Ballets Rouges by Olympic Orchids (Ellen Covey)
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on aldehydics that touched on retro perfumes in the niche/indie world.
And, if you write about it, you will find it. True, isn’t it?
Specifically, I discovered Dr. Ellen Covey’s Olympic Orchids “Ballets Rouges”, which leaves me breathless. Doc Elly, as she’s known in the blogosphere, is a perfumista and Nerd Girl Extraordinaire. She leaves me in the dust when it comes to her knowledge of botany, she grows and sells rare orchids, and now, she’s making some knockout perfumes.
My favorite flower is jasmine, in that pretty much any decent jasmine perfume will get my vote. I’m much fussier about roses. I wear a few of the Rosines, I love Rossy de Palma’s Eau de Protection, and Amouage Lyric is a great love. Malle’s Une Rose is wonderful, as well, but it tends to wear me, instead of the other way around. Doesn’t stop me from wearing it, though.
So I tried Ballets Rouges with some skepticism, figuring it would end up in my Meh Basket, as nearly all roses do. Not so. This one astounded me. An old-fashioned rose chypre’ with real oakmoss, and a cast of characters that left nothing out, and nothing extra. It’s a perfume of perfect balance and grace. I’m not going to bother with the notes because the overall effect is so seamless, a note list is not necessary. Sniffing is.
It can be hard for niche brands and indies to “edit”- that is, to find the right way to test a mod without going for the generic “focus group” that can gut an original composition. I wondered how Doc Elly worked with the formula for Ballets Rouges, seeing as it is truly a finished perfume with exquisite timbre and balance. Here’s what she wrote:
M: There are a number of "classic rose chypres" that have debuted with niche brands in the past few years. What I've noticed with some is that they could have used an editor; a few have "thrown in everything but the kitchen sink", others have struck me as mere sketches. With Ballets Rouges, it seems that nothing essential has been left out, and nothing extraneous left in. How did the formula evolve?
DE: The formula evolved starting with the classic building blocks of a chypre’ – bergamot, aldehydes, a floral heart, patchouli, oakmoss, and musk. The top and base are fairly stereotyped, but the floral notes can go anywhere. I chose to use rose as the centerpiece partly because it’s a classic perfumery note, and partly because I had recently formulated a rose accord that I really liked. I used ylang-ylang because it’s present in so many classic chypres, and seems to fit well.
I first assembled these basic building blocks, formulating top, middle, and base separately. Once I put them together and let them meld, I added small amounts of other notes to “finish” the fragrance.
In every art and craft there’s always a thin line between over-simplicity and over-decoration, and it’s one I struggle with every time I make a perfume. As in visual art, there needs to be just enough complexity, asymmetry and novelty to be pleasing and interesting, but if taken too far, it just gets ugly and messy.
M: How long were you working on it?
DE: It took about a year from beginning of formulation to end of testing. I work slowly, partly because I have to deal with other activities in my life, and partly because I like to thoroughly evaluate at every step before moving on. I also need time to think about where to go with the fragrance, so even if I’m not actively formulating, I’m subconsciously doing so.
M: Do you have an editor, or beta testers?
DE: I am my own editor. I do have about a dozen beta testers to whom I send my fragrances for their reactions and opinions. I love my beta testers!
M: What's your process in terms of composing?
DE: I generally start with a well-formed idea of the fragrance before I begin actually formulating, both in terms of the idea I want to represent, the general “color, shape, and texture” of the scent itself, and the materials and proportions that will best realize the concept. I usually start with the base, since to me that’s the most important part of the perfume. It’s what will be smelled after everything else is going, going, or gone, so it should be as novel and pleasant as the rest of the fragrance. Once I’m reasonably satisfied with the top, middle, and base, I combine them by layering on my skin to see how they smell together, and tweak each component in whatever way seems appropriate to make them meld better, repeating this process multiple times. Then I actually combine the parts, and see what happens.
M: What inspired you to make a classic rose chypre’? Any particular perfumes?
DE: Although I love most vintage chypre’s, I don’t think it was any particular perfume that inspired me to make a classic chypre’. Instead, it started more as a learning exercise in creating my own variation on a tried and true classic formula. You could think of it as the equivalent of a jazz musician learning a “standard” chart and then improvising on it, in the process discovering why this particular basic melody and chord progression work so well, and how the same skeleton can be fleshed out in multiple, innovative ways. I sent my testers four very different experimental fragrances, one of which was Ballets Rouges, and it turned out that they liked it so much that it was “voted in” to be an official release.
M: What led you to use real oak moss?
DE: I used real oak moss because I don’t think the synthetic “oak moss” that’s available smells right. Patchouli and musk alone aren’t going to create a classic chypre’. The whole brouhaha about oakmoss is almost irrelevant given the availability of IFRA-compliant, low-atranol oakmoss, which smells like any other oakmoss, but is mostly free of the putative allergens of concern. This is what I use in production.
So there you have it, the backstory of the best rose perfume I’ve smelled in at least several years. And the best news is that Doc Elly does not believe in “aspirational pricing”. An ounce of the EdP is $40 through her website. You can find it here, or, you can try all of Olympic Orchids perfumes in a very reasonable sample set, which is also a lot of fun, and the probable subject of a future article.
Now, the question of the day—What do you expect in a rose perfume, or a chypre’ and have you found it lately??
(Disclosure: I’ve been reading Doc Elly’s fascinating blog for some time , and purchased her sample set.)
Doc Elly’s botanical blog.