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.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I was reading a blog or forum post a while back (I don’t remember where it was) that posed the question of whether the availability of information on the internet, together with the increased availability of fragrance itself and the use of fragrance in so many mundane applications, has decreased the mystique surrounding perfume, and therefore its desirability. As a perfumer, I’ve thought about this a lot and, as with any other question, there are many ways to answer it, all partly right, and all partly wrong (can you tell I’m a Libra?).

A corollary of this question, I suppose, is whether the abundance of relatively accessible technical information, the revelation of scent-making secrets, and transparency in perfume formulation has led to an increased level of marketing hype and general BS to counteract the perception that perfume is just another ordinary product like car air fresheners, printer cartridges and ball-point pens, made in factories by machines tended by anonymous button pushers to briefly serve a function and then be disposed of so that the consumer can buy more, near-identical, items to replace them.

Personally, I think we all need a little romance and mystique in our lives. A lot of it comes from other people and from intangible, ephemeral experiences like watching snow fall, traveling, or listening to music, but we also instinctively need some tangible inanimate objects that we marvel at for their beauty, revel in through our senses, treasure, and wish to keep forever. Ancient and primitive cultures seem to understand that everyday objects should be well-made, meaningful, and beautiful. Some of my prized objects are a chunky bowl hand-crafted from beautifully patterned olive wood that I bought from a little hole-in-the wall shop in Spain, the Native American silver squash blossom earrings that I bought in Arizona, a beautifully designed and crafted black leather jacket that I bought like new at a second-hand store and wear constantly; the green Gibson guitar that I don’t have time to learn to play properly, and a few really gorgeous perfumes.

Taking this analogy a little further, I suppose I could put food in a cheap plastic bowl, wear a pair of tacky plastic earrings, wear a cheaply made, ugly but warm, synthetic cloth jacket, pick at a cheap particleboard guitar that’s constantly going out of tune, and spray on a cheap fragrance oil diluted in alcohol until I get sick of all of these things, but why? Just so I can go out and buy more inferior items that I’ll also get sick of before long and do my part to keep the economy growing?

I don’t think knowing how things are made demystifies them as long as they’re made with thought and care. If they’re not well made, the mystique will wear off anyway when they break, malfunction, or just get annoying because of their cheapness and ugliness. I probably know more about how a hand-turned wooden bowl or a blown glass one is made than I do about how a plastic bowl is mass-produced in a factory, but the hand-made objects don’t lose their allure simply because I can envision the process of making them. They still have their intrinsic beauty, and the fact that someone actually put some thought into choosing the materials, designing the objects, and crafting them with care is a mystique in itself. Even though I know how a wooden or blown glass bowl is made, that doesn’t mean that I could make one, and certainly not a beautiful one. I think the same goes for perfume.

In fact, if we indie perfumers are honest and forthcoming about how our perfume is made, it should give the user a heightened appreciation for the quality of the materials used, the huge amount of knowledge, skill, time, and experimentation that goes into designing a perfume, and the love and labor that goes into producing what is a work of olfactory art.

The factories can keep the BS and hyperbole. Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer to distinguish between real craftsmanship and fictional craftsmanship, and it’s up to the consumer to decide whether they want to experience their own authentic version of pleasure or a ready-made, spoon-fed, fictional version of pleasure.

[Pics of handmade objects (ancient Egyptian perfume bottle, Mayan bowl, and vintage kilim rug) all from Wikimedia]


  1. Hi Ellen,

    One of the things that intrigues me about handcrafted products, arts and crafts of all types, temporal and "plastic", is that with knowledge, effort and practice (that means time) almost anyone can create something of beauty, whether it be music, perfume, dance or pottery. There are geniuses, of course, in every field and in every art and craft and the novice can't realistically expect that an initial offering will be equal to that of a great artist, but the act and process of creation itself is often more satisfying than simple consumption. The satisfaction of creation doesn't have to do with perfection. Practice is a meditation that can also serve as an entertainment.

    Last week I was part of a meeting where a couple of people from the local media were bemoaning the state of classical music in our community. Concert attendance and interest are dismal and the outlook is not good. They blamed the "elitism" of the classical artist and the solutions they put forward revolved around writing grants and throwing money at arts organizations, paying mentor artists to do community presentations, etc. with the idea that this would change the image of classical arts. This approach has been tried for many years and has never really worked. I believe the reason for public apathy in regard to classical music is quite simple. People don't make their own music anymore. They have no idea about what it takes to make music and so have no appreciation for those who do so on a professional level. When all we do is consume we are no longer in touch with the realities of life. It doesn't matter if the outcome is music, perfume, theatre, pottery or visual art, the process of creation is far more satisfying and entertaining to the creator/participant than hours of televisions, movies, apps or shopping sprees. People will support the arts if they consider themselves artists on some level.


  2. This is a lovely post. I agree with you, and I admire that you are intentional about surrounding yourself with the things you love and care about -- the things that contribute to your own special joie de vivre. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you.

    1. Donna Marie, I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed this post. It's an ongoing process trying to create a quality environment and mindset in a world that's obsessed with consumption for its own sake.

  3. Gail, you make an excellent point about how far removed most people today are from any process of creation, whether it be everyday items, perfume, or music, and how that leads to their apathy about supporting those who do create. I think experiencing the process of creation in one realm helps generalize to an appreciation of creation in others. A person who has never carved or molded a sculpture, painted a picture, played a musical instrument, written a poem, mixed a perfume, or even cooked a meal from scratch has no concept of the talent and skill that goes into all of these and other creative acts.

    Lack of support for classical music is just one symptom of a general problem. I understand that when schools at all levels have budgetary issues, the first thing to go is the programs that involve creative activities. Students are left with nothing but classes where they memorize or look up information and spit it right back out without any digestive process that might lead to creativity. At home, a big part of their entertainment is watching the unimaginative dreck that other people have posted on YouTube. I've seen evidence of this trend increasing every year in the freshman classes that I teach.

    The solution isn't throwing money at the problem and trying to solve it through more consumption, which seems to be everyone's preferred approach. In fact, the solution would seem to be less consumption and more education about how to live a unique and quality life.