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, August 31, 2013


If you were expecting a true confession in which I reveal that I’m a card-carrying schizophrenic, you will be terribly disappointed. I’m a Libra, which is the next best thing, but up to now that hasn’t officially been classified as a disorder. No, what this post is about is the struggle I’m going through to give my brand a makeover that I’m happy with. Olympic Orchids Perfumes is growing up and going through a conflicted adolescent stage.

On the one hand, I’m pressured by those who would have it go all upscale, glamorous, and expensive. The parents who say, “go to college, get a job, and be successful”. I have to admit that that the prospect of going upscale is exciting and enticing. My perfumes will reach a much wider audience than before simply because they’ll look the part and I’ll be working with wonderful people who promote them. It’s the old adage, “dress for the job you want to have”. However, that new wardrobe comes with a price tag. Fancier bottles, boxes, labels, promo materials, and a professional-looking website all cost money. Trips to shows cost money. Paying a graphic designer to get it right costs money. Aesthetically, from a conventional point of view, the overall coordinated look will be much slicker and more retail-friendly. However, as everything is standardized, some of the random quirkiness will be lost. Unintended quirkiness is quite different from the contrived quirkiness that some perfume lines adopt, and I can’t really see myself going for affected, gimmicky quirkiness, so I’ve opted for elegant simplicity.

If I sell wholesale to distributors or stores, I have to price products high enough to allow them to make their profits while making sure I don’t lose money myself. Right now, the perfumes that I sell on my website have a very small profit margin because I handle every aspect of the business and don’t pay myself anything. I love doing what I’m doing, and I haven’t given up my day job - yet. Getting to tinker in my lab and buy more raw materials has always seemed like payment enough. I’m the kid who doesn’t want to stop playing with his toys in his messy room and go back to school. Aren’t we all that kid, at some level?

The thought of keeping my old website in parallel with the new one has crossed my mind, but it makes no sense to compete with myself and my business associates pricewise. One thought has been to use the new, upscale website for the new packaging of larger, store-ready sizes of selected fragrances and re-brand the current website as a fun “Perfume for the People” venue that would specialize in small sizes, simply packaged. It would include mini bottles (up to 15 ml) of my fragrances that are on the main website, as well as a rotating selection of experimental fragrances. It would also function as a test bed to see what could and should go to the next level.

Another thought I had would be to open “Perfume for the People” up to new perfumers who want to try launching one of their creations without the investment of producing their own infrastructure. I think this would be run as a contest in which the winner gets their perfume listed on “Perfume for the People” for 6 months or a year. If it takes off, that would give them some exposure and time to decide whether they want to strike out on their own. Another thought would be to invite other established perfumers to make simple mini sizes of their fragrances available through the website, the idea being that discerning people who can’t afford the larger sizes can still experience having a small manufacturer's bottle rather than just a tiny sample or a decant. Because it would be a specialized site, no one would be competing with him- or herself. I really like and respect the educated but low-budget demographic and want to keep everything available to them.

Obviously, what I’m trying to do is to have the best of both worlds – the Libra balancing act if ever there was one! As you see in the Soviet-era posters, the capitalist steps all over the proletariat and crushes them; the proletariat steps all over the capitalists and crushes them. I would hope that no one would have to be crushed in the process of developing my two ideas, and that they could be complementary rather than mutually destructive. Any thoughts you have would be appreciated. Nothing is final. 

Leave a comment and be entered in a drawing for a nice surprise package of fragrant treats. If there are enough entries, there will be one US winner and one international (samples) winner. 

[Balance graphic and Soviet-era posters (modified) are from Wikimedia] 

Sunday, August 25, 2013


I know it’s early to start complaining that summer is almost over, but for me, it is. Classes start on Tuesday, and I’ll be working indoors most of the time from here on out. Even though it may still be summer outside, I won’t get to experience it much. Such is life.

