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.
Sometimes social media can be incredibly frustrating. Today
I was reading Gail’s post on Çafleurebon about whether it’s useful for perfume
brands to list notes, or whether it’s better just to provide story-like
descriptions. I wrote a long comment, tried to post it, and got a message
saying that the “captcha code” was incorrect. :-( I tried again, and got the same
message. Then everything I had written disappeared. Time down the tubes.
I’m not sure why I persevered, but I closed my browser, went
back to the page, and tried again, more or less recreating the post. Surely it
was not verbatim, but when I tried to post it, I got a message saying that it
was a “duplicate” of something that was already posted. Posted, maybe, but not
displayed. Algorithms can act so stupid sometimes. Fortunately this time I
copied my comment before trying to post it, so didn’t lose it. After a couple
more ineffective attempts, I gave up and decided to elaborate a little and turn
it into a blog post.
The inspiration for Gail’s post was the fact that an
increasing number of perfume brands don’t list notes, either because they condescendingly imply
that to do so is beneath their elite status and/or their artistic sensibilities, or
because listing notes is not useful to the consumer, who would rather get an
overall impression through a piece of creative writing. Others think that, in
the interest of full disclosure, it is best to list raw materials rather than
notes, so we are now seeing things like “ambroxan” appear in lists of notes,
even though I have yet to see cis-3-hexenol, methyl anthranilate, or anything
else reminiscent of organic chemistry class.
Listing materials vs listing notes is something of a false
dichotomy because many of the single aroma chemicals used to build
"notes" are also found in nature. In fact, if one were to list all of
the materials that the plant puts into synthesizing the fragrance that ends up
in a rose absolute, it would read like the typical allergen list and would be
incomprehensible to the average consumer at best, and frightening at worst. The
term "rose" immediately evokes a clear general concept regardless of
how it is constructed and despite the fact that it comprises multiple exemplars,
each of which is perceived differently depending on context. As a general
guideline for consumers and reviewers, I think a list of notes has a real
I'm not a big fan of "stories" as perfume
descriptions in the same way that I'm not a big fan of music videos that impose
a single vision on an artistic work that can evoke many different
"stories" depending on each listener's tendencies.
Something that I intensely dislike is the pseudo-artistic
gibberish "descriptions" of perfumes that make absolutely no sense,
even as a piece of abstract/poetic “creative writing”. However, as one of the comments
on Çafleurebon said, there's no right or wrong way. Some people like to read
randomly strung together words that sound vaguely intellectual or sexy but make
no sense, others like to have prefabricated stories to go with their olfactory
experience, and others like to have lists of notes. As a perfumer, I try to
supply a narrative general description for those who don’t just want a dry list, as well as a list
of the main notes for those who want an idea of what went into making the
perfume. Sorry, no gibberish.
[Notes header from Chapbook 1894; travel poster and romance novel image adapted from random online searches; other images from Wikimedia]
During my long blogging sabbatical I've gotten way behind on posting. I think I mentioned long ago that I wanted to use palo santo in a perfume, but never followed up. Here is the story of how I incorporated this rather difficult note in a way that actually works. After a couple of false starts, a project came along that turned out to be the perfect medium.
The hamsa is a stylized hand-shaped symbol with obscure
origins in the Middle East. It serves as a sign of protection in both Islam and
Judaism, and often has a stylized eye positioned in the center of the palm to deflect
the evil eye.
When Michelyn Camen contacted me to participate in the
Çafleurebon multi-perfumer project “Scents of Protection”, I was excited by the
opportunity to somehow render this symbol as a fragrance, but also a little
intimidated by the challenge that it represented. Rather than thinking of the
hamsa as an occult, magical amulet that works through mysterious external powers,
I ended up considering it in the symbolic kabbalistic context of the ten
sefirot. The sefirot represent the modes or attributes through which the divine
power is manifested throughout the universe, and hence the modes or attributes
that we, as humans hold within us and can call upon for the power, confidence,
and goodness that will deflect evil and provide the strength to combat it. Ironically,
these powers seem to be even more necessary now than they were when I started
The sefirot can be thought of as abstract and concrete, intellectual
and emotional, infinite and bounded, with one overarching concept that contains
all the others and another that accumulates and channels their energy to create
and interact with the world as we know it.
The Hamsa, with its five fingers, right and left, can be conceived
of as a depiction of the sefirot. The two fingers of one side symbolize four
virtual qualities, while the two fingers of the other side symbolize the
related actual qualities. The center finger symbolizes the first and last
sefirot, the origin and the realization of everything.At least this is the scheme that worked when
I set out to create a perfume.
