Elizabeth Barrial isn't certain how many scents her company, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, has created. “In excess of 600,” she estimates.
Inside Dark Delicacies, the Burbank book store that sells the fragrances, there are rows of tiny bottles of perfumed oil. Some are named after fairy tale characters, like Rapunzel. Others, like Santa Muerte, have religious connotations. Some are based on Jim Henson characters. There are lines inspired by the comic book series Hellboy, and the movie Only Lovers Left Alive. Still more are the result of a collaboration with writer Neil Gaiman.
Since 2002, Barrial and her brother, BPAL co-owner Brian Constantine, have been supplying fragrance fanatics with a constant stream of perfume oils. They work in nearby North Hollywood with a very small staff. None of the products are tested on animals and they keep the prices reasonable. Some collections, like their RPG line, are designed so that customers can layer multiple scents.
For folks who like to try out new smells, BPAL is addictive. They've racked up a devoted fan base who collect the small bottles of oils. Their web forums are busy with fans recommending products and swapping tips on how to layer scents. Fans come together monthly for the company's Full Moon parties at Dark Delicacies — the next one takes place April 7. They also host events in Atlanta and Salem.
For Barrial, making scents is her life's work. “It is all of my interests,” she says. “It's history and pop culture and music and drama.”
Barrial confesses that, when she reads a book, she'll think about how the characters and settings smell. Case in point: 221B Baker Street, a new collection based on Sherlock Holmes. Barrial has been a fan of the mysteries since she was a child. Seven years ago, she started working on fragrances inspired by the books, but it wasn't until recently that she received the legal go-ahed to release them. Scents based on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are already available, although bottles of Holmes are currently out-of-stock online. A fragrance inspired by character Irene Adler is due out this spring. The scents are made to layer.
The scents can also be incredibly personal. “It's a map of my own life,” says Barrial of the oils. One of BPAL's best-sellers, Dorian, is based on the moment she fell for her husband. She made another one to commemorate her wedding and one for when her daughter was born. Every year, for her daughter's birthday, she creates a series based on the events of the past year.
“When you're experiencing an emotional event, the scent sticks with you more than anything else,” she says. “The only thing that I can think of that would be close is music. The song that was playing when you fell in love, when you drove your car into a wall.”
Barrial's fascination with scent began when she was a teenager and smelled something that triggered a childhood memory. Years earlier, Barrial, who grew up on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley, had snuck out with a group of children and played in a nearby business park at midnight. She forgot about the night until she took a whiff of that smell.
As it so happened, Barrial knew a perfumer and was able to land an apprenticeship. Making scents was something she did just for fun. Years later, she started selling those scents.
The first one she sold, Snake Oil, remains one of the companies biggest hits. It's based on a love potion with a little vanilla added to the mix. Barrial wore that scent when she started dating her husband. “He knew what I smelled like because I was wearing Snake Oil all the time,” she says. So, she left a little in his car and on his pillow. “Shady girl tricks,” she says with a chuckle.
Not everything is made to become your next signature scent — some of them are novelties you might wear once. Barrial mentions Gore-Shock, a bottle of which is displayed inside Dark Delicacies. It's a scent that was created for the store and is influenced by splatter punk films. “It smelled like chainsaw grease and burnt flesh,” she says. “It's not something that you would normally wear, but there might be an occasion where you do.”
Because BPAL focuses on oils that one would dab onto the skin, these aren't the sort of fragrances that will carry across the room. Plus, Barrial points out that the smell will change based on a number of factors, including diet, activity level and hormones.
“There were things, when I was pregnant, that were intolerable on me,” she notes. If people want to maintain the smell that comes from the bottle, they can wear them in the scent lockets sold by Black Phoenix Trading Post, a sister company run by Barrial's husband.
Part of what makes the scents so interesting is that the experience of smelling each one changes from person to person. “Even if you and I love the same perfume, it's affected by who you are and the choices you make and genetics and everything else,” says Barrial. “You and I can love the same thing and our bodies will naturally put a spin on it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated made reference to Barrial's childhood adventure in a park. It was a business park.
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