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, September 25, 2011


Every fall I teach an intensive 4-week class for incoming freshmen. The building where I teach is surrounded with a planting of dozens of jasmine bushes. Over the past three years I’ve watched them grow from tiny starts to mature bushes that are now becoming vines, sprawling over the beds of landscaping chips. Every year there are more and more flowers, and this fall there was a bumper crop.

On my way to class, I could smell jasmine as soon as I was in the square next to the building. Walking up to the entrance every morning, I was surrounded by a thick, heavy cloud of jasmine fragrance. It was insistent and unmistakable. I assumed that my students would have noticed the smell, but I was wrong.

About three weeks into the class, I asked if anyone had noticed any flower fragrance outside the building, on the way to class. I got a lot of blank stares and puzzled looks. No one had noticed any flowers, and no one had noticed any scent. Not a single student had any idea what I was talking about. When we went on a field trip to the other side of campus, I pointed out the jasmine as we left the building. Without exception, the students said that they had not noticed it, either to see or to smell. It’s as if they were both blind and anosmic to their surroundings.

I’m at a loss to understand how someone could not notice a strong and pervasive flower scent. What is going on? Are people so bombarded with air fresheners, deodorizers, laundry products, department store signature scents, cleaning products, and other artificial smells that they are unable to smell things in nature? Has all this olfactory cacophony resulted in people expecting to smell something all the time, so they don’t pay attention to smells of any sort? Do people spend so much time in front of a screen that they don’t notice the things that are around them in the real world? Is smelling flowers so uncool that no one is willing to admit that they smell jasmine on the way to class? Are teenagers really that oblivious to everything?

I have no good explanation for why more than two dozen students can’t (or don’t) smell jasmine. However, I do hope that the current budget crisis will put a damper on the university landscaping team’s constant digging up of one thing and replanting with something else so that the jasmine will continue to grow and perfume the fall and winter quarter classes that I teach in what I’ve come to think of as the “jasmine building”.


  1. Did they smell it once you pointed it out?
    I noticed people around me don't react really to nice/normal smells. The only thing everyone seems to notice is when something smells badly. Otherwise, it's like there is no olfactory landscape around. And no one seems bothered by it...

  2. Some of them did smell it once I pointed it out, but they seemed completely apathetic about it, as if it wasn't worth noticing and my paying attention to it was strange and suspicious behavior. You are right that people seem to only notice what they perceive as bad odors, and sometimes they don't even notice these. I like the way you put it - for them there is "no olfactory landscape around".

  3. Hi, Ellen,

    My theory is that your students are part of a culture that divides the smell landscape into three very broad regions: gross stuff to avoid, date night fog-cutter fragrances, and background not worth noticing. I'm curious whether you get different reactions if you ask the same questions to others who teach in the "jasmine building." They might be part of a different culture that would recognize jasmine.

  4. Hi Ellen,

    I agree that the smell landscape may be defined by cultural training or expectation. Perhaps there is an age factor as well? Right now Sharry Baby is blooming in my piano studio. The students under 10 years old notice the different smell right away. Some will ask me about it. Others roam around the room trying to sniff out the source of the odor. The about 11 - 30 year old students, no matter their ethnicity or cultural background, have made no comments at all. Perhaps the only thing they respond to is "AXE" (or maybe they are just too shy to comment?) One adult, a woman my age, has sniffed but "politely" said nothing.