Scents & sensory stimulation, with Dr. Ellen Covey of Olympic Orchids

There's no disputing that Dr. Ellen Covey is a fascinating figure in fragrance. A scientist, researcher, professor, perfumer and orchid farmer — her many practices focus on the mammalian senses, making her approach to perfumery both visceral and highly studied. We had too many questions for Ellen for a single conversation, so honed in on a handful we think you'll enjoy.

Q. Considering you’re a perfumer and also a professor/researcher at the University of Washington focused on how mammals analyze complex patterns of sound, have you always been obsessed with understanding how our senses work?

A. I would say that my approach to sensory processing started out as more philosophical and cognitive than mechanistic, and it probably remains so even after working on the mechanistic side. Even as a small child I wondered how we form a sense of what “reality” is. What would I, as a child, learn if there were no human constructs to influence what I experience and interpret, and what kind of scheme would result? 

Q. How has your research about the senses influenced you as a perfumer?

A. Probably the most useful take-away from studying sensory systems is the knowledge that there is a huge amount of variation in how sensory stimuli are perceived, and this variation is especially large in the chemical senses. If someone doesn’t like what I create, I can just shrug my shoulders, chalk it up to a different set of olfactory receptors and prior experience, and go on my way without taking it personally. 

Q. As if your professional life wasn’t interesting enough, you also own an orchid farm outside of Seattle. How did this come about?

A. I started out with a few Cattleya orchids that I inherited from a colleague at Duke University, and discovered that they were the only plants other than cacti and succulents that thrived on my regime of neglect and didn’t die in my care. I started collecting orchids, and eventually started dealing to support my habit. Last month was the 14th anniversary of the commercial growing operation. 

Q. When did you become interested in creating perfume, and why?

A. I’ve always been interested in perfume as an experience, although I find wearing mass-market perfume difficult because it is usually too strong or otherwise off-putting. However, I have always liked to sniff any sort of perfume from the bottle. I didn’t think about creating perfume myself until I started growing orchids and became fascinated by the immense variety of orchid fragrances. A few years into the orchid business adventure, I started tinkering with various oils and other materials, trying to recreate something similar to the fragrances of the orchid flowers. Florals are not my favorite perfume genre, so I’ve mostly moved away into other directions. 

Q. Much of your work seems to be inspired by the forests and natural environment of the Pacific Northwest. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

A. The Pacific Northwest is where I live now, and forests, beaches, mountains, and other natural features are all around. We live on an acre of land, a lot of which is wooded, so I experience that every day. Right now I’m loving watching the hummingbirds that come to our flowers and feeder. 

Q. Olympic Orchids fragrances are known to be very strong and long-lasting. Care to share any insights into how you achieve this? 

A. There are no secrets that I know of. I just use quality materials, including a good percentage of ones that would be considered base notes. As I formulate, I repeatedly test on myself to make sure that the fragrance has good longevity. Also, the fragrances are fairly high concentration. 

Q. Which perfumery materials do you absolutely love to use? Are there materials you despise?

A. I tend to have a love-hate relationship with a lot of materials. Some smell wonderful but are a pain to use. Others are easy to use, but tend to smell too conventional or mass-market, or just not very good. For example, I use fir balsam absolute in Blackbird. It is horrible to work with because it’s sticky and almost solid at room temperature, but I love the smell. As you might guess, I really like to use resins and incense-type materials. Labdanum, olibanum, sandalwood – these are staples. What I despise is when a material I use in a formula becomes unavailable. This happens more often that you might think. 

Q. What inspires you as a perfumer, or simply as a human?

A. As a perfumer, I can be inspired by just about anything I smell or otherwise experience in daily life. This explains the nature-inspired or city-inspired fragrances. It could also be a poem, a song or musical composition, something I read, or just random thoughts. As a human, right now I’m negatively inspired (if that’s a form of inspiration) by the state of the US and the state of the world in general. I read the news obsessively, and most of it is depressing, if not frightening. As a human, I’m positively inspired whenever I see evidence that people are thinking critically, showing respect for everyone, and trying to make the world a better place in whatever way they can. I’m a cynic, but an optimist, if that makes sense. 

Q. What can we expect next from Olympic Orchids? 

A. That’s a good question. Right now, I’m just scrambling to keep up with orders, with no help, thanks to COVID. I may come up with some fragrance that’s a commentary on the dystopian state of the world. I’ve also been loving coffee flower absolute, so may try to do something with that. There might be fragrances on the dark side and the bright side.