Thirteen thoughts from perfumers around the globe. Each perfumer profiled at Perfume Polytechnic has been presented with the same set of thirteen questions that probe into scent memories, imagination, education, history, the creative process and philosophy. How each perfumer answers these questions, and what form the answers take, is up to them. Tune in each week for a new instalment to learn more about the olfactory arts and how perfumers think about smell.
This is the final of five, weekly instalments in Series Two of Thirteen Thoughts. Today’s interview features Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids Perfumes. As well as being a gifted perfumer, Ellen is also a neuroscientist and a professor at the University of Washington. She also grows orchids commercially and owns the Olympic Orchids nursery near Seattle. Ellen’s beautiful fragrance Woodcut recently won a 2015 Art and Olfaction Award in the Artisan Category.
The intention of Thirteen Thoughts is to let each perfumer speak for themselves about who they are, what drives them, and what they do with fragrance, so without any further ado, let me introduce you to…
Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids Perfumes
Tell us about a significant olfactory memory from your childhood.
One of my earliest memories is from when I was about 2 years old and we moved to a new house. I remember standing on the bed in the old house the day before we moved, sniffing the windowsill, thinking that I would miss this smell and that the new house would smell different. It made me sad.
What is your “origin story”? When, why and how did you decide to become a perfumer?
Becoming a perfumer wasn’t a “decision” in the sense that I didn’t say to myself “I want to be a perfumer when I grow up” and then tried to make that happen. It happened gradually without my realizing it until it had already happened. I formally acknowledged it when I started my business in 2010.
Why did I become a perfumer? There’s no simple reason. I’ve always been fascinated by scents and perfumes, and have tinkered around with them for a long time. I have grown orchids commercially for about 10 years, and continue to be fascinated by the huge variety of fragrances produced by orchids in nature. My original goal was to try to make some perfumes based on orchid flowers, but it has grown way beyond that. I am happy that I’m able to make unique fragrances that resonate with people, make them happy, make them think, make them feel emotions. For me, perfumery is like any other form of creative work – there’s something internal that needs to be expressed and communicated, and there’s a medium to do it whether it’s words, music, visuals, or perfume.
Do you have any formal training in perfumery, or are you self-taught? Have there been any mentors or other personal or cultural influences on your work as a perfumer?
I have not taken a formal perfumery class, nor have I worked with a mentor. In that sense, I am self-taught. However, a great deal of information is available online, in books, in forums and professional interest groups, so I have taken from that body of information whatever is relevant and useful for me, and left the rest to follow my own path. Instead of going by the book, I am guided by common sense, knowledge of chemistry and, most importantly, my own aesthetics and sense of smell.
If I have a cultural influence, it is my lifelong dislike of many traditional European-style perfumes and my early preference for Indian and Middle Eastern type perfumes. Over the years I have sampled literally thousands of perfumes of all different vintages and genres, and this has given me a good idea of the limitations and possibilities of the art as it currently exists, as well as inspiration for where it could and should go next.
Who are your favourite perfumers or perfume houses, and what do you like about their work?
This question pops up over and over again, and I always decline to answer it, partly because it is unanswerable and partly because I see it as a conflict of interest. The question is unanswerable because the perfumes that I enjoy do not typically come from a given perfumer or perfume house, but from many different sources, and my preferences vary considerably over time. It is a conflict of interest because if I were to recommend other perfumers who are, in a sense, colleagues, that could be seen as promoting them while neglecting to promote others who may be equally meritorious.
Describe your brand to us: tell us about the kind(s) of perfume that you make, as well as your brand’s philosophy or ethos.
If my brand has a mission statement, it is to provide a wide variety of original and high-quality perfumes at prices that are affordable by anyone. Originality is a given, because I love to experiment and venture into uncharted territory. I always try to use the highest quality materials possible, making sure my sources are reputable, and keeping costs down by buying in bulk. I try to keep overheads low by keeping paid advertising to a minimum, using simple packaging, and offering small sizes and an extensive sampling program.
