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, March 31, 2012


I haven’t had a contest or drawing for a long time, so was thinking about what to do for the next one. An idea popped into my head when I received a shipment from Eden Botanicals the other day and saw that they had generously included 9 samples. Whenever I order bulk materials from them, they send a whole pack of small samples in 1 ml vials, so I have quite a collection. Some of these are materials I already have in large quantities, so it occurred to me that it would be nice to share these little sniffies with those who don’t usually buy essential oils, resins, absolutes, or extracts.

Some things, like agarwood SCO2 extract, I’m keeping for myself just because they’re so expensive and/or hard to come by that even a small quantity is a good thing to keep and use. The samples in the drawing will be some of the more ordinary things, but it’s still an opportunity to smell these natural notes by themselves rather than as components of a finished fragrance. The winner will receive a package of at least 6 samples. If enough people enter, I’ll send out 2 sets of samples.

If you would like to be entered in the drawing, leave a comment saying what one of your favorite natural perfume notes is. The winner will be randomly drawn on Saturday, April 7.

By the way, if you are testing davana and haven't sent me your comments yet, please do so soon, as I'm going to post about it this week or next.

[spice, hemlock resin, and chamomile photos from Wikimedia]

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Yesterday I discovered that the building where I teach my spring quarter class is surrounded on one side by a multitude of blooming magnolia trees. There are three different types of magnolia, all variations on the deciduous “Japanese” magnolia. The star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, has pure white, delicate-looking flowers and the most delicate scent. It smells sweet, clean, and moist, with only a hint of the spiciness that’s present in the larger magnolia flowers.
The saucer magnolia, Magnolia soulangeana, has the largest flowers of the deciduous magnolias, in colors that range from pure white to pink. The fragrance is also sweet, clean, and moist, but with a distinct spicy note. I think the other trees must be hybrids that are intermediate between the saucer and star magnolia, with flowers that are between the two in both appearance and fragrance.

Most of the magnolias that grow in the Pacific Northwest are the deciduous kind, but every so often I see a nice specimen of Magnolia grandiflora, the evergreen magnolia. I have vivid memories of a Magnolia grandiflora tree that grew in front of one place we lived when I was a child. The tree itself was intimidating with its blackish trunk and branches, its wide shiny leaves, and the fact that nothing else would grow under it. Despite the imposing bulk and sinister appearance of the tree, I loved the heady scent of the huge white flowers, a clean, sweet scent with camphorous and spicy notes. My brother and I, together with other kids in the neighborhood would throw the magnolia “cones” at each other, pretending they were hand grenades.

A subgenus of the magnolia family is Michelia. One of my favorite essential oils is Michelia alba, which has some of the same sweet, camphorous and spicy notes as magnolia grandiflora flowers. I’ve used it in several of my perfumes to add a light, spicy, green-floral note.

There’s also Michelia champaca, used to make a floral absolute with a sweet scent that’s a little like green tea with honey.

Magnolias are primitive plants, with fossils dating back to the days of the dinosaurs, and I think that gives them a special mystique. To smell a magnolia flower is to smell the ancient world that existed before we humans were in the picture.

[All flower photos from Wikimedia]

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I was reading a blog or forum post a while back (I don’t remember where it was) that posed the question of whether the availability of information on the internet, together with the increased availability of fragrance itself and the use of fragrance in so many mundane applications, has decreased the mystique surrounding perfume, and therefore its desirability. As a perfumer, I’ve thought about this a lot and, as with any other question, there are many ways to answer it, all partly right, and all partly wrong (can you tell I’m a Libra?).

A corollary of this question, I suppose, is whether the abundance of relatively accessible technical information, the revelation of scent-making secrets, and transparency in perfume formulation has led to an increased level of marketing hype and general BS to counteract the perception that perfume is just another ordinary product like car air fresheners, printer cartridges and ball-point pens, made in factories by machines tended by anonymous button pushers to briefly serve a function and then be disposed of so that the consumer can buy more, near-identical, items to replace them.

