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, May 30, 2012


I recently got on a kick of trying South African botanicals, and have just discovered one that I’m definitely going to use in a perfume. Its common names are cape may and white confetti bush, and its scientific name is listed as Coleonema album everywhere I looked. I have no explanation for the grammatical mismatch of a feminine Latin noun with a neuter adjective, but maybe someone who’s up on botanical grammar can enlighten me.

Grammar aside, Cape May is a large shrub with needle-like leaves that is native to coastal regions of South Africa. Pictures of the bush look a lot like a large rosemary plant. When they bloom, they are covered with a proliferation of white flowers that look very much like strawberry blossoms. Apparently it’s a favorite shrub for bonsai and topiary, lending itself to pot culture as well as trimming and shaping. Writing this has made me want one.

But the oil! As soon as I put it on a strip to test, the whole room filled with the most wonderful sweet, fruity sillage. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever smelled. Close up it has a bit of a camphorous, herbal, foody note, but even when my nose is right up next to it, it’s accompanied by the fruity smell, almost like taffy, but better. If I had to characterize the fruit notes, I’d say they’re like a fair amount of fresh blueberry, a little fresh guava, and something else fruity but unique. Of course I immediately got all excited about basing an all-natural perfume on cape may, but my enthusiasm was dampened a little when I discovered that the fruity sillage is a top note that doesn’t last all that long, drying down to an herbal, camphorous base that is also fairly short-lived. In the end, I don’t think I can build a fragrance around cape may, but, it will still be an interesting top-note addition to one of my all-natural fragrances

As usual, I’m offering a sample of this oil to one reader who leaves a comment saying what your favorite fruity perfume notes are. The random drawing will be on Sunday, June 3.

[Plant photos from Wilimedia]

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


On Saturday I potted out 150 young cattleyas and 25 young paphiopedilum orchids. No brag, just fact. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I did the potting on the back steps of my supply shed where there’s a huge patch of bright purple Ajuga repetans in full bloom. These flowers are like a magnet for bumblebees, who were swarming all over them, reveling in the warmth of the sun, chugging down the nectar, and wallowing in the flowers, dusting themselves all over with pollen. I had to stop work for a while and watch the little bees enjoying themselves in what must have seemed like the best theme park ever. I noticed that many of the bees’ pollen baskets were filled to the brim, and that a lot of them were bright orange. Pollen comes in all different colors.

Seeing the bees carrying pollen like bags of groceries made me think about how pollen smells, and how to represent pollen in perfumery. There’s a certain scent that some “non-fragrant” flowers have that’s not anywhere in the space that I’d call floral, and that I think of as “pollen”. Non-fragrant camellias smell that way and some daffodils have a lot of that scent mixed with the floral “daffodil” fragrance. Some tulips have it. The best description I can come up with (other than “pollen”) is a minerally smell, a bit like the chemicals that I used to smell when I lived in North Carolina and ran on a golf course. I heard that the stuff was called Isotox, but it may have been combined with some sort of fertilizer and/or dandelion killer.

Just for curiosity, I Googled the “smell of pollen” to see what other people thought about it. The opinions included “garbage”, “stinky”, “cigar smoke”, “lovely”, “oranges”, “something burning”, “honey”, and so on. You get the idea. These very subjective opinions are all over the place. They’re probably all partly right and partly wrong, and are certainly nowhere near the whole story. I think they’re mostly based on the smell of tree pollen, not flower pollen, and the exact smell depends on the tree or the flower. Trying to find something in common among all of these varieties of pollen, I suppose it would be the minerally chemical smell and a touch of honeycomb.

Speaking of pollen, one of my memorable experiences from living in North Carolina was a thunderstorm that blew in while I was walking across campus. All of a sudden the wind started blowing hard, black clouds rolled in, and the whole sky took on an eerie yellow-greenish hue. There was a distinctive “Isotox” smell in the air. I thought, “OMG, it must be a tornado coming!”, but it wasn’t. It turned out that the local pine trees were putting out so much pollen that it had formed the equivalent of a dust storm, filling the air and forming a pollen cloud that rolled across the landscape. Bizarre.

Anyway, I suppose the bottom line is that if I wanted to make a pollen note for perfumery it would be a mixture of the minerally smell of fertilizer/pesticide and the sweet smell of beeswax. I hope no one would be allergic to it!

[Photo of bumblebee on Ajuga is mine; photos of pollen cells in honeycomb and pollen closeup are adapted from Wikimedia]

Sunday, May 20, 2012


The winner of the Mother's Day giveaway is Rachel. Please e-mail me with your full shipping address.

Those cherry blossoms that I posted just last week are now medium size green cherries, well on their way to being the ripe fruits in the photo. How quickly they grow up!

I loved all of the comments about your mothers, their relationship to perfume, and how so many of them loved gardening. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Thursday, May 17, 2012


The winner of the drawing for the African bluegrass samples is DIONNE. Please e-mail me with your full mailing address.

Monday, May 14, 2012


Yesterday was the closing matinee of our show, so all morning and afternoon were taken up with preparation, performance, and loading out. That was followed by dinner with my mother-in-law, who had attended the show, then dealing with various household tasks at home. By the time midnight rolled around, I was exhausted. Because I didn’t get around to it yesterday, today is a belated Mother’s Day post. It’s also an opportunity to showcase a photo of the cherry blossoms in our “orchard” from earlier this spring. Those flowers are now growing little green cherries thanks to our industrious neighborhood bees.

