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 28, 2014


From time to time I receive messages via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media asking me to vote for someone’s project so that it can “win” an award or a competition of some sort. I find it mildly dishonest, at least on an intellectual level, to vote for a project I know nothing about, often from a person I have never heard of, especially when I do not know what the competition is. Even if I do know the person, maybe there’s a project I would like better, so why should I vote for something without reviewing all of the entries and knowing what I’m voting for?

I assume that there are people who will vote for anything they are asked to vote for, whether they’ve experienced it or not, whether they know the context or not, simply because they were asked to do so.  At best this is an innocent, though debased, form of social interaction in the digital world. If extrapolated into the world of politics, however, the implications become downright frightening.
I know many people automatically vote for the politician whose name they’ve seen most often on posters and TV, asking everyone to vote for them, never having looked at the qualifications and platforms of any of the candidates. Other people vote for whomever their authority figures recommend, still knowing nothing at all about what they’re voting for or against. I’m not sure if the social media get-out-the-vote popularity contest (and the fact that it seems to work) is simply a reflection of the passivity and laziness that people have always indulged in, or whether it’s a new mode of operation that will further foster ignorance when it comes to voting for real issues, not someone’s Etsy store that sells overpriced dog collars decorated with hand-painted macaroni.

For artists and businesses, is building superficial popularity through “likes” and votes the equivalent of political movements building credibility simply through the amount of money raised? I know requests for “likes” work on the assumption that “like” begets “like”, which it sometimes does, but often those solicited “likes” are meaningless, unlike bartering a chicken for a newspaper subscription as they are doing in the old print on the right. So far I have refrained from asking people outright to “like” my website, so can be fairly confident that all of the “likes” are actually genuine.

Recently, however, I tried the experiment of mounting a Facebook offer in which people who “liked” my page could receive a free sample of Salamanca, which is about to be re-released. Interestingly, when I tried to set up the offer, which is supposed to be free, Facebook tried their best to charge me a considerable amount of money for “advertising”. This happened when I got a message saying that I wasn’t finished setting up my offer. When I clicked “continue” I was taken to an ad order page. Sneaky! It turns out that the offer was set up already and working, so their misleading tactics didn’t work on me.

I’ve read that Facebook ads are pretty much worthless anyway, given that approximately 25-80% of clicks are bot-generated, depending on whose account you read. There are certainly a lot of bot services out there that will generate “likes” for your Instagram page, YouTube video, Facebook page, or just about any form of social media. If you’re willing to pay them, they’ll produce thousands of “likes”. In any case, it seems ridiculous to assume that Facebook ads could target anyone in the real audience that I’m trying to reach.

The other interesting phenomenon is that more people claimed the offer than “liked” my page. I’m not sure what to make of that, but assume that there was a misunderstanding and people “liked” the offer instead of the page. Or maybe people who had already “liked” the page claimed the offer. It’s not a big deal, because I don’t mind sending out a few extra free samples, it’s just one more puzzling thing about Facebook. I suspect that my blog and newsletter reach more real people than Facebook.

As a final coda to this post, I’ll mention that this morning as I was reading the newspaper, an ad came on with a “like” button in the upper right corner where the “hide” button usually is. I almost hit it reflexively, but fortunately checked myself in time. I’m sure that whatever company it was advertising got some accidental  “likes” that way, by people who wanted to X out their ad.  Just goes to show you how hard it is to know what’s real in the virtual world. 

[All images adapted from Wikimedia]

Friday, June 27, 2014


To celebrate the fact that I’m finally able to blog again and comments are working, I’m putting on a little drawing for some sample packs that were assembled some time ago as part of the “press packs” that were given out at one of the perfume events. Some samples are the old-style “carded” ones, and others are the old-style baggie ones.

I had some extras, so am offering three sample packs to readers. Two of them contain Seattle Chocolate, California Chocolate, Tropic of Capricorn, Café V, Arizona, and Olympic Amber. For some reason, the third one contains one sample of Tropic of Capricorn, two samples of Café V, and two samples of Arizona, so whoever wins that can share.

To be entered in the drawing, all you have to do is leave a comment saying which of these fragrances you’d most like to try and why.

