Sunday, July 29, 2012

Beyond the Veil

Vintage Chanel Flacon

When one thinks of perfume, instinctively commercial brands come to mind.  However, the perfume world has changed dramatically the last few years facilitated by social media sites that have made it possible for enthusiasts to exchange ideas directly and create virtual communities.  It is here that one can gain exposure to other types of perfumes such as niche, natural, experimental, conceptual, vintage or art fragrances.  It is here that one can meet and converse not only with fellow perfumistas, but with bloggers, critics, writers, sellers, buyers, aromatic producers, manufacturers, historians, curators and even perfumers.  Because of this connectivity it is now possible to stay on top of things regardless of where one lives.  The fragrance world is no longer a centralized hegemony, but an individualized paradigm within the context of a raw democracy.
Image courtesy Sheila Eggenberger
It was through this venue that I was able to meet Sheila Eggenberger, read her Quantum Demonology novel and take part in the DevilScent project as a blogger.  It was this context where Sheila met Ellen Covey, a perfumer (owner of Olympic Orchards) and partner in crime.  Since Ellen started the DevilScent project with Sheila her Dev variations are not just interpretations of the Devil’s fragrance but four archetypal aspects of that entity.  Together they are the perfume equivalent of the character Sheila Eggenberger created.  Dark, bitter, rich, spicy, earthy, fiery and cognac smooth. They can be experienced as stand alone fragrances, form a transition from one state to another or be layered for a devilish rush. 
Papier Mache and Lacquer Bodhidharma
Dev 1 and 4, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end share a note that I can only describe as lacquer.  An opulent dark lacquer adding luster to the surface of rich wood and fine art.  From the moment I smelled these perfumes I had a flashback to when I would accompany my parents to the bazaar in Tehran where they would take their antique furniture to be refinished.  
"Bazaar" Image Courtesy Hamzeh Karbasi

The workshop was medieval at best, a dark, crepuscular space with furniture piled haphazardly, cans of lacquer and shellac, waxes, oils and stained rags strewn about.  There was a haze of wood dust and cigarette smoke that never seemed to settle down.  The walls were damp with patches of swelling plaster and yellowed paint.  A skylight punctuated the end of the space where a crouched figure worked, the odor of his sweat a reminder of the heat outside.  Mingled together was the smell of wood; fresh, aromatic and exotic.  
Giant Arborvitae Image Courtesy NW Aromatics
But Dev 1 and 4 also reminded me of something else which I finally identified when I recently pulled out samples of Nootka and Giant Arborvitae I purchased from a Canadian company that produces these oils sustainably from leftover sawdust.  It is rare to find an essential oil that has longevity, lift and sillage, but Giant Arborvitae is just such a gem.  True to its name though, it is a giant that can squelch practically everything in its path and is very difficult to tame.  The beauty of Dev 1 and 4 are that Ellen Covey has not tried to tame the giant, recognizing instead, the power of this aromatic and has paired it with other strong notes to create an untamed fragrance that unleashes memory and desire. 
Image Courtesy
Giant Arborvitae (Thuja plicata) is a wild and ancient tree, a cypress native to North America and intrinsic to the lives of the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest.  All parts of the tree were used to create canoes, housing, clothing, baskets, fishing poles, utensils and totem poles.  Arborvitae means “tree of life” and specimens can live for hundreds of years.  Using the oil from this tree can certainly invoke its spirit (benevolent or mischievous) which comes to life on the skin.
Image Courtesy "lk"
Dev 2 and 3 are bridge fragrances that swing in different directions.  Dev 2 has a sweet sexiness in its depth.  But Dev 3 is crazy spicy and takes me down yet another memory lane to the same bazaar where my mother would buy her medicinal herbs and culinary spices.  This was a very different space, that of a peaceful and somewhat rotund Hajji who sat behind his counter surrounded by jars, amphorae and baskets of herbs.  He would dutifully mete out the contents of a vessel onto a scale using brass weights for balance and then pack everything in brown paper bags and calculate the cost with a well-worn abacus.  
I asked my mother to try Dev 3 and tell me what it brought to mind.  She immediately remembered the spice shop and its smells as well as the woody lacquer note.  How Ellen could have created fragrances that bring to mind the same distant memories for my mother and myself is amazing.  Such is the skill of a talented perfumer who can harness the mystery of fragrance.  
Prepared Piano
Ellen Covey’s Dev quartet are not easy fragrances with mass appeal like most commercial perfumes marketed today (witness Justin Bieber). The Dev series are conceptual explorations along the lines of a John Cage composition for the prepared piano.  Working with a difficult aromatic is analogous to rigging up an instrument so that the sounds produced are no longer familiar but new and evocative.  Once the ear grows accustomed to this new terrain, it’s hard to go back to the familiar, classically composed instrument.  Similarly, once the nose grows accustomed to unconventional scents, it’s hard to wear a classically composed fragrance the same way.  Conceptual explorations cause a shift to occur, a change of perspective, a door to open onto an unknown space.  
Marcel Duchamp "door"
Conceptual perfumery can hardly be considered a fragrance category (yet), let alone one intended for commercial success, there are so few perfumers who have gone out on that limb, but it is an exciting area of exploration that has the potential to push the boundaries of the medium.  Thanks to the online community, there also seems to be an interest in perfumes that buck convention.  Hopefully, the day will come when our collective perfume horizons will be expanded beyond the veil that stands between fragrance and art.
Elenore Abbott


Doc Elly said...

Maggie, What a beautiful write-up! Thank you so much for your long and thoughtful post. I was fascinated to read about the Teheran furniture-refinishing and spice market associations. I think you really "got" the Dev quartet!

Maggie Mahboubian said...

I really enjoyed experiencing the Dev Quartet and Lil, they were so well crafted and conceived. I know I only focused on one note (giant AV), but once I "got it" it I felt compelled to share how difficult it is to work with that oil and how beautifully you were able to compose the perfumes. I look forward to meeting you at the LA Salon!

Adeana @ Burberry London said...

Glad i found your article. Absolutely informative post. Keep it up.

Maggie Mahboubian said...

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Adeana.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful, and an excellent comparison to Cage. It's true, if you're bound by what will be commercially successful, one tends to the tried and true, which sometimes gets "tired."

Those who aren't bound by those corporate commercial standards, have a bit more freedom, to go further.

Good luck at the LA Salon ladies!


Maggie Mahboubian said...

I remember when I first heard a Cage piece and thought "what cacophony"! It wasn't until I had listened to his work over and over that I began to hear melodies, harmony and the logic of his composition. I even started to hear strains of traditional eastern music. Perfumery needs to have this level of exploration to push the boundaries of the art.

Thanks for your comment, Amanda AND your well wishes!