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, January 26, 2013


Here are my impressions of the second set of offerings in the series of four Devil Scents  made by three different perfumers, inspired by Sheila Eggenberger's novel, Quantum Demonology. 

Neil Morris Devil Scent #1
Although the opening is not as dramatic as Midnight at the Crossroads Café, it’s still an insistent and unique blast of spicy floral seduction, almost a more restrained version of Midnight. As it develops, it gains strength, becoming powdery and overtly floral, with hints of roses, violets and soft suede leather. Instead of being melodramatic, it’s just calmly beautiful in a strong and reassuring way, like the partner who’s always there when needed, saying “don’t be afraid. Everything will be all right.” As a stand-alone perfume, it’s every bit as gorgeous as Midnight, and I would wear it anywhere, any time.

Amanda Feeley Devil Scent #2
Amanda’s #2 is even more woody and bitter than #1. It’s definitely way out there in a space where perfumers generally don’t go, not even those who make a point of being eccentric. It’s dominated at first by a strong weedy-herbal scent, possibly an overdose of some type of Artemesia, accompanied by a hint of chlorine from a swimming pool, and something dairy-like that reminds me of rancid butter or oily cheese. After a while it becomes woodier, sort of like sawdust, and I can’t help thinking about wet sawdust or wood chip bedding in the bottom of an animal cage, maybe a guinea pig cage. Wow! This is one of the strangest perfumes I’ve smelled. As it develops, I think of an old-fashioned circus, with well-used sawdust in the ring, or a big pile of slightly fermented hardwood sawdust at an abandoned sawmill. The woody scent hangs on for hours, with very good longevity for an all-natural composition. Almost 24 hours later, I can detect a faint, citrus scent on my skin, and I think it’s from Amanda’s #2. This is amazing stuff.

Revisiting my own DEV #2, it’s completely different from Neil’s and Amanda’s interpretations. It starts out with a sharp, spicy barrage similar in intent to the “Poof!” that Neil used to such great effect in Midnight, but of course it’s a completely different “Poof!”, a shower of hot spices, resins, boozy fruit, well-worn black leather, and floral undertones instead of beer and brimstone. By the next morning the spices have run their course, and it ends up as an ethereal, slightly powdery, musky rose and incense scent, like the remnants of an intense night of lovemaking.

I think what both Neil and I did was try to capture the joyous moments of the courtship phase of the story, focusing on the emotional highs while only hinting at the nightmare flashes that were increasingly interspersed among them – horrifying visions and experiences that arose from the heroine’s own insecurities and fears. Amanda addressed those head-on in her perfume, portraying the circus parade of evil things that lie at different levels below the surface, eagerly waiting for an opportunity to invade our nightmares and tamper with our waking lives. Once again, the three perfumes together provide a much more complete account of the story than any one by itself. 

[Paintings by J.E. Millais, 1852 and Egon Schiele, 1890] 

Friday, January 25, 2013


I do almost all of my writing and other sorts of non-lab-non-farm work on a laptop computer that travels with me from home to my office at the university, and back again. I’ve never taken to using the track pad that’s built in, probably because I do a lot of work with graphics, where precise positioning of the cursor is important. For me, a mouse works a lot better than the track pad. To protect the wood table that I work on at home and facilitate movement of the mouse, I have an old-fashioned mouse pad, made of some sort of non-skid rubbery material covered with fabric. Maybe you can see where this is going already.

I like to test perfumes and perfume materials by dabbing or spraying them on my wrist, so when I manipulate the mouse, my wrist touches the pad. Over the years that I’ve had this particular pad, it’s become impregnated with a huge variety of odorous substances, so that it emits a perfume of its own. The fragrance, affectionately referred to as “Mouse Pad”, is, of course, a sliding olfactory integrator of everything I’ve worn over the past days, weeks, months, or years, with a scent that changes progressively as new things are added and old ones fade away. Sometimes my wrist picks up the scent of the mouse pad and I smell it as if it were a perfume that I’d applied intentionally. That’s what happened this morning. I smelled my wrist and thought, “Oh, that’s funny. I thought that perfume had faded away last night.” Then I realized that it had indeed faded away, and what I was smelling was Mouse Pad in all its glory.

