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 Artisan 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, and the theory and practice of perfume making. I no longer post reviews of the perfumes that I sample, unless specifically requested to do so. To counter my inherent grumpy tendencies, I try to write about something I appreciate at least once a week. Once in a while I get up on my soapbox and write about things that aren't at all related to perfumery. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.
One of the ongoing projects that I’ve mentioned before is to make a fragrance that brings together some of the scents of Salamanca. This is not an easy project, since these are mostly subtle scents - old stone walls, cypress trees basking in the sun, a little whiff of almond nougat, fresh figs and melons, leather, and the scent that epitomizes central Spain for me, dried grasses and weeds in the fields. It’s that dried grass scent that I’m going after first, since I need that before I can do anything else. The dried grass scent is also characteristic of the whole US West Coast in summer, so it’s going to be a useful accord to have in my collection once I perfect it.
I decided in my initial attempt to base the accord on a vetiver-mitti codistillation that I have. Mitti is made in India by distilling the essence of clay into an essential oil like sandalwood or vetiver. If it’s sandalwood, the result is mitti attar, a fantastic scent all by itself, like rain on dry cement or dusty earth. It’s one of those scents that evokes primitive and instinctive emotional reactions, triggering a nostalgic replay of whatever it was that our ancestors felt when the rains finally came to save their crops.
Using vetiver as a carrier conserves sandalwood, reduces the cost, and provides an earthy, rooty base that goes perfectly with the clay, making it smell more like vegetation in a field. To the vetiver-mitti I added a little immortelle absolute, hay absolute, copaiba balsam, tonka, a dash of a couple of other natural oils, and an aromachemical called nerone that intensifies the dry, dusty aspect of the mix. Thanks to Mike Storer for suggesting the nerone! It’s pretty close to what I’m looking for, but I’ll need to let it sit for a while to see how it all comes together.
Note added later: This is very close to what I was aiming for! Now on to create the right leather accord for Salamanca. I hope leather and dusty dry weeds will go well together.
Powder is a note that I really haven’t yet explored in perfumery, but a couple of things made me start thinking about it. First was a conversation on Basenotes about creating a powdery note, and second was an olfactory experience that I had last Saturday in which the powdery note played a key role.
M had gotten tickets to an outdoor concert by Further, which is the latest reincarnation of the Grateful Dead. As soon as the music started, so did the rain. People in Seattle don’t really seem to mind too much, and patiently stand out in the rain like a pack of wet dogs, but we were happy to have our little shelter made from a couple of low-rider folding chairs and a huge umbrella, in an ideal spot up on the top of a hill.
After the break, I started smelling something completely unique and wonderful. No, it wasn’t just the fumes of the combustibles being used all around us, but that did contribute to it. It was a sweet powdery scent combined with the herbal smoke and the smell of the wet ground and vegetation. I assumed that the powder note was someone’s perfume, but I suppose it could have been something blooming in the park. Whatever it was, the whole gestalt was amazing. These are notes that one normally wouldn’t normally think of combining, but they worked beautifully together. Of course I started thinking about a perfume using these components. I think of way too many perfumes - more than anyone could make in a lifetime - but it’s fun and sometimes leads to my mixing up useful accords.
Night before last, when I got tired of grading papers and working on a grant application that I was writing, I went into my “lab” and started working on a powdery accord. I used ionones, some synthetic musks, a foody vanilla, coumarin, heliotropin, a little dab of this and a little dab of that, and to top it off I added a dollop of sarsaparilla hoping that it would help make the powder a little bit sweet and gourmand. I don’t have the perfect mix yet, but it certainly smells powdery, especially after it dries down a little. I put some on yesterday evening and still smell it this morning. I now have to tweak the proportions and figure out what to do about the strange top notes, but I think I’ve got a basic powder formula. Yeah!!!
Some orchids have a powdery note in their fragrance, so this will eventually allow me to create scents based on those flowers as well as a perfume called “Reincarnation”, or something like that.
By the way, the musicians in Further are really tight and sound far better than any other reincarnation of the Dead. We had a good time, rain and all.
Note added later: After sitting for a while, the strange top notes disappeared, and the powder scent seems much more mellow than it did initially. Now for some testing on blotters and my skin.
Michael Storer is a curmudgeonly but talented indie perfumer based in LA. A few months back I got a complete set of his samples, lined up on a card that includes notes, descriptions, and prices for a full bottle. As I make my way through them, I'll be reviewing them here. I've sampled the first one a few times now, enough to know that it's a little different each time I try it, but that it does have some stable characteristics.
