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, February 27, 2011


A while back I gave Alyssum several samples to test. These were the three key components of her perfume (smoke, cedar, and sweet alyssum flowers) plus one possible supplemental note (ambroxan). She’s been wearing them and making notes. Here’s the log that she kept.


As a brief note, I’d just like to make it clear that while I was experimenting with the scents, I was careful not to put on any other scented products (moisturizer, etc.) to keep the scents pure. I placed an ample amount on my left wrist and never rubbed it, knowing that scents fade faster if I were to do so.

2/18 - Smoke
• At 10:20, I put a whole “wand’s” worth (wiped the dropper entirely on my wrist)
• The scent was pungent at first (bitter, almost) and very strong (I could smell it through my clothes.
• After ½ an hour, the smell became much more gentle, warm. More like incense. I really like how it meshes with my skin.
• At 12:30 the smell has faded to how I always remember my house smelling mid-winter with the wood-burning stove blazing. The “wood” notes of the wood-smoke scent are now more pronounced.
• Scent lasted, albeit faded, until that evening.
• The next day, the cuff of the sleeve on my jacket still smelled very strongly of the smoke scent.

2/20 – Cedar
• At 2pm, put a whole wand on my left wrist.
• At first it smelled very sharp, not even like wood, but within even five minutes it softens, like very fragrant wood chips.
• At 3:20 the scent was much more wood-like, and softer than woodchips. This is the perfect scent, especially when combined with the smoke (I think).
• I realize that cedar is a very dry smell, which is why I think it will blend best with the smoke, but without the alyssum, the two would be too much. Perhaps the alyssum is softer, flowery and “moist” enough to balance them out.
• By the end of the day, the cedar was a perfect, subtle, woody fragrance.

2/21 – Ambroxan
• Put on at 12pm
• Sweeter than the other two, not as musky as I imagined, but perhaps a good middle tone between the smoky wood and the alyssum.
• There’s something very natural about the scent, almost animal. Smells more like someone’s skin than, say, the cedar.
• By the end of the day, the scent was even lighter, sweet, feminine. The essence of that “lingering perfume” smell.

2/23- Alyssum
• Put on at 12:15
• Interesting because those sharp, pungent-yet-sweet (like cut grass) notes that usually follow the light and airy top notes of an alyssum flower are dominant at first.
• At 2pm, the scent smelled sweet, light, and clean. I have another perfume called “Warm Cotton” from the Clean line, and their bottom notes are very similar. A little worried that this lovely aspect will be overtaken by the grittiness of the smoke.
• At 11pm a sweet, light feminine scent remains.

2/23 – Smoke + Alyssum
• Two parts alyssum, one part smoke.
• Because I put the smoke on second, it immediately dominated over the alyssum scent.
• Twenty minutes later, the alyssum softens the pungent smoke so that it smells like sweet incense.
• Surprisingly maintains that “clean” smell thoughout the day.
• Before bed, I can hardly smell the smoke at all. The alyssum has totally won out over the initial heavy smoke scents.

This all seems promising, especially the part about the alyssum winning out over the smoke. The main thing I was worried about was the possibility that the smoke would completely overpower the alyssum.

It sounds like the next step will be to work on adjusting relative concentrations of the base components to make a cedar-smoke base, possibly with a tinge of ambroxan. Alyssum is quite right that it could provide a link from the wood smoke base to the floral heart. From Alyssum’s report, I think the strategy will be to go easy on the cedar, using just enough to color the smoke, without the woody notes ever becoming really apparent.

It also sounds like we’ll need to add some light and airy top notes to the alyssum, so that’s the next accord that I’ll be making up. I’ll need to go smell the neighbor’s alyssum flowers again soon, after the current unseasonal bout of snow and cold is finished and the poor plants are back in bloom again.

Full speed ahead!


As La Bonne Vivante observed some time ago before she disappeared, academic life has its cycles of frenzied work followed by “normal” work. This past week has been one of the frenzied ones, with several grant proposals all due around the end of February. To top it off, I’ve had a lot of perfume orders to pack and ship, which is a very good thing, but it’s been keeping me busy. I’m looking forward to getting back to normal for a little while.

I’ve neglected the blog, but hope to get back into posting regularly this coming week, especially since I just received a very unusual e-mail complete with a perfume brief that is going to make for an exciting and challenging journey in perfume making. Stay tuned for details.

For now, though, I’m just going to post a review of a perfume that led me to some thoughts on questionable practices of online perfume “stores”.

Creed Bois de Santal
For quite a while now I’ve had a sample of Bois de Santal that was kindly sent to me by someone, a forum member I think. A couple of days ago I finally tried it and guess what? It starts out with sandalwood! It’s an excellent synthetic sandalwood that almost manages to smell like the Mysore variety, surrounded by green herbal notes and citrus at first. Then the green reveals itself as lavender, which, together with tonka in the base, produces a light fougere-like note, but it’s not so strong that it detracts from the sandalwood. Overall, it’s a very nice scent that I’m now hoarding in my sample collection.

