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.

Monday, July 30, 2012


It’s time for the yearly trek to BC to visit Michael’s daughter and her family, so this afternoon I pack up my stuff (again) and we take to the road headed north. This time I plan to bring my laptop, so maybe I can find time to write something, and even post it if I can get wi-fi access. If not, it will be next week before anything shows up here. In the meantime, happy sniffing to all, and let your nose be your guide. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012


I love people who aren’t afraid to say what they think, especially when that thinking incorporates the entire spectrum of color and shades of grey, and when it represents an evolving intellectual process, recorded in writing. A couple of recent posts by Sheila Eggenberger of the Alembicated Genie perfume blog are just this kind of reading material.

One post was a long musing about the role of blogs and other social media as tastemakers in the perfume world, the disconnect between mass-market brands’ advertising strategies and the “brave new world” that has emerged though social media, the ambiguity of the terms “indie”, “niche”, and “mainstream niche” (not even mentioning terms like “artisan”), problems with perfume companies’ website design, the quicksand-laden morass of potential conflicts of interest that confront bloggers and reviewers every day, and probably some other issues that I missed. All this in one post, folks! Get it while it’s hot!

Apparently the roster of topics was indeed hot enough to ruffle some feathers, given that it was followed closely by a second post responding to comments by Andy Tauer and other perfume celebrities, which called into question the value of comments from the general public on what some would like to consider a domain that is far beyond the comprehension of those who are not members of an insider clique and/or “properly educated”.

This whole discussion has just succeeded in throwing a lot of juicy meat to the wildlife of the blogosphere. As a perfumer who is a strange mix of overeducated, effete, luddite bohemian artist and latter-day geek, with an underlying blue-collar approach to it all, I feel inspired to take on these topics one by one. Sheila mentioned the “pink elephant in the room”, but I think it’s actually a herd of elephants in all shapes and sizes from black woolly mammoths with raging tusks to the little pink tutu-wearing elephants that frolic in our most frivolous dreams, all dancing in a big circle, because they’re all interrelated.

I think I’ll go after some big game first, an elephant that’s been shot at innumerable times but always survives to make another appearance, terrorizing the villages of the self-appointed perfume experts and spiriting away their children. It’s the ongoing black-and-white question of whether social media provide any useful information about perfume, or more realistically, the grey question of the extent to which they do so.

I’m not sure why this is such a controversial issue. As with any other medium, there’s a certain amount of useful information mixed in with the noise. The same could be said for old-fashioned print media (think “beauty” and “fashion” hard-copy magazines!) old-fashioned radio and television (think Fox news!), real-life conversations held at a quiet coffee shop or a noisy bar, and any other imaginable form of human discourse. Social media just take all of these 20th century forms of communication and make them available to a far wider audience than we old-timers could ever have imagined back in our student days. As always, we have to be able to separate the treasure from the trash, the fact from the fiction, and decide how we want to allocate our time and attention. 

In my opinion, no one can say with certainty what information is useful, entertaining, or valuable to others. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. I have to admit that I sometimes get a little annoyed by the ubiquitous and seemingly gratuitous posting of artsy visual stuff related to perfume. I have my own private visuals that go with odors and perfumes, so anything else seems superfluous and distracting. However, I recognize that many (maybe most?) people enjoy matching pre-existing, explicit visual images with perfumes, and seeing what images others come up with. Just because I don’t need pictures of dancing satyrs, Mediterranean landscapes, a bowl of fruit, a half-nude woman engaging in an orgasm-like experience while covered with flowers, a hunky man driving a tractor, or a steamy jungle path, doesn’t mean that other people don’t find these images a valuable complement to the experience of enjoying perfume. Maybe I’m the one who’s lacking in appreciation for the art of linking multiple images to a perfume.

Because of the conflict of interest issue, those who know the most about the technical end of perfumery, the perfumers themselves, are the least likely to write reviews. After all who wants to set themselves up to be accused of taking pot shots at colleagues or unfairly promoting a colleague? I believe in supporting other indie perfumers, but no longer do so through reviews of their creations. Most perfume blog reviews are written by hyper-educated consumers, i.e., serious perfumistas,  who would be expected to have something intelligent to say about the fragrances that they test, both from the technical and the aesthetic standpoint. As Sheila pointed out, though, some may be hesitant to review anything that they don’t like, in keeping with the old saying, “If you can’t say something good, don’t say anything at all”. This works only to the extent that all good perfumes eventually make it to the review stage, and it’s quite likely that many don’t. Just because something hasn’t been reviewed on the established, high-profile blogs doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not worth trying, or that the consumer will like everything that’s been reviewed there.

