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.
For once I have a reasonably good excuse for not posting anything on this blog - we're going on vacation in the Bahamas for 10 days, during which time I won't be using my phone, laptop, or other means of normal communication. That's what a vacation is all about - getting away from everything.
With time to sit and think, write, explore the islands, and take photos, I should be coming back with plenty of new material.
Look for the next post sometime around the middle of August. In the meantime, vive les vacancies!
[Preliminary Bahamas photo from Wikimedia - real ones coming soon!]
Donna had a lot to say, but it's too interesting and well written to edit, so I'm featuring it as a multi-part series. Here's the next installment!
Do you think your
style and content are unique? How so?
I don’t think of my style as being particularly unique. I am
by no means a perfumeexpert, and I
truly admire the writers who have far more knowledge than I do.What I try to do is communicate my enthusiasm
in a way that everyone can relate to; one need not be a perfume “insider” to
read and understand most of what I do. I am just spreading the love! I have
tried a few more daring ventures, however. While writing for Perfume-Smellin’
Things I have had the chance to participate in some group projects with other
writers, which made me aware of the amazing indie and artisan perfume scene,
and that really stretched my own concepts of what perfume could be. I had to
find new ways to write about them. For one of them, the Devilscent Project, for
which you made some wonderful fragrances, I did a series that incorporated
perfume descriptions with a complex story that was part mystery, part
supernatural, and part old-time adventure serial in the manner of Raiders of the LostArk, complete with time travel, sex scenes and nefarious Nazis. It
was a total departure for me that could have been a disaster, but I somehow
made it work. I am looking forward to trying more of that “working without a
net” writing in the future, it was loads of fun.
What is your process
in writing a perfume review?
I prefer to write about what I like, or at least find
interesting. Sometimes I have to ponder for a while until the right approach
comes to me, and after that I know what shape it will take. If I am faced with
a mediocre subject, my output will probably be substandard as well. I sometimes
come up against a brick wall when it comes to how to deal with a subject, and
if I don’t feel the spark, I usually don’t pursue it. Life is too short for bad
perfume, or bad writing.
Being honest and
true to myself is the only way for me to operate as a fragrance writer. When I
review a perfume, I want the reader/consumer to have my true opinion and
impression, and I do not write good reviews in order to curry favor from a
brand. If I dislike or even hate something I will say so, and I will say why.
There are some so-called blogs that are really nothing more than publicity
fronts for brands, including some that are part of well-known fashion and
beauty magazines, not independent blogs, and that is not what I want to do.
It’s fine if they are up front about it, but it’s not my thing.
What do you think
about the idea that reviews should only be positive?
I prefer to write positive reviews if only because I don’t
want to smell bad perfume. The major brands are legitimate targets when they
put out less than good quality products, since they clearly have the resources
to do better, so if I do give a bad review, it’s usually for the big players,
as a public service. If the great François Coty could see what the company
carrying his name is putting out now in the way of cheap-smelling celebrity
scents, inferior reformulations of their older classics, and little else, he
would be horrified. If you want to make a perfume lover weep, let him or her
smell a bottle of vintage Emeraude next to the current version; it’s truly a
crying shame. I have a long list of grievances on this subject, don’t get me
Do you think it’s
useful to have a linear, one-dimensional scale for the “quality” of a perfume
(stars, lippies, or such)? If so, why? If not, why?
It can be useful and fun to have such measures, but not
necessary. I agree with some of Luca Turin’s five-star ratings, for example,
but I am mystified by others, and the same with his one-star failures.Some fragrances are obviously better than
others, but it’s also highly subjective.
How do you judge the
“quality” of a perfume, anyway? What are the important factors that you
First-rate materials are very important. I am somewhat old
school in that regard, having cut my teeth on the classics, and I am dismayed
by a good number of the recent reformulations of my beloved “oldies.” They are
virtually never an improvement. I also want to have an emotional response to a
great perfume. It has to develop and sustain its quality and structure over
time, not fall apart after five minutes. The really good ones smell better the
longer they are on the skin, and they have a story to tell, one that you want
to “hear” over and over again.
[The mention of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" got me started searching for old publicity posters, which is what most of these are. The star rating graphic is from a retailer's website, and Donna's headshot is one that she provided.]
For those of us who teach (as I do in my parallel life), one routine and never-ending task is writing letters of recommendation for students or former students. In
the old days, we would simply compose a letter, print out a hard copy and send it by snail-mail
to graduate and/or professional schools, fellowship granting agencies,
potential employers, or anyone else who needed information about an applicant.
