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.

Friday, December 31, 2010



As 2010 draws to a close and 2011 begins, everyone is making their list of the best and the worst perfumes of 2010, but I wouldn’t even know where to start. I’ve sampled too many different things, and forgotten far too many of them. For me, like Janus, it’s time to look back on the most salient events of the past year in my perfumery life, and look forward to what I’d like to accomplish in the coming year. So here goes with the top 5 in each category.

- Spent a small fortune on raw materials and equipment, but now have a highly functional perfume organ that includes both naturals and synthetics.

- Started this blog in May. Except for a few breaks, I’ve been pretty good at posting regularly.

- Opened my online shop, Olympic Orchids Artisan Perfumes, in June. I’ve even sold a few things.

- Learned an enormous amount about existing perfumes through prolific sampling. None of them influence me much, since I have my own ideas about what to create. However, it’s good to know that I’m not duplicating anything that already exists, and it’s interesting to see how the perfumes that I’ve tried are presented to the public.

- Learned an enormous amount about raw materials, especially synthetics, and about formulating perfumes. In the process, I acquired a new appreciation for natural materials. I made some perfumes that were good, some that were not so good, and some that everyone likes but that I now wish I’d formulated a bit differently. Every attempt, successful or not, has taught me something. Now I’m full of new ideas about how to use all of the materials that I have.

- Publicize and advertise my perfumes both locally and on a wider scale. I need to contact the shops that have already expressed interest and contact additional local venues. I’m not sure how best to go about publicizing my business on a larger scale, but will work to come up with a plan.

- Upgrade my website with new images, new products, and better descriptions. Eventually I’d like to go to a custom website, but that may take a while. At least I can start planning the design.

- Keep up with the blog. One feature that I had planned to include was a series of simple, educational, do-it-yourself perfumery projects that would be suitable for school classes or other groups. I’ll try to get some of those going this coming year, especially since I’ll be teaching a unit on perfumery in one of my classes.

- Fill out my perfume organ with some of the more expensive and/or exotic absolutes, CO2s, SCO2s and other high-end materials that I’ve put off getting for budgetary reasons, and make a series of very high quality all-natural perfumes.

- Keep experimenting and learning. Ultimately, this is the never-ending adventure that keeps me perfuming.

[Janus image adapted from Wikimedia]

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Myrtus communis is an attractive shrub that grows in areas around the Mediterranean. It has white flowers that look almost tropical, and purple berries that are used to make liqueur, but it’s the essential oil extracted from the leaves that is most interesting for perfumery. It’s a top note that dissipates quickly, but it lends an aromatic herbal nuance to the early development of a scent. There are two different types of myrtle, the “green” and the “red” type. The green variety is heavy on the alcohol linalool, a major component of lavender and many other herbal scents. The red type contains a high proportion of cineole, which is the main component of eucalyptus oil.

Green myrtle essential oil, applied to my skin in about a 10% dilution, starts out with a camphorous turpentine-pine scent with notes of lavender, bay leaf, and a bit of eucalyptus. After it dries down some, it reminds me of crushed fresh bay leaves and tarragon. It doesn’t have the sweet aspect of lavender, but does have some of the same dry herbal notes. Red myrtle essential oil is similar, but has a more woody, peppery scent with less of the pine and lavender notes. It also smells a bit like fresh bay leaves and tarragon as it dries down.

By itself, myrtle oil of either variety only lasts for about 30 minutes, but that’s enough for a top note. It would probably be hard to identify in a mix, especially if combined with other aromatic herbal notes.

I like to use myrtle in compositions that demand a fresh, clean, non-sweet, herbal note in the beginning. I’ve used it in Kingston Ferry and Olympic Rainforest, two fragrances that are meant to represent some of the quasi-Mediterranean-type vegetation that grows near the ocean in the Pacific Northwest.

True myrtle from the Mediterranean is not to be confused with lemon myrtle, an Australian tree that goes by the name Backhousia citriodora. The essential oil of lemon myrtle, distilled from the leaves, is extremely high in citral, giving it a powerful lemon scent. It’s a nice, fresh lemon, but is one of those oils that could easily be overused, producing a lemony cleaning product fragrance. I haven't used it yet in a perfume, but can imagine that, used sparingly, it might be a way to enhance and prolong citrus top notes.

[Myrtle images from Wikimedia]

Sunday, December 26, 2010


This plant has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first that I successfully pollinated and grew offspring from. The plant itself could be described as “cute” since it has short, fat pseudobulbs topped by compact leaves, the whole plant spreading laterally, but not standing much more than 8 inches tall. The flowers are another matter entirely. Every winter a long stalk shoots up to a height several times that of the plant, producing a cluster of creamy white flowers with a deep purple center. The flower petals and sepals are tinged with lavender when they open, but soon fade to ivory, since my specimen is a cross between the white and yellow forms. Every year more flowers are produced; this year’s stalk is over two feet tall and boasts 14 perfect blossoms. The plant is sitting on my desk as I write, but I can’t even see the flowers because they’re way over my head. The photo shows the plant in its younger days, when it just had a few flowers.

Laelia rubescens flowers are fragrant, but not in the way you would expect orchids to smell. Their scent is mostly wintergreen and root beer. I have read that fresh tuberose flowers also have a wintergreen note, and the tuberose absolute that I have does indeed include a slight wintergreen note along with everything else. It’s interesting that Laelia rubescens flowers on a mature plant look a bit like the pictures I’ve seen of tuberose, and both are native to Mexico and Central America. Could they be attracting some of the same pollinators? Could one be mimicking the other?

I do not recall ever smelling fresh tuberose flowers, so to remedy this gap in my education I just ordered some tuberose bulbs. I guess I’ll find out what real tuberose smells like next summer.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


One of my favorite cattleya hybrids is a pound-puppy mutt called (Blc Wattana Gold x Blc Orange Nugget) x Blc Malworth ‘Orchidglade’. It’s a sturdy midsize plant with clusters of golden-orange flowers on short strong stems, held in a fan-like arrangement, well-separated from one another. It’s blooming now, one of the many orchids that suddenly bursts into flower during the winter solstice. It’s pretty enough, but what I really love about it is its fragrance. When the flowers first open, they’re like a civet bomb, spewing indole all over the place, accompanied by a sweet citrusy scent like orange fruit, orange flowers, and vanilla. After a week or so the indole recedes into the background and the orange fruit, orange flower, and vanilla combination takes over.

One of the endearing features of this orchid is the fact that the color of the flowers inadvertently matches the orange scent - or maybe it’s an “intentional” product of evolution. After all, orange trees have fruit and flowers on them at the same time, so it’s possible that pollinators of oranges are attracted to the color of the fruit as well as the scent of the flowers, and some of the same pollinators are attracted to the color of the orchid.

Of course I had to try to make a perfume based on the fragrance of the plant that I have nicknamed the “Golden Cattleya”. I’ve gone through several versions, the first one containing quite a bit of civet, the second one mostly the orange-vanilla combination, and the third one orange-vanilla with a strong sandalwood base. I know sandalwood isn’t part of the orchid scent, but it just seemed to go well with the orange and provides a long-lasting grown-up ending to the whole thing. I can’t decide which version I like best and lord knows I don’t sell enough perfume to go down the flanker route.

The civet composition I eliminated at first because it just seemed discordant. However, when I revisited it a few months later, after the materials had had time to blend, it’s actually very nice, although I think it could use some stronger fruity-vanilla notes. The second version is the one that is the least odd-smelling, sort of like an orange-vanilla dessert, but it’s fairly linear. That’s the one that I’ve distributed as samples. The sandalwood version was an attempt to boost the base, and I actually like it a lot, but then I’m a big fan of sandalwood in all of its real and synthetic permutations. It’s the least true to the flower, which I view as a down side. I'm still trying to make up my mind which direction to go.

