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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Only one batch of cleaning frenzy goodies was ever claimed, so I'm going to hold a new drawing on Sunday (December 4) for the rest of the items - just in time for Christmas. Everyone who entered before (except the two previous winners) will be included in the new drawing, but if you want to add your name to the list you're welcome to do so.

I just saw that there is a huge list of unclaimed perfume on Cafleurebon, including some 5-ml mini bottles that I offered. Some of it is really nice stuff - even big full bottles. The number of people who fail to check and see whether they won anything kind of boggles my mind. Do people buy lottery tickets and never check to see if they won anything? Do people enter drawings for full bottles of expensive perfume and never check to see if they won it? I really don't get it.

In any case, the three people who wanted samples of norlimbanol and paradisamide will be getting them soon. I plan to ship them off later this week. All of you are on my "testers list", so I have your addresses.

Stay tuned for more giveaways as I go through my cupboards and drawers. And please check all of the drawings that you enter!

[Photo of US military draft lottery, 1969, from Wikimedia]

Sunday, November 27, 2011


What would turkey stuffing be without sage? I started thinking about this herb during the preparations for Thanksgiving dinner when it was revealed that the person who was hosting the dinner didn’t have any sage in the house or garden, so the family member doing the cooking sent her out to the neighbor’s to get some.

The kinds of sage we are most familiar with are only a few of the many hundreds of species in the genus Salvia, which grow worldwide. Salvia is in the mint family, so it’s not surprising that at least some species have aromatic leaves.

The kind of sage that grows in the garden and is an obligatory ingredient in turkey stuffing is Salvia officinalis, also known as Dalmatian sage, a bushy herb native to the Mediterranean. It’s a pretty plant, especially the variegated leaf type, and grows well in the Pacific Northwest. The cute little plant in the photo has long since become a big, woody thing. The purple flowers are attractive not just to look at, but to bees, too. The essential oil of Dalmatian sage has a mild, aromatic, slightly dusty, earthy, musky and salty scent, more or less like crushed fresh sage leaves. I haven’t used it in any of my perfumes yet, but definitely need to experiment with it.

Spanish sage, Salvia lavandulifolia, is similar to the common garden variety, but with narrower leaves. The essential oil smells like a stronger, more camphorous version of officinalis. I think it would be a wonderful addition to a perfume instead of lavender, which I’m not really crazy about in perfume, at least as a prominent note.

Clary sage, Salvia sclarea, is more weedy looking than the other types of sage, with large, broad, heart-shaped leaves. The essential oil smells more woody and flowery than the other types of sage, with a characteristic, slightly metallic fragrance all its own. I just learned that clary sage was traditionally used to flavor muscatel wine and some types of vermouth.

A discussion of Salvia would not be complete without mentioning Salvia divinorum, a Central American species that is supposed to have psychoactive properties. I have to say that I was not impressed by any of its properties. It looks like a weed, it isn’t very aromatic, and as far as I know there’s no essential oil extracted from it, although there are websites that sell all sorts of other, presumably aqueous, extracts. Even if there was an essential oil, I doubt that it would be useful as a perfume material.

Sagebrush is not sage at all, but a type of Artemesia, but that’s a topic for another post.

My favorite culinary use for sage is to cook a batch of tortellini, chop a bunch of fresh sage leaves, sauté them in butter, add crème fraiche, salt, and pepper, and sprinkle the whole thing with a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Delicious!

[Photos of Salvia lavandulifolia, sclarea, and divinorum from Wikimedia]

Saturday, November 26, 2011


Just want to let everyone know that there's a beautifully illustrated article about orchids on Fragrantica, featuring all of my orchid perfumes. Elena did a wonderful job putting it together!

Friday, November 25, 2011


I’m housebound today, refusing to venture out into an environment where an astounding number of people have been whipped into an irrational shopping frenzy by the media creation, “Black Friday”. For those readers not in the US, Black Friday is not the original stock market crash by that name in 1869 or the day after the stock market crashed in 1929; it’s the day after Thanksgiving. In recent years it’s been turned into a sort of holiday in its own right, a carnival celebration of consumerism. All of the stores have sales that include loss leader items that lure customers in and entice them to buy large quantities of random goods. This year I read that many stores were opening at midnight on Thursday and staying open 24 hours so that people could start their shopping early and end it late. Personally, I fail to see the attraction of spending hours waiting line for a store to open so that I can buy the same stuff I could buy any other day of the week, month, or year. I’d rather pay a little more and shop in peace, at my leisure for things I really want.

