An Interview with Ellen Covey, the perfumer of Zoologist's Bat

December 28, 2015

An Interview with Ellen Covey, the perfumer of Zoologist's Bat

First, I would like to congratulate you on receiving the Art & Olfaction 2015 Award in the Artisan Category for your perfume “Woodcut”. It’s been a few months since then, how do you feel now and how does it affect your future perfumery work?

It still feels a little unreal, although I have finally gotten used to seeing the golden pear displayed on my shelf! It’s a big honor to live up to, knowing that whatever I create in future will be compared with Woodcut.

In the fragrance community you are well respected for your perfume brand “Olympic Orchids”, but not many people know that you are a university professor and a professional orchid grower. Would you share with us some tidbits about your two other professions? And when and how did perfumery come into the picture?

Tidbits? I don’t have any good gossip that would interest anyone.

I started out in graduate school at Duke University studying the chemical senses, specifically focusing on how information about chemosensory quality is represented in spatiotemporal patterns of neural activity, but later became interested in hearing, especially echolocation in bats. I currently teach undergrad courses on sensation & perception, scientific writing, and psychology of music.

Oddly enough, it was my academic career that got me into orchids because an elderly colleague who grew orchids in his office retired, and those of us in the department divided up his plants. I got four Cattleyas, which thrived and bloomed in my office. They were the only house plants I has ever been able to grow successfully. Then another colleague took me to an orchid show, and I got hooked. After growing orchids for over 10 years as a hobby and subsequently growing them commercially for 10 years, I’ve smelled a lot of different orchid flowers. I got fascinated by their scents, and decided to try to recreate some of them as perfumes. The resulting intensive self-study of perfumery started well before I officially launched my perfume business 5-plus years ago.

Bats in Cave

You have always been studying and fascinated about bats. Was it the reason why you chose bat to create for Zoologist Perfumes? Did you want the perfume to smell like a bat, literally, or a creative interpretation of what a bat would smell like? And in what way do you think you have succeeded?

My research on bats has focused on how information is represented in temporal patterns of neural activity (bats can recognize a species of insect from any angle based on the time-varying pattern of acoustic “glints” reflected in echoes from the insect’s body), mechanisms for selective attention in a noisy environment (our brains and those of bats adapt to high-probability sounds, but are extremely sensitive to novel sounds), vocal learning in mammals (bats are some of the only mammals known to learn their vocalizations), seasonal changes in the auditory system (properties of the auditory system change depending on bats’ hormonal and metabolic states), and other related topics. I’ve published a large number of scientific journal articles and book chapters on all of these topics, and have an extensive knowledge of bats’ physiology, behaviour, and ecology.

I have personally trekked through the jungles of Jamaica in search of bat caves, experienced an earthquake while inside one of those caves, and crawled through filthy insulation in 130+ degree F hot attics in North Carolina in search of bat colonies. (These observations are “for whatever it’s worth”).

Of course I did not want to make a perfume that literally smells like a bat, although some species do have pleasant smells (most do not). What I wanted to do was represent the cool, earthy, damp limestone cave where the bats live, the fruit that they eat, and the clean, musky smell of their fur. I wanted it to be light enough to be like the delicate, elusive flight of a bat. However, when I was working on it I also found that it had the property of coming back at times when I didn’t expect it. I would intentionally or unintentionally wear a little bit of it to bed, and days later I would suddenly smell… Bat! This is appropriate because although it is light, it is also insistent enough to keep circling around the wearer and come back at surprising, odd times on clothing or other things that the wearer had touched. Knowing bats, I think it succeeds pretty well in doing what I envisioned.

I think Zoologist’s Bat is a one-of-a-kind perfume. I really have never smelled any perfumes like it. How would you describe the scent of Bat? Does it fit into any typical perfume genre? Who do you think would like to wear this perfume, and on what occasions? Does it matter?

