Thursday, August 1, 2013

By Valentine Glass

All items mentioned in the review were purchased with my own funds.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab is the 800-pound gorilla of the indie perfume world. That's not saying much in the world of commercial perfumes that cost hundreds of dollars a bottle, but any discussion of indie perfumes cannot proceed without some mention of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab ("Black Phoenix Alchemical Laboratory," according to the front page of its website, or just "BPAL" to its devotees). They've been around since 2002, in which time they have conjured up and sold thousands of bottles of evocative, interesting perfume oils with fascinating themes. Yes, thousands--their permanent catalog alone numbers in the hundreds of scents and they feature multiple limited edition releases every year, including a scent for each full moon of the year, known as a "Lunacy," and available only for the few days around the full moon.

Their website describes their mission as follows:
"We specialize in formulating body and household blends with a dark, romantic Gothic tone. Our scents run the aesthetic gamut of magickal, pagan and mythological blends, Renaissance, Medieval and Victorian formulas, and horror / Gothic-themed scents. By utilizing our knowledge of homeopathy and aromatherapy, the conceptual theories of hermetic alchemy, and the aesthetic artistry of perfumery, we have mastered the art of encapsulating allegorical ideas into singular olfactory experiences. We are the first of our kind, and have over fifteen years of practical experience in the field. Our expertise shows."

I first became interested in them because of their line of Alice in Wonderland-themed scents, but swiftly fell down the rabbit hole and started exploring all their other categories, like "Wanderlust," with scents themed around exotic locales, or "Steamworks," a steampunk-themed set of scents. From there, I grew interested in other indie perfume companies, and by now I've sampled hundreds of indie perfumes from various different houses--but BPAL was my first love and remains my favorite.

Packaging: Perfumes are packaged in a sturdy, no-nonsense Priority Mail box with plenty of bubble wrap and their branded orange-and-black tape sealing it up. There is typically a BPAL postcard included in the box, and sometimes other goodies like pens or notepads may make it in there as well.

Orders will usually come with at least two free samples.

The perfumes come in 5 ml amber glass bottles with a cap containing a little polyseal plastic cone that allows you to drip a few drops of scent onto your skin from the cap; these can be replaced with wandcaps, which are caps with a glass rod attached that dips into the perfume and can then be dabbed against your pulse points, on your clothes, or in your hair.

The wandcaps are sold on the site for $1 apiece, but can also be ordered from sites like Pilot Vials--a considerably cheaper source if you plan to buy a lot of them. I find wandcaps convenient, personally, but they have more of a tendency than the original caps to leak or allow evaporation from the bottle, and some people feel that it may contaminate the oil to allow the wandcap to touch your skin and then place it back in the bottle. If I were mailing a bottle to someone, I would prefer to replace the wandcap with the original cap before sending it due to the risk of leaking oil from an imperfect seal.

The labels range from simple sepia-toned labels with the name of the perfume written on them to beautiful full-color illustrations--for instance, there are usually several releases a year themed around artwork, and the labels will feature reproductions of the paintings that inspired the scents.

(Note: In the photo above, I've added round stickers to the tops of the bottles to help ID them when they're crowded together in a box. If you are ordering from BPAL, the bottles come with plain caps.)

Selection: Absolutely insane. Their website has 33 active categories, not including the constantly changing limited edition section, and I haven't had the time and wherewithal to count how many scents are actually currently available; I stopped counting after about 60.

In addition to the permanently available scents, there are limited edition releases every month--the aforementioned Lunacies, and currently also a single note or two each month (this month's is Sweet Pea)--and a few larger releases a year, with Lupercalia (Valentine's Day), Halloween ("Weenies"), and Yule being the largest. There is a large and active forum dedicated to BPAL, and the company sometimes also releases forum-exclusive scents.

The website is huge and hard to navigate, and can be extremely intimidating, especially since there's no pre-selected "beginner's pack" or recommendations. I recommend looking at or posting in the "Recommendations" section of the forum to determine what scents might suit you. I believe there's something somewhere in the catalog to suit anyone.

Due to the sheer number of scents and the greater risks they take, BPAL's scents can be a lot more hit-or-miss than the carefully curated, engineered, and focus-tested selection available from a commercial perfumer like Guerlain. It's important to try them on your skin, rather than just sniffing out of the bottle or on a piece of paper, as the fragrance can change drastically with the warmth of one's skin and allegedly with body chemistry as well. Commercial perfumes are typically optimized to smell good on paper, since most customers shop for perfume using the little sample strips of blotter paper you can get in the store rather than by spraying all the perfumes onto their skin. However, BPAL and other indie perfumers typically blend their scents to smell good on skin rather than on paper.

There have been scents in the catalog made to smell like bloody, burned flesh ("Gore-Shock") or fish and ceremonial incense ("Halloween in Innsmouth")--this may be exactly the type of thing you're looking for, or you may want to steer towards more traditional florals or Oriental scents.

