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.
March is almost over and it’s still cold and rainy. Over the last two weeks everyone in the world (well, the US, anyway) decided to order orchid plants, so I spent an entire weekend literally doing nothing but pack plants to ship. At the same time I had some more major deadlines at my regular work, one of which culminated in a long teleconference today. I’m involved with two shows that open next month, and I really need to get back to perfumery things.
I think this post is mostly just a guest appearance to reassure readers that I haven’t been abducted by any mystery perfume customers, and that I will be back blogging regularly after the road trip to Oregon that we’re taking next week. I’m not taking my computer with me, so will be without technology for a week - a real vacation. One of the things we’ll probably do is go hiking through some of the forests, and when we do, I’ll be seeing the trees with new eyes and sniffing them with new nostrils.
A while back I got three samples of essential oils from a new company in Canada called “Northwest Aromatics” that’s in the business of extracting essential oils from wood scraps left over from the lumber business. Two of them are slight variations on what they call “Nootka Tree Oil”, which comes from the Nootka cypress (aka Alaska cedar, yellow cedar, yellow cypress), Callitropsis nootkatensis. Both of the nootka oils have a cedary scent, like pencil shavings with earthy, flinty, notes and sweet aromatic notes. They will make a nice addition to my collection of different “cedar” oils.
The third oil is called “Giant Arborvitae” oil, which comes from Thuja plicata, or western red cedar. When I ordered these samples, little did I know that the giant arborvitae oil came from the very species of tree that grows right outside my window. I’m still trying to decide whether that enhances the mystique or detracts from it. In any case, it’s one of the strangest oils I’ve ever smelled. It’s woody, of course, but it’s also leathery, boozy, fruity, sweet, and absolutely unique.
I’d only ever smelled the leaves of these trees before, but when I went out and broke off a branch to use as a backdrop in the photo of the oils, the broken wood smelled just like a light version of the oil, so there’s no doubt that's what it is. I live with giant arborvitae trees every day, so it's obvious that I’m going to have to make a perfume in their honor. I suppose every perfumer and his brother will be scrambling to get this note in a perfume now, so it will be interesting to see what comes of it.
Can you imagine an orchid that smells like freshly cut cedar and oak lumber mixed with caramel? Well, that’s what the flowers of Maxillaria variabilis smell like. It’s a small plant, at least each growth is small, but it quickly spreads all over its growing surface. Mine grows on a big tree fern slab, and has fairly quickly gone from just a tiny cutting to a large clump. The plant itself has flattened, oval-shaped pseudobulbs with a thin leaf or two on top. It’s not particularly attractive when out of bloom, but it can be spectacular when covered with flowers. It’s blooming now, with the flowers arising on short, stubby stalks from the base of the pseudobulbs. I have three varieties, one yellow, one orange, and one so dark red it’s almost black. Regardless of color, they all smell pretty much the same, with wood and caramel notes along with just a hint of toasted coconut. One of these days I may make a perfume based on Maxillaria variabilis, since it’s one of the more unique flower scents out there.
Now imagine an orchid that smells exactly like coconut-scented suntan lotion. That would be Maxillaria tenuifolia, another orchid that’s blooming right now, filling the greenhouse with the fragrance of coconut. The plant isn’t very attractive, with its stacked pseudobulbs topped with leaves like long, fat, dark green pine needles, so it’s unwieldy and prickly when out of bloom. However, it puts on quite a display when it’s covered with its velvety, deep red flowers with white polka-dotted lips. I have two plants that I use for breeding, nicknamed “Bain de Soleil” and “Coppertone”. There would be no point in making a Maxillaria tenuifolia perfume since it’s already been done unintentionally many times over, but it is always fun to smell the coconut orchid in bloom.
I think a lot of people don’t realize what a huge variety of fragrances orchids can have, but these two Maxillarias are perfect illustrations of orchids with strong but unconventional “orchid” scents.
In this report from Denmark it sounds like my mystery customer has been hard at work with his assistant, sniffing samples of potential base note materials and throwing everything together willy-nilly in some sort of Devil’s cauldron of scent. I have to wonder how it all smelled at the end of the day. I don’t think I sent anything that would clash horribly with anything else, so maybe it wasn’t bad. I imagine the experiments of combining materials will go on for a while until I get some sort of final verdict on which ones he likes best along with some rough ratios, or until the samples run out.
