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.
Last weekend I decided to kill two birds with one stone, experimenting with the formula I came up with for my own perfume version of kyphi and making a birthday present for a family member. I’ve been thinking about kyphi for a long time, collecting formulas from various places, trying to figure out which ingredients are common to all of the formulas and which are optional, and trying out various combinations. Even back in ancient Egyptian times, when kyphi was used as incense and medicinal salve, it seems there were as many different formulas as there were makers of kyphi, so what goes into it is, to some extent, a matter of taste.
The one thing that I was intent on from the outset was that this needed to be a 100% natural formula, using the best oils, resins and absolutes that I have. Since one potential application of the kyphi is in meditation and meditative movement, there would be no tweaking of the formula with anything that couldn’t have been in the original Egyptian version.
I started out with the basic resins - benzoin, labdanum, frankincense, myrrh, cedar, spikenard, and a few other things, then added a healthy dose of calamus root, also known as sweet flag. I wrote about calamus in an earlier post: calamus. Some people may not like the unusual smell of calamus, but I think it’s a key ingredient in kyphi, so I made sure that the formula contained enough calamus to be clearly noticeable. With the basic elements in place, it was time to add the embellishments - a whole array of spices along with some beeswax absolute and cognac absolute to take the place of the honey and wine used in the original incense formula. The final touch was some saffron absolute and a wonderful wild orange that gives the opening an almost gourmand quality.
That weekend, I seem to have not only killed the original two birds, but also a third one that I wasn’t aiming for. All day it had been raining and dark, and I was feeling depressed. Surely seasonal affective disorder can’t be setting in this early? In any case, after I’d put together a trial kyphi formula and smeared it on myself, I felt much more focused and cheerful - enough so to write a draft of this blog entry. Maybe the ancient Egyptians had the right idea.
Now, a week later, the mixture has blended. The calamus isn’t nearly as prominent and in-your-face as it was initially, although it’s still noticeable. The orange has practically disappeared, so I’ll probably increase it in the final formula. The whole composition is still spicy and resinous, but it has also taken on a slightly floral feeling even though there’s nothing floral in it. As an “authentic” curiosity, I would say that it’s a great success, and even as a natural perfume, it’s something that I can wear and enjoy. In fact, I used perfumer’s alcohol to rinse the last few drops of the original formula from the beaker I had used for mixing, and it looked and smelled so good that I put the alcohol in a little spray bottle and have been using it. It can’t be more than 5% perfume materials, but it’s still nice and strong, and it lasts a few hours on skin, much longer on clothing.
The perfumer side of me has an urge to try adding a little aldehyde C-12 to the mix to punch up the citrus aspect and give it some sparkle, but I’ll probably do that only as an experiment in a small batch that I keep to use myself. Everyone else, especially the birthday boy, can smell like an Egyptian.
I will be giving away one sample of this kyphi to the first person who comments and expresses interest in trying it. It will be your choice of a 2 ml concentrated perfume oil or 5 ml alcohol-based EdP spray.
Cymbidium kanran is a cute little Japanese orchid, tiny for a cymbidium actually, with small pseudobulbs and arching grass-like leaves. The variety that I have produces small green flowers with dark red spots on the lip. I understand there are also red-flowered varieties, but I like the contrast on the green-flowered one.
Kanran is an orchid that I’ve been wanting to see bloom for a long time, and it finally did it! The first plant that I had died - I’m not sure why. The one that I have now has grown well under exactly the same conditions as the one that passed away, so there’s no cultural pattern for success. It started blooming a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say that I was extremely disappointed that it didn’t have any fragrance. Yesterday, though, I smelled a light, citrusy, sweet, slightly musky scent coming from the flowers. The scent’s a little stronger today than it was yesterday. It’s apparently one of those orchids that takes a while to develop its scent after the flowers open. The scent still isn’t as strong as other fragrant cymbidiums that I’ve smelled, such as sinense, but it’s pleasant. Now I’m curious to see if the scent intensifies as the flowers continue blooming. I’ll update in a week or so.
