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.

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Have you ever had the experience of trying a sample of something, loving it, buying the full size version of whatever it is, and being terribly disappointed? It’s happened to me enough times to make me think that some samples are specially formulated to be better than the real product. It happens most often with skin-care products and cosmetics, less often with perfume, and less often still with food and beverages.

I can think of several benign explanations for the sample-was-better phenomenon. The first is what I’ll call “context enhancement”. If the sample was tried in a festive and/or upscale atmosphere that fits the nature of the product, it will make it seem unusually good. A fragrance sampled in an exclusive perfume boutique with a friendly and helpful SA will smell better than the same fragrance self-sampled in a discount warehouse store. The same goes for a wine tasted from a sparkling wineglass at a beautifully designed tasting room in the winery itself, presented by friendly and knowledgeable personnel versus the same wine self-tasted from a tiny plastic throwaway cup at Costco. Beautiful, congruent surroundings enhance the experience. We smell or taste what we see, hear and feel. When we get the full size home and experience it in familiar surroundings, it may well disappoint.

Then there’s the adaptation phenomenon. This may be especially relevant to skin-care products, which seem to be effective when first sampled, but then lose their effectiveness when used regularly. Homeostasis kicks in, and the skin becomes resistant to whatever the product is supposed to do. With a fragrance, our olfactory systems may well adapt to it after multiple uses closely spaced in time. With food or beverages, the novelty quickly wears off, and familiarity breeds contempt.

Then there’s the batch variability phenomenon. If you tried the 2010 wine and were sold the 2011 vintage, it’s not going to be the same as the sample. If you tried a sample of the original formula of a perfume but were sold a reformulated version, it most certainly will not be the same. Even without reformulation, natural materials vary from batch to batch, like vintages of wine, so there may be subtle differences from batch to batch of a perfume, skin care product, or food. It seems unlikely that these subtle variations would have a big impact on quality, but in some cases they might.

The less charitable explanation is that samples are actually different from the full-size product, designed to impress the person sampling so that they will spring for the big size. I’m pretty sure this is the case with some cosmetic products. The mascara that worked beautifully for months in sample form clumps horribly within a week of opening the full size. The skin cream sample that made my skin smooth and moist, is totally ineffective and even smells different when I buy the full size. One perfume in particular was lovely in sample form but horrible in full size. Why, oh why did I fall for the sample and buy a full bottle?

What is your experience with sampling? If you buy a full size, does it always live up to your expectations? If not, why not? 

[All images from Wikimedia except mascara samples from an old page of a retailer's website]

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


The random drawing has finally been performed, and the winner is:


Please send me an e-mail with your choice of fragrance, and your prize will be on its way to you. It’s a 5-ml travel spray. 

[Cyclamen photo is mine, from my back yard]

Monday, March 23, 2015


Finally I’m back from San Francisco, caught up with putting away all of the stuff that I had shipped to the Artisan Fragrance Salon and back again, grading students’ winter quarter papers, shipping orders from weeks past, spring-cleaning my e-mail message archives, performing remedial care on orchids and other plants that have been severely neglected, and generally recovering from an unusually hectic quarter. For the first time I can remember, I don’t have to be anywhere at a specific time today.

It’s officially spring, the trees are putting out their flowers and baby leaves, the spring garden flowers are all blooming, the bamboo is shooting, and the deciduous outdoor orchids are sprouting from the ground. I mailed out the spring “Scents of the Season” packs today.  Now to start thinking about summer ...

Last weekend I held my first perfume-making class, for a bridal party, in a format that I have decided to call “perfume in an hour”. I had everything pre-diluted (and pre-filtered if it needed it), in dropper bottles. The participants smelled a variety of materials that I’d chosen as being at least somewhat compatible, tested them together on paper, made adjustments as needed and, once they found a combination that they liked, put everything together and filled a spray bottle with their creation. It was great fun to watch the participants work, and I was impressed by the fact that everyone ended up making a really good fragrance. They came up with some creative names for their perfumes, too! I now have a portable kit of materials and supplies ready to go and will be adding these classes to my website soon.

I have a whole week before spring quarter starts at the university, and am looking forward to relaxing a little, playing catch up on everything, and maybe even making a little progress.

[All photos are mine. Perfume class photo used with participants' permission] 

Saturday, March 7, 2015


I imagine most readers of his blog have experienced having an overload of perfumes in their collection. We keep chasing after the latest, most amazing fragrance, our noses always quivering on the lookout for new thrills. Some objects of pursuit deliver on their promise; others don’t, but stick around anyway making our closets look like hoarder heaven. For me, it’s not just perfume bottles and samples – I have way too many cosmetics, clothes, shoes, plants, books, jewelry-making supplies, and other things.