What I’d also be interested to know is whether he feels like anything is missing from the base even after combining the sample materials that I sent and, if so, what it might be. It doesn’t have to be a named material, just some general description like, “more animalic”, “bitter”, “sweet” “woody” - that sort of thing. It would be extremely surprising if I hit it all on the first round. I’m not sure I’d even want to, since the building of a scent is incremental
If we get a skeleton bass line in a couple of rounds, we’re doing well. We might need to add a drum line, too, before working on the vocals and guitar. I’m loving this project already. ------------ I've just done the drawing for the labdanum samples, and the winners are Laurie Brown and Diana. You can claim yours by going to my profile, clicking on "e-mail" and sending me a message with your full mailing address. ------------ [Cauldron woodcut adapted from Wikimedia]
Some people think it smells like goat. Others think it smells like ambergris, or leather, or pine rosin, or musk. Yet others think it smells like strange, rotten fruit. Some people think it must be the smell of heaven, and others think it's the smell from hell. Everyone seems to have a different reaction to rock rose, otherwise known as Cistus ladaniferus (also spelled ladanifer), but it’s all of these perceptions and more. It’s one of my favorite perfumery materials, which I’ve used in several different forms, most liberally in my amber base.
Cistus shrubs are native to the Mediterranean, and secrete a sticky resin that’s been used in perfumery for millennia. It’s one of those archetypal scents that many people dislike because they conjure up visions of our remote human history, our animal instincts, and all of the well-repressed scents and associated emotions that our modern, well-scrubbed, quasi-puritanical Western society tries to avoid, preferring instead light, “safe”, synthetic scents that have little association with raw nature.
Back in the old days, labdanum resin used to be harvested from the hair of goats that foraged among the Cistus bushes, unwittingly performing a service to perfumers as they dined, so the goat association has some basis in fact. Of course, it’s not done that way any more, but the plant’s own animalic notes are still there in the pungent resin. The raw resin is a dark greenish-brown, and has a very earthy, plant-like scent. I use the least refined, green absolute in compositions where I want a dark, earthy note without too much of the strong, resinous, perfumey aspect. An extra step of refining produces a clear absolute that I love to wear as a perfume just on its own when I’m in need of a special treat. It is a powerfully resinous scent that’s like dried pine rosin, but with fruity, musky, leathery notes that pop out more clearly than they do in the green version.
Steam distillation of the resin produces a powerfully fragrant, orange-colored essential oil, generally sold under the name Cistus, that has less of the resinous aspect and more of the fruity, “perfumey”, musky, animalic notes. I have found considerable variation in the oil from different sources, with each having its own use.
If you have not smelled labdanum or cistus, the scent is impossible to describe adequately since it is unlike anything else, a common theme with variations. None of the Cistus absolutes or oils come cheap, but fortunately a little goes a long way, and the effect in a perfume is worth the expense.
I will give away a sample of one version of Cistus to two people who comment here. Just leave a comment saying which version you think would be most appealing to you - the absolute or the essential oil. If your name is drawn you will receive a 1-ml sample of that version diluted to perfume strength. If you have not smelled Cistus by itself, this is your opportunity. You may love it, you may hate it, but at least you will have experienced it, and it may help you recognize it in perfumes.
I've just done the drawing, and the winners of the labdanum samples are Laurie Brown and Diana. You can claim yours by going to my profile, clicking on "e-mail" and sending me a message with your full mailing address.
It would seem frivolous to write about perfume today when the news is all about the terrible earthquake in Japan and its consequences. This morning, the estimates of how many people have already died vary from 100 to as high as 10 thousand, a mind-boggling figure. The bottom line clearly is that no one knows how many have died. Every news article that I read fills me with a sense of horror at the magnitude of the disaster. My sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost loved ones. Property can eventually be restored, but individuals cannot.
For those of us safe in our thin cocoons of modern civilization, the events in Japan should serve as a reminder of how fragile life is, and how fragile our entire infrastructure is in the face of raw nature. Maybe this hits closer to home for me than for some because I know that out in the ocean not too far from where I live is a fault exactly like the one in Japan, just on the other side of the Pacific. It could have happened here.
As destructive as the quake and tsunami were, the consequences appear to be ongoing. To supply the insatiable desire for energy consumption, Japan has built 55 nuclear power plants - another mind-boggling number given the small size of the country and the potential hazards of this technology. Even in the best of times there is a problem with how to dispose of the waste, which remains strongly radioactive for many generations after the power plant has served its life span. No one really has a good plan for disposal, but I suppose it’s not really considered a cause for concern if it doesn’t cause obvious problems within the lifetime of the engineers who designed the systems. Let future generations deal with it, unless an earthquake hits. It’s only then, when there’s an immediate problem, that people become aware of the real price they might have to pay for all of the comforts and conveniences to which they’re accustomed.
The nuclear meltdown that seems to be in progress in Japan is just one example of the ways in which human activities interact with nature to magnify the scope of a disaster and call attention to hazards about which most people are in a constant state of denial. The sad thing is that spills of radioactivity from nuclear power plants and manufacturing of nuclear weapons, oil spills, general trashing of the environment, and floods or droughts caused by human activity are all potentially avoidable, but no one who has the power to do so wants to take responsibility for preventing them. Maybe it’s too late anyway, so all we can do is fiddle while Rome burns.