I first became consciously aware of the mouse pad phenomenon quite a while ago when I was testing some new accords that I’d mixed up and some new materials that I’d received. I kept smelling something that I really liked, and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I eventually traced its origin and realized that it was a combination of a rose accord, lemongrass, Habanolide, Helvetolide, vanilla, and neroli. Maybe there were some other things in there, but those were the main ones that I wrote down because they meshed together so well. Maybe one of these days I’ll make a perfume based on the Mouse Pad experience. It could be like a subscription, with an initial formula, and periodic updates with additives that can be combined with the initial formula, changing it according to the season, but with some sort of underlying continuity. Actually, I think I might just do that, starting this spring because it would be an interesting experience. I don't think Mouse Pad is an attractive name for a perfume, so it would have to be something else. I thought of Metamorphosis and Evolution, but those appear to be taken. The next thought was Proteus, which doesn't seem to be taken. 

If anyone else comes up with such a gimmick, you read it here first! 

Saturday, January 19, 2013


It was fascinating to discover that at least three of the perfumers who worked on the Devil Scent project came up with a suite of four Devil perfumes, each connected to a different part of the narrative of Quantum Demonology, the novel by Sheila Eggenberger. After my Devil Scent suite had been completed and released, I was curious to see what the other participating perfumers had come up with, so suggested on Facebook that we all do an exchange. Neil Morris and Amanda Feeley were kind enough to exchange their creations with me. Both of them had independently come up with a set of 4 Devil perfumes, just as I did, each representing a stage in the narrative. Amanda and I even both thought of them as variations or sections of a musical composition! This parallel thinking on the part of three perfumers who had not talked to each other at all kind of blew my mind until I realized that Sheila’s novel had had the same effect on all of us, that we were just acting as the agents of the story, and that these perfumes could not have been created in any other way.

Trying all of Neil’s and Amanda’s perfumes was the most fun I’ve had for a long time. Neil’s perfumes arrived in the mail first, so I initially thought I’d write about all of them before sampling Amanda’s. However, because our Devil Scents are conceptual triplets, I thought it would be fascinating to compare Neil’s, Amanda’s, and my interpretations of each stage. To avoid a single blog post that grows to the length of a novel, I’ll be doing these comparisons in four or five separate posts.

Another thought I had is that it would be a wonderful idea for someone to package and sell sets of the four stages, each containing three different interpretations by the three (?) perfumers who went this route, with a fifth package for the perfumers’ different interpretations of Lilith.

I’ve always had a special liking for the work of Neil Morris because I feel as if he makes perfumes that I could have made, and sometimes wish I had made. His work is not only far removed from mass-market mainstream, it’s far from niche mainstream, too. And yes, there is such a thing as mainstream niche fragrances - lots of them. I think all of the Devil Scents lie somewhere far outside this particular circle of Hell.

Neil Morris Devil Scent: Midnight at the Crossroads Café
As I understand it, this was meant to be the prelude to Neil’s other Devil Scents, which go by number, not name, and represents the protagonist’s first meeting with the Devil. The first spray took me by complete surprise with a sharp, burned scent of fire and brimstone along with an overdose of stale, excessively hoppy-malty beer. The second time, when I was expecting this combination, it seemed less like a violent punch in the face with a wet bar towel, and more like the dramatic opening of a magic show. After just two wearings, I’ve actually become quite addicted to Midnight’s unique opening. The explosive “POOF!” of light, sound, and smoke in which the Devil first appears eventually clears away, revealing the spices, resins, flowers, and woods that are at the heart of the perfume. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Seductively gorgeous, as well it should be. To quote the words of an old song, it makes me happy when skies are grey, as they are today due to freezing temperatures and dense fog everywhere. Neil’s Midnight is the best thing I’ve smelled in ages. After the first hour it is spicy, slightly powdery, slightly floral, and slightly resinous, with a lot of subtle sillage that ripples and drifts around in a now-you-smell-it-now-you-don’t fashion. The sillage-producing stage has excellent longevity. In the end it turns into a slightly powdery vanilla skin scent that lasts a good while longer. I would wear this anywhere, public be damned.

