October 15, 2012

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By Lynn Morgan
Egypt exerts a powerful hold on our collective imaginations that few countries or cultures can match. Ever since Napoleon asked to be left alone inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, the allure of ancient Egypt, it’s queens and pharaohs, its ruins and relics has transfixed and inspired composers like Verdi, poets and painters for centuries, and its aesthetics have imparted a timeless elegance to fashion from the geometric elegance of Art Deco to Christian Louboutin’s sinuous snakeskin sandals.

Perfumers were an integral part of the ancient Egyptian culture. Royal courtiers anointed themselves with fragrant oils, and incense and oils were burned in offering to their gods. Legend has it that Cleopatra ordered her servants to perfume the sails of her royal barge so the breezes that propelled it would also waft a gorgeous scent in its wake. Aromatic herbs and resins were also used in the still-mysterious process of mummifying their dead. Perfume rests at the centre of Egypt’s history and soul.

San Francisco-based perfumer Emerson Hart has felt the lure of Egypt all of his life. He is the founder of Nocturne Alchemy, a niche perfume house that creates exotic perfume oils inspired by the history, mythology, and mystique of Egypt, past and present.

“There has always been something within me that has been connected to Egypt: the lore, the golden art, the science, the deities…. the perfume, “he says. “It is something I feel passionately about. I do have an education in archeology, hieroglyphs and mythology, as well as a degree in Art History. The ancient history of Egypt is, and always will be deep at my core. Our origins as a cultural civilization began in Egypt with science and mathematics art, architecture beer wine and bread, and of course, perfume. Egypt and making perfumes inspired by Egypt make my heart beat quickly.” 

Emerson launched Nocturne Alchemy in 2006, not long after the death of his younger brother. Today, the company employs three full-time and two part-time “Alchemists” who work with Emerson and “sign” their work with playful noms des parfums derived from ancient Egyptian deities.

One of them, “Bastet” is responsible for the perfumes called “Bastet’s Garden” and “Techno Bastet”. She has been making perfumes for ten years, and has been with Nocturne Alchemy since its beginning. “He {Emerson Hart} got me interested in it, but it is only recently that I have been given the freedom to create things that felt close to me like Bastet’s Garden and Techno Bastet, and the soon-to-be released ‘Bindings’” she says. Bastet brings the evocative symbolism of the ancient cat goddess, a protective and sheltering deity, into her work as a perfumer, and the deity’s influence is evident in the “Garden” fragrances. “I take the meaning of Bastet, and love the ancients felt towards the feline deity very seriously, “she says. “She is a loving spirit, and I wanted these specific perfumes to be loving and harmonious and very much reflective while you are wearing them. I imagine sitting in a garden with a feline nearby, the sun on your skin and a slight scented breeze on the wind. Such a lovely place to come and visit whenever you want.”

Some of Bastet’s creations include “Rose Sapphire” a blend of red and black rose with “Nokturne” a proprietary version of an Egyptian musk and amber musk; “Frangipani Nokturne” which combines Egyptian frangipani, Egyptian jasmine, “Nokturne” and Egyptian lilac, Italian bergamot and Irish plumeria, and a collection of science-fiction inspired scents she calls “Techno Bastet.”

“There will be more Techno Bastet scents, “says the perfumer. “And I am working on a new collection with Vapothecary that will be called ‘Bindings.’”

The complete range of Nocturne Alchemy perfumes encompasses dozens of scents, divided into different themes: “Gods and Goddesses & Deity”, “The Eternals” “Pharaohs and Queens of Egypt, ““Om Na”, “Temples and Cities” and “The Elementals.” The web site, largely written by Emerson Hart is a joy to read, sprinkled with references to pyramids and tombs, lost cities and desert oasis’s, and quotes from such diverse thinkers as George Eliot, Isaac Bashevis and Shelley, and lyrical descriptions of their fragrance offerings, like ‘Nefertiti”; orange blossom and Egyptian musk and white amber; “Ozymandias” a regal scent which evokes the self-proclaimed king of kings by blending frankincense, amber and white pepper.

“For me and my partners, the association with Egypt is very romantic, mysterious, compelling, sexy and fascinating, “says Emerson. “It’s very evocative of something we have in our blood. I could speak of Egypt for hours and never tire of it, just as I could spend months creating and blending one perfume.’
Emerson Hart and his partners create so prolifically that individual perfumes may be retired or “entombed” in order to make room for their latest creations. Nocturne Alchemy is constantly evolving and always surprising as new scents and themes are introduced and old favorites are revisited and revised. He travels to Egypt sometimes twice a year to obtain aromatic materials to use in his creations.

“The Middle East was the heart of perfume, and there is still a great industry there, just as there is in France, “he explains. ‘I spend most of my time blending with Egyptian notes but beautiful notes can be found all over the world. It is up to the nose to determine whether a particular vanilla or frankincense is suitable for as blend. It can take up to 100 different oils from all over the world to determine which is the correct one for a particular blend.”

