"Like Joni Mitchellís alternate guitar tunings" - An interview with Dr Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids

17th April, 2014

Dr. Ellen Covey is the proprietor of Olympic Orchids, an indie perfumery based in North Seattle, Washington. She is also a research scientist, a professor at the University of Washington, and runs a successful orchid business.

Editors Note: This interview was conducted late last year

* * *

Youíve done a lot in your life. How did you end up in perfumery?

I grew up all over the world, having spent most of my teenage years in Europe. When I moved to the US, I decided to go to medical school, but I decided not to do it for other reasons that I donít need to go into here. I became a graduate student in the neurobiology lab where I did my senior thesis, did my PhD studying chemical senses, and was on the faculty at Duke for a number of years. In 1996 I came to The University of Washington, where Iím currently a faculty member.

I originally got into orchids because one of my older colleagues at Duke collected orchids. When he left, everyone in the building divided up his plants, and I got four. I typically cannot grow house plants, but these orchids not only grew, they bloomed, and I came to appreciate orchids for their beauty, hardiness, and diversity. When I moved out here, I started selling a few orchids and to deal and support my habit. That that grew into a nursery business! Over the past 7 years itís become established, and I have my regular customers and new ones all the time. I enjoy going to orchid shows and selling stuff there. In parallel with the orchids, I had been tinkering with perfumes and essential oils for many years. I always thought it would be nice to have a perfume that smells like a specific orchid, so I started mixing essential oils together. That didnít work very well, so I did my research, found out about aromachemicals, how to make accords that smell like various things, and how to get information like GC analyses of orchid flowers.

Are those available, or did you have to order them?

No, those are available on the internet. Thatís the beauty of living in the 21st century - everythingís available online! I took my first few perfumes and soaps to orchid shows, sold them there, and soon put up a website and sold a few things. I donít know how, but people found the website, ordered perfumes, and then started writing reviews online. One thing led to another, and I got some really good reviews on some of the larger blogs, which brought in more customers. The more products people buy, the more materials I can buy, so right now my profits are all going back into the business. I quickly found that itís much cheaper if you buy by the kilo!

Where do you get most of your supplies from?

I buy rom a lot of suppliers, including Vigon, Liberty Naturals, Eden Botanicals, White Lotus, Robertet, and other suppliers. The same material from different places smells different, so I find the one I like best or the best for a particular purpose, and stick with that supplier.

How has your life experience influenced your art?

My life experience is probably so varied that it causes me to want to make a lot of dramatically different things. I have a pretty broad range, but I like to get outside that range and experiment. I think that probably comes from living in a lot of different countries when I was growing up and having to adapt to different circumstances. When I was a graduate student, I went into labs where I was left on my own. I had to learn to be resourceful and figure out ways to do things by myself. I think thatís really helped me out in perfumery, because I know whatever I need to do, I can figure out how to do it. I donít set myself any limits. I really do not go by anyone elseís formulae. I may use one as a reference and a starting point. For example, when I needed to make a rose accord, I gathered up all the rose accords I could find, found the common elements in all of them, and made my own rose. Thatís what you smell in Ballets Rouges. Thatís not a natural rose - thatís an accord. Thereís only a tiny amount of real rose in there. Thereís a little bit, because it gives the rose more depth, but itís largely my interpretation of rose. Itís different from everybody elseís.

Perfumery has seen a revival in recent years, especially in the number of indie labels that have been popping up. Many people argue that the market is saturated. What is your unique offering in this recently crowded market?

I go places that other people donít go. I donít use anyone elseís formulas; I use my own starting from scratch. Itís like Joni Mitchellís alternate guitar tunings. Iím not using the normal 3 or 5 chord progressions - Iím using something else. It makes everything else flow along with it in a way that isnít mainstream. I think I have a real blue-collar, unpretentious approach to perfumery. I can compose as many J Peterman stories as I like about all of the exotic places I went and all of the ways youíll feel when you wear a fragrance, but I like the perfume to speak for itself! I figure the market is like the jungle. All of nature throws its offerings out there, and by perfume Darwinism, some of it survives and some of it doesnít.

