What is the Perfume Project?

This blog is a constantly evolving forum for thoughts on perfume, perfume-making, plants (especially orchids and flora of the Pacific Northwest) and life in general. It started out chronicling the adventures of Olympic Orchids Perfumes, established in July 2010, and has expanded in other directions. A big part of the blog is thinking about the ongoing process of learning and experimentation that leads to new perfumes, the exploration of perfumery materials, the theory and practice of perfume making, and the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products. To counter my inherent grumpy tendencies, I try to write about something I appreciate at least once a week. Once in a while I get up on my soapbox and write about things that aren't at all related to perfumery. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

LANGUAGE AND OLFACTION


It is a great pleasure to introduce a new contributor to this blog! Jesse Hardy joins Azar and me on the Perfume Project Northwest team as we continue to bring you a benignly eccentric mix of our free-ranging thoughts, mostly about perfume. Jesse has written articles for Basenotes and contributed many expert reviews to a number of other perfume websites where he goes by the name LovingTheAlien. His first post here is a thoughtful exploration of the ways in which language can express olfactory perceptions.

LANGUAGE AND OLFACTION
There is a pervasive belief in Western culture that smell is of little importance. At worst, it is dismissed as a rudimentary relic of our quadrupedal past; at best it is considered a subjective, indefinable sense. From Plato to Kant, Western philosophy and literature have ranked olfaction dead last in the list of important human senses. Aristotle believed that individual scent elements could not be discretely identified, but merely identified by association with corresponding emotions. More recent studies of olfaction have revealed that scent, more than the other senses, is processed in the limbic system – the “lower” region of the brain, responsible for much of what constitutes our “id” – as well as the “higher” cortex. This finding has only reinforced the idea that scent is an ancient, rudimentary sense, inextricably tied to our past, when we (presumably) sniffed each others butts and identified possible mates by smell.

Despite its primitive origins, or maybe because of them, our olfactory capacity is laughable compared to that of our other mammalian friends. Dogs have roughly 220 million olfactory receptor cells and well over 1000 olfactory receptor genes, while humans have only about 5 million receptor cells and about 350 olfactory receptor genes. Nothing is more demonstrative of our pitiful, devolved sense of smell than the common belief that we lack even common language to describe our sense of smell – only that isn’t true.

Recent research into non-Western perceptual language has demonstrated that several Southeast Asian languages have a repertoire of abstract, non-referential words to describe odors. In these languages, scents are identified as freely and with as much consensus as we can describe colors – and this applies even to smells that have never been encountered before. The Jahai dialect, for example, includes many basic, non-derivative terms for odors. The direct ramifications are incredible: language can communicate odors after all!

This should hardly come as a surprise to the particular crowd that reads this blog. Many of us have spent years developing our ability to identify and name specific odors in fragrance and, more importantly, have participated in discussions of these characteristics. If there were no language to communicate scent, how could one explain the existence of increasingly numerous perfume forums and blogs where communication relies on words? Scent can easily be communicated to people familiar with it, even to the extent of the receiver being able to translate, more or less accurately, encoded scent vocabulary into a mental “image” of the information. For instance, can you imagine the scent of Fracas with vetiver? How about orange blossom and rubber?

The broader implications of specialized vocabulary dedicated to describing odors are significant, particularly to the olfactorily inclined. If our sociological understanding of olfaction is wrong in assuming that smells cannot be named and communicated in the same way colors can, then how sturdy are our physiological and philosophical understandings of scent? Is our established understanding of olfaction a result of the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) phenomenon?

The reality is that statistical and empirical data on olfaction are not overly-WEIRD, but are often construed in a frankly unscientific manner to validate established beliefs. Olfaction is delegated to the marginalia of scientific research and treated as a curiosity in the same way that research on sexual behavior was in the 1940s. The Kinsey Report challenged traditional beliefs about sexual behavior, but was old news for the sexually liberated, and one can sense a strong resemblance in modern research on olfaction. Perfumers and aroma chemical manufacturers have been using the science of olfaction to develop products that are widely considered to be novel, but our sense of smell and the research behind it are far from novel. With any luck, the “discovery” of abstract olfactory language will pique the interest of the scientific community and lend legitimacy to those researchers willing to challenge traditional beliefs on olfaction, Until then, readers, stay olfactorily liberated, and encourage others to do the same!

