DARKLY DREAMING: BLACK PHOENIX ALCHEMY LAB.
Part enthusiast’s memoir and part course guide.
As some people may remember where they were when a pivotal, life-changing occasion occurred, perhaps when a world leader was assassinated or something momentous happened in outerspace (I am editing these instances to keep it vague, I realize my original words make me sound super old. Because I guess I am super old.). I too remember a rather life altering/defining moment during my tenure here on earth. And while I suppose I cannot compare it to the death of a president or journeys to distant worlds, it was a juncture and discovery that would change so many things for me, and open so many doors.
In late 2003, early 2004, I was struggling with anxiety, depression and an eating disorder, exacerbated by, or quite possibly directly caused by an abusive, toxic relationship. I often sought refuge online; I loved selling things on eBay, I frequented LiveJournal (didn’t we all?) and I somehow fell into the rabbit hole of reviews on makeupalley.com.
I am not certain how it started. I may have been looking for cheap but popular drugstore finds, and in doing so, I became absolutely enthralled by the fragrance reviews archived on the site. Until that point in time I distinctly recall I had been exclusively wearing Hypnotic Poison, by Christian Dior. I am not certain if I actually liked that sweet, powdery scent, or if I wore it because my (married, nogoodnik) lover preferred it, but at that time it was the only perfume on my shelf. In reading these lush, evocative scent descriptions on makeupalley I was reminded of my fascination with fragrance from when I was much younger, and how I would spend hours playing with my mother’s small, but potent, perfume collection.
It was at this time that I stumbled upon a review for a scent called “Snake Oil” sold by a mysterious, thrillingly dangerous sounding company, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. Penned by a user calling herself “shriekingviolet”, she described it as “exotic and unfamiliar, evoking images of bazaars in far-off locales”. So fascinated was I by the description, I read further her reviews for the intriguingly named “Chimera”, “Haunted” and “Hellcat”, growing more and more exhilarated with every fragrant word I devoured.
I raced over to the website, my excitement reaching feverish levels as I read about the company:
“Inspired by a vast range of influences, from the passion and decadence of the Fin de Siècle movement to the ghastliest of Lovecraftian monstrosities, we specialize in eliciting emotional responses through perfume and creating unique, masterfully molded scent environments that capture legends and folklore, poetry, and the stuff of dreams and nightmares.”
I didn’t know there were people making these kinds of scents! I grew up in a household lousy with ouija boards, meditation circles, tarot cards, and astrologers, I was raised on books of mythology and folklore, fairytales and fables. In my early teen years I became obsessed by ghost stories and horror movies, and at the time of my discovery, I was in my mid-20s and the sole employee at an occult bookstore of surrounded by rare tomes of magic, antique grimoires, and volume upon volume of every sort of esoteric, arcane subject matter that you could possibly imagine. From what I was reading in these fragrance reviews, there was a person out there creating perfumes inspired by all of these things–the things I loved best! To be honest, I was smitten before I’d even perused the entirety of the website or placed my first order.
And the website! Those familiar with Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s expansive catalogue know how vast and daunting it can seem at first, and it honestly, it was no less beastly 13 years ago [EDIT: this was originally written in 2016 and now BPAL’s site is three amazing years more daunting!]
For an acolyte on their initial quest for knowledge regarding these fine esoteric goods, perfumes and potions, it can almost seem insurmountable, this navigating amongst hundreds of scent choices to find that perfect, holy grail fragrance. It’s easy to get lost in the poetry of those expressive, eloquent scent descriptions and lose hours of time sussing out which you’d like to choose for an introductory order from The Lab. You’ll no doubt have many questions. What notes do you like? What notes smell good on you? Why do you want to smell like a Shoggoth? What the heck *is* a Shoggoth, anyway?
In this vein, I’ve compiled some information that I think will be useful to those new to the experience, and I encourage those well-versed in BPAL lore and knowledge to chime in with their tips and suggestions in the comments!
