March 12, 2022

Olympic Orchids

Meet the Perfumer | Ellen Covey

March is Women’s History Month, a month where we celebrate the vital role of women in American history. The 21 st of March is also National Fragrance Day, a day where we celebrate all things fragrant. Blending these two together, it was kismet to curate a collection of all female perfumers that fearlessly charged into the often-secretive society of perfumery and made their mark. A gloriously fragrant mark that is!  

For the 2022 March Collection, Gold Rush, we honor women in perfumery. Always inspiring, each one of these ladies rock the indie perfume world and it is our absolute honor to showcase them.

They’re gold. You’re gold.

Let's meet  Dr. Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids and enjoy the gold rush. 

Perfumer: Dr. Ellen Covey

Dr. Ellen Covey

House: Olympic Orchids

Olympic Orchids

Fragrance Selected for the March 2022 Box:  Woodcut

Woodcut by Olympic Orchids

Q: Who is the most influential woman in your life, past or present?

This sort of question, like “what is your favorite ..x…” is impossible to answer. Influences come from all sorts of places and, as far as I’m concerned, they are interactive, with no one influence dominant.

Q: What do you think helped you the most to make a career as a woman? What’s the biggest factor that has helped you be successful?

I was a scientist for many years before I was a perfumer, and academics is still my primary career if you look at the cumulative record. I think that never thinking of myself as some sort of “minority” or disadvantaged person, made it easy to succeed. Early on, I was sometimes the only woman invited to a conference, but it never occurred to me to think of that as unusual. I thought of it as a reward for doing good work, and I just did what I needed to do.

Q: Did you always want to be a perfumer? If not, what did you want to be growing up and how did the transition to become a perfumer come about?

I never thought about being a perfumer until it happened. As a kid, I wanted to be a gymnast, a pole vaulter, or a trapeze artist in a circus. Becoming a neuroscientist happened fairly randomly, as did becoming a perfumer. The short story about perfumery is that I inherited a few cattleya orchid plants from a colleague when I worked at Duke.

cattleya orchids

They were the only houseplants I didn’t kill, so I started growing them as a hobby that morphed into a nursery business. Many orchids are fragrant, so I started tinkering around with essential oils and, later, aroma chemicals, to try to recreate orchid fragrances. I sold those products at orchid shows and, later online. It just kind of naturally snowballed into what it is now.

Q: When you did become a perfumer, were you self-taught or formally trained? Please expand on how that evolved, what was great about it, what was not great or things you wish were different.

I am entirely self-taught, although I have done considerable reading about perfumery. My  background in chemistry and running a lab helped with setting up a perfumery studio because a lot of the same equipment and techniques are used.

I am really glad that I had the know-how and resources to experiment and develop my own style and way of working. I had a big advantage because the income from the nursery business could be used to bootstrap the perfume business.

Q: How have others embraced or judged your profession as a perfumer?

Everyone in my family just kind of shakes their head and says, “another one of Ellen’s projects gone commercial.” I think I have a lot of happy customers who have embraced my brand, and it makes me happy that I can bring pleasure to other people. I don’t know how other perfumers regard me, but it isn't important. I do love interacting with perfume colleagues, though, and wish some in-person events would come back soon.

Q: Perfumers that have their own brands like you do, many times have to wear many hats. Is this the case for you? And if so, what hats do you wear the most? Which ones do you love, hate?

Because I still wear multiple hats in addition to those of perfumer, I am always doing a juggling act, multi-tasking, compartmentalizing, and trying to judge which objects have to stay up in the air and which ones can be dropped. Regarding perfumery, I love puttering around in the lab, creating new fragrances. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time currently to do that. I’m hoping to work on a new idea during spring break.

I don’t mind doing the busy work of making concentrates, diluting, filtering, and bottling, but I now have an employee who does the filtering and bottling as well as making samples and custom discovery sets. It is wonderful to be able to delegate those routine tasks and focus on the tasks that are the best use of my time. What I really hate is anything that smacks of bureaucracy – preparing tax materials, filing reports, etc. I do all that myself because I can do it efficiently, but it’s always a struggle to make myself do it. I also hate dealing with keeping the websites up and running and all geek-ish work.

Q: What advice or words of wisdom would you give a young woman who wanted  to be a perfumer or start her own perfume company?

My first words to anyone with these ambitions would be, “don’t quit your day job”. Starting a viable perfumery business requires a considerable financial investment, and there’s no guarantee that it will be profitable. The world is full of perfumer wannabes, and the market is flooded with products, most of which are very similar. I was probably lucky to come on the scene more than a decade ago when there were not quite as many brands as there are now.

Q: We chose Woodcut for this month’s collection. Can you tell us more about this fragrance? The inspiration, the key notes, how it makes you feel when you wear it, why customer’s love it, etc.)

I was out running in my neighborhood one summer day when I passed a construction site where all of the trees had just been cut down and bulldozed. The smell of the “tree-blood” was overwhelming, with notes of fresh evergreen and hardwood sap along with the caramelized sugar and burnt wood scent created by the chain saws. I came home determined to re-create that scent.

I consider Woodcut a memorial to all of the trees that are needlessly cut down all over the world to make way for ugly and destructive human activity, destroying ecosystems and ultimately threating the well-being, if not the existence, of the humans who fail to respect the environment. When I “wear” Woodcut, usually after working with it, I think about these things but, paradoxically, love the smell. I don’t know why customers love it – probably for a whole variety of reasons as unique of each person.

Q: What in your life has brought or given you the greatest satisfaction or fulfillment? Looking back, what would you have done differently? What would  you do again?

Another unanswerable question. I suppose my greatest satisfaction comes from the fact that I have done things the way I wanted to and not tried to conform to anyone’s expectations. Most of the decisions in my life have been serendipitous, going with the flow, and taking opportunities as they come. I’m not sure I would have done much differently because I’m happy with my life as it is. I think a lot of unhappiness comes from having strong expectations that are not fulfilled.

Q: What do you do for fun these days?

I’m one of those lucky people whose work is fun, so I’m usually working. I enjoy teaching, growing certain types of plants, and perfume making. My newest agricultural project is growing carnivorous plants. I enjoy doing lapidary work and silversmithing. I like running outside on the roads, and I have some writing projects underway. For many years I ran a community theatre group, and once covid is over would like to get back to playwriting, acting, and directing. It remains to be seen how much of this I  can fit in, but activities cycle in and out, so everything ultimately has its time and place.

Want to smell Woodcut? We featured it in our  March 2022 Collection | Gold Rush.  Subscribe by March 15th to get this collection in your mailbox!  Subscribe HERE!

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Photo Credits: Olympic Orchids, Hans Reniers, Alexandre Jaquet. 

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