The winners will be chosen by random drawing on Sunday, July 6. 

[Fuschia photo is mine, from the beautiful public garden at the Ballard Locks. Our fuschias are blooming, too, but are not massed in such a spectacular way]

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


A few weeks ago I went onto one of the forums to look something up and just happened to see a discussion of perfume color. It seems that many people don’t like “dark yellow” perfumes, but do like light pink, blue, and lavender tinted juice, and perfumes in pastel tinted glass or dark tinted bottles.

What this says to me is that the mass-market manufacturers have deliberately or inadvertently created a consumer preference for the appearance of perfumes that are very dilute and mostly synthetic, possibly tinted with a small amount of artificial coloring agent to make them take on the desired blue, lavender, or pink pastel tone. That’s what ‘s easiest and cheapest to make, so it makes sense that the mass-market consumer should be conditioned to prefer those characteristics.

The reality is that many natural materials have that disliked “dark yellow” color, ranging from dark brown through red and green, through light yellow, and everything in between, so the corollary of the general public’s preference for color is a preference for perfumes that are very dilute and/or contain a low percentage of natural materials.

In addition to preferring certain colors, consumers apparently like for their perfumes to be color-coded in some semiotic way. Examples are blue or turquoise for aquatics, pink for sweet, fruity, or candy-like fragrances, green for green or herbal scents, silver or white for white florals – you get the picture. It’s not entirely clear whether this applies to the juice itself, or to the packaging, but it’s probably both. A light green perfume in a light green box would be expected to have leafy, grassy, herbal, or otherwise “green” notes like “green apple”. Some packaging makes it painfully obvious what to expect. People would be shocked if the green apple were to contain a smoky, animalic oriental.

Other color associations are not so literal, like black for dark, mysterious, and sexy, or red for exciting and sexy. Of course, this would mostly apply to the packaging, not the perfume itself, but it’s the same idea.

The issue of color in perfume hit home especially strongly this week as I make my first production batch of Salamanca for re-release. Two of the materials that I use in it, hay absolute and vetiver co-distilled with mitti, were more on the brown side when I made the original formula, but the new batches of both are more on the green end of the spectrum. It is possible that these will fade to brown after the concentrate is diluted, but I suspect that Salamanca will be greenish this time around. Actually, it may look prettier than the old version, although green may lead people to expect green grass rather than sun-dried vegetation.

My guess is that the average mass-market consumer expects the color of a fragrance to remain consistent from batch to batch, and would be disconcerted to find that their favorite pink EdT has changed to light brown or lavender. However, the color of natural materials can be highly variable from batch to batch, even though the odor profile remains fairly consistent. Probably most people who are savvy about natural perfumery know that color can vary, so are not disturbed by variations any more than they would be by variations in the shape and color of organic carrots that they buy in the produce market. In fact, Michael was delighted to find carrots that ranged from near-white to beet-red and bluish-purple at our local Trader Joe’s. I’m happy to report that they all taste like carrots. 

[All images adapted from Wikimedia except for Golden Cattleya, which is mine. It's interesting that when I did a Google search for "dark yellow perfume image", the old 15-ml bottle of Golden Cattleya was at the top of the results.] 

Sunday, June 22, 2014


I did not realize that yesterday was the summer solstice until I was in the grocery store and the checkout clerk wished me a "happy solstice". You have to realize that summer solstice is a big deal in Seattle, almost like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. When I was looking for "solstice" images on Wikimedia, I found that probably 90% of them were pictures of the famous solstice parade in the Fremont section of Seattle. I chose one of this year's colorful images to wish you all a "happy solstice", too!

Summer for us, winter for those of you on the other side of the equator - in any case, it's hard to believe that the year is half over!

[Photo from one of our local newspapers]

Saturday, June 21, 2014


The other day a customer contacted me asking me why no one has accurately recreated the scents of some of her favorite hybrids. It should be simple, right? Can’t one just do a chemical analysis of the molecules that are in the orchid fragrance, then put them together? In theory it should be as simple as following a recipe. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. 

