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.
It’s Bulbophyllum season in my greenhouse right now, so a description of some of these bizarre orchids seems in order, especially since I have made a Bulbophyllum-inspired fragrance, Luzonica. Bulbos grow like weeds in Southeast Asia where they live as epiphytes on tree trunks and tree branches. The flowers are often pollinated by flies. If you think about what flies are attracted to, you can begin to imagine the typical scents of Bulbos - feces, dead meat, rotten fruit, mostly. A few have pleasant scents, although they’re not your standard florals.
One of the species that I have blooming now is B frostii, with flowers that are usually described as being shaped like wooden clogs. They’re light green with maroon spots, and have a mobile lip that looks just like a maroon tongue. The purpose of the lip is to jiggle in the breeze and attract the fly, then act like a springboard and smash it up against the pollen, which sticks to its back. This pollination system is characteristic of the genus. The “fragrance” of B frostii orchid is like - you guessed it - rotten meat.
Another species that’s blooming right now is B biflorum, shown in the photo at the left. Actually it’s almost always blooming. The flowers look like long dark pink streamers and smell like - you guessed it again - rotten meat.
The third species that’s in bloom right now is B patens. It has shiny, dark maroon flowers that smell like - surprise - cinnamon! It's the one shown in the photo at the very top of this post.
B macranthum is one of the Bulbos that smell like fruit. The first time it bloomed I walked into my greenhouse to find that the whole space smelled like tropical fruit salad, but fruit salad with a dark side. It took me a while to identify the source because this orchid has such tremendous sillage. To make a perfume based on this species, I used a mix of tropical fruit scents, a few tropical florals, and a pinch of funky spice and put it all on a base that’s not anything like your usual girly fruity-floral scent. The base includes “oriental” things like resins, labdanum, and amber, with some animalic notes thrown in by green spikenard and (synthetic) castoreum. It’s interesting that Luzonica seems to be well-liked by all of the men who have tried it so far. I suppose it could be described as a masculine fruity-floral. The effect of Luzonica in soap is interesting because it seems lighter and fruiter and “cleaner” than the fragrance itself. We are testing it in the shower now, and have been enjoying it very much. I think the light, clean fruitiness works well as a bath product, so I lucked out.
Many thanks to everyone who looked at my e-commerce website, tried out the various functions, and provided feedback. Some of the suggestions were easy fixes - the typos, slight changes in wording, modifying the shopping cart so that customers don’t have to sign up for an account to make a purchase, and learning what I need to do to have shipping cost calculated automatically. I still haven’t implemented the shipping cost calculation, but I know how to do it and will probably tackle it tomorrow.
I received more than 5 test orders, so have taken the test item off of the website. This weekend I’ll start putting together the goodie boxes for those who submitted test orders, and hope to get them shipped off sometime next week.
This has been a lot of work, but overall I’m happy with the way the website turned out. I really appreciate all of the comments, which are helping make it better.
By the way, the orchid in the photo is Phragmipedium bessae, a species of New World tropical slipper orchid. It's blooming right now, and its color roughly matches that of yesterday's rose, but is much more intense. It looks like it's glowing. Unfortunately, it doesn't have any fragrance.
This morning I managed to identify and fix all of the known bugs in the catalog. By afternoon I put the first trial website online. The url is http://www.orchidscents.com. I think it’s functional in all of the basic respects, but it does need to be tested to find whatever bugs remain.
If you would be willing to help me test the e-commerce system by placing an “order” for the test item that I have embedded in the catalog, you will pay one cent and I will send you a big package of items and samples as a thank-you for your testing and whatever feedback you provide. I will do this for the first 5 people who place a test “order”. After that, I’ll see what further testing is needed.
To find the test item, go to the website and click on “Fragrance” in the menu on the left of the home page. The test item is the last one on the list, and is identified by the same orange rose icon shown in the photo. If you “buy” it, you will be taken through the whole shopping cart procedure (I hope), and I will be notified of your “order”. I will then have your shipping information and can send you your goodie box. Any and all comments regarding the website will be appreciated.
I am excited to move on to this next stage of sharing my creations with the public.
Yesterday I completed my testing of all 12 Xerjoff samples. Overall, I’m quite favorably impressed. There are several fragrances that I would actually buy if the prices were in line with those of other niche lines and if I were a person who buys full bottles of perfume. Neither being the case, I’ll probably just enjoy the samples while they last.
