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.
As 2010 draws to a close and 2011 begins, everyone is making their list of the best and the worst perfumes of 2010, but I wouldn’t even know where to start. I’ve sampled too many different things, and forgotten far too many of them. For me, like Janus, it’s time to look back on the most salient events of the past year in my perfumery life, and look forward to what I’d like to accomplish in the coming year. So here goes with the top 5 in each category.
2010 - Spent a small fortune on raw materials and equipment, but now have a highly functional perfume organ that includes both naturals and synthetics.
- Started this blog in May. Except for a few breaks, I’ve been pretty good at posting regularly.
- Learned an enormous amount about existing perfumes through prolific sampling. None of them influence me much, since I have my own ideas about what to create. However, it’s good to know that I’m not duplicating anything that already exists, and it’s interesting to see how the perfumes that I’ve tried are presented to the public.
- Learned an enormous amount about raw materials, especially synthetics, and about formulating perfumes. In the process, I acquired a new appreciation for natural materials. I made some perfumes that were good, some that were not so good, and some that everyone likes but that I now wish I’d formulated a bit differently. Every attempt, successful or not, has taught me something. Now I’m full of new ideas about how to use all of the materials that I have.
2011 - Publicize and advertise my perfumes both locally and on a wider scale. I need to contact the shops that have already expressed interest and contact additional local venues. I’m not sure how best to go about publicizing my business on a larger scale, but will work to come up with a plan.
- Upgrade my website with new images, new products, and better descriptions. Eventually I’d like to go to a custom website, but that may take a while. At least I can start planning the design.
- Keep up with the blog. One feature that I had planned to include was a series of simple, educational, do-it-yourself perfumery projects that would be suitable for school classes or other groups. I’ll try to get some of those going this coming year, especially since I’ll be teaching a unit on perfumery in one of my classes.
- Fill out my perfume organ with some of the more expensive and/or exotic absolutes, CO2s, SCO2s and other high-end materials that I’ve put off getting for budgetary reasons, and make a series of very high quality all-natural perfumes.
- Keep experimenting and learning. Ultimately, this is the never-ending adventure that keeps me perfuming.
Myrtus communis is an attractive shrub that grows in areas around the Mediterranean. It has white flowers that look almost tropical, and purple berries that are used to make liqueur, but it’s the essential oil extracted from the leaves that is most interesting for perfumery. It’s a top note that dissipates quickly, but it lends an aromatic herbal nuance to the early development of a scent. There are two different types of myrtle, the “green” and the “red” type. The green variety is heavy on the alcohol linalool, a major component of lavender and many other herbal scents. The red type contains a high proportion of cineole, which is the main component of eucalyptus oil.
Green myrtle essential oil, applied to my skin in about a 10% dilution, starts out with a camphorous turpentine-pine scent with notes of lavender, bay leaf, and a bit of eucalyptus. After it dries down some, it reminds me of crushed fresh bay leaves and tarragon. It doesn’t have the sweet aspect of lavender, but does have some of the same dry herbal notes. Red myrtle essential oil is similar, but has a more woody, peppery scent with less of the pine and lavender notes. It also smells a bit like fresh bay leaves and tarragon as it dries down.
By itself, myrtle oil of either variety only lasts for about 30 minutes, but that’s enough for a top note. It would probably be hard to identify in a mix, especially if combined with other aromatic herbal notes.
I like to use myrtle in compositions that demand a fresh, clean, non-sweet, herbal note in the beginning. I’ve used it in Kingston Ferry and Olympic Rainforest, two fragrances that are meant to represent some of the quasi-Mediterranean-type vegetation that grows near the ocean in the Pacific Northwest.
True myrtle from the Mediterranean is not to be confused with lemon myrtle, an Australian tree that goes by the name Backhousia citriodora. The essential oil of lemon myrtle, distilled from the leaves, is extremely high in citral, giving it a powerful lemon scent. It’s a nice, fresh lemon, but is one of those oils that could easily be overused, producing a lemony cleaning product fragrance. I haven't used it yet in a perfume, but can imagine that, used sparingly, it might be a way to enhance and prolong citrus top notes.
