Sunday, May 29, 2011
Encyclia radiata (or Prostechea radiata, as it’s now called) is one tough orchid plant. Last fall my plant was attacked by some insect cooties that nearly did it in. Once I discovered the problem, I treated the plant to get rid of the pests, a violent treatment that was designed to kill or cure. The poor plant was doused with nasty chemicals, painted with neem oil, and put outside in temperatures that hovered somewhere around freezing. During the coldest part of the winter, it sat in quarantine in the garage with no water or light for several months. In early March it went outside again, once more in cold temperatures. Then one day it started putting out flower buds.
The plant is now healthy, growing profusely, and blooming. It's in a place of honor on the kitchen counter, sporting a spray of lovely greenish-white flowers with purple-striped lips shaped like scallop shells, pumping out its amazing perfume. It’s a rich, vanilla-based fragrance with heaps of cinnamon, orange-y citrus, and a bit of indole beneath it all. Mostly, though, it’s a cinnamon-flavored dessert with some odd notes that are hard to describe because they’re unique.
As soon as as I smelled it, I considered making a perfume to honor this wonderful little plant. I’m thinking I’d call it Flor Conchita (little shell flower), which is its common name in Mexico, where it grows wild.
I never cease to be amazed by all of the serendipitous coincidences in perfume making and perfume sampling. The very day that my Conchita was blooming - I tried an extremely rare vintage Guerlain called Dawamesk, which contains indolic flowers and vanilla, and dries down to a base with a significant cinnamon note. I was standing in the kitchen when I smelled something that I thought was an unusually strong current of Dawamesk sillage, but it was not coming from my arm. I quickly traced it to the little orchid plant on the counter. I sniffed back and forth between my arm and the flowers, and the more I sniffed, the more I realized that the perfume and the orchid smelled shockingly similar. I’m blown away by the similarity between the scent of Encyclia radiata flowers and Guerlain Dawamesk. It’s almost enough to make me believe in the Jungian idea of synchronicity. It’s certainly enough to make me think that a perfume inspired by the orchid would pretty much amount to a remake of Dawamesk. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
Friday, May 27, 2011
When The Perfumed Court offered tiny samples of Guerlain's Dawamesk for sale, how could I not be reeled in hook, line, and sinker? A perfume named for an edible hashish product is not to be missed, even though I’m fully aware that it’s likely to be, in some sense, a disappointment. A quote from Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels describes dawamesk (the real stuff, not the perfume) as being made from a fatty, sugary base seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon, pistachio, almonds and musk and, of course, containing a goodly amount of hashish. Sometimes it even contained “cantharides”, an extract from a beetle otherwise known as “Spanish fly”, which was the Victorian precursor to Viagra. Dawamesk was the original hash brownie deluxe, a spread that could be used on bread, mixed into a cup of coffee, or otherwise ingested for a trip to some artificial paradise.
The fragrance Dawamesk, released by Guerlain in 1942, has long been discontinued, no one seems to know exactly when, but so long ago that the rare bottle one occasionally sees for sale on E-Bay is empty. So what does Guerlain’s Dawamesk smell like? Well, for starters, it doesn’t smell like hashish, nor does it smell like most of the things on Baudelaire’s list of ingredients. It starts off smelling like a vintage floral, rich and sweet, but at the same time light and cheerful. I get something that might be indolic orange blossom, ylang-ylang, heliotrope, and possibly some other floral notes that blend into the general mix. The flowers are all on a rich vanilla base. The opening volley of sillage is absolutely gorgeous, even to someone who doesn’t like floral scents. As it dries down, the indole gradually retreats, allowing a hint of cinnamon to come through, along with progressively more of the heliotrope and some faint, abstract, woody notes. After about 8 hours, all that’s left is a slightly spicy, woody, musky skin scent. I don’t know the concentration of my sample, but its overall strength and indolic assertiveness are typical of a vintage fragrance.