Here are the final reviews:
Xerjoff Dhajala Unfortunately the little sample sprayer that Dhajala came in was broken or malfunctioning, so instead of a spray, what came out was a few dribbles that I spread around as best I could. This is probably not the optimal way to apply perfume, but at least I was able to smell it. Dhajala starts out a little bit citrusy, and a little bit sharp and aromatic from the galbanum and whatever herbal things are in it. As it develops, it takes on a unique, bittersweet scent with hints of rose and some other unidentifiable flowers and woody resins. It is supposed to have “Tonkiphora and Myroswellia balsam” at the base. I have never smelled either of these resins, so cannot judge whether they are present in the mix. Like the other Xerjoff creations, it’s a good perfume, but not worth buying the expensive packaging to get the stuff inside.
Xerjoff Shingl This was another vial with a malfunctioning sprayer! Curses!!! However, the crammed spray top on this one was actually loose and falling off so that it was possible to get to what was left of the perfume after leakage. Luckyscent, you might want to rethink those spray vials. The first thing that I smell is an incredibly strong, dry, peppery iris note, so strong that nothing else could possibly make its way through. If there’s bergamot or anise in there, it’s completely stomped on by the bloated elephant of an iris. It’s wonderful if you like iris, but if you don’t, then watch out! After an hour or so, the iris becomes creamy as well as powdery and a little boozy - custard and rum flavored, to be exact, and it’s at this point that the scent really comes into its own. With time, Shingl mellows into a sensual, comfortable, leathery-ambery-fruity-musky scent that reminds me a little bit of the original Rochas Femme. Once this transformation happens, I can enjoy it for hours. It’s not really the same set of notes as Femme, but it’s the same genre, if that makes sense. At that point it’s one of those perfumes that provides an example of how I wish my skin smelled, but it was quite a journey to get there.
Xerjoff Lua Starts off with a sweet and sparkly citrus note that persists as the flowers appear, primarily a light rose with slight hints of violet or iris and something unidentifiable as a specific flower but floral and very sweet. The vanilla-tonka base is there almost from the beginning. After a couple of hours I start smelling some sandalwood in the base. This is a nice, comfortable feeling perfume that is enjoyable from beginning to end.
Xerjoff Nio Citrus, citrus, citrus! That’s what Nio shouts as soon as it comes out of the vial. It’s mostly natural-smelling fresh lemon peel, with a little orange peel, grapefruit peel, citrus flower and, of course, the compulsory bergamot thrown in for good measure. There may be a little sprig of lavender in it, to stir it around. After a few minutes some strong green notes appear, probably cedar or cypress leaves, and there’s vetiver supporting it all. I’m not usually fond of citrus + green scents, but this one is an exception. It’s strong and assertive, with plenty of character. The spices aren’t really evident individually, but I think they help round out the overall impression. For a scent in the “men’s cologne” genre, this one is exceptionally nice.
Xerjoff Dhofarr Starts out like a citrusy, herbal-lavender, slightly sweet and soapy men’s cologne. It’s possible that what smells like citrus is actually the listed pine needle note mixed with other citrus-like things. It seems to have a pinch of cumin and/ or coriander in it and my initial assessment was that there is some vetiver at the base. However, on reading the notes and seeing that it contains “jatamansi”, it’s very likely that what gives it the cumin-vetiver combination is spikenard, which on its own provides an earthy-rooty-sweaty-cumin-like note. After a half hour or so the actual pine scent starts coming through, so there probably was citrus initially. Bergamot is so much of a given that they probably don’t even bother listing it in the notes. As the scent dries down, it becomes more and more of a typical “men’s cologne”, heavy on the lavender and cedar. The spikenard goes away, which is too bad since it provided an earthy note. At no time do I smell any labdanum or amber. Dhofar is well-made, but it’s not my style, since I’m not a big fan of lavender-heavy fougere-type fragrances.