Public sites like Makeup Alley and Fragrantica may be a useful source of negative information that could prevent bad blind buys, since many of the comments there are by consumers who have no specialized knowledge beyond knowing whether they like a perfume or not. In fact, many of these “lay” writers are quite good at explaining why they like or dislike a fragrance, and do not feel any obligation to toe a party line for fear of being derided for their lack of discernment and taste. There’s something for everybody in the electronic review universe. Sure, there are junk reviews, but it may be worth sifting through them to find the information that’s relevant to you whether you’re a newbie looking for a mild and conventional celebrity scent or a wealthy and jaded collector looking for the latest exclusive oddity. The internet has a way of splatting it all out there for us to pick over, eventually finding our own favorite neighborhood dumpsters and the detritus-strewn beaches that wash up the occasional chunk of ambergris.

As for tweeting, it’s not meant to be profound. It’s a way of alerting people that there’s something out there that they might find interesting. Sure, we could all try to compose the perfect haiku tweet, but why? It's just the phone ringing, not the conversation. Facebook has simply extended the cafĂ© and bar conversations across the world to include those who would never otherwise meet. Do you really expect every word of cafe and bar conversations to be profound, or even interesting? If you don’t enjoy it or get something out of it, you don’t have to participate. Others will carry on, if it engages them.

Maybe the next development will be curated collections of tweets, facebook material, and blog posts, all made to order for a narrow, select audience, probably chosen by a software program, not a person, the Pandora of perfume-related writing. I suspect that this sort of thing does go on to some extent, through the work of actual people for the time being, with or without authors’ permission (another elephant in the room!). There's a certain amount of cross-referencing in bloggers’ “blog lists”, “interesting links” lists, and such. However, nothing can quite take the place of a random walk through an unfamiliar city, or a beachcombing excursion after a storm to turn up the unexpected treasure. 

[All photos from Wikimedia]

Thursday, July 26, 2012


I’m back from my trip to Memphis, where I thoroughly enjoyed warming up in the tropical, humid heat whenever I got a chance to be outside, and meeting a lot of new and interesting people. The photo shows water lilies (Nelumbo nucifera) growing in big tubs in Memphis, making me think that I could have them in the garden here. These only had seed pods and buds, so I didn't get to smell the flowers. I was welcomed back to Seattle with a shocking blast of cold air, even colder than the air conditioning in the cave-like buildings of Memphis. At least the sun’s out today and has warmed things up.

Speaking of sun, there’s a super-sunny hot spot in the sun porch where even the most heat-loving orchids won’t grow, so I’ve populated it with various succulents, including some cacti. I’ve grown a few cacti at other times in my life, but they never bloomed. This year, however, I’ve had three in bloom, and they’re a delight to see, with big, colorful flowers that are nothing like orchids. The down side is that the buds tend to sulk and only open when they feel like it, usually for only a few hours on sunny mornings, so I feel incredibly lucky if I catch them in the act. Also, none of them have any fragrance as far as I can tell.

I’ve managed to get photos of two of them, but the third one, a Mammillaria  guelzowiana, bloomed while I was in San Francisco. The last of the flowers were open the night I got back, but it was too dark to take a photo, and they were closed forever by the next morning. It’s too bad because the flowers were huge, and a spectacular hot pink.

For the past two weeks there has been an open flower on the Gymnocalyceum rogonesii, white, but still beautiful. It opens every morning and closes at night, so it provides plenty of photo-ops. The flowers are almost bigger than the plant, so the little squatty cactus is hidden under its flower. I was really surprised to see that it was still in bloom and opening in the mornings after I got back from Memphis. It’s finished now, but it had a long run.

There’s a yellow Notocactus mammulosus that has bloomed twice now. The flowers don’t stay open long, but they sure do their job.  Each time they’ve bloomed, they've made seedpods, and I even have babies growing from last year’s seeds.

Seeing these gorgeous, colorful flowers on the cacti can brighten up even the most dark and depressing morning, and enhance a beautiful sunny one like today. Does anyone know which cactus flowers are fragrant? 

Friday, July 20, 2012


It turns out that no one correctly guessed all 5 of the most-viewed posts on this blog, but GAIL was the first to come close with 4 out of 5. She wins the big box of random perfumey things, which I'll send as soon as I get a chance. CELINA is the runner-up, also with 4 out of 5, so she will get a small box of something perfumey.

So here are the all-time top five, going from most viewed to least:

1. Ambrette Seed, Okra, and Botanical Musk (this is the one no one guessed! Okra is a delicious food.)
2. Topiary Tree Torture (do the S&M crowd somehow find this by googling? Is there an S&M device called a "topiary tree"? Can we invent one? Patent it and sell it? Name a perfume after it?
3. The Making of a Summer Fragrance: Dendrobium moniliforme
4. Fragrant Phalaenopsis: Javanica
5. Turmeric in Food and Perfume

I would never have guessed any of these myself, but presumably the stats don't lie.

I 'm leaving tomorrow morning for Memphis, Tennessee, where I'm giving a talk on orchids for the Memphis Orchid Society. Once I get back, I go into final frenzy mode on a grant application that I just found out was due 10 days earlier than I thought. This probably means that I may not post here again until late next week, but never fear, I'll be back sooner or later!

[Topiary troll face and okra plant photos adapted from Wikimedia]

Thursday, July 19, 2012


I really haven’t wanted to get into using very expensive natural materials, since I like to keep my creations affordable, but I did go a little way down that rabbit hole in making the Devil Scents and one of my current projects is also leading me farther down that slippery slope to perfumer's hybrid heaven-hell. It’s a formula with a lot of earthy base notes, but I want to use florals as well. I first thought of using tuberose absolute, because it would fit conceptually with the general theme, but when I added it, it clashed horribly. I had just received a sample of osmanthus absolute from Eden Botanical, so on a whim, I tried that with the base. Perfect. Or nearly perfect. It just needed a little sharpening of the floral notes.

There was recently a post about osmanthus on CaFleureBon, giving a lot of its cultural history, so receiving the sample was, if you will, synchronicity doing its work again. Eden Botanical sure knows how to get a perfumer hooked.

Botanically, Osmanthus is a genus of trees or shrubs that are mostly native to Asia, but Osmanthus americanus is a small tree native to the southeastern US, also known as devilwood, due to the fact that its wood is so dense and hard and difficult to cut. Its tiny white flowers are fragrant. I would love to smell them in real life some day. The Asian species Osmanthus fragrans, is the one used in perfumery. The flowers are small, borne in clusters, and yellow to orange in color. I don’t know what the live flowers of either species smell like, but osmanthus absolute is an odd fragrance, diffusely and sweetly floral in the nicest sort of way, like a highly refined version of ylang-ylang, but also with shockingly distinct notes of apricot, green things, and (to me) blue cheese. Others describe it as “leathery”, but to me it’s more cheesy. Maybe it’s just the Eden version that smells that way. Regardless, it goes really well with earthy base notes. Once I get my supply (yes, it’s on order), I’ll do a giveaway of a tiny sample.

Then I had another idea.

A year or so ago I ordered some oil (aka absolute) of blue lotus, Nymphaea caerulea, from a company in Thailand that grows and produces it. Again, I’ve never smelled the fresh flowers, but I can say that blue lotus absolute has a unique fragrance that’s unlike anything else in the olfactory universe. It’s floral of course, a little sharp and spicy, a little metallic, and quite unlike anything else that I’ve smelled. I was not sure what to think of it the first time I smelled it, but have been saving it all this time. I added it to the base and the osmanthus, and voila! The floral scent popped out in full focus. I’ve got it all on my skin right now, and it’s been going strong all evening. I applied a drop of pure blue lotus in a separate place, and am enjoying it immensely.

Before using blue lotus in a formula, I have to know that I can get more, but the supplier’s website lists it as being “out of stock”. Dang!!! I may have to try some other varieties of lotus to see if they would work, and eventually synthesize an accord that approximates the scent of Nymphaea caerulea, the blue Egyptian lotus. I think it could be really useful. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the osmanthus and maybe work on synthesizing that, too. 

By the way, here's a picture of Osmanthus americanus. Has anyone out there smelled it in real life? 

Now that I look at the flowers, I think maybe there's something like that growing on the university campus. I remember smelling some wonderful little flowers on a shrub last winter, and wondering what they were. More research is in order!

[Photos all from Wikimedia]

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


The DevilScents have finally come out of the lab and their lurking in the perfume underground, and emerged on the website. Last night I spent some time putting at least the minimal information on there, which was not an easy task given the rather cumbersome system for uploading photos and other items. They are listed under a new fragrance category, “Special Editions”, since they really don’t fit in any of the others, and at least some of them may be limited editions.

All of them are available in the usual formats, including a 5-ml spray parfum, 15-ml screw-top parfum, 30-ml spray EdP, and a sample pack consisting of 5 x 3-ml spray vials. I had to price them a little higher than the regular line because I used some very expensive natural materials in significant amounts.

For those who missed them before, these are are the full descriptions that I published on the website (more or less):

This is the fragrance of Lilith, the original Eve and wife of the Devil. It is floral and fruity in a green, slightly sinister way, more sharp-edged and intimidating than soft, sweet, or cuddly. It is the enthralling scent of a woman with perfect confidence in her powers, a swirling, almost chameleon-like veil of fragrance that is ethereal and nearly transparent, but still vividly and unquestionably present and compelling. The base includes woody notes, cashmeran, musk, and patchouli; the heart features passion-fruit, angel’s trumpet, lily-of-the-valley, geranium, cyclamen, and a tiny hint of rose.  To provide the special Lilith touch, the top notes are anchored by davana and kewda, topped off with a generous helping of kaffir lime leaf. This is the fragrance of a female warrior who not only fights and wins, but seduces everyone in her path.

The DEV series is a mandala of 4 fragrances, each a variation on labdanum, which, according to Quantum Demonology, is the characteristic scent of the Devil, affectionately known as Dev. Each variation represents a different phase in the narrative of seduction, passion, destruction, and ultimate circling back to the beginning as recounted in Quantum Demonology, and functions in much the same way as a movement in a musical composition. These four fragrances will be issued as a limited edition series, with the second one, DEV #2 eventually slated to go into permanent production along with LIL. DEV #4 has turned out to be very popular, so it may go into the permanent collection as well.

The lightest and happiest of the series, it represents the early phase of the story when the female protagonist is being tempted and seduced into a neo-Faustian deal with the devil. It’s the scent of falling in love despite misgivings and against one’s better judgment, a scenario in which bright top notes play against a dark and foreboding base. It contains three kinds of synthetic oud and other woody base notes, black vanilla, tolu balsam, clear labdanum absolute, synthetic musk deer accord, Africa stone tincture, ambergris tincture, synthetic civet, beeswax absolute, frankincense, African bluegrass, giant arborvitae wood from the Pacific Northwest, and cinnamon leaf.

This smoky, dense, and rich composition is a big, insistent fragrance that represents the romantic phase when the tempestuous love affair between the protagonist and Dev is proceeding in all of its ups and downs. It’s the fundamental seductive scent of Dev, without the darkest and most sinister of the base notes, a spicy, woody, animalic scent that stuns the senses and renders the lover oblivious to any of the horrors and dangers that might lie in wait. It contains three different kinds of labdanum, tolu balsam, black agar, woody base notes, musks, castoreum, civet, cistus oil, incense, immortelle absolute, cade, davana, and the scent of a worn black leather jacket. It’s spiced up with a tiny dab of rose, clove, cardamom, cinnamon, and cinnamon leaf. It combines the spiritual with the carnal in a rising plume of incense accompanied by the riff of a heavy metal bass played by an entity in a black leather jacket.

This muted, dark, melancholy fragrance is made using 100% natural materials. It represents the stage at which all secrets have been revealed, after the inevitable destruction of people, things, and relationships has occurred, when the two lovers recognize that they have to part ways forever. It contains New Caledonian sandalwood absolute, dark labdanum, clear labdanum, red spikenard, a generous dose of ancient fossilized amber, ambergris tincture, black truffle tincture (the fungus, not the chocolate), cistus oil, cassie absolute, frankincense, davana, African bluegrass, myrrh tincture, motia attar, and cinnamon leaf. It is a meditative scent of loneliness and resignation to fate, but one that promotes meditation and strange dreams.

This is the bare-bones version of all the incarnations of Dev, paring them down to their unifying essence and clearing the way for the labdanum to shine through. It’s the scent of coming back full circle to where one started, but with new eyes, as if the world had been tumbled smooth and worn down by events to reveal the clear, shining gemstone at its center. It is the scent of transcendence and triumph after great loss, the calm vision that comes after having weathered a disaster. It contains clear labdanum absolute, tolu balsam, dark labdanum, a pinch of woody base notes, a little bit of frankincense, and the tiniest bit of giant arborvitae as a top note. It is a simple reprise of the original theme, stripped down to its soul, with no more illusions. It is the aura of readiness to move on to a new and higher level in the infinite spiral of life. 

[Satan sculpture by Jean-Jacques Fouchere, 1836]