I have read that Bois de Santal has been discontinued since 2008, even though Basenotes lists it as still in production. If you Google it, it shows up on several of the discounters’ websites, presumably as one of their many bait-and-switch items, since it invariably is “temporarily out of stock”. How about “permanently out of stock”? How about deleting it from the website, since it never will be in stock? What if I actually fell for the “Notify me when available” ploy? Would I be on this outfit’s spam list for the rest of my life? Is anyone else annoyed by all of the “out of stock” items in online perfume sales outlets?

Friday, February 18, 2011


Where do I begin with this orchid? One has been blooming in my sun porch for the last week, and today it started pumping out its scent. I don’t even know which plant is blooming because there are several that have grown together into a tangled jungle, but it’s a light pink one with a dark pink lip. I couldn't move it to my "photo studio" to take a portrait, so just had to get a snapshot in situ.

For some reason Cattleya intermedia love the growing conditions that I provide for them and thrive like weeds. I’m not sure why or how I ended up with so many varieties, but they certainly are rewarding when they bloom. A second, huge intermedia plant has at least four flower stalks developing, so it should be spectacular when it blooms. There are probably other plants lurking somewhere, waiting to burst into flower.

The scent of the pink Cattleya that’s currently in bloom is a lot like the Arabian version of rose. It’s a sweet, dark pink, candied rose mixed with almonds. It’s marzipan flavored with a strong rosewater, or rose-flavored Jordan almonds. We’ve been wowed by this fragrance all morning, but as the afternoon wears on, it’s starting to fade.

Many cattleyas only put out their fragrance during certain hours of the morning, presumably the time when their natural pollinators are out and about. When I pollinate my plants, I always try to do it at the time of day when the fragrance is strongest, and have had ridiculously good luck with that method, producing more baby orchids than I would ever know what to do with.

Should I make a “Pink Cattleya” perfume? Maybe this will be the inspiration for my rose chypre. I have to spend some more time with the flower and think about it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


On Thursday I plan to meet with Alyssum for the first test of several components of her bespoke perfume. What I have prepared for her is a set of sample vials with the three featured notes and two suggested accessory notes, one for the base and one for the top, all diluted to perfume strength, along with a pack of scent testing strips. The featured notes are the cedar accord, the wood smoke, and the sweet alyssum floral accord. These are the notes that she will test first.

What I plan to have her do is test each material by itself on her skin and on paper, making notes about how long it lasts, whether it changes as it dries down, how well she likes it, and any ways in which she would like to modify it. Her first report will be her general impressions of the individual notes, their longevity and evolution on her skin, whether they come close to her vision of what she would like, and how she would change them to better approximate that vision. I will be doing similar testing myself, so we can compare notes.

The next step will be combining notes, trying to get the proper proportions. The first combination will be the smoke and cedar, to produce the right burning cedarwood note. What comes next will depend on Alyssum’s reactions - full speed ahead or back to the drawing board.

Monday, February 7, 2011


A big part of every artist’s education is observing and analyzing the art of others. Just as musicians listen to a lot of music, perfumers smell a lot of perfumes. In both cases, the pool of creations available to experience is almost inexhaustible. I have an uncountable number of perfume samples, some of which I like a lot better than others, but I learn something from every one that I test.

Today I don’t want to talk about the perfumes themselves, but about the presentation of the samples. I’m in the process of reorganizing my samples in a beautifully efficient filing system, but problems arise when samples are oddly packaged. I’ve become something of a connoisseur of samples, so have come to appreciate well-presented ones. Here are some of the types of samples I have had to deal with along with their pros and cons, in no particular order:

Pop-top vials. These are the most common, and generally a good option. Decanted samples and a lot of manufacturer’s samples come in the 1-ml size, and quite a few carded samples come in larger sizes, 1.5 ml or 2 ml. It doesn’t matter to me whether they have a wand or not, as long as the stopper is secure enough to prevent leaking, but still fairly easy to remove and reinsert repeatedly. Some vials have stoppers that are near-impossible to remove; I have broken a couple of the poorly designed Bond sample vials trying to get the rigid stopper out. Vials with tiny, pinched-in necks always seem to have flimsy stoppers that are not only hard to remove, but tend to split when trying to stick them back in. These aren’t very common except among individuals who swap samples.

Microscopically small samples. It doesn’t matter what sort of container these come in, it always irks me that someone thinks their (or someone else’s) perfume is so extraordinarily valuable that they can’t part with at least 1 ml of it. A 1 ml vial that’s only one-fourth or one-half full but sold at the usual sample price (or more!) is not the way to win happy customers. I won’t knowingly buy these any more.

Unlabeled containers. I am always annoyed when I receive unlabeled sample vials attached to a card with the name printed on it, especially if the card is large and unwieldy. I don’t mind it quite as much if the sample vial comes in a little plastic baggie with the name written on it, but it’s still not ideal. One thing I want to avoid is having a lot of unknown samples sitting around. How hard is it to print or even hand-write a label and stick it on the vial?