Personally, I think we all need a little romance and mystique in our lives. A lot of it comes from other people and from intangible, ephemeral experiences like watching snow fall, traveling, or listening to music, but we also instinctively need some tangible inanimate objects that we marvel at for their beauty, revel in through our senses, treasure, and wish to keep forever. Ancient and primitive cultures seem to understand that everyday objects should be well-made, meaningful, and beautiful. Some of my prized objects are a chunky bowl hand-crafted from beautifully patterned olive wood that I bought from a little hole-in-the wall shop in Spain, the Native American silver squash blossom earrings that I bought in Arizona, a beautifully designed and crafted black leather jacket that I bought like new at a second-hand store and wear constantly; the green Gibson guitar that I don’t have time to learn to play properly, and a few really gorgeous perfumes.

Taking this analogy a little further, I suppose I could put food in a cheap plastic bowl, wear a pair of tacky plastic earrings, wear a cheaply made, ugly but warm, synthetic cloth jacket, pick at a cheap particleboard guitar that’s constantly going out of tune, and spray on a cheap fragrance oil diluted in alcohol until I get sick of all of these things, but why? Just so I can go out and buy more inferior items that I’ll also get sick of before long and do my part to keep the economy growing?

I don’t think knowing how things are made demystifies them as long as they’re made with thought and care. If they’re not well made, the mystique will wear off anyway when they break, malfunction, or just get annoying because of their cheapness and ugliness. I probably know more about how a hand-turned wooden bowl or a blown glass one is made than I do about how a plastic bowl is mass-produced in a factory, but the hand-made objects don’t lose their allure simply because I can envision the process of making them. They still have their intrinsic beauty, and the fact that someone actually put some thought into choosing the materials, designing the objects, and crafting them with care is a mystique in itself. Even though I know how a wooden or blown glass bowl is made, that doesn’t mean that I could make one, and certainly not a beautiful one. I think the same goes for perfume.

In fact, if we indie perfumers are honest and forthcoming about how our perfume is made, it should give the user a heightened appreciation for the quality of the materials used, the huge amount of knowledge, skill, time, and experimentation that goes into designing a perfume, and the love and labor that goes into producing what is a work of olfactory art.

The factories can keep the BS and hyperbole. Ultimately, it’s up to the consumer to distinguish between real craftsmanship and fictional craftsmanship, and it’s up to the consumer to decide whether they want to experience their own authentic version of pleasure or a ready-made, spoon-fed, fictional version of pleasure.

[Pics of handmade objects (ancient Egyptian perfume bottle, Mayan bowl, and vintage kilim rug) all from Wikimedia]

Monday, March 26, 2012


No, this is not another post about “too many perfume blogs”, which I personally think is a non-issue like how many molecules can dance on the head of a pin. It’s a requiem for my own habitual posting of perfume reviews on one of the public fora.

I know this is not primarily a perfume review blog, but I have on occasion posted reviews of perfumes made by others on here, and for the past several years I’ve posted reviews almost every day on Fragrantica. As my perfume business has developed and grown, I’ve wondered from time to time about the issue of perceived conflict of interest, but have ignored that nagging little demon whispering in my ear because reviewing is so much fun. However, the issue of conflict of interest was brought home to me the other day by a colleague who characterized my reviews as “competitive”. That was never the spirit in which they were written, but I’m grateful that my nagging question has been answered loud and clear.

Yes, the whispering demon is right. I will no longer put my naked thoughts out there to be misconstrued. A perfumer has no business reviewing any perfumes other than his or her own. Any negative comment, or even faint praise, can be taken as hostility. Even glowing positive comments can be taken as an attempt to unfairly promote the work of a colleague for some selfish reason. Damned if you praise, and double-damned if you don’t.

Sampling perfumes, trying to analyze them, writing down my impressions, then reading the official notes and reviews that are out in public has long been one of my learning tools. It’s a way of finding out what works and what doesn’t, what people’s perceptions of specific notes are (always mind-boggling), what people can’t smell (also mind-boggling), and what’s already on the market so that I don’t inadvertently duplicate it. As it is, I’ve had a couple of near misses.

In a way, I’m sad to have to put this constraint on myself. I’ve enjoyed sharing my thoughts with the virtual community of perfumistas. But once I had made the decision, I quickly recovered from my grief over this loss of a morning ritual, and gained a new sense of freedom about what to sample(s) to wear, when to wear them, and what to write as notes for my eyes alone.