It’s cyclamen season! Just a week ago there was bare ground under the big brown turkey fig tree next to our back deck, but overnight a profusion of buds popped up through a layer of wood chip debris and today they’re making a beautiful display of lavender-pink flowers. Every time I see them bloom I realize once again that hardy cyclamens are one of my all-time favorite garden plants.
Hardy cyclamens look a lot like a slightly smaller version of the familiar florist plants that are sold everywhere, but they are basically the wild-type plant, descended from the cyclamen species that grow around the Mediterranean. Fortunately, they haven’t had all of their exceptionally good qualities bred out through hybridization to produce BIG flowers and grow (for a while, anyway) in pots in houses. Around here, they grow like weeds and spread their seeds around liberally so that a single plant soon becomes an impressive display of many. My oldest plant grows from an enormous tuber the size of a dinner plate, with an array of babies surrounding it. The leaves are absolutely gorgeous, mottled dark green, light green, and silvery. Different varieties have different leaf patterns, all extremely attractive. My plan is to keep buying a new plant every year to diversify the foliage patterns.
The leaves grow through the winter and spring, dying down completely during the summer when it’s dry. After the summer dormant period, the first thing that appears is the flowers, with the leaves following shortly thereafter. I can see the first leaves starting to emerge now.
And here’s the best part of all. Hardy cyclamens are deliciously fragrant! You have to get down close to them, but when you do - oh my lord! They smell like a fine perfume. I’ve read over and over that cyclamens have no fragrance, but even the florist variety has an unpleasant rubbery odor. The wild-type cyclamens have a beautiful, delicate fragrance that is partially captured in the aroma chemical cyclamen aldehyde, but is much more complex. If you see cyclamen listed as a perfumery note, it’s not someone’s wild imagination. There really is a cyclamen fragrance. You can bet that I’ll be out in the garden sniffing the cyclamens this fall.
One sad fact of life is that I have way too many perfume samples. They come in all different forms from messy little vials with hand-written tags to carded manufacturer’s samples, to modest-sized decants in more or less professional-looking containers. Then there are the full bottles and mini-bottles. I’m a pathetic sucker for all those special offers that come in my e-mail - 75% off at The Perfumed Court, Luckyscent’s seasonal package of new stuff, and so on and so on. The samples pile up faster than I can try them. I have to figure out some strategy, short of going completely abstinent on samples, to try them all.
I publish reviews on a few websites, as well as here, so sampling isn’t just slapping six different things on my wrists simultaneously and sniffing each spot in turn, it’s wearing the scents one at a time, often several times, before making up my mind what to write. Moreover, I can’t wear samples if I’m working on my own stuff, so I can’t sample every day. As a perfumer, I always experience a little bit of a moral dilemma about reviewing perfumes. Is it a conflict of interest to publish my opinion of other people’s work, especially if it’s negative? I tell myself that when I write reviews, it’s strictly as a consumer, but I still feel an obligation to give each scent the fairest evaluation possible.
I just got through cleaning and organizing the closet where I keep my samples, and realized that the carded samples take up much more than their fair share of space. Each card is at least 10 times the volume of the vial, so I have resolved to alternate trying “naked” samples and carded ones, removing the cards as I go and filing the samples away in a new, alphabetical system that I’ve decided to implement this year. Yeah, right. Anyway, good intentions are a start.
This morning I went for a walk through a fairly new neighborhood near our house, a cramped conglomeration of cheaply-made big box mini-mansions with tiny front lawns, the sort of perfect, plush, startlingly green lawns that are rolled out by the contractor ready-made as soon as the construction crew finishes. The inhabitants keep them unnaturally green and lush even during the summer when they should by all rights go dormant. The little green lawns are surrounded by immaculately weed-free, mulched beds of greenery and the occasional flower clump, the green grass separated from the brown bed by a deep line that looks like it was drawn by a drafting program and cut by a laser. In German there’s a word, spiessig, that expresses this approach to gardening aesthetics. I don’t think there’s an equivalent in English.