I know this is a downer post, but I tend to get depressed about these things, and all I can do is try to live my own life in a reasonable way - and write.
The saga of the mystery perfume continues. I just put together a set of samples to send to our dark and devious friend, who apparently is currently residing somewhere in Denmark. Here’s what he’s going to try, all diluted to perfume strength so that they can be tested on skin, his own or his (probably female) assistant’s:
* A whole bunch of different types of frankincense, including Boswellia carteri from Ethiopia, Boswellia carteri SCO2 extract, Boswellia serrata essential oil and SCO2 extract from India, Boswellia freereana from Somalia, Boswellia neglecta from Kenya, and Boswellia sacra from Oman. I may have forgotten something. It sounds a little overwhelming, so I hope he’s up to the task of sniffing all of these different variations on frankincense and making some decisions. I see he’s frantically sniffing his wrists in his latest photo, trying to make up his mind.
* Several variations on labdanum, including green labdanum absolute, a “clear” labdanum absolute, and two versions of cistus essential oil, which is distilled from the labdanum resin. I think I’ll do a post on labdanum sometime soon, since it’s one of my many “favorite” materials.
* A couple of synthetic ouds, thrown in just for fun.
* A mystery herbal extract that may or may not work. More shall be revealed on that one, should he decide to try to use it.
I think that’s all for now. Once I get feedback and decide on which frankincense and labdanum version(s) to use, that will probably determine the next step.
It probably seems strange to get all excited about bottles and boxes, but I’m thrilled to have finally found boxes to fit my odd-shaped 15 ml bottles. They’re white with a very subtle embossed flower pattern on them, and they just arrived today! I packaged my first bottles in these boxes and shipped them out this afternoon. I just hope the labels stick tightly to the slightly uneven surface.
I’m not yet to the point in my business where I can have thousands of bottles and boxes custom-designed and printed, so I’m constrained by the selection of generic bottles and boxes offered online, which can be frustrating at times. However, I generally go with the policy that “less is more”, and try to find the simplest design that’s attractive and doesn’t look cheap, and customize it with a label. Those funny 15-ml bottles with the sloping triangular sides are the exception, my one packaging folly.
My challenge now is to find boxes to fit the 30 ml and 50 ml sizes, but that will come in time. I only wish I could find matching ones in exactly the sizes I need, but I suppose that’s too much to expect. For now I’m happy to have three standard bottle sizes and a box for the most popular one.
I know some people like to keep their perfume in its box, so I want to be able to provide one, even if it doesn’t have the typical commercial box-within-a-box design. A box also makes the perfume a lot easier to store and ship.
Do you keep your perfume in its box? What features do you like in perfume bottles and boxes? My pet peeve is bottles that won’t stand up on their own. What’s yours?
When it comes to orchid plants, Chysis bractescens has to be one of the ugliest ones around. It has long, thick pseudobulbs about the length and diameter of a grocery store cucumber, but pointed at both ends and segmented where the leaves are or were, mostly were. Each new growth comes up from the side of the previous one so that the plant keeps growing vertically instead of horizontally, stacking one pseudobulb on top of another until it becomes an unwieldy, out-of-control mess. Generally, the pseudobulbs lose their leaves after a year or two, so that only one or two growths actually have leaves. But when it flowers, in early spring, the display is gorgeous, both visually and fragrance-wise, turning the ugly duckling into a swan. This year’s flowers just started to open this weekend.
The flowers grow from the base of the new growth, starting at the same time and developing in parallel with the new pseudobulb. The stubby flower spike bears a half-dozen or so big, waxy, ivory-white flowers that are typical orchid shape and wonderfully fragrant. The thing blooms like clockwork every year. The fragrance is smooth and creamy, almost gourmand, with lots of vanilla, a little caramel, and slight notes of lilac and jasmine. Unlike many other orchids, there’s nothing indolic about it, it’s just sweet and clean, like a creamy, vanilla-flavored dessert. It’s a wonderful scent, but too similar to a lot of gourmand fragrances to warrant a perfume of its own.
Chysis bractescens is one of those orchids that looks like it ought to be hard to grow, but isn’t. It can take all sorts of abuse and still thrive. One of these days I ought to give it a stick or tree fern pole to climb up, but until then it can stay crammed into its tiny plastic pot that sits at a 45 degree angle in a big, heavy, ceramic pot to keep it from tipping over.
