The perfume world is full of fascinating people. But Ellen Covey, owner of Olympic Orchids Artisan Perfumes and creator of Hamsa from the " Distinctively Niche" collection, just might take the cake. She became a global nomad at age 12. She's a polyglot, a tenured professor of neuroscience, a thespian, an orchid expert, and a perfumer. Her perfume line is full of unusual scents that feel like little revelations (" Why haven't I smelled this before?") and illustrate perfectly the idea that smelling a perfume can be an unforgettable experience. In short, she's the kind of person you'd want to meet for a cup of coffee, ask a hundred questions, and listen to for hours. But since you can't do that, here's the next best thing.
Q: The “where did you grow up” question usually has a straightforward answer. Yours is not remotely straightforward! Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up all over the place. My father had a business that was originally in Chicago. Then, because my mother wanted to be in a warmer climate, they moved to Virginia. We lived there until I was about 12 years old. Then they decided to move to Europe and just live in different places. I would characterize them as being professional eccentrics—eccentric expatriates who moved all around. So I have lived in Switzerland, France, Germany, and Italy, and I went to local schools in all of those places. I don't know what language I spoke by the time I got through with that.
Q: Did you retain those languages?
Oh, yes. I still speak those languages. French was the easiest language to learn. I learned that in about a month or two so that I could do my schoolwork and talk to people. German was very hard for me but I did manage to learn it. Actually, going from Swiss-French to French-French was interesting. Italian came really easily because it was just adding on another Latin-based language. More recently I worked in Spain with a research group, and Spanish came easily to me. I basically just spoke Italian and gradually it evolved into Spanish.
Q: You lived this vagabond lifestyle throughout your teenage years. Did you appreciate it back then?
I think I did, but I had certain ambivalent feelings about it because I was really sad every time we picked up and moved because I had friends. You know how teenagers are. But I appreciate that strange experience of being uprooted every year or two and moving to a different place. It makes one very resourceful.
Q: What was it like when you came back to the States?
The whole point of this long pilgrimage was to eventually get to Israel. But there was so much political unrest that my parents decided it probably wasn't a good place to go, so they decided to come back to the U.S. They wanted to live in New Orleans because they thought it would be a cool place to live, so we went to New Orleans. I got a job with the Italian consulate, and they sent me to Houston.
I went to the University of Houston and I went through the entire premed program, took my MCATs, applied to medical school, and got accepted at the University of Texas in an MD/PhD program that would have paid my whole way. But because I was a single mom at the time, I decided I didn't really want to deal with a program that was extremely demanding. I had been working in a neurobiology lab and I liked it, so I just stayed and did a masters degree in biology there.
Q: Everybody in the perfume world calls you “Doc Elly.” You have a doctorate?
I ended up getting into a PhD program at Duke University where I studied chemical senses for my dissertation, so I have a background in how the taste and olfactory systems work. Then I did a post-doc at Princeton studying the visual system, but I got interested in the physiology of the auditory system. And that's what I've been doing for more years than I like to think about.
Q: What aspect of the auditory system did you study?
Echolocation in bats. Bats are really amazing little creatures, and that was what got me interested in the auditory system.
Q: But you also run an orchid nursery. How did that happen?
When I was working at Duke Medical Center's Immunobiology Department, there was an older faculty member who grew orchids in his office. When he left, everybody divided up the orchids. I got three or four plants. I thought I could not grow plants because every houseplant I'd ever had had died. I put those orchids in my office and didn't do anything to them, and about six months later they all bloomed. A colleague took me to an orchid show and I saw all of the huge diversity in orchid plants. I smelled all of the fragrances and I was blown away.
I took some home, and one lost its tag. So I posted a picture on an orchid forum and said, “does anybody know what this is?” Somebody wrote back and said, “I'd like to buy it.” That was the start of my orchid business.
Q: And then the perfume business sprouted from the orchids?
I smelled the fragrances of the orchids as each one bloomed and thought, “wouldn't this make a great perfume?” I had always dabbled in essential oils, and in the course of smelling all of these things, I actually learned a lot. I tried doing an all-natural orchid scent, and it didn't work. Then I started learning about aroma chemicals and how to formulate accords from scratch, and I came up with the first series of orchid scents. From the orchid scents, I got into other things. I've just been adding things to my line.
