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.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


The boxes for the San Francisco Artisan Perfume Salon are packed, sealed, and delivered to Fed Ex, to magically appear at our hotel in time for the Salon. Kudos to FedEx for making everything go so smoothly and inexpensively! Once the precious packages were given up to their fate, I spent most of yesterday preparing and packing up the usual hundreds of orchid plants for this weekend’s show and sale in Tacoma. Quick change of hats.  Whew!!! Now it’s 6:00 AM on Saturday and I’m ready for the drive to Tacoma.

Once the orchid show is over on Sunday night, I can relax and take care of last-minute preparations for San Francisco, and maybe even post here a few times before I leave next Friday. I plan to take my camera to San Francisco (although my phone will do in a pinch) and take lots of photos at the Salon, so stay tuned. I’m excited to meet the other participating perfumers, the bloggers who will be there, and all of the other wonderful people who gravitate to a place that’s loaded with perfume.

For the weekend, though, I’ll be away from the internet. Maybe a couple of days break is a good thing.

[Golden Gate Bridge photo from Wikimedia]

Monday, June 25, 2012


I haven’t posted much this spring due to what seems like an unusually heavy work overload. Finally, now that another academic year has come to an end, I’m trying to catch up on some abandoned posts that were started but never finished. This one was started during tech week of our last theatre show, back in May. That show took place in our usual performance space in the Center House at the Seattle Center, under the shadow of the iconic space needle. I hadn’t been there since last November, so was shocked to see that in the intervening months the last vestiges of the colorful kiddie rides at the Fun Forest amusement park had been removed. In its place was a closed-in, corporate-looking, over-designed space surrounding the new Chihuly glass museum. The museum itself looks like a standard-issue greenhouse, with formal, vaguely Asian-style gardens. The big building that used to house bumper cars and other forms of entertainment has been transformed into something that looks like an office park in an industrial strip mall where you would find shipping offices and wholesalers. The path I used to take to get from the street to the Center House is now blocked by a walled compound that reportedly charges $19 admission to see Dale Chihuly’s personal collections of non-glass tchotchkes. In the courtyard are a few large glass installations, just waiting for some teenagers to throw rocks over the fence at them.

Oh well, I suppose the whole concept fits right in with the tradition of building a fancy building to house the collections of “stuff” amassed by the very rich. After all, the Experience Music Project (EMP for short) is just a big space to house Paul Allen’s collection of music memorabilia. The EMP is a Ghery-ish, brightly colored, metallic-tiled, twisted structure that one of my school colleagues described as “looking like the Space Needle vomited”. At least it doesn’t look like it’s wearing a corporate suit, and the metallic finish shines beautifully when there’s a late afternoon sun break. Like it or not, the building is more unique and interesting than the "stuff" that's inside. 

Apparently as part of the Chihuly renovations, the food court on the ground floor of the Center House was also remodeled, removing all of the colorful food stands that used to brighten it up a bit. Now it’s a bare, gray dismal-looking, corporate-feeling space that could easily be a warehouse without the boxes and forklifts. Most of the food vendors are gone, replaced by a trendy window area that would be right at home in an office building, and a lot of boarded-up booths with “for rent” signs. The only vendors left are what appears to be an upscale burger chain, a Starbucks, a Subway, and a kebab stand that seems to be family-owned and operated, the last vestige of the old guard. The prices at the kebab stand have almost doubled. According to the woman who works there, the rent went up significantly after the remodel. I hope they can make it. At least they don’t have much competition, and not much prospect of any in the near future unless the economy suddenly jumps up from its deathbed and walks.

Now I hear that Seattle wants to sell its iconic old waterfront trolley cars to Saint Louis. The trolley was banished a couple of years ago to build a rather soul-less sculpture park. The argument for removing it was that it would clash with the suburban-mall appearance of the “do-not touch” sculptures and their grassy suburban-lawn surroundings. The more things change, the more stereotyped and sterile they seem to become. The most ironic thing of all is that “art” installations have been in some way responsible for this de-humanization of the city. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012


Soon after we moved into our current house over 10 years ago, I ordered some plants from one of those beautiful, slick catalogs that come in the mail every spring. You know the ones – they always show the strawberries as big as footballs, the dahlias as big as your head (and in psychedelic colors no less!), the lilac that bears red, white, and blue flowers (all on the same bush!) and the pumpkins that you have to harvest using a crane and flatbed truck. I’m ashamed to say that I’m always tempted by these catalogs, and even fall for them once in a while.