[Clip from watercolor painting by Carl Larsson, 1906]

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I haven’t been skiing at all this year and only once last year, but was lucky enough to get a couple of cheap lift tickets for night skiing, which starts at 3:00. This time of year, “night skiing” includes a lot of daytime skiing, too, since it doesn’t really get dark on the mountain until after 7:00. It was the right time to go.

Yesterday was a glorious, sunny day, so the drive up the mountain with my friends was spectacular. The lower slopes of the Cascades are covered with mossy, green rainforest-type vegetation, and with the sharp-toothed, snow-capped peaks in the background I was kicking myself for forgetting to bring my camera. I have always preferred to travel light and store the sights in my memory, but now I’m always thinking “photo opportunity for the blog”. One of these days I’ll learn to take my camera everywhere I go. Near the top, there are stratified walls of snow on either side of the highway.

The ski area is always like another world or another planet, but this weekend it outdid itself with 145+ inches (over 4 meters) of snow on the ground, bright blue sky, warm sun and – well, I might as well be honest – a layer of slush at the base and hard-packed snow and ice on top, full of potholes and gashes from the snowboarders, but who cares about snow conditions? It’s all good fun and I’d rather see the views and feel the first sun of the season than ski in the middle of a snowstorm with nice, fresh snow underfoot but no visibility.

It was both relaxing and awe-inspiring to watch the sun go lower, sink behind the mountain on the west while still shining on the peaks to the east, then watch as the sky darkened and a tiny sliver of crescent moon appeared in the west where the sunset was fading. The air was so clear that you could see the dark side of the moon, too.

Then it got cold. The slush at the bottom froze into ice. My teeth started chattering riding up the lift. We decided to go into the lodge for hot cocoa. Oh, what a treat it was to go inside where it was warm, drink the almost-too-hot, chocolate-flavored glop from the dispenser machine, and sit by the fireplace! It made me think of making a perfume based on chocolate and wood smoke. I think the two would go together perfectly.

Once we were warmed up and back outside again, the slopes were nearly deserted, so we practically had the mountain to ourselves. The sky was black, with Venus shining in the west above the moon, and the stars all out. This time it didn’t seem so cold. As I dropped gently down the mountain, I had the feeling that there’s nothing closer to the feeling of complete and utter freedom than to be on the mountain at night, swish-swishing down a deserted ski slope, feeling like I’m flying above the snow, my breath perfectly coordinated with the wide turns, the stars overhead, and the freezing wind in my face.

We skied almost until closing time at 10:00. This complete break from reality was exactly what I needed before the academic quarter starts again on Monday. And I have an idea for yet another perfume.

[Upper two photos, from Wikimedia show typical snow scenes in the Cascades; third photo, from Wikimedia, shows Stevens Pass, the area where I usually ski. The bottom photo is from the Stevens Pass webcam, showing the base area. It's overcast today, so the nice blue sky isn't visible.]

Saturday, March 24, 2012


I know there are many reasons for reformulation of perfumes, usually attributed to to lowering the manufacturing cost, but they could also be because a material has become banned, prohibitively expensive, hard to get, or no longer available. Lately, I’ve been facing a different dilemma.

It has to do with at least one of the orchid fragrances in my original line. Since I created them, quite a few new and better materials have either become available, or I’ve learned about and tested them. In particular, I think I could reformulate Red Cattleya to be lighter, brighter, and more watery (in the sense that orchid scents are “dewy and moist”, NOT aquatic), and more natural smelling. Additionally, I think reformulation would allow it to hold up better.

I generally go by the philosophy, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but it’s really tempting to try and subtly improve on the existing scent. It wouldn’t be a cheaper formula. In fact, it might actually be more expensive, but that’s OK. I have mixed feelings about changing the formula of an existing perfume. I’m debating whether I should try that, or whether I should just create a new perfume altogether, “Pink Cattleya”, “Lavender Cattleya” or “White Cattleya”, for example?

Dear readers, what do you think about reformulations?
- Yes, they’re OK regardless of reason?
- Yes, but only if it improves the quality of the perfume?
- No way! Just make a new one?

[Painting of alchemist pondering whether to reformulate by Henri-Julien Dumont, 19th century]

Friday, March 23, 2012


I love weird scents, and am constantly on the lookout for something unusual. So on the way to looking up a source for some materials that I want to tincture (I’ll write about them in another post) I found this South African website which is a store and several blogs all in one. I was thrilled to see a fascinating post about how male African orchid bees create their own signature scents by collecting aromatic materials from flowers, rotten wood and fruit, feces, and tree resins, concentrating them in special lipid-containing pockets on their legs in a process similar to enfleurage. Each bee creates his own signature scent. Presumably the more materials a male bee collects and the more attractive the resulting perfume, the better he is at attracting females. The ultimate "chick magnet".

I never cease to marvel at the ingenuity of nature. If I were independently wealthy I would take a trip to South Africa just to smell a euglossine bee’s leg pockets. How wonderful and weird would that be?

[Photo of an insect that appears to be an orchid bee adapted from Wikimedia]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


A couple of days ago I read an interesting post by Dee Howe on how she learned to love Cuir de Russie, which she had previously hated, simply by reading lots of positive reviews. One commenter labeled the post “fascinating and disturbing”. I would wholeheartedly agree with that evaluation. As a perfumer, I’d go a step further and label it “frightening” because the implication is that the first reviews of any newly-released perfume could make or break it. Everyone who reads the reviews would be drawn toward the positive or negative opinion of the reviewer(s).

As a neuroscientist, I naturally thought about why it is that our perceptions of perfume are so easily manipulated by expectation. Olfaction is a weird sensory system. It’s well-known that receptors in the nose undergo short-term adaptation, but what may not be so well known is that specific types of odorant receptors can increase or decrease in number depending on exposure to an odorant. However, the receptors, labile as they are, are just the beginning of the process of smelling.

The way information about odors is represented in the central nervous system is not at all straightforward. The same set of neurons may be active in response to a whole host of different odorants, which may have little in common with respect to chemical structure or perceived odor. Not only that, but almost all of the odors that we smell are mixtures of many different molecules. I think it’s fair to say that most of our olfactory neurons are active most of the time. The pattern of activity across neurons and across time may be strongly influenced by context.

Our cognitive task is to organize these spatiotemporal patterns of activity into whatever interpretations make the most sense. It would be sort of like a dynamic Rorschach test in which we look at abstract, moving patterns and have to organize them into shapes or concepts that we can understand and articulate. Being told beforehand what to expect makes the task a lot easier. If we’re primed to expect a flying bat, or a crying baby, that’s what we’re likely to see. If a reviewer tells us to expect rotten horse manure, or expensive leather, that’s what we’re likely to smell.

I know that my olfactory perception has changed as I’ve worked with perfumes and raw materials. When I first started, I couldn’t stand the smell of “teak” (a synthetic woody note), but after experiencing it multiple times alone and in finished compositions, I’ve come to appreciate its role in perfumery. Maybe my receptors for it have been down-regulated, to use the scientific jargon for elimination of some of them. Maybe familiarity makes the heart grow fonder. I don’t know.

The other thing that I’ve experienced is that I’ve become much more sensitive to all types of musks, and I think this has to do with cognitive organization rather than receptors. Instead of musks being an incomprehensible pattern, I’ve learned to recognize a pattern that’s common to all of them, as well as the features that differentiate between the different ones.

So it is with perfume. Liking or disliking a perfume isn’t as simple as picking a synthetic musk out of a crowd of other molecules, but it may involve reorganizing patterns from ones that are disliked into ones that are liked, kind of like switching from seeing the mother-in-law to the wife in that classic ambiguous figure.

[Graphics adapted from Wikimedia]

Monday, March 19, 2012


Every so often I'm struck by how bad design dictates how we live our lives, and how it gets perpetuated because people accept it as "the way things are". These design issues can be anything from malfunctioning perfume sprayers and uncomfortable clothing to bad urban planning and building design. Here's the first in what might grow to be a series on how design affects our lifestyles.

Part 1: Windows

One afternoon last week when I was working in my office the power went off. Not too surprising given that we had a hurricane-like storm with high winds and heavy snow, followed by a clear, sunny “eye” that was followed by more winds, snow, and rain. What did surprise me was the huge fuss going on in the hallways. People were milling around, acting as if some major disaster had happened. The last time I heard such a commotion in the hallways was during the Nisqually earthquake when the whole building was shaking like crazy at about a magnitude 7.

At first I didn’t understand what was wrong, since my laptop with its battery was working just fine, and there was plenty of light coming from my window. However, once I went out in the hall, I was reminded that most of the building is windowless. The only rooms that have windows are those around the outside of the building, and there’s an entire core and basement that depends entirely on electrical power for light, even during the day. To make matters worse, I learned that almost everyone in the building uses desktop PCs that won’t run unless they’re plugged into a power source, so crowds of students, faculty, and staff were suddenly plunged into complete darkness without so much as the glow from a battery-powered computer screen.

The building where I work was built in 1973 - not a good era for architectural design, but a precedent-setting one. It looks like a dark brick fortress from the outside. Inside, some of the walls are bare cement and others, until recently, were painted horrendous shades of orange, rust, mustard, and avocado green. Ugly as these design features are (or were), they’re cosmetic, and can be fixed quite easily. What really boggles my mind is the fact that the building is a huge 4-story square the size of a supermarket with the bulk of the rooms in the interior where there is not a single photon of natural light. I’m one of the lucky few who has an office with a window. Frankly, I don’t think I could have worked at this institution as long as I have if I had had to spend my days in a windowless room, especially one with fluorescent lights.

Next to all of the light switches in the building are placards admonishing us to “save energy – turn off the lights when you leave the room”. That’s all very well and good if we’re working at night, but the real question is why some mid-20th-century architects thought it was a good idea to make everyone turn the lights on during the day. This building is by no means ususual. Everywhere in the world there are public buildings, shopping malls, and even rooms in people’s private houses where there is no source of natural light. It’s ironic that when daylight saving time rolls around, people just go to work an hour earlier, turn on the lights, and burn them for the same number of hours that they would if they were in their normal time zone. I thought the idea was to save energy by not having to use artificial light in the early morning?

Energy savings aside, there’s something cheerful and comforting about natural daylight and being to see outside, and something annoying and depressing about spending the day in a concrete bunker with no idea what’s outside. It’s no wonder the bureaucrats, geeks, and sales clerks in their windowless cubicles and big boxes are grumpy and unhelpful. It would be interesting to know how many health problems, both physical and mental, are caused or aggravated by working day after day in windowless spaces. It would also be interesting to know how much energy would be saved if every room in every building had windows to let in light during the day. Probably enough to light up Las Vegas at night for the next thousand years.

[Supermarket and bunker photos from Wikimedia. The cat is mine.]

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Just when I thought I had most everything I needed to make perfume, my world shifted again with some new discoveries. What set it all off was a package from a fellow perfumer that came in this afternoon’s mail, containing five new materials that I bought from him and 23 (!) samples of other materials, most of which I haven’t tried. It’s going to take me a while to go through the 23 samples, but one of the things that I bought is going into at least one version of the Devil Scent, both Dev and Lil Mod 2. If I keep discovering new materials, I’ll never get those perfumes finished!

The new babies are all synthetics with names that probably wouldn’t ring a bell with anyone, so I’m not sure how much to describe them here except to say that one is an animalic scent that’s a different version of the ones I already have. Another is a wonderful floral base that I’ve already put in Lil 2. I’m trying to keep one version of Dev purely natural, so I have to resist the temptation to tweak it with synthetics.

For some reason, Lil continues to prove a much easier subject than Dev. It’s technically easy to make a bright floral, and maybe I’m just not as emotionally invested in a perfume for the evil underbelly of femininity as I am for a loveable, leather-clad rocker. I have to admit it - I care very much for Dev. I want his perfumes to be as dark and assertive as possible, and nothing is good enough. I keep tweaking and tweaking, and am never satisfied. The labdanum keeps getting lost in everything else, not appearing until the late drydown. The leather doesn’t play nicely with the rest of the fragrance. I’m trying to use davana and finding that a tiny bit goes more than a long way.

