Interviews Layers of Meaning and Reference: An Interview with Apoteker Tepe's Holladay Saltz

Layers of Meaning and Reference: An Interview with Apoteker Tepe's Holladay Saltz

06/13/16 07:59:45 (5 comments)

by: Jodi Battershell

I first encountered Apoteker Tepe fragrances on a visit to Twisted Lily in 2015.  Proprietor Eric Weiser introduced me to Apoteker Tepe's The Illuminations collection that day, along with the works of several other New York-based houses. With inspirations in poetry, philosophy, mythology, the four fragrances in The IlluminationsAfter the Flood, Anabasis, The Holy Mountain and The Peradam—were deep, rich, thought-provoking fragrances that utilized familiar and beloved notes—patchouli, mint, incense, jasmine—in novel combinations that stirred both mind and soul.

There was so much to contemplate!

I spent a few weeks inhaling deeply, then reached out to the founder and perfumer of Apoteker Tepe, Holladay Penick Saltz. Holladay was hard at work on what would become the next two releases for the housePale Fire and Karasu—but we connected on social media and she promised to circle back with me after the two new releases.

Pale Fire and Karasu represent new directions for Apoteker Tepe, creatively and personally. In addition to the two new scents, 2016 brings a number of changes for Apoteker Tepe. New oil-based versions of all the fragrances in the collection were added this year. The house's distribution has spread from New York across the United States and even into Canada. Most notably, the house relocated from Harlem to New Olreans—closer to Holladay's family and a spiritual home of sorts for the perfumer, which she'll tell us more about in this interview.

Holladay Penick Saltz

Jodi: Please tell us a little about your background.

Holladay: I went to the Rhode Island School of Design for printmaking before moving to New York. After a few years I went back for a degree in fashion and media studies, but ended up in technology as an academic researcher for a small think tank. It seemed like a field that was endlessly expanding, capable of producing real change in society, but after many years and working for many companies as a creative director and software designer I started to get extremely frustrated. I’m not a Luddite by any means, but I think technology is crippling in many ways, and is forcing a wedge between us and the physical world. I ended up attracted to fragrance and scent through studying the psychological aspects of it, and basically fell down a rabbit hole. I ended up quitting my job at a technology startup and went to work for Le Labo Fragrances, then started Apoteker Tepe in 2014.

Jodi: What is a typical day like for you in the lab/studio?

Holladay: A typical day starts early—I live near City Park in New Orleans, and love to get up and run through it while the sun is rising. The light there at that time is incredibly calming. I then go to the studio and take care of orders, production, and any administrative issues before trying to get a little formulation in by the end of the day. It can take six to eight months (or more) to finalize a formula, and since Apoteker is a very small company with an emphasis on hand-sourcing and hand-production it doesn’t leave all that much time for pure unbridled creativity, but I try!

Apoteker Tepe Studio, New Orleans

Jodi: Which comes first: concept or materials?

Holladay: It’s tricky to say, as they feed one another. Sometimes a concept will suggest a material, and sometimes it’s the other way around. In fact, for me it’s nearly impossible to separate them. The process has to remain flexible or I find that I lose the threads: the concept gets murky and uninspiring (and by extension the emotional impact of the fragrance is lessened somehow) if I focus too much on materials. Conversely, if I’m a slave to the concept then I’ll try too hard to "fix" any detours that point to something other than what I had intended. The materials are often capable of suggesting a better solution than I could have planned by myself, and it demands staying open to possibilities from both sides.

Jodi: Literature, history and philosophy dance in and out of your fragrances—their titles and descriptions, their notes, the moods and effects they evoke. All of the pieces appear to be working on multiple levels!  How does one get from an Arthur Rimbaud poem (for example) to a fragrance?

Holladay: A hard question! My background is in fine arts, and the same process that I used to use to create an artwork is the one I still draw on to create a fragrance. It’s almost like being a sponge, or a filing cabinet—I’ll read something, listen to something, hear a snatch of dialog, and it all gets sucked in and filed away. Eventually, these little bits and pieces will organize themselves into a sort of vignette, the central thread or threads of which is a material or a few materials that work together to begin to tell a story. In the case of After the Flood, it’s inspired by the Rimbaud poem, but it’s also a nod to New Orleans, where I now live—the name is also the title of a series of photographs by Robert Polidori of the flooded and ruined homes of New Orleans after Katrina. I’m not from New Orleans (I’m from about two and a half hours north in Mississippi) but it’s always been my heart’s home, and I’ll never forget the visceral sense of loss and pain after that disaster. In all these compositions I think I’m trying to work out something that’s very deeply personal but can somehow transcend that to be meaningful to others, and taking each of them as a palimpsest—not only layers of materials, but layers of meaning and reference, helps that to translate.