Certain neighborhoods in the Seattle area cultivate evergreen shrubs or small trees that have had all of the leaves removed except for small balls of foliage at the tips of the branches. Presumably these must be constantly trimmed to keep them perfectly smooth and round. The new development just down the hill appears to be developing into one of these topiary-tree neighborhoods, since trees with the clipped poodle look are appearing in a number of the yards. OK, I get it. Small yards, small trees. They do this in Japan, too, but in an artistic way, pruning the trees to keep them small while maintaining a somewhat natural form.
This morning there was a woman out in front of one of the topiary-tree houses wielding a huge motorized hedge clipper that looked and sounded like a chain saw. She was using it to trim stray sprigs off of the perfect spheres of foliage on her juniper, or arborvitae, or whatever it is. Poor tree. I grow a few bonsai trees, and to me one of the beautiful aspects of bonsai is the almost meditative relationship that I, as the curator, develop with the tree. I examine it, try to feel how it would like to grow, and then use a tiny pair of clippers or my fingers to slowly prune it in that way. It’s an ongoing process of mutual respect.
Somehow, the use of a power clipper to shave round balls of foliage seems disrespectful to the tree. I know that, aside from the smell of fresh juniper clippings, this has nothing to do with perfumery, but it’s my rant for the week.
Here’s the brief that Alyssum submitted, describing what she is looking for in a perfume. It’s nice to be able to start off with some specifics as to what the notes should be. She writes: *********************************
"Firstly, I’d just like to reiterate how excited I am to “invent” a perfume with you! I’ve been dreaming of doing this for years. I’ve worn perfume since I was about eight, when I would take home the leftover testers from my aunt’s boutique, but even after all this time I’ve never settled on a single scent.
I always seem to be caught between floral scents and the warmer incense-like notes. My family heats our home with a wood burning stove, and considering there are only three rooms with no doors, we all wind up smelling like a campfire. I always liked how that smell blended with my sweeter floral perfumes, but once winter ended my play with scents went with it. Now that I’m no longer living at home, I fear I’ll really miss having that seasonal comfort.
If it would be possible to achieve a mix of earthy wood smoke (cedar is my favorite) as a base note and a light floral fragrance as a top note, I would be in heaven. And, although I believe this would be hard to find, I’m particularly partial to the smell of an alyssum flower (not to mention I’ve never been able to really honor my namesake besides the occasional exclamation when I see them at the side of the road). If not, I’m also extremely fond of peonies, and I find the smell of vanilla to be quite comforting.
Regardless, I’m open to your expert opinion. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do or contribute; I’d love to learn more about this process. Thanks so much!"
****************************** The first step will be to have Alyssum sample some different materials for the smoky cedar base: smoke notes, different varieties of cedar, different varieties of frankincense, and other resinous materials to see which ones she likes best. I’ve been wanting to make an aromatic burning cedar accord for quite a while, actually ever since I smelled the incense-like smoke of burning cedar and juniper in Arizona many years ago, so this is going to be great fun.
It was a big surprise to walk into the greenhouse a few weeks ago and discover a huge flower spike hanging down from the basket where Stanhopea wardii grows. This orchid has been a constant surprise to me. It was the first Stanhopea that I acquired. It arrived in the mail, and I took one look at the puny little seedling with black spots all over its leaves and knew in my heart that it was headed straight for the compost pile. But it didn’t go there. It didn’t even go to the orchid hospice, hospital, or recovery center, it slowly started putting on new pseudobulbs, getting bigger and bigger, growing reliably even though it has always been troubled from time to time by those unsightly black spots on the leaves. It’s now officially reached adulthood.
Stanhopeas are some of the most bizarre of all orchid flowers. They’re big and showy, like huge insects with a long proboscis, wings and huge eyes. They’re all extremely fragrant. The flowers pop open overnight, so one day there’s a cluster of big fat buds the size of apricots, and the next day the flowers are fully open. My wardii opened up two nights ago, and is in full bloom right now. My first impression was that it smelled like a peppermint patty, with distinct notes of peppermint, vanilla, and chocolate, but it’s a mint patty that’s been dabbed with some floral perfume, maybe a partly eaten patty that’s been sitting unwrapped in a woman’s purse next to some perfume sample strips.