The one promising thing is that the all-natural Dev has excellent longevity. I used a tiny bit of real ambergris tincture in it, and it must have magical fixative properties because I can still smell the base on my skin 24 hours later. I haven’t added the cinnamon leaf yet, because I’m trying to get the base right, but I think that getting some middle and top notes added to the mix is going to make a big difference. I’m still shooting for having three versions of Dev ready by the end of March.

Friday, March 16, 2012


We’ve been having storms all week. Storms that blow in with high winds and rain, hail, snow, alone or mixed together – you name it. Yesterday I managed to get out for a little while between storms and check out our neighborhood, which is coming back to life after the winter. It’s nice to know that even if it still seems like winter to people, plants are convinced that it’s spring.

The roses are all putting out new growth, and should be blooming again soon. Along with the spring bulbs, the entrance area to the local new development is planted with garish primroses in every primary color, looking like plastic flowers from the Wizard of Oz. Primroses are probably my least favorite flower, just because they look so artificial. I guess my aesthetic philosophy requires some imperfection in order to achieve the right balance.

In the woods, the Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) is in bloom. It’s one of the first native shrubs to bloom every year, a sure sign of spring. I never thought to smell the flowers before, but was pleased to find that they have sort of a cat-piss and blackcurrant fragrance, not strong, but definitely there. The Oregon grape plants (Mahonia aquifolium) are also blooming, but had no fragrance that I could detect. Maybe it will develop as the flowers mature.

Everything is extraordinarily wet and green. The frogs were croaking the other night and the robins are hopping around the back yard hunting the fat, juicy, pinky-brown earthworms that are hidden everywhere in the ground.

Events in the US and elsewhere may be depressing, but spring is bringing it’s usual message of hope for better times. Maybe not in politics, but at least outside our doors.

[Flower photos are from Wikimedia. There was too much wind to get a good photo of anything outside yesterday.]

Monday, March 12, 2012


I know everyone is anxious to see what the Devil Scent Project comes up with, but perfumes aren’t made overnight, especially when the perfumer has a day job and several others jobs besides and has been spending a lot of her free time, such as it is, reading Quantum Demonology. After I got back from my latest trip, I was busy packing and shipping orchid plants to places that had been too cold to ship to all winter, slogging through the usual end-of quarter marathon of work, and trying to get the momentum going on a new theatre production.

I’m not caught up yet, and never will be, but I did find time tonight to get back up in the lab and test the things I mixed up before I left town. I was surprised to find that they’re not half bad! Lil has mellowed over the past couple of weeks, and is starting to have the sharp edge and kewda-passionfruit note that I was going for. It still needs a lot more sharpening and tweaking, but I think it’ll be ready to send a prototype to Tarleisio soon.

The real surprise was Dev’s base that I mixed up before I left. It’s mellowed into a real fragrance that could almost stand on its own. Instead of hijacking the composition, the giant arborvitae has decided to cooperate and lend a unique note to the opening. As it dries down, the animalic notes show up, but are no longer stinky. The incense is there, too. I’m wearing it as I type and actually loving it!

Before trying the well-rested Dev 1, which I thought I would end up scrapping, I had started working on another Dev base (Dev 2). It contains four - count ‘em – 4 different variations on labdanum (You can never have too much labdanum!) Along with the labdanum fest these's immortelle absolute, balsams, and some animalic notes. I’m going to add some more things in a day or two when I have time and my nose is fresh.

I think I may make a Dev 3 variation that has a lot of leather in it. It will have labdanum too, of course, but in a duet with the leather, not as the lead. I may even get some samples shipped off to Tarleisio by the first of April.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


This morning my sample of the day was D. S. & Durga’s Resin from a 2.5 ml decant that I got on sale from TPC. It didn’t leak or evaporate – hallelujah! I was a little surprised to find that it’s pretty much myrrh straight up, with a halo of sweet, violet powder in the sillage, so I did a search for information about this fragrance. I didn’t find much. There is one fairly negative review on Basenotes, a listing on Fragrantica that says it’s “masculine” and that the notes are “copaiba balsam and myrrh”, and that’s it.

