What does a lothario or a femme fatale smell like? Would you say gluttony smells thick, sugared and bloated with sweetness — maybe a blend of dark chocolate, vanilla, butter cream and hops with pralines, hazelnut, toffee and caramel? What about places? Do you imagine that Dublin smells of misty forests, damp alder leaves and the gentlest touch of white rose? Beth Moriarty does. At the Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab that she runs with her partner, Brian Constantine, Moriarty sets out to solve scent puzzles triggered by memories of emotions, desires, the mood of a specific place or even literary characters.
Moriarty’s curiosity and insatiable need to find answers to her many scent riddles have led to more than 300 Black Phoenix perfume-oil blends, inspired, she says, by magickal (more mystical than magic), pagan, mythological, Renaissance, medieval and Victorian formulas. When Moriarty was 12, she met the master perfumer and master Freemason Hiram Derby, who had learned his trade in the 1940s, in part from New Orleans’ Madame Marie Guischard, a perfumer and voodooienne. Moriarty completed a six-year apprenticeship with Derby and a year with Madame Guischard. She studied Afro-Caribbean root work, perfumery, natural magick, homeopathy, aromatherapy and conceptual theories of hermetic alchemy, all of which she uses to create her historic, artistic and possibly magical fragrances.
Among her Voodoo Blend oils, for instance, is the Black Cat fragrance, which is said to bring joy back into one’s life and can also be used to throw, according to its online description, “minor, irritating or bothersome hexes, causing small amounts of chaos and disruption to your foes.” Dove’s Heart is said to mend a broken heart; Horn of Plenty’s aim is a change in fortune or an end to poverty. And if you’re trying to attract that certain someone, look no further than Follow Me Boy, a hoodoo recipe “dating back almost 150 years . . . favored by prostitutes, exotic dancers and others in the sex industry for its power to attract, seduce and enthrall. Ensures financial gain and increased profits.”
There is even a Love Potion line, though, as Moriarty disclaims, it’s “geared toward expressing the concept” rather than containing a magic spell. Still, she adds, the scents do incorporate many notes that traditionally awaken lust or love. She tells me that oils have been used through many cultures to “arouse a romantic or sexual response.” But, she warns, even the strongest potions can go wrong if they just don’t turn you on. “It’s fantastic that ylang-ylang induces a slight sense of euphoria, but if you can’t abide the smell,” Moriarty points out, “you’ll hardly be in the mood for intimacy.”
Moriarty says she loves “using scent for atmospheric purposes, for triggering Proustian memories and for inspiring emotion. Scent is such an underrated sense, and perfumery is such an underrated art.”
Perfumery was maligned during the early days of Christianity because it was associated with pagan cultures that used it for homeopathic remedies and spells, but by the 16th century, perfumery had reached art-form status in Italy. Catherine de Medici had a personal perfumer, whose laboratory was connected to her rooms by a secret passage so that no formulas could be stolen on their way to her. In 17th-century France, scented gloves became the rage. The court of Louis XV was named “the perfumed court” because fragrance was added not only to the skin but to furniture and fans. In the 18th century, diluted perfume oil, called eau de cologne, was used to scent bath water, and as a mouthwash, even for enemas. Eventually, industrial practices reached the perfume trade, and ethyl alcohol was added to fragrances to dilute them as chemistry replaced alchemy. Depending on the amount of perfume oils it contains, a scent is either a perfume oil (15 percent to 30 percent perfume oil), a perfume (15 percent to 25 percent), eau de parfum (8 percent to 15 percent), eau de toilette (4 percent to 10 percent), eau de cologne (2 percent to 5 percent) or eau fraîche (3 percent or less). Black Phoenix returns to the heavily scented oil tradition with most of its products — hand-blended and bottled in 5-milliliter amber-glass apothecary vials — containing 85 percent to 100 percent pure perfume oil.
Black Phoenix fragrances are meant to be gender-neutral (though due to customer demands, you can find a list of traditionally masculine blends on the company’s Web site) and are divided into several different lines. The Wanderlust group recalls exotic places from Bengal (peppers, cloves, cinnamon bark and ginger) to the Bayou (Spanish moss, evergreen, cypress, and “an eddy” of hothouse flowers and swamp blooms). Illyria is a collection of scents that attempt to conjure Shakespearean characters like Ophelia (lotus, water blossom ivy, stargazer lily and white rose), Iago (sinuous black musk, wet leather and vetiver) and Lady Macbeth (sweet Bordeaux wine, blood-red currant, thyme and wild berries). The newest line is the Neil Gaiman collection, inspired by characters in Gaiman’s Sandman high-art ?comic books.
Black Phoenix’s huge goth following experiments with Moriarty’s most esoteric work. Her Evanescence-esque Funereal line includes not only Danse Macabre (black cypress with oak moss, frankincense, oude and a sliver of toasted hazelnut) but Embalming Fluid (white musk, green tea, aloe and lemon). Burial, redolent of cemetery loam and flower offerings to the dead, can be found in the Dark Elements line. Yes, this is no ordinary perfume house.
Moriarty says she and Constantine find it more challenging and satisfying to express a concept — “like the rakishness of the Vicomte de Valmont or the mad passion of Baudelaire,” she says — than simply creating a scent that’s universally appealing. As a result, they even have a line called the Salon, which features olfactory interpretations of famous paintings from the likes of Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymus Bosch.
Some of the oils come with artwork or poetry and little velvet pouches that you could imagine being found at an apothecary in a Harry Potter novel, and since most orders come through the Lab’s Web site, Moriarty and Constantine came up with one-thirty-second-ounce sample vials called Imp’s Ears as a way for customers to try new scents. You can spend hours on the Black Phoenix Web site, reading poems or the back stories of invented characters that inspired the scents. And there’s a huge online community of fans, more than 6,000 members, who log on to the site to share reviews of perfumes or exchange stories. Every 28 days, Moriarty and Constantine open their North Hollywood storefront to the public to celebrate the monthly release of their newest Lunacy fragrance. That’s when the Lab introduces a limited-edition scent celebrating the traditional meaning of that month’s moon — available only for the 72 hours surrounding the full moon — and when customers can try all of Black Phoenix’s fragrances in person.
So, is magic really involved?
“We put so much of our life’s passion into everything we do,” says Moriarty. “So I suppose the answer is yes, in a way. Passion as a catalyst for creativity equals magic of a sort.”
For products and ?information, check www.blackphoenix?alchemylab.com. Most 5-milliliter bottles are $15; 10-milliliter bottles average $25; and Imp’s Ears samples are $3.50 each or six for $19.50. Storefront (open only during full moons) at 12120 Sherman Way, ? N. Hlywd.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.