All of the House of NA scents are perfume oils. “There is a complexity to perfume oils, versus cologne or perfume from a department store, “Emerson insists. “Alcohol is used in those forms of scent to keep the scent on the skin for a longer period of time. Perfume oil is a much more sensual and romantic way of scent.”
The House of NA will only work with natural ingredients in all forms: resins, essential oils, absolutes, etc. Emerson refuses to work with any animal sourced ingredients. “I could never harm an animal, nor could I sleep at night knowing an animal was used for the purpose of perfume in our blends. We stay away from that, and our perfumes are 100% free of any animal substances, ‘he says emphatically.

“Just as the Gothic novel would reflect in the nuances of character, VA scents are a little darker, “says Emerson. “By that, I mean that they are scents that one would wear in the evening that an immortal from a Gothic novel might wear. Jacek Rose and Seth Kinkaid bring shadows to perfume and a new perspective. A lot of time goes into one perfume, and a lot of heart and soul goes into the blending of it. To have more than one way and more than one perspective is a blessing. Sometimes, it is a dark blessing.”

Some of the Vapothecary scents include “Sorceress”, a blend of black lilac, dragon’s blood, vanilla, amber and musk; “Gothic”, which combines black clove, tobacco, patchouli incense, vanilla, musk and myrrh; and “All Hallows’ Eve” a fun-loving blend of Tonka beans, sugar cane, nutmeg, sweat cream, cinnamon and “dirt from a pumpkin patch” and smells exactly like a night of trick or treating. The “Cities of the Dead” collection pays homage to some of the world’s most atmospherically eerie locales: San Francisco, New Orleans, London, Salem, MA and Transylvania.

Both Vapothecary and Nocturne Alchemy share a literary and historical bent and a Byronic sensibility that makes their professional pairing very productive, creating overlapping fragrance collections: ‘The Egyptian Room” and “Desecrated Tomb” included scents created by perfumers for both houses. The House of NA embraces all that is mysterious, timeless and sorcerous in scent.

Emerson Hart and his cohorts do not flee from the label “Gothic” or associations with the dark music and fashion subculture that the words conjure in the popular mind.

“I believe that music, art literature and perfume are all part of the dust underneath the keys of a piano, “Emerson reflects. “It is that drift of shadow that stirs something within us individually and connects us to each other and to the dark, romantic and mysterious. I feel that ‘Goth’ is a great voice that whispers in the shadows and builds energy from darkness in the arts. It is something that binds shadowy things together in a beauty that only others who can see in the darkness understand.”

Music, of all kinds, is an important source of inspiration for the House of NA perfumers, who prefer to create their blends at night, listening to a wide range of musical accompaniments. Emerson cites Jill Tracy, Romantic composer Mahler, the artists of Projekt Label and Middle Eastern artists like Azam Ali and Niyaz as inspirations, as well as the motion picture sound tacks to “Dracula” an “Interview with the Vampire.” They have also created custom scents for artists and musicians around the world.

It is all part of an all-encompassing passion to create. ‘Perfume allows my senses to create,” says Emerson. “I often find myself watching a movie, listening to a song or looking at a statue of Ramses in the Louvre and I pull out my notebook and jot down plausible creation to work with in the lab. It’s magical to have a library of moments in little bottles waiting to implode upon your imagination.”

In ancient Egypt, perfumers were also priests. For Emerson Hart and his compatriots in the House of NA, perfumery is a spiritual and transformative art. He says, “With every perfume we add, I feel like a beautiful novel is added to the library of stories.”

nocturne alchemy

Those natural ingredients are typically layered for olfactory complexity, creating scents that seem to reveal themselves in stages, like an archeological dig. First impressions are mutable.

“I do not doubt that beauty can come from simplicity,” Emerson observes. “It is evocative and moving, if perfectly expressed if that is what we are focusing on, but there are times when what we are after may be chapters of notes that are the novel of the scent.”

In 2011, Emerson formed a partnership with Jacek Rose, the owner of another niche perfume house, Vapothecary. They united the two companies under the shared identity, the House of NA.
“We had crossed over in collaborations with each others’ perfumes, so it seemed like the next step in evolution to combine them and bring together two things that seemed inherently part of one another.”

Vapothecary has a more overtly spooky aesthetic, unabashedly romantic and Gothic, inspired by literature and legend. There are ten different fragrance themes in the Vapothecary collections: “Cities of the Dead, ““The Immortals. “ Lycan” “Goblins”, “Etherias”, “7”, “Vapothecary”, “Desecrated Tomb,” “All Hallows’ Eve” and ‘The Egyptian Room.” Vapothecary oils evoke a haunted and ethereal mood, the playfulness of Halloween and a kind of poetic darkness.