Guerlain’s Dawamesk is not the buttery, sugary spread on the baguette, but rather a cinnamon-flavored, hallucinated trip to a flower-filled tropical island, a quick and convenient getaway from the damp cold, mold, and squalor of a 19th-century Parisian artist’s garret in the winter. My sample was only 0.25 ml, but I’ve had over 8 hours worth of enjoyment from a tiny dab that made no visible dent on the juice in the vial. Was it worth it? I think so.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
One of the cool things about growing orchids is watching the flower buds grow, develop, and open up. Inside the bud, the long, thin, dangly petals of some slipper orchids may be folded up like an accordion, suddenly dropping down to extend the length of my forearm or even longer once they’re released. Where and how the pouch is folded, I still don’t understand. Some of the cattleya orchids have their frilly lips all tightly packed and bundled up inside the bud, to be released in a mini-explosion once the time comes.
I remember one incident when I was sitting at my desk working, with a cattleya in bud sitting on a shelf, off to one side. As I was typing, I thought I saw something move, out of the corner of my eye. Then it moved again. It was the orchid. One of the buds visibly opened up as I watched it. I felt like I was watching one of those time-lapse films speeded up, but this was in real time. The sepals popped open with a tiny audible sound, and the much larger petals and frilly lip unfolded before my eyes.
The fragrance of many orchid flowers, especially cattleyas, changes over the course of their bloom. A great many cattleyas start out smelling indolic and camphorous, with the floral scent developing over the span of a few days. Sometimes even the floral scent switches from one fragrance during the day to a completely different one at night. As the flower prepares to die, it takes on yet a different scent, a little bit woody, with some green tea notes.
The saga of the Golden Cattleya continues. I originally made three different test versions, which I sent out to a few people. Without my consciously intending to do so, these three versions mimicked the life cycle of a cattleya flower. The perfume that I currently sell is the middle one, the most floral of the three.
Gail liked the skanky version #1 (GC1) so much that she has inspired me to remake it to more fully emphasize the indolic, camphorous notes that cattleyas put out when the flowers first open, before the mature floral scent fully develops. I’m thinking of calling the finished version Emergence.
A few days ago I worked on the new base for Emergence, keeping the civet and labdanum that were in the original GC1, but adding a few things, especially some indolic and camphorous stuff. To begin with it smelled excessively strong, but now that it’s settled down for a few days I think it’s going to work. Now for a slightly modified upper half, and Gail will get to test it!
Inspired by Tarleisio’s comments, I’m going to reformulate the third version (GC3) to represent the final stage of the cattleya flower and call it Memento Mori, the name that she suggested. These three perfumes will eventually form a suite that provides snapshots of the cattleya flower from birth to death.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
As in perfumes, citrus scents are popular among orchids. Most cattleya fragrances include at least a touch of citrus, with everything from bergamot and lime though lemon, grapefruit, orange, and orange blossom being represented in one form or another.
This week I brought in a hybrid cattleya that was blooming in the greenhouse, Blc Mem Shirley Moore. Its color varies considerably from year to year, sometimes being more on the yellow side, other times more green. The picture is from last year, when the petals and sepals were a bright lime green and the lip a bright purple, suggesting that one of its ancestors was Cattleya bicolor, a species with this color combination. This year both the petals and lip are more on the yellow side, maybe because the winter was colder than usual.
In any case, this cattleya has a powerful fragrance that smells like a traditional US dessert called lemon bars. Lemon bars are basically a flour and butter crust topped by an exceedingly rich combination of lemon juice, eggs, and sugar. The orchid has that same rich, sweet, lemon custard scent, but it adds a little vanilla to the recipe. It’s a real clock-puncher that only puts out its scent for a few hours in the morning, but when it does - wow! It smells good enough to eat.
This one won’t end up as a perfume, just because it’s pretty much a straight gourmand interpretation of lemon. On second thought, has that been done in a perfume? I can’t remember smelling one, since most lemon-themed scents are colognes. Anybody have a favorite lemon gourmand scent?
[Lemon bar photo adapted from Wikimedia]
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Although there’s the occasional surprise, I’ve gotten pretty good at predicting how long a given perfume will last once it’s applied. The intuitive rule of thumb is that the less I like it, the longer it will stick around, but there are some exceptions, just as there are some semi-scientific principles at work, too. All-natural perfumes at low concentrations are almost guaranteed to give up the ghost within a couple of hours regardless of how much I like or dislike them. The cheapest, all-synthetic perfumes are almost guaranteed to sink into my skin like the sucker of a hungry leech and never let go, even if they’re supposedly EdCs or EdTs. However, there are a few leeches that I can’t get enough of, and am perfectly happy to let live out their entire parasitic life cycle on my skin.