PEONIES. The two topics in today’s post don’t go together at all except that it’s the season for both of them. The peonies are in full bloom right now, with all of their different colors, shapes, and fragrances. Peonies are one of the first flowers that I remember from the garden where we lived when I was a preschooler. They were taller than I was, and the fragrance was intoxicating. That’s why, when we moved into the house where we live now, I planted peonies all around the yard. Single ones, double ones, red, pink, and white ones. The flowers are spectacular, especially now that the plants are well established, but the fragrance of most of them is a little disappointing. The only ones that smell the way I remember peonies smelling are the white ones. The others smell good, but not in the strong, sharp, achingly beautiful way that the white ones do. I know there are perfumes that are supposed to have a peony note, but I don’t think I’ve ever smelled one that’s like white peony (or the other colors for that matter). Peony scents are something that I need to explore more.
DESIGNING A WEB SITE. One of the necessary evils of doing business online is designing a website, entering all of the products, and putting it online. So far, I think the gestation of my website is fairly close to being on schedule, with a due date sometime around the end of June or beginning of July. I worked on it a lot today. For the initial version I opted for a no-frills template-based e-commerce site that I can put together myself. According to one well-known personality test, I am type ENFP, which means that I an extroverted, intuitive, feeling and perceiving, in other words lazy and sloppy with little or no tolerance for geeky activities, especially ones that require writing code in HTML, sending files by FTP, or worse.
For my website I chose the least evil-looking of the templates that the host company had to offer, a bland lavender and white thing that seems excessively stark and businesslike, but better than the brown and hospital green alternatives. The only artsy thing about the design is the photos that I put in as illustrations, so maybe I should try to generate a lot of purple prose to match the website’s color scheme. As soon as I can phone the host company on Monday and find out why some of the prices I’m putting in are being rejected, I think I can have the site up and running within hours, or days anyway. At least the tech support people for this company aren’t in the Philippines as they are for the company that hosts my orchid plant website, and they haven’t been trained to give customers one of three irrelevant answers that they randomly read off a card. I’m looking forward to the grand opening of my perfume website within the next few weeks.
Since I’ve been giving out samples of my perfumes for testing, I’ve come to the fascinating, almost frightening, realization of how easy it is to lead people’s noses to smell whatever you want them to smell. In the beginning I started out with four orchid scents, but over time have added more than twice that many other scents that had nothing to do with orchids, or even with flowers. However, the original calls for testers had the word “orchid” in the heading, and I think people expected all of my perfumes to be orchid fragrances.
When I have people test my perfumes I like for them to do it blind, so I never provide any description or indication of notes. The variability in what people smell without any context is nothing short of amazing. The only thing I can conclude is that there is so much individual variability in people’s sense of smell that no matter what notes are actually in a scent there will always be some people who perceive it as floral, others as woody, others as citrus, others as animalic, others as gourmand, and so on, and so on. Some people will think it’s a light and cheerful scent, others will think that it’s heavy and depressing. Some people will love it, some will be neutral, and others will hate it. I thought the testing process would identify some clear favorites, but that hasn’t happened.
What has become very clear to me is that people will smell whatever they expect to smell, or some variation of it. When orchids are the context, people will smell orchids even in a scent that contains nothing but cedar, juniper, pine, and aromatic herbs. They will smell orchids in a labdanum-heavy oriental amber scent, a traditional eau de cologne, or in any other scent that you could concoct. Admittedly, part of the problem is that almost no one knows what orchids smell like, and those of us who do know realize that orchids can smell like just about anything, including cedar wood, anise, ylang-ylang, vanilla (after all, real vanilla comes from an orchid plant), artificial cherry, baby powder, chocolate, dead meat, or feces. The “orchid” note in perfumery is a fantasy name for a class of smells that have little or nothing to do with real orchids.
However, I suspect that even for notes like vanilla that are fairly standardized and universally familiar, people will be able to “find” them in a scent with a name or description that suggests that they are present, even if the perfume contains nothing of the sort. I would be willing to bet that many people will be convinced that they smell vanilla in a scent composed of nothing but cedar, black pepper, and cloves if it is named Sexy Vanilla Cream Puff.
I don’t think the suggestibility of our olfactory system is comparable to the phenomenon described by Solomon Asch in the 1950s on visually judging the length of lines. Those experiments showed that when asked to compare test lines with a reference line and choose the two that were equal in length, a sizeable percentage of people would choose the wrong answer if their peers had done so. People are extremely accurate at estimating the length of a line, so in that case, they would all have given the correct answer if asked individually without any peer pressure. The situation in olfaction seems to be much more complicated. The peer pressure phenomenon is there, of course, and is probably quite powerful, but my guess is that the tester sets up a search image that somehow organizes the complex pattern of olfactory-evoked activity in the brain to conform to that image. This probably works because a complex olfactory stimulus can have multiple interpretations, much like a mathematical problem that can have multiple solutions. Perfumers take advantage of this ambiguity by providing one solution out of many, a solution that then becomes the default.
