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 Artisan 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, and the theory and practice of perfume making. I no longer post reviews of the perfumes that I sample, unless specifically requested to do so. To counter my inherent grumpy tendencies, I try to write about something I appreciate at least once a week. Once in a while I get up on my soapbox and write about things that aren't at all related to perfumery. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.
Thanks to those of you who requested it, Olympic Orchids perfumes are now listed in the Fragrantica Perfume Encyclopedia! If you have sampled Olympic Orchids fragrances, you can now go on the Fragrantica website and post a review. So far nine fragrances have been listed, but a few more will appear as I send them information. An article and promotion will appear in due course.
I see this listing on a leading perfume forum as a big breakthrough in marketing, and look forward to the challenges of dealing with the inevitable growth and development of my business.
A huge thank-you to everyone who has helped support and promote my adventures in perfume making. I suspect that Gail was instrumental in requesting the Fragrantica listing, and I really appreciate everything that she has done. I also appreciate all of you who have posted reviews and comments here and elsewhere, and engaged in other types of networking - Tarleisio, Ines, Diana, Dee, and so many others that I haven't mentioned. As Olympic Orchids Artisan Perfumes approaches its one-year anniversary, it’s gratifying to be able to look forward to great things in the year ahead.
The trip to Canada was every bit as much of an adventure as I had anticipated. Driving for 14 hours straight is not so bad if two people take turns, although doing it in the rain isn’t much fun.
After leaving the Thompson River desert area at Cache Creek, the first thing that struck me was the huge expanses of dead trees everywhere along the roadsides. I know that’s not a very flattering introduction to British Columbia, but that’s how it is. It looked as if all of the evergreen trees in central BC had been wiped out by some disaster and, in fact, they had. In Fort St. James we learned that the dead trees were mostly lodgepole pines that had been infested and killed by pine bark beetles. Even talking to people who work for the forest service, no one seems to know why the beetles, which are native to the area, suddenly became an epidemic. The only good thing is that the dead trees are gradually being harvested and used for pellets to burn in pellet stoves and for lumber, which reportedly has a unique purplish tinge created by the beetles. I think it remains to be seen whether the lodgepole pines grow back or are replaced by resistant species.
Two major highlights of the trip were a spontaneous invitation to a big wedding that took place outdoors in the cold and rain beside the lake. The groom was from one of the First Nations, and the bride from one of the big Menonite families, so it was good to see people from different camps coming together for a happy occasion. The home made berry wine at the reception was a real treat!
The second highlight was a boat trip around Stuart Lake where we saw petroglyphs of unknown origin and Simon Fraser’s inscription on the rocks from when he first explored the area. I forgot to bring my camera, so don't have any photos. I ate moose sausages for the first time. In case you're wondering, they tasted like hamburger flavored with a little sage.
We took two days to come home, doing the bulk of the driving in the northern part where the drive is fairly monotonous. The first night we made it to the start of the desert area around the Thompson River. We had pizza and beer and played pool at the Log Cabin Pub, and then camped near there. I find it easier to relate to the desert landscape than to the lodgepole pine forests. One thing that I thoroughly enjoyed was sticking my nose up close to every ponderosa pine I encountered to smell the delicious fragrance given off by their bark. It’s a woody, caramel-vanilla scent that would make an excellent perfume base. In fact, I have considered remixing Arizona to play up the base notes of the ponderosa pine, maybe even renaming it Ponderosa. The trip was fun, but it’s good to be home.
1. No blogging for a week. I will be on a road trip to a remote part of British Columbia starting early tomorrow morning, and returning sometime next week, depending on how long we take for the return trip. I’m not taking my laptop, so won’t be posting anything until sometime next week. We will be visiting family members who recently moved to Fort St. James, BC. I’ve never been north of Vancouver, so this trip should be a real adventure!