When I test perfumes now, I choose according to how much time I want to devote to one scent. Fragrances that I think will be loud and persistent, I put on in the morning when I know I don’t have to face people at work, and when I know I can do an emergency scrub to abort the mission if necessary. Ones that are gentle and natural, I’ll put on in the evening or at a time when I’m going out and don’t want to offend anyone with second-hand Angel, Broadway Nite or other sillage monsters. I’ve come to appreciate both extremes, the fleeting, transparent soap bubbles and ephemeral mayflies as well as the noisy guests that simply don’t know when to pack up and leave. I also appreciate all of the nuances in between.
If I had to commit, I would say that I like perfumes to fall somewhere in the middle, strong and tenacious enough to really smell, and present for long enough for me to truly enjoy their evolution. If it’s a perfume that I wear to work, I’d like for it to last all day, at least as a skin scent that I can distract myself with. In general, I don’t like overly strong perfumes that blast my nose for a full day and then stay on my clothes through multiple washings. Having said that, however, there’s something magical about detecting the residue of a perfume on clothing or on a towel, days or even weeks after I wore it. A few weeks ago, I was surprised to smell a gorgeous musky scent of one of my sweaters that I’d thrown on a chair and left there for more time than I’d like to admit. My cat had slept on it, I’d piled more clothes on top of it, and the cat had then slept on the ever-growing pile of clothing like the princess on the pea. I couldn’t remember which perfume I’d been wearing along with the sweater, but I longed for more of it! I think it may have been Black Cashmere, or Musc Ravageur, or both in succession, but I still haven’t figured it out. Maybe the weight of the sleeping cat was a catalyst that turned the perfume residue into something wonderful, just as the weight of the earth turns coal into diamonds.
Another experience with longevity was the other day when I smelled a wonderful scent on the towel I was using. I easily identified it as ambroxan, and I think it got on there when I had been mixing up or bottling some ambroxan and wiped my hands on the towel. I’m pretty sure the towel had been through several washings since the incident with the ambroxan, and I think the washing significantly improved the scent.
The third incident is probably the most amazing of all. Almost a year ago when I was in the duty-free shop during one of my trips (the duty-free perfume section is a stop I never fail to make if there’s time), I sprayed some of the new Samsara on my wrist because I was curious how it compared with the old version. Days later, I realized that I could not only still smell the sandalwood base on the plastic band of the watch I was wearing, it was even dispensing a large aura of sillage. Samsara has become the signature scent of my watch, without my ever having to reapply it. That one spritz over a year ago is still detectable on the watch band, every time I put it on. When I’m in a meeting and bored, I sniff my watch band. The bonding of that scent to the plastic was nothing short of incredible.
How do you feel about longevity in perfume? Do you like each perfume to fade away quickly so that you can move on to the next one? Do you like them to fade quickly so that you can re-spray with the same scent and keep the top notes going? Do you like your perfumes to last all day and into the night? Do you like them linear? Do you like them to shape-shift? Are you thrilled when you unexpectedly catch a whiff of a perfume from days, weeks, or months ago on some article of clothing?
[Bubble, mayfly and leech photos adapted from Wikimedia]
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
I think myrrh may be an acquired taste. The first time I smelled it, I didn’t like it at all, but I’ve since come to love and appreciate it. It may also be that there are so many different varieties that it’s necessary to sort through them all before finding the ones that are most appealing. I thought of doing a post on myrrh after trying a sample of Ayala Moriel’s Film Noir, which contains a whopping amount of myrrh in the base. She combines it with chocolate, coffee, cardamom, and some other good things for a perfume that starts out as a pure gourmand and ends up as chocolate flavored myrrh. I love it, especially since it’s a welcome change from her usual culinary herbal blends.
Myrrh is the resin of a thorny desert shrub of the genus Commiphora. The “standard” myrrh is from C myrrha, which grows on the Arabian peninsula and parts of Africa. It has an unmistakable, bitter, resinous, earthy, phenolic, almost animalic and leather-like scent that I’ve come to know and love. I think the tipping point for me was when I was sent a sample of raw myrrh resin from this species along with some other things I'd ordered. I decided to tincture it, and was blown away by how lovely the tincture smelled.
