What is the Perfume Project?

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.

Sunday, July 31, 2011


When I started making perfumes, I thought it would be good to make a parallel line of soaps. The reasoning behind this decision was that in my everyday life I encounter a large number of people who claim to be extremely averse to perfume. They say they are “allergic” to it, find it irritating to their nose, or just plain “hate” it. They rant against it. I think these attitudes are more common in the US than in other countries, and are especially prevalent in the Pacific Northwest where I live.

I can’t figure it out. The same people who claim to be “allergic to” or “hate” perfume seem to have no problem with room deodorants, piped-in fragrances in public places, scented candles, fabric softener sheets, strongly scented detergents, shampoos, car deodorizers, hair conditioners, deodorants, lotions, and other products. Most of these products are scented with cheap and very strong fragrances, which makes it even more puzzling. As long as the perfume is not on another person or (heaven forbid!) on themselves, it’s just fine, even if it’s vile-smelling. The only explanation I can come up with is that it’s some sort of puritan attitude. Functional fragrances are OK because they have a use other than fragrance for its own sake, but perfumes, especially good perfumes, are frivolous and somehow sinful. If anyone has a better explanation, I’d like to hear it.

I originally started selling my scent creations at orchid shows, where I discovered that those people who showed any interest at all in fragrance products were just as likely to buy perfume as they were soap. In fact, I think I sold more perfume than soap at those shows, and lost a whole batch of soap when someone kindly watered it along with the orchid plants. I suppose the anti-perfume crowd is content with supermarket soap or all-purpose cleaning gel. Over the past year, I’ve calculated that online sales are less than 10% soap, which is fine with me.

I’ve discovered that soap (at least soap that contains natural fragrance materials) does not keep well for more than a year or so, losing its top notes fairly quickly. Some perfume formulas work OK in soap, others do not, and all require some tweaking to get them to work. Soap requires a lot of fragrance material, so making soap with quality materials ends up being so expensive that I cannot charge enough to cover the cost unless I reformulate using cheaper materials. Soap is heavy, so shipping ends up being expensive. Soap is bulky and takes up a lot of valuable storage space.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to cut way back on the soap. I still have to make a small amount since I have a devoted set of local enthusiasts with whom I barter for various services using scented soap as my currency. My plan is to make some half-size (2 oz) soaps using whatever excess experimental fragrance mix I have on hand at the moment, and will call them “Serendipity Soap”. They’ll be used as gifts or packed two to a box and sold inexpensively. I’ll also make just one type of soap at a time using the regular line of fragrances and sell those as the “Mystery Soap”. When they’re all gone, I’ll make a different one. All of the soaps will now be dated so that I can keep track and not send out old ones, which we always end up using at home. The first batch of Serendipity is curing now, and it smells pretty good.

[Salem witch trials and Mandelbrot spiral graphics from Wikimedia]

Friday, July 29, 2011


For certain perfumes, a smoky note is needed - the smell of a campfire sticking to clothing, a burning cigarette in the cold air, Indian cooking fires made from burning cow dung, a driftwood bonfire on the beach, old paper love letters being burnt, the smell of meat barbecuing, the burning of incense for worship, the burning of incense for pleasure, the burning of wax candles or a petroleum lantern for light, the smell of burnt sugar, the burning of logs in a fireplace, … for better or worse, the smell of smoke is emotionally evocative.

I’m continuing to explore the materials that provide a smoky note both by themselves and in combination with other things. All of the smoky materials are made by “destructive distillation” of wood or other organic materials, which just means that the original material is converted to charcoal as it is distilled. i.e., slowly burned. It is not surprising that materials produced by this process smell like smoke along with traces of the original material.

Choya loban is one of my favorite smoky scents. Made from burned olibanum wood, it gives a strong impression of a campfire or the smoke hanging over an Indian village, but it also has an incense note. I used it for the smoky note in Gujarat. Choya ral is made from burnt Shorea robusta, a tree that is harvested for timber in India. It’s similar to choya loban, but sharper and even more like a campfire. Choya Nakh is made from burnt seashells, and it smells exactly like burnt seashells - a smoky scent with a definite sea-animalic note.

Other natural smoky materials are cade, which is made by distilling burnt wood of Juniperus oxycedrus, a Mediterranean juniper tree, and birch tar, which is made from burned birch wood and leaf buds and is a gentler smoke than the others. The cade and birch tar used in perfumery are “rectified”, which means that they are distilled a second time to remove impurities.