This leads me to thoughts about household gadgets that are probably leaping off the Black Friday shelves today, and DIY processes that would better be left to a professional. More specifically, the topic of the day is juicers. The resident male of the house went off for a trip to Portland with his brother, but left behind all of the debris from his latest foray into juice-making with his big macho juicer that takes up more than its fair share of counter space (of course, he says the same thing about my shoes in the closet, but we all know that’s different).

I know fresh juice is theoretically a good idea, but somehow I just don’t get it on a practical level. After feeding fruits or vegetables into the apparatus and extracting a relatively small amount of juice, there’s a huge pile of pulp to dispose of, a machine that has to be disassembled, multiple awkwardly-shaped parts that have to be cleaned, and a machine that has to be reassembled. It’s even worse if the juicer doesn’t get cleaned right away and the debris gets dried out and fused to all of its unwieldy parts. The picture, taken from the manufacturer’s website, is designed to make the juicer look much smaller and more compact than it actually is, and omits the oddly-shaped juice collector thingie that fits under the spout. I’m sparing you, gentle reader, the horror of seeing this sleek, industrial-looking apparatus filled with moldy, rotten vegetable matter.

There’s perfectly good ready-made juice to drink in every grocery store. It tastes just about as good. Maybe I’m not a connoisseur, since I don’t drink juice very often, but that’s how it seems to me. And why not just EAT the damn fruit? That way you get it all and there’s little or nothing to clean. Fresh fruit tastes really good, and chewing it makes it taste even better.

I feel the same way about food processors, even though I’ve never had one - what’s wrong with a good sharp knife or a grater? Then there are electric mixers (never had one of those, either) - what’s wrong with a bowl and a spoon or hand-operated whisk or beater? And home ice cream makers (was given one as a present) - why not buy good ice cream ready made or skip Black Friday, save up, and take a trip to Florence, where the professionals make the best ice cream in the world? And bread makers (never had one) - why not go to a good bakery and buy professional quality bread?

What are your thoughts on gadgets? Are there ones you love? Are you like me and find most of them to be way more trouble than they’re worth? Should I invent a home perfume mixing machine, patent it, and get the box stores to sell it on Black Friday to people who won’t ever use it?

[Schwarzer Freitag in Wien, 19th century print by unknown artist; juicer photo from manufacturer's website]

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Since today’s the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, it’s natural to think about all of the things we’re thankful for. Of course there are basic things like a roof that doesn’t leak in all the rain we’re having, enough food to eat, electricity and heat in the dark of winter, running water, and enough money to pay for these things. There’s family, friends, and all the virtual friends that I’ve met through the box I’m typing on - which I also appreciate no end and take for granted unless there’s some failure.

But I decided to combine Thanksgiving with my rave of the week, which I was thinking about last night. As a perfume maker, I couldn’t do it without the raw materials. And there are some outstanding companies that supply raw materials in the quantities that I need, not by the ton. I’d like to send out a special thank-you to some of them for making what I do possible.

First, there’s Liberty Natural, the company in Oregon (almost a neighbor!) from whom I buy many of my essential oils, extracts, and absolutes. They have a fantastic selection, the quality is always good, they give adequate information about their products, the prices are reasonable, and they ship promptly. If an item is backordered, they phone me to let me know. What more can I ask? Next time I’m in Oregon I should try to visit their lavender farm.

Then there’s Eden Botanicals, a California supplier of essential oils and absolutes. They have some things that Liberty doesn’t, they’re on the same coast, the quality is always good, and their clear labdanum absolute is the best around. They also have good information about their products, prices are reasonable, and they ship promptly. They always include a lot of small samples with the shipment. That’s how I got to try fossilized amber, oud CO2 extract, mate absolute, and some other interesting things.

