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.
Salamanca, Day 1: I hate flying east. There’s a 9-hour time difference between Seattle and Western Europe, and I have yet to discover how to deal with it effectively. Flying west is no problem. In fact, it’s somehow energizing to have an extra 9 hours in the day. Flying east I’ve tried taking a melatonin and attempting to sleep on the plane. It doesn’t work. I’ve tried staying up the entire time and crashing the afternoon of the day I arrive, sleeping through until the following morning. This works better, since it sort of mimics the extra-long day. It’s the strategy I use when traveling alone, but this time we slept on the bus from Madrid to Salamanca, and stayed up late afterwards, walking around town. Big mistake. Both my mate (who shall hereafter be referred to as M) and I had tremendous jet lag this morning, sleeping until 11:00 and feeling like we were at death’s door. It felt like a horrible hangover without having drunk any alcohol.
The hotel is very civilized in that they serve their breakfast buffet until 11:30, so we made it down there just in time to partake. I normally don’t eat breakfast, but when I saw the gorgeous array of cut fruit that was on the table I changed my mind. There was watermelon, some sort of yellow melon, and cherries, all favorite foods. I even had a glass of orange juice before the coffee was served, something unheard of since I usually find orange juice too sour to drink in the morning. For some reason the smell and taste of the fruits was an excellent remedy for jet lag. M’s theory is that it’s the potassium. Maybe that’s the explanation, since I know I got really dehydrated on the flight and subsequent 2.5-hour bus ride across the flat, brown, and hot Castillan plateau. However, I know I felt better as soon as I saw and smelled the fruit, so there was some sort of placebo or expectation effect as well. Fruit and a hot shower with orange-scented soap have enabled me to sit at my computer and write, which is more than I could have done before. In fact, I feel remarkably good. It’s amazing what a little fruit can do.
The night before I left for Spain my e-mail stopped working, or rather, the Hotmail account that I use for non-day job stuff stopped working. When I tried to sign in, I got an error message saying that I needed to update my browser. Update my browser? I’ve been using Safari all along to read my e-mail. Why should it suddenly stop working and need to be updated now? I tried accessing my e-mail from Firefox - same thing. On both browsers I got a message that implied that Hotmail now only works on a version of Internet Explorer that requires the latest version of Windows. Unbelievable. Microsoft has outdone themselves by trying to get people who have Hotmail accounts to use a browser that only works with Windows.
The solution to the Hotmail problem was absurdly easy. I immediately switched my “home” e-mail account to Gmail, which seems to work perfectly on any browser that I choose to use. The process was quick and completely painless. Gmail is even importing my contact list and old messages from Hotmail. I probably should have made this switch long ago.
I seem to recall Hotmail trying to pull this sort of trick a couple of times before. There would be some glitch that was supposedly fixable only by installing software that required Windows, but a couple of days later things would be back to normal, probably because so many people had complained and in the meantime Microsoft had sold software to people who mistakenly thought they needed it. This time was the last straw. Who needs Hotmail when Gmail not only works on my Windows-less browser, but works far better than Hotmail ever did? And it looks better, too.
PS: I’m now in Salamanca, staying at one of the upscale conference hotels, and immediately discovered that the hotel wants to charge 18 Euros a day for internet access! This is even more outrageous than the last place I complained about, which charged $10. To me, charging extra for an internet connection is like charging for water, lights, sheets on the bed, or basic TV. I found out that there is free 30-minute access to internet in the hotel lobby, so am trying to post something this evening.
Tomorrow morning I leave for two weeks at a scientific conference in Salamanca, Spain, so I don’t know whether I’ll be able to post anything while I’m there. Probably not. I will be taking my laptop with me, so I expect to write some posts about Spain-related topics, but don’t know if I’ll get a chance to put them online until I get back to my trusty home wi-fi. On one of my previous summer trips to Spain, the insides of the power adapter for my laptop melted due to using it during the hottest part of the day. No kidding. That taught me that my computer needs a siesta every afternoon, so it will have to take it easy during its semi-vacation even if it can get online.
In any case, I plan to make notes for a new perfume to potentially go in the “Scents of Place” lineup. I was planning to make one anyway, based on previous visits to Salamanca, and this will be the final test sniff to see if I’ve missed anything important.
My rant of the day is about international conferences that are scheduled in August when we have the most beautiful weather in Seattle, everyone at European destinations is either on vacation or wishing they were on vacation instead of at the conference and, worst of all, air fares and hotel prices are sky-high because it’s peak tourist season.
If I’m quiet for 2 weeks, you know it's because I'm off in the land of no readily available internet connection.