If you’re interested in trying samples of all three versions of Golden Cattleya and commenting on the pros and cons of each, leave a comment to that effect. I’ll send samples to up to three people for their evaluation.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Oddly enough, the dead of winter is a time when a lot of orchids bloom. I walked into the greenhouse today to see splashes of color all around - a big blue vanda, one of the giants of the greenhouse, an Isabelia pulchella, a creeping miniature that suddenly broke out into a riot of small bright fuschia flowers, several ladyslippers, and Sophronitis cernua, a tiny plant with clusters of bright neon orange-red flowers. All of these orchids are colorful, but none of them are fragrant.

To compensate, though, there are some fragrant cattleya type orchids in bloom too. Laelia anceps is still in full flower, although the fragrance has changed from fruity-floral to more of a pollen-like scent. Brassavola nodosa, one of the parent species of Little Stars, is just coming into its night-fragrant glory.

An odd one is Lc Luminosa, a primary hybrid between Laelia tenebrosa and Cattleya dowiana. It’s a frustrating plant to grow because the cross seems to have produced flowers that are too heavy for their stems. This year there were two growths with flower stalks. The first one to mature was a complete bust. The buds never fully opened because they dragged the stem down, bending it onto the stiff bud sheath, constricting and finally breaking it at that point. I supported the second flower stalk with a stake, and the flowers opened and were OK at first. Now they’re hanging down again from the point at which each flower joins the stalk. While they were in good shape, the flowers were fragrant, very much like the red cattleya described in another post - sweet, spicy, and fruity.

Another orchid that’s blooming now is the Brassolaeliocattleya (Blc) hybrid with a very long name that became the prototype for my perfume, Golden Cattleya, which I’m still working on tweaking, since I can’t decide what to do about the base. More on that next time. For now I'm just thankful that the days will start getting longer.

[Stonehenge image adapted from Wikimedia]

Sunday, December 12, 2010


I have no idea what prompted this odd behavior, but for the past few weeks I’ve been taking a break from perfume. I’ve not been wearing perfume or dabbling in my “lab”. I’ve not been reading the perfume blogs or forums or ordering samples. I’ve neglected this blog. I think maybe the idea of all those samples in my closet finally became overwhelming. I’ve sampled enough perfumes so that I kind of know what to expect in many cases. As a result, what should be a pleasure easily becomes a chore. I think the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was a carded sample of Anna Sui Dolly Girl Ooh La Love that I pulled out at random to try as a form of self-discipline. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, and it’s still sitting there taunting me with its garish card and the prospect of smelling yet another overpoweringly strong generic fruity-floral scent that’s almost identical to all of the other over-sillaged generic flanker fruity-floral commercial scents that are out there.

Today I knew it was time to snap out of my perfume slump, so decided to treat myself and try something unpredictable. A while back I got a few samples from Ayala Moriel, but had never gotten around to trying them. To my horror, I saw that one of them had either leaked or evaporated due to the cap not being put on tightly enough. It was Espionage. The smell on the stained label was enough to prompt me to add a drop of alcohol to the brown dregs at the bottom of the tiny jar and reconstitute the perfume. Ooh la love at first sniff! This is one good perfume. I may have created a super-concentrated version, but it doesn’t matter. Qualitatively, it’s the same.

Espionage starts out as a smoky, herbal, woody vanilla that reminds me of Lapsang Suchong tea. Gradually the smoke dissipates a little to reveal some subtle notes of dried rose petals and tobacco leaves, altogether enjoyable. The notes say that there’s “leather” in the mix, but given that this is an all-natural perfume I suppose the leather accord must have been formulated with cade or some such smoky material, providing a much nicer companion for the vanilla than a synthetic leather would have. There’s supposed to be ambrette in the composition, but it doesn’t hog front and center stage the way it does in Strange Invisible Perfumes. It just stays in the background, supporting and enhancing the other notes.

Maybe one reason why Espionage smells so good to me is because my nose is fresh and enthusiastic after its vacation. Whatever the reason, I’m back to perfuming again. Bring it on!

Thursday, December 2, 2010


December is blooming season for quite a few orchids, including this beauty, Laelia anceps. I got the plant several years ago as a tiny seedling, and have been patiently waiting for it to mature and bloom. Day before yesterday it rewarded me with the first of two flowers on a stalk that would be almost 2 feet high above the plant were it not bent at a 90-degree angle from hitting the slatted bamboo shade covering that was above the shelf where it was growing. Before I noticed the spike, it had already hit the covering, turned around, and started growing toward the outside edge. The flowers are large and colorful, kind of a bright reddish lavender with slightly darker flares on the petals and a velvety dark magenta lip. The inside of the throat is decorated with a dramatic tracery of dark purple lines on a yellow background, all pointing inward as if toward a vanishing point, forming an extremely attractive landing strip for whatever insects would naturally pollinate the flowers.

Best of all, the flowers are fragrant, starting right from the day they open. It’s a light, sweet, moist, fruity fragrance, a bit like cut up peaches or apricots with a hint of iris - the real iris flower, not the perfumery note iris. Laelia anceps is a light, fruity floral scent that I can truly appreciate. It will be interesting to see how the fragrance develops over the next week or two.

Monday, November 29, 2010


I love requests from family members because they steer me in directions that I might not otherwise think to go. Bay Rum is not a scent that I would ever have decided to make without prompting. However, now that I’ve done it, I’m glad I did.

I have vague recollections of smelling something called bay rum in the past, but it was cloyingly sweet and not anything I would want to smell on others or wear myself, so when the matter was mentioned, I started researching bay rum formulas with some trepidation. Apparently bay rum originated when sailors started putting the leaves of the Caribbean bay tree in rum to flavor it - think Sailor Jerry’s spiced rum, which I recently had the pleasure of sampling. Tradition has it that the sailors, who had limited opportunities to bathe or shower, started using the spiced rum as a cologne as well as a drink. All I can say is that they must have had a big supply of rum on those ships.

Anyway, I surfed and sailed the high seas of the internet looking for bay rum formulas, coming up with all sorts of ideas, some of which seemed viable and others of which sounded like they would make a stinking mess. Using rum as the solvent seemed like a really bad idea, so I proceeded to mix up a dark rum accord from synthetics. After some trial and error, I hit on something that actually smells like rum. The rest was easy. Essential oil of West Indies bay is the backbone of the composition. This is not the same as the bay leaves used in cooking, which are actually a type of laurel. West Indies bay is Pimenta racemosa, a tree in the same genus as allspice. The bay oil and rum accord were anchored with a subtle balsamic base, expanded with some other spices like clove, allspice, cardamom and cinnamon, and the top was garnished with a little bit of orange, orange blossom, and petitgrain.

Overall, I’m fairly happy with it, and am ready for the family test. This bay rum is not at all sweet, just aromatic and spicy, with a bit of a traditional cologne-like feeling. I may want to tweak the base, but will have to monitor the drydown a few times before deciding what to do with it.
[Pimenta racemosa and rum bottle photos adapted from Wikimedia]

Saturday, November 27, 2010


I’ve been away from the blog for a while, distracted by my mother being in the hospital early this week, and then by all sorts of family Thanksgiving activities. Everything is back to normal now, but in the meantime a balmy autumn has suddenly turned to winter, with ice, snow, bitter cold, and an emergency evacuation of all the orchids that had spent the summer outside. The snow has melted, but there’s no doubt that it’s winter. The cold snap shocked the last of the leaves off the deciduous trees, and it’s now starting to get dark at 4 in the afternoon.

This evening I finally got back to my perfume lab for a couple of hours, and it got me thinking about what scents are most characteristic of winter. Of course the marketplace is filled with all the usual overworked winter holiday scents, the cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice and “sugar” that go in pumpkin pie, plum pudding and hot drinks, and the evergreen-needle “Christmas tree” scents, which seem to be roughly based on pine, or some synthetic approximation thereof. These make their appearance in candles, potpourris, sprays, soaps, and that abomination of modern home scenting, the reed diffuser. For the past two years, someone at M’s work has given him one as a gift, filled with the most vile-smelling holiday-themed liquid imaginable. Needless to say these artifacts of the early 21st century quickly moved on to a new home via the local thrift shop.