Prior to the Devil Scents, I had not tried anything from Esscentual Alchemy, the brand of natural botanical perfumer Amanda Feeley, so had nothing to use as a reference point. I do have another one of her non-Devil fragrances, Hokkabaz, which I will be reviewing later.

Amanda Feeley Devil Scent #1 
This one starts out all bitter herbs jazzed up with a little citrus. It quickly adds a lovely woody note, so that the fragrance comes to remind me of a freshly carved wooden chest that’s been used to store spices. I’ve smelled some sort of wood like this before, but can’t identify it with a name, although I can picture it. It's not like the wood grain in the photo, but it does convey a little of the feeling. Strange. It smells like an all-natural fragrance, herbal and spicy from start to finish. Sillage is moderate, but it lasts on my skin for about 5-6 hours, which is really good for an all-natural composition.

Last night I revisited my own Dev #1, so that I could compare it to the other two. The giant arborvitae top notes give it a cheerful, buoyant, and almost translucent opening quality that’s very different from the others. However, it darkens as it develops so that by this morning the African bluegrass and incense base dominates, providing a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

After smelling three different versions of the first perfume in the series, it was clear that we each interpreted the heroine’s initial meeting with the Devil in very different ways. Neil had the Devil making a dramatic, fiery, smoke-filled, drum-roll-enhanced entrance, but then turning sweetly seductive once he sat down with her. Amanda had him appearing grouchy and dangerous in a low-key way, appealing to the cynic in her and convincing her that he was her friend and partner in disillusionment, ultimately comforting her with his strong presence. I had the Devil starting out suavely seductive and smiling, turning more mysterious and threatening once he had her completely hooked on his charms and promises. All of these interpretations are totally right and, taken all together, they convey even more of the underlying psychological complexity of the story than any one by itself. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


For readers in the Seattle area, this is a reminder that the next event in the Northwest Indie Perfumers Circuit will take place at Blackbird Apothecary in Ballard this Saturday, January 12, from 6-9 PM, and will feature scented candles by botanical perfumer Nikki Sherritt of Rebel & Mercury, including her Blackbird-inspired candle with notes of smoke, vanilla and tobacco. Several of her perfumes will also be there for sniffing and purchase at special prices.

The event coincides with the Ballard Art Walk, so you can come early and make the rounds, ending up at Blackbird where there will be some sort of munchies along with cocktails and/or wine thanks to Wine World and Spirits, who are sponsoring the series. It’s the perfect opportunity to strike back at the winter blues by spending some time in a warm, friendly, fragrant, candle-lit, atmosphere mingling with other perfume-lovers. What could be a better way to spend a rainy, dark, January evening? 

[Blackbird is located at 5404 22nd Ave NW, Seattle, WA  98107. The logo for the indie perfumers circuit was designed by Eliam Puente.] 

Monday, January 7, 2013


The other day when I went in the greenhouse to get some plants for an order, I found Maxillaria densa in full bloom. It’s one of those weed-like epiphytic orchids that one would hardly notice when it’s not in bloom, and when it is in bloom, the main attraction is the fragrance, not the appearance of the flowers. It’s originally native to Central America and parts of South America, where it reportedly grows in pine forests. The flowers are small and white, with touches of pink on the lips. They emerge as a dense cluster from the side of a pseudobulb, where they barely peek up above the surrounding sheath like a huge bouquet in a florist’s paper wrapping cone. The flowers always look droopy, like they’re not quite open.

So much for the flowers. The fragrance, on the other hand is one of the most spectacular in the whole realm of orchid scents, for all the world like a fine vintage perfume. It’s rich and strongly floral, spiced with cinnamon; it’s powdery, musky, and woody. If you were to smell the fragrance without knowing its origin, you would probably say that it’s a really good Guerlain. Really. It’s gorgeous - one of the best orchid scents around. It doesn’t smell like a flower, it smells like a perfume.

Two days ago I was sniffing my tiny sample of Guerlain Djedi, and find that the Maxillaria densa fragrance is surprisingly similar. Just when you think you’ve smelled it all, some orchid will come up with a complete surprise. Maxillaria densa blooms like clockwork several times a year, so I look forward to many sniffs of this fantastic fragrance.