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, April 25, 2012


I’ve been away from the blog for a while, catching up after the orchid show, dealing with my “real job”, and filling an unprecedented number of perfume orders that came in after Marla’s post on Ballets Rouges. Thank you, Marla! As a consequence, I’ve had to re-size my formulas once again to accommodate the greater demand. Today I’m supposed to get a new set of shelves in my workroom, which will help a lot with storage.

In the meantime, I’ve been playing around with real ambergris. A year or so ago I got a small amount of ambergris tincture and finally used some of it in a couple of the Dev variations. I really liked the effect it had on the fragrances, so decided to add it to my list of standard materials. I ordered a chunk of ambergris from New Zealand (photo), which is in the process of tincturing now.

Ambergris is not to be confused with fossilized amber, which is basically petrified pine resin. It has nothing to do with the perfume note “amber”, which is a combination of materials including the plant resin labdanum or its derivatives, nor is it related to any of the fragrance oils labeled “ambergris”, which might contain almost anything but ambergris. You have probably heard or read that real ambergris is whale vomit that has washed around in the ocean for years, mellowing out and taking on its own special aroma. More specifically, it’s a waxy secretion produced in the gut of sperm whales as a protective response to sharp objects they have eaten, especially squid parts. Once a lump has accumulated, the whale excretes it with its feces or, if it is too large, it is regurgitated through the mouth. The stuff floats around in the ocean for many years, being cleansed and weathered by the salt water and sun, taking on a distinctive fragrance. Eventually it washes up on a beach somewhere, where it’s collected by beachcombers who sell it to ambergris dealers.

The piece of ambergris that I got was the “silver” variety, one that has undergone a fair amount of weathering so that the animalic aspects are relatively subtle, although still present. The vendor included small chips of the dark and white varieties as samples. I was surprised to find that when I opened the package, I could smell the ambergris through the wrapping, and the predominant note was similar to ambroxan. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but for some reason I was.

I decided to make a 5% tincture, so had to macerate the ambergris lump. In doing so, I found that it was fairly sticky, not as crumbly as I had expected. When I first put the ambergris in the alcohol, the solution turned black and the odor was a distinctive ocean-and-earthy smell, not at all like ambroxan. The only way I know to describe it is as a dark, fibrous shape, with a texture sort of like tree fern. It was an interesting fragrance in and of itself. As the weeks have passed, the ambergris bits have settled to the bottom of the bottle and appear to be slowly dissolving. The alcohol is now a dark pinkish gray color, and I’m starting to smell the ambroxan note along with the “tree fern”.

It will be at least 6 months before the tincture is ready, but I’m looking forward to incorporating it into some of my perfumes, especially a line of all-natural ones.

[Whale photo and drawing adapted from Wikimedia]

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Sometimes I do things totally by mistake that appear highly thought out when I later come back to what I’ve created and look at it from a different point of view, as if I’m a different person seeing it for the first time with new eyes. Although the thing seemed to develop spontaneously and randomly at the time, I can later see an over-reaching method in the madness. I wonder how many artists of all sorts do this, embedding symbolic meaning in their work without consciously planning to do so? How many of the analyses that are done in school, pushing students to find the “correct” interpretation of symbolism in a writer’s, composer’s or artist’s work, are far removed from the actual facts of how the work was created or the artist’s original inspiration or intention? How many artists, put on the spot by people asking for an explanation of their work, “back into” a perfectly valid interpretation after its creation?

In the case of the different versions of Dev, made for the Devilscent project, I created each one when I was reading a different part of Tarleisio/Sheila’s Eggenberger’s book Quantum Demonology. My formulation of the scents must have been strongly influenced by the story line without my realizing it, because it just occurred to me a couple of days ago that the four versions of Dev form a progression that fits with the trajectory of the novel. I have debated whether I should make these thoughts public, before everyone’s reviews are published, but it seemed like a sort of revelation when it occurred to me that the four versions are not four free-standing and interchangeable alternatives, but four olfactory symbols corresponding to the natural progression of the story. I asked Sheila first, and she gave me the go-ahead, so I believe this will come out in near-perfect synchronicity with her own review of the four Devs in their mandala structure.

Dev 1 could be called “Foreplay”, since to me it seems relatively light, playful, aromatic, seductive, and optimistic, an enticing preview of possibilities that mostly overshadow the dark notes of labdanum (the common thread throughout) and African bluegrass that lurk beneath.

Dev 2 could be called “The Main Act”, since it’s rich, smoky, and spicy, fitting with the tempestuous, up-and-down romance that forms the central part of the story before it’s entirely clear that there’s no chance that anyone is going to live happily ever after. This was the part of the book where some additional perfume notes were mentioned, birch tar and immortelle, so these were added to the mix, consciously or unconsciously enriching it with rough smoke and honeyed sweetness.

Dev 3 could be called “Leavetaking” or “Resignation”. Its muted, brooding, mostly dark notes correspond to the final loss of innocence, after the story has turned really complex and dark and all has been revealed, when Dev and the protagonist both have to face the reality of their situation, move on, and maybe settle for less than they had initially wished for. It’s not strong or passionate, but rather more the melancholy feeling that is present after the mission is accomplished, while waiting for the inevitable to happen.

Dev 4 could be called “Reprise”, since it brings back the main theme pretty much stripped down to its bare bones, without ornamentation. It’s the feeling of having made it through major upheavals that left the characters smoothed down like tumbled stones, stripped to their essence, and in some sense triumphant in their resignation to fate and lack of illusions. The giant arborvitae in the top notes almost brings it back full circle to Dev 1, without any clutter, but with the implication that the cycle could begin again, on a different level.

Stay tuned for a special treat – an interview with Sheila on her creative process in writing the book.

Monday, April 16, 2012


This week I’ll try to get back to regular posting.

After a 4-day weekend of 12-hour days loading in, attending my vendor table, and loading out plants, I would say that the orchid show was a success. There were no major disasters on the way to or from the venue, I came home with far fewer plants than I brought in, and, most importantly, I had fun. The photo shows part of my vendor table.

I didn’t have a lot of time to go around sniffing all of the orchids on display, but the usual fragrant ones were there. The Sharry Babies were putting out their cocoa smell, the Cattleyas were producing a variety of scents ranging from citrus through sweetly fruity-floral, the Maxillaria tenuifolias were pumping out coconut suntan lotion scent, but the most impressive fragrance came from a Gongora whose name I should have written down but neglected to do so. It was a powerful mixture of indolic-camphorous sweet floral notes and creosote. There was considerable discussion about the scent, with about equal numbers loving and hating it. I was on the “love it” side, but I can see how it might be too much or too weird for some people. The Gongora is the long hanging spray of insect-shaped orange flowers in the foreground.

It’s too bad that there are no awards for orchids with the best fragrance. Orchid awards are typically based on the size, color and number of flowers, and on the plant having a "spotless", "perfect" appearance.

The photo at left shows my display.

Monday, April 9, 2012


I’m not sure how much I’m going to be able to post this week, since there’s a big orchid show coming up this weekend, and I have to prepare several hundred plants to take there in the hope of selling them. On top of that, it’s high season for repotting, mostly getting young plants out of their community pots and into individual pots or onto individual cork bark mounts. I spent all of the daylight hours this weekend sawing cork bark into sections, drilling holes in it for hanging wires, tagging untagged plants, potting seedlings, mounting seedlings, and killing the slugs that were hiding under pots that had sat on benches undisturbed all winter. My hands are microabraded from handling sphagnum moss and fir bark chips for 12 hours straight each day. I’d rather be making perfume, but the orchids are still under my care, so I have to deal with them. This year I need to be more proactive about selling the nursery business.

Along with the mind-numbing manual labor and unrelenting demands imposed by taking care of living things, there are the moments of pure joy. Yesterday I found a cute little Dendrobium rhodopterygium in bloom, and picked it up thinking it would be a nice addition to my exhibit in the show. Of course the first thing I always do is sniff the flower, and when I did, I nearly fell over because it smells exactly like raspberries! It’s not a faint, wimpy raspberry scent, and it’s not “reminiscent of raspberries”. It IS fresh raspberries with all the nuances of fruit that’s just been picked on a warm day. When my husband smelled the flower, he agreed that it was raspberry, but “better than raspberry”. He’s right, of course. It is better because it has that moist, sensual orchid-y undercurrent and it’s not quite as sweet and sour as the fruit.

According to what I’ve read, Dendrobium rhodopterygium is the Indian variety of Dendrobium parishii, but instead of being all purple or pink, the flowers are nearly white with raspberry colored markings on the lip. The canes are short, fat and stubby. They lose their leaves in the winter, so the flowers appear on bare canes.

The slugs ate part of the flower, so in the photo it looks less attractive than it would otherwise. Unfortunately they got to the unopened bud, too, taking a bite out of the very tip. The plant is in the house now, where it should be safe. Now I have to decide whether to pollinate it or take it to the show, slug bites and all.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


The winner of the spring drawing for samples of natural perfume materials is Laurie Brown.

Laurie, I think I have your mailing address.

Friday, April 6, 2012


A few weeks ago I was curious about people’s perceptions of davana essential oil, so I sent it out to a number of testers. A quorum of people have responded, so this is a collection of their reactions.

I have tested the davana oil on its own, and my impressions are as follows:

Initial application: fermenting tropical fruit, camembert cheese rind, a little moldy, a bit unpleasant. Definitely loud and unrelenting. As it settles into skin, it smells like mothballs and something medicinal or disinfectant. The drydown, a good 40 minutes from the application, was my favorite part, soft fruit and wood. This was when I could faintly smell something I thought was reminiscent of sandalwood. I have tried this twice on its own; the results were virtually identical.

With a drop of oud, followed by the davana oil: The same screechy opening, but much shorter lived. The davana completely overtook the oud for a good 45 minutes. The two of them combined seemed much rounder. The woody/fruity aspects of the davana and the oud gradually began to complement each other, becoming close to the skin, where it has stayed for the past two hours.

Davana could overtake almost anything. I have smelled it in attars, and not known what it was, so this was a great learning experience. Like it best with the oud, and will try it with other things. Not fond of it as a solo scent.

I tried this oil without wearing any scented products or perfume as requested. It was not what I had expected.

The first testing was after a long shift at work (sadly my office has banned all scented products ) and it surprised me as it changed on skin.

First impressions as I wrote them down were: herbal, bitter, slightly spicy, hot feeling and earthy. Somewhat reminiscent of cough drops or medicine. Musty old books or paper...but a sweet note emerged as it blended with my skin. I may have been too exhausted to smell properly.

The second application was on a day off and I was more relaxed. It smelled boozy, again medicinal, something like tiger balm. Also something metallic feeling. Then it really changed and I smelled fruit, strawberry jam to be exact. My boyfriend said he smelled fresh strawberries, not jam...this was from wafting across the room not up close. I also thought I smelled something like canned peaches, but more the syrup that they have sat in, peach infused juice.

This was very interesting. Thanks for including me and sending it all the way to Toronto!

I tried the davana for two days without any other fragrance. Here are a few of my impressions.

February 25th:

First sniff from the sample tube: Fruity with a strong impression of grape soda.

Initial application to skin: The grapey/fruity aspect very strong but rounded off by a warm cereal grain effect. Perhaps the
davana is picking up on the "Nairns" oatcake crackers I just ate.

After 5 minutes: Same grape tingle with cereal grain.

After 15 minutes: The same.

30 minutes: Fruity floral, the grain is gone.

1 hour: Fruity floral.

The fruity scents lasted on my skin very faintly for about 5 hours. Pretty much linear. I also applied davana to cotton and wool. On both fabrics I only smelled the fruity/floral and that scent lasted on the fabrics until the next day.

February 27th:

First sniff from the tube: Grapey and Fruity.

Applied to skin: Grape but with a definite impression of grain and corn silage. My maternal uncle owned a large dairy farm in Wisconsin, where I spent childhood summers. Today davana reminds me of the smell of fermenting grains, leaves, stems and stalks in the large silos on my uncle's farm.
It also reminds me of the smells in a winery where the oak casks are stored. I haven't been eating grains or drinking wine today but I did have my usual breakfast of goat yogurt and fruit. I don't smell the grain or silage on the fabric application.

After 5 minutes: I just used some mouthwash. Now davana smells like Michael's craft store.

15 minutes: Grapey, fruity, silage, winery.

30 minutes: Grapey, fruity, silage, winery.

The same impressions lasted for the rest of the day, getting fainter but remaining the same.

I did not feel any sort of relaxation from the scent but I did have a definite feeling of well-being. I also noticed on both days when on my walks that the smells of the outdoor environment seemed to be enhanced by the davana. Now I would like to try davana in conjunction with favorite perfumes and some essential oils.

Thank you for this new smelling opportunity!

First off, to me, pure davana is a horrid stink. I can't put my finger on what it makes me think of, but I find it very unpleasant. After a couple of tries of it by itself, I started trying it with other chems, oils, and perfumes. I found that a little went a very long way. But when added to something like sampaquita givco, it became more than just a pretty scent, it had depth. I tried it with some Wild Musk Patchouli blend, which is a super sweet musk without any complexity. It added a more sophisticated touch, and it lasted much longer with the davana. Hard to believe something makes patchouli and musk last longer! A tiny bit in Tabu didn't seem to alter the scent, but it lasted from morning until shower in the evening- on me that is a real accomplishment. I tried it with several other ready made perfumes, and it made them all last longer, even at levels where I really couldn't smell the davana in them.

So, it seems to make a good fixative, and adds a complexity and a sophisticated note that makes you wonder "What is that?" - when kept below a certain level!

To me it smells great, smoky, dark, sticky fruity, in the manner of a date (the fruit). The opening is strange, salty and minty. It's practically a perfume by itself. Soon after, I get a minty hint, but there is still this heaviness in the smell. The smell also reminds me of rum-y raisins.
Once I get the mintness, it remains until the end, even getting a bit stronger.

I tried the sample few times and really like it. Quite complex!
Directly from the sample: fruity (dried peaches), balsamic and woody with a touch of smokiness (blond tobacco).

On my skin it has an oily fruity feeling in the opening. More of cherries and blackcurrant and less peachy. Still aromatic-woody-balsamic. The light smokiness is more rubber smokiness. And the best part is the sweet hay. There is also a part that reminds me of chamomile extract. The dry down is balsamic sweet hay. I don't get any floral aspects.

Thank you for sample. I really enjoyed it!

So what can be concluded from these impressions? First and foremost, people’s perceptions of davana are all over the place, ranging from fermenting fruit or grain, mint, Camembert cheese rind, rubber, old books, metallic smell, saltiness, peaches, cherries, sandalwood, balsamic sweet hay, rum-soaked raisins, mothballs, wood, tobacco, earthiness, Tiger Balm, blackcurrant, cough drops, strawberry jam, fresh strawberries, grape soda, cereal, a winery, a craft store, smokiness, chamomile, and a “horrid stink”.

There’s no doubt that davana is all that, and more. Looking for some common threads that tie together the wonderful wealth of the testers’ perceptions and my own, it’s pretty clear that the smell of pure, undiluted davana oil comes as an initial shock. It’s unexpectedly strong, packing a powerful punch of fermenting medicinal fruitiness, along with an industrial oiliness. The specific medicinal notes and fruits seem to vary from one nose to another, but are pretty much a constant across all who smell the stuff. What follows seems to be less predictable, although it seems that at least one other tester smelled the same sweet, “aromatic-woody-balsamic” drydown that I do.

The bottom line is that for most people davana is strong, boozy, fruity and aromatic-medicinal. It lasts a very long time, enhances other scents if used in small quantities, and makes an excellent fixative. Reason enough to use it in certain perfumes.

[Photos of davana plant, rotten strawberry, and fermenting plums from Wikimedia]

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Sometimes I feel like a soccer mom driving my orchid plants around to go to local shows or to the person who will transport them on the van to and from out-of town shows. A group of my blooming plants took a weekend trip to a show in Spokane, WA, on the eastern side of the state, and just got back last night.

I went to pick them up on my way home yesterday evening, just as it was starting to get dark. When I was unpacking the basket they had traveled in, I noticed a gorgeous white flower scent, something like strongly indolic gardenias and jasmine, but with that special orchid touch. It turned out to be two little Aerangis fastuosa plants, siblings that had bloomed on the same day, pumping their fragrance out with all their little orchid hearts.

Aerangis fastuosa is a miniature orchid that grows in Madagascar. It’s supposed to be a “hot grower”, but my plants have survived many cold winter nights with temperatures in the 40sF (5-10C) and bloomed like clockwork every spring. The leaves are bronze-tinted, and the roots are orange. Each flower is as big as the plant itself, pure white and clean-looking, with a long nectar spur. Like other orchids of its type, it’s pollinated by a long-tongued moth in its natural habitat.

No matter how many times I smell night-fragrant orchids, I’m always struck by the similarity of the fragrances of different species, and their resemblance to other night-fragrant white flowers. There’s a common theme even though each has its own special nuances. Some are a little spicy, some are root-beer scented, some are clean and sweet, and others are indolic. To me, Aerangis fastuosa epitomizes white flower fragrance in its purest form.

I’ve decided to hold an unusual drawing, not for a perfume, but for a young Aerangis fastuosa plant. It will be one of the offspring of the plant that went to Spokane and another unrelated plant of the same species. It’s mounted on a piece of cork bark and should be blooming size by next spring. If you’re a plant person and you’d like to be entered in the drawing, you must live in the continental US (unfortunately, plants can’t be shipped internationally) and be able to grow a mounted orchid. Just leave a comment about one or more of your favorite white flower fragrances. The drawing will be held on Sunday, April 8.