Last Tuesday night when a group of us left the theatre where we’d been doing readings, everyone was standing around in the grungy, grimy street in Capitol Hill, debating whether to go out for a beer or not. Suddenly I realized that if you looked up above the ugly parked cars, distorted sidewalks, and stinky garbage cans, the almost-night sky was that incredible shade of dark cobalt blue that you only see when the air is perfectly clear and free of moisture. The cobalt shaded to a bright turquoise at the horizon where the sun had gone down earlier. There was a perfect, full moon. I thought about how this sort of natural beauty can transcend everything else and how short-lived it is. That evening I decided to make the most of the week of summer that I had left. I wanted to:

Walk at night, away from the lights, and admire the deep blue of the sky, the almost-full moon, and the mysterious dark shadows cast by the moonlight; smell the fermenting fallen fruit that’s just on the verge of molding, the breath of the dry herbs and lavender as they heave a sign of relief in the sudden darkness; feel the chill creeping into the night air, foreshadowing the months to come.

Run in the middle of the day, inhale the champagne-bubbly, bone-dry air and broil in my own sweat; smell the sharp amber scent of cedar, fir, and arborvitae trees baking in the sun like the best norlimbanol on earth, the scent of roses throwing out their last, water-starved extravaganza of wilted petals and concentrated perfume, and the mineral-spiked dust kicked up by my feet.

Pick and eat all the sweet figs from our trees, so fat, ripe, and juicy that they split open in their exuberance.

Feel cathartic outbursts of rage mixed with admiration every time I see a blackberry vine that’s grown 40 feet overnight, scrambling over trees, walls, fences, and ditches to put out a swollen grow-tip, engorged with life and throbbing with the desire to grow roots that will burrow down into the hard soil and produce more of its kind; feel the joy of taking my pruning shears to it and cutting it into small pieces the way a soldier would kill an enemy.

Go into my back garden with bare feet and feel the pavement, soil, and dead grass warm underfoot; watch the hummingbirds zip and sip from the brightest-colored flowers; feel the hot sun on my skin, hotter even than when it was high in the sky at the solstice, but with that indescribable nostalgic feel of Indian summer.

I've done all of these things. For the past week I haven't tested any perfumes because I need a break and don't want perfume-sniffing to become a self-imposed homework assignment. When I come back to it, it will be with a new nose and a new sense of delight, making the inevitable discipline of fall just a little sweeter. 

[All photos adapted from Wikimedia]

Thursday, August 22, 2013


It probably seems like I’ve been writing a lot about lavender this summer, but it’s because I live in a part of the world that’s a hotbed of lavender cultivation activity. Recently, I’ve been receiving an education about lavender distillation, growing and evaluation from Mesha Munyan, who is one of the established local growers.

I guess it’s not surprising that we grow good lavender, because the climate here in the Pacific Northwest is similar to that of Provence, especially in our back yard and in certain microclimates on the Olympic Peninsula around the town of Sequim. In fact, Sequim has been the venue for several International Lavender Conferences.

Last Sunday Mesha got together with Michael, Victoria Jent (of EauMG) and me, to talk about the process of lavender judging and demonstrate the various properties that are considered desirable (or not) in lavender. There are a number of species of Lavandula, and a seemingly infinite number of hybrids, varieties, and named cultivars.

Naming of lavender is confusing, to say the least, with multiple synonyms for every species, hybrid, and variety.  Ones that is commonly seen for sale in garden centers is L angustifolia (top right photo, also called L vera, L officinalis, English lavender, common lavender, true lavender, etc.). It’s the typical narrow-leaved variety with tall spikes of small flowers, and is the main one used in perfumery. In all species, most of the oil is not in the flower petals or leaves, but in the calyces, which are the the bulbous structures beneath each flower, where the seed are produced. 

Another common species is L stoechas (at left, also called French lavender, Spanish lavender, butterfly lavender, etc.). It blooms early in spring, with fat spikes that have a few large flower petals sticking out. L dentata (photo below, right) looks similar to L angustifolia, except that the leaf edges are toothed instead of smooth, and the leaves are a little wider. Just to confuse things, this species is also called French lavender or fringed lavender. And there are others. L latifolia is also called Portuguese lavender or spike lavender, but there’s also a L spica that seems to be an old-fashioned name for something else, but it’s not quite clear what. The list goes on. Within each species there seem to be a practically infinite number of varieties and named cultivars.