I experiment with everything from traditional forms such as chypres, colognes, fougères, and florientals to forms that do not fit into any standard genre. Most of my perfumes contain a high percentage of natural materials, and a few are all natural. I have a huge appreciation and respect for the complexity of natural materials, every one of which is like a perfume in and of itself, but I also appreciate the use of synthetics to create new accords that do not exist in nature and/or that enhance certain aspects of natural materials. To me, the judicious addition of synthetics to perfume is analogous to going from playing music on original acoustic instruments to adding electronic amplification, synthesized sounds, and studio production to what is essentially an organically created piece of music. It still has the natural human touch, but has been made more compelling through the use of technology.
How do you come up with the idea for a new perfume? For example, do ideas come to you spontaneously, do you work conceptually, or do you try to fill gaps in your range?
All of the above. On the whole, though, I would say that the majority of ideas come to me spontaneously, but may take the form of a concept that becomes realized through the use of perfume. I have far more ideas than I have time to work on or space for in my line. There are always works in progress in my studio, some of which sit around for years before being finished. I have never really tried to “fill gaps in my range”, although I have felt compelled to try my hand at traditional genres just to see what would evolve within that form, and a few of these experiments have been released.
What element of your perfume making process do you think readers of this blog would be interested or surprised to learn about?
I really don’t think any part of my process is particularly surprising, because my setup and operation is pretty standard for an established artisan perfume studio. I will say that I love to tincture odd things, from seaweed to fig leaves, dried fruit, hops, and soy sauce, and a few of these tinctures get used in production of my fragrances. Up until now I have done everything myself, from fragrance design and production to filling bottles and sample vials, packing orders, label and website design, publicity, and boring stuff like accounting and paperwork. The bigger the business gets, the less time there is for the fun part of it, so I know that at some point soon I will have to get some help with routine tasks.
What are the current challenges you face as a perfumer, both creatively and in regard to manufacturing, distributing and marketing your perfume?
The challenges right now have to do with managing growth of my business, becoming more efficient and streamlined as I move to bigger production batches, and looking at getting help with mundane tasks in the near future. Another challenge has to do with space. My studio and warehouse area is already a decent size, but I can see that it will need to be larger within the next few years if growth continues at the current rate.
I have not made an effort to grow my business quickly, but instead have chosen to let it develop in an evolutionary and self-sustaining way, putting profits back into improvement and gradual expansion. When I look back on where I started almost 5 years ago, I am amazed at how much the business has grown, but I really didn’t notice the process as it happened. I think this laissez-faire approach has cut back on the sorts of major challenges and setbacks that business owners experience when they try to do too much too soon, possibly with unrealistic expectations. I have not yet quit my “day job”, but now realize that I may need to do so at some point in the foreseeable future.
How has your work as a perfumer affected your perception of everyday smells?
I’ve always been highly aware of everyday smells, so I don’t think my perception of smells has really changed in any fundamental way. What I do find now, when I smell other people’s perfumes in passing on the street, is that I often think things like, “oh, I smell ambroxan”, or “wow that has a lot of ionones in it”, dissecting the scents by ingredients rather than perceiving them as just a pleasant smell. It just shows that we perform olfactory analysis on multiple levels, in multiple modes, depending on what we are familiar with.
Many ingredients that are edible are also used in fragrance (chocolate, vanilla, coffee and rose, to name a few). If you could reverse this process and turn any perfume ingredient into an edible ingredient, what would that be? Which fragrance ingredient do you think would taste nice as a flavour?
Many things that we think of as perfume ingredients work well in food. I cook with all kinds of herbs including lavender, I like candy flavoured with flowers, including rose, orange blossom and violet, and I sometimes flavour my coffee with resins like silver fir, fir balsam, or frankincense. There is candy flavoured with musk, which I’m sure is tasty. Many of the same aroma chemicals used in perfumery are also used in synthetic flavourings for food, so we eat them all the time without realizing it. I love to taste oud by itself. In fact, at some point I taste almost all of my perfume materials. Oddly, I find that sometimes it is easier to detect adulteration when the material is both smelled and tasted.
