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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


This week on Fragrantica there was a discussion in which several people mentioned seeing expiration dates printed on perfumes, the same way they are on milk cartons or bread packages. I was surprised to see that on my carton of half and half coffee cream, there’s even an hour and minute of expiration. At precisely 16:05 on June 26, death comes for the cream. Apparently some perfumes are set to “expire” in one to three years from date of manufacture, and inquiring minds want to know if perfumes really do “expire”.

This new trend is surprising, to say the least. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. People seem to need every aspect of their lives regulated so as not to have to make any decisions on their own. That need is exploited by manufacturers who encourage people to throw away perfectly usable items and buy new ones. Whatever happened to sniffing the milk and using it if it smelled OK but throwing it away if it smelled bad? That’s what our noses are for. The same goes for using the bread if it seems OK, but throwing it away if it’s moldy or dried out. That’s what our eyes and touch receptors are for. Sometimes things go bad before their “expiration date” Do people still use them, oblivious to the bad smell or unpleasant texture? If they’re still good after their “expiration date” is everyone afraid they’re going to be poisoned because of some mysterious “expiration” process?

If perfumes “expired”, who would want to wear vintage perfumes? Some of the best perfumes in my collection are over 50 years old and still as good as new. The whole point of making perfume is to preserve aromatic compounds in alcohol or some other medium so that they’re available until the perfume is used up, just as the making of wines and liqueurs is a way of preserving the aromatic juices of the fruits from which they’re produced. The psychoactive effects of alcohol, now an end in themselves, were probably originally simply a by-product of the preservation process.

It makes sense to think about perfumes the same way you would wine, clothing, or furniture. Eventually the materials they are made of will change subtly or even deteriorate to the point where you can't use them any more, but when the latter happens you will know it. The wine or the perfume will smell bad, the fabric of the vintage garment will tear, the wood of the antique chair will collapse, but until then you can use and enjoy them if your style is a well-aged 50-year old brandy, a rare early 20th century perfume that's missing a few of its top notes, a slightly faded 1940s dress, or a scuffed and musty 17th century armoire. More often, older items, including perfumes, are abandoned because they go out of style, not because they go bad.

When people can no longer think for themselves, they fall into the vulnerable position of becoming victims ripe for exploitation. If your perfume smells good use it, and damn the expiration date.


  1. What's happening to the ingredients during that magic resting period after everything is mixed together? Are there actually reactions that might continue more slowly in the years that follow? It's not obvious that those would be bad.

    And vintage perfumes might improve if some of the ethanol evaporated and left the rest of the bottle more concentrated.

  2. Ed, There probably are all sorts of things that occur slowly after the "magic resting period", but as you observe, they may not necessarily be bad, just as aging wine is not bad, up to a point. Oxidation may result in a darkening of the color without much change in fragrance (I see that in vintage perfumes), or even an improvement of the fragrance, or it may result in profound and undesirable changes in the fragrance. My point is that the consumer should be intelligent enough to judge whether the fragrance has "gone bad" without the aid of an arbitrary expiration date.

    Ethanol evaporation can be problematic. I've bought a couple of modern perfume minis that were virtually empty when they arrived because they were in crappy plastic bottles that didn't seal properly. Evidently they had been sitting on a shelf somewhere for a long time, and the alcohol had just about all evaporated. The result was not good. Fortunately the vendors replaced them.