As the spring comes to an end, I have made a vow not buy any more perfumes or perfume samples until the middle of August, at the very earliest. It’s not only the need for economy during the lean summer season of the academic year, it’s also that I have such a huge stash of unsampled things that it would be absurd to add to it at this time.
As a perfume maker, I can always rationalize buying samples so that I can make sure I’m not duplicating anything that’s already on the market, but the lure of “needing” to try everything is much too seductive. Every time one of those special offers from Lucky Scent or the Perfumed Court shows up in my e-mail box, I fall for it, hook, line and sinker. Every time I read about a new and interesting release I go looking for a sample of it. At least it’s not full bottles.
I’ve also tried to buy everything I could conceivably need for perfume-making before summer starts, but perfume materials are every bit as seductive as ready-made perfumes, maybe more so because they have so many more possibilities. However, the buying moratorium on raw materials is only a partial one, trying not to buy things that aren’t absolutely “necessary”, whatever that means.
The good thing is that I’ve probably forgotten what I have in all those boxes of samples that I have stashed in my closet (the photo only shows one of several stacks), so pulling them out will be almost good as receiving one of those exciting padded envelopes in the mail. I may even review some of them here.
I like to try as many perfume materials as possible, not just because I like to smell new things, but because I never know where the next wonderful perfumery discovery will be. On this quest for new smells, I recently obtained some calamus root essential oil. Acorus calamus is a ubiquitous marsh plant known by the common name of sweet flag. The plant itself looks like a lot of other plants that grow in marshy areas. The flowers are strange spikes that look like an extremely fat ear of grain and not at all like the showy yellow flags (a type of iris) that I see growing all over marshy areas around here and blooming this month.
Ever since humans have been making fragrant products, the roots of Acorus calamus have been used in incense, perfumery, for medicinal purposes and, apparently, for their mild psychoactive properties. When I first smelled the oil, I hadn’t read much about it, and had ordered it more or less blind simply because it was unfamiliar. On the first inhalation, I immediately had a strange, lightheaded sensation that I have never had from any other essential oil. Repeated sniffing didn’t have the same effect - it seems there was rapid adaptation. However, after waiting a while, I can repeat the rush of smelling it for the first time. Fascinating. From what I’ve read, the psychoactive properties are supposed to require chewing and possibly ingesting fairly hefty amounts of the root and are questionable at best, so I really can’t explain the effect of sniffing the oil. The fragrance of the oil is light and sweet but at the same time a little nutty, a little bit bitter, herbal, and astringent, with an odor that is hard to describe in terms of other things because it is unique.
I’m sure that I will eventually end up making an all-natural perfume centered around calamus root oil. This seems like a worthwhile project for a number of reasons including the historical value of calamus in perfumery, the smell of the oil itself, and the odd effect that I find it has. Since I got my supply of calamus oil, I have been reading information on kyphi, an incense made by the ancient Egyptians, which used calamus root as one of the key ingredients. I think I’ll put all of the different formulas together and come up with a kyphi variation that takes the best of them all and adapts it to perfume form.
I did not intend for today’s post to be a rant against malfunctioning perfume sprayers. Unfortunately the little sample sprayer that Xerjoff’s Dhajala came in was broken or malfunctioning, so I struggled with it, finally managing to coax out a few uncontrolled dribbles to test. This is why I hate sprayers, especially the crimped or crammed ones. With a malfunctioning screw-top sprayer, the top can easily be removed to dab the perfume, or the sprayer cap can be replaced altogether. The Xerjoff samples are in the cram-top sprayer vials where the sprayer is pushed tightly down over the vial, making it really difficult to remove. Crimp-top sprayers are even worse because it takes manly tools to get them off if they break. A more civilized way is to remove the spray top and try to get at the perfume through the top of the tiny piece of tubing that feeds into the sprayer, but that’s not very satisfactory. Sprayers almost seem like planned obsolescence. Sprayer breaks, throw away 100 ml bottle with remaining 90 ml of perfume and buy a new one. Surely I’m not the only one who has encountered a faulty spray bottle or vial.