I think humans are collectors by nature, keeping stashes of stuff around in case of a shortage, but we’re also fickle consumers, firmly believing that the grass is greener somewhere else and the newest perfume will be better than the old ones we already have. The result is cluttered drawers, closets, cupboards and, as it turns out, websites.

We perfumers are in the awkward position of being expected to make creations that are good enough to persist and become classics, but at the same time we are expected to constantly come up with new fragrances and release them on a regular basis. In biochemistry, there is a phenomenon called “product inhibition” in which the product of a synthetic reaction feeds back on the system and prevents further production. At some point in perfume-making there is a crossover between production of new fragrances, what the perfume-maker can effectively manage, and what customers looking at a website or store display can cognitively process before becoming overwhelmed by the selection.

I’m sure we have all visited websites where there was such a bewildering array of different products that we ended up not wanting to buy anything simply because we did not want to take the time or put out the energy needed to review everything and make an informed choice (BPAL, I’m looking at you). As a perfumer with online shops, I like to keep the choices broad enough to be intriguing, but limited enough to be manageable. I feel like I’ve reached that crossroads point where some fragrances have to go to make room for other things.

My web-hosting platform can do an analysis of sales of all products over any time period that I specify, so I did the analysis to find out which fragrances were lagging behind in sales. Several were consistently low on the list, with Little Stars placing last or near-last throughout the 5 years that I’ve been in business. I’m not particularly fond of this one myself, so maybe the low sales were due to insufficient promotion on my part, but I’m not going to try to second-guess the reason. I had originally conceived African Orchid as a replacement for Little Stars in the orchid floral line, so I don't feel too bad about discontinuing Little Stars. I plan to do so in the near future, selling off my current supply at discounted prices.

Another fragrance with consistently low sales is Javanica, but I’m more on the fence about this one. Discontinuing two orchid fragrances at the same time would weaken that line, although I could easily produce another, better (in my opinion) orchid-themed floral to replace Javanica.

If you’re a reader who has tried my perfumes, which one would you like to boot off the website like a bad TV show contestant? Which one would you most like to see stay and keep you company?

Cast your votes for “eliminate” and “keep” (one each) in the comments section and be entered in a worldwide drawing for a 5-ml spray of the fragrance of your choice along with some other random goodies. 

[RuPaul Drag Race photo adapted from Buzzfeed; entomologist photo adapted from Wikimedia; ridiculous shoe collection from Runner's World; Perfume Brawl graphic adapted from a game website] 

Friday, February 27, 2015


Guest post by Jesse Hardy (LovingTheAlien)

A few months ago, a television network interviewed me for a production about ambergris. They were looking to film a series on ambergris, including filming a group of people on a search for the elusive substance. While it sounded like fun, there were more problems brought up in the interview than ideas. It wasn’t the fault of the producers, though; there just isn’t much information out there. The US Government even has laws in place that are based on misconceptions about the substance. This isn’t just because it’s a rare and rarely studied material; it is part of the business strategy of the few professional ambergris collectors in the world. Like the fantastic origin stories told by Eastern merchants of the ancient spice trade, the mystery and legend largely preserve the value of ambergris.

Thanks to the investigative work by Christopher Kemp presented in his book Floating Gold, there is now some published literature compiling facts, not myths, on the substance. The book is a fascinating read about the author’s obsessive journey for ambergris and the elusive people behind the ambergris trade that he meets along the way. While I couldn’t possibly recommend the book more in its entirety, I thought it would be useful to extract some of the facts in the book and compare them to the prevailing myths on the subject. The truth is often more magical than the legend!

                  MYTH: Ambergris is a waxy lump that is vomited up by whales.
                  FACT: Sperm whales, a specific whale species, produce ambergris as a biliary secretion when they have a bowel obstruction – typically a large volume of indigestible squid beaks.
Although a sperm whale has never been observed passing ambergris out of its body, one thing is certain: it doesn’t come out of a whale’s mouth. It is possible that these sick whales may be able to pass the mass through the usual digestive path, but it is far more likely that the ambergris never leaves the whale’s body at all. When large whales die, the gases inside their large, thick-blubbered bodies make them extremely buoyant; it also gives them the tendency to explode! It’s extremely likely that this is the primary way that ambergris becomes introduced to the ocean.