[Photo of Jesse (channeling Harry Potter?) courtesy of Jesse himself; olfactory receptor diagram from an educational website; other photos adapted from Wikimedia]

Sunday, January 18, 2015

MASS-MARKET MONDAY: THE OVERSIZED, THE OVERPRICED AND THE OVER AND DONE WITH


How often have you tried a sample of something, become infatuated with it, and looked it up online thinking that you might want a small bottle of it to wear from time to time? Maybe a nice little 5- or 10-ml size? When you do that, how often do you find that what you’re looking for is only available in the largest size, that it’s ridiculously expensive, and/or that it’s been discontinued or probably reformulated beyond recognition? How many of you find that frustrating?

Personally, I tend to breathe a sigh of relief when this happens, knowing that I won’t be spending money on a whim and that I’ll have that much more time to spend with my sample collection. I can imagine, though, that if you really found something you loved it would be disappointing to find that it’s not readily available and within your budget.

Here are three that I've tried recently, with mixed results on the ensuing searches. 

Caron Bellodgia EdT
A classic beauty, the EdT sample that I have is a mild, sunny, upbeat, powdery floral with an undercurrent of lemongrass and cloves, something I was not expecting. But of course! The clove is the carnation and the lemongrass-type synthetics are the rose. It all rests on a sweet vanilla base. As it develops, the clove-saturated sillage becomes quite strong, but in a gentle way, if that makes sense. After an hour or two it folds into a warm and comforting scent that reminds me of yellow mimosa, daffodils, and a vanilla-violet-musk that clings to the body like silk. I like this fragrance a lot, and could easily wear it in moderation … except that I don’t want to buy 50+ ml of what may be a reformulated version for a big chunk of change, so will be content to enjoy my little vintage sample.

Krigler Lovely Patchouli
It seems to me there’s a danger in implying a value judgment when naming a perfume. Not everyone will find this explicit patchouli scent “lovely”, although I personally think it more or less lives up to its name. It has that elusive old-fashioned patchouli note in the sillage – not the earthy hippie one, but the ethereal fine perfumery one that results when it is combined with ambergris-like synthetics and sweet amber. I was surprised to see that Fragrantica listed it as being “for men”, because it seems very feminine to me. It strongly reminds me of the “oriental” perfume that my mother wore and that I loved. In fact, it comes closer to capturing that scent than any other perfume that I’ve tried. To me, this is a retro perfume for sure, but one that could work in a contemporary setting. The listed notes are patchouli, amber and leather. I really don’t get the leather, but whatever the combination is, it works well. Sillage is fairly strong, but not obnoxious. I love it for a while, but towards the end it seems a little cloying. Definitely wearable, except that    when I checked to see if a small bottle could be purchased for nostalgia value, it turned out to be too overpriced to bother with.

Prada Exclusive Collection Tubereuse No. 6
Very nice indeed, this is floral, but floral in a refined and intellectual way. At first there’s a green element very close in scent to tuberose absolute, underscored by a fruity-perfumey base. The whole composition is very dry, as if the tuberoses had been freeze-dried. The opening is gorgeous, but the generic perfumey base quickly takes over and hides the delicate top notes. Then it gradually warms a little and acquires some of the “wet cardboard” note that is often in tuberose fragrances. After about 3 hours it becomes a pretty skin scent with a note that actually smells like real green tea, not the scary thing that I call “scratchy green tea”. Aside from less-than-stellar longevity (about 4-5 hours), this is an excellent fragrance that I could wear … except that it seems to be discontinued. 

[Photo credits: The gratuitous flying rooster is from a taxidermy website, included because the other night I dreamed that I was downloading a beautiful photo of a flying rooster viewed from above. Our brains certainly work in mysterious ways. Caron Bellodgia bottle photo from Luckyscent; Krigler Lovely Patchouli photo from their own website; Prada Tubereuse photo from Fragrantica.] 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

IF I JUST BOUGHT YOUR PRODUCT, WHY WOULD I BUY IT AGAIN?