One of the online discussion groups that I participate in is composed of people who make perfume as a small business, as well as those who are starting out pointed in that direction. I would characterize most of these people as independent perfumers. However, it's good to take a look at what's meant by "indie perfumers" and how they are related to other classes such as "niche", "commercial", "mainstream", etc. Of course, I mainly speak for myself when I describe “indie perfumers”, but I think my own approach generalizes to at least some others.
We are not the “noses” who create mass-appeal scents for the large commercial perfume manufacturers, nor are we are the “fragrance duplicators” or the people who buy bulk fragrance oils, repackage them with different names, and sell then on E-bay or other such venues. We fall somewhere outside the mainstream, maybe far on the fringe, creating original scents, often using expensive, high-quality, natural materials, working from an approach that is more artistic than commercial. To compare indie perfumers with visual artists, we are not the commercial artists who create images for advertising or design “art” items for mass production, nor are we the people who sell cheap Van Gogh prints or velvet Elvis portraits by the side of the road. We are the classic “starving artists” who are passionate about our work, willing to take risks, and willing to give up a certain amount of security in exchange for the freedom to create what we feel like creating, in a way that expresses our unique view of the world. Some people will like what we see (or in this case, smell), others will not. That’s OK.
A few indie perfumers will become famous, maybe even within their lifetime, possibly leading to their entry into the world of commercial, mass-appeal perfumery of one kind or another. Mass appeal does not just apply to the drugstore masses or the consumers of products from the huge upscale commercial perfume houses and "designer" brands, but also includes the large community of perfume snobs who are seduced by a name once it has become famous and made the transition from "indie" to "niche". In reality, most of us will probably find some satisfaction in creating perfumes for their own sake, making ourselves and a small number of other people happy, but will never become celebrities or engage in mass production.
It’s unfortunate that in a world of throw-away commercialization, cheap products, and poorly thought out big-brother “regulation” that favors big business, indie perfumers may soon become a threatened species. If this were to happen, the perfume community would lose its most important pool of new talent and original ideas. One member of the perfume-making group has taken a small step toward publicizing the work of the indies, establishing a new blog, ‘Independent Perfume Art” (http://independentperfumeart.blogspot.com/). The purpose is to showcase reviews of indie perfumers’ work, thereby bringing them to the attention of perfume connoisseurs worldwide. Please check out this new blog, on which I will be posting from time to time.
This week I have a hybrid orchid blooming that has Phalaenopsis gigantea in its ancestry, and for some reason it reminds me of Phalaenopsis javanica, the species that inspired the scent Javanica. The photo on the left shows this hybrid, Phal Perfection Is ‘Chen’. The flowers of both gigantea and javanica are maroon spotted and fragrant. Phal gigantea and its hybrids have large flowers with a light citrus scent, while javanica has tiny flowers with a sweeter and more complex fragrance, although they do have a hint of citrus, too.
When I got my first Phal javanica plant it was growing in a pot of sphagnum moss, and its first flower spike surprised me by burrowing down into the moss as if it were a root. I extricated it and propped it up so that it could bloom, and eventually it produced a small flower like the one in the photo on the right. It didn’t occur to me that it might be fragrant, but one day I noticed a sweet, spicy, almost incense-like fragrance that was exactly like a fine perfume. Eventually I traced it to the little flower hiding under the big shiny leaf. For days I kept sniffing the flower, wishing that I could capture it in a perfume. The plant has bloomed many times since, with new flowers appearing one after another from the same stalks, and the fragrance varies a little from one flowering to another, sometimes more spicy, sometimes more citrus-like. I think it depends on season and weather conditions.
When I started making perfume, one of my first goals was to create a fragrance that epitomized my memory of that first blooming of Phal javanica. I started out with a sweet base of vanilla, resins, balsams and woody notes, added some floral notes including jasmine and rose geranium, put in a good shot of frankincense and nutmeg, and topped it off with the citrus that’s characteristic of fragrant phalaenopsis. Javanica has turned out to be one of my favorite orchid fragrances.
After sending out a number of sample packs, I’ve encountered an issue that I really didn’t think about when I first started doing it. The sample packs always include all of the scents that are listed in the online catalog, but also some others that are not listed yet and may never be. My idea was that the response to the unlisted samples would help provide feedback on what would be good to include in the catalog, but I have been surprised by the number of inquiries about full sizes of many of the unlisted samples. The interesting thing is that there are no clear favorites.