Finally, the outstanding supplier without whom I couldn’t function is The Perfumer’s Apprentice, a unique company in California that supplies aroma chemicals in small quantities appropriate for someone who doesn’t make perfumes on an assembly line in a huge factory. The owner, Linda Andrews, is incredibly helpful, answering every e-mail right away and trying to accommodate her customers in every way possible. She is a wealth of information on aroma chemicals and their sources. I am eternally thankful to Linda for making my life as a perfumer possible. I’ll raise a toast to her at today’s big Thanksgiving feast.

There are also quite a few other companies from whom I order a few things, and I'm grateful for the access I have to so many wonderful materials through the internet.

Finally, I'm extremely grateful for the readers of my blog and the opportunity to share information and ideas through this medium. A big toast to you all!

[Turkey pie still life by Peter Claesz, 1627]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Occasionally I write on topics not directly related to perfume. Today is one of those days. Over my morning coffee I was reading an article about the huge amount of debt accrued by those pursuing a graduate education these days. This is on top of the enormous debt they have racked up to obtain an undergraduate degree. Graduates of higher education programs now commonly leave school with education debt the size of a home mortgage and little prospect of ever having a job with a salary adequate to pay it all back, let alone buy a real house, pay a real mortgage, and live the capitalist (or even the bohemian) dream. Faculty jobs are few and far between, even more so since most aging faculty can no longer afford to retire due to years of flat-lined salaries if not outright cuts, along with retirement accounts that have been sucked dry by the wheelers and dealers of Wall Street. The top 1% of university administrators and football coaches are another matter, but are not relevant to this discussion.

It’s easy to say that graduate students know what they’re getting into and make a conscious choice to live a life of poverty and/or indentured servitude to the finance industry, but unfortunately it’s more or less the same scenario no matter what career path a student decides to pursue. Even dentists and lawyers leave school with huge debt and have to work for years to pay it off. Given the unrealistic expectations created at every socioeconomic level by those whose goal is to “grow the economy”, everyone is encouraged to live beyond their means or else feel inadequate.

The whole myth that the economy must grow infinitely in order to be healthy has long been one of the sacred cows of the capitalist philosophy. However, capitalism, like any other system taken to its ultimate extreme, has the potential to backfire. The fact is that the earth and every society has a finite amount of resources. Those who are most focused on “growing” their share of the resources must inevitably, at some point, start taking resources from those who are less fanatical about amassing them. The result that we see now in the US is wealth that is concentrated in a tiny percentage of the population, represented by a few huge corporations that own practically everything, including the government. Capitalism has ended up taking us back full circle to a feudal society in which the new nobility are the corporate entities that make up the industrial-military-medical-financial complex and their rulers. The serfs and indentured servants make up the rest of the population, who must work like drones to keep the nobility in the style to which they are accustomed. Debt is one form of servitude. Scrambling to keep up with payments leaves little time to think about the situation.

The article on student debt quoted a Bruce Springsteen song lyric from 1982, which says “I’ve got debts no honest man could pay”. That pretty much sums up the situation of a great many honest people in the US today, not just gamblers in Atlantic City. I’m not sure what the best strategy is to reverse the trend toward neo-feudalism, but certainly the first step is to acknowledge it. I think the “Occupy” movement is an instinctive, albeit fuzzy, step in that direction.

Every ruler needs his fool, even though they don’t listen to them until there’s a crisis, so I’ll end this with a fool's message to the one percent,

“With a heigh and a ho and a hey-nonny-no, pay your share of taxes and curb your greed, nuncle. Even vile vermin can’t afford to kill their host.”

[Castle and modern mansion photos from Wikimedia; King Lear painting by Willian Dyce, 18??]

Monday, November 21, 2011


After going through a slump this past summer and fall, I’m starting to get excited again about the projects that I left on the drawing board in sketch or outline form.

Last summer I wrote about my idea to make a limited-edition scent based on paper to celebrate the first anniversary of Olympic Orchids Perfumes. I kind of forgot about it during the time surrounding my mother’s death, but I was reminded of it again when I was simultaneously sniffing a newly-acquired material that I was testing, and going through some of my old files. When I have ideas, I usually write a brief to myself in the little notebook that I always carry around. Sometimes I transcribe them to my laptop, and this time I had done so.