The D.S. & Durga website is one of those overly designed exercises in conformity with the latest trend, complete with a gratuitous “welcome screen” that is late to arrive and overstays its welcome, too many moving parts, light gray or pastel font on an off-white background, and no way to go back once you’ve gone forward. I’ll be glad when the fashion for super-low contrast type and cumbersome animations on perfume websites (and my students’ Powerpoint presentations) goes the way of the dinosaur and the dodo bird. What I did find out from the website, by deduction, is that Resin has been discontinued.

Back to the perfume itself. Copaiba balsam isn’t much of a fragrance on its own, and is used more as a fixative than for its scent, which is rather flat, woody, and a little peppery. Myrrh, on the other hand, is one of the quirkiest scents in the whole realm of perfumery. There’s quite a bit of variation from one variety to another, but what’s constant is a deeply resinous, bitter, leathery, almost industrial, note that’s absolutely unmistakable.

I have written about myrrh before, but sometimes I can have a perfectly formed image of a scent in my mind but cannot find the right words to describe it to others in terms they'd understand. This can be very frustrating. Smelling Resin this morning I had an epiphany in the realm of semantics. Myrrh has a distinct smell of freshly cut “champignon”-type mushrooms. All mushrooms have this scent, but the white and brown button mushrooms have it in a fairly pure form, unobstructed by other notes. It’s what I smell when I’m out walking in the woods and catch a whiff of mushrooms before I see them. It’s the smell of dead leaves turned to flesh, the smell of wet, decaying forest sprouting exuberant saprophytic life. Often I’ll go looking for the source of the scent, and sure enough, there the mushrooms are, hiding under the dead leaves or behind a fern. It’s a pungent, earthy scent and it’s one of the notes in myrrh, stronger in some varieties than others.

It’s funny that the natural mushroom absolute that I have, made from cepes, doesn’t smell at all like fresh mushrooms. In fact, it smells more like soy sauce than anything else. However, my experience with the mushroom note this morning set the gears of inspiration in motion yet again, making me wonder what it would be like to create a perfume based on myrrh and mushrooms. It might turn out to be “not suitable for human use” as the Basenotes reviewer observed about Durga’s Resin (I happen to disagree with this statement), but it would certainly be an interesting exercise in blending related notes.

[Myrrh and mushroom photos from Wikimedia]

Sunday, March 4, 2012


I’m back from Southern California, both physically and mentally, ready to start posting again.

Anyone who has followed my blog for a while will know that I go through phases of prolific posting interspersed with periods of nothing. It’s just the nature of my life, in which I juggle many different parallel streams of activity and can only hold onto a few at a time, while the others move on their own from the momentum that I create. I’ll admit that this modus operandi partly stems from my own nature, which tends to make me want to do one thing obsessively for a while, then take a break. If I care enough about whatever it was, I’ll come back to it, like the burning torch that eventually sails back to the juggler’s hand after following its own independent trajectory for a while. If it gets dropped, I probably didn’t want to be juggling it anyway.

This whole discussion of juggling made me think about the symbolism of juggling. Medieval jesters and minstrels are sometimes depicted as jugglers (jongleurs), and that reminded me that at some point I’d heard of a tarot card called “The Juggler”. I looked it up and found that it’s what is now known as “The Magician”, the first card of the series, symbolizing new beginnings, new ideas, new journeys, and hidden things revealed. The Magician also appears to be an alchemist, scientist, shaman, con man, and trickster, so incorporates both positive and negative qualities. He’s God, the manager of positive energy and the Devil, the manager of negative energy (a la Quantum Demonology).

What I like best about the juggler, though, is the fact that he necessarily symbolizes both the beginning and end of the circle, the point where things come back to where they started, but continue on in a way that is both the same and different. The never-ending moebius strip of an infinity sign over the classic Tarot magician’s head.

As T. S. Eliot said in Little Gidding,
“What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make and end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from. …

… We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

I think this way of thinking really epitomizes my need for working in cycles. Each time I come back to perfumes long finished, perfumes in progress, or to my blog, I start over again, knowing each of those things for the first time.

[Fire Jugglers and Tarot card images from Wikimedia]