Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab explores the dark side of scent
It’s not difficult to imagine Elizabeth Barrial, 36, the chief perfumer for Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, as a sorceress of the night. Besides practicing her potion-making craft, the esoteric perfume house’s matriarch appears otherworldly. She wears her black and red locks down to her waist, and her eyes sparkle as she takes a whiff of one of her bottled concoctions.
She and business partner Brian Constantine typically work behind the scenes, with her wares available only online. But once a month, during the full moon, Barrial escapes her laboratory to peddle her wondrous and macabre scents at the horror shop Dark Delicacies in Burbank.
At this month’s event, the store swelled with darkly clad Black Phoenix customers stirring with Halloween-season excitement, ready for the olfactory experience awaiting them.
Amy Ratcliffe, 29, was first drawn to Black Phoenix for its Shakespeare line and has been coming to the full moon sales for four years.
“I’m addicted,” Ratcliffe said. She’s seen people divide their arms into quadrants to test multiple scents and label each perfume. “It gets very serious.”
But there’s plenty of whimsy. A long-locked Frankenstein shoved scented bath powder in front of noses.
“Doesn’t this smell like feet?” he said with a laugh. The Frankenstein was Ted Barrial, Elizabeth’s husband and head of Black Phoenix Trading Post, an affiliated site that offers items including bath powders, perfume jewelry, glassware and aromatic room scents that evoke locales such as pirate ships, insane asylums and bordellos.
“I kind of like it,” said the assaulted customer, Bailey Dukes, 26.
“Perfume is another way to make you feel comfortable in your skin,” Elizabeth Barrial said. She thinks it has the power to transform how you feel and transport you to another world. The company’s beginnings are rooted in the idea that perfume is a form of magic disguised by fragrance.
At 12, Barrial became captivated by scent and its ability to conjure the unexpected. She says she lied about her age and convinced master perfumer and freemason Hiram Derby to take her under his wing as an informal apprentice. Derby taught her the trade he had been practicing since the 1940s, in part with New Orleans’ Madame Marie Guischard, a perfumer and voodooist, Barrial says. For six years, she studied Afro-Caribbean root work, aromatherapy, herbalism, perfumery and elements of magic.
Among her blends is Follow Me Boy. The recipe dates back nearly 150 years and is said to have been favored by ladies of the night for its power to attract, seduce and enthrall. There’s also Aunt Caroline’s Joy Mojo, a brew that is meant to aid in reversing misfortune and achieving financial gain.
Barrial admits that a nose of mesmerizing perfume doesn’t always equate to luck or romance.
“There are certain scents that will excite your libido, relax you and make you feel more amorous,” Barrial said. “But if you don’t like the scent, it doesn’t matter how you feel.”
Black Phoenix’s philosophy is that its fragrances are designed to be experiential, not to make you smell divine. The perfume lines are inspired not only by historic voodoo potions but also by art, literature, comic books, holiday lore and the cycles of the moon.
The scents are meant to trigger emotion. Barrial says one of the best reviews she received was for her Veil perfume. Though Barrial termed it “not so creepy,” it bothered a customer so much she had nightmares every time she smelled it.
“Our scents are more like jazz. They are more experimental, and some of the things that we do are confrontational intentionally,” Barrial said.
One of the most abrasive scents is Gore-Shock, designed to smell like chainsaw carnage by evoking the smells of oily motor exhaust, scorched flesh and the coppery tang of blood.
In contrast, Dorian is a refined, noble scent with a trio of pale musks and sugared vanilla tea. This popular seller was inspired by the night Barrial fell in love with her husband.
Black Phoenix has attracted a national following of online fans dedicated to the perfume house’s transportation-by-fragrance philosophy. On its website’s message board, favorite scents are exchanged, commiseration over bad days shared and connections are made. Some come together occasionally for self-organized “meet and sniffs,” where friendships develop over perfume vials.
A new audience has been introduced to Black Phoenix since the company began cross-branding fragrances with comic books and writers such as Top Cow’s “Witchblade,” Peter S. Beagel’s “The Last Unicorn” and Neil Gaiman fantasy and horror publications.
For those who wrinkle their noses at fragrance bottles, Barrial encourages the exploration of scent because of the simple pleasure the olfactory sense can bring.
“Enjoy the smells around you. Some people like the smell of gasoline, others like the smell of Play-Doh, or new shoes or a bookstore. It should be a sensory experience,” Barrial said.
The next full moon Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab event is scheduled for Nov. 21 at Dark Delicacies, 3512 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank.