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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I’m slowly reading through the second half of Quantum Demonology, Tarleisio’s book that started the whole Devil Scent Project, trying to dole it out in small amounts to make it last longer. Meanwhile, I’m busily at work formulating perfumes for the two main supernatural protagonists – Devil Scent pour homme (Dev for short) and Devil Scent pour femme (Lil for short).

There are clues scattered everywhere throughout the book as to what these two perfumes should smell like, especially Dev’s, but actually getting there is another matter entirely. I’m afraid I’m overthinking this project, because I’m not happy with either of the formulas I’ve come up with so far. In fact, I just disposed of my first draft of Dev. It’s the first time I’ve ever done this, since I usually like to keep things for future reference, or to use in something else. It was too animalic, and not in a good way. The problem is that both perfumes need to be larger than life, supernaturally intense and emotionally and intellectually riveting, and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to accomplish that.

As you might have guessed from a previous post, one of my ideas was to use davana in both formulas to represent the shape-shifting, projection-reflecting, highly personal nature of each character’s manifestation to the human world – like the famous snake (Dev) that’s seen with the beautiful woman (Lil) in the picture. Well, it didn’t work as I had hoped it would. The davana seemed to have the odd effect of attenuating everything else instead of enhancing it. I still think using davana is doable, it’s just a matter of getting the right balance and the right effect. I don’t want to evoke any images of snakes, since those are much too retro.

I’m much happier with Lil right now than I am with Dev. At least I haven’t thrown hers away. I wanted to make a scent with a lingering, sharp, almost transparent, woody-musky base, which I’ve done to a first approximation using a combination of ambrocenide, cashmeran, cosmone, and patchouli, along with some other complementary woody-musky stuff. I then added paradisamide for its weird, greenish, passionfruit-like notes, a mix of sharp florals dominated by lily-of-the-valley, rose geranium, and a greenish rose, and then topped it all off with my leather accord, the davana and some ruh kewda. I want to use kewda in Lil’s perfume just because it has such a sharp, earthy, otherworldly, in-your-face character. It’s one of the notes that’s “almost poisonous”. I may add a little galbanum to top it all off, but will have to hold off on that and see how it blends while I go off on my trip to San Diego this weekend, back home on Wednesday night. Lil has possibilities.

For Dev, I’ve decided that in contrast to Lil’s sharpness, his will be natural-smelling, rounded and smooth, dominated by a blend of three different versions of labdanum, the scent mentioned most often by our heroine. I want a strong, sensuous labdanum to pop out as the main theme, the one that lasts from beginning to end. I’ll embellish it with tolu balsam, a church-type incense accord, a few other resinous and woody notes (I haven’t decided how far to go in the oud-ish direction that I initially took), something subtly musky, a good dollop of leather, davana, a tiny bit of motia attar, and cinnamon leaf. I haven’t decided whether to include the “birch” (presumably birch tar, not the root beer kind) and immortelle that were mentioned at one point in the narrative. I might make a second, alternate, version that’s smoky, super-leathery, and sort of sweet. I’m thinking now that I may make a new, more mellow “old, black leather jacket” accord to use in Dev’s formula(s).

I hope I get a chance to mix up at least a preliminary beta-version of Dev before I leave so that it can sit and blend while I’m away, but given all the other things I have to take care of in the next 2 days, I’m not overly optimistic that I’ll get it done.

In any case, now that I’ve kicked off this partial self-disclosure of what I’m working on, I look forward to reading about other perfumers’ devilish plans.

[Lilith painting by J.M. Collier, 1892]

Monday, February 20, 2012


A couple of weeks ago I found a copy of Tracy Chevalier’s book “Girl with a Pearl Earring” at my favorite cheap used book shop, and just got through reading it. It’s a rather depressing commentary on the severe limitations imposed by class and by being a woman in 17th century Holland, a commentary that’s even more depressing when I think about the fact that society in some parts of the world is just as restrictive, or even more so, today.

Those comments aside, I was struck by the expression, “scrubbing the winter away”, which is apparently what households did back in the 17th century (and later) as soon as spring came, and exactly what I spent most of my weekend doing. My husband got me three new sets of shelves for one of my orchid-growing spaces (the ultimate Valentine’s present!), replacing some old ones that were partially held together by jerry-rigged wire, poles, and interwoven bougainvillea branches. When I was finally able to move the shelves away from the walls, I discovered that the bottom of every plastic pane was covered with a combination of black mold and algae. It reminded me of an apartment in Germany where I lived with my family for a winter when I was a kid. That apartment was so cold that water condensed on the inside of the window glass and froze. It stayed frozen for so long that exactly the same combination of mold and algae grew on the surface of the ice.