Genvieve At the moment Genvieve comes out of the sample vial it is sharp and floral, with a bitter top note that reminds me of galbanum and new plastic shower curtain. Within a minute or two it settles into a gorgeous fruity medley, a little like a strawberry-rhubarb dessert, but with a rough edge to it. Fruity-floral though it is, it’s a big, rich concoction for grown-ups, with all sorts of interactions going on to give it depth and keep it interesting. At some point the rose appears, subtly at first, then more powerfully, turning it from a fruity-floral into a “dirty rose” fragrance in which animalic notes are apparent, mostly a high quality, not too indolic civet. This is the point at which I start really getting enthusiastic about it. The first time I tried it, there was a half hour or so when I smelled a beautiful cedar-like note, but it was not as prominent the other times I wore it. I’m pretty sure it was from the perfume and not something random in my house. In any case the cedar is an exquisite but fleeting note that may or may not appear in between the rosy part and the drydown. In the end, Genvieve stabilizes as a comforting golden scent that reminds me of a clean, furry, warm mammal topped with caramel. The drydown lasts and lasts, persisting on clothing for a couple of days. Thankfully, this fragrance isn’t as stodgy as the perfumer’s description would have us believe. It seems to me a good candidate for a love-it-or-hate-it reaction. My own bottom line: I love it!
This week two of my cattleyas have started to bloom and both of them have a huge indolic component to their fragrance, especially when the flowers first open up. A lot of cattleyas seen to be heavy on the indole at first and then mellow into something else after a few days.
One of the plants that’s blooming right now is Cattleya harrisoniana, a species native to South America. The flowers of this particular plant are medium lavender with a big cream-colored lip. The other plant that I have is white to begin with, gradually turning a light lavender as the flowers mature. In the morning the plant that’s blooming now has a strong fragrance that’s like artificial grape, almost like Dior Poison, with a lot of indole mixed in. It will be interesting to see how it develops over the life of the flower.
Another plant that’s blooming now is Blc (Brassolaeliacattleya) Hawaiian Passion. The picture shows the first time it bloomed, with just one flower. This year it has a cluster of six flowers, all closely bunched up next to one another. The first couple of days its scent was almost pure indole! After that it started developing a creosote and citrus fragrance, but the indole is still there. I’m not sure it would make a good perfume unless it mellows a lot, so I’ll probably just enjoy it while it’s blooming.
Indole is usually thought of in connection with white florals such as jasmine and gardenia, but it’s also part of the fragrance repertoire of a great many orchids.
After a strenuous few weeks teaching an intensive class and trying to catch up on all of the things that were neglected during my summer travels, I’m to a point where I can at least breathe again, wash my hair, and get a decent night’s sleep. I even took the time to go running yesterday!
Quick progress report and preview, just to get me back into the writing and posting routine: There are lots of orchids blooming in my sunroom and greenhouse, several of which have amazing fragrances. I’ll be reporting on these within the next few days. Over the next few weeks I’m going to start working on my first bespoke fragrance, for a woman who was a student in my class. She has given me permission to report on the entire process here, from brief to finished product. I finally got my sarsaparilla CO2 extract to go into dilution (it was a struggle!), so will be thinking about how best to use it. It’s definitely going to be a gourmand fragrance. I’ve acquired some interesting new raw materials that I’m looking forward to working with. I have a complete set of Michael Storer’s fragrances that I’ll be sampling and reviewing here. I’ll be doing some advertising, special offers, and giveaways as soon as I find time to work on promoting my business. Best of all, I should have time to write regularly. It’s good to be back blogging again.
I've finally gotten around to wearing the rest of the SIP samples that I was fortunate enough to get from Knows Perfume in West Seattle. Here are my thoughts on them:
Strange Invisible Perfumes Peloponnesian This is a sunny, citrusy, cologne-type scent laced with green herbs. It goes on light and tight, making my skin smell like oranges, sage, and salt water. It feels calm and clean, and is the perfect antidote to the too-strong synthetic fragrance that I was testing last night. There is ambrette in the base, but it’s used with a light hand so that it doesn’t overpower the citrus and green things. I only have a tiny sample vial, but I imagine this would be one of the few fragrances that I could see spraying on my skin, hair and clothing, not caring where it lands. Although formulated as a “masculine” scent, it would be equally nice on a woman. If you’re looking for a light, refreshing, natural scent that doesn’t last all day, Peloponnesian would be ideal, the only down side being the steep price tag.