True opoponax is also a type of myrrh, coming from the species Commiphora erythrea or Commiphora opoponax, which grows in the same geographic range as C myrrha. It is a sweeter, more aromatic and incensey version of myrrh, and for that reason is sometimes called “sweet myrrh”. Because it’s sweeter and more conventionally “perfumey”, it makes a good entry-level introduction to the world of myrrh fragrance. Apparently there is also a plant called Opoponax chironeum that grows in the Middle East and Mediterranean region, which is used to produce a resin that is, confusingly enough, also called “opoponax”. To my knowledge, I have not smelled it, but it is reported to be “balsamic” in scent and similar to vetiver. I think the bottom line is that there is a huge amount of confusion as to what is meant by “opoponax”, and there is no telling what sort of opoponax is in your perfume or the essential oil you buy unless the genus and species are specified.
Another type of myrrh is guggul, also known as “bdellium”, which comes from the species Commiphora mukul or Commiphora wrightii. It is endangered in the wild due to over-harvesting, but is now cultivated commercially in northern India and Pakistan, since it is a popular herbal medicine and is used in dhoop-type incense. Guggul resin is the darkest of the three. I have not smelled the essential oil, but judging by the resin, it seems similar to opoponax.
Myrrh is one of the materials that I almost certainly plan to use in the “mystery perfume”, and will definitely use it in some others that are on the drawing board. There’s myrrh in Kingston Ferry, and of course it’s in Kyphi. In the soap version of Kingston Ferry, the myrrh has a surprisingly strong presence, almost giving the impression of bathing in a lake or swimming on a seaweed-strewn beach.
[Botanical illustration from Wikimedia]
Monday, May 16, 2011
Going back over a few old blog posts to find links, I was shocked to see that I started this blog on May 16 of last year, so today is its one-year anniversary! My perfume business is not far behind, having started in late July of last year. I’m happy with the way both are developing. I really appreciate all of the readers of the blog and my wonderful perfume customers.
Right now I’m thinking about how to celebrate the first-year anniversary of both enterprises, and am asking for your suggestions. Some ideas that I’m mulling over are:
- Sending a thank-you gift to everyone who has signed up as a follower during the first year. It would have to be small since, happily, there are quite a few of you. It would probably be just some sort of perfume sample, but it would be a token of my appreciation.
- Providing a special coupon code that can be used on my website for a discount or a freebie of some sort.
- Making a special perfume to celebrate the first anniversary of Olympic Orchids Artisan Perfumes, based on feedback from you. What would you like to see added to the lineup besides the ones that are currently under development (Alyssum and the Mystery Perfume aka DevilScent)?
- Having one or more significant perfume giveaways by random drawing, answering trivia questions, writing a short essay about a topic, or some other feat of intellectual skill.
- Making a series of perfumes that incorporate the items from the traditional anniversary gift lists that I see from time to time. I have no idea whether anyone actually uses these lists for any purpose, but for whatever they’re worth, they’re out there. The first year is “paper”, so that would be the theme of this year’s perfume. I think this approach has some interesting possibilities given that the first 6 years are: paper, cloth, leather, flowers, wood, and candy. I may do this anyway, since the idea set me to thinking about how to use the theme “paper” in a perfume. “Papyrus” has been overdone, at least in theory. I say "in theory" because, even though it’s in the lists of notes for many perfumes, I still don’t have any idea what it actually smells like. As far as I know, papyrus plants just smell sort of green and grassy. No one really wants to smell like paper or cardboard. The scent of a paper mill is definitely out, too. The first idea that came to mind was a perfume called “Tabloid”, “Tabloid Freak”, or “Tabloid Sensation”, which would represent something outrageous like the boy who is half human and half bat, an alien abduction, or a really nasty celebrity divorce that allegedly involved a lot of perfume bottle breakage. There would also be some sort of paper or newsprint note permeating the whole thing.
I’m sure there are plenty of other ways to share my commemoration of this one-year milestone, but these seem like some of the more obvious approaches. What do you think?
By the way, this post reminds me that the two winners of the labdanum drawing, Laurie Brown and Diana, have never claimed their samples. Maybe I'm not going about announcing winners in the right way. All you need to do is e-mail me with your shipping information. To send an e-mail, just go to "Profile" and under "Contact Information" click on the "e-mail" line.
[Cake photo adapted from Wikimedia]
Saturday, May 14, 2011
The other day I was happily typing away on something not perfume-related when a little skype-type box suddenly popped up on my laptop screen (or maybe it was in my brain) and there was the mystery customer, Dev, sitting comfortably in a Danish apartment holding what I think was a glass of prosecco. The image was dark and a little blurry, or maybe he himself was a little blurry, but he seemed to be alone and unsupervised in Tarleisio’s house. I suspect he’d been raiding her wine storage area because he seemed a little jollier than I would have expected given his reputation.
Dev (preening himself): You know what? I’m about to become fashionable again. Trends may come and go, but they eventually always come back to me.
Me: Oh yeah? What makes you say that?
Dev: Andy Tauer said so on his blog. Fetish-related stuff is going to be totally in next year. Black leather, rubber, you know what I mean.
Me: Did it ever go out of style? Anyway, that’s good news because it means that our perfume will be right there, riding the crest of the next big wave like a runaway surfboard.
Dev: True, but only if you finish the perfume in time. I know how you like to drag your feet and sniff, and sniff, and mix, and mix, and you’re such a f***in’ perfectionist that you’re never satisfied, and then just when you think it’s done, you discover some (makes hand quotes, dropping cigarette ash all over the place) “promising new material” that you have to order, and it takes a while for it to come … at the rate you’re going it could take years.
Me: No, actually it’s going quite well. I already have a first draft of the base mixed up, and I’m sending you another big package of material samples on Monday.
Dev: Wouldn’t it be easier just to get a ready-made leather accord, add a little bit of ambroxan and a ready-made fruity base and be done with it? If you call it Leather Fetish and advertise it with some dark, suggestive images, it should be a best-seller, and you don’t have to go to all that work.
Me: Don’t tempt me, Dev. You know I don’t work that way. Besides, I have no advertising budget unless you can come up with one.
Dev: Don’t take offence. It was just a suggestion. Just trying to do my job. And regarding the budget …
Me: You want it to actually work on her, don’t you? She’s probably not very gullible when it comes to advertising.
Dev: I suppose you’re right. It’s got to be the smell, too, not just the concept, although concept usually seems to be 90% of it. Well, do what you have to do.
(He shrugs, gets up unsteadily, goes to the kitchen and refills his prosecco glass. He holds it up as if making a toast)
Here’s to the revival of the dark side! Just hurry up or we'll miss it and have to wait for the next cycle.
[Drunken Angel and Prosecco images adapted from Wikimedia]
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
A few weeks ago I read an interesting discussion on Fragrantica regarding DKNY’s newest perfume, “Pure”. Although I don’t think it’s explicitly stated, the name and advertising seem to imply that this perfume is made with all-natural, organic, ethically harvested materials and minimal packaging. Certainly that’s what people have been reading into the description.
Regarding the juice itself, the DKNY website (different from the Donna Karan website) clearly provides the basis for the description posted by several online retailers:
“A soft, floral scent based on a drop of Vanilla in water that is sourced from Vanilla Bean farmers in Uganda, the majority of whom are women. The scent is nuanced with transparent Jasmine, Lush Orchid and creamy Sandalwood”. Other retailers’ descriptions add “dewdrop floral petals, lotus, bulgarian rose, floral bouquet of exotic blossoms, freesia and white amber” to the mix.
So with a perfunctory nod to eco-friendliness and humanitarian activities, Pure contains “a drop” of Ugandan vanilla. More than a tiny drop, and the water-soluble vanilla absolute probably would muck up the pristine appearance of the rest of the aroma chemical mix, to say nothing of costing too much to be able to sell 3.4 ounces of the stuff for about $60. The bulk of the price is probably due to advertising costs since the description on Fragrantica states, “Advertising campaign will be very wide-reaching and pricy”.
When I was traveling last month, I did my usual tour through the duty-free shop to see if there was anything interesting. PureDKNY was there, so I sprayed a tiny bit on my wrist. For a “pure and natural” perfume, it certainly smells unnatural. I was immediately assaulted by the same gang of unpleasant synthetic notes that I smell in so many commercial fragrances, including the ones used in those D&G tarot cards that I especially dislike. It’s a mass of aquatic top notes on top of the usual generic shampoo-florals and harsh woody-plastic base. One tiny spray produces a massive cloud of sillage, and that clingy, skin-penetrating tenacity characteristic of the most in-your-face commercial scents. Eventually it dries down to a citrusy fruity-floral with no distinguishing features.
In all fairness, I don’t think it’s ever stated what’s “pure” about “Pure”. Maybe it’s pure synthetic, but then what’s the token drop of Ugandan vanilla doing in there?
Maybe it’s not the perfume that’s “pure”, but the packaging. Again quoting from the Fragrantica description, “An interesting fact is that package of PureDKNY is also environmentally-friendly. The glass of its flacon is 100 percent recyclable; its outer carton is made of carton and paper which decompose easily”.
Far be it from me to rain on anyone's green-themed parade, but a lot of the "natural", "eco-friendly", "recyclable" advertising is just hype, pure and simple. All glass is recyclable if people take the trouble to do it. So is all paper and cardboard packaging. So is a lot of plastic. This means that most perfume packaging is recyclable, even if it doesn't explicitly say so.
Regarding "eco-friendly" perfume, some of the plant species that provide natural perfumery materials are being driven to extinction by over-harvesting. Sandalwood is a good example. In these cases, it is more eco-friendly to use a synthetic than to use the natural material, so maybe Pure is eco-friendly after all, as are all other perfumes that contain a synthetic sandalwood note.
"Natural" perfumery materials are not necessarily "healthier" than synthetics. They are certainly not more “pure”, since a single essential oil can contain hundreds of different molecules. People are just as likely to be allergic to natural materials as they are to synthetics, or to have other adverse reactions. In any case, there's no clear line between "natural" and "synthetic", since many synthetics are single molecules that are found in nature, or even isolated from natural materials. Nearly all perfumes contain a mix of natural and synthetic materials, unless it's specified that they are 100% natural.
Bottom line: Ad campaigns are designed to tell you what they think you want to hear. Right now, many people want to hear that the products they consume are eco-friendly. In the overall scheme of things perfume is such a microscopic part of what people consume that it's really not a high priority target in the effort to reduce waste and eliminate harmful substances from our environment. There are other much more pressing and large-scale concerns that we should be addressing, including overpopulation, over-consumption, and the ever-compounding consequences of these human activities. For the privileged few, retreating into a fantasy world of artificially "clean and pure" products will not help solve these problems, which ultimately will affect everyone.
[Bottle photo from DKNY website; Photo of houses built over a garbage dump from Wikimedia]
Sunday, May 8, 2011
It was exciting to find two bottles of Judith Muller’s Bat-Sheba on sale for a price that didn’t break the bank, even with international shipping, so I snapped them up. Bat-Sheba perfume was made in Israel starting some time in the 1960s, and discontinued some time in the 1980s, so bottles that still actually contain the perfume are quite a find.
The first bottle was exactly as described, a full 2 ml mini bottle of the parfum concentration in perfect condition. The bottle is hand-painted, bluish colored iridescent glass, made to look like an archaeological artifact. The screw-cap has a cracked gold finish, and around the neck of the bottle is a gold tie with the name tag. The second bottle was not the 7 ml of EdT that I thought I was buying. Instead, it is another completely full 2 ml parfum mini, but in a reddish-orange colored bottle with the same shape, patina, and tag as the first one. Interesting.
On closer inspection, the tag on the blue bottle has a black border, but the border on the orange bottle is red. The bottom of the blue bottle has “JM3” stamped into the glass, but the orange one has “JM4”. The most telling feature, though was what is written on the back of the tags. The tag on the blue bottle says “Exotic Oriental” and the tag on the orange bottle says “Woody Modern”. That explains why the two perfumes smell so different. I feel like Alice in Wonderland holding two bottles, which will make me either grow or shrink depending on which one I choose.
The solution, of course, was to try one on each wrist, blue on the left, orange on the right. Since these perfumes have been discontinued for over 20 years, I have no idea whether they still smell the way they did back in the 20th century, but they’re both unique. I think what impresses me most is that they match the bottles so perfectly, creating the impression of ancient perfumes that were discovered in an archaeological dig, perfumes that have hunkered down and survived underground for thousands of years, ever since they were used by a long-dead bathing beauty. I’m blown away!
Both perfumes have an odd, dusty, musty base that reminds me of earth, stone, sandalwood incense, and wood that has been preserved by a desert climate for millennia. On top of this common theme, the perfume in the blue bottle is spicy, with cinnamon, dried roses, and other things that I can’t begin to identify. The perfume in the orange bottle is softer and fruitier, with anise-like notes. Both are absolutely unique and both are lovely in their own way. As they warm up on my skin, they produce an amazingly beautiful combined sillage. Jaded perfumista that I am, it’s not often that a perfume evokes deep emotions, but these two manage to do it.
Maybe the thing that moves me the most is that, without intentionally doing so, I am wearing both of these perfumes on mother’s day. Could it have been a subconscious desire to celebrate the fact that my mother realized her lifelong dream of visiting Israel a few years ago, shortly before she became too sick to travel? This trip was all she wanted to talk about on my last visit with her, so her memories are fresh in my mind.
So on this mother’s day 2011, I’ll celebrate my mother’s life, her memories, and the serendipitous enjoyment of two surprising perfumes that have unexpectedly come to symbolize my mother and her dreams.
Friday, May 6, 2011
Vanilla is one of those flavorings and scents that we take for granted. The expression “plain vanilla” is used to describe something ordinary and banal. Vanilla often doesn’t get the respect it deserves, in food or in perfumery.
Real vanilla comes from the seedpods of a genus of Central American orchids, so right away you can see that it’s not so plain after all. Most natural vanilla on the market is from the species Vanilla planifolia, which is now mostly cultivated on Madagascar and Réunion, and is commonly called “Bourbon” vanilla, after the old name of the island of Réunion. Bourbon vanilla has a characteristic rich, custard-like scent produced by an ensemble of literally hundreds of different types of molecule. “Tahitian” vanilla is a different species, Vanilla tahitensis, which smells sharper and a little more floral than the Bourbon variety. “Mexican” vanilla is yet another species, Vanilla pompona. I really need to get some of this and smell it to see how it compares to the other two.
The vanilla orchid grows as a large, vigorous vine. I have a planifolia plant in my greenhouse, which never gets large enough to flower because I keep chopping off cuttings to give away or sell. The plant never fails to cooperate, growing more biomass, trying to expand all over the greenhouse. One of these days I may decide to let it do its thing and flower.
Despite the fact that a high percentage of perfumes contain a vanilla note, vanilla is not an easy material to deal with in perfumery. I first learned that years ago when I was using commercial fragrance oils in my early soap-making experiments. None of the fragrance oils called “vanilla” really smelled like vanilla. They all had some aspect of vanilla, but there was so much olfactory noise that it was hard to get to the heart of the vanilla scent. There were all sorts of variations like “vanilla bean”, “warm vanilla sugar”, “Tahitian vanilla”, “exotic vanilla”, “delicious vanilla”, “vanilla butter cream”, “vanilla taffy”, … well, you get the picture. At the time I was buying in small quantities, so as soon as I found something marginally acceptable, it would be discontinued or the formula would change. I could never find anything that smelled like real vanilla.
Creating a good, true-to-life vanilla accord from scratch is not a trivial undertaking. This post would get too long if I wrote about it now, so will save that for another day when I write about my adventures in building a better synthetic vanilla.
One obvious solution to the problem of getting a good vanilla note in perfumery is to use real vanilla. There are vanilla absolutes, vanilla oleoresins, and the vanilla beans themselves, which are easy to tincture. The problem with vanilla absolutes is that they’re very expensive, making them hard to fit in the budget of a perfumer trying to make affordable fragrances. Another problem is that they are primarily water-soluble, which means that they are difficult to use in an alcohol- or oil-based scent. Pre-diluted vanilla absolutes generally do not say what the carrier is, and more often than not they create more problems than they solve. A while back I obtained some vanilla oleoresin, which is also supposed to be somewhat water-soluble. The fragrance is wonderful, rich, and custard-like, just like Bourbon vanilla extract. It’s less expensive than the absolute, but still difficult to work with. It appears to be soluble in alcohol at high concentrations, but as soon as the concentration goes lower, some of the water-soluble components separate out. My approach is to let this separation happen, allow the whole thing to sit for a while until the molecules that are soluble in organic solvents get extracted, then pour off the alcohol phase.
A simpler approach is to just make a tincture of vanilla pods, which produces essentially the same thing as tincturing the oleoresin, but with less mess. I am the proud owner of a pack of Madagascar vanilla pods, some of which I am tincturing. I have to say that, as an orchid breeder, I feel a little sad to see the potential offspring of orchid plants used in this way, but I just harden my heart, slice open the vanilla pods, and callously drop them in the alcohol, where the poor little dust-like seeds drop to the bottom of the jar. Within a couple of days the alcohol is already brown in color, and smells exactly like Bourbon vanilla extract. My plan is to use the resulting tincture as the solvent for the vanillin and other materials that I use in my synthetic vanilla accord, combining the best of both worlds.
It’s almost always easiest to let nature do the hard work.
[Vanilla flower photo from Wikimedia]
Monday, May 2, 2011
When I post a review on Fragrantica, I generally have a quick look through the posts, and never fail to be amazed by people’s obsessive posting of pictures of the bottle for any perfume that they mention. Sometimes there’s a thread with dozens of posts about the same perfume, each with the same bottle icon, making what could be a short thread very long and tiresome to go through. Even on Basenotes, if you look at threads like “Scent of the Day”, you’ll see that many people who post have inserted a picture of the perfume in question or the ad for it, sometimes as large as a billboard.
Frankly, I don’t get it. To me, perfume is not about appearance, it’s all about how it smells. I do like to have a name by which to identify each perfume that I try, but that’s it. Once I’ve seen a picture of a bottle of Chanel No. 5 or Alien, I know what it looks like. I don’t need to see it again and again. If I really want to know what the container looks like, it’s easy to look it up.
I can’t help but think that some people focus more on a perfume’s bottle and advertising than they do on the fragrance itself. Or maybe because it’s so hard to describe scents verbally, people come to view a perfume in terms of its bottle or advertising image, which eventually becomes sort of a pictograph that serves as a name in their minds. Maybe the reason I find the use of bottle and ad pictographs so superfluous is because, in my mind’s eye, I already have my own abstract visual images of what each perfume is like, formed when I smelled it from a generic sample vial, and these have nothing to do with the bottle or ad.
So my question to you, dear reader, is whether you mentally use perfume bottles or ads as pictographs or symbols to represent the perfume. Is this a good thing? Setting aside issues of quality and aesthetics in packaging or advertising, do you think that a perfume’s value is enhanced by an iconic bottle or ad?
Sunday, May 1, 2011
This April was completely screwed up with two trips in rapid succession, the coldest spring weather on record, and two theatre productions sandwiched between the trips. May is beginning much more auspiciously. The sun has finally appeared and all of a sudden it’s warm enough to wear shorts, go barefoot, and open a window on the south side of the house. The orchids are all in their growth spurt, the bamboo is shooting up, the fruit trees are blooming, and the bees are buzzing around. I just put the shade cloth over the greenhouse, and our next-door neighbors are getting married today.
What I don’t understand is how time goes by so fast. It seems like it was just New Years, and now it’s almost summer. Maybe time passes faster as we get older. Maybe I’ve taken on so many different things that I’m always racing and juggling to keep up with them. Maybe it’s both.
One of my most memorable dreams was an allegory for this ever-faster life-pattern. In the dream, I was going through a spiral shell-like structure, starting at the center. It took the same amount of time to go through each round of the spiral even though they became progressively larger, and each one was filled with more and more interesting and exciting things. The pace became faster and faster until at the end I was sucked along so fast that I finally escaped the gravity at the center and spun out into space through the end of the shell. Suddenly I was just floating aimlessly in a calm, empty dark place. I think this is one of several dreams I’ve had in which I died.
I was thinking about this old dream this morning as I resolved to do better in keeping up with the blog in May. It’s one of the things I really enjoy, so maybe I’ll find something else to let go.
[Photo of spiral sculpture at Dublin Castle adapted from Wikimedia]