Smells Like Steam Spirit; or, The Industrial Revolution Never Smelled This Good
At least, that’s the premise behind Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab’s Phoenix Steamworks and Research Facility line. The collection features 11 perfume oil blends, available in .5 ml amber apothecary vials. Each vial is individually illustrated by Julie Dillon and alludes to the artwork of such Steampunk giants as Art Donovan, Jake von Slatt, and Mike Libby. With names and concepts such as Aelopile, Galvanic Goggles, and Antikythera Mechanism, each fragrance is redolent of mad science and invention.
The collection is predominately musky. Woody scents like tobacco flowers, oak, teakwood, and cedar dominate the top notes, which fade to reveal musky and powdery, yet spicy bouquets like sandalwood, frankincense, amber, and vanilla.
There are a few fresh scents. While the Aelopile still has hints of amber and cedar, floral and citrus notes gently reach altitude, surrounding the wearer in clouds of orange and grapefruit. The Coil is squeaky clean, with predominating green notes like eucalyptus leaves.
Overall Steamworks is very pleasing; however, there are two scents that could be decommissioned from the Facility. The Obsidian Widow reminded me of the fifty-year old perfume bottles that my Grandmother archived in her vanity. It has too much going on, making it the collection’s most malodorous blend. According to BPAL’s catalog, the ingredients include “pinot noir, dark myrrh, red sandalwood, black patchouli, night-blooming jasmine, and attar of rose.” All of these are really governing scents that seem to have murdered each other in an epic battle for dominance, only to rot together in the same vial.
Although Violet Ray is actually a young and fresh scent filled with purple flowers like violets and lavender, it wins the lamest overall concept for featuring the only heroine in the line as a passive victim caught in the wiles of some mad doctor. Only two human characters are featured in the series, and they bookend the collection with the first vial featuring a pretty badass inventor. Our unconscious heroine ends the series, and her passivity makes an odd contrast with the Inventor’s dynamic activity.
All of that aside, Steamworks is a successful collection, and two of its scents succeed at capturing the Steampunk essence, if such a thing exists. Before I smelled any of these fragrances, I tried to imagine what Steampunk would smell like and expected something more mechanical than organic: the burnt metallic smell of grinding iron and bronze, hints of grease and lubricant, and smoky traces of burning coal and wood—all of which can be found in the Robotic Scarab and the Smokestack.
The Robotic Scarab is another fresh scent. It is light and, upon first whiff, smells antiseptic. However, that initial stringency fades with the alcohol after ten minutes, and what lingers is an original boquet that conjures new machinery and lubricant. That may not sound very appealing as a perfume, but it is surprisingly pleasant, and would be very attractive on suave Skycaptains and Mad Scientist dandies.
Smokestack, despite suggesting the rank aspects of the Industrial Revolution, reigns over all the musky scents in this collection with top notes of bergamot and amber giving way to caramel and chocolate. It also wins the award for Best Overall Concept with copywriting which lists the ingredients as: “creosote, coal, and industrial waste.”
It’s difficult to come up with a cohesive fragrance collection where each scent is diverse enough to appeal to all noses, but Steamworks does a great job (Obsidian Widow notwithstanding), not only sticking with more traditional scents, but also branching out to meet expectations as to what a Steampunk world might actually smell like. If you want to know what smells like Steam Spirit, then take a trip to the Phoenix Steamworks & Research Facility.
11 Perfume Oil Blends, $17.50 per .5 ml Bottle, presented in amber apothecary vials.
Best Overall Concept: Smokestack
Most Original Scent: The Robotic Scarab
Bouquet Fail: The Obsidian Widow
Concept Fail: The Violet Ray
Maddest Invention: The Antikythera Mechanism
Scent most likely to be found aboard a dirigible: Ether
S. J. Chambers is the Articles senior editor at Strange Horizons. Her previous work has appeared in Bookslut, Tor.com, New Myths, Yankee Pot Roast, and The Baltimore Sun’s Read Street blog. Her latest project includes The Steampunk Bible, which she co-authored with Jeff VanderMeer, and will be out through Abrams Images in May 2011.