I’m happy to report that a few hours work and a little Windex took care of all of the organisms growing on the solarium panels, nothing was frozen, the unruly bougainvillea plants are going to new homes outside in the garden, and everything in that room is sparkling clean. All of the orchids are up off of the tile floor, and much happier on the new shelves where it’s warmer. After this experience I really understand the urge to clean things in the spring when the light starts to increase and the weather starts to get warmer. In some places, the mud even starts to dry up outside, although here in the Pacific Northwest, that doesn’t happen until June, when the dry season begins. It’s the thought that counts even if more mud gets tracked in. I do draw the line at scrubbing the doorstep, though!

After a day spent cleaning, I finally got a chance to catch up on reading some more installments of Quantum Demonology and work on my two new DevilScent perfumes. I don’t know if these are the versions that I’ll go with, but at least they’re fun to work on. I’ll post a more comprehensive report on that project soon.

For those of you who wanted to try davana essential oil, your samples are packed and ready to be shipped tomorrow morning.

[Photo of women cleaning a doorstep in Amsterdam from Wikimedia]

Thursday, February 16, 2012


When I raise baby orchids, they start out growing in a sterile environment, in a glass “flask” with nutrient agar. The seedlings stay in the flask for at least a year, until they’re mature enough to withstand the rigors of a real world in which only a tiny fraction of newly-germinated plants would ever survive. Even with the early years spent in a sterile bubble, there’s often some attrition of the weakest plants when I take them out of the flask. I usually deflask multiple batches of plants at once, and over the years have noticed that some batches fare much better than others for no apparent reason.

I’ve racked my brains trying to figure out why this is. Originally I thought it was taboo to deflask during the couple of months leading to the winter solstice, when day length was decreasing, and best to do it in spring, before the summer solstice, when day length was increasing. Patterns of change in day length do have an effect on baby orchid survival, but I was never convinced that that was the whole story.

Recently, I’ve deflasked several batches in the dead of winter, but noted the phase of the moon at which deflasking occurred. It may be pure superstition, but the batches that were deflasked during the waxing moon phase have grown noticeably better than the batches deflasked during the waning moon phase. I’m sure that this couldn’t have been a “self-fulfilling prophecy” phenomenon in which I treated one batch better than the other, expecting a better outcome, because I had no idea which moon phase would be better. According to the farmers’ lore, the waning moon is the right time for tasks that “reduce” or require root growth, and the waxing moon is the time for tasks that “increase” or require above-ground growth. Deflasking could go either way. It reduces the number of plants growing together and requires establishment of roots, but it also requires an increase in vegetative growth.

Apparently the vegetative growth hypothesis wins out, at least that’s how it looks so far. Obviously I need more data before coming to a conclusion, but maybe the old farmers were right. Now I wonder if there’s a moon phase that’s optimal for perfume-making.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Best wishes for a happy Valentine’s Day to all who read this. Some of my students got into the spirit of things and brought cookies and candy for everyone. I’m stuffed with enough sweets to last for … well, at least for the rest of today, and I still have one more event to go to where there will almost certainly be more sweet stuff.

I think I’ll have to sniff some galbanum when I get home this evening as an antidote.

[Candy photo adapted from Wikimedia]

Sunday, February 12, 2012


I am writing the very first blog post on my new computer! Over the years I’ve gone through a number of changes from a clunky old PC with a DOS operating system, to a NeXt, to a Mac desktop, to a couple of different models of Mac laptop. During this journey I have learned to hate new computers because there’s always a lot of hassle and down time. However, switching from my “old” Mac PowerBook G4 to the new MacBook Pro was, with a couple of exceptions, seamless. I was amazed. All of my documents and graphics files moved right over via an external hard drive and are now living happily on the MacBook. My Safari bookmarks and e-mail address book also moved over seamlessly.

What was disappointing, though, was my experience with Firefox. The new version is cumbersome to use, even more so than the old one. It won’t accept any bookmarks exported from Safari even though it claims it will; there is no “export bookmarks” function on the old Firefox, nor is there an “import bookmarks” function on the new one. With problems like this, you may wonder why I would even bother with Firefox. There is only one reason, but it’s a compelling one. Safari can’t handle uploading of graphics to my website. Firefox can. That’s it. The moral of the story: No single browser can handle everything. The reasons behind this escape me, but I suspect it has to do with geekly rigidity. Safari and Firefox, are you listening?