What’s wrong with enjoying the natural scents of spices used in cooking, including the sage, rosemary, and thyme that are used in roasted meats, real spices in real baked goods or hot cider, or dark-roast coffee brewing in the morning? What about the smell of freshly cut greenery? What about the faint sillage of someone else’s perfume picked up while shopping? What about the smell of cold air and snow when people or pets first come in the house from outside? With room scenting devices running 24/7, I suspect a lot of these relatively subtle scents would be missed.

I think the most memorable evergreen I’ve smelled was a freshly cut Virginia red cedar, which is actually a species of juniper. The scent of the needles is not at all like pine or true cedar or arborvitae or fir or spruce, but is a combination of the cedar wood used in a cedar chest, aromatic green vegetable matter, and a characteristic cat-pissy smell. To me, that cat-piss smell epitomizes “Christmas tree”, which is what the tree in question was used for. I hadn’t thought about that tree for years, until I got some labienoxime, an aroma chemical that has exactly that same Virginia cedar leaf cat-piss scent. To me, that scent symbolizes the winter solstice, and I don’t find it at all objectionable.

There are a couple of other scents that always evoke winter for me. One of them is cigarette smoke outdoors on a cold, dark night. For some reason it smells wonderful under those conditions, maybe because it symbolizes the warmth of fire and the presence of other people somewhere on the street, out in the cold and the dark. Wood smoke is another scent that evokes winter for me. I’ll never forget the aromatic, incense-like scent of burning cedar and juniper on cold winter nights in the mountains of Arizona.

Probably the ultimate prototypical winter scent for me, though, is tangerines. One of my most vivid olfactory memories goes back to when I was a teenager, walking down a street in Rome on an extraordinarily cold winter day, peeling a tangerine that I’d bought from a street vendor. At the time, the fragrance of the tangerine seemed like the most delicious thing I had ever experienced. There was something about the cold air that transformed that ordinary citrus peel scent into a magical, almost spiritual revelation about the power of scent to affect the emotions. Maybe it was that little tangerine that eventually drove me to perfumery.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


The Michael Storer review series continues. Stephanie is a powerful white floral that’s peppery, spicy, a little bit indolic, a little bit green, and represents the prototypical “pollinators-come-hither” fragrance. It’s the scent of a mature flower sending out its last call, just before it starts to fade. It’s neither gardenia nor jasmine but a hybrid of the two with some other floral notes thrown in for good measure. The scent stays fairly linear, but as it dries down, it adds a faint root beer-like note that reminds me of some of the night-fragrant orchids that I grow. Mostly, the big white jasmine-gardenia flower with its persistently ticking biological clock just fades away over the space of 6-8 hours.

I’m not fond of floral fragrances, so Stephanie has no chance of ever becoming one of my all-time favorites. However, I would certainly wear it if I wanted a purely floral perfume. It’s as good a white floral as you’ll find anywhere, and it’s not complicated by a lot of irrelevant notes. If you are a lover of white florals, Stephanie is definitely worth trying.

The Gardenia Bush
Having just declared that I don’t like floral fragrances, I now have to explain why I just bought a gardenia bush for the garden. The fact is that I love and adore floral fragrances on flowers, I just don’t particularly like them on myself. Don’t ask me why, that’s just the way it is. Anyway, I was in a plant nursery the other day searching for something else when I was seduced by the scent of gardenia - that indescribable airy, creamy, velvety, sweet, moist scent put out by the real flowers. The plant I ended up with is a hybrid variety called “Chuck Hayes”, and it’s supposed to be cold hardy enough to survive winter temperatures much colder than those typical of the Pacific Northwest. We shall see. It’s covered with buds, so I hope they’ll survive the cold weather that’s predicted for the coming week.
[gardenia flower photo from Wikimedia Commons]

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Yesterday I got the usual monthly e-mail from Luckyscent offering a sample pack full of the latest goodies. This one contained some duplicates of samples that I already have, so I started checking up on the items I wasn’t familiar with to see if the pack was worth ordering for the ones I didn’t have (it wasn’t). What caught my eye was Luckyscent’s blurb for Juliette Has a Gun’s Not a Perfume, and I quote here a part of what you can read in full on their website if you wish:

“Along with today’s minimalist trend, Not a Perfume follows suit and adds extremity, irreverence and conceptual characteristics to deliver a true art form. You have now stepped into a new and elegant form of perfumery. With Not a Perfume you get exactly what you want from the scent: it does not evolve; it is not a composition, but rather a particular fragrance that is very strong & lasting on skin. Just like the white packaging it’s housed in, its makeup is fresh, clean, and clinical. This brand new concept from Romano Ricci is a modern day fragrance that is 100% synthetic and created without allergens. Not a Perfume is made of 1 single synthetic ingredient – Ambroxan.”

First of all, selling dilutions of a single aroma chemical is not a “brand new concept”. Among high profile perfumers, Escentric Molecules already did this a while back with Iso E Super and vetiveryl acetate, so what Juliette has a Gun has now done with Ambroxan is not all that innovative. Selling a dilution of a single material can obviously be done with any aroma chemical, essential oil, or fragrance oil, and I suspect it is done a good deal at the low end of the perfume world through sheer laziness and lack of imagination.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the smell of ambroxan, and have about 15 g of the pure stuff sitting upstairs in my workshop. It is one of the more expensive aroma chemicals, probably because Firmenich still has a patent on it, costing about $31 for an ounce if you don’t buy by the kilo. At Luckyscent’s prices, I’m sitting on a small fortune since a 1% dilution of my 15g would produce about 1500 ml of product. At Luckyscent’s prices, that’s over $1500 minus the cost of the crystals and a few nice 100 ml spray bottles, a good bit more if sold in 50 ml bottles.

Inspired by Juliette, I mixed up a 10% dilution of ambroxan, a small portion of which I further diluted to 1%, the recommended concentration for smelling. It’s lovely and strong even at that seemingly low concentration, with plenty of sillage. It’s one of those aroma chemicals that was developed to replace ambergris, but in some ways surpassed the natural material. It does have a hint of a salty, animalic ocean-like scent reminiscent of ambergris, but it also has a sharp woody aspect to it. For a single molecule, it has an unusually full and complex scent, and is certainly capable of holding its own as a perfume without any help from other notes. It’s long-lasting and, as Luckyscent says, linear. Honestly, I’d much rather wear pure ambroxan than any of the fruity-florals that are out there in such abundance. Moreover, I'd venture to guess that making a 1% solution of ambroxan costs every bit as much or more than making any of those fruity-florals and celebrity abominations.

And now for Luckyscent’s argument that a single diluted aroma chemical constitutes “a true art form”. I suppose it is as much an art form as those minimalist canvases that are in every gallery at every level, covered with a single color or just blobby off-white paint. The value of the primer-covered or solid blue canvas is determined by the reputation of the painter who created it, not by its intrinsic value, just as the value of a perfume is determined by reputation and advertising regardless of its composition. Maybe ambroxan is really not so minimalist, but more like a single objet trouvé, a pretty seashell with a complex form picked up on the beach and hung on a gallery wall, or a Campbell’s soup can (chicken noodle, because tomato has already been done) set on a pedestal in a gallery. As long as someone is willing to consider an item art, I suppose it is art, at least in the eye of the gallery owner or curator and the beholder who shells out their hard-earned money to view it or buy it.