If you had a time machine, which historical period in perfumery would you like to go back to and work in as a perfumer?
I’m not sure I would like to go back to a historical period and work as a perfumer because I would be much more limited in terms of materials and distribution opportunities. What I would prefer to do is go into the future and see how perfumery has evolved and what new opportunities have arisen.
If you could invent a new olfactory gadget, tool or technology, what would it be and how would it benefit perfumers and/or society?
I think gadgets and technology are often overrated. My studio is simple but well-equipped, and I don’t see the need for a lot of fancy gadgetry. What I really need is a 3-ml spray sample vial that doesn’t allow the contents to evaporate over time! I would rather help support a person by paying them to make samples or pack boxes than have a robot do it. One could dream of some way to “stream” perfume to customers to sample, but I think that would depersonalize the experience and take some of the fun out of waiting for those little packages to arrive. Something that might benefit people could be a system of perfume lending libraries of “perfumemobiles” that could go to hospitals, retirement homes, prisons, and other places where people lead dreary lives. It would have to be run by people who could educate the users about the perfumes and let them see how perfume can be psychologically therapeutic – aromatherapy, not in the usual sense of attributing medicinal properties to herbs, but in the sense of bringing sensory stimulation, contemplation, and joy to people.
What is the purpose of perfume?
The short and simple answer? Perfume exists to give people pleasure.
Like any other art form, a good perfume is an expression of something within its creator, but will evoke different feelings, thoughts, and associations in each person who experiences it.
I hope you have enjoyed today’s interview with Ellen Covey. I would like to thank Ellen for the time she took to answer the thirteen questions, in amongst her busy life as an academic, orchid grower and perfumer! I particularly love Ellen’s idea of a perfume lending library or “perfumemobiles”; it’s such a wonderful concept. I have recently smelled Ellen’s award-winning fragrance Woodcut, and it’s beautiful. I recommend getting your hands on a sample.
To find out about Ellen’s perfumes and to purchase them, go to the Olympic Orchids Original Perfume Boutique (for the full range, smaller sizes, limited editions and samples) and to the newer Olympic Orchids Perfumes flagship store, for larger bottles and newer packaging.
Olympic Orchids has one of the best and most affordable sample programs out there, with affordable international shipping. If you’re keen to try out Ellen’s perfumes, I highly recommend checking out the range of samples and sample packs available, as well as the discovery sets.
Previous & Future Instalments of Thirteen Thoughts
Last week, Shelley Waddington of En Voyage Perfumes was interviewed. You can read her answers to the thirteen questions here.
In week one of this second series of Thirteen Thoughts, Mandy Aftel was interviewed. You can read her answers here.
In week two, JoAnne Bassett of JoAnne Bassett Perfumes answered the thirteen questions. You can read her interview here.
In week three, Andy Tauer was interviewed. Read his interview here.
You can catch up with Series One of Thirteen Thoughts here.
This concludes Series Two of Thirteen Thoughts: Perfumer Interview Series. I hope you have enjoyed these interviews and I would like to once again thank all of the perfumers who have taken part in this very exciting second series! It’s been a real pleasure to meet and get to know all the perfumers involved, and to note the similarities and differences in how each of them has answered the thirteen questions.
An interview with the inimitable Angelo Orazio Pregoni of O’Driu perfumes. Angelo and I have a chat about art, perfume, and the ideas behind his work. It’s a revealing and fascinating read. Open your mind and come along for the ride! Follow Perfume Polytechnic if you don’t want to miss it!
All interview answers and photographs were provided courtesy of the perfumer. All interviews remain the intellectual property of Perfume Polytechnic and the perfumers. Please do not reproduce interviews or images without permission.