Strange Invisible Perfumes Magazine Street This is another SIP creation in which ambrette is the dominant player. It’s there from the first whiff, along with a slight floral note that I assume must be the magnolia listed in the notes. The description on the SIP website doesn’t specify whether it’s Magnolia grandiflora, which one would expect to see in New Orleans, or Michaelia alba, the species for which essential oil is readily available. If it’s Magnolia grandiflora, I’d like to know where she got the extract or oil. The combination of vetiver, “magnolia”, vanilla and ambrette does a good job of evoking the hot, humid, greasy, slightly raunchy odor of streets in the French Quarter of New Orleans, overlaid with occasional whiffs of flowers from the courtyards. As the scent dries down, the ambrette recedes into the background somewhat, allowing the other notes to come to the fore. Towards the end, a sweet vanilla musk scent takes over, and it’s on that note that it fades away to oblivion. Magazine Street is a nice variation on ambrette, definitely worth sampling.
Strange Invisible Perfumes Fire and Cream At first this scent seems fairly assertive for an all-natural perfume, starting out with a rich combination of notes that’s like wood drenched in spices and orange oil. I like the opening very much, but all too quickly the orange-scented treasure chest of spices transforms into a skin scent in which lavender dominates, along with a bit of vanilla. At no point is it floral, which is probably a good thing, but I’m not crazy about the lavender drydown. The scent lasts for a few hours, gradually fading away. This is one of those fragrances that I love in the beginning, but the honeymoon ends much too soon.
On my way to class the other morning I smelled jasmine before I even saw it. Looking around, I found, to my delight, that the university landscapers had planted two large beds of what appeared to be jasmine in front of the building where I teach. On closer examination and some research, I concluded that the “jasmine” was actually Trachelospermum jasminoides, otherwise known as “star jasmine” or “confederate jasmine”. The pinwheel shape of the flowers was the giveaway, as was the fragrance, which is a bit different from true jasmine. Star Jasmine is a shrub or vine that’s supposed to be hardy all the way down to 10 degrees F (-12C).
Of course I picked a spray of flowers and passed it around for the class to smell. No one had ever smelled live jasmine before, or maybe no one wanted to admit it. I wonder whether kids in their late teens have never smelled real flowers, or whether it's uncool at that age to admit that one goes around smelling flowers. Star jasmine smells sort of like a cross between true jasmine and ylang-ylang. The stuff that grows at the university has a heady, sweet scent that doesn’t have the indolic component of many true jasmines, but instead is like a light jasmine with a spicy, slightly smoky note to it. I have a star jasmine accord (Jasmin Etoile) made by Givaudan, a company that manufactures many of the perfume raw materials used by the large perfume houses, but it doesn’t have the same smoky feel that the real thing does.
I used the Givaudan star jasmine accord in “Carolina”, but now am thinking about how to custom-build a better star jasmine for future use. I’m also thinking about getting a plant or two for my garden. The more fragrant plants, the better!
In the inexorable rush of time September has rolled around and, with it, some lovely flowers in my greenhouse. The Laelia lucasiana that I mentioned in an earlier post is still in bloom, fully open and generously dispensing its scent on my table as I write. It’s been blooming for three weeks now, and looks like it may make it to a month. That’s a long time for a cattleya-type orchid.
Another cattleya that’s in bloom right now is a big lanky plant called Cattleya Fort Motte. The flowers are big and pink with magenta spots all over them, clustered especially at the tips of the petals and sepals, making them look like fingers with bright nail polish. The flowers are most fragrant in the morning, with a strong scent that is predominantly pollen and powder with a little narcissus, reminiscent of a fragrant tulip. They have very little sillage, so I have to get up fairly close to smell them.
Another plant that’s blooming right now is Epigeneium cacuminis, an unusual small plant that produces a long spray of many white flowers that sport a bright yellow lip stippled with red-brown markings. The flowers are fragrant throughout most of the day, with a scent that’s just like freshly cut oak. This is the ultimate pure woody scent from an orchid.
Aerangis mystacidii is blooming, too, but it doesn’t seem to be fragrant. Many Aerangis have a strong fragrance, so this one is a bit of a disappointment in the scent department. The white flowers are gorgeous, though, with their orange stems and long nectar spurs.
I am a research scientist based in the Seattle metropolitan area who has many other parallel lives. This blog is primarily about my experiences as a perfumer but will also weave in threads from my lives as an orchid grower, runner, theatre person, and lover of food, fashion, travel, and other good things in life.
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