Different species and varieties of lavender can be crossed to produce all sorts of hybrids, so of course the question is, “which ones yield the best oil for perfumery”? To start to answer this question, we sniffed samples of oil from angustifolia, stoechas, and the catch-all hybrid term “lavandin”, also known as “lavender grosso”, which is commonly used to designate oil from inter-species hybrids of all sorts, often those between angustifolia and latifolia. I think that’s right, although after a while all of the nomenclature becomes a blur.

Oils from L stoechas and lavandin have a strong camphorous component that makes them easily identifiable and poorly suited for perfumery, unless one specifically wants a camphorous scent. Lavandin also seems to have a distinct “cat pee” smell that makes it useful only for highly specialized purposes. 

Once we got to angustifolia, the real fun started. Every variety of this species has a distinctive scent, and that scent also varies depending on the distillation and aging process. Going through all of the different lavenders was like a wine-tasting, with descriptors that are every bit as complex as those used to describe wine. Some smelled like the typical linalool-rich, coumarinic-floral lavender that we’re most used to, but others had unexpected nuances like the one with a note that smelled almost exactly like freshly cut, moderately ripe pears. Others had notes that were metallic, reminiscent of other fruits, green leaves, hay, mulled wine, and various types of flowers. International judges have checklists with a long list of descriptors, both good and bad.

Lavender is much more complicated than most people realize. Every time I learn something new about it, it becomes more apparent that there’s far more to it than the catch-all name “lavender” would suggest. 

[Photo of lavandula dentata from Wikimedia because the one in my garden (labeled "French lavender"!) isn't blooming right now. The two clowns with the lavender bundles in their teeth are David Falsberg of Phoenicia Perfumes and Mesha Munyan] 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

WHAT’S KEEPING ME FROM WRITING? (And Winner of the Draw)

Fall is clearly approaching, with loads of ripe figs and spiders all over the place. I feel like I haven’t posted anything here in ages, and as usual am having a hard time getting back into the habit. A combination of factors have conspired to keep me away from the blog and away from other things that are not at the very top of my crisis mode to-do list.

First there was urgent family business to take care of. Then, I suddenly got a small window of time in which to do orchid care that had been deferred for too many years. There’s still a long way to go on that, but at least I’ve made a start on repotting big plants and potting out small ones individually. I wrote a short, one-act play to submit for our fall show, the deadline for which is fast approaching.

At the same time, I was scrambling to get pre-production samples of the new bottles ready to go to Elements. If anyone is in New York and going there, you can see Olympic Orchids’ new look at the Blackbird display and get to meet Nicole, Liz, and/or Aaron, all wonderful people. I have filled all but one bottle of my set, and will be photographing them within the next few days.

I’ve also been preparing for my class that starts a week from Tuesday. It’s a spinoff of the old one that I’ve been teaching, but is a completely new reincarnation with less “arts” and more “science”, which seems to be what students want these days. They apparently are all suffering from the illusion that “hard science”, math, and engineering courses will get them into high-paying jobs or high-paying professions, and that they can’t afford to waste time on frivolous things like the arts. I’m not so sure about that.

This weekend is full of events as well, including a training class for lavender judges. It happens tomorrow morning so I’ll probably write about it here once I experience it. Who knew that there was such a thing as lavender judging?

Last, but not least, I just realized that in all the chaos I forgot to do the drawing for those who responded to my questionnaire about gift boxes. The little scrap of paper tells me that the winner is GAIL, who gets to choose a 15 ml bottle of perfume. 

Saturday, August 10, 2013


This year we’re growing a type of small peppers called pimientos de Padron. They are popular in Spain, where they’re fried in olive oil and seasoned with coarse sea salt, making a truly delicious dish that’s often served as tapas. They’re usually used while they’re still green, but if left to their own devices they eventually turn red and dry out. The thing that’s truly special about Padron peppers is that one or two out of every twenty are hot, and the rest range from mild to sweet. Eating these peppers is like playing a gambling game – will you win the lottery and get the hot treat?