The question of what art is can’t be resolved, but what I can do is offer 5-ml samples of ambroxan to the first two who leave a comment requesting them. If you leave a comment about how you personally define art, I’ll include an extra goodie assortment if you’re one of the first two, and will select a third person to receive an ambroxan sample.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Spikenard is, in my opinion, a much under-appreciated natural perfume ingredient. I hardly ever see it on lists of perfume notes, even though it makes an excellent base note. Maybe it’s too strong and raw and earthy for most people’s taste, but I really love the way it grounds a composition, works with other materials, and increases longevity.

There seems to be quite a bit of confusion as to what spikenard is. There’s something called “American spikenard” (Aralia racemosa) that is in the ginseng family and has nothing to do with the spikenard that’s used in perfumery. As far as I know, American spikenard is not used in perfumery, even though the roots are reported to have a mild, anise-like scent. The spikenard I’m talking about is Nardostachys grandiflora, which is sometimes called Nardostachys jatamansi. From what I have read, it seems that the two names are used interchangeably to denote the same species of plant. To further confuse the issue, the common name for spikenard is “jatamansi” in India, Tibet, and Nepal, where the plants grow.

True spikenard is a plant in the valerian family, native to the Himalayas, with pink flowers and fragrant rhizomes. The rhizomes are the part used to make the essential oil. Spikenard has been used for thousands of years as an ingredient in perfume and incense, and even as a flavoring for food. I can understand why it has been used as a culinary spice since it has a little bit of a cumin-like scent. However, spikenard mainly smells like a super-charged vetiver, all earthy and rooty, with some pungent spiciness, a little bit of a patchouli-like note, and some floral notes, with slight variations depending on which type it is.

I have three different types of spikenard, red and green from India and “jatamansi” from Nepal, which is a red one. There’s not a lot of information available explaining the difference between the red and green types, but one source I found speculated that it depends on the method of distillation, the temperature at which distillation takes place, etc. It seems to me that it could also depend on whether the rhizomes are fresh or dried when they are distilled. I find that the red spikenard is “drier” and more aromatic than the green, which is more “wet” and earthy. The Nepalese “jatamansi” spikenard that I have is a little lighter and more floral smelling than the Indian varieties.

I first discovered the longevity of spikenard many moons ago when I first started experimenting with making soap scented with single essential oils. After storing for a while, I was disappointed to find that many of the essential oils quickly faded away. The spikenard was exceptional in that it maintained its full strength. One bar of the spikenard soap got misplaced and resurfaced years later during a cleaning bout. I was surprised to find that it was still as fragrant as it was when freshly made.

I have used spikenard in a number of different fragrances including Little Stars, Luzonica, Red Cattleya, and Kyphi, and consider it an essential part of my perfumer’s palette.

[Spikenard plant illustration from Wikimedia Commons]

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


The red hybrid cattleya that I used as an inspiration for a perfume and wrote about back in May is blooming again, bigger and better than ever. This year it seemed really anxious to bloom, with the buds bursting open in mid-October. The first year it bloomed, it had one flower, the second two, the third three, the fourth five. Now, in its fifth blooming, it has seven perfect flowers. Saturday morning the red cattleya went with me to Ciscoe Morris’s radio show on gardening, where I was discussing orchid growing. It has been building up its fragrance over the past week, and that morning it was in fine form, first perfuming my car and then the whole studio. It was almost as if it wanted to show off.

When the flowers first opened, they didn’t have much scent for the first couple of days. Then they developed a strong indolic note, and today they have the spicy, fruity, floral, bubble-gum scent that I find characteristic of this plant, although the indole lingers on as an undercurrent. It’s really interesting to see how the scent changes as the flower matures. I think this hybrid, Lc Netrasiri, is my all-time favorite Cattleya.

The other fragrant cattleya that’s blooming this week is the species Cattleya jenmannii. This is the first year it’s bloomed, but it already has three large flowers that are pretty much along the lines of an old-fashioned “corsage orchid” in both shape and color, just a little darker. This plant was not well-behaved, growing out of its own pot and into the pot of its neighbor, where it seems to be inextricably intertwined with a Cattleya intermedia. That’s what I get for not providing enough supervision.

When the jenmannii flowers first opened, they also took a few days to start producing fragrance and had a strong indolic note in the beginning. They have now mellowed out to a spicy, fruity, floral, bubblegum scent that’s similar to the red cattleya, but a little softer and sweeter, with gentle notes of iris and carnation.

For some reason, the red cattleya is extra-spicy this year, since I seem to recall that it’s been more like the jenmannii in past years. I’ve noticed with other orchids that their fragrance can vary a bit from year to year, as can their flower color, depending on growing conditions.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


Last weekend I decided to kill two birds with one stone, experimenting with the formula I came up with for my own perfume version of kyphi and making a birthday present for a family member. I’ve been thinking about kyphi for a long time, collecting formulas from various places, trying to figure out which ingredients are common to all of the formulas and which are optional, and trying out various combinations. Even back in ancient Egyptian times, when kyphi was used as incense and medicinal salve, it seems there were as many different formulas as there were makers of kyphi, so what goes into it is, to some extent, a matter of taste.

The one thing that I was intent on from the outset was that this needed to be a 100% natural formula, using the best oils, resins and absolutes that I have. Since one potential application of the kyphi is in meditation and meditative movement, there would be no tweaking of the formula with anything that couldn’t have been in the original Egyptian version.

I started out with the basic resins - benzoin, labdanum, frankincense, myrrh, cedar, spikenard, and a few other things, then added a healthy dose of calamus root, also known as sweet flag. I wrote about calamus in an earlier post: calamus. Some people may not like the unusual smell of calamus, but I think it’s a key ingredient in kyphi, so I made sure that the formula contained enough calamus to be clearly noticeable. With the basic elements in place, it was time to add the embellishments - a whole array of spices along with some beeswax absolute and cognac absolute to take the place of the honey and wine used in the original incense formula. The final touch was some saffron absolute and a wonderful wild orange that gives the opening an almost gourmand quality.

That weekend, I seem to have not only killed the original two birds, but also a third one that I wasn’t aiming for. All day it had been raining and dark, and I was feeling depressed. Surely seasonal affective disorder can’t be setting in this early? In any case, after I’d put together a trial kyphi formula and smeared it on myself, I felt much more focused and cheerful - enough so to write a draft of this blog entry. Maybe the ancient Egyptians had the right idea.

Now, a week later, the mixture has blended. The calamus isn’t nearly as prominent and in-your-face as it was initially, although it’s still noticeable. The orange has practically disappeared, so I’ll probably increase it in the final formula. The whole composition is still spicy and resinous, but it has also taken on a slightly floral feeling even though there’s nothing floral in it. As an “authentic” curiosity, I would say that it’s a great success, and even as a natural perfume, it’s something that I can wear and enjoy. In fact, I used perfumer’s alcohol to rinse the last few drops of the original formula from the beaker I had used for mixing, and it looked and smelled so good that I put the alcohol in a little spray bottle and have been using it. It can’t be more than 5% perfume materials, but it’s still nice and strong, and it lasts a few hours on skin, much longer on clothing.

The perfumer side of me has an urge to try adding a little aldehyde C-12 to the mix to punch up the citrus aspect and give it some sparkle, but I’ll probably do that only as an experiment in a small batch that I keep to use myself. Everyone else, especially the birthday boy, can smell like an Egyptian.

I will be giving away one sample of this kyphi to the first person who comments and expresses interest in trying it. It will be your choice of a 2 ml concentrated perfume oil or 5 ml alcohol-based EdP spray.

Friday, October 22, 2010


Cymbidium kanran is a cute little Japanese orchid, tiny for a cymbidium actually, with small pseudobulbs and arching grass-like leaves. The variety that I have produces small green flowers with dark red spots on the lip. I understand there are also red-flowered varieties, but I like the contrast on the green-flowered one.

Kanran is an orchid that I’ve been wanting to see bloom for a long time, and it finally did it! The first plant that I had died - I’m not sure why. The one that I have now has grown well under exactly the same conditions as the one that passed away, so there’s no cultural pattern for success. It started blooming a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say that I was extremely disappointed that it didn’t have any fragrance. Yesterday, though, I smelled a light, citrusy, sweet, slightly musky scent coming from the flowers. The scent’s a little stronger today than it was yesterday. It’s apparently one of those orchids that takes a while to develop its scent after the flowers open. The scent still isn’t as strong as other fragrant cymbidiums that I’ve smelled, such as sinense, but it’s pleasant. Now I’m curious to see if the scent intensifies as the flowers continue blooming. I’ll update in a week or so.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


It’s cyclamen season! Just a week ago there was bare ground under the big brown turkey fig tree next to our back deck, but overnight a profusion of buds popped up through a layer of wood chip debris and today they’re making a beautiful display of lavender-pink flowers. Every time I see them bloom I realize once again that hardy cyclamens are one of my all-time favorite garden plants.

Hardy cyclamens look a lot like a slightly smaller version of the familiar florist plants that are sold everywhere, but they are basically the wild-type plant, descended from the cyclamen species that grow around the Mediterranean. Fortunately, they haven’t had all of their exceptionally good qualities bred out through hybridization to produce BIG flowers and grow (for a while, anyway) in pots in houses. Around here, they grow like weeds and spread their seeds around liberally so that a single plant soon becomes an impressive display of many. My oldest plant grows from an enormous tuber the size of a dinner plate, with an array of babies surrounding it. The leaves are absolutely gorgeous, mottled dark green, light green, and silvery. Different varieties have different leaf patterns, all extremely attractive. My plan is to keep buying a new plant every year to diversify the foliage patterns.

The leaves grow through the winter and spring, dying down completely during the summer when it’s dry. After the summer dormant period, the first thing that appears is the flowers, with the leaves following shortly thereafter. I can see the first leaves starting to emerge now.

And here’s the best part of all. Hardy cyclamens are deliciously fragrant! You have to get down close to them, but when you do - oh my lord! They smell like a fine perfume. I’ve read over and over that cyclamens have no fragrance, but even the florist variety has an unpleasant rubbery odor. The wild-type cyclamens have a beautiful, delicate fragrance that is partially captured in the aroma chemical cyclamen aldehyde, but is much more complex. If you see cyclamen listed as a perfumery note, it’s not someone’s wild imagination. There really is a cyclamen fragrance. You can bet that I’ll be out in the garden sniffing the cyclamens this fall.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


One sad fact of life is that I have way too many perfume samples. They come in all different forms from messy little vials with hand-written tags to carded manufacturer’s samples, to modest-sized decants in more or less professional-looking containers. Then there are the full bottles and mini-bottles. I’m a pathetic sucker for all those special offers that come in my e-mail - 75% off at The Perfumed Court, Luckyscent’s seasonal package of new stuff, and so on and so on. The samples pile up faster than I can try them. I have to figure out some strategy, short of going completely abstinent on samples, to try them all.

I publish reviews on a few websites, as well as here, so sampling isn’t just slapping six different things on my wrists simultaneously and sniffing each spot in turn, it’s wearing the scents one at a time, often several times, before making up my mind what to write. Moreover, I can’t wear samples if I’m working on my own stuff, so I can’t sample every day. As a perfumer, I always experience a little bit of a moral dilemma about reviewing perfumes. Is it a conflict of interest to publish my opinion of other people’s work, especially if it’s negative? I tell myself that when I write reviews, it’s strictly as a consumer, but I still feel an obligation to give each scent the fairest evaluation possible.

I just got through cleaning and organizing the closet where I keep my samples, and realized that the carded samples take up much more than their fair share of space. Each card is at least 10 times the volume of the vial, so I have resolved to alternate trying “naked” samples and carded ones, removing the cards as I go and filing the samples away in a new, alphabetical system that I’ve decided to implement this year. Yeah, right. Anyway, good intentions are a start.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


This morning I went for a walk through a fairly new neighborhood near our house, a cramped conglomeration of cheaply-made big box mini-mansions with tiny front lawns, the sort of perfect, plush, startlingly green lawns that are rolled out by the contractor ready-made as soon as the construction crew finishes. The inhabitants keep them unnaturally green and lush even during the summer when they should by all rights go dormant. The little green lawns are surrounded by immaculately weed-free, mulched beds of greenery and the occasional flower clump, the green grass separated from the brown bed by a deep line that looks like it was drawn by a drafting program and cut by a laser. In German there’s a word, spiessig, that expresses this approach to gardening aesthetics. I don’t think there’s an equivalent in English.

Certain neighborhoods in the Seattle area cultivate evergreen shrubs or small trees that have had all of the leaves removed except for small balls of foliage at the tips of the branches. Presumably these must be constantly trimmed to keep them perfectly smooth and round. The new development just down the hill appears to be developing into one of these topiary-tree neighborhoods, since trees with the clipped poodle look are appearing in a number of the yards. OK, I get it. Small yards, small trees. They do this in Japan, too, but in an artistic way, pruning the trees to keep them small while maintaining a somewhat natural form.

This morning there was a woman out in front of one of the topiary-tree houses wielding a huge motorized hedge clipper that looked and sounded like a chain saw. She was using it to trim stray sprigs off of the perfect spheres of foliage on her juniper, or arborvitae, or whatever it is. Poor tree. I grow a few bonsai trees, and to me one of the beautiful aspects of bonsai is the almost meditative relationship that I, as the curator, develop with the tree. I examine it, try to feel how it would like to grow, and then use a tiny pair of clippers or my fingers to slowly prune it in that way. It’s an ongoing process of mutual respect.

Somehow, the use of a power clipper to shave round balls of foliage seems disrespectful to the tree. I know that, aside from the smell of fresh juniper clippings, this has nothing to do with perfumery, but it’s my rant for the week.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Here’s the brief that Alyssum submitted, describing what she is looking for in a perfume. It’s nice to be able to start off with some specifics as to what the notes should be. She writes:

"Firstly, I’d just like to reiterate how excited I am to “invent” a perfume with you! I’ve been dreaming of doing this for years. I’ve worn perfume since I was about eight, when I would take home the leftover testers from my aunt’s boutique, but even after all this time I’ve never settled on a single scent.

I always seem to be caught between floral scents and the warmer incense-like notes. My family heats our home with a wood burning stove, and considering there are only three rooms with no doors, we all wind up smelling like a campfire. I always liked how that smell blended with my sweeter floral perfumes, but once winter ended my play with scents went with it. Now that I’m no longer living at home, I fear I’ll really miss having that seasonal comfort.

If it would be possible to achieve a mix of earthy wood smoke (cedar is my favorite) as a base note and a light floral fragrance as a top note, I would be in heaven. And, although I believe this would be hard to find, I’m particularly partial to the smell of an alyssum flower (not to mention I’ve never been able to really honor my namesake besides the occasional exclamation when I see them at the side of the road). If not, I’m also extremely fond of peonies, and I find the smell of vanilla to be quite comforting.

Regardless, I’m open to your expert opinion. Please let me know if there’s anything else I can do or contribute; I’d love to learn more about this process. Thanks so much!"

The first step will be to have Alyssum sample some different materials for the smoky cedar base: smoke notes, different varieties of cedar, different varieties of frankincense, and other resinous materials to see which ones she likes best. I’ve been wanting to make an aromatic burning cedar accord for quite a while, actually ever since I smelled the incense-like smoke of burning cedar and juniper in Arizona many years ago, so this is going to be great fun.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


It was a big surprise to walk into the greenhouse a few weeks ago and discover a huge flower spike hanging down from the basket where Stanhopea wardii grows. This orchid has been a constant surprise to me. It was the first Stanhopea that I acquired. It arrived in the mail, and I took one look at the puny little seedling with black spots all over its leaves and knew in my heart that it was headed straight for the compost pile. But it didn’t go there. It didn’t even go to the orchid hospice, hospital, or recovery center, it slowly started putting on new pseudobulbs, getting bigger and bigger, growing reliably even though it has always been troubled from time to time by those unsightly black spots on the leaves. It’s now officially reached adulthood.