Unfortunately, when I work on my websites and some other applications I have to leave pop-up windows unblocked, and I don’t like to have to switch between the blocked and unblocked states depending on what I’m working on. As a result, I see lots of ads everywhere, but have mostly learned to ignore them. In a way they’re instructive because they have taught me something about ineffective advertising strategies.  

The strangest phenomenon of all is that of pop-up ads for an item I just bought a day or two ago. It’s happened over and over again. I buy a 250-foot roll of Parafilm (a material that I use to cover flasks during processing), and suddenly everyone in the world wants to sell me a 250-foot roll of Parafilm. If I wanted more than one, would I not have bought multiple rolls in the first place? I can see the possible utility of advertising items related to the one purchased, but not the identical one. If I bought Parafilm, maybe the supplier should advertise Erlenmeyer flasks, magnetic stir plates, beakers, or other lab equipment. I might even see something I needed or “needed”.


The same goes for perfumes and cosmetics. If I buy an item at an online retailer’s site, suddenly ads for that exact item pop up all over the place, usually from the same retailer from whom I ordered. I fail to see the logic behind advertising retrospectively. Shouldn’t the advertiser try to anticipate the customer’s needs and wants instead of trying to sell the same thing over and over?

I’m sure this maladaptive advertising strategy is driven by software robots with no common sense, but surely the people who implement it and choose to use it should be expected to exercise some common sense. At first I thought it was a coincidence, but I’ve now seen it happen over and over again. Have you experienced this backwards advertising strategy? Can you think of any rationale for it other than ease of programming? 

[Billboard adapted from a photo on Hopkins Medicine's website; dog chasing tail from The Daily Mail, push-pull sphere from Wikimedia]

Friday, January 2, 2015

MASS-MARKET MONDAY: PERFUME TRIPS GOOD AND BAD


Last quarter several of my students wrote papers on how substances like LSD and psilocybin affect perception, exploring the concept of “good trips” and “bad trips” and the factors that determine the type of trip. Well, that’s not exactly what the students did, but it’s an issue that they circled around in their writing without ever really getting to, and what I wished they had done.

The mention of “trips” made me realize that every perfume we experience generates a “trip” of sorts, with many parallels to recreational drug-induced trips. An interesting perfume has a clear time-course that may include visual imagery, the conjuring of long-forgotten individual or collective memories and imaginary scenarios, strong moods or emotions, and meditative introspection. It colors and alters our view of ourselves and the world, and may subtly change the ways in which we interact with others. There is a dose-response curve, with the possibility of unpleasant effects from an overdose. Every perfume evokes a different trip and the same perfume may evoke different sorts of trip depending on circumstances.

Here are reviews of two perfumes that I tested last month, one of which could be classified as a good trip, the other one a bad trip.

The good trip: Amouage Jubilation 25
This is like a soft violet musk at first, but immediately becomes sharp and extremely strong, stuffed full of citrus aldehydes, patchouli, and something floral. The citrus continues to rise up, until it reaches gigantic, citronella-like proportions. Combined with the patchouli, it’s almost too much. The violet-fruity-musk scent is still projected into the far sillage – you just wouldn’t want to get too close for fear of being assaulted by the citrus-patchouli team.  After the first hour the citrus and patchouli extravaganza dies down, leaving a smooth, plum-fruity, violet-musk that reminds me of double-strength Rochas Femme in the original version. It’s very nice, but I wish my sample was a dabber, not a sprayer, which is almost guaranteed to dispense too much. Two hours in, the sillage finally becomes normal, and I really enjoy the fragrance, which is by now a good substitute for vintage Rochas Femme. Very nice! It continues in the same vein for many hours, with a selection of high-end musks making their appearance several hours in.  Longevity is all-day, longer on clothing. Bottom line: I love it and would gladly take this trip again.
Note: The generous-sized spray sample from the manufacturer doesn’t say, but it must be the female version.

