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, the challenges of marketing perfumes and other fragrance products, and random observations on philosophy and society. Spam comments will be marked as such and deleted; any comments that go beyond the boundaries of civil discourse will also be deleted. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.

Monday, July 25, 2016

CELEBRATING PERFUME WRITERS: DONNA HATHAWAY PART 2

Donna had a lot to say, but it's too interesting and well written to edit, so I'm featuring it as a multi-part series. Here's the next installment!
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Do you think your style and content are unique? How so?

I don’t think of my style as being particularly unique. I am by no means a perfume  expert, and I truly admire the writers who have far more knowledge than I do.  What I try to do is communicate my enthusiasm in a way that everyone can relate to; one need not be a perfume “insider” to read and understand most of what I do. I am just spreading the love! I have tried a few more daring ventures, however. While writing for Perfume-Smellin’ Things I have had the chance to participate in some group projects with other writers, which made me aware of the amazing indie and artisan perfume scene, and that really stretched my own concepts of what perfume could be. I had to find new ways to write about them. For one of them, the Devilscent Project, for which you made some wonderful fragrances, I did a series that incorporated perfume descriptions with a complex story that was part mystery, part supernatural, and part old-time adventure serial in the manner of Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with time travel, sex scenes and nefarious Nazis. It was a total departure for me that could have been a disaster, but I somehow made it work. I am looking forward to trying more of that “working without a net” writing in the future, it was loads of fun.

What is your process in writing a perfume review?

I prefer to write about what I like, or at least find interesting. Sometimes I have to ponder for a while until the right approach comes to me, and after that I know what shape it will take. If I am faced with a mediocre subject, my output will probably be substandard as well. I sometimes come up against a brick wall when it comes to how to deal with a subject, and if I don’t feel the spark, I usually don’t pursue it. Life is too short for bad perfume, or bad writing.

Being honest and true to myself is the only way for me to operate as a fragrance writer. When I review a perfume, I want the reader/consumer to have my true opinion and impression, and I do not write good reviews in order to curry favor from a brand. If I dislike or even hate something I will say so, and I will say why. There are some so-called blogs that are really nothing more than publicity fronts for brands, including some that are part of well-known fashion and beauty magazines, not independent blogs, and that is not what I want to do. It’s fine if they are up front about it, but it’s not my thing.

What do you think about the idea that reviews should only be positive?

I prefer to write positive reviews if only because I don’t want to smell bad perfume. The major brands are legitimate targets when they put out less than good quality products, since they clearly have the resources to do better, so if I do give a bad review, it’s usually for the big players, as a public service. If the great Fran├žois Coty could see what the company carrying his name is putting out now in the way of cheap-smelling celebrity scents, inferior reformulations of their older classics, and little else, he would be horrified. If you want to make a perfume lover weep, let him or her smell a bottle of vintage Emeraude next to the current version; it’s truly a crying shame. I have a long list of grievances on this subject, don’t get me started!

Do you think it’s useful to have a linear, one-dimensional scale for the “quality” of a perfume (stars, lippies, or such)? If so, why? If not, why?

It can be useful and fun to have such measures, but not necessary. I agree with some of Luca Turin’s five-star ratings, for example, but I am mystified by others, and the same with his one-star failures.  Some fragrances are obviously better than others, but it’s also highly subjective.

How do you judge the “quality” of a perfume, anyway? What are the important factors that you consider?


First-rate materials are very important. I am somewhat old school in that regard, having cut my teeth on the classics, and I am dismayed by a good number of the recent reformulations of my beloved “oldies.” They are virtually never an improvement. I also want to have an emotional response to a great perfume. It has to develop and sustain its quality and structure over time, not fall apart after five minutes. The really good ones smell better the longer they are on the skin, and they have a story to tell, one that you want to “hear” over and over again.

[The mention of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" got me started searching for old publicity posters, which is what most of these are. The star rating graphic is from a retailer's website, and Donna's headshot is one that she provided.] 

Friday, July 22, 2016

IS THERE A READING PROBLEM?

For those of us who teach (as I do in my parallel life), one routine and never-ending task is writing letters of recommendation for students or former students. In the old days, we would simply compose a letter, print out a hard copy and send it by snail-mail to graduate and/or professional schools, fellowship granting agencies, potential employers, or anyone else who needed information about an applicant. Later on, we would be given a link to upload a letter. This was all easy and straightforward, especially given that letters of recommendation are rather stereotyped in their general format, consisting of some basic boilerplate (how long I’ve known the person, in what capacity, etc…) that can be customized for each individual and each situation, while adding personal details.