Q: Does understanding chemistry help you in your perfumery?
I think everything I do informs what I do in the perfume world. But knowing chemistry doesn't help that much in terms of composing a perfume. Do you have to know optics to be a good artist? Or do you have to know physics of sound to be a good musician? No. But it does give you a different perspective.
Q: What perspective?
For example, knowing that no two people are going to smell anything the same way. And it's okay. There is no right way to smell anything. Everything that we smell is many, many different molecules unless it's a single aroma chemical, which nobody ever smells, really. Because different people have different experiences, they're going to interpret spatiotemporal patterns of activity in the olfactory system differently, if that makes sense. For example, a given fragrance may be interpreted by one person as leather, by another person as violet, and by another as iris. It’s kind of like looking at an ambiguous drawing that can be interpreted in different ways, but even more so.
Q: Many of your perfumes are so directly tied to your travels. Is that just a natural place for you to go for inspiration?
I think it is. Places are one of those things that people strongly associate with odors. You recognize your own house. One of my earliest memories is when we were moving from one house to another and I was standing in the window smelling the windowsills, thinking, “I love the smell of this house. I don't want to leave this house because it's got its special smell.” We get really attached to the smells of places.
Q: So in your creative process, you start with a place. What happens next?
I have some kind of concept, idea, even a story that I want to embody with a perfume, and I work from that. Generally I'll have an idea of what components or materials I'm going to use in the perfume before I even start, but the concept dictates the materials, not vice versa. I'll work it all out in my head and I can sort of smell things in my head. It will also take an abstract shape that I want to aim for. Once I've achieved something that evokes that visual, tactile shape, then I know I've got it.
Q: Sounds like a synesthesia.
Sort of. I don’t think of it that way, but I guess you could call it that. I always think of odors as having a color, texture, and shape.
Q: Hamsa is probably a very good example of starting a perfume with a story. Can you tell us the story?
Hamsa, the fragrance, was created for CaFleureBon's Project Talisman, a multi-perfumer collaboration to celebrate CaFleureBon's 7th anniversary and the spirit of American Perfumers. Read more about the project HERE. Outside of fragrance, t he hamsa, a stylized hand-shaped symbol with obscure origins in the Middle East, serves as a sign of protection for the beholder. It serves as a sign of protection in both Islam and Judaism, and often has an eye positioned in the center of the palm to deflect the evil eye. The Hamsa, with its four right and left fingers, can be conceived of as a depiction of four virtual qualities and the related actual qualities. The center finger symbolizes the origin and the realization of everything.
The first overarching idea, is symbolized as an invisible veil of olibanum smoke and the tenth, the unification and channel for worldly manifestation, as a solid block of sandalwood. The four pairs of contrasting properties are symbolized by contrasting pairs of materials. The first is palo santo and cognac, an ethereal woody incense paired with ceremonial wine to symbolize the celebration of spiritual ideas; the second is mastic paired with liquidambar, bitter incense and honey-sweetness to symbolize strength and justice tempered with love and kindness; the third is myrrh paired with citron, earthy incense and an aromatic fruit of the earth to celebrate inspiration and the resulting human creations of beauty and utility; the fourth pair is oud and apricot, a resinous material produced by agarwood trees to protect them, paired with a fleshy, sweet fruit to stand for resistance to physical and emotional attack and the fruits of physical and intellectual bonding. The end result is a combination of the hard and the soft, the bitter and the sweet, tangible and the intangible.
Q: What’s next for you?
That’s a good question. I’m not the sort of person who goes through life with a well-formulated plan. I prefer to let things evolve on their own, leaving me free to recognize and take advantage of whatever opportunities come along. What I can tell you is that right now I’m working to get the new packaging fully in place, the getting new website up and running, and doing some streamlining of my current line to make way for a few new releases over the next year. This all probably sounds very mundane, but it’s something that has to be done to facilitate more creative work. I hope there will be some surprises for the perfume community along the way.
Photo credit: Olympic Orchids
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