Of course it is possible to do a gas chromatography (GC) analysis of any orchid’s fragrance headspace, and this has been done for some species, sometimes multiple times in multiple contexts. Some of these data are available online. However, once that's done, there are several issues that make it difficult or impossible to reconstruct the scent of your favorite orchid plant with complete accuracy:

1. Orchid scents are not uniform across individual plants, even for cloned hybrids. My Cattleya Bob Betts may smell very different from yours. Even the flowers of a single plant can smell dramatically different depending on culture conditions, the weather on any particular day, and how mature the flower is. To further complicate things, the flowers may smell completely different in the morning than they do at night. Which version to use? If I use my morning, young flower, grown in cool sunny conditions version, you may not recognize it.

2. Orchid flowers are continually emitting a complete mix of base notes (large molecules), middle notes (mid-size molecules) and top notes (small, volatile molecules). In a perfume, the top notes evaporate after a while, leaving the heavier molecules, so the scent evolves over the course of wearing it, losing progressively larger molecules until you’re left with only the heaviest ones. To achieve a "live-flower" effect with a perfume, you would have to continually spray yourself, in which case you would quickly overdose with the middle and base notes.

3. Many of the chemical components of orchid fragrances are not available commercially to perfumers. 

4. It is not practical (and maybe not even possible) to distill enough orchid flowers to produce an oil or absolute that could be used in perfumery. In any case, the products of distillation or extraction of any flower do not really smell like the fresh flowers.

These same issues apply to any sort of flower fragrance, but are easier to tackle in flowers like orange blossom or rose that can be cultivated commercially on a large scale and distilled by the ton to produce a natural oil or absolute with many of the characteristics of the original. Because of their huge diversity (over 800 genera and more than 20 thousand species) and the complexity of their scents, orchids are some of the most difficult flowers to try to recreate in perfume form. 

[All photos are mine: Sedirea japonica (top), Phalaenopsis bellina (middle), Stanhopea wardii (bottom)]

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Where to begin? It’s been so long since I really had time to post anything here that I’ve kind of lost my place and need to start over again from scratch.

The academic year is over, my grades were turned in yesterday, and the summer can now officially begin. June has been its usual cold, damp, grey self, with lots of clouds but not much rain. For two weeks it constantly looked like it was about to rain but never really did, so I have to water the bonsai trees and other outdoor plants that would dry out and die if left unsupervised. Some people claim to suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” in the winter when the days are very short, but I don’t mind that so much. What I find depressing is when the summer solstice comes, I know the days will start getting shorter again, and it’s still cloudy, damp, and cold. The real summer doesn’t usually start here until the first week of July.

Today was sunny, with little probability of any rain in the near future. We’re having the exterior of our house painted, and yesterday was the beginning of the big event. I spent the day inside, with plastic sheets taped over the windows as they spray-painted the walls – by far the most efficient way to paint a house, I’ve learned. The painters have been trampling around all over the vegetation near the house, but I have decided to close my eyes and block it from my mind while they’re here and evaluate the damage once they’re gone.

The next four days on my calendar are perfectly clear, so I’m going to use them to finish up some writing projects that I’ve been working on, go running for the first time in months, and actually start working on some new perfumes – the ultimate treat.

FRAGments in LA was a wonderful experience. Maggie Mahboubian did a fantastic job organizing it. It was less than 2 weeks ago, but after being back in Seattle, it seems like it’s in the remote past. There’s something about scrambling to get caught up on shipping orders and grading students’ papers that wipes the brain clean of everything else.

FRAGments took place in a designer’s studio, sort of an industrial space with tool benches (or workbenches) that were fitted out with small stands for the perfumers. I tend to always bring too much to a show, so Maggie’s limiting each of us to 5 fragrances was a smart move on her part and really made me appreciate the value of keeping things simple. The venue was crowded almost all day, with people even dropping in as they randomly walked by on the street. As always, it was great to see familiar faces and meet new people. Next month it’s San Francisco, for an event at Tigerlily Perfumery on the evening of July 17.

Even if it's not particularly inspired, it feels good to write a blog post again!

[Top photo from Wikimedia, but near where I live. It perfectly expresses the typical June atmosphere. Others are mine.]