Here’s the brief:

We all could use an infusion of cash into our bank account, but this is a different kind of infusion - the scent of money. It’s the papery fragrance of a well-worn dollar bill (or 5,10, 20 or more, they’re all alike, recent attempts to tint the green rectangles with pink and peach notwithstanding!). The paper, with its own characteristic smell, is infused with the scent of leather wallets and purses, musky pockets, tobacco, a hint of cheap and expensive perfumes, and the thousands of mysterious places that the tough little piece of paper has visited. Now grind up some greenbacks and tincture them to extract their scent - not literally, but in theory. The result would be called “Infusion d’Argent”.

What better paper to be inspired by than old-fashioned banknotes? Euro banknotes smell similar to US ones, but not as strong. Maybe they’re not as absorbent, or maybe they’re all newer than the oldest dollar bills, which have been knocking around for quite some time. I suppose purse and wallet perfumes have been done before, but hasn’t everything?

At this rate, I’ll always be behind by one year, but maybe I can double up at some point. The idea is that the perfume would be a limited edition, released in July of one year, and sold for a year from the release date. As soon as I finish a stack of writing tasks that I have to do for my “day job”, I’ll get started on it!

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The two winners of the cleaning frenzy drawing are Meredith and glitterandsmut! Congratulations to both of you! Please PM me your full names and mailing addresses.

I swear I didn't just pick the first two people on the list - I actually wrote everyone's name down on a piece of paper, shook them up really well, closed my eyes, and drew two out of the hat.

If you're not a winner this time, stay tuned for Cleaning Frenzy Part 2. There will be more stuff coming along as I go through my perfume stashes.

Friday, November 18, 2011


Many aroma chemicals are just chemical building blocks that are not particularly attractive on their own, but play a key role when combined with other things. It’s strange how, after working with them for a while, I can smell their potential roles even though I don’t like their odor when they’re on their own. This makes sense when you think about the fact that each aroma chemical is a single molecule, unlike natural materials, which are usually “cocktails” of many molecules. However, once in a while there’s a single molecule that has all the character and richness of a natural cocktail. I just discovered two of these amazing creatures.

They were both in a batch of new aroma chemicals that I purchased recently. One of them was so compelling that I’ve already worn it as a perfume on its own. Here they are:

Norlimbanol (aka timberol) is like the best woody cedar-type fragrance you ever smelled. It exudes aromatic woodiness taken to exponential levels, but it also has a rich, sweet undercurrent to it. Others who have written about it describe it as “dry”, but I don’t find it particularly dry. If I didn’t know it was an aroma chemical, I would say it was a perfume in its own right, just as essential oils and absolutes are perfumes in their own right. I’ve tested it on a paper strip and found that it stays fairly linear and lasts for over a month. As a woody scent, it’s not surprising that it would function as a base note. I liked the paper strip so much that I used a tiny dab as a perfume and - wow! It’s fantastic. It not only provides a long-lasting aromatic woody scent, it actually changed on my skin, becoming richer, sweeter, and almost musky over the course of the day. I’m in love with norlimbanol, and can’t wait to use it in a perfume.

Paradisamide smells just like fresh passion fruit (maracuya) and guava. It’s not only a tropical fruity scent par excellence, but -- get this -- it’s a base note. On paper it lasts for over a month, changing very little during that time. I haven’t tried wearing it as a stand-alone perfume yet, but that’s definitely on the agenda. I can see using this in composing tropical fragrances, including some based on orchid flower scents. The possibility of having a fruity scent that lasts throughout the evolution of a perfume opens up a host of interesting possibilities.

If you’d like to sample these two scents, leave a comment. I’ll have a drawing for two sample sets of norlimbanol and paradisamide, diluted to perfume concentration. Also, stay tuned for the announcement of the winners of the Cleaning Frenzy Drawing this Sunday.

[Tree and fruit photos adapted from Wikimedia]

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


This recent article on natural perfumes was brought to my attention by Dee Howe on Botoblog. Overall it’s quite a good write-up on the use of natural materials in perfumery, but I was struck by a quote in the article stating that natural perfumes, unlike synthetic perfumes “are not a cocktail of chemicals”. I did a double-take on this one. If natural materials are not chemicals, what are they? Some sort of magical ether that contains no molecules at all?