Stanhopeas are some of the most bizarre of all orchid flowers. They’re big and showy, like huge insects with a long proboscis, wings and huge eyes. They’re all extremely fragrant. The flowers pop open overnight, so one day there’s a cluster of big fat buds the size of apricots, and the next day the flowers are fully open. My wardii opened up two nights ago, and is in full bloom right now. My first impression was that it smelled like a peppermint patty, with distinct notes of peppermint, vanilla, and chocolate, but it’s a mint patty that’s been dabbed with some floral perfume, maybe a partly eaten patty that’s been sitting unwrapped in a woman’s purse next to some perfume sample strips.

I’ve seen the fragrance of Stanhopea wardii variously described as “vanilla”, “taffy candy”, “spicy” and “medicinal”, but it’s all of those things and more. I think the “medicinal” description is probably due to the mint scent. It’s definitely a gourmand fragrance, not an herbal medicinal one. However, I’ve also read that Stanhopea wardii is one of those “shape-shifter” orchids that emits one fragrance during the day and another at night. I've gone out and smelled it at different times during the night, but it seems the same - floral York peppermint patty.

One of these days I’ll make a Stanhopea perfume, but will have to decide which one. I’m not sure wardii is it, but the peppermint patty-taffy-floral combination could be interesting.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


In my seminar last quarter we did a short session on the chemical senses and perfume making. After the class was over, I was talking with one student, Alyssum, about various aspects of perfume making. Somehow the conversation turned to the idea of making a perfume for her, based on her own inspiration and my resources. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making a bespoke perfume, so here was the opportunity! I jumped on it. My hope is that the process will provide me with experience in accurately realizing someone else’s fragrance “vision”, and her with a unique scent that’s called - what else? - Alyssum?

The plan is to document the entire process here on my blog. Alyssum has given me permission to do so, and will be writing her own contributions from time to time in response to my attempts to formulate what she smells in her mind. The first stage in creating her perfume was to have her write a brief explaining what her ideal perfume would be like. I didn’t give her any instructions on how to do it, but she came up with a wonderfully clear and detailed description of what she was looking for. I’m particularly excited because it’s the kind of scent I would like to create anyway, something with a smoky base and light floral top notes, preferably the scent of sweet alyssum, that little rock garden plant with the tiny white flowers.

Not knowing what sweet alyssum smells like, I started doing some research. It turns out that the stuff that grows in gardens and rockeries isn’t alyssum at all, but Lobularia maritima, a species that’s closely related to the genus Alyssum, but classified separately. To actually find some in bloom, all I had to do was walk around my neighborhood and there it was, a little clump of finely spun white lace spread out on the ground. I crept into the neighbor’s garden, snapped a photo, and broke off a sprig of flowers. The fragrance was quite strong considering how tiny the flowers are. It’s like a powerful mixture of pollen and clover honey, earning its name “sweet” alyssum. There were bees all over the flowers, and I understand why. If I were a bee, I’d go for it, too. I’ve got an excellent image of what the flowers smell like now, but will probably go and buy a plant at one of the local garden centers anyway so that I can sniff it repeatedly. Sweet alyssum is supposed to be an annual, but I think around here it grows as a perennial, or it reseeds itself profusely and grows in shifts with little or no break in blooming because I see it in the same places all the time.

The next entry in this saga will be Alyssum’s brief. Stay tuned for more details!

Monday, October 4, 2010


Frankincense, also known as olibanum, is among the most wonderful of all natural perfume materials. I love it on its own, and as the basis of the “incense” note, but it’s also extremely versatile in combining with all kinds of other scents. Frankincense is the resin of a type of shrubby tree belonging to the genus Boswellia, which grows under harsh desert conditions, mainly on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, and in India. The resin is collected by making cuts in the bark of the trees, allowing the sap to leak out and harden, forming frankincense “tears”. For incense, the tears are burned as is, or powdered and mixed with other things. The powdered resin can also be used to make a tincture. The resin is distilled to produce its essential oil.

Frankincense is probably familiar to some as “church incense”, which traditionally was Boswellia sacra or papyrifera, sometimes mixed with other aromatic substances such as myrrh and spices. There are many different species and varieties of Boswellia, all of which smell a little different, but all of which have a deliciously aromatic resiny scent.

How to describe frankincense? It’s like trying to describe the scent of a rose. It is what it is, and once you smell it there’s no mistaking it. Just as nature provides uncountable variations on the rose theme, there are variations on frankincense. I’ve been sampling a number of different types of Boswellia, and thought it would be interesting to write down some observations about each one.

Boswellia carteri: This comes from Somalia and Ethiopia. It’s the prototypical frankincense scent, rich and complex, with citrusy, resiny notes, the typical spicy, fruity, “incense” heart, and a bit of almost animalic woody scent, the funkiness of which goes away after a little while. B carteri is one of my favorite all-purpose frankincense varieties.

Boswellia sacra: The one that I have comes from the Dhofar Valley in Oman, and is similar to carteri, with all of the fruity, woody, incense-y notes, but a bit sharper, with more wood and spice notes. It’s a wonderful oil that I’m saving for something special.

Boswellia freereana: The one that I have is from Somalia, and has much more of a citrusy, pine-needle scent and less of the deep, woody, incense-y base. It’s sort of a “frankincense lite”. The woody note is more cedar-like than the other types.

Boswellia serrata: From India, it’s similar to freereana in that it’s a somewhat lighter scent. It doesn’t have the pine-needle note, but it is citrusy, with a characteristic sweetish woody scent of its own that’s hard to describe, but is very much like “church incense” with a tiny touch of vanilla.

Boswellia neglecta: From Kenya, this is a fairly heavy hitter, in the same league as sacra and carteri, but with slightly less of the funky-woody note. It’s a wonderful incense scent.

Boswellia papyrifera: I could have sworn I had this one, but all I can find is the resin tears, not the oil. My recollection is that it’s similar to sacra and carteri. I’ll search again and update in due course.

One of the interesting things about frankincense essential oil is that it gets better with age. I have a small amount of generic frankincense essential oil that’s at least 15 years old, and it’s the best I’ve ever smelled. I doubt that any of the oils that I currently have will make it that long, but if they do, they will make some amazing perfumes.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


This morning is dark, cold, and rainy. I’m up way too early, wondering why on earth I agreed to put on my academic costume and be an extra at this year’s convocation ceremony. At least it’s indoors, unlike the spring commencement ceremonies that are usually conducted in the pouring rain.

I think one of the reasons I like perfume so much is that it gives me a much-needed lift on days like today when the weather and the day’s agenda are depressing. It’s like coffee, another thing that cheers by its smell alone. No wonder Seattle is the coffee capital of the US. If only people here would discover perfume, too! But that’s another story entirely.

I’m going to gulp down a cup of good coffee, put on my superhero rain boots, and add a dab of Kilian’s Back to Black, just for good measure, then I’ll head off into the foggy gray wetness protected by a warm, friendly fragrance.

At this point, wearing another perfumer’s perfume, I can’t help wondering why I make perfume myself. Hasn’t it all been done before? Aren’t there so many thousands of wonderful fragrances out there that to make more is a ridiculous exercise in duplication, even if it’s unintentional? Has living in cold, rainy Seattle for 15 years turned me into a giant cockroach?

The above paragraphs were written a week ago, last Sunday, and I’m only now getting caught up enough with other trivial stuff to get back to the blog. It’s something I always think about, this business of creating perfumes and other things, in a world that’s already full and running over with every kind of product imaginable. I can only conclude that the reason why I do it is because something in my nature compels me to, like Kafka’s bewildered cockroach spewing out its own pungent excrement while its family quickly shoves food through the door and runs away in disgust. Fortunately I have a tolerant family. I’ve also drawn and painted, written poetry, written music and plays, and all of these things were something I felt I had to do, like children who torment their parent with labor pains until they’re born.