I’ve seen the fragrance of Stanhopea wardii variously described as “vanilla”, “taffy candy”, “spicy” and “medicinal”, but it’s all of those things and more. I think the “medicinal” description is probably due to the mint scent. It’s definitely a gourmand fragrance, not an herbal medicinal one. However, I’ve also read that Stanhopea wardii is one of those “shape-shifter” orchids that emits one fragrance during the day and another at night. I've gone out and smelled it at different times during the night, but it seems the same - floral York peppermint patty.
One of these days I’ll make a Stanhopea perfume, but will have to decide which one. I’m not sure wardii is it, but the peppermint patty-taffy-floral combination could be interesting.
In my seminar last quarter we did a short session on the chemical senses and perfume making. After the class was over, I was talking with one student, Alyssum, about various aspects of perfume making. Somehow the conversation turned to the idea of making a perfume for her, based on her own inspiration and my resources. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making a bespoke perfume, so here was the opportunity! I jumped on it. My hope is that the process will provide me with experience in accurately realizing someone else’s fragrance “vision”, and her with a unique scent that’s called - what else? - Alyssum?
The plan is to document the entire process here on my blog. Alyssum has given me permission to do so, and will be writing her own contributions from time to time in response to my attempts to formulate what she smells in her mind. The first stage in creating her perfume was to have her write a brief explaining what her ideal perfume would be like. I didn’t give her any instructions on how to do it, but she came up with a wonderfully clear and detailed description of what she was looking for. I’m particularly excited because it’s the kind of scent I would like to create anyway, something with a smoky base and light floral top notes, preferably the scent of sweet alyssum, that little rock garden plant with the tiny white flowers.
Not knowing what sweet alyssum smells like, I started doing some research. It turns out that the stuff that grows in gardens and rockeries isn’t alyssum at all, but Lobularia maritima, a species that’s closely related to the genus Alyssum, but classified separately. To actually find some in bloom, all I had to do was walk around my neighborhood and there it was, a little clump of finely spun white lace spread out on the ground. I crept into the neighbor’s garden, snapped a photo, and broke off a sprig of flowers. The fragrance was quite strong considering how tiny the flowers are. It’s like a powerful mixture of pollen and clover honey, earning its name “sweet” alyssum. There were bees all over the flowers, and I understand why. If I were a bee, I’d go for it, too. I’ve got an excellent image of what the flowers smell like now, but will probably go and buy a plant at one of the local garden centers anyway so that I can sniff it repeatedly. Sweet alyssum is supposed to be an annual, but I think around here it grows as a perennial, or it reseeds itself profusely and grows in shifts with little or no break in blooming because I see it in the same places all the time.
The next entry in this saga will be Alyssum’s brief. Stay tuned for more details!
Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is among the most wonderful of all natural perfume materials. I love it on its own, and as the basis of the “incense” note, but it’s also extremely versatile in combining with all kinds of other scents. Frankincense is the resin of a type of shrubby tree belonging to the genus Boswellia, which grows under harsh desert conditions, mainly on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, and in India. The resin is collected by making cuts in the bark of the trees, allowing the sap to leak out and harden, forming frankincense “tears”. For incense, the tears are burned as is, or powdered and mixed with other things. The powdered resin can also be used to make a tincture. The resin is distilled to produce its essential oil.
Frankincense is probably familiar to some as “church incense”, which traditionally was Boswellia sacra or papyrifera, sometimes mixed with other aromatic substances such as myrrh and spices. There are many different species and varieties of Boswellia, all of which smell a little different, but all of which have a deliciously aromatic resiny scent.
How to describe frankincense? It’s like trying to describe the scent of a rose. It is what it is, and once you smell it there’s no mistaking it. Just as nature provides uncountable variations on the rose theme, there are variations on frankincense. I’ve been sampling a number of different types of Boswellia, and thought it would be interesting to write down some observations about each one.