When our house was new our back yard looked like a desert, so in a moment of weakness I ordered some things from one of those catalogs. As I should have expected, all of the plants were either dead on arrival or so severely debilitated that there was no way they could live, even under the best of conditions. The one surprise was the freebie that came with the order. It was three bulbs called “peacock orchids”. (“Order $20 worth of plants, get these little fellows free!”) I took a look at the miserable, moldy brown lumps and gave them a decent burial on the east side of the back deck, wished them a happy trip to the afterlife of abused plants, and forgot about them.

Then something sprouted from the grave. It started out as three little conical shoots that soon turned into three vigorous plants with broad, pleated green leaves, and before I knew it, they had produced three tall flower spikes, each with many bright magenta flowers. It was the peacock orchids! Only they weren’t peacock orchids. The plant that is commonly known as a “peacock orchid” isn’t an orchid at all, it’s a gladiolus-like plant called Gladiolus acidanthera or Gladiolus callianthus, shown in the photo on the left. It’s white with a red center, and it has anthers covered with powdery pollen and a pistil like a regular flower. My plants were neon magenta, with three sepals, two petals, a frilly lip with raised ridges like super-corduroy, and the typical orchid column with built-in, snap-off pollinia. It didn’t take much research to determine that they were Bletilla striata, also known as “Chinese ground orchid”, an Asian deciduous terrestrial species, and a real orchid. In fact, it looks like a small Cattleya.

Over the years the Bletilla have died down every fall, come up every spring, and multiplied like rabbits. I think all of the multiplication takes place underground, through growth of new bulbs from old ones, but they do get pollinated and form seed pods each year. I’ve given some bulbs away, but there’s now a huge patch with an uncountable number of growths. They’re the only thing out of that whole shipment that survived. Obviously the company didn’t know what they were sending, given that they were not only misidentified, but actually grew and thrived. They’re in full bloom right now, already setting this year’s crop of seed pods.

Because they’re outside, I’ve never paid a lot of attention to them, just like the Dactylorrhyzas and Calanthes that come up and bloom like clockwork every year. It was not until this year that I actually realized that the Bletilla are fragrant. It’s not a strong fragrance, it’s a very light and subtle sweet pink scent, a little powdery and a little bit moist and airy, but most definitely floral. It reminds me somehow of the old version of Shiseido Murasaki. It’s beautiful in a near-transparent sort of way. To think that I never realized that these orchids, which are some of the most reliable perennials in our garden, actually have a gorgeous fragrance in addition to their lush foliage and colorful flowers! It’s just one more reason to love them.

[Gladiolus callianthus photo from Wikimedia]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


The drawing was conducted in an objective and low-tech way, using names written on tiny folded scraps of paper.

The winner was Laurie Brown. Congratulations! Please e-mail me with your shipping address.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Night before last I had a classic anxiety dream, arriving in San Francisco for the Artisan Fragrance Salon only to find that I had no hotel room. Worse yet, I had not only forgotten to bring and/or ship anything to exhibit, but hadn’t even made anything.

I’ve participated in a lot of shows, ranging from academic conferences where I gave a talk in a room as big as an airplane hangar, to orchid shows where I hauled in a truckload of blooming plants and seedlings to sell, to theatre shows that required weeks of unbelievably stressful preparation, but this is my first fragrance show. I think the biggest source of stress is that it’s out of town and everything has to be prepared in advance and shipped. I’m pretty good at doing things spontaneously, but advance planning is not one of my big strengths. After that dream, I immediately sat down and made a list of all the things I need to do, which in itself is a big source of anxiety, since I’m not usually a list-maker, just doing things randomly at the last minute.

Having said that, I’ve already taken care of printing some post cards publicizing Olympic Orchids Perfumes and the new DevilScent fragrances that I’ll be launching there, along with new and improved business cards. Now I’m just waiting for the printer to send them, fingers crossed, hoping they’ll look OK.

Yesterday I went into robot mode and worked for 20 hours straight (one of my big strengths, when I’m in the mood for it) writing a press release for the DevilScents, taking a trip to the store to buy baggies and other supplies, making all of the samples for the 50 packets that Tama will be handing out at the San Francisco Sniff event on the day before the salon, making all of the samples for the press packets, and making all of the small spray bottles that I’ll be selling there. I have no idea how many samples and bottles I made, but having them done makes me feel much better. Now I just have to make the big bottles, which are relatively easy.