Lately, however, I have found that an increasing number of agencies and institutions not only want a letter, they want the same information that is in the letter broken down into bite-sized, numerically-graded chunks. If I were to conscientiously do that, it would involve restating the material in the letter multiple times, resulting in redundancy, a waste of everyone's time, and  the elimination of whatever generally good things I said about the applicant in the letter. A person is more than the sum of his/her selected attributes.  At best, the bite-size windows on the forms repeat verbatim various subsets of information that are already in the letter and, at worst, the questions are unanswerable, approaching the level of the infamous “if you could be an animal, what animal would you be?” question that sometimes pops up in job interviews.

The same strategy is now used by a number of organizations for which I do reviews – break everything up into small chunks and give each chunk a numerical score. The conclusion that I draw from this trend is that the people in charge have trouble reading an entire, coherent document, getting the big picture, and understanding what is explicitly and implicitly being communicated, or that no human ever reads the evaluations, which are coded by a software package. In any case, whoever or whatever is processing the letters seems to have trouble scanning a simple one- or two-page document and identifying the information that they want or need. Maybe they watch too many videos instead of reading. I don’t know. What I do know is that most of the student applicants would appear to have better reading skills than the people who are evaluating them.



The bureaucratic reduction of human beings to a black-and-white list of their “3 strengths” and “3 weaknesses” is just another symptom of the depersonalizing forces in contemporary society, which no doubt contribute to feelings of alienation, frustration, and discontent. In the real world, strengths can be weaknesses and vice versa, depending on circumstances, and a person is far more than the sum of a few arbitrarily chosen parts. Writing this sort of evaluation is like providing three low-resolution color separation graphics in yellow, magenta and cyan instead of a full, high-resolution photo complete with shades of gray. Why not just look at the full picture in all its nuances? Oh, silly suggestion. Someone would actually have to read the letter.  

[Man reading by T.S. Good, 1827; raven reading by Carl Sptizweg, 1845; girl reading by Fritz von Uhde, 1888; color separation graphic adapted from an image on a camera manufacturer's website]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

WINNER OF ELEMI GIVEAWAY

The name has been drawn, and the winner of the Blackbird 5-ml travel spray is:

POLA

To claim your winnings, just send an e-mail to olympicorchids at gmail dot com with your correct name and full shipping address.

The winner has until Thursday, July 28 to claim their prize. Otherwise it goes back into the jackpot.

[Blackbird photo is mine]

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

MATERIALS: FRANKINCENSE AND A GIVEAWAY

From elemi, the obvious place to go is frankincense. I wrote a post on frankincense back in 2010 when I started this blog, but it wouldn’t hurt to do an update. Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is another resin that comes from trees in the family Buseraceae, in this case Boswellia. The resins used in incense and perfumery come from several different species, each with its own aroma profile, and each species yielding a slightly different scent depending on origin. Boswellia is native throughout arid landscapes in India, North Africa, and the Arabian Gulf regions. 

The trees themselves are, to me, very attractive, typically with gnarled trunks covered with smooth bark that peels as the tree grows, and sparse, lacy leaves. Boswellia trees are deciduous, losing their leaves during times of stress, typically during the dry season. Resin is obtained by making shallow cuts in the bark of the tree and harvesting the dried resin. Oil is obtained by distillation, although the raw resin can also be tinctured.

I am growing seedlings of several different Boswellia species: dioscoridis, neglecta, and carteri. Given my propensity to under-water or just forget to water, they seem to do well in my hands. The carteri is the largest one, and has kept its leaves this summer. The other two have lost theirs because they’re small and in a very hot, dry location. They’ve done this before, so I know they’ll perk up and grow when summer is over.

Frankincense is one of those materials that I’m worried about. Although it’s listed as “not threatened”, the trees can only produce so much, and it’s likely that their habitat is diminishing due to the same sort of reckless human activities that are destroying nature everywhere. Boswellia seedlings are eaten by domestic animals, trees are burned by fire, they are cut down to clear land or to use for firewood or lumber and, of course, over-harvesting of resin weakens trees. I keep my stash of resin and oil against the day when these things may no longer be available, or when the price has risen because supply cannot keep up with demand.

Boswellia is a traditional Ayurvedic medicine reputed to have strong anti-inflammatory properties as well as anti-microbial, anti-fungal and insect-repellant properties, yet another example of trees producing compounds that help keep them healthy and infection-free.