2. Free shipping for an unknown time. Apparently the USPS server that calculates shipping rates is down for an unknown time, so my website, Olympic Orchids Artisan Perfumes, is not adding shipping to any orders. I can’t activate the shipping rate calculator or devise an alternative method of calculating shipping until I’m back in town, so for at least a week, all shipping is free to customers. Just saying.
This week on Fragrantica there was a discussion in which several people mentioned seeing expiration dates printed on perfumes, the same way they are on milk cartons or bread packages. I was surprised to see that on my carton of half and half coffee cream, there’s even an hour and minute of expiration. At precisely 16:05 on June 26, death comes for the cream. Apparently some perfumes are set to “expire” in one to three years from date of manufacture, and inquiring minds want to know if perfumes really do “expire”.
This new trend is surprising, to say the least. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. People seem to need every aspect of their lives regulated so as not to have to make any decisions on their own. That need is exploited by manufacturers who encourage people to throw away perfectly usable items and buy new ones. Whatever happened to sniffing the milk and using it if it smelled OK but throwing it away if it smelled bad? That’s what our noses are for. The same goes for using the bread if it seems OK, but throwing it away if it’s moldy or dried out. That’s what our eyes and touch receptors are for. Sometimes things go bad before their “expiration date” Do people still use them, oblivious to the bad smell or unpleasant texture? If they’re still good after their “expiration date” is everyone afraid they’re going to be poisoned because of some mysterious “expiration” process?
If perfumes “expired”, who would want to wear vintage perfumes? Some of the best perfumes in my collection are over 50 years old and still as good as new. The whole point of making perfume is to preserve aromatic compounds in alcohol or some other medium so that they’re available until the perfume is used up, just as the making of wines and liqueurs is a way of preserving the aromatic juices of the fruits from which they’re produced. The psychoactive effects of alcohol, now an end in themselves, were probably originally simply a by-product of the preservation process.
It makes sense to think about perfumes the same way you would wine, clothing, or furniture. Eventually the materials they are made of will change subtly or even deteriorate to the point where you can't use them any more, but when the latter happens you will know it. The wine or the perfume will smell bad, the fabric of the vintage garment will tear, the wood of the antique chair will collapse, but until then you can use and enjoy them if your style is a well-aged 50-year old brandy, a rare early 20th century perfume that's missing a few of its top notes, a slightly faded 1940s dress, or a scuffed and musty 17th century armoire. More often, older items, including perfumes, are abandoned because they go out of style, not because they go bad.
When people can no longer think for themselves, they fall into the vulnerable position of becoming victims ripe for exploitation. If your perfume smells good use it, and damn the expiration date.
It's time for another botanical post. For some reason a lot of my orchids have been blooming this June. One surprise was the huge white flower that appeared one day a couple of weeks ago on my Angraecum didieri plant. The flower is almost as big as the plant itself, and is pure white with a long nectar spur and a broad bowl-shaped lip. In the photo you can see the nectar spur off to the right, behind the flower. Best of all, this orchid is powerfully fragrant at night. The scent is like strong ylang-ylang combined with smoky clove, and is almost identical to the scent of Brassavola species like nodosa and cordata, and hybrids like Brassavola Little Stars.
Angraecum is an African genus of orchids, mostly native to Madagascar. Brassavola orchids are native to Mexico and Central America. The two groups are not related, so it amazes me that they have evolved virtually the same fragrance. Both groups release their fragrance at night, both are white, and both are pollinated by moths. Ylang-ylang is light yellow in color and pollinated by moths, so there is obviously something about light colors and that type of spicy-floral scent that attracts moths no matter which hemisphere they live in.
A large relative of my blooming orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale, has an 18-inch (45 cm) nectar spur, with just a few drops of sweet stuff at the very bottom. When Charles Darwin first saw this species growing in Madagascar, he hypothesized that in order for it to be pollinated, there must be a moth with a tongue long enough to reach all the way to the bottom of the nectar spur. In fact, some years after Darwin’s death, the pollinator was discovered, with a tongue just the right length. Presumably there's a smaller moth with a tongue the right length for Angraecum didieri, too.