There seems to be widespread misuse of the term “chemicals” as a pejorative when, in fact, everything in nature is made up of chemicals. Every molecule, natural or synthetic is a chemical. Our bodies are complex collections of chemicals. The food we eat is nothing but chemicals. The plants that grow in the wild and in our gardens are sophisticated aroma chemical factories that produce odors to attract pollinators to their flowers. On the flip side of the coin, their vegetative parts often produce chemicals that repel, disable, or even kill pests.

Many of those attractants, repellents, and insecticides are exactly what our own noses find attractive. It’s tempting to speculate that, historically, plants with pleasant odors have been domesticated, thereby increasing their chances of survival in a world where more and more of wild nature is being destroyed by an exploding human population.

I sometimes feel like the odd perfumer out, standing in no-man’s-land in the pitched battle between two opposing camps of extremists. On the one side there are those who advocate aroma chemicals for their “purity”, “reproducibility”, “hypoallergenic properties” and all of the other virtues attributed to chemicals made in factories. On the other, arguably more vocal, side there are those who advocate the use of nothing but natural materials, simply because they are mysteriously produced by plants (or in some cases, animals, but that’s a different issue).

The truth is that toxic chemicals are made both in factories and by plants. Helpful chemicals are made both in factories and by plants. Some of the aroma chemicals made in factories are the same molecules as those made by plants. Most essential oils, absolutes and tinctures that are lauded for their simplicity and “purity” are actually cocktails of dozens or hundreds of different molecules (i.e., chemicals). In fact, that’s what I love about natural materials. They are cocktails with a richness of fragrance and a “personality” that’s not often found in synthetic molecules. Give me a good cocktail of chemicals like an aged olibanum, Mysore sandalwood, Bourbon vanilla, coffee absolute, kewda attar, rose de mai -- or even a good mojito -- and I’m a happy perfumer!

[Cocktail photos all adapted from Wikimedia]

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Some time ago I acquired an odd bottle of perfume from a person who was selling off some items she no longer wanted. I had never heard of “Spirit of Gingle” and my attempts at research on it turned up absolutely nothing, so of course curiosity got the better of me and I sent off for it. It’s a 1.7 oz cylindrical clear glass spray bottle with gold lettering and gold colored trimmings at the sides and top, including a disc-shaped cover that swings aside for spraying. The juice inside is a light blue-lavender color. It says it was made by a company called Gingle, in Paris.

I finally got around to trying it the other day, and found that it features citrusy aldehydes, a nice fruity tobacco note, the standard harsh commercial woody base, and some generic fruity-floral notes. It smells vaguely like Givenchy Hot Couture, which I just happened to sample a few days after trying Gingle. Somehow, it seems that randomly sampled perfumes often come in serendipitous groups. Spirit of Gingle is nothing really special, but it’s not bad, either. It’s certainly wearable, and it’s definitely a curiosity.

If anyone out there knows anything about this obscure perfume or the company that made it, I’d love to hear from you!

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I am currently in the midst of one of my periodic cleaning frenzies and purges, anxious to get rid of a basket full of perfume-y things that I don’t want or need, so am going to hold a joint drawing here and on Fragrantica for two batches of mostly very commercial perfumes. Each batch will include one of two full bottles (Curve Crush or Liz Claiborne Spark) and three of six minis (Guerlain My Insolence, Elizabeth Arden Red Door, Baby Phat Goddess, Calvin Klein Euphoria, Coty American Original, and a Bvlgari with no other name on the bottle. Each batch will also include a few carded manufacturers’ samples, some single-note fragrance samples, the origin of which I’ve forgotten, and several of my own perfumes in the original little 5 ml green industrial-type bottles that I used when I first started selling them at orchid shows.

