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.

Saturday, January 14, 2012


When I was at the Sweet Anthem shop in West Seattle the other day, I got to sample several all-natural perfumes that I’ve been hesitant to try because of the extremely high cost. With samples running $24/ml, that’s way out of my price range unless it’s a rare and wonderful vintage perfume that I’m dying to sniff once in my lifetime, before it goes away forever. All three perfumes I tried were nice, but not something I’d love enough to buy. The one that has garnered the most rave reviews and been nominated for a FiFi award was my least favorite of the lot. It just goes to show that not everyone’s tastes are the same, and price is not always relevant to perfume love. It also brought to the forefront of my mind the question of why so many all-natural perfumes are so outrageously expensive.

There are a number of natural perfumers whose creations I haven’t tried simply because of cost. I can’t justify it. For the price of a 2 ml bottle of perfume I could buy 2 ml of natural oud oil, 7 ml of osmanthus or pink lotus absolute, 50 g of ambroxan, 60 ml of frankincense oil, 90 ml of Haitian vetiver, a pound of top-quality Madagascar vanilla beans, or 2 pounds of Atlas cedar oil. Of course, most people wouldn’t want to buy any of those things, so they might as well go for the perfume, but in my case it’s a real consideration.

Unless you’re using real oud, aged Mysore sandalwood, certain flower absolutes, real animal-derived materials or other such exotic things, natural materials aren’t much more expensive than good quality aroma chemicals, some of which are actually quite pricey. In any case, the very expensive materials get mixed with less expensive ones, and then the concentrate gets diluted with alcohol or oil. Natural materials can be a pain to work with, but once you figure out how to deal with dissolving, filtering, and such, it becomes fairly routine. The mechanics of bottling, labeling, packaging, and marketing are the same regardless of what’s in the bottle. Many of the natural materials that smell best and contribute most to a perfume are not terribly expensive in the overall scheme of things. To me, the smell of the final product is what’s important, not the rarity or cost of the materials that go into the mix.

The high prices of so many all-natural perfumes have made me realize that it might be a good idea to create a line of high quality all-natural perfumes that ordinary people like myself can afford, or at least afford to sample. My Kyphi fragrance is all-natural, and although it does contain some expensive materials like French beeswax absolute and saffron absolute, they’re only a small proportion of the whole, so I can sell it for the same price as the mixed media perfumes. Some of my mixed media perfumes, like Salamanca, actually contain a much higher proportion of expensive materials, even though they’re not 100% natural, so “all-natural” is not synonymous with “all costly materials”.

I’ve written fairly detailed briefs to myself for six all-natural fragrances, which, along with Kyphi will make seven. Some of them are spin-offs of my mixed media fragrances for people who want all-natural formulas. They’re all designed to have decent sillage and good longevity, properties that are not at all difficult to achieve using 100% naturals. The first one is undergoing its rest period as I write this. I tried it on the back of my hand last night before I went to bed, and today at noon can still smell the base of balsams and labdanum absolute.

What do you think about all-natural fragrances? Leave a comment and be entered in a random drawing to win a Kyphi 5-ml travel spray. The winner will be selected on Tuesday, January 17.


  1. Hi Ellen,

    All natural or "mixed"? I like them both. It really depends on the composition and how I perceive the fragrance. That being said, one of my favorite natural perfumes is DSH "Mata Hari", the scent DSH created for the Natural Perfumer's Guild "Outlaw Fragrance" project in 2010. I initially bought a very small, expensive sample out of curiosity and ended up purchasing 5 ml then a 15 ml bottle. This fragrance was a limited edition, very expensive for me, and fortunately for my budget, no longer available. I agree that most natural perfumes are over priced. If you decide to create line of 100% naturals it would be great if they were affordable and, like your Kyphi, beautifully unusual and distinctive!


    1. Hello Ellen, It seems to me that product marketing can be sneaky and deceptive. Now that I know how much something like jasmine absolute costs, it seems easier to decide what I am actually paying for. Synthetics sometimes give me brutal migraines. However none of your perfumes did. My opinion is that some well made naturals are preferable to totally synthetic chemical bombs. I also respect someone who uses both as magically as you do. Kyphi is amazingly beautiful, complex and transporting. Your olympic amber is my favorite amber scent and it is not all natural. Thank you so much for creating perfumes!


