears with his mods, because…by golly, he gets it! All of it – the light, the dark, the joy and the tragedy of my story. Our common fragrant journey has only just begun, but I am so grateful to have such a talent to explore,l and so privileged to have so many wonders to anticipate.

Olympic Orchids/Ellen Covey

If my (mis)education as a perfumoholic began with reading perfume blogs and evolved with the discovery of Serge Lutens, then it was surely cemented (or I was doomed!) when I discovered Olympic Orchids. Ellen Covey and her scents – orchid-inspired and otherwise – have done so very much to educate me and astonish me as well as delight me. She was my first indie perfumer, and has since been a perpetual surprise. Her orchid perfumes are spot-on, true to life and utterly spectacular (just ask the head gardener of the Orchid House at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Copenhagen, when I came to visit as the cattleyas bloomed, perfumes in tow), and the rest of her range is no less magnificent. But then – since this is the trouble we both like to make when we can! – we cooked up the Devilscent Project…and neither of us will ever quite be the same. The four Devils she conjured – and the synchronicity of their creation in her perfumes and my words – have shifted some major ground in my world, which has yet another reason for never quite… being the same!

Maria McElroy & Alexis Karl, Cherry Bomb Killer Perfume

Trouble always awaits when you’re sent eight samples of a new line and you can’t say one bad thing about any of them, only that you want…one of everything, pronto! This happened last summer when I was introduced to Aroma M and the lovely Maria McElroy, but little did I know the epiphanies that awaited when she joined forces with her Cherry Bomb Killer Perfumes partner Alexis Karl of Scents by Alexis fame for the Clarimonde Project and their Immortal Mine, nor what I would be inspired to write because of it. (There’s another kind of novel in that story/review just begging to be written!). These two have the kind of spectacular creative synergy between them I can only marvel at, marvel and be grateful I’m privileged to write about it. Coming soon are my reviews of their contributions for the Devilscent Project, and if perfumes are perilous – as I’ve always fervently believed – then this Devil and this Lilith, Queen of the Succubi – are surely proscribed by a top-secret Papal bull!

Neela Vermeire Creations/Neela Vermeire & Bertrand Duchaufour

Even in niche perfumery, there’s no shortage of hype – or launches. I’m well aware of all the lines I have yet to discover, or the one I’m dying to. So it takes more than PR machinery, a luxury label and ditto price tag to convince this perfume writer. It takes…that ribbon, that soul connection, that Aha! moment. When everyone started talking in hyper-excited tones about a new trio of perfumes unlike anything at all else around the time of the Elements NY exhibition, a line inspired by memories of that storied sub-continent of dreams that is India, my nose pricked up. When my sample set arrived on a gray day of forever goodbyes, I wondered whether it might be a sign of new beginnings. It was. For the trilogy and evolving stories that swirl and eddy within Trayee, Mohur and Bombay Bling are indeed those singular, vivid and personal narratives in perfume we all say we want to sniff and all too rarely do. All three reached out, grabbed my heart in fated, fabled, fragrant hugs and wouldn’t let me go. Their intricate, many-faceted wonders are there to stay!

Tauer Perfumes/Andy Tauer

When it comes to Andy Tauer, I usually joke I want to parade him down Fifth Avenue in a sedan chair with an adoring crowd throwing rose petals. I doubt this would ever happen – or even that the very modest Andy would stand for it! – but it says something of the impact he has – or the seismic potential of his perfumes. They are sometimes challenging and always unusual, and have done so much to reinvent my own perfume vernacular, no matter what the context or the materials. Whether rose – and no one does roses quite like Andy – incense, lavender or amber, or just the olfactory bomb that is Orange Star, I’ve had to really push my words to describe them and the places they took me to, and that, too is another kind of genius and another unique talent for which I can never thank him enough!

Primeval Forces are personal epiphanies, the ones you can’t live without and wouldn’t want to try. The ones you can find on yourself when all you want to do is feel that sigh of perfection in a world that all too often is anything but.

