The inspiration for the fragrance that Euphorium Brooklyn is debuting this month isn’t exactly typical: Cilice is supposed to invoke “the sensuality of the environment and the intensity of emotion when a young nun is encountered in her cloistered cell,” according to their website. “An intimate and ecstatic moment is observed as she becomes transcendent.”
All of Euphorium’s unisex scents come with such elaborate origin stories. But don’t be fooled by the new company’s website, which claims that it’s a revival of Euphorium Bile Works, a Victorian-era perfumery founded by inventors of “euphorically harmonizing machines” and transcendental sensualists who used perfumes in ceremonies and immersive art shows. Though the techniques and materials Euphorium uses are faithful to Victorian-era perfumers, the characters — and the bile works — named on their website are complete fabrications.
At a Greenpoint coffee shop Stephen Dirkes, co-founder of Euphorium, opened a bottle of Cilice for me, and I inhaled. It was powerful—almost raw—yet alluring, and fired a chain of memories: a Christmas ornament my parents had in the shape of a house, filled with cloves and spices; the bittersweet homeopathic cough syrup I took as a kid; the grubby human way my best friend’s hands smelled when we were little. According to Euphorium, the fragrance profile is incense, beeswax, sweet balsam, leather, and wounded wood. I rubbed some into my wrists.
Dirkes admits that because it’s formulated in oil and not alcohol, the fragrance can feel a little slimy when you put it on, but that’s because “it’s very similar to the real, thick essential oils we work with, like the original stuff that comes from trees. Secondly, it isn’t this crazy bomb of J-Lo-whatever like you get with alcohol. It holds the scent really close to your body.”
He wasn’t wrong. The scent followed me around my apartment that night, flooding my nose every time I lifted my fork to my mouth during dinner. Its ghost was still with me the next morning.
Some perfumers make soaps, lotions, and body washes to complement their fragrances. But not the men of Euphorium. At 43, Dirkes’ renaissance-man resume includes classical composer and short-film maker; in fact, he and Euphorium co-founder Adam Maiolo first collaborated on stop-motion animations. Maiolo, 33, has always had a passion for scents, and got into the field by making his own incense.
It’s not surprising that such creative minds would forgo the traditional soaps and lotions in favor of a more unusual complement to their perfume. Customers can (and do, according to Dirkes) purchase the self-mortifying garter which lends its name to the perfume (don’t worry, you can get it blunted, too) — a sterling silver, chain-link cilice with suede laces that have been infused with the perfume.
“For some people it’s kinda like an S&M thing,” Dirkes said of the garter. “For some people it’s a spiritual sort of Roman Catholic version of—”
“Religious reflection, penance almost,” Maiolo chimed in.
“Well, mortification,” Dirkes corrected. “It’s transcendental — it’s transcending the weakness of your flesh.”
Dirkes sees traces of that same metaphor in the perfume that takes the object’s name. The element listed as “wounded wood” is a reference to agarwood trees, which, according to Dirkes, “creates a pathological secretion in its death throes to protect itself” when it’s attacked by an invasive species. “It’s that transcendental process of overcoming this invasive, debilitating thing that makes this beautiful, awesome, fragrant expression,” he said.
As I smelled my wrists again and again I didn’t reach ecstatic states, like the young nun in Cilice’s story. But with each inhalation the perfume’s complexity and force momentarily blotted out all thought.
Cilice is retailing exclusively (online and in stores) through Twisted Lily, located in Boerum Hill. Wald, the next fragrance in line, inspired by fictional German perfumer Christian Rosenkruez, will be released in March. Its origin story is darker than Cilice’s—something about the woods in southern Germany, a daughter, and bears—but Dirkes wasn’t ready to fully reveal it.
Dirkes described the scent as the “crushed-in-your-hand pine needles smell” of a cold, sappy dawn, giving way to the scent of the “little sweet, menthol flower” known as artemisia and then to a “a little bit of a sweet birch, tar, smokey, maple-syrupy smell.”
Perhaps it was the power of suggestion, but as Wald’s crisp forest notes wore off it smelled a little sinister. It took me back to the time I got lost in my parents’ 40 acres of redwood forest. Thankfully, it wasn’t bear season.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised to correct the spelling of Twisted Lily.