This leads to the whole issue of the best ways to package and apply perfume. Many times I read comments on the forums indicating that people are squeamish about dabbing with their finger because they are afraid of contaminating their perfume with microorganisms, skin cells, or some other unspecified, unspeakable, unsanitary things. Really, folks, how much filth do you have on your hands? How much of it will actually get into your perfume bottle? Do you know that 95% ethanol will kill and sterilize almost anything that might make its way in, including those poor little stray skin cells that are dead to begin with? Is a dipstick or rollerball really any better, since it touches your skin anyway, probably much more vigorously than your finger would, and simply gives the illusion of being dainty and “hands-off”?
I will concede that some things are better sprayed, like eau de Cologne, some eaux de toilette, and anything that’s so weak that you have to saturate yourself with it to get a decent effect. Annick Goutal’s Eau d’Hadrien comes to mind as a perfect example. For those sorts of preparations I would use a sprayer, not caring how much I dispensed or where it landed since it will not have much smell to begin with and will be gone in an hour anyway. Otherwise, I really prefer to dab perfume. Sprayers almost always dispense too much, too erratically, in a shotgun approach. They malfunction and shoot out much more or less than intended - usually more, so I end up reeking or scrubbing. They break. This is why most of my collection is samples or minis - they generally come in open containers that I can dab from in small amounts. I hate rollerballs with a passion, just because they’re a pointless and unnecessary barrier between me and the perfume.
In deciding how to package my perfumes, I’ve come up with a sort of compromise based on my own likes and dislikes and what I know the general public is used to and wants. There will be no rollerballs. The pure perfume will be in small “splash” bottles for controlled dabbing, since it’s strong. The EdP concentration will be available in both splash bottles and spray bottles, so customers can have their choice. The spray bottles are all screw-top, not crammed or crimped so that if a sprayer should malfunction there is still easy access to the perfume, and the sprayer can be replaced (I intend to provide replacement parts, should this happen). The sprayer can even be refilled if the perfume is used up. It will be interesting to see which packaging formats are most popular.
I first encountered ponderosa pines many years ago when hiking in northern Arizona, in the hills around Prescott. Ponderosa pines are not only beautiful, majestic, awe-inspiring beings, but the mature trees have a special feature. If you put your nose up close to the trunk on a warm, sunny day they give off a fragrance that’s sort of like a mixture of vanilla and tarragon, but has its own special ponderosa pine quality.
Last year I was fortunate enough to find ponderosa pine essential oil for sale. It’s made from the needles, not the trunks of trees in South America, so supposedly “no trees are killed” to make it, although I do have to wonder if it’s a by-product of the lumber industry. The scent is absolutely wonderful, so I was immediately compelled to use it in a perfume, which I have christened Arizona. Ponderosa pine essential oil is fairly volatile, so it acts as a top to mid note in perfumery. I combined it with a base of juniper and resins, added a bouquet of desert plant scents including chaparral and sage, and sweetened it up a tiny bit with mimosa absolute, reminiscent of blooming acacia trees. The result is a wonderfully aromatic blend that is all natural, but strong and long-lasting. I think most people would characterize it as a quintessentially “masculine” scent.
This is going to be one of the initial selection of fragrances that I offer on my website, the beginning of a series that I call “Scents of Place”. After I did a quick and dirty, 5-minutes-in-Photoshop label design for Arizona, I saw that Andy Tauer’s label for L’Air du Desert Marocain is alarmingly similar, so I’ll probably have to modify the Arizona label.
It was a wonderful surprise to find that this all-natural scent’s sillage and longevity are comparable to those of many synthetic fragrances, and that the perfume essence works beautifully to scent soap. Many natural oils have a way of evaporating out of soap even before it’s used, so have to be supplemented with synthetics. The ponderosa pine oil, combined with the other oils that are in Arizona, seems very stable. At my house we’re currently using Arizona soap made months ago, and it not only scents the air while showering, it leaves a light scent on the skin afterwards.
[The ponderosa pine photo is from Wikimedia and shows an oddly shaped specimen]
Today is rant day. A weekend’s worth of shows went without any horrible screw-ups. I’m through teaching for a little while. Yesterday I actually had time to water the greenhouse before all the plants died, and I was able to get a couple of nights sleep. I suddenly have the energy to get on my soapbox and rant!