Of course, if someone likes one of the unlisted samples, I’m more than happy to sell them a full size bottle. The way I’ve decided to deal with this is to include an item in the general fragrance listing of the catalog that I’m calling “The Wild Card”. It allows the customer to choose the size and specify the fragrance in the comments box at checkout. I’m hoping this will work, at least for the time being. I thought of using a playing card joker as a symbol, but decided to go with my photo of our shadows on a marshy area in the ravine on our property. It looks kind of ambiguous, and it’s prettier than the joker images that I found.
I haven’t posted for a week because I just returned from St. Louis, where I was at a meeting related to my “day job”. Oh, the joys of flying, having my flip-flops x-rayed, staying in an upscale hotel that has the chutzpah to charge $10 a day for internet access (I refuse to enable that egregious manifestation of greed even if someone else is paying, hence no blog activity), and going to meetings that start at 8:00 AM, which is 6AM home time. To make matters worse, the whole topic of the meeting was deeply disturbing and depressing because it dealt with an ecological problem to which there may be no solution. At least, it appears that there is no easy solution as long as humans continue to have their way with nature. The meeting took place at the St Louis Zoo, where we were given a tour of several captive breeding colonies of animal and invertebrate species that have gone extinct or are about to become extinct in the wild. I know everyone who tries to save endangered species means well, but I can’t help wondering if the efforts are like trying to bail out the Titanic with a teaspoon. The efforts to prevent extinctions create a daunting Pandora’s box of ethical considerations that I think I’ll save for another post since they apply to orchids and other plants as much as animals.
The whole impact of humans on nature was brought home to me like a punch in the gut the evening I went running in the upscale neighborhood near the hotel where I was staying. No one was on the streets because the temperature was 90 degrees F (32 degrees C), and the humidity was high. People were hiding in their cave-like air-conditioned cars and houses, where the temperature probably averaged 65F (18C) or less, using huge amounts of energy unnecessarily. OK, I know it’s hot, but why do people feel the need to cool their environment so much in the summer that winter clothing is needed inside? What’s wrong with having the indoor temperature at, say, 80F (27C) in the summer, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and sandals, and maybe sweating a little bit? Why not open the windows and let the breeze in? The other thing that struck me while running was the huge expanses of obsessively groomed, green grass surrounding every house, completely uniform in color and height, 100% weed-free, and reeking of the fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides that had been applied to achieve that boring green look. I thought I was going to choke on the fumes rising up out of the lawns. What do people use all that grass for if they don’t go outside? Are they not aware that their neighborhood stinks due to all the chemicals they put on their grass? Maybe not, if they stay in their climate-controlled shells all the time. These are probably some of the same people who on occasion make a tax-deductible contribution to campaigns to save charismatic mammals, all the while killing the lower-profile members of the ecosystems that support their poster children.
My photo today is of some of the beautiful “weeds” that grow on our property instead of green grass. Tomorrow I’ll probably turn my thoughts back to perfume, but for today I have to express some of the pessimism that I’m feeling about whether human awareness of our role in the environment will ever evolve beyond the drive to kill anything colorful that appears in a perfect green lawn.
One of the high priorities on my to-make list is a scent that in some way re-creates the odors that I experienced years ago in India. It’s an intimidating task because there are an uncountable number of them, and there’s a serious risk of combining so many incompatible things that the mixture becomes a complete mess. One of the key notes that I have envisioned for this scent is a smoky one, something reminiscent of the burning cow-dung that is (or at least used to be) hanging in the air everywhere, all the time. I know this sounds awful and disgusting, but burning cow dung is actually a pleasant, campfire-like scent. After all, it’s just semi-digested grass briquettes and it smells a lot better than American barbecue charcoal. I considered a lot of different things including cade and birch tar, but when I got a bottle of choya loban I knew I had found the holy grail of smoke scents, at least for the purpose of this formulation. It may prove to be useful in making “burning incense” notes, too.
Choya loban is a thick, almost black liquid distilled from the Indian species of frankincense, Boswellia serrata, which has a lighter and more citrus-like scent than any of the African species. From what I’ve read, the distillation of B serrata resin “tears” (the dried sap exuded by the trees) is done in clay jars, so that the result smells smoky, earthy, and just a little resinous. Perfect. Today I mixed up an experimental base using choya loban, sandalwood, and a few other things. It wasn’t perfect (what is, the first time around?) but it turned out better than I expected, and I almost like it too much to combine it with other things. I’m sure I’ll change my mind after I get used to smelling it, though.
I can see that the Indian scent is going to be an ongoing project for a while, along with the orchid scent, Osafume.