The second big issue is the dysfunctional MacMail setup procedure (Apple, are you listening?) and the special problems that arise when MacMail encounters the university’s arcane e-mail system. That system is primitive and cumbersome to use, so I have all of my university e-mail forwarded to Mac Mail. Or I would have it forwarded, if only I could figure out how to do it. The MacMail setup program and help menu are no help at all, so on Monday I’ll have to enlist the services of one of the departmental IT specialists to take care of it. Getting my music library into the new I-Tunes is yet another issue that I’ll have to deal with, but I-Tunes is another major rant for another day.

You might be wondering why I needed a new computer at all when my old one still works. At some level, I wonder the same. Unfortunately, computers and software are designed to become obsolete in a few years. I finally got tired of Safari crashing every time it encountered some “new” experience on a website, I got tired of restarting my computer to revive Safari from its ever-increasing number of fainting spells, I got tired of looking at a pink, blotchy screen that looked like it was about to blank out, I got tired of not being able to update utilities or run disk repair because my old operating system was “no longer supported”, and I got tired of not being able to read my students’ papers submitted as docx files. Yes, there’s a Microsoft “patch” conversion program, but it only works about 75% of the time. Typical Microsoft. (Microsoft, I know you won’t hear me, and if you did, you wouldn’t listen). Deliberate incompatibility designed to sell new hardware and software angers me. As far as I can see, the new Word program is the same as the old one, except that the tool bars have been rearranged. All I want to do is type. I don’t want to make graphics in Word. I can make tables and graphs in Excel (which also seems unchanged) and pictures in Photoshop. As long as I can stick them in a document that anyone can open and read, I’m fine.

Lots of memory is good. Fast parallel processing is good. A screen that practically glows and looks almost 3-D is good. A smaller, lighter laptop is good. However, I probably won’t ever use many of the features that go above and beyond the simple things I need to do every day, and it’s depressing to think that this shiny new computer is itself well on the way to becoming obsolete.

I am one of those increasingly rare people who consider technology a means to an end, not an end in itself. I’m not interested in helping “grow” the economy by buying a new computer or phone every 5 years. I just want my computer to enable me to write documents, make graphics, and do my business on the internet. I just want to talk to people on my phone, not use it as a camera or word processor or GPS or TV or video game machine. I don’t want a lot of needy technology devices taking up the time and resources I could spend doing activities I really enjoy, like actually writing my thoughts down, or making perfume.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


My ongoing exploration of Artemisia species would not be complete without including Artemisia pallens, also known as davana. It’s a small shrub that grows all over India, mostly in cultivation. It’s an attractive plant with lacy silver-green leaves and yellow flowers. It is reported to prefer growing near sandalwood trees, although I suspect that it’s planted there for convenience. Davana essential oil is distilled from the leaves, stems and flowers of the plant. It is orange in color, with a strong, woody-aromatic fruity fragrance along with chamomile and sweet hay-like notes. The fruit components remind me of oily dried peaches and apricots. I can only vouch for how it smells on paper and on my own skin, though, because it has the reputation of being a shape-shifter, assuming a different quality on every person who wears it. After today’s experience, I suspect that it may also be different each time the same person wears it. Davana is rumored to be an aphrodisiac. In addition to being used in perfume, it’s also used to flavor some types of pastries and sweets, so it’s not only sniffable, it’s edible.

It seems to me that davana enhances other scents, too. After applying it, I was outside, running in an area where there were a lot of wet, rotting leaves, and the smell of the leaves seemed super-normally strong. When I sniffed the davana on my wrist, it seemed to have picked up some of the leaf smell. On one part of my run, there was an area with a sweet, floral scent that also seemed to be enhanced, and the davana seemed to be echoing that scent, too. This is the time of year when a lot of trees and shrubs are starting to bloom, so I’m not sure what the flowers were. It was also early evening, when a lot of smells are especially strong anyway.

Whatever its other properties, I can certainly testify to the marvelous aroma and relaxing qualities of davana. As soon as I put it on I sank into a feeling of extreme well-being. As I sit here inhaling the fragrance, I wonder why have I not yet used davana in a perfume. One of my all-natural perfumes is most definitely going to be built around davana.

Because I’m curious to learn more about its shape-shifting, scent-enhancing, and scent-mimicking properties, I’d like to offer as many as 10 small (0.5 ml) samples of davana oil to readers who are willing to wear it and report back on their impressions. It will be fun to collect all of the reports in a blog post!