In the process of filling orders and making samples and bottles of everything, I ran out of a bunch of things and had to make new dilutions and one stock concentrate. After filtering the dilutions this morning, there was a huge sink full of dirty glassware staring at me like a bad hangover. I’m happy to report that the glassware is now clean and drying, and my shelf of ready-to-bottle fragrances is full again.

I’m sure that once I have one of these perfume shows under my belt it will all get easier, but for now it’s a new and scary adventure. Writing a blog post is like a combination of a top-notch therapy session and an exotic vacation.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


This morning I filtered the first production batch of Lilith (aka LIL) and, as usual, made sure I got some on myself while doing it. It wasn’t a lot, just the equivalent of a medium-sized spray dose. About an hour later I went out for a run.

The first inkling I had of the “Lilith Phenomenon” or “Lilith Effect”, first described by Tarleisio in this blog post, was when I was doing my warm-up walk down our little street to the main road and passed a group of three 7- or 8-year old boys playing in a puddle. As I got close, they all looked up, eyes wide as saucers, promptly stood at attention facing me, and politely said “hello”. They seemed in awe. I was flabbergasted. As I continued on with my run I thought of Tarleisio’s post, and started to connect the dots.

As I made my way around the neighborhood, everyone I passed on my side of the road looked at me, smiled in a friendly way, and made it a point to politely say “hello”. Except for the postal delivery woman, I knew none of these people. Even though I stared intently at people on the other side of the road, they did not react. Now this might not seem worthy of note except for the fact that in the Pacific Northwest, people tend to act uncomfortable and look the other way when they pass another human being on the street or road. It’s very unusual for even one person to acknowledge my presence when I’m out walking or running, let alone everyone I pass. Maybe there’s something in LIL that makes people shape up and be polite.

Have you ever experienced unusual reactions from random people when wearing a specific perfume? If so, leave a comment about the perfume and your experience. You will be entered in a random drawing, the winner of which will receive a 3 ml spray sample of LIL to try for yourself and see whether there’s anything to the Lilith Effect besides our overactive imaginations. Moreover, you’ll have a chance to try this fragrance before it’s officially released at the San Francisco Artisan Fragrance Salon on July 8. The drawing will take place on Wednesday, June 20.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Not what it sounds like. For those who haven’t seen Portia’s interview with me on the AustralianPerfumeJunkies blog, it’s right here. A big thank-you to Portia for the interview and write-up and the subsequent reviews of three Olympic Orchids perfumes!

Along with the interview is the announcement of a special offer, which I’d like to extend to readers of my blog: $5 off any international shipping, or free shipping of bottles within the US through June 25. To make it more fun, you’ll have to go on a treasure hunt in one of the above two APJ posts to find the coupon code to put in the appropriate box at checkout.

No, I didn’t travel to Sydney for the interview (I only wish!). The photo was taken when I was there on other business a couple of years ago.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


As I’ve mentioned before, I have been trying a lot of South African perfume materials, and have been generally impressed with them. Among others, I was extremely fortunate to get a sample of a tincture that Sophia Du Toit had made from a dry perfume/incense traditionally made by the Himba people of southern Africa, a group that still lives more or less in the traditional way.

The tincture is a dark brown in color. When I first applied it, I thought the smell was going to be very subtle, but it quickly developed into a complex fragrance that included strong camphorous notes, probably from plants like buchu, along with a slightly musty, earthy scent, and a very subtle hint of floral notes. It’s a pleasant, comforting fragrance, on a par with any niche perfume and better than many. It’s the sort of fragrance that I’d like to wear to sleep because I think it would promote amazing dreams.

The most surprising thing about this tincture was that it lasted for as long as any strong commercial perfume. I applied it one morning, and it was still present on my skin more than 24 hours later, on the following day. Whatever the base notes are, they prolong the camphorous, almost eucalyptus-like scent for longer than I would have imagined possible, given that this sort of fragrance is usually a top note. Although fairly subtle, this perfume has amazing lasting power. Maybe it’s due to the Omumbiri resin that’s reportedly used in it. I have some of the dried resin, and now I can’t wait to tincture it and smell it.