This plant has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first that I successfully pollinated and grew offspring from. The plant itself could be described as “cute” since it has short, fat pseudobulbs topped by compact leaves, the whole plant spreading laterally, but not standing much more than 8 inches tall. The flowers are another matter entirely. Every winter a long stalk shoots up to a height several times that of the plant, producing a cluster of creamy white flowers with a deep purple center. The flower petals and sepals are tinged with lavender when they open, but soon fade to ivory, since my specimen is a cross between the white and yellow forms. Every year more flowers are produced; this year’s stalk is over two feet tall and boasts 14 perfect blossoms. The plant is sitting on my desk as I write, but I can’t even see the flowers because they’re way over my head. The photo shows the plant in its younger days, when it just had a few flowers.
Laelia rubescens flowers are fragrant, but not in the way you would expect orchids to smell. Their scent is mostly wintergreen and root beer. I have read that fresh tuberose flowers also have a wintergreen note, and the tuberose absolute that I have does indeed include a slight wintergreen note along with everything else. It’s interesting that Laelia rubescens flowers on a mature plant look a bit like the pictures I’ve seen of tuberose, and both are native to Mexico and Central America. Could they be attracting some of the same pollinators? Could one be mimicking the other?
I do not recall ever smelling fresh tuberose flowers, so to remedy this gap in my education I just ordered some tuberose bulbs. I guess I’ll find out what real tuberose smells like next summer.
One of my favorite cattleya hybrids is a pound-puppy mutt called (Blc Wattana Gold x Blc Orange Nugget) x Blc Malworth ‘Orchidglade’. It’s a sturdy midsize plant with clusters of golden-orange flowers on short strong stems, held in a fan-like arrangement, well-separated from one another. It’s blooming now, one of the many orchids that suddenly bursts into flower during the winter solstice. It’s pretty enough, but what I really love about it is its fragrance. When the flowers first open, they’re like a civet bomb, spewing indole all over the place, accompanied by a sweet citrusy scent like orange fruit, orange flowers, and vanilla. After a week or so the indole recedes into the background and the orange fruit, orange flower, and vanilla combination takes over.
One of the endearing features of this orchid is the fact that the color of the flowers inadvertently matches the orange scent - or maybe it’s an “intentional” product of evolution. After all, orange trees have fruit and flowers on them at the same time, so it’s possible that pollinators of oranges are attracted to the color of the fruit as well as the scent of the flowers, and some of the same pollinators are attracted to the color of the orchid.
Of course I had to try to make a perfume based on the fragrance of the plant that I have nicknamed the “Golden Cattleya”. I’ve gone through several versions, the first one containing quite a bit of civet, the second one mostly the orange-vanilla combination, and the third one orange-vanilla with a strong sandalwood base. I know sandalwood isn’t part of the orchid scent, but it just seemed to go well with the orange and provides a long-lasting grown-up ending to the whole thing. I can’t decide which version I like best and lord knows I don’t sell enough perfume to go down the flanker route.
The civet composition I eliminated at first because it just seemed discordant. However, when I revisited it a few months later, after the materials had had time to blend, it’s actually very nice, although I think it could use some stronger fruity-vanilla notes. The second version is the one that is the least odd-smelling, sort of like an orange-vanilla dessert, but it’s fairly linear. That’s the one that I’ve distributed as samples. The sandalwood version was an attempt to boost the base, and I actually like it a lot, but then I’m a big fan of sandalwood in all of its real and synthetic permutations. It’s the least true to the flower, which I view as a down side. I'm still trying to make up my mind which direction to go.
If you’re interested in trying samples of all three versions of Golden Cattleya and commenting on the pros and cons of each, leave a comment to that effect. I’ll send samples to up to three people for their evaluation.
Oddly enough, the dead of winter is a time when a lot of orchids bloom. I walked into the greenhouse today to see splashes of color all around - a big blue vanda, one of the giants of the greenhouse, an Isabelia pulchella, a creeping miniature that suddenly broke out into a riot of small bright fuschia flowers, several ladyslippers, and Sophronitis cernua, a tiny plant with clusters of bright neon orange-red flowers. All of these orchids are colorful, but none of them are fragrant.
To compensate, though, there are some fragrant cattleya type orchids in bloom too. Laelia anceps is still in full flower, although the fragrance has changed from fruity-floral to more of a pollen-like scent. Brassavola nodosa, one of the parent species of Little Stars, is just coming into its night-fragrant glory.
