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, October 15, 2012


Over the past week or so a new item has been appearing at the top of the “Nation & World” column in the online version of Seattle’s local newspaper. It’s called “10 things to know for (fill in the day of the week)”.  It’s not even generated by the local newspaper staff, but pumped in through the Associated Press. I can’t help wondering who makes these lists, and why they assume there are 10 specific “things” that everyone in the country wants or needs to know.

These lists remind me of my students preparing for the latest exam. Before every exam there is a barrage of questions, many of which take the form, “Do we need to know X for the exam? My response is always to quiz them a little, ascertain that they do, in fact “know” the information in question, and tell them that I don’t forbid them to know anything. They’re sometimes confused, but often surprised to find that they actually know much more than their list of “things to know for the exam” would suggest.

In a society where people are raised on ready-made lists, the belief that there are discrete bits of information that one needs to know in any given context seems ubiquitous. Maybe it’s intellectual laziness, maybe it’s a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to process information, but everyone seems to want lists to memorize or consult. 

“The top 10 fashion trends for fall”; “10 signs your partner may be having an affair”; “5 things to watch for in the presidential debates”; “The top 10 fragrances of 2012”; “The 7 habits of highly effective people”; “Five ways to learn to think for yourself” (I made that last one up).

The existence of lists of “must-haves”, “must-tries”, “best of”, etc. is definitely one of the big elephants in the living room of perfume, and I’ll get to it in due course as my schedule clears up. However, in the interest of making your Monday reading easy, I thought I’d make a list of the

10 things you should know about indie perfumers:

1. Perfumers are people, too. Most of us have lives outside the lab, with families, friends, hobbies, and even day jobs. We can’t always fill and ship your order the same day we receive it.

2. Perfumers, being human, sometimes make mistakes or unwittingly perpetuate the mistakes of others. If the spray bottle you received doesn’t spray, we need to know, so that we can find a new source for bottles. We can’t test sprayers before shipping. If our packing wasn’t adequate, we need to know so that we can pack properly. Feedback, whether positive or negative, is always appreciated.

3. Indie fragrances will not smell like mass-market fragrances. That’s the whole idea. On the other side of the spectrum, they will not smell like ready-made fragrance oils. Most indie perfumers are highly skilled artists who strive for originality in a world of cookie-cutter products.

4. Most indie perfumes contain a higher proportion of natural materials than mass-market fragrances. This means that they may have a more intense color than mass-market fragrances, and they may have different characteristics when it comes to sillage and longevity.

5. Natural materials, even from the same source, may vary from one batch to another. The “same” vetiver harvested in different years, or even from different farms in the same region, may be significantly different in color and other properties. Natural perfumes may vary slightly in color from batch to batch, but this should not significantly affect the scent of the finished product. Think of it as comparable to the hand-loomed garments that come with a tag that says something to the effect that there may be slight variations in color or pattern, but that those variations are part of their beauty.

6. If natural materials are used, perfumes need time to age and blend. Occasionally a batch of concentrate will run out because a material is back-ordered. In this case, there will be an unavoidable delay in filling orders while the perfumer waits for the material to arrive, and then while the concentrate rests and melds.

7. Small-scale perfume production is more expensive than mass production. Most of an indie perfumer’s budget goes into the perfume itself rather than fancy custom packaging, celebrity endorsements, and advertising, so you’re likely to get a quality product.

8. Indie perfume production is labor-intensive. Making small sample vials is probably the most tedious and time-consuming task we do. I feel like a molecular biology technician whenever I’m pipetting racks of hundreds of 1-ml sample vials. Whatever you pay for sample vials, whether from the perfumer directly, or from a decanting business like Surrender to Chance, you can be sure that they’re a bargain.

9. Indie perfumers love what we do. We got into the business because we love perfume and tinkering with fragrant materials, not because we love running a business for its own sake. If we wanted to make big bucks, we would have chosen a different type of business, maybe a loan company or a company that sells cheap plastic gizmos imported from China.

10. After giving you all of these generalizations, obviously I can really only speak for myself. Every indie perfumer is an individual with different tastes, goals, ways of working, and business models. Indies range from the extreme rebels and rogues to the slick pseudo-mass-marketers, and everything inside and outside the box. The beauty is that it’s all there for your enjoyment. 

[images from Wikimedia, two with added captions]


  1. Excellent post, Elly, I really enjoyed this one.

    1. Dionne, glad you enjoyed it! It was fun to write.

  2. Great list, Elly! I know you wrote from personal experience, but I think you speak for lots of independent artists and artisans!

    1. Yes, all independent artists and artisans have a lot in common regardless of the medium we work in. It seems many of us work in more than one.