Do you have Primeval Forces, too?

The Four Devils of my Undoing

THE DEVILSCENT PROJECT  III

– a review (of a kind) of Ellen Covey/Olympic Orchids‘ four submissions for the Devilscent Project

Understand, these things don’t happen to me. I live such a drab, ordinary, invisible life…going to work, dropping off Super Mario at school and picking him up, existing only for those late night places in my imagination where shadows reign in the corners, when the boy and the cats are asleep, when all is quiet and only the click-clack of a keyboard taps its erratic rhythm in my room as I evoke the ghosts I find in sample vials and bottles and write down the stories they tell. Sometimes, it’s bliss and sometimes it’s a rarified form of torture when the words play hide-and-seek beyond my sixteen hour old days, or when those liquid chimaeras spark amber glints of defiance, choose to hide behind the Fail Demon’s back and won’t come out to play.

I nearly thought that happened again when Ellen Covey’s four Devs arrived in their tissue-wrapped box, thought that after all this time and anticipation, my vocabulary would surely fail me, fail to convey the flood of emotions I felt when I sniffed at their contents. This was so important, loomed so large in my imagination for such a long time as I wondered and I wandered down the primrose path of perfumed perdition that nothing I could possibly say would ever do them justice. They were all four like nothing Ellen had ever made, like nothing I had ever encountered before, each of the four a unique facet, a gossamer thread, a highlight, an ancient tale of long ago and a futurity for that storied creature I had conjured one night out of boredom and music and an old and archetypal story.

There I sat and I pondered and I fretted as I twirled my hair and drank my tea and felt a faraway ghostly presence breathe down my neck. That was me as I waved my blotters of Fabriano paper in the air and paced the floor, as I perused my thesaurus and bit my nails and sprayed my skin, that was the despairing writer who finally gave it up and went to bed with only Hairy Krishna’s ginger purr to console me, a faint trail of perfume hidden in his fur.

No one has ever had much faith in you, have they? I do.

At some unknown dead hour of night, I woke with a start. Was it a dream? I didn’t know, I knew only that Krishna had finally moved away from the small of my back and I could roll over, and as I adjusted the pillow and grabbed my duvet a little tighter, I heard a voice behind me in the dark, felt a human heat burn down my back in my single bed, an arm around me.

“Shhh. Don’t move.” Dev’s voice right by my ear. “If you do, you’ll ruin the spell. Lie still. Tell me what you feel, tell me what you smell.”

“Something both very light and very dark and very complex, so much going on in this bottle, something that tells me…to be careful, something woody and plush but very bright, bright like spice and evergreen together. There has to be oud in it, too, that same raspy edge, yet it’s sweet, too…sweet like..vanilla or maybe tolu, yes, I think that’s it and…” I shifted in the darkness. He was right behind me, this wasn’t a dream, this was real, and if this was real, this was very, very dangerous. As it got warmer under that duvet, his scent grew even headier, smokier and animalic without ever losing that bright, woody, oud-y, spicy bite. This one had teeth, but they were hidden behind an alluring veil of something very much alive and aware, was it frankincense I could sense in the distance, so many ancient secrets, something that read my stories and read between the words too, read the secrets and the truths I concealed behind them.

“This is you…” I whispered to the dark, “this is you in the beginning, before she knows what she’s getting herself into, when you read her mind and you know what she wants. You know but you’ll never tell her, you’ll let her believe that you can make it happen, that her wishes will come true…but there’s a danger here she won’t know until it’s far too late…

That animal heat burning down my back, that human animal pulsing in the dark in my room, breathing that perilous dream alive. I had no sooner thought those words when my eyes shot open, and Krishna’s amber eyes glowed feline for an instant above my leg. I was alone. But was it a dream?

My continents shifted, my ice caps melted, my magnetic poles were realigned.