The bad trip: Lancome Tresor
I was worried about trying this because I’ll never forget having a very bad trip when it first came out in 1990, due to its being much too strong. The carded spray sample that I tried this time around is probably a reformulated version of the EdP, and at least it didn’t knock me over, possibly because I dosed much more carefully. At first it smelled extremely synthetic, cheap, and plastic-y, but fortunately the worst of that went away as the alcohol and top notes evaporated. What remained was a powdery-fruity heliotrope scent with nothing in it that appealed to me. Tresor is classic French perfumery at its worst – too strong, too “perfumey”, too floral, too generic, too conservative. Were it not for the fruit notes, this would be a scrubber, as it was for me in its original incarnation. In the end, it did turn out to be a scrubber even in this modern incarnation because I felt a headache developing, exactly as had happened in the past when I tried to wear it. I know a lot of people like Tresor and I respect that, but it is not wearable for me. 

[Graffiti photo from Wikimedia; perfume bottle photos from retailers' websites] 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

HAPPY 2015!


First of all, a big thank-you to everyone who has read the blog over the past year despite my erratic schedule of postings. Thanks to everyone who has helped support my work as a perfumer. Best wishes to all for a healthy, happy, productive, and successful new year that brings you whatever you most desire.

One of my traditions here is doing a post that looks back on the past year and forward to the next. It’s trite, I know, but it always seems like a good idea anyway. For the sake of the readers, I’ll go light on my “other lives” and focus on the perfume-related track.

The past year saw the launch of two new floral scents, African Orchid, a tropical white-flower scent based on the fragrance of an angrecoid orchid, and Sakura, a light cherry-blossom soliflore. It was also the year of Peace-Love-Perfume, with the release of three commemorative scents for the Facebook group headed by Carlos Powell. Just under the wire in December came Woodcut, which I’d been working on for a long time, ever since the day when I passed by the construction site with the newly built fence. I agonized for a long time about what to call it, but when the right name finally came to mind, the rest was easy.

I traveled a lot, participating in the San Francisco Fragrance Salon, FRAGments in Los Angeles, several out-of-town orchid (plant) shows, and my first-ever holiday pop-up shop. I’m getting much better at organizing for these events, I keep more stock on the shelves now so I don’t (usually) run out, and I’m getting better at handling increased production. It’s been a good year all around, with Blackbird a finalist for the Art & Olfaction Awards, and Woodcut named one of Cafleurebon’s “Best of 2014”.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions because “resolution” sounds so rigid and final, as if it’s a rule to live by. Instead, I set goals, which may shift one way or another as I approach them. My goals for 2015 are to:

1. Improve my websites with up-to-date photos and descriptions, addition of some new products, and more frequent routine maintenance.

2. Never announce new products in my newsletter until they’re listed for sale on the website. More than once I’ve been guilty of writing about items before they are listed, so that people are disappointed when they go to the website looking for them and they're not there. This goal goes hand-in-hand with No. 1, and also involves better newsletter management.

3. Take a critical look at my line and figure out which fragrances to discontinue and which to keep. Because there is constant pressure to come up with new releases and I can only handle so many (I am not  BPAL or Montale and do not want to be!) I need to figure out which are the perennials and which are the annuals in my garden of scents. An upcoming post will deal with this question and solicit suggestions and nominations for permanent status and elimination.

4. Try to simplify, organize, and cut down on distractions. I still spend a lot of time looking for fragrance materials that are stored in a disorganized way, compulsively checking e-mail and Facebook, and other unproductive behaviors.

5. Try to post something here at least once a week. It’s not that hard, I just have to make the time and maybe enlist the help of more guest writers.

6. Do some marketing. I’m fully aware that this is my weakest point in running the perfume business. The goal for 2105 is to start sending samples to bloggers and other potentially interested parties, and add a few more wholesale accounts.

That’s enough to start with. If I make any progress toward these goals, 2015 will be a very good year!

[Janus, detective, and stage hook images adapted from Wikimedia.  Orchid photo is mine.]