I have recently been exploring a smoky aromachemical called guaiacol, which smells like smoke with phenolic and clove-like notes. It’s a very “clean” smoke smell without the primitive campfire associations. I’ve been reading a little about guaiacol, and have learned that it actually occurs naturally and is one of the molecules that contribute to the flavor of whiskey and coffee, among other things. It is one of the many products of “destructive distillation” of wood, so is probably a component of the other, more complex smoky fragrance materials. I think I may try mixing guaiacol with one or more of the natural materials for the smoky note in Alyssum, since it may be just what is needed to bridge the gap between flowers and smoke.

[All photos from Wikimedia]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I miscounted the number of people who signed up for sample sets of the new fragrances, so there's one more set available if you'd like to be a tester. The first person to leave a comment or e-mail me will receive a set of the 4 fragrances under development: the as yet unnamed rose chypre, Salamanca, Café V, and Emergence.

I have not yet named the rose chypre. Regardless of whether or not you're sampling it, you are invited to suggest names that would fit a classic chypre scent based on a heart note of rose. If you are the winner and the name you proposed is chosen, you will be eligible to select a 5-ml perfume spray of your choice.


We’ve been having unusual weather all summer. Normally we get little or no rain in July, but this year it’s been raining every few days. This morning it rained hard, with thunder that woke me up.

Tonight just before midnight we went out for a walk. There was a tiny spritz of mist in the air, so light that it seemed like it was floating and fizzing in tiny sparkles instead of falling. It wasn’t long until I realized that the rain had brought out all sorts of odors from things I couldn’t see in the dark. It hit me near the end of our street, where I smelled an intense fragrance of dry grass that had been drenched by the rain. It was like the odor of hay, but amplified many times over. It was also like the dry grass accord that I made for Salamanca, and I realized at that moment just how accurate that accord was. Then came the lavender that grows on the corner, exhaling its aroma, nearly as strong as opening a bottle of lavender oil. Down the hill there was a place that smelled of dead blackberry leaves and mildew, and beyond that there was a supersaturated green scent, not grassy but leafy, like broad, juicy leaves of trees and shrubs spewing out their exuberant greenness into the night.

At first I wondered if all of these intense scents were real, because they were so amazingly vivid. However, returning by the same route, I smelled them all again, in the same order. The most telling one was the dry grass at the top of the hill, followed by one that I didn't notice the first time, the scent of water on roses. This is one that’s really hard to describe, but I wish I could make it into a perfume.

As we headed for the house, I fantasized about what it must be like to be a dog and know your environment mostly by scent instead of vision. Thanks to the rain, what could have been a routine walk became an olfactory adventure.

[Rain on a city street is by Hans Baluschek, 1917; Rain on a country road is by Ivan Shishkin, 1891]

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I like to see my perfume. I don’t mean see the bottle, I mean see the liquid itself. I recently started thinking about the appearance of perfume when my husband complained to me that the bay rum that he had purchased from a mail order company (not mine!) “had changed its smell”. I took a look at the brown-tinted bottle, and holding it up to the light could see lots of “growies” floating around in the bottom. The stuff is, after all, only 55% alcohol, not strong enough to preserve anything.

I also recently got a new batch of hay absolute, which I use in a couple of my perfumes, Carolina, and a new one that I’m developing, Salamanca. When I dissolved some of the new batch I was shocked to discover that it’s darker in color than the old one, almost black instead of brown. It smells about the same, so that’s not an issue, but as a result of changing batches of hay, the perfumes will be a little darker in color than before. This variation in color is one of the complications of using natural materials. Color may vary from one batch to another, so the same perfume that was light yellow one month may be a darker yellow the next.

These experiences made me wonder about all of those perfumes that are sold in opaque bottles. What do they really look like? Are they full of growies? Do they have issues with odd color or cloudiness? Are they clear like water? Are they a beautiful gold color? One would never know without decanting them into a transparent bottle.

When I was first thinking about packaging for my fragrances, I considered the possibility of using opaque or frosted containers but decided against it just because I prefer to have an unobstructed view of what’s in the bottle and assumed that other people do, too. This decision means that I have to carefully filter and fine everything that I sell, to make sure that it’s clear. It’s pretty similar to the process that’s used to remove sediment from wine. Again, this is one of the down sides of using natural materials. Absolutes especially have a tendency to cloud the mixture or eventually form some sort of precipitate. We’re all so used to seeing crystal-clear synthetic perfume that we expect natural perfume to come up to the same standard.

For my materials, I prefer clear bottles to colored ones or those aluminum containers that look like thermos flasks. For working, I usually decant a smaller amount, an ounce or two, from the aluminum flask into a clear bottle so that I can look at it, check the color, and make sure nothing bad is happening. My workspace has no windows, it’s dark except when I’m in there, and I store a lot of my materials in closed drawers, so I really don’t have to worry about light causing deterioration.

To me, color provides clues about the composition of a perfume, and sets up expectations for what it should smell like. I like to think that most perfumes are left their natural color, but I’m sure some have artificial color added. Serge Lutens’ Sarassins dark purple color surely couldn’t come from any of the materials suggested by the published list of notes. Quite a few commercial perfumes are pink or light blue, again almost certainly due to artificial color.

I enjoy using highly colored materials. Cistus oil is bright orange, benzoin is chestnut brown, blood cedar is red, blue chamomile is bright blue, and seaweed tincture is emerald green. The majority of essential oils are some shade of yellow, and so are some aroma chemicals.

Do you enjoy seeing your perfume or would you rather not have to know what it looks like? What are your thoughts about the color of the perfume?

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Today’s post is one of my periodic soapbox rants evoked by reading the news, and doesn’t have anything to do with perfume, at least not directly. However, I can rationalize anything, so will point out that in a bad economy many people sink lower on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, rendering luxuries like perfume more or less irrelevant. This is about the US economy, so read on at your own risk.
WARNING: Contains strong political opinions that some may find offensive.
The current budget impasse in the US congress would be a hilarious farce were it not being played out in real life, making it a tragic commentary on the state of the country. Anyone who has a minimally functioning brain should be able to see that the irresponsible policies of the last Bush administration are moving toward their logical conclusion, but the public, the media, and the country’s so-called leaders seem to be largely in denial of this fact, preferring to blame Obama for the disaster course that he inherited and is powerless to change short of exercising comic-book superpowers.

Think about this scenario. A staunch Republican decides to give up his steady, well-paying job at a large corporation to take a low-paying, part-time job with a small company that’s chronically in debt and about to go under. At the same time, he buys two very expensive mansions with no money down. He can borrow for a while to pay the mortgages and feed and clothe his young children, but very quickly runs into financial difficulty when his credit is maxed out. What should he do? Starve his children and default on his mortgages, or do what his well-educated financial advisor suggests - sell his oversized houses and go back to a job that provides a good income so that he can feed and educate his children? I don’t think even the obstructionist Republicans and tea-party radicals in congress would choose the first option in their own lives, even though they advocate it for the country.

For those who aren’t good at figuring out blatantly obvious allegories, the “job” is tax income. Eliminating taxes for large corporations and the extremely wealthy means giving up a steady income from a reliable source that has ample resources to provide it. The successful corporate employer benefits from their employee’s well-compensated work, just as the real-life corporations benefit from a healthy economy and solid infrastructure. The low-paying, part-time “job” with a small, financially shaky company is akin to the government depending on taxation of the poor and middle class to provide all of its needs. The “mansions” are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only are the mortgages sky-high and financed with no money down and borrowed payments, but the structures themselves are money pits, in constant need of maintenance and repairs. These ill-conceived military operations are the biggest place where expenses could be cut, but the military budget is treated as sacred and unalterable. The “children” are those who depend on the pittances doled out by social security and medicare, and all of us who depend on the country’s crumbling infrastructure.

The writing is on the wall, folks. As the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens, the US is on track to become a third world country. Without some correction, the military and corporate parasites will at some point kill their host and then everyone will go down together, the poor, the middle class, the soldiers, their commanders, and the filthy-rich CEOs along with them. It will not be a pretty sight, but the consequences of stupid and irresponsible behavior are never pretty.
If you live in the US and agree with this post, please feel free to share it (or some part of it) with your congressional representatives and anyone else who might be interested. If you don’t agree, then it’s theoretically a free country, so you can ignore it and think what you like.

[Sysiphus graphic, which here represents the frustrations inherent in politics, is by Bernard Piccat, 1731]

Saturday, July 9, 2011


I'm just about ready to prepare and send out sets of the new fragrances that are under development and I think I have a mailing address or e-mail for everyone who signed up except Celina. So Celina, please contact me with your complete address. I'm looking forward to your comments and critiques!

Now that this batch is at a testing point, I'm going to concentrate on finishing up Alyssum and the other perfume for the special customer.

Friday, July 8, 2011


If you’ve ever driven a car on the highway for several hours straight, you’ve most likely encountered the problem of how to keep from falling asleep at the wheel. I know I have.

Many years ago, in another life, I had a job in one state and a relationship in another. On occasion I would drive down the US East Coast on a Friday night and back up again on a Sunday night. The drive was boring, to put it nicely. Several times I actually did fall asleep and learned why the edges of the pavement and the center line had grooves in them. I tried all sorts of strategies to keep myself awake. Some of the ones that worked, at least temporarily, were eating, singing, bouncing up and down in my seat, listening to the radio, and stopping at every rest stop to walk around and drink a cup of coffee. None of these strategies worked all the time.

On my latest road trip to Canada, I discovered that the right perfume can help keep me awake while driving. It’s always an interesting process deciding which perfume(s) to take on a trip. This last time, I took only two, both in small sample vials. They were Paestum Rose and Musc Ravageur. I chose them because they are contrasting, they aren’t mine, and I enjoy them both. I’m not sure how fitting they are for a small town in the middle of BC, but who cares? I didn’t feel like bringing any of my own perfumes because I felt like I needed a break from them.

We decided to do the trip up north all in one day, so started out at 6:00 AM, and arrived that evening before dark. Of course, it stays light most of the night in late June in that part of the world, so that doesn’t mean it was a quick trip. In fact, it took over 14 hours. Before leaving that morning, I put on some Montale White Aoud, a newly discovered favorite. It lasted through the entire trip, stimulating my brain with little puffs of sillage throughout the day. I was surprised to find that while driving, the perfume really held my attention and helped keep me awake. When I was not driving, it seemed calming and helped me rest. I ended up wishing I had brought it along for use on the way home, too.

While in BC, I ended up wearing Paestum Rose every day. I love the incense note in it, and for some reason its ethereal, woody character seemed to fit well with the northern pine forest atmosphere. I didn’t feel at all motivated to wear Musc Ravageur. I like to think that the right perfume repels bears, moose, foxes, wolves, and all the other local wildlife that I heard talk of. Maybe musk, even synthetic musk, is not a good idea. Next time I visit I’ll bring along some of the olfactory big guns to keep me awake on the drive and protect me from the local fauna, at least in my imagination.

If you drive long distances or do other boring tasks that require concentration, what do you do to keep awake and alert? Do you find that perfume helps? If so, which ones work best for you?

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Like any other kind of art, perfume isn’t something that I deliberately and consciously create on an intellectual level, it’s something that comes to me from an unknown place. Like music, I take a theme, forget about it for a while and simply score it out once it’s ready, then work on an arrangement. I always have multiple perfume projects going on in parallel, and never know which one of them will mature first. However, when something does mature, it’s very clear, sort of like labor pains. Some projects have ridiculously long gestation periods, others just pop right out.

This past week, the rose chypre that I mentioned some time ago was begging for attention, and I’ve mixed up a first draft using a traditional base of oakmoss, clear labdanum absolute, lots of musks, and dabs of two different kinds of patchouli. The heart is my new rose accord and some rose de mai absolute with just a touch of cyclamen and ylang-ylang. Of course the top notes include the obligatory bergamot and, along with it, some aldehydes, petitgrain, red mandarin and red thyme. I’m trying it out on my wrist as I write, and it’s not bad for a first attempt. At first I thought I went a little too heavy on the top notes, but now that it’s been sitting for a week, it’s fine. I added a little more labdanum to produce an obvious resinous note in the base. At first I worried that the mix wasn't strong enough, but after a half hour on my skin it really took off, and it looks as if it will last well. I think it’s ready for testing. It's not the pink cattleya, but that's eventually coming, too.

The as yet unnamed rose chypre will be in the set of new samples that I send out for their preliminary test, along with Salamanca, Café V, and Emergence. This is the last call for anyone who would like to test a trial version of these new fragrances, since I’ll be mailing them out soon. If you have not already volunteered and would like to try them, please leave a comment here or send an e-mail.