It’s too bad that our capitalistic society tries to beat the basic creative instinct out of people in school and make everyone focus on finding what will make the most money in the shortest amount of time. Even in academic science we are encouraged to focus on what is euphemistically termed “translational” research, research explicitly meant to produce products or treatments that can be manufactured right away and sold by the corporate world. Forget the fact that most important discoveries are made serendipitously by curious people just trying to answer some basic question about how the world works. Maybe people have been conditioned to desire mediocrity because it is comfortable, so it’s what “sells”, but it’s not something I think about when I make perfume. I don’t try to appeal to a demographic, nor do I try to appeal to the taste of the majority, whatever that is. I don’t try frantically to hit a moving target of what’s fashionable. I just do what I do and if someone likes it, great. If they don’t, so be it. At least I had fun creating.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


One of the ongoing projects that I’ve mentioned before is to make a fragrance that brings together some of the scents of Salamanca. This is not an easy project, since these are mostly subtle scents - old stone walls, cypress trees basking in the sun, a little whiff of almond nougat, fresh figs and melons, leather, and the scent that epitomizes central Spain for me, dried grasses and weeds in the fields. It’s that dried grass scent that I’m going after first, since I need that before I can do anything else. The dried grass scent is also characteristic of the whole US West Coast in summer, so it’s going to be a useful accord to have in my collection once I perfect it.

I decided in my initial attempt to base the accord on a vetiver-mitti codistillation that I have. Mitti is made in India by distilling the essence of clay into an essential oil like sandalwood or vetiver. If it’s sandalwood, the result is mitti attar, a fantastic scent all by itself, like rain on dry cement or dusty earth. It’s one of those scents that evokes primitive and instinctive emotional reactions, triggering a nostalgic replay of whatever it was that our ancestors felt when the rains finally came to save their crops.

Using vetiver as a carrier conserves sandalwood, reduces the cost, and provides an earthy, rooty base that goes perfectly with the clay, making it smell more like vegetation in a field. To the vetiver-mitti I added a little immortelle absolute, hay absolute, copaiba balsam, tonka, a dash of a couple of other natural oils, and an aromachemical called nerone that intensifies the dry, dusty aspect of the mix. Thanks to Mike Storer for suggesting the nerone! It’s pretty close to what I’m looking for, but I’ll need to let it sit for a while to see how it all comes together.

Note added later: This is very close to what I was aiming for! Now on to create the right leather accord for Salamanca. I hope leather and dusty dry weeds will go well together.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Powder is a note that I really haven’t yet explored in perfumery, but a couple of things made me start thinking about it. First was a conversation on Basenotes about creating a powdery note, and second was an olfactory experience that I had last Saturday in which the powdery note played a key role.

M had gotten tickets to an outdoor concert by Further, which is the latest reincarnation of the Grateful Dead. As soon as the music started, so did the rain. People in Seattle don’t really seem to mind too much, and patiently stand out in the rain like a pack of wet dogs, but we were happy to have our little shelter made from a couple of low-rider folding chairs and a huge umbrella, in an ideal spot up on the top of a hill.

After the break, I started smelling something completely unique and wonderful. No, it wasn’t just the fumes of the combustibles being used all around us, but that did contribute to it. It was a sweet powdery scent combined with the herbal smoke and the smell of the wet ground and vegetation. I assumed that the powder note was someone’s perfume, but I suppose it could have been something blooming in the park. Whatever it was, the whole gestalt was amazing. These are notes that one normally wouldn’t normally think of combining, but they worked beautifully together. Of course I started thinking about a perfume using these components. I think of way too many perfumes - more than anyone could make in a lifetime - but it’s fun and sometimes leads to my mixing up useful accords.

Night before last, when I got tired of grading papers and working on a grant application that I was writing, I went into my “lab” and started working on a powdery accord. I used ionones, some synthetic musks, a foody vanilla, coumarin, heliotropin, a little dab of this and a little dab of that, and to top it off I added a dollop of sarsaparilla hoping that it would help make the powder a little bit sweet and gourmand. I don’t have the perfect mix yet, but it certainly smells powdery, especially after it dries down a little. I put some on yesterday evening and still smell it this morning. I now have to tweak the proportions and figure out what to do about the strange top notes, but I think I’ve got a basic powder formula. Yeah!!!

Some orchids have a powdery note in their fragrance, so this will eventually allow me to create scents based on those flowers as well as a perfume called “Reincarnation”, or something like that.

By the way, the musicians in Further are really tight and sound far better than any other reincarnation of the Dead. We had a good time, rain and all.

Note added later: After sitting for a while, the strange top notes disappeared, and the powder scent seems much more mellow than it did initially. Now for some testing on blotters and my skin.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


This week two of my cattleyas have started to bloom and both of them have a huge indolic component to their fragrance, especially when the flowers first open up. A lot of cattleyas seen to be heavy on the indole at first and then mellow into something else after a few days.

One of the plants that’s blooming right now is Cattleya harrisoniana, a species native to South America. The flowers of this particular plant are medium lavender with a big cream-colored lip. The other plant that I have is white to begin with, gradually turning a light lavender as the flowers mature. In the morning the plant that’s blooming now has a strong fragrance that’s like artificial grape, almost like Dior Poison, with a lot of indole mixed in. It will be interesting to see how it develops over the life of the flower.

Another plant that’s blooming now is Blc (Brassolaeliacattleya) Hawaiian Passion. The picture shows the first time it bloomed, with just one flower. This year it has a cluster of six flowers, all closely bunched up next to one another. The first couple of days its scent was almost pure indole! After that it started developing a creosote and citrus fragrance, but the indole is still there. I’m not sure it would make a good perfume unless it mellows a lot, so I’ll probably just enjoy it while it’s blooming.

Indole is usually thought of in connection with white florals such as jasmine and gardenia, but it’s also part of the fragrance repertoire of a great many orchids.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


After a strenuous few weeks teaching an intensive class and trying to catch up on all of the things that were neglected during my summer travels, I’m to a point where I can at least breathe again, wash my hair, and get a decent night’s sleep. I even took the time to go running yesterday!

Quick progress report and preview, just to get me back into the writing and posting routine: There are lots of orchids blooming in my sunroom and greenhouse, several of which have amazing fragrances. I’ll be reporting on these within the next few days. Over the next few weeks I’m going to start working on my first bespoke fragrance, for a woman who was a student in my class. She has given me permission to report on the entire process here, from brief to finished product. I finally got my sarsaparilla CO2 extract to go into dilution (it was a struggle!), so will be thinking about how best to use it. It’s definitely going to be a gourmand fragrance. I’ve acquired some interesting new raw materials that I’m looking forward to working with. I have a complete set of Michael Storer’s fragrances that I’ll be sampling and reviewing here. I’ll be doing some advertising, special offers, and giveaways as soon as I find time to work on promoting my business. Best of all, I should have time to write regularly. It’s good to be back blogging again.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


On my way to class the other morning I smelled jasmine before I even saw it. Looking around, I found, to my delight, that the university landscapers had planted two large beds of what appeared to be jasmine in front of the building where I teach. On closer examination and some research, I concluded that the “jasmine” was actually Trachelospermum jasminoides, otherwise known as “star jasmine” or “confederate jasmine”. The pinwheel shape of the flowers was the giveaway, as was the fragrance, which is a bit different from true jasmine. Star Jasmine is a shrub or vine that’s supposed to be hardy all the way down to 10 degrees F (-12C).