I’m a perfume sample whore. I admit it. Every time I see an opportunity to add to my enormous collection, I ask myself if I really need more samples, but my brainstem kicks in with its primitive collecting-and-hoarding reflex and makes me order still more. I have boxes and boxes of untested samples sitting around waiting for their few hours of fame, but I can only wear one, or at most 2-3 perfumes a day, and can only do that when I’m not working on my own formulas.
Testing samples is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s part of what I do as a perfumer. Writers read a lot, musicians listen to a lot of music, and perfumers smell a lot of different things. But like the writer whose house is overrun by books, or the musician whose shelves are crammed with CDs, my closets are overflowing with perfume samples. The perfume samples are in addition to all my books and CDs, which I won’t even mention.
The samples finally got to the point where I had to do something. If I ever wanted to revisit one, there’s no way I could have found it without hours of searching. I’m not sure quite how the idea arose, but I had a couple of small plastic storage boxes, complete with flip-down handles, that I’d been using for something else. I emptied them and started to create a file system for my samples, putting them in alphabetical order, by house. The samples themselves are contained in zip-top plastic “snack-size” baggies that are cut to fit the storage box, taped together on the cut side with clear packing tape, and labeled on the top zip area. I put an index card in each one so that it will stand up straight. I could actually attach samples to the card if they’re in those vials with the little hooks, but they are doing fine just standing on their own in the baggies. Suddenly I have a system in which I can immediately find anything! Well, anything that I’ve filed. It’s shocking!
I started with the samples that I’d already tried and reviewed, filing them at the rate of a few a day so that the task didn’t become overwhelming. I’m still working on the previously tested samples, but the end is in sight. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the task, I started with a partial box of baggies, and have nearly finished a second box of 100. That means I’ve filed perfume samples from over 100 different houses. Incredible. The photo is from when I first started filing. I now have two boxes jam-packed full.
Now, as I test things, I file them in the appropriate baggie or make a new one if I don’t already have one. It’s a slow process, but at least I have a working system for knowing where things are. If any of you out there are also struggling with sample storage, some variation of this system might be worth a try, especially if you have a lot of samples in small vials.
I mentioned the other day that I had received an e-mail from an anonymous customer requesting a bespoke perfume. Whoever it is certainly has some lofty goals in life as well as some interesting and definite ideas about what he wants. Since he presented the brief as a challenge, almost a sport, how could I not take it on?
He included a photograph, presumably so that I could match the perfume to his appearance, but that won’t be easy since he seems to be concealing most of his face. Somehow I suspect that he’s in the habit of constantly creating himself as a fictional character to conceal his true identity. Regardless of whatever neuroses this customer may have, here’s the brief: -------------------------------
I need…a perfume. Perfume is one of the things she lives for, one of the reasons she loves to breathe. I want it to be unlike anything you've ever made. I want it to be dark, bitter, otherworldly. A lot of base, a lot of bass. I want it to unnerve and surprise her. I want her to say 'yes'. I want you to think for a moment about ‘sin’. Think about something…forbidden, something taboo. Something subversive, which makes it seductive and alluring, almost by default. What is the ultimate human taboo in terms of scent? It’s your ultimate dirty secret, the very secret you use your perfumes to conceal and hide or on the other hand, accentuate: You’re animals underneath it all. With animal appetites, animal urges you try to ignore, suppress, hide and deny at your peril. Or animal appetites you want to advertise, just not in so many words. The very kind I embody, or so you think. What would I be as a human animal? I’m the Devil, so they’ve said. Neither animal nor human but a combination of both, just enough of each of them to be dangerous, and that’s the whole idea. Danger. I want her to be able to know exactly who I am by her sense of smell alone.
So – the perfume. Now, I love frankincense, I love it for that sense of sanctity it implies, for that mood of contemplation it creates. I love it because it’s outside of time, just like me. Boswellia neglecta, and a touch of Boswellia serrata, too, and labdanum. Labdanum is a note she loves, labdanum is animal and sexy and slightly goatish. Perfect. She loves galbanum and cinnamon leaf. Castoreum? Civet? Civet is sweeter and sexier than musk I’ve always thought, but that’s your business, to think this out for me. Dangerous, remember? This is part of my bait, the part of my bait that I hope she bites. I have a feeling that she will surprise me, and trust me, not too much does any more.
I want you, my chosen perfumer, to surprise me. Think dark, think sacred, think bitter, think…just the slightest bit overpowering, the kind that breaks down resistance. The kind that will make her take the bait. I told you. I want her to say ‘yes’. I want you to create a perfume for me that makes sure she does. Are you up to that challenge? Do you think you can do it? Do you think you can surprise me, too?
I’ll be in touch later. Let me see if you can do it. I think you might. I like surprises. They come with the job description! ------------------------------
So there you have it, folks. This is going to be quite a project.
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