I throw my stuff out there and I see what happens. If it doesnít work out, it doesnít bother me, because Iíve always got more ideas. Itís the attitude you have to have if youíre in business selling a product thatís evaluated on a totally subjective basis. Some people are going to like it, some arenít. If everyone liked it, I donít think that would be good. I like to have perfumes that some people love and other people hate. Kyphi, my interpretation of the ancient Egyptian incense, is one of those.

Tropic of Capricorn is another. Iíve read some reviews that say it smells like horse shit. Iím wondering; are they smelling the same perfume?

There are some people writing these reviews that think anything that doesnít smell like mass market celebrity perfume smells like horse shit. You know, horse shit actually doesnít smell that bad! They say that about Sonnet XVII, too. Anything that has a lot of naturals in it, theyíll say it smells like horse shit.

Sonnet XVII is one of my favorites! I love the play between osmanthus, ambergris, and leather. It smells elegant but totally arcane, too.

Itís one of my favorites, too. All the ones that everyone says smell like horse shit are the good ones!

You have to know your market. There are fragrances that you sell that appeal to a different crowd, too. Golden Cattleya appeals to people who are used to high-end department store fragrances, like the Guerlains or Givenchy.

I havenít heard anyone say they donít like that one. Another one that appeals to that crowd is Osafume, a woody violet, heliotrope, and anise perfume.

What would you say is your signature as a perfumer?

Horse shit! Not really, haha! I think my signature is strong perfume with vintage quality but using a lot of modern materials so it doesnít smell too vintage. And a really broad range. No two perfumes of mine are going to smell similar.

All of your perfumes smell like they are from different perfumers, which is one of the things I like the most about your brand.

Thatís the point! Itís always a totally new experience. You never know what youíre going to get from me.

What are some of your biggest influences in perfumery?

Middle Eastern fragrances, old-school vintage fragrances, and nature itself. Actually, I like a lot of the vintage Patou and Guerlain fragrances. I have a big vintage collection. I donít wear them, though. I love them from an intellectual point of view, but the funny thing is, as a perfumer, I donít really wear perfume. I study perfume and keep it to enjoy in a meditative sort of way as opposed to wearing it like a lot of people do. To me, itís like an art collection or a music collection.

I totally understand that! A good perfume does unfold much like a symphonic piece over the course of hours. I do this, too, especially with some fragrances that I wouldnít really want to wear for a whole day. What are some of your favorite fragrance?

I donít really have a favorite fragrance, because different days Iíll say different things! Real , natural oud is one of my all-time favorite fragrances. Different fragrances are good for different purposes, too. Sel de Vetiver is one of the stand-by fragrances in my wardrobe. I love vintage Samsara. That was the first mainstream perfume I ever bought. I had smelled it on the street when it first came out, and I had to have it! I followed my nose into a German department store and bought it right there.

Tell me about your studio set up and your employees.

Iím the perfumer, the one who fills a hundred sample vials at a time, puts little labels on them, puts them in little baggies, the one who makes all the graphics for all the labels, prints the labels, puts the labels on the bottles, puts the juice in the bottles, puts the bottles in the boxes, and writes blurbs to send out to people when I have time.

Wow, you really do everything by yourself?

The only thing I donít do now is go to the post office! I still wrap the packages, though. I do it all! I do have one part-time person who helps me take care of the orchids, which frees up time to do more perfume stuff. My husband, Michael, has been a huge help at shows. Heís good at pushing my perfumes! Itís sort of a mom and pop business when it comes to the public. He enjoys it a lot and has become fairly knowledgeable about the fragrances.

Tell me about your re-branding. Your brand has come a long way since its beginnings in creating wearable scents inspired by rare orchids.

