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.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A DELICIOUS ORCHID FRAGRANCE - IF YOU CAN SMELL IT


The last few posts have been pretty heavy, so I thought I’d go to some lighter fare today. For the past two weeks Phalaenopsis deliciosa (aka Kingidium deliciosum) has been blooming. It’s a cute little Asian species that just loves to bloom. In fact, it loves blooming so much that one of its children, not yet a year out of flask, is also blooming with two large spikes, and is bigger than its parent. There are many small flowers to a spike, creamy yellow with red on the lip. Flower color seems to vary a lot with conditions, being lighter when it blooms in winter or early spring.

The flowers may be small, but they make up for it with a lovely fragrance that is mainly emitted in the mid-morning. It’s citrusy and floral in the way that perfumes are floral. At times it seems heavy, like a vintage perfume, but at other times it seems light, like a cologne. It reminds me a lot of the original Phalaenopsis javanica flower that I used as an inspiration for Javanica, and also of some citrusy hybrids using Phalaenopsis gigantea.

What’s interesting is that many people seem to be anosmic to these Phalaenopsis fragrances. I offered the Phalaenopsis deliciosa to Michael to sniff, at the peak of its fragrance puffing, and he couldn’t smell anything. When I had some fragrant hybrid Phalaenopsis at a show, about half of the people who smelled them couldn’t detect any fragrance and the other half loved them. I guess the bottom line is that these flowers are delicious if you can smell them, but if you can’t, they’re just another pretty flower. 

These examples of anosmia to a strong (to me) flower fragrance points to the difficulty of evaluating perfumes given how much variability there is in human olfactory perception. If I were to synthesize a perfect Phalaenopsis deliciosa fragrance, half of the people who tried it wouldn't be able to smell anything. Now that I think about it, that might be the perfect solution to "perfume-free" environments - a fragrance designed to be perceptible to the wearer but not everyone else, sort of like the high-frequency "teenager ringtones" mentioned in one of the recent comments. 

11 comments:

  1. I am anosmic to most "white musks", so I do worry about using them in my compositions. Fortunately, half my family can smell them, so they can help, and I don't use them much anyway. We all have specific genetic "smell profiles"- so I don't think anyone could ever craft a perfume that everyone likes, or everyone hates! I mean, some of us perceive skunk stink as delightfully herbaceous!

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    1. Marla, I think part of the fascination of making perfumes is the infinite variety of what people perceive. I haven't yet found anything I'm anosmic to, but I'm sure it's out there somewhere. Synthetic musks are an odd case. I find that the more I work with them, the more sensitive I become, as if I were developing new receptors or adapting old ones to deal with molecules that don't occur in nature. Sometimes the sillage of a person wearing a musk-containing perfume, even in a big room, can be stifling to me. I don't know if this is good or bad, it's just the way it is.

      If it were possible to craft the "perfect" perfume, how boring would that be after a while?

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  2. "These examples of anosmia to a strong (to me) flower fragrance points to the difficulty of evaluating perfumes given how much variability there is in human olfactory perception" - too right!

    When I discovered I couldn't smell various notes, such as fir and cypress, I thought my blogging days were over. However, there are a million aromas I CAN smell, so no need to thrown in the towel.

    I wonder if I could smell Phalaenopsis deliciosa?

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    1. JoanElaine, there's so much variability in olfactory perception that I think it's particularly valuable to have people with specific anosmias/hypersensitivities blogging about perfume. Your reviews will definitely resonate with a lot of people.

      I wish I could send you a fresh Phalaenopsis deliciosa flower to smell, but I don't think it would make it through the postal service ;-) It's nothing like fir or cypress, so you'd probably have a good shot at smelling it.

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  3. I have very little sensitivity to modern synthetic musks. Are the people who are anosmic to Phalaenopsis deliciosa also anosmic to your Javonica? I can smell Javonica just fine. If it's not musks that people can't smell in Phalaenopsis deliciosa, what do you suppose it is?

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  4. Ed, As far as I know, the people who are anosmic to fragrant Phalaenopsis are not anosmic to Javanica. Actually, Javanica does not contain synthetic musks, so there's nothing for you not to smell.

    Just as there can be many mathematical equations giving the same answer, there are many ways to build a given fragrance, so the composition of a perfume is going to be very different from that of the real flower. I do plan to do some research and figure out what the relevant molecules are in these natural Phal fragrances, and hope to report back on this question.

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    1. You probably have easy access to a head space GC. I've been wondering if there's some place I could rent one. I'd love to sample my favorite iris next spring & send you the data for a custom scent.

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    2. Ed, There are databases with all sorts of headspace analysis data, and Linda Andrews at the Perfumer's Apprentice will do a GC analysis for $100 (I think that's the price). That wouldn't really work for a live flower fragrance, though. I don't know about renting a GC apparatus. Another problem is that some of the molecules listed in the headspace analyses are not commercially available. I would love to make a custom iris scent for you, but it's not as easy as it sounds.

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  5. "...a fragrance designed to be perceptible to the wearer but not everyone else." What a great idea! A sort of "stealth" fragrance. I spend more time than I would like to in "perfume free" zones. The thought of a comforting scent that only I could detect, although probably impossible to create, is certainly intriguing. Gail

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  6. Very interesting idea. It might be possible.
    For ex give me a cocktail of synthetic musks and I will smell nothing. However, I find interesting your comment about longer exposure to synthetic musks that made you more sensitive to them... Maybe I should spend more time in Sephora trying the new offers... Rarely there is a new release that doesn't uses white musks, etc.

    Celina

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  7. Celina, I actually started a blog post about the ubiquity of white musks, which seem to be sort of a "default base" just because they're so readily available and easy to use. I forgot about it, but should go ahead and finish it.

    It's not that I couldn't smell synthetic musks to begin with, it's just that working with them has made me highly sensitive to them. It may be that I'm just more aware of them, not really more sensitive in a physiological sense.

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