Paranoia, as we all know, is an irrational fear. It seems humans have a deep-seated need to fear something, and that need is not going to go away any time soon. If our lives are so safe and comfortable that we don’t need to fear plagues, famines, attacks from wild animals, or war on our very doorstep, we find other things to fear. If the things we should fear are too big to be comprehensible, like an undersea oil leak spilling so much for so long that it, together with the garbage we have dumped, kills all of the oceans on the planet, or humans continuing to reproduce exponentially so that we eventually wipe out every other form of life and starve to death while wallowing in our own garbage and excrement, we find small things to fear - things over which we feel that we, personally, can have some control. Things like razor blades in apples at Halloween. “Germs”. Being sued. “Chemicals” in perfume.
Every product comes with a warning label lest someone should misuse it and sue the manufacturer. “Do not put the plastic bag over your head and keep it there for so long that you suffocate. Do not drink the drain cleaner or wash your hands with it. Do not put your fingers in the food grinder while it is running. Do not touch the heating element when the space heater is on. …”, and so on. Everyone is assumed to be an imbecile with no common sense just waiting to sue the manufacturer of a product that they have misused.
People have become so paranoid about “germs” that they continually wash or “sanitize” their hands in a way that could only be characterized as obsessive-compulsive. The medical profession has been so eager to prescribe antibiotics “just in case” that a whole host of mutated microorganisms have arisen, ones that are resistant to all of the commonly used antibiotics. That is far more scary than any of the “germs” that our immune systems evolved to deal with.
There are entire websites devoted to bashing “chemicals” in perfumes. If not chemicals, what, pray tell, are we supposed to put in perfumes? What are we supposed to wear, eat, or drink? Everything in this world, including the very people who fear chemicals in perfumes, is made up of chemical building blocks. Our own bodies contain things that would make us shudder in horror if we saw the whole unpronounceable list of ingredients written out on a label. The same people who claim to be allergic to perfumes blithely go about inhaling air fresheners, fabric softeners, deodorants, shampoos, and hand sanitizer gels that contain more cheap “chemicals” than any of the perfumes they object to. Ah … but they are using these products out of fear that their garbage will stink, their laundry will be less than fresh and fluffy, their armpits will smell like sweat, their hair will be oily, or their hands might have “germs” crawling on them. Using a scented product for pleasure does not fit with the puritan ethic of using things only out of necessity or fear.
Maybe we should concentrate more on big fears and not worry about the small stuff. Wear good perfume while we think about how to stop war, overpopulation, and global warming. If we can't stop Rome from burning, at least enjoy a tasty meal, a glass of good wine, a fine perfume, and some lively violin music on the way out.
For a while now I have been fascinated by the possibility of making a perfume that truly reflects the scents of the ocean and the beach (no calone!). One of the components that I’ve been investigating is seaweed - the fresh, green, salty sort that is exposed at low tide. The first stage of my exploration was to buy a small quantity of seaweed absolute, made from Fucus vesiculosus, manufactured in France. The absolute smells wonderful, but it’s prohibitively expensive to buy retail and the company that sells it wholesale apparently does not respond to e-mail.
The other day when I was taking the ferry, I decided to go down to the beach and explore the seaweed situation, since there’s always plenty washed up, drying in the sun and emitting various kinds of odors. I gathered a big bag of seaweed from the beach, and then noticed that there was a lot of live, blackish-green seaweed growing on the rocks. I gathered some of that too, and when I got home, looked it up to see what it was. Bingo - Fucus vesiculosus, the same stuff that’s in the imported absolute, growing practically in my own backyard. It’s possible that some of it may be a hybrid with Fucus spiralis, but both are closely related species commonly known as bladderwrack. The exact ID doesn’t matter as long as it has a pleasant, ocean-like odor.
I dried the bladderwrack in the sun for a few days and then crumbled some of it into alcohol to make a tincture. Wow! It’s better than I had ever hoped. Not only does it smell as good as or better than the absolute, it is just as strong and the alcohol turns a beautiful, clear, emerald green. My plan is to make the perfume and use the seaweed tincture as the alcohol carrier. This way I’ll have a bright green perfume with a hint of sweet and salty seaweed. Now I have to figure out what the other beachy components will be, but I think that now that I have the seaweed tincture, with a reliable supply barring any undersea oil leaks, the biggest obstacle has been overcome.