The species that produces the “lightest” and greenest oil is B serrata, which grows in India. This oil is closer to the citrusy-green scent of elemi than the others, and very much in the direction of pine needles. The primary constituent is alpha-pinene (over 70%!), with small amounts of limonene, verbenol, pinocarveol, myrcene, borneol, para-cymene, and other trace molecules. I used Boswellia serrata oil in Gujarat along with B carteri to provide a light incense note to go with the smoke element of the scent.

Boswellia carteri is the most common species used for the production of resin and oil. The scent is very different from that of B serrata, much richer and more resinous. Alpha pinene makes up less than half of B carteri oil, the main constituents being diterpenes whose long chemical names you really don’t want to see, although if you’re really curious you can view them here, and octyl actetate, which has a distinctive fruity smell. I have used Boswellia carteri oil in a number of my perfumes, most notably the Devil Scent series, where it was used to give a vague impression of burning incense. I also use it, along with natural sandalwood oil, in my Body Balm.

This is getting long, so the post on the different types of Boswellia will probably be continued next week.

Leave a comment about what type of frankincense you like, or what frankincense-containing perfume(s) you like and be entered in a drawing to win a 5-ml travel spray of the Devil Scent of your choice plus some extras.

[All images are from Wikimedia]  


Monday, July 18, 2016

WRITER'S MONDAY: DONNA HATHAWAY

Donna Hathaway is a Portland-based perfume writer who has graciously contributed her thoughts on perfume writing. This is the first installment of a multi-part series.

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How and why did you decide to write perfume reviews?
It was all in a very roundabout way, really. I have always been an avid reader, and a lover of words, but I never did much writing in my younger days except for assigned work and some very bad poetry. Much later I wrote a few articles for my garden club, mostly on practical subjects, but I managed to insert something about fragrance when I could; I love scented flowers and my interest in all things fragrant began early in my life. My passion for perfume has been developing for a long time, and it intensified more than thirty years ago when The Perfume House opened here in Portland, and I discovered what classical perfumery was all about. I always thought I was nearly alone in my obsession, but more than a decade ago, I discovered the emerging phenomenon of perfume blogs. Blogging itself was in its infancy then, so there were not many of them at that time, and I read them all with fascination; here was a world I understood, and there were others like me who loved perfume! I learned a lot, and some of the best of them have endured to the present time, now joined by many others.

In 2006 I was having a personal crisis; I was grieving over a major romantic disappointment and some other stresses in my life were not helping matters. I needed something to get my mind off my own troubles, but I didn’t know what to do. Around this time, the owner of one of the blogs I read, Aromascope, put out a message that she was looking for a guest writer, and invited people to submit samples of their work. By this time I had read a lot of blog posts about fragrance and I figured I had nothing to lose by throwing my hat in the ring, so I sent in one of my garden club articles. Much to my surprise, she chose me! I had a wonderful experience writing for Aromascope and I received a warm welcome from its readers. When the owner decided to pursue other interests and let it go dormant, the wonderful Marina asked me if I would like to join her group of guest writers on Perfume-Smellin’ Things, and that has lasted for about nine years now. I found that writing about perfume was the perfect outlet for my passion and added a much-needed creative aspect to my life, since my day job is in the insurance industry. I enjoy my job, but real creativity in the insurance biz is about as welcome as “creative accounting.”  I have grown as a writer and I really love it.

Why did you choose or create the venue(s) on which you publish your reviews?

It’s funny, my first two blogging gigs both fell into my lap, and then a few years later another perfume friend alerted me to the new Examiner.com news aggregator site, which was looking for writers in major cities to write about various subjects. I passed muster and became the Portland Fragrance Examiner in 2009. So that was pretty lucky as well. Examiner just announced that it is shutting down, but I have plans for a future writing project that will be all mine, no holds barred on what I can write about, featuring perfume reviews and more. I just need to find the time to finalize it, as I am currently pursuing an associate degree while working full time, so it will be a little while before that all comes together.

What purposes do you think perfume reviews serve, and how do you think your reviews serve all of some of these purposes?

There is so much information out there and so many perfumes both good and bad, and I hope that honest reviews help people separate the wheat from the chaff. Ironically, the rise of perfume blogs and social media attention has also given birth to a new audience and many new perfume brands, and therefore more confusion. People are bombarded with facts and images on blogs and social media, and it can be hard to navigate through it all.

[Headshot provided by Donna Hathaway; perfume painting by J W Godward, 1914; lost love painting by Charles A Collins, 19th century; fog on the mountain photo from the local ski area webcam, threshing grain poster early 20th century]