The ones we’re growing in the garden seem to be a super hot variety, especially when they’re ripe and red. In fact, the dried-out red one that I ate neat off the vine was probably the hottest pepper I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve tasted some blisteringly hot ones in India and Mexico. Actually I only ate half of it at the first sitting, and I have a higher tolerance for hot stuff than just about anyone I know.  The plant is now making a new crop of small green peppers. I think they’re just about ready to fry!

So what do Padron peppers have to do with posting on my blog? If you’ve been reading for any length of time you may have discovered that most of my posts are sweet and innocuous perfume reviews, discussions about making and marketing perfume, photos of my garden and orchids, or musings about wearing perfume. However, about one or two out of every twenty posts are rants about something cultural, social, political, philosophical, environmental, etc, and I sense that some people are turned off by social commentary, just as other people are unable to tolerate the taste of capsaicin-filled chili peppers. When you tune in to my blog you’re gambling that you’ll get whatever payoff it is you’re looking for, the sweet and palatable or the hot and spicy.

Today’s rant is on the egregious lies that big industry and government are able to get away with, and the fact that so many people accept them at face value until presented with overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The prompt for this was an article that I stumbled upon a week or two ago in the more obscure “Asian” section of our local online newspaper, in which it was revealed that Tokyo Electric Power Company (aka TEPCO) had been saying that everything was fine and dandy in their Fukushima facility, denying that the tsunami disaster had created any ongoing problems even though about 300 metric tons of highly radioactive water have been leaking into the Pacific Ocean every day for the past two years since the meltdown happened. Obviously the folks at TEPCO and the Japanese government, which was bailing them out, knew this, because it turns out they were experimenting with various methods to try to contain the contaminated water.

According to the articles I’ve read (here's one) the ongoing leaks occurred through or around a barrier that TEPCO had attempted to build in the soil around the damaged reactors. The latest news is that the water has not only been leaking through the barrier, but has now spilled over the top of the barrier and is flowing directly into the Pacific unimpeded. Now they’re talking about a plan to run cooling pipes in the ground and freeze the soil. What if the power goes off again and everything thaws? In any case, don’t they still have the problem of the water accumulating and the question of what to do with it? You don’t have to be an engineer or physicist to know that if tons of contaminated water are being generated every day, it makes very little sense to try to contain it or store it, because it would need an ever-larger container. And what would they do with it all, anyway? Some of the isotopes are rapidly-decaying, but the half-life of cesium 137 is 30 years, and that of cesium 135 is over 2 million years. That’s a long time to keep the ground frozen.

The situation itself is bad enough, but the most disturbing aspect of the whole incident is the lack of any sort of public criticism of TEPCO’s failure to acknowledge the problem for two years. Everyone apparently prefers to keep their head in the sand, praise TEPCO for “trying”, as if they were a klutzy kindergarten student, and not look for actual solutions to the problems.

TEPCO’s failure to disclose and seek solutions for its radioactive waste problem probably just represents the tip of the iceberg. How many other large, wealthy industries and governments engage in similar deceptive practices to hide their own egregious mistakes or intentional wrongdoing, while individuals are harassed and fined for trivial issues like a homeowner letting the vegetation grow too high in their yard or children operating a lemonade stand without a city license?

I suppose the tactic employed by big corporations is to keep most people so occupied with bread and circuses that they don’t have time to think about the fact that the ocean is full of all sorts of waste that is slowly or quickly killing marine life and getting into their own food. When you have to work two or three minimum-wage jobs just to pay the rent and eat, it’s probably hard to do more at the end of the day than sit down in front of a stupid TV show, drink a cheap beer, and fall asleep. However, even the more affluent and educated people of the world seem remarkably apathetic and passive when it comes to protesting blatant corporate deception. At least I can write about it and grow Padron peppers to eat with my radioactive salmon. 

[Photo of cooked peppers adapted from Wikimedia; Fukushima photos from various news media]