  2. Hi Ellen,

    I'm of the opinion that if it smells nice, and isn't toxic to one's body, then that's what really matters, i'nnit? Natural doesn't automatically indicate better-smelling, and one is just as likely to be irritated by some natural ingredient as a synthetic component. (I suppose one might argue that synthetics can't mimic exactly a natural counterpart, or is "more complex," but it really just comes down to the sum of all those individual parts, so.)

    I suppose I should say I look at all-natural perfumes the same as I do mixed media perfumes... so there end up being several all-natural scents where I just can't justify forking over that much and end up buying mixed media scents instead. 'Tis a pity, really.


  3. I agree with all the above points.
    I am not a Puritan and I judge fragrance as pieces of art. If they smell good I don't really care if they are 100% natural. I noticed I tend to enjoy those that are a mixture of both worlds.
    I will not give names but there are few natural lines I like a lot. Unfortunately 2 of them are really expensive . And I mean Really expensive. Maybe for good reason because the materials are expensive .

    I am really glad knowing you intend to work on a natural line that will be price accessible.


  4. Gail, there seems to be a big demand for all-natural fragrances, whatever the motivation, so it seems to me that it's worthwhile creating some.

    Zen, jasmine absolute is one of the more expensive materials at about $150-250 per ounce from a vendor like Eden Botanicals, but an ounce is 30 ml of the pure stuff, so it goes a very long way. In all fairness, the materials are only part of the cost of producing perfume. There's also shipping on the materials, which have to be obtained from multiple suppliers, overhead (rent or mortgage, utilities, office supplies, lab supplies, labels, printer ink, packaging, etc.), and the perfumer's own labor in creating and producing fragrances. All this will likely add up to more than the cost of the materials themselves.

    Some commercial synthetic bases also give me migraines, so I know what you mean. All of my perfumes are at least 70% natural, so I think they're tolerated well by most people even if they do contain some synthetics.

    Yun, I totally agree that natural doesn't automatically mean better-smelling or less potentially irritating and the best way to go is to use whatever materials give the desired end product.

    Celina, I agree with you that the best fragrances are often mixed media. I've been thinking about it, and have a theory about why all-natural perfumes are often so expensive. It's because there's no big commercial competition keeping the prices down to a certain range as there is for synthetic and mixed media perfumes. That's probably a good thing because it means that a few huge multinational corporations won't use up all the frankincense or saffron absolute in the world, driving species to extinction even faster than is happening now. Your comments are making me think about the issue of plant conservation even more than I do now. I'll have to do another post on it. Thanks!

    Gail, Zen, Yun, and Celina, you're all entered in the Kyphi drawing.

  5. My experience with the few 100% natural perfumes that I have sampled has been a frustrating lack of longevity especially when considering the price per ml and how quickly they would be used up. When it comes to spending many $$ per ml I, like you, am more tempted by vintage. Or that that pound of Madagascar vanilla beans.
    I have been much more satisfied by some "mixed media" artisanal scents I have tried, both in longevity and wearability (less muddiness in the notes especially at the base).
    I love that you expect your all natural scents to have decent sillage and good longevity and that ordinary people like me will be able to afford them. I wish you every success with these.

    -- Lindaloo

  6. Lindaloo, I've had exactly the same experience with many very expensive 100% natural perfumes fading away within an hour or two. For some reason, a lot of all-natural perfumes seem top-heavy, with very little in the way of base notes. I'm not sure why this is.

    You're in the drawing for the Kyphi.

  7. It seems like I'm with most of the commenters here--if it smells good, that the main thing. Generally, I'm reflexively skeptical of anything that's marketed as "all-natural." I've experienced the natural lack of longevity as well. I do like the outlaw perfume idea, and if the natural perfumers are willing to ignore IFRA restrictions, they deserve some financial support.

  8. As a flower gardener, lover of fragrance, and an individual hyper sensitive to most environmental chemicals, my natural instinct is to go for what is natural. But currently, I have an obsession for Piguet's Fracas given to me as a gift. (I use it very carefully, i.e. just a dab). I think that we have to be very careful how many chemicals are put on out skin, and in our environment. I too have tried expensive natural perfume that has no sillage (last) and expensive non-natural (more than a few Guerlains) that also don't last. So the jury is still out for me. I think 80-90% natural, lasting, and affordable would be perfect.