An odd one is Lc Luminosa, a primary hybrid between Laelia tenebrosa and Cattleya dowiana. It’s a frustrating plant to grow because the cross seems to have produced flowers that are too heavy for their stems. This year there were two growths with flower stalks. The first one to mature was a complete bust. The buds never fully opened because they dragged the stem down, bending it onto the stiff bud sheath, constricting and finally breaking it at that point. I supported the second flower stalk with a stake, and the flowers opened and were OK at first. Now they’re hanging down again from the point at which each flower joins the stalk. While they were in good shape, the flowers were fragrant, very much like the red cattleya described in another post - sweet, spicy, and fruity.
Another orchid that’s blooming now is the Brassolaeliocattleya (Blc) hybrid with a very long name that became the prototype for my perfume, Golden Cattleya, which I’m still working on tweaking, since I can’t decide what to do about the base. More on that next time. For now I'm just thankful that the days will start getting longer.
I have no idea what prompted this odd behavior, but for the past few weeks I’ve been taking a break from perfume. I’ve not been wearing perfume or dabbling in my “lab”. I’ve not been reading the perfume blogs or forums or ordering samples. I’ve neglected this blog. I think maybe the idea of all those samples in my closet finally became overwhelming. I’ve sampled enough perfumes so that I kind of know what to expect in many cases. As a result, what should be a pleasure easily becomes a chore. I think the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a carded sample of Anna Sui Dolly Girl Ooh La Love that I pulled out at random to try as a form of self-discipline. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, and it’s still sitting there taunting me with its garish card and the prospect of smelling yet another overpoweringly strong generic fruity-floral scent that’s almost identical to all of the other over-sillaged generic flanker fruity-floral commercial scents that are out there.
Today I knew it was time to snap out of my perfume slump, so decided to treat myself and try something unpredictable. A while back I got a few samples from Ayala Moriel, but had never gotten around to trying them. To my horror, I saw that one of them had either leaked or evaporated due to the cap not being put on tightly enough. It was Espionage. The smell on the stained label was enough to prompt me to add a drop of alcohol to the brown dregs at the bottom of the tiny jar and reconstitute the perfume. Ooh la love at first sniff! This is one good perfume. I may have created a super-concentrated version, but it doesn’t matter. Qualitatively, it’s the same.
Espionage starts out as a smoky, herbal, woody vanilla that reminds me of Lapsang Suchong tea. Gradually the smoke dissipates a little to reveal some subtle notes of dried rose petals and tobacco leaves, altogether enjoyable. The notes say that there’s “leather” in the mix, but given that this is an all-natural perfume I suppose the leather accord must have been formulated with cade or some such smoky material, providing a much nicer companion for the vanilla than a synthetic leather would have. There’s supposed to be ambrette in the composition, but it doesn’t hog front and center stage the way it does in Strange Invisible Perfumes. It just stays in the background, supporting and enhancing the other notes.
Maybe one reason why Espionage smells so good to me is because my nose is fresh and enthusiastic after its vacation. Whatever the reason, I’m back to perfuming again. Bring it on!
December is blooming season for quite a few orchids, including this beauty, Laelia anceps. I got the plant several years ago as a tiny seedling, and have been patiently waiting for it to mature and bloom. Day before yesterday it rewarded me with the first of two flowers on a stalk that would be almost 2 feet high above the plant were it not bent at a 90-degree angle from hitting the slatted bamboo shade covering that was above the shelf where it was growing. Before I noticed the spike, it had already hit the covering, turned around, and started growing toward the outside edge. The flowers are large and colorful, kind of a bright reddish lavender with slightly darker flares on the petals and a velvety dark magenta lip. The inside of the throat is decorated with a dramatic tracery of dark purple lines on a yellow background, all pointing inward as if toward a vanishing point, forming an extremely attractive landing strip for whatever insects would naturally pollinate the flowers.
Best of all, the flowers are fragrant, starting right from the day they open. It’s a light, sweet, moist, fruity fragrance, a bit like cut up peaches or apricots with a hint of iris - the real iris flower, not the perfumery note iris. Laelia anceps is a light, fruity floral scent that I can truly appreciate. It will be interesting to see how the fragrance develops over the next week or two.
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