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, June 10, 2011


Leather seems to always be a problematic note in perfumery. One step too far in the “raw” direction and it’s too close to the dead animal that it came from. One step too far in the “smoky” direction and it smells like a campfire. One step too far in the quinoline direction and it smells like celery. One step too far in the “finished” direction and it smells like powder, violets, iris, or all of those things.

After smelling an uncountable number of “leather” perfumes, I’ve concluded that leather in perfume is an elusive concept that each individual has to construct for him- or herself from an ambiguous olfactory “figure” that could be perceived in more than one way. The easiest way to think about it is by considering an ambiguous drawing. Look at the picture one way and you see the young wife. Look at it another way and you see the old mother-in-law. Sniff the accord one way and it’s violet. Sniff the same accord another way and it’s leather. It’s an interesting cognitive process that crosses over from one modality to another. Like an ambiguous or hidden visual figure, leather is a lot easier to find if you’re told it’s in the mix so that you have a search image to fit it to. Without a suggestive name or a list of notes as a guide, there’s no telling how you’re going to connect the dots.

In general, I like leather scents regardless of which direction they take, and a couple of perfumes with a leather note are on the drawing board. This means that I have to create something that, to me, truly smells like leather. The leather I have in mind is my husband’s relatively new black leather jacket. My own leather jackets (yes, I have more than one, all bought second-hand) have long ago lost that fresh, finished leather smell, which is the one I think I’m going for.

On my first attempt at making a leather accord, I thought I overdosed it with isobutyl quinoline, and planned to start over from scratch. However, after the elements blended together, it doesn’t seem too far from the mark. It needs to be just a little drier, a little less quinoline-heavy (easy to fix), with just a touch more of the leather-finishing chemicals that give new leather its characteristic odor.

As soon as I have the definitive leather accord, my plan is to combine it with the dry grass accord that I made a long time ago to create a perfume celebrating Salamanca, the Spanish college town where I’ve spent a good bit of time. I already combined the first leather accord with the dry grass accord, and know that they go well together. The second plan for the leather accord is to use it in a fragrance inspired by a Seattle café where a lot of actors hang out. I’ll probably call it Café V, with notes of coffee (of course), chocolate, cinnamon, cardamom, cream and vanilla on a base of leather and woods. The initial tests with that basic combination have worked out well, too. I’ll have prototypes of both leather-containing scents soon, so if you’d like to sign up to be a tester for Salamanca, Café V, (and/or a skanky orchid fragrance, Emergence), please let me know by leaving a comment here or sending me an e-mail.


  1. I would very much like to test Salamanca and Cafe V as well as Emergence. I am very suggestible, though. For example, awhile ago Octavian Coifan wrote about the smell of candle wax and fatty aldehydes. Ever since then I seem to want to detect candle wax in everything, aldehydic or not! Is Shiseido's Orange Cattleya (Message from Orchids) created with aldehydes? When I first tried it it reminded me of orchids I have known ( definitely NOT one of the lovely fragrances), but now it smells like candle wax too! I suppose this is all part of my nasal education. Putting a name to a scent really does change the fragrance perspective. Gail

  2. Gail, You're on the testers list for everything! I'm not sure exactly what's in Shiseido's Message from Orchids, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were aldehydes.

  3. Doc Elly -

    I would be more than happy to be a tester for ANY scent you compose! As I mentioned in a previous post, a leather accord would be greatly appreciated. At the moment, my two favourite leathers are: Knize Ten and a decade-old bottle of Caron's Tabac Noir. (I gather that this fragrance has been reformulated - with disasterous results. Some years ago there were many wonderful perfumes containing hefty doses of leather; currently these have been discontinued or reformulated beyond recognition. Good luck with both scents!

    Best Wishes,


  4. I would love to test and blog about your leather scents....my husband and I own a coffee roasting company , and lived in the Seattle area for years before moving to Florida .
    Thanks ! my e-mail is coffee at aug dot com
    or kafa at aug dot com

  5. Robert and Carol, you're both going on my list of testers.

    Robert, I love Knize Ten, but haven't tried Tabac Noir. There are so many discontinued perfumes (too often reformulated = discontinued) to test and so little time.

    Carol, I'm happy to hear that you and your husband are bringing good coffee to Florida! My mother-in-law used to live in Florida, and my recollection is that weak Folger's was the reigning coffee there.

  6. I'd love to be a tester for you (especially that orchid) but I don't have a blog dedicated to perfume. I have a general blog- gardens and crafting, including perfumery. I also belong to the yahoo perfume making group.

    Leather is tricky even to use once you have the accord- I bought some of Bill's (TGSC)leather accord, wanting to make something with red roses, leather, chocolate, pepper- and finally gave up after diluting and diluting and diluting... I'll get back to it someday but I got burned out on it constantly going "HI I'M LEATHER WE'RE IN A BARN NOW" with every try.

  7. Laurie, You're on the testers list. I don't expect testers to review the scents, just let me know what you think about them. I haven't smelled the TGSC leather accord, but I can imagine that it might be hard to work with if your other notes are not very strong.

  8. I'd also be interested in anything you make, Doc. I can send you my impressions privately and/or post them on Basenotes.

    I suppose it's not cost effective to base a new commercial fragrance on a retail accord, but I think the leather accord from The Perfumer's Apprentice smells quite realistic. Since she publishes the formula, I assume the accord is Linda's, not a premix from one of the big houses.

  9. EdC, I'll put you on the testers' list, and will be sending out a call for mailing addresses soon.

    Linda's accords and formulas are always good starting points, but I generally end up modifying them and making my own formulas from scratch. However, even then getting the same materials over the long term is always problematic. Essential oils and absolutes vary from supplier to supplier and batch to batch, suppliers go out of business, and sources get used up (real Indian sandalwood is a good example of that). Even aromachemicals and bases are discontinued, or differ from batch to batch. This whole business can be extremely frustrating, but it's fun anyway.