I started thinking about the topic of natural scents and flavors while sampling a particularly insipid all-natural perfume yesterday and eating a mango today. I am all in favor of natural foods, scents, clothing, and anything else that can be made from natural materials, but I wonder why so many people who embrace the “natural” lifestyle equate it with excruciatingly bland. Certain of my friends and in-laws are into natural foods, and eating at their house is always torture. Try to imagine tasteless tofu lasagne made with whole-wheat noodles and waxy soy cheese. No spices, no flavoring of any kind. Even if there is flavoring, tofu sucks it all out, so the unflavored lasagne is like swallowing a gustatory black hole. Along with the lasagne there’s probably a salad - fine as far as it goes, but instead of good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the poor organic greens are smothered in some sort of viscous, tasteless, no-fat "healthy" dressing. For dessert there’s a pumpkin pie made with pumpkin from the backyard garden of the party in question. It sounds good until you taste it. It’s unflavored mashed pumpkin on a lumpy, 2-inch thick crust of whole-wheat flour and flax seed, probably held together with tofu.
In North American culture, I think there is some sort of Puritan idea that whatever is good for you cannot, by definition, be enjoyable. It’s the only reason I can think of for the plethora of inedible “health food” and “natural food” that exists. For heaven’s sake, traditional Indian vegetarian food is all-natural and is some of the spiciest and most delicious in the world. Traditional Italian cuisine is all-natural and delicious. So is traditional Mexican food and Thai food - the list could go on and on. All it takes is good ingredients, a little imagination and the desire to actually enjoy eating.
I think the same principle of “bland equals virtuous” is sometimes applied to the making of natural perfumes, judging by the ones that I’ve tested. There are plenty of natural oils, resins and absolutes that are every bit as strong and long-lasting as most synthetics. Think about traditional Indian attars and Arabian perfumes. These (at least the good ones) are all-natural, but stronger and more pungent than many “western” perfumes, even the synthetic ones.
In my own perfume formulation, I try not to use a synthetic material when a natural one will do, not because I consider natural materials somehow virtuous, but because the natural material almost always has a deeper and richer scent than the synthetic one and is therefore more enjoyable. It’s like the difference between eating a real ripe mango and something containing artificial “mango” flavor. There’s no comparison. It’s the difference between real wood and laminate, blown glass and plastic, leather and vinyl, real gold and “gold-toned” metal.
Having said all this, sometimes the ethical choice is the synthetic one. People have no business using real ivory, tortoise shell, oils made from plants that are on the brink of extinction, or anything else that’s not completely renewable. I don’t think mangoes or lavender are going extinct any time soon, at least not as long as people cultivate them, so I’ll continue to enjoy the natural versions.
In the Pacific Northwest, the 5th of July is officially the start of the dry season, generally a period of unbroken warm and sunny weather that lasts until sometime in September. The clouds broke up yesterday afternoon and the sun arrived right on schedule. Today the sky is bright blue and it actually looks like summer. Our tomatoes will finally grow!
As I remarked in another post, I don’t subscribe to the idea of “men’s” and “women’s” fragrances, and I don’t really believe in “summer” and “winter” fragrances, either. Having said that, I’ve recently embarked on a fragrance that would probably fit the traditional image of “summer” scents. Could it be that I chose to work on that one rather than a heavier one because of the season? Or was it because my Dendrobium moniliforme had just been blooming?
Whatever the reason, I decided it was time to create a fragrance in honor of this little gem of an orchid. Dendrobium moniliforme is a miniature orchid species native to Japan, where it is grown for its attractive plant form, often with variegated foliage. The flowers are a bonus, usually appearing in spring after a dry, cool period in the winter. They are generally somewhere in the white to pink range, and are fragrant, with a distinct anise-like note.
To honor my collection of Den moniliforme plants with their own fragrance, I started with top notes of anise and star anise, adding some heliotrope, light vanilla, and airy, greenish floral notes. I think I’ve pretty much nailed the flower scent itself. For a base, I chose to make a white musk accord, something that I can use as a base in other scents, too. So far it seems to go well with the anise and floral notes. Right now I’m sitting here with the various accords on tester strips, waving them around occasionally, and liking what I smell. I’m sure some more tweaking will go on, but so far this has been one of the easier scents to make.
Now I’m trying to decide which moniliforme variety to name the scent after. Some of the candidates are Bayoumaru, Genetsu, Osafume, Siroaya, Kitoumaru … and others. I have about 20 different types. I just noticed that Siroaya is covered with buds, so it’s blooming a second time this year. Any comments about which name sounds best for a perfume?