BPAL also creates officially licensed perfumes for various intellectual properties, like Neil Gaiman's books, the Hellboy franchise, Fraggle Rock, or The Last Unicorn. If you've ever wanted to smell like David Bowie's Jareth character in Labyrinth, there's a perfume for that. I am partial to the scent devoted to Boober Fraggle, myself ("A fretfully clean scent: freshly-washed laundry, linden blossom, soap suds, and a sprinkle of vanilla.")

BPAL scents can be roughly divided into three categories: general catalog (GC) scents, general catalog unimpables, and limited editions.

General catalog (GC) scents are the ones that are always available from BPAL--i.e., they are not limited edition; you can order them at any time. They are the cheapest, at $17.50 a bottle, and you can purchase samples, or "imp's ears" (known informally as just "imps") directly from BPAL for $4 each or $22 for a six-pack ($3.67 apiece). The samples are housed in 1/32 oz glass vials with a paper label and a plastic dabber that allows you to easily apply the perfume from the sample vial.

"GC unimpables" are the scents co-branded with other enterprises, like the Neil Gaiman or Fraggle Rock scents. They are available directly through BPAL all the time (so they're considered general catalog) but samples of these scents are not available.

Limited edition scents are available only for a short period of time, and samples are not available.

You can obtain sample decants of the unimpable or limited edition scents through eBay, second-hand on the BPAL forums, or by joining a decant circle, which is a sort of group buy situation where one person will order perfumes and then divide them up into samples to send out to the group. Decant circles can be found on the forum or in one of the Livejournal communities dedicated to BPAL, like Sin and Salvation or BPAL Marketplace. Prices in these venues range from free to an average of around $5 for a limited edition decant.

If I were picking out a six-pack of samples to introduce someone to BPAL, I might choose the following (I really like vanilla and tea. Sorry/not sorry):

1) Snake Oil (Ars Amatoria): "A blend of exotic Indonesian oils sugared with vanilla." This is BPAL's most popular scent. It can smell almost medicinal when fresh, but the sharpness ages out of it and it becomes an incredibly sexy, dark, patchouli-tinged spicy vanilla over time. 
2) Chimera (Bewitching Brews): "The fiery, volatile scent of cinnamon, thickened by myrrh, honeysuckle, and copal." Spicy, but not too sharp--a creamy cinnamon scent that reminds me of cinnamon buns. The resin takes the edge off so it isn't quite that sweet.
3) Othello (Illyria): "Arabian musk with two roses and a bevy of Middle Eastern and Indian spices." Rose scents can often be too harsh or soapy for me, but I find this one soft and approachable.
4) The Dormouse (Mad Tea Party): "A dizzying eddy of four teas brushed with light herbs and a breath of peony." A very pretty, soft, and fresh tea scent.
5) Mouse's Long and Sad Tale (Mad Tea Party): "Vanilla, two ambers, sweet pea and white sandalwood." Another of BPAL's more sweet and accessible scents, this smells like vanilla and slightly fruity sweet pea.
6) Dorian (Sin and Salvation): "A Victorian fougere with three pale musks and dark, sugared vanilla tea." Frankly, I've worn this one too much and can't bring myself to wear it anymore, but it's one of BPAL's most popular scents, a lemony, creamy vanilla tea scent laden with musks. 

GC scents are $17.50 a bottle.
GC co-branded/unimpable scents are $26 a bottle.
Limited edition scents may vary in price, but are typically $23 a bottle.
Imps are $4 each or $22 for six.

There is a thriving second-hand and swap market for BPAL in the forums, on eBay, or in the Livejournal communities listed above. In addition, BPAL sometimes sells off their own back stock on eBay or Etsy. Rare discontinued bottles can sell for hundreds of dollars.

Customer Service:
Good, in my limited experience, although it's a small company and response time may sometimes be slow. They do not have a phone number--all queries are answered over email. They have a good reputation for making things right if there are any issues with an order.

This can vary from a few days to a few weeks, depending on how busy they are. There's a thread on the forum devoted to tracking turnaround times for orders--users will list the date they placed the order, the date they received their shipment notification, and the day they received their order.

In the US, it's a flat rate of $7.50 up to a $150 order. International orders are shipped using flat rate boxes as well, so they start at $25 ($20 for Canada) and remain at that price point up until an order exceeds 20 bottles. More details for the price points above that are on their FAQ page.

Personal thoughts:
I adore their huge selection, always fascinating descriptions, and often beautiful perfumes. BPAL has been a favorite of mine for a long time, but I'm not going to lie--because of the sheer variety, figuring out the scents that will work for you can be a huge, expensive, time-consuming effort. Many scents are going to seem weird or unpleasant. On the other hand, if you dislike commercial perfumes, you may find that BPAL is exactly what you've been looking for.

I strongly recommend checking the forums for reviews and personalized recommendations (users there are happy to create lists for you based on your scent preferences) and buying imps second-hand if possible, then swapping the ones that don't work out with other forum users; it's considerably more cost-effective than buying imp packs six at a time directly from the lab. There are local "meet and sniffs" that allow BPAL fans to convene and share their collections, and monthly events called "Will Calls" in Burbank, CA, Burlington, VT, or Seattle, WA, where you can come and sniff (and buy) that month's Lunacy, prototypes of new perfumes, and general catalog scents.


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