In celebration of Mother’s Day 2012, I would like to wish all mothers out a happy year to come. In memory of my own mother, who died last fall, I am offering a drawing for a 7.5 ml spray bottle of Siam Proun in parfum concentration, the perfume that I made especially for her, and which won one of Cafleurebon’s “Best Releases of 2011” awards.

To be entered in the drawing, please leave a comment about your own mother and whether or not she used perfume. The drawing will take place on Sunday, May 19.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


One of my recently discovered raw materials is the essential oil of African bluegrass, Cymbopogon validus. I used it in several of the DevilScent variations, and have come to really love and appreciate its unique properties.

Cymbopogon is a large genus of grasses that were originally native to old world tropical regions, especially India and Africa, but are now widely cultivated throughout the world. It includes lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), which is commonly used in cooking, gingergrass (Cymbopogon martinii), palmarosa (a variety of C martinii), and citronella grass, sometimes called giant turpentine grass (Cymbopogon nardus). Both C martini and C nardus are used as insect repellants.

Most of the Cymbopogons have a sharp lemony and/or ginger-like aroma, but African bluegrass is an aroma unto itself. When I first tried a small sample, I was surprised by the complexity and musky character of the oil, and I was even more surprised that it lasted over a month on paper. It is a base note par excellence. Yes, its top notes include a sharp, lemony-gingery-geranium scent, which gives way to a grassy, hay-like scent, but these are just embellishments on top of the main base notes, which are something like well-used bed sheets, unwashed hair, dog, and something indescribably dusty-musty. It serves the same function as ambrette, which I love, but I think I like African bluegrass even better when I want a cool, gray color instead of a warm, beige one. When I see published descriptions of African bluegrass oil, I have to think that whoever wrote them only sniffed the top notes from the bottle and didn’t bother waiting for the drydown.

In the DevilScents, I used African bluegrass to lend the scent of a bed that’s been the scene of much activity, and to enhance the impression of well-worn leather, which is especially hard to duplicate using all natural materials. In combination with a little sandalwood absolute, it gives amazing tenacity.

I have to say that my feelings about writing this are mixed, since I wouldn’t want every perfumer in the world to jump on the African bluegrass bandwagon. However, despite the good news that this is a wonderful material to work with, the bad news is that it’s hard to find and relatively expensive. I suppose in the end, it’s worth spreading the word if demand for Cymbopogon validus were to become great enough to promote increased production and availability of the oil, which theoretically should be no harder than lemongrass to grow and distill.

Leave a comment to be entered in a drawing to win a sample of African bluegrass oil and a sample of one perfume in which I used it. The drawing will be on Wednesday, May 16.

[African bluegrass photo from Plant Database; couple in bed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1893]

Friday, May 11, 2012


As my business grows and develops, changes are inevitable. Over the past two years I’ve added a number of new fragrances, so I now have 19 in production, and more under development. Quite a few customers have expressed a preference for spray samples, and some have asked for them specifically. I recently bought a big supply of 3 ml spray vials. They are too big to fit 19 of them into the standard box, so I have decided to create several sets of spray samples, each with its own theme.

I think some people find the idea of 19 samples at one time overwhelming anyway, so I hope this separation into categories will help those who want to try a limited number of fragrances at a time. I’ll still offer the complete 1 ml sample pack and the old deluxe sample pack, at least for a while.

I’m going to be adding the new spray sample packs to the website over the next few weeks, starting with an All Orchids pack, Scents of Place, and The Perfumer’s Perfumes. I’m also thinking of adding a “masculine” pack and an all-natural pack. Eventually there may even be a DevilScent pack.

The other change that’s coming round is in the small perfume “travel spray” bottles. The nice black 5 ml ones that I’ve been using have been unavailable for a while, so I went looking for an alternative. I found some 0.25 oz (about 7.5 ml) spray bottles that seem fairly comparable to the old ones except that they hold 50% more, and only come in gold and sliver. I hope that buying the bottles in bulk will allow me to hold the price at the current level, and that the savings on bottles will compensate for the extra perfume that goes in them. It seems like a win-win scenario, assuming that the bottles function as intended.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


It’s been a while since I posted anything, and part of the reason was because the longer the time that had passed since I’d posted, the harder it was to start up again. I didn’t really want to get on the blog and look at comments and other blogs, because then I’d feel negligent about not posting, so I didn’t even go there at all.

There were good reasons. The “real job” is extremely demanding as the academic year moves toward its end, I was getting ready for the spring theatre production (which is now up and running), I had orchid shows and craft shows to deal with, the orchids are extremely needy this time of year what with potting and re-potting, and I was busy once again reorganizing my work area and increasing perfume production to keep up with orders. I’m filtering batches of Salamanca and Arizona as I write this.

In the meantime, the DevilScent Project has taken on a life of its own, I’ve made a commitment to participate in the Artisan Fragrance Salon in San Francisco in July, and I’m feeling fairly overwhelmed, but in a good way.

The new shelves are installed in my work area, complete with an added “lip” to keep things from sliding off in case of an earthquake, and they’re now filled from top to bottom with glassware, bottles of perfume concentrates, and finished bulk bottles of perfumes.

This is not really a “theme” post, it’s just a little warm-up so that I don’t feel aversion to looking at the blog and seeing how long it’s been since the last time.