This perfume that combines burning cedar wood and sweet alyssum flowers has turned out to be the most difficult perfumery task I’ve tackled yet. Initially, it was easy to come up with the various accords of cedar wood, campfire smoke and the flower itself, but putting them together and smoothing out the whole composition is another matter.
A month or two ago I decided to try putting the accords together, but made the mistake of tweaking every one of them first. I decided to add benzoin, Nootka tree oil, and a few other things to the cedar accord, only to find that the changes caused the whole thing to degenerate into dusty pencil shavings. Because Alyssum had mentioned that she’d like some “airy” top notes, I tried adding some ozonic-type notes to the flower accord, only to find that the interaction created an unpleasant sensation of cat-piss. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone.
I went back to the drawing board and re-created both of the ruined accords, and am now letting them mellow for a little while before starting the real mixing. I used a different “airy” aroma chemical in the flower accord and so far it seems to be working OK. I bumped up the aromatic aspect of the cedar wood a little. I think both will be improved versions of the original.
Last night I tried mixing everything together on my skin to get a rough idea of what was going to happen. The bottom line seemed to be that the flower notes dominated the woody and smoky ones, so that gives me a rough idea of what the ratios will need to be. I also understand why sweet alyssum is not used as a perfume note. The other fact that came through loud and clear was that this particular set of woody, smoky, and floral notes are not natural soulmates and will need a lot of trace materials to bind them together and provide a smooth transition from top to base.
Today I'm wearing a mixture of the new accords plus a tiny hint of cyclamen to help bridge the gap between the airy notes, the honeyed sweet alyssum, and the smoky wood. This isn't perfect yet, but it's far better than the last trial.
I’ve gone from feeling overwhelmed by this project to getting back on what seems to be a marked trail. A challenging trail, but one that I think I’ll make it through to the end.
Leather seems to always be a problematic note in perfumery. One step too far in the “raw” direction and it’s too close to the dead animal that it came from. One step too far in the “smoky” direction and it smells like a campfire. One step too far in the quinoline direction and it smells like celery. One step too far in the “finished” direction and it smells like powder, violets, iris, or all of those things.
After smelling an uncountable number of “leather” perfumes, I’ve concluded that leather in perfume is an elusive concept that each individual has to construct for him- or herself from an ambiguous olfactory “figure” that could be perceived in more than one way. The easiest way to think about it is by considering an ambiguous drawing. Look at the picture one way and you see the young wife. Look at it another way and you see the old mother-in-law. Sniff the accord one way and it’s violet. Sniff the same accord another way and it’s leather. It’s an interesting cognitive process that crosses over from one modality to another. Like an ambiguous or hidden visual figure, leather is a lot easier to find if you’re told it’s in the mix so that you have a search image to fit it to. Without a suggestive name or a list of notes as a guide, there’s no telling how you’re going to connect the dots.
In general, I like leather scents regardless of which direction they take, and a couple of perfumes with a leather note are on the drawing board. This means that I have to create something that, to me, truly smells like leather. The leather I have in mind is my husband’s relatively new black leather jacket. My own leather jackets (yes, I have more than one, all bought second-hand) have long ago lost that fresh, finished leather smell, which is the one I think I’m going for.
On my first attempt at making a leather accord, I thought I overdosed it with isobutyl quinoline, and planned to start over from scratch. However, after the elements blended together, it doesn’t seem too far from the mark. It needs to be just a little drier, a little less quinoline-heavy (easy to fix), with just a touch more of the leather-finishing chemicals that give new leather its characteristic odor.