How to depict this in a perfume? It was not an easy task! I
first considered making it all-natural, but in the end decided to include
man-made materials to symbolize the interaction between nature and what we, as
humans, have devised as protective measures both tangible and intangible,
through superstition and science. I decided not to limit my materials to those
that would have been traditionally used in ancient Israel, but to add a few
international touches to celebrate the diaspora that has carried the symbolism
of the hamsa throughout the world.
The first sefirah, the overarching idea, is symbolized as an
invisible veil of olibanum smoke and the tenth, the unification and channel for
worldly manifestation of everything else, as a solid block of sandalwood. The
four pairs of contrasting properties are symbolized by contrasting pairs of
materials. The first is palo santo and cognac, an ethereal woody incense paired
with ceremonial wine to symbolize spiritual ideas, and the ritual celebration
of those ideas; the second is mastic paired with liquidambar, bitter incense
and honey-sweetness to symbolize strength and justice tempered with love and
kindness; the third is myrrh paired with citron, earthy incense and an aromatic
fruit of the earth to celebrate inspiration and the resulting human creations
of beauty and utility; the fourth pair is oud and apricot, a resinous material produced
by agarwood trees to protect them, paired with a fleshy, sweet fruit to stand
for resistance to physical and emotional attack and the fruits of physical and
intellectual bonding. The end result is a combination of the hard and the soft,
the bitter and the sweet, tangible and the intangible.
The perfume is not intended so much as a “magic potion”, but
rather as a reminder of the amazing powers that we have within us, powers that
we can use to repel evilfrom ourselves at
the same time we use them to help other individuals and the world.
I decided to release Hamsa as a special edition in the
traditional square spray bottle, decorated with a lampworked glass “evil eye”
symbol on a detachable ring that can be used on a keychain, as a piece of
jewelry, or just hung somewhere that seems right for it.
[All images except for the bottle and the hamsa on the door (my photos) are from Wikimedia or educational sites online.]
It’s time to get back on track with Materials Wednesday and
finish up the series on resins. I’ve written before on myrrh and mastic, but
somehow missed one of the important resins, benzoin. This material is used
extensively in perfume, mainly as a fixative; it is also used medicinally,and burned as incense. In other industries, benzoin
is used to enhance and fix food flavorings, especially vanilla, as a
chewing-gum base, and to flavor tobacco. It is sometimes used in the
manufacture of varnish.
Benzoin is the gummy resin obtained from trees in the genus
Styrax, mainly Styrax tonkinensis, which grows in Southeast Asia. Benzoin is
also known as “styrax” “storax” or “Siam benzoin”. The raw material is
harvested in much the same way as other resins, by making cuts in the trunk of
the tree, waiting until the sap runs out and solidifies, then scraping the
“tears” off of the tree.
Because benzoin is an important commercial product, efforts
have been made to study and improve methods for its cultivation and harvesting.
There are now Styrax plantations, so benzoin is not in as much danger as some
other materials that are still harvested from the wild.
The scent of benzoin resin is mildly sweet and, of course,
resinous, and bears some similarity to vanilla. Because the scent is mild, it
is a little hard to pick out of a perfume mix, but it does lend its own subtle
signature to a blend. A lot of my perfumes contain benzoin in various concentrations.
Benzoin resin comes as a solid, which can be burned as
incense or tinctured. When burned as incense, a magical transformation occurs
and the smoke creates a powerful scent that is very different from the raw
resin, absolute, tincture, or other preparation for use in perfumery. The
beautiful, characteristic scent of benzoin used as incense is especially startling
the first time you burn it, if you are used to smelling the tinctured or
otherwise treated resin. It is unlike any other form of incense, and is one of
For perfumery, benzoin can also be obtained as an
“absolute”, which is generally pre-diluted with alcohol. Although this dilution
makes it pourable, it is still dense and sticky, and cleanup is not fun. The
hassles of working with benzoin aside, it is a useful material that I like
having in my main selection of basic perfume-building blocks.
[Benzoin resin on tree trunk from Givaudan website, although it seems to
be a cropped version of a photo from Accademia del Profumo, or from a website
on “securing the future of benzoin in Laos”, or from some other ambiguous source.
It seems to be very popular. Benzoin resin clump from an essential oil vendor’s
website; Styrax trees image from an Indonesian commerce promotion website,
Styrax flowers and botanical drawing from Wikipedia.]
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