Spray vials. Many of the carded samples come in spray vials, as do some of the larger decanted samples. I’m probably in the minority, but I prefer to dab perfume rather than spray it. Sprayers, especially the small, cheap ones, are not always predictable or reliable. The DIY ones in which the sprayer screws or is crammed onto the vial often leak, so almost always arrive with a piece of electrical tape wrapped around the area where the sprayer joins the vial. All too often the tape is not enough to prevent leakage. Even if it does, the adhesive eventually makes a sticky mess, so I’ve learned to remove it as soon as the package arrives. The manufacturers’ vials that come on carded samples don’t leak, but the spray mechanism sometimes dribbles instead of spraying, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

Squatty mini-tubs. These seem to be used only by the “natural perfume” people, I’m not sure why. I’ve only had one of them leak in transit, but they’re a pain to store, and they won’t fit in my file system. I don’t like them.

Non-samples. Don’t even talk to me about peel-back papers, wax plates, wet towels, or anything that’s not actual perfume. These are not samples, they’re insults.

Screw-top vials. I haven’t seen many of these, but they do exist. I’ve received a few samples in screw-top vials, and like them a lot. I found some really nice 2-ml vials (really more like mini bottles) that I use for the larger samples of my perfumes. I haven’t seen any evidence of them leaking, they can be easily opened and closed, and they’re easy to store along with conventional sample vials. Best of all, they don’t make my protectively calloused thumb go numb from pressing stoppers into vials.

Odd-shaped containers. Occasionally samples will come in extra tall and thin vials, vials with rounded bottoms, or some other awkward configuration. These are generally hard to deal with.

What kinds of sample packaging do you like? What do you dislike? Leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing to receive a sample of Guerlain Vetiver in a 2 ml screw-top vial. Why Guerlain Vetiver? Just because I have a large bottle of it that was sent to me as a gift. It’s more than I can ever use, so I'd like to share it.

The winners of the Guerlain Vetiver samples are Ines and JoanElaine. I will try to contact each of you regarding shipping.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Despite its ubiquity in traditional European perfumes, most notably chypres, oakmoss is one of those materials that I haven’t worked with a lot, and don’t really have a good feel for. I have used it in a couple of compositions, but it was certainly not in the forefront, added more as an afterthought to round out the fragrance than as a key element in the base.

To try to remedy this situation, I have been wearing a dilution of pure oakmoss absolute. No, it hasn’t killed me yet or caused my skin to break out in some horrible disfiguring rash. In fact, despite its sinister dark color, it seems quite benign and well-behaved. It has a quiet but distinctive fragrance that’s hard to describe in terms other than “oakmoss”. To my nose, it is dominated by earthy and sweet notes, almost like raisins and dried plums and good sherry, accompanied by some woodsy notes reminiscent of dried leaves and old branches and maple syrup, and there is a subtle vaguely flowery note floating above it all. It’s quiet and lovely, staying close to the skin so that I’m compelled to keep sniffing the spot where I applied it. It is a base note, after all.

Inspired by something I had read, I tried mixing a little Iso E Super with oakmoss. The resulting scent was brighter, more diffusive, less sweet and fruity, and more woody. Unfortunately, the mixture had the same unpleasant note that I find in sherry, especially cheap sherry tasted after eating something doughy, a note that makes it practically undrinkable for me. After about half an hour, that note became less prominent, leaving a nice, warm, woody scent in the sillage, but the same bad sherry note close up. If I used that combination there would definitely have to be some strong top notes to cover up the initial strange smell. Probably not a good idea.

Oakmoss absolute is made from a lichen, Evernia prunastri, that grows on the branches of oaks and other trees in temperate forests. A closely related lichen, Evernia furfuracea, grows on evergreen trees and is commonly referred to as pine moss or cedar moss. These types of lichens, along with others, grow all over trees in the Pacific Northwest, and I recently discovered that the young Japanese maple that’s right outside our front door has sprouted some luxuriant clumps of oakmoss. In fact, I'm so proud of my oakmoss crop that those clumps are featured in the top photograph, and the one on the left. How cool is that, having real oakmoss growing within a few steps of my front door? The living lichen doesn’t have a lot of odor, mostly just a wet and woodsy scent, but there is just a hint of the sweet and fruity oakmoss absolute fragrance if I crush it in my fingers.

Because oakmoss (and cedar moss and pine moss) contain a putative allergen, atranol (or chloratranol), they are one of the materials that that has been all but banned in Europe by big brother IFRA, resulting in mass reformulation of perfumes, reformulations that I suspect were used as an excuse by commercial manufacturers to go to much cheaper formulas than the original ones, substituting lots of things besides IFRA-blacklisted materials.

I like the smell of oakmoss, but so far it has not been a material that I consider essential to the perfumes that I make. I need to make a classic chypre one of these days, just so I can use lots of oakmoss.