Jodi: Your first four fragrances were issued as a collection called The Illuminations.  They can stand on their own, but they have a cohesiveness and appear to tell a story as a collection.  Please tell us about the origin of this first collection.

Holladay: The point of departure for the first collection is the monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, a concept first propounded by the cultural scholar Joseph Campbell. He posited that there was a kind of DNA for meaningful human storytelling—that our myths follow certain patterns across time and culture, and that we have a deep response to these patterns because they are coded into our identity as humans. In studying scent and smell, which I do fairly obsessively, I noted how fundamental and ancient scent is to all known human cultures, though it’s extremely undervalued and under-studied as a source of cultural knowledge and richness. It was interesting to take each fragrance in the first collection as a metaphor for one stage in the journey and to try to translate each while referencing very old materials and processes, yet still retain a newness. The pattern goes thus: separation (After the Flood), call to adventure (Anabasis), attainment of wisdom (The Holy Mountain), and return (The Peradam).

Jodi: The two 2016 releases appear to go in a different direction. Or two different directions, even. What led you to pursue Pale Fire and Karasu as your next projects?

Holladay: Both of them were inspired by loss—this past year has been a difficult one, and I wanted to explore that through the vehicle of these two fragrances. Each takes that theme from a very different perspective: Pale Fire centers on warmth, excess, and the memory of physical closeness, and Karasu concentrates on austerity and ritual in order to gain transcendence.

They are, in a way, different manifestations of grief, though I intend for them to be comforting, not alienating. These were more personal than the previous four, and don’t center on as much of an external structure as they do on an internal structure: emotions, interiority, memories, and the past.

Jodi: Do your think fragrances have a gender? A season? A purpose? A meaning? What role should scent play in our daily lives?

Holladay: The main reason I got into fragrance and smell was because I became increasingly frustrated by how mediated our world is—there’s something very flat about the tenor of our day to day lives as lived through screens. I wanted to build worlds, and scent is one of the only "media" left that cannot be digitized, scaled, and flattened in the same way that others have been. It is uniquely personal and intimate, and we don’t fully understand how it affects us. There is still much, much more to be explored.

After years of research and work in this area, I’m convinced that smell is profoundly important to human identity and culture, but we tend to write it off as something decorative or incidental. This allows a lot of room for manipulation by consumer product companies, who are well aware of the emotional role that smell plays in product selection and customer retention. I think scent is a fundamental anchor to the physical world, and we should remain aware of it: question it, turn it over, appreciate it, allow it in. We shouldn’t be afraid of it, and we shouldn’t seek homogeneity in the scents that surround us.

Raw materials in an antique vitrine, Apoteker Tepe studio

Jodi: Your fragrances are so thought-provoking and intellectual and beautiful—all of which are terrific and provide an opportunity for gratification on many levels.  What's the best way to approach Apoteker Tepe fragrances, or any fragrances, really?  From the head, from the gut or from the heart?

Holladay: The easiest answer is a combination of these. We can’t help but approach scent with the whole of our personal histories: our memories, our prejudices, our experiences. Human physiognomy dictates that we experience scent and fragrance viscerally—we feel it before we judge it. This makes it a fascinating point of departure: is it possible to create fragrance that is more than just an accoutrement or a luxury product? Can such a fragrance draw on greater culture, art, memory, and narrative and have that somehow translate? How does such a fragrance weave itself into the life of the wearer and what kind of meaning is it capable of evoking? These are all questions I’m trying to approach, though I don’t think they are necessarily answerable. In a way, I see fragrance as an inquiry, not just into the limits of the materials but also as a dialogue between the natural world and the ancient part of our brains that reacts to smells in ways that are still completely opaque to us, especially in our flat, sanitized, screen-riddled culture. It can be evocative in ways other media just can’t: it can jolt us out of worry, anxiety, and stasis. It can provoke visceral disgust and desire. It’s one of the oldest human practices, and is found in almost all known cultures across all time. I find all that utterly, utterly fascinating, and I find it equally fascinating that the vast majority of what you see on a sales floor has absolutely nothing to do with any of it.


All of the fragrances from Apoteker Tepe are beautiful and wearable, with remarkable longevity (I got a full 24 hours from Pale Fire) and arm's-length sillage. All have a complexity and intelligence which may require a few wearings to fully explore and appreciate.

Following the journey as suggested by Holladay for The Illuminations, we'll begin with After the Flood. Celebrating destruction as a form of creation, this fragrance offers flowers grown in the fertile soil deposited by the abundant waters of the flood. Its rich earthiness combined with airy floralcy is a study in contrasts and a remarkable fragrant accomplishment. 

Bring your machete for cutting through the dense greenery imparted by Anabasis. Our journey up the mountainside will be slow and steady but beautifully fragranced by the branches, vines and tendrils encircling us from all sides.

At last, we have scaled the peak and reached the temple on The Holy Mountain, where the simple pleasures of a cup of tea, a warm fire and the sweet smoke of incense invite relaxation and contemplation.

After our trials and our efforts, we find ourselves rewarded in The Peradam. This gem of a fragrance features one of the most beautiful indolic jasmine notes I've encountered, enhanced with the creamy woody notes of orris butter and sustainably-harvested Mysore sandalwood. This one was truly love at first sniff.

Pale Fire is a fragrance of deep comfort and sensuality for me—like wrapping myself in a favorite quilt sewn by a departed loved one, at the end of a long day. Sweeter notes of vanilla and cocoa are tempered by woody whiskey aromas and the pleasant mustiness of oakmoss. The longevity on this fragrance is outstanding and my warm and pleasant fragrant aura radiated for a full 24 hours.

Karasu, in which mineralic dried roots, the smoky ash remnants of incense and wafts of paper merge, is a fragrance as clean and dry as an old bone. This one offers a unique minimalist fragrance experience, perfect for days when I need the anchor of a fragrance to ground me but want to minimize any distractions.

Apoteker Tepe fragrances and samples are available on the official website of the house and select retailers across the US and Canada. International shipping of the eaux de parfums is available through Twisted Lily.

Thank you to Holladay Saltz for sharing your story with our readers, and thank you to Twisted Lily for the opportunity to explore the amazing scents of Apoteker Tepe!

All images: Apoteker Tepe

Jodi Battershell (NebraskaLovesScent or "NLS") is a lifelong Nebraskan who transplanted herself to Philadelphia after a lifetime on the Great Plains. An appreciator of fine fragrances since childhood, she tried her hand at natural perfumery and fragrance-mixing for a number of years, ultimately concluding she was better suited to appreciating the fragrance creations of others. She is pleased to finally be putting her English degree to use as a writer and editor for



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I enjoyed this insightful article very much, Jodi. Somehow, I had not heard of Apoteker Tepe before this, but Holladay's rationale for perfume making in an almost overwhelmingly digitized and mediated world resonated with me. A sample pack is on its way, and I am looking forward to trying these fascinating new perfumes soon.


The fragrances from this house speak to me in a way few others can. Anabasis is truly beautiful and captures the fresh true scent of a Japanese forest in early morning for me (vaguely similar to Hinoki by CdG). Easily my favorite of the group. After the FLood is a close second, with one of the most striking developments (from true earth/dirt/mushroom to piercing yet gentle lily) I have ever experienced. Truly fantastic work. To be honest, Karasu is stark, fascinating and oddly beautiful, but I just couldn't get my head around the costus root. It's at once very intellectual and spiritual, an austere scent, cold and contemplative. I had a full bottle, but returned it. I think I'll be purchasing After the Flood in its place.

If you are ever in Brooklyn, you absolutely must sample all of her scents. Not to mention the wonderful people at Twisted Lily are tremendously helpful while not being pushy, and encourage you to freely explore all the fragances they offer on your own, or with guidance, whichever you choose. I have made multiple online and in-store purchases with these guys, and they were truly devoted to niche fragrance and making sure I was happy. (I know I sound like an advertisement, but I can't recommend this place enough for all the NYC-area fragheads!)


@steveniox, Twisted Lily can ship samples or full bottles internationally. I believe Holladay can also ship the perfume oils internationally if you order directly from the Apoteker Tepe site.

@the big totoro, looking at some of the fragrances in your like and love lists, I think you'll enjoy Pale Fire. Let us know if you try it.

the big totoro
the big totoro

Wonderful and interesting article! I have a bottle of Peradam and I absolutely love it. I love the uniqueness of these fragrances. I will be testing Pale Fire very soon,it sounds amazing!


beautiful! i do so wish apoteker shipped outside of the US though, as living in the UK i've no chance to get a full bottle of the much-coveted peradam. guess i shall have to treasure my sample from twistedlily til kingdom come...


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