It seems like time to write about another one of my creations, so what better place to begin than with the orchid that started it all, Brassavola Little Stars? Brassavola orchids are native to Central and South America, where they grow as epiphytes on tree trunks and branches. They have cylindrical, spiky leaves and masses of thick, exposed roots that most people would consider ugly, but when they bloom, what a show! Little Stars is a hybrid between two different species, B nodosa and B cordata, and it was the first Brassavola that I grew, back before I knew much about orchid growing. The first time it ever flowered, I walked into the house one night and smelled the most amazing and unexpected fragrance, something like ylang-ylang spiced with cloves. I had no idea what it was or where it was coming from, but it didn’t take long to trace it to my blooming orchid plant with its sprays of green and white flowers.
To make a long story short, the plant bloomed repeatedly over the years, each time producing the same exquisite fragrance, but only at night. Since then I’ve grown other white, night-fragrant orchids, native to both the Old World and New World, and found that most of them have a similar fragrance, a stunning example of parallel evolution.
Every time I smelled my night-fragrant orchids I thought how wonderful it would be to create a perfume that was like their scent. Eventually I had to try, starting with the ylang-ylang and cloves that seemed to be the basis of the Little Stars fragrance. It was then that I quickly discovered the principle of top notes! Both ylang-ylang and clove are fairly short-lived fragrances, so the mix would be gone within an hour. I then had to experiment with base notes, trying to come up with something that would hold the scent on the skin for a reasonable amount of time. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with all of my trials and errors up and down the learning curve, but in the end I settled upon a base that contained several different resins, spikenard, cedarwood, and a little synthetic agarwood (oud). The rest of the mix includes some citrus, green tea, and a few other floral notes. I would say that in the end, the blend is about 80% natural and 20% synthetic.
In the end, because of the constraints of perfumery, the fragrance isn’t exactly Brassavola Little Stars, but rather its dark and brooding cousin. It has the delicate, sweet and spicy top notes of my Little Stars’ flowers, but they’re riding on the strong shoulders of a woody, earthy base. Several people who have tried it describe it as a “goth” fragrance. Maybe that’s fitting for a flower that only comes out at night.
My first orchid child is blooming this week! A few years ago I pollinated the flowers of my mature Phalaenopsis parishii plant, grew the resulting seedlings from flask, and now the first one is all grown up and blooming itself. I’m happy to report that it has a strong and beautiful fragrance.
Phal parishii is a miniature species, much more graceful and cute than the ungainly mass-produced hybrids that are sold in places like garden centers, box stores, and Trader Joe’s, virtually none of which have any fragrance. The flowers of parishii are mostly white, and huge for the size of the plant. One of the unusual features of Phal parishii is its wide, heart-shaped, purplish lip, which is somewhat mobile so that it jiggles around in the breeze. It has a strong fragrance that’s very much like lily-of-the-valley. I don’t think it’s original enough to merit a perfume, but it certainly is nice to smell when the plant’s in bloom. It’s fragrant throughout most of the day, but shuts down at night.
This plant is definitely a keeper, the pick of the litter. Next year I’ll probably find it a suitable mate and pollinate it, but for now I'll just let it live a carefree life, have fun, and grow some more.
Things are growing outside, not least of which is the black bamboo. The canes this year are thicker than I’ve ever seen them, which means the new ones are going to be even taller than old ones, which are already taller than the mature alder trees that grow next to them. Today there’s a huge one pushing its way through the asphalt of the driveway despite the supposedly bamboo-proof barrier that is buried 18 inches into the ground. The canes grow a foot a day, more on the rare days when there’s some sun.
Right now getting my business up and running is not progressing at as fast a rate as the bamboo. The response to my offer of a free goodie box was immediate and a little overwhelming. I got way more than 5 requests within the first day, and intend to fill them all. Of course, as luck would have it, last week was the time when everyone in the world ordered orchids, too, so I spent most of the weekend packing plants. In between the orchids and the work that I have to do for the “day job”, I’ve been putting together perfume sample packs and other items, but it’s going at a slow rate, partly because I’ve been waiting for some supplies that were very slow to arrive after I ordered them. To complicate matters even more, my brother-in-law is visiting for the Independence Day weekend, and he’s staying in the room that provides the only access to my perfume “lab”. He goes to bed early, so that cuts into my prime working time. The boxes will arrive, but later than I had hoped. The benefit of this exercise is that I’m finding out things I need to know before I start shipping real orders. Today I learned that the labels I had planned to use on the 2-ml vials don’t work well, so I’m going to have to redo those. Slowly it’s all coming together, and I look forward to the day when shipping fragrance products becomes as routine as shipping orchid plants.
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