If you live in the US and would like to be entered in the drawing, just leave a comment to that effect. You can also indicate your preferences as to which FB and/or minis you’ll get. If the two winners both want the same things, I’ll flip a coin to decide how to split the booty. The winners will be announced a week from today, Sunday, November 20.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


As the number of perfumes I make has increased, the number of samples in a full sample pack has also increased. The time had come for some adjustments, so I am now offering several options in the standard sample pack: a 5-pack for $10, a 10-pack for $15, or a full sample pack for $20. The customer gets to choose the fragrances in the smaller packs. The deluxe sample pack, shown in the photo, is unchanged. All of the sample options are still nominally priced compared to the going rate for samples.

I’ve also discontinued the 50-ml bulb spray bottles, since the bulb atomizers tend to malfunction. They look nice, but if they don’t work reliably, they have no place in my lineup.

The final change is new packaging for the soaps, along with a more limited selection of soap fragrances at any given time. I never really liked the bulky food take-out boxes that I was using, which were hard to store and not conducive to finding things. I finally found some much smaller natural “kraft” cardboard boxes that just fit the soaps, take up minimal room on the storage shelf, and can be labeled in a way that keeps the names in plain sight. Another soap packing problem arose due to the use of tissue paper to wrap the soap. With time, the oils in the soap discolored the tissue paper, making for an unattractive sight when the soap was unpacked. I now have clear shrink-wrap sleeves that protect the soap and its outer packaging. I hope that these changes will help increase the shelf life of the soaps and improve their presentation.

After more than a year of selling perfume products online, I feel like I’m finally starting to get a good set of methods in place for production, packaging and marketing, but I suspect that it will always be a work in progress. My next project will be re-organizing my perfume organ and work area, but that’s an undertaking almost as daunting as climbing Mount Everest.

Friday, November 11, 2011


Sometimes I feel like I spend most of the time on this blog complaining about one thing or another, so should try to write a really positive post once a week. This week it’s all about the gorgeous weather we’ve been having and the extraordinary beauty of the area where I live and work.

Yesterday was one of those rare fall days when it’s relatively warm and the sky is deep blue and completely clear. Walking across campus just before the sun set, I was overwhelmed by the bright golden light that came, not from above, but horizontally as the sun neared the horizon. This bright horizontal sunlight seems to be a specialty of the Pacific Northwest, where the air is still relatively smog-free and the sun can keep shining fully until the very last minute. Most of the trees are in full color, just starting to drop some of their leaves. I reveled in the golden sun illuminating screens of red, orange and gold leaves, the shadows projected infinitely to the side instead of falling on the ground, the joy of swishing my feet through piles of dry, multicolored leaves, stepping on the occasional fallen snowberry and listening to it make that crisp “Knallerbsen” pop, and the indescribable woody, earthy, moldy, aromatic scent of leaves that are just on the verge of decomposing. I don’t know of any perfume that fully captures that fallen-leaf scent, but Ineke’s Evening Edged in Gold comes close to capturing at least some facet of the euphoric-melancholy visual atmosphere of a sun-gilded transition from afternoon to evening like the one I’m describing.

Last night the moon was full, or near full. Walking outside with the full moon overhead, the sky was colored that 3-dimensional deep blue-black that’s most often seen on a bright night in the desert. The moonlight was strong enough to bring up some subtle color in the silvery glaze of light that coated everything it touched, and cast sharp, black shadows, this time from above.
The strength of the moonlight was amazing and took me back to times in my childhood when I would wake up in the middle of the night with the moonlight shining into my room, get up, go downstairs, and wander around outside, feeling a strange sense of nostalgia and longing, seeing everything in a new, unaccustomed, and sometimes frightening way. Night always accentuates scents, so the smell of fallen leaves was particularly strong, wet, and earthy under the moon’s influence. The moonlight made me think about making a perfume called “Shadows of the Moon”. As if I needed more perfume ideas.

Sunset paintings by Albert Bierstadt (18??), and Konstantin Bogaevsky (1896); Moonlight paintings by Ilya Repin (1896) and Albert Ryder (1890)

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Yesterday evening while I was working in my “day job” lab, all of the fire alarms in the building went off. The people I was working with carried on with what they were doing while I went to investigate. This may sound blasé, but out of all the numerous times I’ve experienced fire alarms, I have yet to experience an actual fire or other emergency associated with them. The one time I did experience an accidental fire, no alarms or emergency responses were involved, but that's a story for another day. Fire alarms in public buildings seem to malfunction on a regular basis, so no one takes them seriously.