If you’d like to try a sample of davana, please leave a comment here.

[Davana photo from Antica Erborista Romana]

Sunday, February 5, 2012


For several years now I’ve been harboring an orchidaceous monster in the making. It’s a standard cattleya plant called Lc Betty Ford ‘York’, and it’s presently occupying almost the entire large table in my solarium. It started out as a tiny seedling, grew at a reasonable rate in the solarium for a couple of years, and bloomed once, as modestly as a cattleya can bloom. Last year it put on a huge spurt of vegetative growth, but didn’t bloom. It finally became so large and unwieldy that I had to move it out to the greenhouse, where it thrived even more. This winter it decided that it would bloom off of the last 3 growths that it had added, with 3 or 4 flowers per growth - enormous flowers, each as big as my outstretched hand.

The flowers are so large and heavy that the usual bamboo stakes won’t hold them up, so they’re supported by tall objects on the table that serve as crutches. The colors on the flowers are gorgeous, especially with the sun shining on them, or through them, lighting them up like a magenta neon sign. The lip is the deepest, darkest, most velvety purple-maroon imaginable, set off by a network of gold stripes in the throat.

But it’s the fragrance that is the main attraction. As cattleya fragrances usually do, it started off indolic, skanky and a little camphorous, but over the past week has gone through a candied rose phase that reminded me of L’Artisan Timbuktu, only to end up today as what I consider the quintessential “orchid” fragrance. It’s juicy, fruity, floral, musky, spicy, and the most sensuous, sweet, watery fragrance you ever smelled. It fills the entire house in the morning. If I were a pollinator, I’d dive right in, drink it, and wallow in it until I was completely intoxicated.

Hybrid cattleyas seem to have largely escaped the movement to de-scent flowers, so most of the naturally unwieldy, standard-size ones have a beautiful fragrance. The mini-cattleyas, on the other hand, have been bred for windowsill size plants with relatively large flowers, and are mostly not fragrant.

The big surprise in the greenhouse this week was the blooming of Maxillaria minuta, a micro-mini orchid that I grew from infancy. The whole plant is no larger than the lip of one of the cattleya flowers, and the flowers are smaller than a lentil. They’re pretty, though - nicely shaped and dark red with a shiny, wet-looking lip. I haven’t detected any fragrance yet, but am hoping that one will develop over the next few days.

One of the things that I find so fascinating about orchids is their mind-boggling diversity. It couldn’t be much better illustrated than by the giant cattleya and the miniature maxillaria.

Saturday, February 4, 2012


For those readers who are local or visiting the Seattle area, Sweet Anthem Handmade Perfumes will be hosting a Valentine’s tea party on February 11, from 12-4 PM. It will feature flowers, perfume, and sweets (chocolate!) by local designers. You can do your Valentine’s shopping for yourself and/or someone else while you enjoy fine teas and gifts with purchase throughout the afternoon.

The event will provide an opportunity to meet four local designers: Nikki Sherritt, candlemaker and perfumer from Gabriel’s Aunt and Rebel & Mercury; Anne Dowell, gardener and truffle maker from Garden Bon Bons; Lydia Love, chocolatier from Chakralate; and Meredith Smith, perfumer from Sweet Anthem Handmade Perfumes.
The shop also offers a number of other perfume lines (including Olympic Orchids) and scented works by local and national independent designers.

Sweet Anthem is located at 6021-B California Ave SW in the heart of West Seattle’s Morgan Junction, across from West Seattle Wine Cellars and Meander’s Kitchen. The photo shows the entrance to the shop during the recent snowstorm.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


What was originally a small project for a “special client” has grown into a large multi-media project involving many bloggers and perfumers, most notably Tarleisio of The Alembicated Genie, the inspiration behind it all.

I’m excited to get back to work on one perfume that I have had under development for a while (the dark, seductive side of the dark side), and to start on a new one that is its opposite (the bright, terrifying side of the dark side). Animus and anima. Yin and yang. Delusion and revelation. Softness and sharpness. A perfect challenge for a perfumer!

I’m not only looking forward to the challenge of perfume creation but to seeing how other perfumers interpret the briefs that we were given. How much will each of us who blogs reveal during the process? What amazing variety will we come up with?

Stay tuned as the DevilScent project spawns its creations.

By the way, if you search my blog with the right key word, you'll find the original Devil's perfume brief.