As the popularity of science fiction, fantasy, and horror continues to rise, these genres' influence has spread into a number of art forms, including fashion design, jewelry, woven arts, and even the latest technological toys—what was the flip phone, after all, but a late Twentieth Century version of Star Trek's communicator? One less obvious area they have also influenced is the olfactory arts. In the last 10 years, a number of e-tailers (retailers who sell primarily or exclusively online) have sprung up that specialize in hand blended, non alcohol-based perfumes that take everything from mythology and folklore to steampunk, cyberpunk and zombie apocalypses as inspirations to create unusual, and often unforgettable, scents. In this three-part series, we'll be interviewing a few of these innovative creators.
The perfumer profiled this week is Vajra Wright of Conjure Oils, a two-year-old boutique specializing in myth and folklore-inspired work as well as authentic Hoodoo and Santería oils.
JoSelle Vanderhooft: Vajra, you've been making perfumes since childhood. How did your interest in perfumery begin?
Vajra Wright: It all started when I was about seven. I got a Barbie Perfume Maker for Christmas and the ability to blend and create fragrance captivated my imagination. As a teenager, I had a bit of a witchy reputation—I'm sure it had nothing to do with the random jars of rose petals, dandelions or vanilla beans soaking in sunlight and oil on my windowsill. I experimented with dried herbs and roots as well. When I got old enough to work, I worked at a health food store and the cosmetics buyer there was an aromatherapist. When she found out about my experiments, she kindly took me under her wing and introduced me to the world of essential oils and taught me all that my brain could absorb.
JV: As an adult, have you studied the art of perfumery, or are you mostly self-taught?
VW: So, as far as actually blending perfumes goes, I am self taught, but in the aromaceutical and aromatherapy arenas, I've apprenticed with several experienced folks over the years. I kinda think formalized training is a classist notion that invalidates the traditional ways women learned trades: at the knees of their elders.
JV: Like all artists, perfumers have long drawn from a number of inspirations, including holidays, nature, and gemstones. How and why did myth—in the scholarly sense of the word as well as in the sense of myth as fantasy—inspire you to make fragrances?
VW: In the fourth grade, I had to go to a "special school for gifted children," and one of the things we studied in depth was Greek Mythology. I vividly recall being immersed in a world of gorgons, gods, goddesses, and satyrs and being in absolute awe if it all. I connected deeply with the gods and goddesses and can remember the frustration I felt when I asked the teacher if people still believed in these deities and she replied no. The pantheon was so amazing, I just couldn't believe anyone would abandon it!
This experience started me on a lifelong study of mythology and archetype. In fact, I'm currently getting a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and my main area of interest is studying Jung and his theories and interventions. We connect as people through myth and image—it's powerful and universal stuff. And it lends itself perfectly to fragrance. No other sense can invoke involuntary memories like the olfactory system, and I postulate that the right fragrance for the right person can, in fact, connect them to the Collective Unconscious—the universal image bank we all share as part of being human.
JV: You have several different lines of perfume devoted to the mythic and fantastical, including one that focuses on gods/goddesses, saints, heroes, and even historical figures who have become shrouded in legend and a mythos of their own, such as Cleopatra and Aleister Crowley. How did so many traditions come together under one sub heading?
VW: Looking at the Conjure Oils website is like lifting the hood on my brain and peering in at my spiritual history. It's really very personal. I don't dare touch something I haven't experienced or studied firsthand. Every oil I make comes from a period of time in my life where my experience of that tradition, subject or pantheon touched me deeply. It is my thanks and homage to them. I can't fake it—it's just not me. The perfume comes from a place of my own visceral understanding, as well as my own intuition, of the entities involved. Sometimes it feels like they're there, guiding me, telling me how they'd like to be remembered or represented. Fragrant channeling in a way, I guess!
JV: One of the most exciting and unusual lines that you offer is based on the Loteria board game, which has a fascinating history. How did you first encounter the game, and what about it do you find so inspiring?
VW: I first discovered the Loteria game in 1997 when I visited Portland, Oregon for the first time. I was shopping on Hawthorne and found some tumblers with these various, captivating, strange tarot-esque images on them. Of course, I bought them all and commenced on studying their origins. At first, I assumed they had some esoteric meanings, but imagine my surprise when I found out that they were a bingo game! It took lots of meditation on it to realize what a sacred history games themselves have and really, the images themselves could have jumped right out of the archetype river! I concluded that they were, indeed, magical cards and therefore were an intriguing and wonderful medium of inspiration for a perfume line.
JV: Traditionally, there are 54 Loteria cards, the same number as in a deck of playing cards with Jokers included. Currently, you have made scents for 25 of those. Do you plan on making scents for the entire set?
VW: Like I said, something needs to speak to me. When the other images are ready to be made, I'm sure they'll let me know. Usually by waking me at 4am insisting I work on it right then!
JV: Another line that you've created—and one that should appeal to a lot of fantasy and horror fans—is Via Carpathia, which pays tribute to the allure and seduction of vampires, who never seem to be out of fashion. What smells nice about vampires?
VW: Mystery and intrigue! That's what smells nice about vampires! They represent the Shadow self—the part of our unconscious that we deny or repress. The darkness and romance that surrounds vampire culture resonates with deep primal urges—to live and love forever—to be able to possess, or devour another completely in an eternal union, to join an elite and ancient race. I think it all springs out of the deep longings of the human soul that is afraid of the mortality of the body, of death—ideas people have contemplated and desired for centuries! I think that's why it never goes out of fashion. It's very romantic, really.
Via Carpathia was originally slated to be released as a Limited Edition line, but the response (the resonance!) was so overwhelming that I decided to add it to the catalog permanently, and it's been one of the most popular lines on the site since!
JV: There is often a lot of crossover between fantasy fans and those who practice, or at least have an interest in, Hoodoo, Santería, Dianic Wicca and other spiritual practices that routinely involve the use of ritual oils. Talk a little about how each of these traditions has inspired you.
VW: It all comes down to the energy of the image, whether it's a character in a graphic novel or a 5,000 year old Sumerian deity. Aside from their spiritual properties, they all carry psychological influence and gravity. In that way, though my life experience, I've created Conjure Oils as my way to blend the division between the worlds of magickal and mundane—I really don't see the difference. You can use my Hecate oil, for example, to invoke Hecate at the crossroads at midnight, or you can wear it because it envelopes you in the world and feeling of a night filled with stars, bonfires and jasmine on the wind. There's something for everyone—so long as they have a love for myth and magic and imagination!
JV: Specifically, let's talk about your Hoodoo oils. Some of your blends are traditional recipes, and some are unique to Conjure Oils. How do you go about creating a new blend for ritual/spell use?
VW: I don't want to answer this one! I ain't givin' out my secrets! [laughs]
JV: You've just launched Conjure Oil's Oddment Emporium, which offers soaps and solid perfumes for sale. What's next for you?
VW: I'd like to expand the catalog. I've been working on a Cryptozoology line for three years now and would love to see it go live (finally!) I'm also working on a line of traditional magical oils in the witchcraft tradition. I'm also working on a line for the Vodoun pantheon (and a portion of all sales of that line will be donated to Haiti forever. God knows, they need all the help they can get.) And I'm working on a line inspired by Dante's Inferno. I'm also working with an author and blending oils for characters in her books, but that's all the info I can give on that subject right now! Suffice to say, it's going to be fantastic! So, there's some pretty cool stuff coming down the pike for Conjure Oils, if I do say so myself!
Visit Conjure Oils here.
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