Of course I picked a spray of flowers and passed it around for the class to smell. No one had ever smelled live jasmine before, or maybe no one wanted to admit it. I wonder whether kids in their late teens have never smelled real flowers, or whether it's uncool at that age to admit that one goes around smelling flowers. Star jasmine smells sort of like a cross between true jasmine and ylang-ylang. The stuff that grows at the university has a heady, sweet scent that doesn’t have the indolic component of many true jasmines, but instead is like a light jasmine with a spicy, slightly smoky note to it. I have a star jasmine accord (Jasmin Etoile) made by Givaudan, a company that manufactures many of the perfume raw materials used by the large perfume houses, but it doesn’t have the same smoky feel that the real thing does.

I used the Givaudan star jasmine accord in “Carolina”, but now am thinking about how to custom-build a better star jasmine for future use. I’m also thinking about getting a plant or two for my garden. The more fragrant plants, the better!

Saturday, September 4, 2010


In the inexorable rush of time September has rolled around and, with it, some lovely flowers in my greenhouse. The Laelia lucasiana that I mentioned in an earlier post is still in bloom, fully open and generously dispensing its scent on my table as I write. It’s been blooming for three weeks now, and looks like it may make it to a month. That’s a long time for a cattleya-type orchid.

Another cattleya that’s in bloom right now is a big lanky plant called Cattleya Fort Motte. The flowers are big and pink with magenta spots all over them, clustered especially at the tips of the petals and sepals, making them look like fingers with bright nail polish. The flowers are most fragrant in the morning, with a strong scent that is predominantly pollen and powder with a little narcissus, reminiscent of a fragrant tulip. They have very little sillage, so I have to get up fairly close to smell them.

Another plant that’s blooming right now is Epigeneium cacuminis, an unusual small plant that produces a long spray of many white flowers that sport a bright yellow lip stippled with red-brown markings. The flowers are fragrant throughout most of the day, with a scent that’s just like freshly cut oak. This is the ultimate pure woody scent from an orchid.

Aerangis mystacidii is blooming, too, but it doesn’t seem to be fragrant. Many Aerangis have a strong fragrance, so this one is a bit of a disappointment in the scent department. The white flowers are gorgeous, though, with their orange stems and long nectar spurs.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


I have a love-hate relationship with shopping. On the one hand, I passionately hate shopping malls, airport concourse shops, department stores, and other sterile environments that are built to artificially recreate a natural setting in which small shops have gradually aggregated in one part of town, all within walking distance of one another. To me, shopping malls are comparable to a Disneyland attempt to recreate “Paris” or “Italy” or “Asia” - a feeble attempt to create an impression of something that should be enjoyed in reality, not reproduction. On the other hand, I love street fairs, markets, and shopping in the city. In fact, under the right conditions, I can be a real binge shopper. My love of city shopping was brought home to me when I was in Salamanca, where there are several main all-pedestrian commercial streets uninterrupted by parking lots or any of the other scourges of auto-based design. Shops are not organized into predictable categories plus a "food court". Sure, there are the clones, the H&Ms and Zaras and Mangos, but there are also the sidewalk cafés, the street vendors, and the small hole-in-the-wall shops where things are unique or handmade, and often somewhat cheaper than the equivalent quality items in the US. There’s also the rastro (Sunday flea market), which is fun to check out once in a while even though 90% of the merchandise is appallingly shoddy junk made in China.

One afternoon I went on a shopping extravaganza and came home with two new pairs of sandals (Spanish shoes are the best, second only to Italian ones!), a top with a sort of an art-deco beaded theme, two wide knitted headbands of the sort that I like to wear on bad hair days, two pairs of earrings - one pair of chunky silver hoops and another pair made from leather and Greek coins - and a gorgeous silver and mother-of-pearl necklace that M bought me for my birthday. Actually, my birthday’s not till the end of September (I’m a Libra, for whatever that’s worth), but why not celebrate early?

Perfume-wise, there was nothing remarkable in Salamanca. Sephora and the smaller perfume shops all have the usual selection of commercial and designer fragrances, at about the same prices as the duty-free shops, and significantly more expensive than the online discounters. I noticed that several of the Asian-run discount shops had a rack of incredibly cheap imitations of designer fragrances (a 50 ml bottle of “Chanel No 5” for 2 Euros!). I sniffed a few of them, and they smell every bit as bad as you might expect. Several of the handicraft shops had fragrance oils that were a little more upscale, but still poor quality. I really don’t understand why anyone would buy diluted synthetic lavender fragrance oil when it’s possible to buy the real thing. It was disappointing not to find any exotic fragrance potions and well-kept perfume secrets, but I suppose it’s good that I was able to go for two weeks without buying anything in the fragrance category. Now that I’m back in the land of the shopping mall, I can go without buying any clothing or shoes until I travel again.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


The “Mystery of Musk” project seems to have created a lot of interest in natural, plant-based materials that can produce a musky scent. Of course, animal-based products like civet and castoreum are natural, too, but there are some convincing and not so convincing reasons for not using them. I won’t go there today.

A few weeks back I wrote a post on amber, but didn’t include ambrette seeds in that category. Perhaps I should have because the name sounds a bit like amber, and it sometimes seems to be described in terms of amber or included as a component of an “amber” accord. The source of ambrette, also known as “botanical musk”, “vegetable musk” and other, less obvious names, comes from a plant in the hibiscus family, Abelmoschus moschatus, shown in the drawing at the top. It’s related to okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), a vegetable that I love curried, fried in batter, cooked in gumbo, or just about any other way you want to prepare it. I used to grow it back when I lived in a place where we didn’t have slugs as big as small dogs, slimy disgusting creatures that can completely mow down a row of okra plants overnight. Come to think of it, okra has a slimy side to it, so maybe there’s something in it that slugs find especially delightful. I now snap up okra whenever it appears in one of our local produce stands, which is all too seldom.

Fresh okra flowers are beautiful, like a light yellow hibiscus with a dark red center, and the fresh pods and seeds have a light perfumey smell. Abelmoschus moschatus flowers and pods look very similar. Ambrette amps up the okra scent to produce a highly distinctive aroma that makes a wonderful perfume base.

A while back I bought a bottle of ambrette seed CO2 extract and have been learning to love it. It arrived in the winter, as a beige-colored solid that looked like just about any other absolute. In that state it didn’t seem to have very much aroma, just a sort of off-putting waxy smell a little like fake oakmoss. To give it a fair chance, I warmed it up enough so that it became liquid, and rubbed a little bit on my skin. At first there was just the waxy smell, only stronger, but before long it bloomed with one of the most amazing and unique scents that I’ve experienced. Unless you’ve smelled ambrette, it’s hard to describe because I can’t think of anything else like it. It’s a little bit floral, a little bit sweet, and a lot of its own musky character. It has decent sillage and lasts for a very long time once it reaches the “musky” phase of its development. I like to wear it by itself, but I’m not sure that hard-core approach is for everybody. Now that it’s summer, it stays mostly liquid, with some waxy stuff in the bottom.

I was planning on using ambrette in a perfume when I acquired some samples of Strange Invisible Perfumes. The first one that I tried, Musc Botanique, was almost pure ambrette with the waxy notes at the beginning covered up with some geranium. I love it. The next was Prima Ballerina, mostly a mixture of ambrette, rose, and lime. Also very nice. The third one, L’Invisible, seemed weak compared to the others, but there is a slight ambrette note in the drydown along with some oakmoss. I still have two more SIP samples to try, so am curious to see if they have ambrette in the base, too. If so, I’ll have to conclude that the trademark of SIP is ambrette. Not a bad thing to use, but it would be nice to mix things up a little. Once I try all of the samples, I’ll probably post reviews here. In the meantime, I’ve concluded that ambrette is a good scent for hot summer weather, and will go to the produce stand to look for some okra. A big pot of gumbo sounds like a good meal for the coming weekend and an opportunity to think about the musky side of okra.

[All Abelmoschus illustrations are from Wikimedia]