I agree that Bat is a one-of-a kind perfume. I would describe it as moist, airy, earthy, minerally, fruity, resinous, and musky. Those probably seem like they would not go together, but they fuse into a unique whole that just smells like… Bat. I’m not sure you could fit it into any traditional genre. It’s neither masculine nor feminine. It’s just what it is. Even though it doesn’t fit into any known box, it’s a very wearable scent. I think people who aren’t hung up on conventional fragrance classifications would like to wear it. It has enough of a natural feel to appeal to those who like natural scents, but is complex enough to appeal to those who like sophisticated perfumes. I guess the potential wearer is anyone who enjoys it, on any occasion that they see fit. And no, it doesn’t matter.

One thing I notice about Bat is that it does not have any florals in it. Traditionally even the most masculine scents have some floral accords but they are masked by some heavier or stronger wood, herbal and spice notes. Do you think adding florals in Bat would make it more of a “crowd pleaser” perfume but not faithful to concept of the perfume, or do you think a perfume without any florals is actually something particularly interesting?

I see no reason why perfumes have to be floral. A number of my perfumes, including Woodcut, contain no floral notes at all, and they seem to be quite well-liked. I’m not a fan of floral perfumes on myself or on others, although I do like to smell floral fragrances on plants. Regarding Bat, there are nectar-feeding species of bats, but their habits and diet overlap with those of Hummingbird. In fact, some nectar-feeding bats look like hummingbirds as they hover in front of flowers, occupying the same niche at night that hummingbirds do during the day. The Bat I had in mind, though, is a small fruit-feeding species that lives in caves, so they would never encounter flowers except by accident. I think too many perfumes are designed to be “crowd-pleasers”, thereby rendering them bland and very similar to one another.

Do you have a favourite perfume genre and some favourite perfumery materials? Was there a perfume that you particular liked or found influential before you started making perfumes yourself?

I have created perfumes in most traditional European genres as an exercise, and some of these have been quite well-received. However, I consider working within a given genre too restrictive, so I think I end up mostly going outside standard perfume genres. I am partial to Arabian-style perfumes, if you consider that a genre. I use a lot of woody materials, incense, musks, herbs, and spices. I like to play around with offbeat materials that hardly anyone uses in perfume. I just got my hands on some "geosmin" aromachemical before I made Bat, and used it to help create the cave smell. I guess my general dislike for traditional European-style floral perfumes was one thing that inspired me to make my own.

Do you think Bat is quite typical of your perfumery style? Do you think people who enjoy your scents from Olympic Orchids would like it or it’s actually a big surprise in store for them?

I think Bat is typical of my style inasmuch as my style is often strange and unpredictable. People who like scents like Woodcut, Salamanca, Kingston Ferry, Blackbird, and the Devil Scents will probably like Bat. I hope it will be a good surprise for them!

If Zoologist Perfumes asks you to design their next perfumes, which animals will you suggest?

There are so many interesting animals that could inspire perfumes! Some have been done - Snakes, Gorilla, big cats and little cats (Hello Kitty). I’m thinking of weird ones like Platypus, Naked Mole-Rat (did you know they live in colonies with a queen, like bees?) Termite, Raven (too close to Blackbird?), Hyrax, Shark, Hydra, Dodo, Tyrannosaurus rex, Brontosaurus, Woolly Mammoth and other extinct animals, Silkworm, Kangaroo, Koala, Penguin, Parrot, Whale, Bird of Paradise, Komodo Dragon, Chameleon, Sloth, Spider, Scorpion, Armadillo, Hedgehog, Alligator or Crocodile, Cicada, Bullfrog, Treefrog, Woodpecker, Dung Beetle (maybe not!), Opossum, Moth, Octopus, Squid, Slime Mold, … the list could go on and on …. and, of course, Human (what would that smell like? Auto exhaust, laundry musk, tobacco and marijuana smoke, fast food, a plastic phone case …) .

Wow, you have inspired me! Thank you so much for creating Bat for Zoologist and taking the time to do this interview!

Photo by Lucien Knutesen.