                  MYTH: Whales are killed to obtain valuable ambergris.
                  FACT: Ambergris comes from whales that died natural deaths. 
Ambergris comes in a variety of qualities. The oldest ambergris is light, small in size, pleasantly aromatic, silver in color, rare, and extremely valuable. This ambergris has to float freely in the ocean for over a decade before it becomes this grade. This is the stuff that the big companies like Chanel and Guerlain purchase. The next lowest quality is grey amber. This is larger, grey in color, and possesses a mixture of pleasant ambergris aroma and an oceanic, barnyard-like fecal scent. This is also used in perfumery, where its subtle fecal quality can be blended with and disguised by other aromas. It is also used in magic and traditional medicine. This is still valuable, but is worth significantly less. At the other end of the age spectrum is fresh ambergris. This is the stuff that comes directly from whale corpses and is often found scattered along the beach when a dead whale washes up. It is large, black, soft, and has an overwhelming fecal aroma. Although I have seen tinctures of this for sale, it is only sold as a curiosity; it is not used in perfume. It has some value (again, as a curiosity), but not much; most of the ambergris dealers won’t purchase this quality of ambergris. The reality is that ambergris has to oxidize in the ocean for a very long time before it becomes valuable. This means that it is impossible to get valuable ambergris from a live (or even recently deceased) whale. While whaling and poaching are a serious problem, it is not for the ambergris that these poachers kill whales.

                  MYTH: Ambergris washes up randomly on beaches, where lucky people find big lumps and sell them to perfume companies.
                  FACT: This one is only partially true. The ambergris industry is largely controlled by a few dealers who purchase ambergris from around the world. However, they don’t rely entirely on lucky
people that end up in newspapers for finding big chunks of ambergris at the beach; there are a handful of professional ambergris collectors in the world who have learned exactly where, when, and how to look for ambergris. People who live near remote beaches in countries like New Zealand have learned that the same ocean currents that carry around ambergris for decades have a tendency to deposit ambergris (along with everything else that floats in the ocean) along certain beaches at certain times of the year and after large storms. They hop on their dune-buggies at high tide and scour the tideline for ambergris. This would be almost impossible if it wasn’t for one incredible tool: trained ambergris-sniffing dogs. With their dogs, ambergris collectors can find their treasure even if it is inconspicuous or buried under the sand. This is one of the most closely-guarded secrets of ambergris collectors. In fact, the producer who interviewed me said that one of the ambergris collectors in New Zealand with whom she spoke told her that she “can’t reveal on T.V. that we use dogs.” This isn’t out of greed, although it may seem that way. In fact, the secretive nature of these collectors is one of the few things that keeps prices low and availability high!

The nature of ambergris hunting is fickle. Even under perfect conditions, ambergris can only be found if it is there to be found in the first place. Estimates are that only up to one percent of sperm whales produce ambergris. Although there is no good estimate of the worldwide sperm whale population, the upper limit of those estimates is around 1,500,000 (the low estimate is 200,000). At the maximum, that means that 15,000 whales currently produce ambergris worldwide. Sperm whales live for about 70 years. Considering they only release ambergris when they die, this means that the likelihood of actually finding ambergris is very low, even at the upper end of estimates – and that isn’t considering that their population isn’t evenly distributed across the globe. If there was a “grey amber rush,” the competition on beaches would reduce the incentive for professional ambergris hunters. If they were no longer able to make a living, they might give up professional ambergris hunting entirely. The market would be shaken up, and the rush would eventually fizzle out. However, there is no guarantee that the professional hunters would go back to searching for ambergris. The availability of ambergris would plummet, prices would rise, and the industry would be forced to adapt. It’s no secret that the perfume industry as a whole isn’t interested in increasing the cost of their concentrates, so a rise in price could prompt the industry to turn their back on natural ambergris in favor of synthetics forever. Without a buyer, the value of ambergris would plummet and the entire industry would collapse.

Although there are many myths and misconceptions about ambergris, the reality is still enthralling. As a commodity, it is the last surviving member of the orientalist spice trade. Although its physical properties are what keeps it in demand, it is the mystery and mystique that keeps it available. Like all magic, the reality behind the curtain is quite different from what happens on stage. In the case of ambergris, however, the truth is still fascinating. The people behind the curtain are proud, dedicated, and clever. They preserve a tradition with ancient history, which is no small feat. To equate them to junk collectors removes the marketing aspect of their tiny, secretive industry, which is undeniably pretty incredible. After all, they manage to sell a substance that comes from exploding whale corpses like gold bullion. If that isn’t magic, reader, I don’t know what is.

[Burning ambergris as incense painting is by John Singer Sargent; lumps of ambergris photo is mine; all other images are from Wikimedia]