Later on, we would be given a link to upload a letter. This was all easy and
straightforward, especially given that letters of recommendation are rather
stereotyped in their general format, consisting of some basic boilerplate (how long
I’ve known the person, in what capacity, etc…) that can be customized for each
individual and each situation, while adding personal details.
Lately, however, I have found that an increasing number of
agencies and institutions not only want a letter, they want the same information that is in the letter broken down into bite-sized, numerically-graded chunks.
If I were to conscientiously do that, it would involve restating the material
in the letter multiple times, resulting in redundancy, a waste of everyone's time, and the elimination of whatever generally good
things I said about the applicant in the letter. A person is more than the sum
of his/her selected attributes.At best,
the bite-size windows on the forms repeat verbatim various subsets of
information that are already in the letter and, at worst, the questions are unanswerable,approaching the level of
the infamous “if you could be an animal, what animal would you be?” question
that sometimes pops up in job interviews.
The same strategy is now used by a number of organizations
for which I do reviews – break everything up into small chunks and give each
chunk a numerical score. The conclusion that I draw from this trend is that the
people in charge have trouble reading an entire, coherent document, getting the
big picture, and understanding what is explicitly and implicitly being communicated, or that no human ever reads the evaluations, which are coded by a software package. In any case, whoever or whatever is processing the letters seems to have trouble scanning a simple one- or two-page document
and identifying the information that they want or need. Maybe they watch too
many videos instead of reading. I don’t know. What I do know is that most of
the student applicants would appear to have better reading skills than the
people who are evaluating them.
The bureaucratic reduction of human beings to a black-and-white
list of their “3 strengths” and “3 weaknesses” is just another symptom of the
depersonalizing forces in contemporary society, which no doubt contribute to
feelings of alienation, frustration, and discontent. In the real world,
strengths can be weaknesses and vice versa, depending on circumstances, and a
person is far more than the sum of a few arbitrarily chosen parts. Writing this
sort of evaluation is like providing three low-resolution color separation
graphics in yellow, magenta and cyan instead of a full, high-resolution photo complete with shades of gray. Why not just look at the full picture in all its nuances? Oh, silly suggestion. Someone would actually have to read the letter.
[Man reading by T.S. Good, 1827; raven reading by Carl Sptizweg, 1845; girl reading by Fritz von Uhde, 1888; color separation graphic adapted from an image on a camera manufacturer's website]
From elemi, the obvious place to go is frankincense. I wrote
a post on frankincense back in 2010 when I started this blog, but it wouldn’t
hurt to do an update. Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is another resin
that comes from trees in the family Buseraceae, in this case Boswellia. The
resins used in incense and perfumery come from several different species, each with its own aroma profile, and each species yielding a slightly different scent depending on origin.
Boswellia is native throughout arid landscapes in India, North Africa, and the
Arabian Gulf regions.
The trees themselves are, to me, very attractive,
typically with gnarled trunks covered with smooth bark that peels as the tree
grows, and sparse, lacy leaves. Boswellia trees are deciduous, losing their
leaves during times of stress, typically during the dry season. Resin is
obtained by making shallow cuts in the bark of the tree and harvesting the
dried resin. Oil is obtained by distillation, although the raw resin can also
I am growing seedlings of several different Boswellia
species: dioscoridis, neglecta, and carteri. Given my propensity to under-water
or just forget to water, they seem to do well in my hands. The carteri is the
largest one, and has kept its leaves this summer. The other two have lost
theirs because they’re small and in a very hot, dry location. They’ve done this
before, so I know they’ll perk up and grow when summer is over.
Frankincense is one of those materials that I’m worried
about. Although it’s listed as “not threatened”, the trees can only produce so
much, and it’s likely that their habitat is diminishing due to the same sort of
reckless human activities that are destroying nature everywhere. Boswellia
seedlings are eaten by domestic animals, trees are burned by fire, they are cut
down to clear land or to use for firewood or lumber and, of course,
over-harvesting of resin weakens trees. I keep my stash of resin and oil
against the day when these things may no longer be available, or when the price
has risen because supply cannot keep up with demand.
Boswellia is a traditional Ayurvedic medicine reputed to
have strong anti-inflammatory properties as well as anti-microbial, anti-fungal
and insect-repellant properties, yet another example of trees producing
compounds that help keep them healthy and infection-free.