In the course of reading Sophia’s blog post about the Himba dry perfume and other matters, I was struck by her suggestion that southern Africa is the place where perfume originated. The region certainly offers a rich selection of materials that would facilitate the making of incense, body rubs, and scented sachets. If humans originated in that part of the world, it only makes sense that perfume originated with them. There is something fundamental and deeply rooted in our nature that makes us want to rub ourselves with leaves, roots, flowers, and resins, luxuriate in the fragrant smoke of various woods and plant materials, scent our homes with fragrant plants and flowers, and engage in the spiritual practice of meditating on scent and offering it up to whatever invisible higher powers we might imagine hovering over, under, around, or within us.

[Photos of Himba village in Namibia adapted from Wikimedia]

Friday, June 8, 2012


After a long winter of inactivity, I’ve started getting outside and running regularly again – at least a little bit. I’m not going to reveal anything about my actual activities or goals, since I don’t want to jinx it. Actually, I’m not sure myself, just taking it one day at a time. I suppose my motivation is simply that it feels good. The only other thing I will say is that every fourth day I take a “day off”, when I just go for a walk around the neighborhood to keep me in the habit of getting outside and moving.

Today was the walkabout day. I try not to go exactly the same way twice, so had the pleasure of exploring some roads that I usually don’t travel on. According to the local newspaper, the weather this June has set some sort of record for rain, with more rain in the first week than we normally have during the whole month. As a consequence, everything is incredibly lush and green, almost jungle-like. The aromas in the air were amazing, changing each time I passed a different set of trees, shrubs, or flowers.

The favorite part of my walkabout was going down a small residential road that winds through a ravine. There’s no traffic except for the cars of the people who live there, so it was relaxing to not have to worry about getting run down by an idiot in an SUV or a teenager in a pickup truck. For some reason it reminded me of walks that we used to take with my parents when we lived in Virginia, down country roads flanked by tall weeds flourishing in the sun, then up a shady, green, mountain path that went past an abandoned, “haunted” house overgrown with brush and vines, where daffodils still bloomed in the spring.

Some random highlights of the neighborhood survey:

A micro-neighborhood with a cluster of big, old heirloom-type rose bushes, all obviously descended from the same ancestor. The flowers were fairly small, with a moderate number of petals, and a vivid red-purple in color. I think they must be the ancestor of the Rhapsody in Blue rose shown in the photo. The fragrance was unique, strongly peppery and spicy up front, with the rose floral scent taking a supporting role. I love stumbling on flowers like this!

A police car from the “city” of Burien parked by the side of the road. Burien is nowhere near where I live, many tens of miles of crow’s flight away, on the other side of Seattle. If the driver commutes to Burien to work, it’s a long trek.

Calla lilies already blooming. Ours are still just in the leaf stage.

A tree with dark purple leaves and clusters of beautifully fragrant pink flowers. I have no idea what it was, but the flowers were honey-sweet, with a little bit of a black currant fragrance.

The discovery that one of our neighbors still keeps horses in their “front yard”. I thought the last of the farm animals had been displaced by suburban development, so the horse pasture was an unexpected find.

Now back to grading students’ papers, packing orchids, setting up my new “smart” phone, and (I hope) working on some perfume-related things.

[Painting of walker by Leon Bovin (1863); Purple rose photo adapted from Wikimedia (kicking myself for not taking my camera on my walks); calla lilies are mine; painting of horse by Anton Mauve, mid-19th century]

Monday, June 4, 2012


The winner of the sample of cape may essential oil is ANAT13, as determined by a repeated coin toss. Please e-mail me your full name and mailing address.

[Photo of South African Cape vegetation from WIkimedia]

Sunday, June 3, 2012


On Friday morning when I took one of my routine trips to the post office, I was surprised to see a long line snaking out the door, moving at a glacial pace. Actually, with global warming, this metaphor no longer applies because glaciers move faster than bureaucratic processes, and eventually disappear. Bureaucracy and the lines at the post office just go on and on.

Surprise turned to shock when I finally managed to get in the door and heard the one employee who works at the 3-position counter apologetically tell a customer that she had to manually type in all of the information from the “short” customs form. I went into deep denial at that point, hoping that I had misheard. Surely all of the information anyone needs is on the form, which is completed in triplicate. There’s the sender’s address, the recipient’s address, detailed information on what is in the package, the country of origin, the value of the goods, whether it’s a gift or merchandise, … well, you get the idea. One copy of the form goes on the package, one goes to the sender, and one goes in a filing box, presumably to be stored in some obscure bureaucratic silo, the contents of which eventually grow into a compacted mass as glaciers used to do in the good old days. Every form has a bar code that presumably can be scanned to track the package’s progress. Is that not record enough?