This cute little orchid is blooming in my sunroom this week. It’s an amazingly tough plant that breaks out into clusters of frilly light yellow flowers every spring no matter how much I abuse it by failing to water it when I should and exposing it to light levels that would kill many other orchids. The most astounding thing about it is not its hardiness or its reliability in blooming, but its fragrance. These flowers start out smelling like the original Fendi for the first few days but end up smelling just like Chanel Egoiste for the rest of their life. No kidding. Egoiste, teak and all. There’s no way I could make a perfume to duplicate the scent of these flowers because Fendi and Chanel have already done it by accident, and done it almost perfectly. Now I have to wonder just what sorts of insects are attracted to Fendi and Egoiste.
This week has been stressful, to say the least. Not only is it the last week of the academic year, but the play that I’m directing (A Gulag Mouse by Arthur Jolly) opens tonight in Seattle. The week leading up to opening is stressful enough when it proceeds without incident, but we lost an actress during the middle of rehearsals and replaced her with another one who was doing a fabulous job getting up to speed. On Wednesday she called me saying that she was in the hospital having major surgery! As director, I was familiar enough with the play, but watching and doing are two very different things. I did a blitz-through on the lines, blocking, and fight choreography, put together a substitute costume, and hope that I can stumble my way through the run.
As I try to de-stress after dress rehearsal last night while I dis-tress my now slightly torn costume with oil and bleach and a run through the washing machine before taking it out to the driveway, I can take a few minutes to reflect on scents and the theatre. Theatres themselves often do not smell very good because they’re old and dusty and filled with set pieces, props and costumes in various stages of decomposition. Overlaid on that there may be new (or recycled) wood and paint from the sets. Dressing rooms smell like make-up, hairspray, and whatever food or drink is being consumed. Sometimes sweaty bodies and clothes are added to the mix if the performance involves much physical activity.
I generally take these odors for granted until the show is over for the night and I leave the theatre, going from the noisy, bright, warm, emotionally charged atmosphere of the stage into the silent, dark void of the late-night streets with pieces of trash blowing in the cold salt wind and a light mist hitting my face. No matter how many times I make this transition it’s always a moving experience. It feels almost like birth, going from the close embrace of a warm womb out into the cold, indifferent world. Or maybe it’s more like death, going from the sensation-rich hustle and bustle of life into black nothingness. Maybe they’re one and the same. Two sides of the same coin. The top and bottom, right and left of the circle.
I’ve always been puzzled by the concept of “men’s” and “women’s” perfumes. Today I’m wearing the men’s version of Guerlain Vetiver and loving it. I haven’t tried the women’s version, but I can’t imagine it would be better than this. Guerlain Vetiver is similar to another “men’s” vetiver fragrance that I like to wear, The Different Company’s Sel de Vetiver, but richer. I also prefer the “men’s” version of Amouage Jubilation XXV, which, to me, is like blackberries, incense and amber. What’s masculine about that? Other “men’s” scents that I’ve recently tried and loved are By Kilian Straight to Heaven, with its strong retsina note, and Knize Ten, with its leather notes.
So what is it that makes a scent masculine, other than marketing? I suppose it’s the absence of in-your-face florals, but I see no reason why men shouldn’t wear flowery scents if they like them. They would be far preferable to the typical drugstore “men’s cologne” scent composed of synthetic lavender, cedar, and all too often my olfactory nemesis, “teak”. I used to work with someone who would come and sit in my office reeking of these things, contaminating the air for hours afterward. I really wish he had switched to roses or jasmine or orange blossoms or gardenias.
I’m not overly fond of true floral scents except on actual flowers. They have their place in creating perfume accords, especially the orchid flower scents that I’ve been experimenting with, but for my own enjoyment I like herbal notes, resins, incense, amber, woods, musks, leather, and the occasional odd and unexpected note. Does this sound like masculine scents? Sometimes I like fruity notes, especially black currant and fig, or gourmand notes like vanilla, coconut and spices. Now we’re getting into “unisex” territory.
In formulating my own fragrances, I really don’t think about whether they’re masculine or feminine, just about the concept and how to realize it. I do not plan to market them as being for men or women, but rather let people smell them and judge for themselves whether they’d wear them.
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