With over 15 years of experience, Beth Barrial, proprietress of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, creates perfumes whose origins “…lie in the things that fascinate, horrify, enchant or disturb [me] on any given day, and can be stimulated by the season, my mood, current events, tales I’m reading or any manner of day-dreamy, ephemeral influence. (via sheknows.com)
“At its heart, our perfumes really are simply an extension of me.”
Whether it’s comic book based, fairy-tale inspired, or encapsulating the fragrance of various aspects of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, she’s noted in saying that she’s “…never concerned with whether or not something smells pleasing, only whether the scent really, truly encapsulates an idea.” (via tor.com)
And what grand ideas they are! Peruse the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab website and you will find collections devoted to myths and folk tales, beloved books and cinema (Dark Crystal and Only Lovers Left Alive? Yes please!), RPG tropes, poison gardens, female positive comics and graphic novels – if there is a weird or obscure interest favored by dark-minded, romantic souls, no doubt you will find a fragrance dedicated to it here.
BPAL fragrances are oil blends, which may take some getting used to if you’ve only ever used mainstream alcohol-based perfumes. It should also be noted that all of their products are hand-blended in house, and with the exception of their honey-based products [ and butter CO2 ] , all of the scents are vegan – and there is absolutely no animal testing.
Where to start, though? Take a moment to read through their General Catalog, a section on the site that ranges from “Aesop’s Fables” to “Wanderlust”. These are the scents that are probably not going anywhere anytime soon, unlike the limited editions, which may be seasonal- or holiday- or anniversary-inspired. and for which there is only a short window of time to purchase.
They’ve fortunately made it easy on newcomers and provided a “Beloved Favorites” section, which lists several scents that are quite popular, the above mentioned “Snake Oil” (Indonesian oils sugared with vanilla.); Alice (Milk and honey with rose, carnation and bergamot) and Miskatonic University ( Irish coffee, dusty tomes and polished oakwood halls), to name a few.
Still overwhelmed? Perhaps you need to examine what sort of scents you like to smell, and those you like to wear on your person. Do you prefer foody, gourmand scents that call to mind a sweet fluffy dessert, or a heady cup of drinking chocolate? Or maybe you lean toward florals, the scent of blossoms and blooms, which can range from light and lush to somber and profound? Fragrances earthy or airy? Bright or gloomy? Or perhaps, like myself, you gravitate toward deep, mysterious scents, redolent of resins and incense, smoke and woods? Fragrantica is an online encyclopedia of perfumes, a perfume magazine and a community of perfume lovers that happens has a fantastic guide for reading up more on these things to further pinpoint which type of scent and which notes may interest you the most.
Once you’ve determined for yourself what notes intrigue you and you’ve found a handful of corresponding scents on BPAL’s site, you might order a few 1/32 oz sample-sized “Imp’s Ears” option of the oils – this way you can try them out before committing to a full bottle and realizing that maybe coffee and rum don’t smell as delightful on you as you previously imagined.
Were I recommending a sample order, I would be certain to include the following: Snake Oil (of course!), Morocco, Dorian, Dee, and Dana O’Shee, for incense-y or sweet scents. Perhaps The Ghost, Embalming Fluid, or Shanghai for something lighter. I can’t honestly comment on the fruity ones because I’ve never liked the idea of smelling like a fruit salad, but I do hear that Hollywood Babylon, Fae, and Croquet are quite nice, so you may want to include those as well. Florals? Try Lucy’s Kiss, The Black Rose, or Delight.
In the past I have often recommended Danube (Rhododendron and bellflower petals swirl through deep, cool, dark aquatic notes) and Antique Lace (A soft, wistful blend of dry flowers, aged linens, and the faint breath of long-faded perfumes) – alas, they have both been discontinued! If you can get your hands (or at least your nose) on them, I highly suggest you do so. More on that in a bit in Part II.
Part II of DARKLY DREAMING: BLACK PHOENIX ALCHEMY LAB can be found here. Part enthusiast’s memoir and part course guide, for S. Elizabeth’s BPAL 101, and an upcoming giveaway!