I was lost…lost in some kaleidoscopic whirling Technicolor reverie of running breathless down a street, someone hot in pursuit behind me, then, there was no street, only the hard surface of a locked door, and next, nothing but this dense, demanding fiery dream, this multitude of sensations and scent, this another, fevered heat. This was a complex, fragrant fever that took and demanded, that overrode all my hesitations, that never asked and never told, this…blend of layers upon layers of meaning unfolding as I dreamt.

That blistering shock to my senses, far richer, denser and thicker than before, and all I could do was to take it without question, the animal feel and exultation of this arm around me, this skin, this impenetrable, all-pervasive need. I had no secrets I could hide, no doubts I could slip in between the spice and the leather, nowhere to run before this inhuman, intangible creature of sacred smoke and beastly appetites, couldn’t possibly refuse to follow where it led me, where it took me further into that dark I never knew before. All I knew was this lava in my blood and this tempest in my mind and all I would ever want ever again was this many-layered landscape of wanted and needed, even if it hurt, even if I cried, even if I never would know daylight again, I didn’t care, I didn’t care…

I bolted upright in an instant. A dream. It was a dream. Only a dream, witnessed by the dark outside my window and my frantic heartbeat singing in my ears and a cat that dug its claws in my arm so softly as it stretched, sighed and jumped off the bed in search of a snack.

It was only a dream.

There’s an old saying about love affairs. You can always remember the first time, but you can never remember the last.

“There’s an old saying about love affairs. You can always remember the first time, but you can never remember the last.”

Two dreams in this strange and almost endless night, dreams provoked by these haunting, haunted perfumes, dreams that brought me back to my story in ways I could never have imagined, dreams unfolding as that story of Dev and that desperate woman he ensnared who had so little left to lose except the one dream she had left, and this sleepless night, with this bittersweet perfume, it all comes back…with this exceptional and unique heartbreak-in-a-bottle. I looked out of the window into a moonless black night, and intimations of the animal from the dream before purr their low mumble in the background, but this is a moody, melancholy, tetchy Dev, because he knows the price he’ll pay, the price he’s always paid for being the Guardian of nightmares and negatives, it’s soaked into this spiky, raspy, redolent wood like her tears, seeped into the fabric of good and evil and even Earth itself with that underlying heartbeat of furry beast and sacred being, of despised monster and eternal scapegoat, of otherwordly and all too human. Frankincense – it must be – wafting its ancient, arcane secrets with its siblings myrrh and labdanum, and it won’t matter and won’t change what will and has to happen. The play must go on, the charade must continue to its inevitable end, and endings are the price we all pay for any dream come true.

I lay back down and pulled up the duvet, and as it rustled, Krishna ran into the room and jumped up, as if to say… “Get over it. You’re still dreaming.” He prodded a leg into a more comfortable position and curled up behind my knees.

Maybe Krishna was right. Or Buddha, and I was still lost of this world of mana and illusion, an illusion I created, and Ellen brought back to life?

I remembered everything. And everything hurt to remember.

“Don’t move.” Again, that familiar voice in the dark, that familiar weight of an arm over my waist, and a different, haunting heat burning down my back. SO solid, so warm, so fragrant, it had to be real.

“Am I still dreaming?”

“Maybe you are, and maybe you aren’t. Maybe this project in the intangible – your words and these perfumes – is an exercise in materializing your dream, have you thought of that?”

“Just like my story…and my harebrained idea…about you, about frankincense and labdanum and peril and passion, but this is…” I breathed it deeper. That cool and pine-like breath,  something evergreen, frankincense, that plush and furry labdanum, it must have been, there was a drop – just one – of something sweet. Not benzoin, not vanilla, maybe Peru or tolu balsam, but still just a tiny drop.

“This is me, and this is you, not your protagonist.” I felt his breath on my neck, felt his hand brush my hair away as he nestled closer and whispered in my ear. “The time for fiction and disguises is over, baby. Those were just the tools you needed to set things in motion to make them real.”