The species that produces the “lightest” and greenest oil is
B serrata, which grows in India. This oil is closer to the citrusy-green scent
of elemi than the others, and very much in the direction of pine needles. The
primary constituent is alpha-pinene (over 70%!), with small amounts of
limonene, verbenol, pinocarveol, myrcene, borneol, para-cymene, and other trace
molecules. I used Boswellia serrata oil in Gujarat along with B carteri to
provide a light incense note to go with the smoke element of the scent.
Boswellia carteri is the most common species used for the
production of resin and oil. The scent is very different from that of B
serrata, much richer and more resinous. Alpha pinene makes up less than half of
B carteri oil, the main constituents being diterpenes whose long chemical names
you really don’t want to see, although if you’re really curious you can view
them here, and octyl actetate, which has a distinctive fruity smell. I have used
Boswellia carteri oil in a number of my perfumes, most notably the Devil Scent
series, where it was used to give a vague impression of burning incense. I also
use it, along with natural sandalwood oil, in my Body Balm.
This is getting long, so the post on the different types of
Boswellia will probably be continued next week.
Leave a comment about what type of frankincense you like, or
what frankincense-containing perfume(s) you like and be entered in a drawing to
win a 5-ml travel spray of the Devil Scent of your choice plus some
Donna Hathaway is a Portland-based perfume writer who has graciously contributed her thoughts on perfume writing. This is the first installment of a multi-part series.
How and why did you
decide to write perfume reviews?
It was all in a very roundabout way, really. I have always
been an avid reader, and a lover of words, but I never did much writing in my
younger days except for assigned work and some very bad poetry. Much later I wrote
a fewarticles for my garden club,
mostly on practical subjects, but I managed to insert something about fragrance
when I could; I love scented flowers and my interest in all things fragrant
began early in my life. My passion for perfume has been developing for a long
time, and it intensified more than thirty years ago when The Perfume House
opened here in Portland, and I discovered what classical perfumery was all
about. I always thought I was nearly alone in my obsession, but more than a
decade ago, I discovered the emerging phenomenon of perfume blogs. Blogging
itself was in its infancy then, so there were not many of them at that time,
and I read them all with fascination; here was a world I understood, and there
were others like me who loved perfume! I learned a lot, and some of the best of
them have endured to the present time, now joined by many others.
In 2006 I was having a personal crisis; I was grieving over
a major romantic disappointment and some other stresses in my life were not
helping matters. I needed something to get my mind off my own troubles, but I
didn’t know what to do. Around this time, the owner of one of the blogs I read,
Aromascope, put out a message that she was looking for a guest writer, and
invited people to submit samples of their work. By this time I had read a lot
of blog posts about fragrance and I figured I had nothing to lose by throwing
my hat in the ring, so I sent in one of my garden club articles. Much to my
surprise, she chose me! I had a wonderful experience writing for Aromascope and
I received a warm welcome from its readers. When the owner decided to pursue
other interests and let it go dormant, the wonderful Marina asked me if I would
like to join her group of guest writers on Perfume-Smellin’ Things, and that
has lasted for about nine years now. I found that writing about perfume was the
perfect outlet for my passion and added a much-needed creative aspect to my
life, since my day job is in the insurance industry. I enjoy my job, but real
creativity in the insurance biz is about as welcome as “creative
accounting.”I have grown as a writer
and I really love it.
Why did you choose or
create the venue(s) on which you publish your reviews?
It’s funny, my first two blogging gigs both fell into my
lap, and then a few years later another perfume friend alerted me to the new
Examiner.com news aggregator site, which was looking for writers in major
cities to write about various subjects. I passed muster and became the Portland
Fragrance Examiner in 2009. So that was pretty lucky as well. Examiner just
announced that it is shutting down, but I have plans for a future writing
project that will be all mine, no holds barred on what I can write about,
featuring perfume reviews and more. I just need to find the time to finalize
it, as I am currently pursuing an associate degree while working full time, so
it will be a little while before that all comes together.
What purposes do you
think perfume reviews serve, and how do you think your reviews serve all of
some of these purposes?
There is so much information out there and so many perfumes
both good and bad, and I hope that honest reviews help people separate the
wheat from the chaff. Ironically, the rise of perfume blogs and social media
attention has also given birth to a new audience and many new perfume brands,
and therefore more confusion. People are bombarded with facts and images on
blogs and social media, and it can be hard to navigate through it all.
[Headshot provided by Donna Hathaway; perfume painting by J W Godward, 1914; lost love painting by Charles A Collins, 19th century; fog on the mountain photo from the local ski area webcam, threshing grain poster early 20th century]
All written material and original photos on this website are copyrighted by the author of this blog. Prior written authorization is required for reproduction. You can contact me for permission at firstname.lastname@example.org