After the alarms sounded, I had to leave the building to find out what was going on since everyone had been ordered outside. It looked like a dire emergency since there were two enormous fire trucks parked at the entrance, at least a half dozen police cars and vans, and a crowd of several dozen firefighters, emergency medical personnel, university security people and police officers running around. There was even a police dog on a leash, sniffing the ground.

At first no one seemed to know what was going on, but as I located and talked to the protagonists, the story slowly emerged. It turns out that someone had called the department main office manager complaining about an “odor” in one of the shared work spaces. He checked the space in question and didn’t smell anything, but called building maintenance anyway to report it, making it clear that it was not an emergency. Shortly thereafter the alarms went off and the massive turnout of fire and police crews appeared on the scene, ordering everyone who was visible to them evacuate the building. The group of students standing behind me on the sidewalk speculated that the odor was from a corn dog that one student had been eating, and/or the farts that followed its consumption. It’s as good an explanation as any and serves to highlight the absurdity of the reaction.

This grotesque overreaction to the report of an “odor” highlights the US obsession with “safety” and the paradox created by overreacting to vanishingly small possibilities of harm for fear of legal repercussions. Another good example of this phenomenon is a tsunami siren that is sounded every day in a coastal town near here. The alarm is sounded to “test” it, but clearly everyone in the town has learned to completely ignore it, so if there actually were a tsunami on the way, everyone would continue going about their usual business. We’re surrounded by the wolf cries shrieked out by tsunami alarms, fire alarms, smoke alarms, and other alarms that are constantly being tested, malfunctioning, or sounded in response to trivial, innocuous occurrences. If there ever were a fire, we would have to depend on our noses and our common sense to alert us that we need to get out of the building.

I can well imagine that the next time the fire alarm goes off in our building, it will be because someone complained about an “odor” from a perfume that someone was wearing, and the complaint got transmitted to 911. That makes about as much sense as a corn dog, and maybe a better story.

[Wolf photo from Wikimedia; fire alarm image adapted from Wikimedia]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Late last month I had to go to the fabric store to buy some cloth to cover a prop I was making for an upcoming show. I hate all fabric stores with a passion. There’s no need to go into details except to say that the fabric cutting and checkout system always seems to move in slow motion and is highly bureaucratic. I don’t do well dealing with the bureaucratic mentality in any form, and I really don’t want to lounge around at the fabric cutting counter holding my number, waiting for the cutters to discuss with a semi-conscious customer which tiny floral pattern will look best next to another tiny floral pattern on a quilt, slowly comparing one piece of cloth after another without anything actually getting cut, all the while nearly choking on cinnamon fumes.

Speaking of cinnamon fumes, before even entering the store I was assaulted by the strongest cinnamon odor I’ve ever smelled - much stronger than real, pure cinnamon. I thought the management must be pumping cinnamon scent into the store, so I asked one of the women who worked there what the cinnamon smell was. She replied, “Oh, it’s just the pine cones. It would be too expensive to use cinnamon scent”. Pine cones? Since when do pine cones smell like supercharged cinnamon? I asked another person who worked in the store if she noticed the in-your-face smell of cinnamon, and whether it bothered her at all. She replied that she hardly noticed it, but when she came in to work in the mornings it made her feel as if she had a lot of energy. She assured me that the cinnamon scent came from “the pine cones”. I probed a bit further and found out that there were bags of ponderosa pine cones stacked in the area between the two sets of doors at the entrance, and these were the source of the scent.

Sure enough, the pine cones were right there in the entry lobby, in net bags, exuding a powerful artificial cinnamon odor. I suppose they had been soaked in cinnamon scent, but why? Ponderosa pine cones have a lovely scent of their own, subtle though it is. A few dozen bags of these cones scented the entire large supermarket-size store, even though they weren’t technically IN the store. What would a whole bag of cones do to a small house or apartment? Kill bedbugs?

I suppose the idea is to buy a bag of cones and place them in strategic locations to promote a holiday-like atmosphere and attitude through continuous inhalation of cinnamon. Welcome your guests with a blast of cinnamon coming from an innocent-looking little pine cone! Inspire your family to purchase mass quantities of retail goods through constantly inhaling cinnamon scent! Sell your gigantic foreclosure-prone house by fumigating it with cinnamon pine cones!