My denial was in vain, because when I finally got up to the counter, I was told that all of the information from the three forms associated with the sample packs that I was shipping internationally had to be typed into the clunky, cranky old PC-type terminal – apparently not an easy task given that it didn’t “like” half of what she tried to put in. The poor employee was looking frazzled, partly because she was struggling with everyone’s bad handwriting, international addresses and non-English entries, the passive-aggressive people who were tired of waiting in line, and then my sarcastic comments poured on top of that. I did try to be as nice as I could to her, given that the whole fiasco was not her fault.

Of course I asked her why she was suddenly required to type in information from the customs forms, and she seemed surprised by the question. Her response was that when she had come to work that morning there was a message informing her that from now on she was supposed to type in all of the information from every customs form.

“But why?”, I asked. She replied that she did not know. It was just the order she had received.

“From whom?” She did not know.

“Who made this incredibly stupid decision?” She did not know, but thought it must have been someone in the US Customs Office.

“Why would the US Customs Office suddenly want to triple the work of every postal employee when the post office is laying off half of their employees and closing offices? It makes no sense to create unnecessary work at the same time as the labor force is reduced.” She could not answer that question.

“Why do you need to duplicate information that’s already on the forms in triplicate?” She didn’t know, but thought maybe it had something to do with the fact that US Customs is now run by “Homeland Security”.

Ahhhhh … now it all started to make a little bit of sense, albeit illogical sense, and only if one is prone to paranoid conspiracy theories.

“Is there someone I can complain to?” She gave me the card of the person in charge of the main post office.

When I called the number, the person in charge had the same reaction as the employee. She was surprised that I complained, and she did not know why the post office had been asked to manually enter information from every customs form. I asked her who had made the decision, and her answer was that “they” had made the decision and issued the order.

I asked the obvious question, “Who are ‘they’?” She had no clue.

What I did learn from her is that there is a company that, for a price, provides software that allows one to fill out customs forms online and, presumably, transmit that information to the post office’s computer system. Two conspiracies for the price of one! Not only can the US government have digital access to a record of everything that everyone ships everywhere in the world, people can pay a company for the privilege of easily providing these data to whatever faceless big-brother bureaucrats sit in their dreary cubicles compiling piles of useless information. Not only can your tax dollars be used to support this ludicrous waste of human and digital energy, you can pay extra to do it in style.

Now that I think about it, there’s a third component to the whole scheme. With postal employees doing a whole lot of extra, unproductive work, the post office will lose even more money than they currently do, and accelerate their slide into bankruptcy. The whole shebang can then be taken over by something like Central Services in the old film Brazil. And no one will ask, “Why?”

[Glacier photo from Wikimedia; customs form sample from USPS website, Brazil image from Wikipedia]

Friday, June 1, 2012


Last night I was working in my perfume “lab” (or should I call it an "atelier"?) until about 2:30 AM. Shortly after I went to bed, I was awakened by a bird’s chirping. It was so loud that I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake and listened to it, as it sleepily chirped like a baby chicken at first, then sang more strongly, and before long was joined by other birds, all twittering and tweeting. My research on birds suggested that they were probably blackbirds, but they could have been anything.

I entertained myself trying to figure out which voice was coming from where ... from the cedars, the alders across the road, the cottonwoods in the ravine, the big leaf maples, the blackberries in the marsh ... near or far away. It was at least a couple of hours before dawn, so I marveled at the birds' ability to sense that night would soon be over, and their daily activities could begin.

It made me think of Paul McCartney’s old song, “Blackbird singing in the dead of night … “ because that’s just what these birds were doing. It somehow made me happy to hear those bird sounds in the middle of a dark, rainy night, especially the first, almost eerie-sounding, cry announcing that the morning would eventually come.

I thought it would be a good idea to go back to my old habit of trying to write at least one positive thing each week. This is especially relevant given that my trip to the post office this morning unleashed the mother of all rants. Stay tuned for that one!

[Singing blackbird photo from Wikimedia. Birds at night by Watanabe Shotei, 19th century]