I agree that my brand has come a long way in the past three years, from nothing but an idea to being a player on the indie scene. Whether an update was ďneededĒ is debatable, but itís just human nature to constantly reinvent ourselves. I have a strong customer base, mostly consisting of people who appreciate craftsmanship and quality, who like beautiful and offbeat things, and who donít care that much about glitzy advertising and packaging. However, lately Iíve been getting feedback from various sources about needing to appeal to a new group of people, especially retailers, who value a slick, stylish look, a more mainstream appearance, and a price point that reassures the buyer that the product is ďqualityĒ and provides enough of a profit margin above wholesale to be worth their while. I have to price it high enough for wholesale so I can get my money plus a little bit, and they have to make their profit. This is the struggle I go through all the time; where do I find the line between going too much in the simple, affordable, artisan direction and too much in the fancy, bourgeois, overpriced direction. Iím thinking of the new line as being more of an add-on than a change. The upscale packaging and marketing will just bring in a different demographic, especially the people who say, ďwell, they were so cheap, I didnít think they could be any good.Ē My current fanbase is my highest priority, so whatever I do will be with current customers in mind. I donít want to lose the fan base that appreciates the fact that I make good stuff thatís affordable.

I think that your fragrances are beyond affordable. An entire collection of your fragrances is affordable!

Thatís what I like; for people to be able to afford an entire collection! Iíll always offer the 5ml sprays and the 15ml bottles. I want small bottles myself. I would never buy a big bottle of anything, simply because I would never be able to use it all! I intend to eventually upgrade the packaging on the 15 ml sizes and the 30 ml EdP sprays to make them uniform in appearance and more functional, related to the ďdesignedĒ packaging and branding, but there will always be a ďfringeĒ set of products that may not be right for retail stores or more traditional consumers. In the future, I hope that the aesthetic of the brand will be more uniform. The design will be simpler, more contemporary, and professional looking. I like the clean white on black print using a unique font. The super-stylized red orchid flower graphic brightens the visual impression without getting in the way. If there is a message, it is that Olympic Orchids Perfumes are established as a brand, and are here to stay.

What were your biggest considerations when working on the re-branding? With whom did you work on the new brand aesthetic?

One of the main things I considered in the re-branding was my own set of aesthetic preferences. I tend to like things that are simple, not quite minimalistic, but at least clean-looking and streamlined. I like black and primary colors. I canít stand kitschy-looking designs and pastel colors. Iím not a fan of the ďsoft pornĒ look in perfume advertising. I wanted a simple, somewhat classic design that people can project their own thoughts and feelings onto Ė something recognizable, but not in-your-face. I had input from a number of sources, both professional and amateur, but ended up going with a design by a person who works with Nicole Miller, the owner of Blackbird. Itís interesting to see what different people suggest, but in the end I had to go with my own gut, for better or worse.

Whatís next? Can you tell us a little bit about your current projects?

I have several new fragrances in the works. The one that has been hanging over my head for a long time is Alyssum, a perfume with a smoky cedar base and heart/top notes of sweet alyssum flowers. The floral part of the fragrance has been finished (or nearly finished) for over two years. Itís a light, sweet, pollen-y, honeyed scent. I never was satisfied with the base, but have recently acquired several new synthetic materials that should work nicely with the naturals to create the incense-y smell of cedar and juniper wood burning on a cold night. I plan to launch Alyssum early next year, probably at the San Francisco Fragrance Salon in March.

I am also working on a new orchid scent based on the fragrance of Encyclia radiata, the ďcockleshell orchidĒ. It has a strange, haunting fragrance thatís floral spiced with cinnamon and animalic notes, closer to civet than anything else. The flower scent reminds me of Guerlainís Dawamesk, but itís going to be an impression of the flower, not the perfume. Iím going to call it Conchita. It will be launched next year.

The most unusual new fragrance in the works was originally made as a special-purpose scent for an exhibit, but I plan to adjust it so that it works as a perfume. Iím not going to reveal too much about it right now except to say that it is meant to represent a song about a place in Seattle and contains some unexpected notes.

I canít wait to see these finished. Anything else you would like to say to the Basenotes readers?

At the risk of saying what everyone else says, I would like to thank each person who has bought my perfumes, written about them, and generally supported my journey as a perfumer. As my line develops and matures, I hope that you will continue to try all of the new releases. If you have not tried my perfumes, samples of everything are available on my website.

Browse Ellenís entire collection at orchidscents.com, and check out Ellenís amazing blog, which covers everything from what she does as a perfumer to life in general at perfumenw.blogspot.com!