In all fairness, the pine cones are probably meant as Thanksgiving or Christmas decorations, so when they’re delivered to the stores in early October they have a while to go before being sold and used for their intended purpose. In the meantime, maybe the cinnamon scent will be reduced to a pleasant level, but wow! Like the agarbatti scent that permanently invades every item bought in little Indian clothing shops, cinnamon is probably going to be a signature scent that permeates every item sold by this fabric store for the entire coming year.

What do you think about holiday-theme ambient scents? Do you enjoy them? Do you use them? What are your favorites and least favorites? Do they influence your attitudes and behavior?

[Pine cone photos from Wikimedia]

Sunday, November 6, 2011


My recent post about a perfume I’m working on, Café V, raised in my mind the issue of why the scent of cardamom is so aversive to so many people. To me, it’s just the delicious spice that’s put in chai, sweets, and sometimes coffee, to enhance its flavor.

Cardamom (or cardamon, as it’s sometimes spelled) is a plant related to ginger, and native to India. The part that’s used for spice and to make essential oil for perfumery is the seeds, which come in three double rows of small brown or black seeds with a shape that’s somewhere between a sphere and a cube, tightly packed in a woody pod.

There are two different genera of plants known as “cardamom”. Elettaria cardamomum, which is called “green cardamom”, “true cardamom”, or “cinnamon palm”, is native to India, and is the commonly used spice, also known as “elaitchi”. Amomum, also called “black cardamom”, is native to other parts of Asia and Australia. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered the black variety in a spice shop, but will have to check my local Indian grocery and see if they have any. “White cardamom” is just the green cardamom pods that have been heat-treated and bleached to make them look cleaner.

The cardamom plant looks like a giant ginger plant, or an odd sort of palm, growing to 15 feet tall. It flowers with long stalks of light green and violet flowers that develop into the seed pods. Apparently it can be grown as a house plant, although I’m sure it prefers growing outdoors on a cardamom plantation in nice tropical weather.

In cooking, cardamom is used as a flavoring in chai and coffee, in many different Indian sweets and curries and, oddly enough, in Scandinavian baked goods. I think maybe the reason why most Americans and Europeans dislike cardamom in perfume is because it’s unfamiliar. Maybe it smells like a weird form of cinnamon or cloves. It’s a lot sharper, more resinous, and aromatic than cinnamon, and a lot more complex than cloves, without the smoky aspect of cloves.

I’ve used cardamom in small quantities in Kyphi and Gujarat, but in those compositions there’s so much else going on that the cardamom just blends into the general mix and probably can’t be identified. When I used it in Café V, it was a principal note, so people picked up on it. I like cardamom better than cinnamon in perfume, but that’s just my own preference. I certainly like cardamom better than cinnamon in coffee and tea. I would almost wear cardamom oil alone as a perfume, but I can imagine that it would not be well-received by all who encountered its sillage. Others would just wonder, “Where’s the chai?”.

[Cardamom plant and botanical illustration from Wikimedia]

Saturday, November 5, 2011


Catasetinae are an odd group of orchids. Unlike most other orchids, they often have either male or female flowers depending on growing conditions, although sometimes the flowers are hermaphroditic. If this sounds confusing, it is.

Right now I have a Catasetum expansum that’s in full bloom with large, shiny, light green flowers. I didn’t realize at first that they were fragrant, but quickly discovered that they smell just like spearmint with a little touch of anise. It’s the coolest, freshest orchid scent that I’ve ever smelled. It could be a toothpaste or chewing gum. Not really perfume material, but interesting nonetheless.

The flowers on my plant are male. When I touched one of them on the little spring-loaded trigger right over the lip, the pollinia shot out at high speed, as if from a gun, even making a little explosive sound. The two pollinia are attached to a tiny white tab with a dot of sticky stuff at the base. They stuck to my hand, just as they would stick to an insect’s back for transport to a female flower that actually offers a sip of nectar, not just a slap on the back.

I’m not sure what kind of insect finds spearmint attractive, but there must be one.