As soon as I have the definitive leather accord, my plan is to combine it with the dry grass accord that I made a long time ago to create a perfume celebrating Salamanca, the Spanish college town where I’ve spent a good bit of time. I already combined the first leather accord with the dry grass accord, and know that they go well together. The second plan for the leather accord is to use it in a fragrance inspired by a Seattle café where a lot of actors hang out. I’ll probably call it Café V, with notes of coffee (of course), chocolate, cinnamon, cardamom, cream and vanilla on a base of leather and woods. The initial tests with that basic combination have worked out well, too. I’ll have prototypes of both leather-containing scents soon, so if you’d like to sign up to be a tester for Salamanca, Café V, (and/or a skanky orchid fragrance, Emergence), please let me know by leaving a comment here or sending me an e-mail.
A scientist, an orchid grower, and a perfumer walk into a bar. The bartender asks, “What would you like”? All three answer in unison, “One of everything!”
Of course, all three of those characters are me, in just a few of my different real-life roles. I’ve been repeatedly asked how I come to engage in so many seemingly incompatible activities, and I think the main answer, aside from failure to ever “grow up” and “settle down”, is probably an obsessive desire to collect and a really passionate sense of curiosity about everything under the sun. It’s not just about collecting objects, it’s about collecting experiences, which, I suppose, is a corollary of curiosity - the kind that killed the cat, took Peter Pan on his fabulous journeys, and produced the drifter and the dilettante. Scientists are curious about how things work. Orchid enthusiasts are curious about how plants grow, how they evolved, and how the offspring of different crosses will turn out. Perfumers are curious about what will happen if you mix certain things together, or curious about what to combine to make a novel scent that conveys a message. All of these undertakings are more fun if you have a big selection of toys to play with.
As a scientist, the modern incarnation of an alchemist, I collect methods and data, the more the better. The best way to answer any scientific question is to obtain data using as many different approaches as possible and see what elements they all have in common, where they diverge, and why. Come to think of it, this principle applies to any sort of learning or truth-seeking enterprise. It's interesting that every one of the old paintings depicting alchemists shows them in a messy, cluttered environment, the result of collecting. This looks just about right.
After I moved to Seattle about 15 years ago, I started seriously collecting orchids. When orchid plants became readily available to order online, I became obsessed with obtaining every species of orchid that I could lay my hands on, just because of my wonder at the amazing diversity of forms and lifestyles that have evolved within this one plant group. The collecting obsession eventually evolved into my own nursery business, Olympic Orchids. One of the things that I noticed was that the flowers of every orchid species have their own highly distinctive fragrance and I would always think to myself, “This would make a great perfume!”
At the same time I was collecting orchids, a huge variety of perfume samples and decants had become increasingly available online, so I engaged in a perfume sampling frenzy that is still ongoing. I was an avid essential oil collector and perfumista long before I was a perfumer. I continue to learn something from every perfume that I smell, regardless of whether it’s well or poorly made, and regardless of whether I like it or not. I’m not sure when and how it happened, but one day I tried mixing up some of my essential oils to see if I could re-create the scent of a particularly fragrant orchid. It didn’t really work, but the experiment did lead to a lot of learning, buying of new materials, and experimentation.
To go back to my own ancient history, I’ve always been fascinated by perfumes and odors. Even as a child I went around smelling everything, including my mother’s perfumes. Once I had my own money, I started collecting small bottles of essential oils, buying every oil that I could obtain. I didn’t really do anything with them, just sniffed them. At the time, it just seemed like a strange and perverse form of recreation, but now I realize that it was a form of education, getting to know perfume materials, satisfying my curiosity about how they smelled, going back to them again and again to learn those smells. Once I started trying in earnest to make perfumes, I branched out into aroma chemicals, which meant I had to learn a new and completely unfamiliar repertoire of odors. It’s sort of comparable to a musician going from simply playing the piano to making complicated electronic music and then combining the two. I’m still working on learning about aroma chemicals, incorporating new materials into my creations, and figuring out how to make them all play nicely together, but that’s the sort of challenge that keeps me engaged in any sort of activity.
I am a research scientist based in the Seattle metropolitan area who has many other parallel lives. This blog is primarily about my experiences as a perfumer but will also weave in threads from my lives as an orchid grower, runner, theatre person, and lover of food, fashion, travel, and other good things in life.
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