  • Share this

About the author: Jesse Hardy

When I'm not sniffing perfume, I'm a student, musician, and cuisinier. I'm particularly passionate about vintage, rare, and bizarre fragrances. You can reach me any time on basenotes (username: lovingthealien) or at beatingahorsetodeath-at-gmail-dot-com

Advertisement — comments are below


    • lovingthealien (article author) | 17th April 2014 19:54

      Conducting this interview, we were treated like family by Ellen and her husband. It was a fantastic experience.

    • Doc Elly | 18th April 2014 00:49

      Jesse, thank you so much for this excellent interview! It was a real treat getting to meet you and Kristy when you were in Seattle. It's interesting to note that the fragrances I said I was going to make when you interviewed me are not the new ones that I'll be releasing next month. Things do change!

    • davido22 | 18th April 2014 03:03

      Ellen is da bomb....a mad bomber of high art via crazy chemistry. Great to hear the voice behind the fragrances.

    • Digindirt | 18th April 2014 05:44

      Very informative. I look forward to the new releases.

      Excellent work on the article and Congratulations on your success Ellen!

    • deadidol | 18th April 2014 07:18

      A fascinating read! Tropic of Capricorn's a wild one, for sure. Thanks so much for the interview, Jesse; it's great to see you on here!

    • lovingthealien (article author) | 18th April 2014 07:25

      Thanks! I really love Tropic of Capricorn. It reminds me so much of the old Patou fragrances that Ellen loves so much. It's just amazing and alien to smell genuine animalic bases and genuine floral absolutes in a fragrance; why not play up what makes that fragrance so special? It's just stunning, and I actually love to wear the stuff. For an all-natural fragrance, she really made sure that she left every "essential oil blend" box unchecked, and it really came out absolutely stunning. There is much to be said about the sillage and longevity of this all-natural fragrance as well!

    • scenteur7 | 18th April 2014 14:17

      Thanks so much for this insightful and inspiring interview! There is so much here to nourish a young perfumer! Looking forward to trying some of Dr. Covey's fragrances.

    • rickbr | 18th April 2014 15:10

      This was a very nice article Elly, but you got me curious, how do you get time to teach, nurse orchids and being a perfumer too?

    • rickbr | 18th April 2014 15:11

      Tropic of Capricorn is a little bit scary at first, it smells animalic indeed (but not horse shit). I hate it at first, then i let it drydown and found it beautiful on skin.

      So far, my favorite from you is the California Chocolate. So yummy! I suspect this one might sell well

    • drummagick | 19th April 2014 22:20

      Great interview!! And an amazing line of perfumes! Sonnet XVII is my favorite, but I get cow shit, not horse shit. ;)

    • wprotz | 21st April 2014 21:30

      Great interview!! I bought the the Masculine Side Discovery Set and have tested all. Congratulations. Like a lot Arizona, DEV #1 and #4. I will enjoy to try Alyssum.

    • Doc Elly | 22nd April 2014 19:02

      Rickbr, the answer to your question is that I prioritize and compartmentalize. I work exclusively on one type of thing for a little while and then switch to something else. In the end, some things just have to go. One activity that I've had to eliminate is going on the blogs and fora every day to read and participate. As you probably know, that can be a huge time sink. In any case, it's always a juggling act.

    • cytherian | 26th April 2014 22:47

      Great article, Jesse! Very thoughtful questions that have brought forth a lot of interesting information regarding Dr. Covey and her brand. I hope you get opportunities to do more of these in the future. :thumbsup:

      Elly, I bought two of your fragrances earlier this year and I've been thoroughly enjoying them. I really appreciate your down to Earth approach to perfumery, while also being daring enough to venture into unusual territory. Salamanca is by far the most complicated, sophisticated and provoking fragrance in my collection, something that clearly stands out from the rest. It's not easy to wear, but when I have it on I always enjoy it.

      While I certainly do wish you success, one of the key attractive qualities to Olympic Orchids is your personal hand in everything you do and accessibility for your customer base. "Iím thinking of the new line as being more of an add-on than a change" -- if you can orchestrate that kind of business model, with one line catering to more mainstream retail and one providing a more personal touch as you currently have, that would be wonderful. :beer:

      Looking forward to your next releases! :coolold: