Asc Helvetius (pronounced “Ash”) is a baker, perfume maker, and alchemist currently working in New York City. After being welcomed by the city’s blossoming occult scene, Asc started Asc Alchemical, a bath and body company unlike any other. Combining chemistry, alchemy, and a love for all things olfactory, Asc creates art through scent. Dear Darkling sat down to ask her how she makes the magic happen.
Dear Darkling: You meet plenty of people these days who call themselves witches, or tarot readers, but alchemists still seem pretty rare. What does being an alchemist mean to you? Is there a community of alchemists out there?
Asc: Alchemists are very few and far between, for sure. The definition used and practiced by any given alchemist varies wildly, as well. Are we all prone to stooping over boiling substances in glassware in search of medieval-era cure-alls and lead-to-gold? Nah. Are there online communities where you can delve into that deeply? Yes. Is that what most of the alchemists I’ve met in person are into? Not really. My favorite (and vaguest) definition of alchemy is ‘the raising of vibrations,’ and I’ve met folks who do this in the context of art, of magical practice, of music, and in my case, of perfume and herbalist oil-work.
What got you interested in Alchemy?
My main survival job/day job for the past 12 years or so is as a pastry chef/baker. While I’d always had an interest to some degree in magic (be it mythology, religion, spells, etc), the thing that got me into the more physical/chemical nature of it all (for my purposes, alchemy) was learning to extract different flavors in the kitchen.
Some flavors, via herbs/spices/etc, extract better in alcohol, some can just be powdered into sugar, some in oil, some extraction mediums will cause a recipe to fail and some won’t. So I started delving more into my old high school and college study of chemistry to succeed at this better. Then once I’d found my niche in the NYC occult scene, I was finally able to apply all of this to a perfume/alchemy practice and really spread my weird ol’ wings.
Have you discovered the philosopher’s stone?
I believe the most commonly heard reply to this from folks is that if they’d found it they wouldn’t tell you… So… no. Haha. ALSO, funny story, the more charlatan-ish alchemists in the middle ages and such would get on the payroll of these kings to produce a philosopher’s stone, and they’d stretch out their wages and tenure by insisting that the whole process required vast amounts of gold and time.
Your perfumes seem more like potions than anything else. How do you marry magic, science, and perfume?
Given that my passions are such hedonistic, animal things as food and scent, and then that my more academic passions are science and the occult, it was an obvious chimera to birth. I can’t easily separate things like the food uses of cinnamon from my desire to use it in a perfume, and I also can’t divorce cinnamon from its noxious skin-burning chemical aspect.
So all of that would come into play when using cinnamon in a product. If I were to create an oil associated with something like protection, I’d use cinnamon for its traditional/witchy associations with fire, for its familiar comforting culinary associations for, say, a sense of safety and security, and it’d also cause a warming sensation on the skin to kind of combine those two things. So, at this point in my life and practice, I’d actually have a harder time NOT marrying those influences.
What makes scent a particularly magical sense?
It’s one of our least developed ones, which makes it a bit primal and mysterious, combined with the fact that (with the whole olfaction/central nervous system before) the act of smelling is like a stimulus jacking straight into your very human software and essence. I mean, we don’t even have accurate words for smells. We use words from other senses. We’ll say a thing smells smooth, sweet, bright, loud. It’s funny, because its power almost comes from its arcane nature.
What was the first perfume you made?
Well when I was about 7 I dumped most of a bottle of nail polish remover into my dad’s face lotion and thought that was a pretty good and totally sensible creation. Years later, when I started working in kitchens, I’d usually douse myself with this squeeze bottle of rosewater, almond extract, and lime oil so I didn’t smell like a sweaty river monster after work. That was probably my ‘first’ ‘perfume.’
The first actual perfume I sat down and composed after much research and actually purchasing ingredients actually contained a lot of rose, a creamy almondy note, and lime, come to think of it. I still have it, swimming around in a cupboard labelled “Libra”- a working title. I never really moved forward on that one, though I do still have the recipe written down somewhere.
I’ve heard you say you have to taste your soaps while you are making them. Why do you have to do that, and which soap tastes the best?
Haha! Well I’m not tasting them for flavor, they all just taste like a salty soapy thing. But when you’re cooking a hot process batch of soap (which is how most of my soaps come to be), you can tell when it’s finished saponifying (when all of the lye has reacted with the oils) via touching it with your tongue. If it’s not done, it zaps your tongue like licking a battery.
Ok but seriously, philosopher’s stone, do you have it?
Look, I’m gonna need LOTS of gold, and LOTS of time, so just transfer that money straight to my bank account and come check on me again in six years.
You make oils for each sign of the Zodiac, as well as perfumes based on ideas and themes. Is there a way you recommend people use these magical oils?
I get that question a lot, because I tend to leave their use fairly open-ended. I have a line of four ‘sachet’ oils based on the idea of herbalist magic sachets- a sewn pouch of herbs or crystals or whichever to effect a particular outcome or draw good stuff, etc.
I thought it’d be neat to wear those herbs directly on your skin instead of having to keep them in a pocket or something. So yeah, those ones, just wear them on you as a perfume, and expect their effects. There’s one for courage + love (Strut), protection (Sephirot), money + luck (Lucre), and for enhancing mental and metaphysical prowess (Third Eye).
The astrological oils I particularly like, because I package them in larger quantities than my other oils- a whole ounce of it. That’s because I want people to feel generous with using it for as many things as they want. You can use them to anoint candles in a spell, you can just wear them as a light perfume, you can dump a bunch into a bath, or I even have a friend who mixes his Taurus oil into his favorite lotions and liquid soaps.
What is a Spagyric?
Ah! A spagyric tincture is an old alchemical preparation of a thing, from way back in Medieval times. Paracelsus coined the term, it means “I mix.” It is pronounced ‘spuh-JEER-ick’ too, just fyi; I hear some weird ones. It’s an extract of a thing so that only the most ‘celestially pure’ components remain, so that you’ve burned away all the earthly dross. You can do it with plants, animals, or minerals, though I just stick to the herbs (and sometimes insects).
So more practically, it entails extracting out the essential oils (the alchemical ‘Sulfur’), then fermenting what’s left and distilling the alcohol that results (the alchemical ‘Mercury’), then drying the plant matter after that and burning it to a white ash. You wet the ashes down and steep them, strain them out, and dry the water to yield a salt (the alchemical ‘Salt’). You combine those three alchemical elements and you’re left with a spagyric tincture. There’s an easier way if you assume that ‘the Mercury of any given kingdom (animal, veg, mineral) is universal,’ i.e., at its purest form the alcohol you distill from fermenting any plant is ethanol. So you can just extract plant matter in alcohol (so that the alcohol is the Mercury and the stuff extracted is the Sulfur), then strain out/burn/salt the solids and add it back in. The other way is more fun, but this way is more convenient.
They were traditionally taken according to the planetary correspondences of whichever herb, to align with an old planet-based system of medicine where different planets ruled different body systems. I still do them based on their planetary correspondences, but I use them as bases or additions to perfumes I make. I have one I did from fresh, long-stem red roses, where I included rose quartz and red tiger’s eye in the extraction. It’s really something. I’m almost sold out on it, unfortunately, but I’ve just started a new batch from these pretty white/pink roses, and I think it’s going to be amazing.
Do you have any projects in the works for the future?
I took home buckets and buckets of ashes from the pizza oven at the last restaurant I worked at, and I soaked and strained them and I currently have a pan of homemade lye drying out in my studio/lab. I’m looking forward to mixing it with leftover cooking fat from all the chicken soup I make, so I’ll have 100% byproduct soap. I’m pretty excited about that.
I’m hoping to finally sit down and write some digital content about soap making, perfumery, and alchemy, but sitting down isn’t a strength of mine.
And I’ve got that white rose spagyric on the way.
I’m halfway through a series of perfumes based on seabeasts/whales/the ocean. I’ve already got Cachalot (based on the deep-diving sperm whale), Arboreal Memorial (an ode to that fallen tunnel tree out in California, because trees are the whales of the plant kingdom), Titanic Librarian (it smells like a sexy shipwreck), and Manatee Kiss (which is this super lighthearted femme one, like a tempting mermaid, because sailors thought manatees looked like mermaids. I also added hay absolute as a base note because in Moby Dick Ishmael refers to manatees and dugongs as ‘hanging out in river forks and dining on wet hay,’ which I thought was funny). I’m waiting for a few things to finish tincturing before I move on and concoct the next four scents.
Last question: I know you have a lifelong fascination with whales. Where does that come from, and what is your favorite whale?
I’ve always lived by the ocean. I was born on Guam, grew up on Oahu, then lived in southern California before I moved here to NYC. I’d always found anything spookily large really terrifying, like dry docks, or the ocean, or huge ships, or roller coasters, or whales. But it’s kind of a fun terrifying. It’s hard to explain. It’s probably how some people feel about outer space. Sit down and look up some videos of large cargo ships in heavy storms at sea, or whales, and tell me you’re not terror-mesmerized.
My favorite whale for most of my life until recently was the narwhal. I even liked them once the internet got all annoying about them. But these days my favorite whale is the humpback. It was the first whale I ever saw in real life, on a whale watching boat in Hawaii. They’re the most delightful whales to watch videos of. They seem like really jolly, friendly, mischievous animals. There are videos you can watch where they’re just rolling around and splashing with their fins, for seemingly no good reason except that they enjoy splashing. I feel I relate to them.
You can buy Asc’s products at her Etsy shop, or find her at one of the many magical markets around New York City. All product photos courtesy of Asc Alchemical.