Boswellia carteri: This comes from Somalia and Ethiopia. It’s the prototypical frankincense scent, rich and complex, with citrusy, resiny notes, the typical spicy, fruity, “incense” heart, and a bit of almost animalic woody scent, the funkiness of which goes away after a little while. B carteri is one of my favorite all-purpose frankincense varieties.
Boswellia sacra: The one that I have comes from the Dhofar Valley in Oman, and is similar to carteri, with all of the fruity, woody, incense-y notes, but a bit sharper, with more wood and spice notes. It’s a wonderful oil that I’m saving for something special.
Boswellia freereana: The one that I have is from Somalia, and has much more of a citrusy, pine-needle scent and less of the deep, woody, incense-y base. It’s sort of a “frankincense lite”. The woody note is more cedar-like than the other types.
Boswellia serrata: From India, it’s similar to freereana in that it’s a somewhat lighter scent. It doesn’t have the pine-needle note, but it is citrusy, with a characteristic sweetish woody scent of its own that’s hard to describe, but is very much like “church incense” with a tiny touch of vanilla.
Boswellia neglecta: From Kenya, this is a fairly heavy hitter, in the same league as sacra and carteri, but with slightly less of the funky-woody note. It’s a wonderful incense scent.
Boswellia papyrifera: I could have sworn I had this one, but all I can find is the resin tears, not the oil. My recollection is that it’s similar to sacra and carteri. I’ll search again and update in due course.
One of the interesting things about frankincense essential oil is that it gets better with age. I have a small amount of generic frankincense essential oil that’s at least 15 years old, and it’s the best I’ve ever smelled. I doubt that any of the oils that I currently have will make it that long, but if they do, they will make some amazing perfumes.
This morning is dark, cold, and rainy. I’m up way too early, wondering why on earth I agreed to put on my academic costume and be an extra at this year’s convocation ceremony. At least it’s indoors, unlike the spring commencement ceremonies that are usually conducted in the pouring rain.
I think one of the reasons I like perfume so much is that it gives me a much-needed lift on days like today when the weather and the day’s agenda are depressing. It’s like coffee, another thing that cheers by its smell alone. No wonder Seattle is the coffee capital of the US. If only people here would discover perfume, too! But that’s another story entirely.
I’m going to gulp down a cup of good coffee, put on my superhero rain boots, and add a dab of Kilian’s Back to Black, just for good measure, then I’ll head off into the foggy gray wetness protected by a warm, friendly fragrance.
At this point, wearing another perfumer’s perfume, I can’t help wondering why I make perfume myself. Hasn’t it all been done before? Aren’t there so many thousands of wonderful fragrances out there that to make more is a ridiculous exercise in duplication, even if it’s unintentional? Has living in cold, rainy Seattle for 15 years turned me into a giant cockroach? *******************
The above paragraphs were written a week ago, last Sunday, and I’m only now getting caught up enough with other trivial stuff to get back to the blog. It’s something I always think about, this business of creating perfumes and other things, in a world that’s already full and running over with every kind of product imaginable. I can only conclude that the reason why I do it is because something in my nature compels me to, like Kafka’s bewildered cockroach spewing out its own pungent excrement while its family quickly shoves food through the door and runs away in disgust. Fortunately I have a tolerant family. I’ve also drawn and painted, written poetry, written music and plays, and all of these things were something I felt I had to do, like children who torment their parent with labor pains until they’re born.
It’s too bad that our capitalistic society tries to beat the basic creative instinct out of people in school and make everyone focus on finding what will make the most money in the shortest amount of time. Even in academic science we are encouraged to focus on what is euphemistically termed “translational” research, research explicitly meant to produce products or treatments that can be manufactured right away and sold by the corporate world. Forget the fact that most important discoveries are made serendipitously by curious people just trying to answer some basic question about how the world works. Maybe people have been conditioned to desire mediocrity because it is comfortable, so it’s what “sells”, but it’s not something I think about when I make perfume. I don’t try to appeal to a demographic, nor do I try to appeal to the taste of the majority, whatever that is. I don’t try frantically to hit a moving target of what’s fashionable. I just do what I do and if someone likes it, great. If they don’t, so be it. At least I had fun creating.
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