“But you’re not real. You’re just a figment of my imagination.”

“How can you be so sure? Once upon a time a very long time ago, a girl of fifteen heard the Devil in her head saying… ‘You, girl, should write. That’s what you were meant to do, that was your purpose.’ Somewhere down the line, you forgot that dream and that conversation. I’m reminding you now. All those years and all that life between became fuel for that fire that made you write this story and these words.” He laughed softly in the dark, so softly, not even Krishna on my other side stirred.

“Now, I’m becoming more real, now that ghost you conjured has materialized in another kind of alchemy, and now, maybe other fictions can become fact, too.”

“C’mon. It’s just a story, yet another clichéd Faustian first novel, a metaphor for my own silly dreams.”

“Didn’t you know? That’s how all reality begins. With a dream.”

Before I could protest, a harp chord began to play in the dark, and I woke up for the last time this night and turned off my alarm. As Krishna stretched and began his own early morning song, as I staggered out to the kitchen and switched on the kettle for my coffee, that phrase reverberated in my head and stayed for the rest of that day.

“All reality begins…with a dream.”

That haunting scent of labdanum and frankincense and otherworldly, bitter, dark…

And sometimes it happens…that even dreams come true.

As the perfumer who made me a perfume writer just proved…

_______________________________________________

Notes: (taken from the enclosed envelope Ellen added with stern instructions not to open it until after my review!)

Dev no. 1: Three kinds of synthetic oud, woody base notes, black vanilla, clear labdanum absolute, synthetic musk deer accord, Africa stone tincture, ambergris tincture, synthetic civet, tolu balsam, beeswax absolute, frankincense, African bluegrass, giant arborvitae and cinnamon leaf.

Dev no. 2: Clear, dark and green labdanum, tolu balsam, black agar, woody base notes, musks including ambrette and the deer musk accord, castoreum, a different version of civet, cistus, incense accord, immortelle absolute, cade, davana, leather, rose, clove CO2 extract, cardamom, cinnamon and cinnamon leaf.

Dev no. 3: New Caledonian sandalwood absolute, dark labdanum, clear labdanum, red spikenard, fossilized amber, ambergris tincture, black truffle tincture, cistus, cassie absolute, frankincense, davana, African bluegrass, myrrh tincture, motia attar & cinnamon leaf.

Dev no. 4: Clear labdanum absolute, tolu balsam, dark labdanum, woody base notes, frankincense, arborvitae. 

Ellen Covey’s stunning perfumes are available at Olympic Orchids.

A whiff of perdition…

The Devilscent Project

A year ago, I had a little project-for-fun on my old blog, Scent Less Sensibilities, in collaboration with Doc Elly of Olympic Orchids. We called it Devilscent. The idea was to create a scent for the Devil as he is portrayed in my rock’n’roll Faustian novel, Quantum Demonology.

What do you know, dear readers, it is now a year later and things have…changed! 

I want to get Quantum Demonology out there, out to where it becomes a viral phenomenon, out where someone wants to get it in print, get it in Kindles, on iPads, and who knows where it could go from there? And what better way to do it in a way no one has ever quite done before – through the medium of…perfume?

A year later, Doc Elly is still very much a part of it. But so are several other very distinguished niche perfumers and some of the best perfume writers and bloggers in the blogosphere.

A year later, we’re going to take it to the next level. Through Facebook, through Twitter, through social media and PR and through the words of our bloggers and the perfumes our perfumers will create for the Devil – not your usual brand of Evil Incarnate – and for his much malcontented wife, Lilith, Queen of the Succubi.

Because in this version, the Devil stalks our hapless Faust, haunts her many dreams and lures her to perdition through…a perfume.

But what would such perfumes be – and what havoc could they wreak?

Read all about it in the weeks to come!

Lost and Found

–       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

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

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.

 

Rose Chypré

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.

 

Café V-1

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.

 

Café V-2

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:

Emergence

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.

Salamanca

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)

Rose Chypré

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