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.

Friday, August 24, 2012


School has started again, so mornings are all spent inside. However, one of the activities that I usually do with my freshman class is a campus walkabout to look at public art, architecture, design, and other fun things. Yesterday afternoon I took a walkabout myself to make sure that I have a good route planned out, little thinking that it would yield a treasure trove of perfume-related plants.

The first and biggest surprise came when I was walking down a path and suddenly smelled a familiar, woody, resinous scent. I looked all around, but wasn’t able to localize it. I shrugged it off thinking it was just my imagination, or else there was a bit of labdanum clinging to my clothing somewhere and being activated by the sun. I went on, but a little further down the path I smelled it again. This time there was only one kind of bush in the vicinity and, when I touched it, it was sticky! Really sticky, especially the new stems. After touching the bush, my hands smelled exactly like the labdanum absolute that I use. I’d found Cistus ladanifer growing right on campus in huge profusion. The bushes are bigger than I’d imagined them being, as tall or taller than I am, with thick woody trunks. If you don’t work with labdanum, it’s probably hard to imagine the thrill of finding these legendary plants growing in your very own neighborhood with the resin oozing out, right there for you to touch and sniff. 

There were two varieties of Cistus, one the “real thing” and another with wider leaves, less resin, and a woodier scent. I took a small cutting of each that I’ll try to root, but will also look for a larger ladanifer plant at one of the local nurseries.

The next surprises came when I checked out the medicinal herb garden. The most surprising thing I found was a huge asafoetida plant, Ferula asafoetida, which is the source of the Indian spice, hing. Live, it resembles a huge Angelica plant with the typical dill-anise-angelica type seed heads. I was surprised to find that the leaves had a strong, fresh, herbal scent rather than the typical garlic-onion odor of the spice, which is made from the resin exuded from the roots.  Now I want to grow an asafoetida plant and tincture the leaves. I took a seed head, and will be raising little asafoetida plants in the greenhouse this winter for garden planting in the spring.

Another plant that I was pleased to find was immortelle, Helichrysum italicum, commonly known as curry plant. The leaves really do smell like curry, but also have a hint of the sweet, maple-syrup scent of immortelle absolute. I took some immoretelle seeds, too, which look like clusters of little dandelion seed puffs.

The final surprise was finding a big hedge of tea bushes, Camellia sinensis. I had no idea that we could grow tea in the Pacific Northwest, but evidently so. The plants look like regular camellia bushes with medium small leaves. Interesting. This one is going into my garden, too, along with the others, initially as a cutting that I’ll try to root and, with luck, a bigger plant from a nursery. Imagine harvesting and making your own tea!

[As usual, I didn't have my camera or phone with me, so the photos of the Cistus Helichrysum and Camellia sinensis flowers are from Wikimedia, as is the botanical illustration of the asafoetida plant. The cuttings laid out on the kitchen counter are my photo]

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Written Friday afternoon, 8/17: This afternoon when I ran it was the first time in ages that I’ve really sweat. The temperature was over 90F (32C) and the humidity was relatively high (65% - I looked it up), just pushing over the threshold for really getting soaked in sweat when exercising. The sun was shining and there was heat radiating up from the asphalt. As I sit here writing this, the sweat is running down every part of my body like rivers. My shorts and tank top are soaked. I love it! Of course I’m looking forward to a nice shower at some point, but right now I’m just loving the feel of it being summer. We have so little warm weather here that it’s a novelty, just like fog and rain in the desert.

Before I went running I was working on a new floral accord for a fragrance in progress. It’s going to have a very earthy base with a floral heart, but no roses, carnations, or standard “white flowers”. I wanted the new accord to be a hybrid between a generic orchid base and osmanthus, so I’d been poring over chemical analyses of weird orchid species’ headspaces and osmanthus flowers fresh, picked, in concrete, and in absolute, trying to identify the main players common to all of them. I had a basic orchid-ish accord already, the sort of just-at-the-corner-of-your consciousness scent that would belong to one of those legions of non-showy orchids like the one in the photo. This afternoon I added the first osmanthus framework. When I put a dab of the mix on my skin it was way too strong and “unmelded” at first, but as it dried down, I smelled the possibilities. About an hour into the drydown I went for my run. By that point I was thrilled because I could smell the peachy note that’s in osmanthus, with no peachy stuff having been added. It blew my mind to think that there are so many pathways to the same olfactory experience. After sweating enough to wash away just about anything, the scent is still on my skin. So far so good!  

Written today, 8/18: Later on that evening when I went up to my “lab”, the room was full of the flowery, peachy sillage of my experiment. I still have a lot of tweaking to do, but I think I have basically what I want. I applied some more this morning, and it's mellower than it was yesterday. It still starts out way too strong, but it's a concentrate, after all. It's back to the usual cool and cloudy weather, so I'll get to experience it in a very different context. 

[Desert dunes photo from Wikimedia. The Dactylorrhiza fuchsii grows in my garden.]

Friday, August 17, 2012


Nearly every day I try a sample of someone else’s perfume, sometimes multiple perfumes in one day. Although I don’t write about them publicly, I do try them at times when they won’t interfere with my own work.

No matter how they start out, it seems like in the end what’s left more often than not is musk. Usually it’s a mixed bouquet of synthetic “white” musks, and much less often some synthetic quasi-musk like ambroxan. Actually, if there are musks in a perfume I can usually smell them as top notes, just as I can smell sandalwood or synthetic ambery-woody bases as a top note, so I know how it will end right from the beginning. Occasionally the musks remain hidden until somewhere well into the drydown. But in the end, there’s musk. If nothing else, it’s tenacious.

Don’t get me wrong, I like musk as much as the next person, maybe more. I just wish that more perfumes dried down to something a little different, or at least that the standard white musk mixture was combined with other tenacious elements for interest. 

I use musks, including all sorts of synthetic “clean” musks, synthetic reconstructions of not-so-clean animal musks, and even “botanical musk”, aka ambrette. I usually don’t use a lot, and quite a few of my perfumes contain no musks at all. Whipping up a nice white musk base is the simplest thing in the world and it’s a sure-fire way to have a long-lasting fragrance that smells good and smells conventional. It’s sort of like using frozen pie crusts to make pies. Pour in your canned fruity-floral filling and  … voila! … a professional-smelling product. Making a base without the standard musk medley is more of a challenge, but it’s worth it when the perfume dries down to something a little different, even though it may be on the weird side and not quite as tenacious.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that using a white musk base is a cop-out, because there are many wonderful perfumes that need a white musk base in order to work. It’s just that it seems overused in both mainstream and niche fragrances. 

[Painting of woman in white by Guillaume Seignac, early 1920s; pie photo from Wikimedia]

Thursday, August 16, 2012


The winner of the random draw for a 5 ml spray bottle of the Olympic Orchids fragrance of your choice is DIONNE.

Please send me the name of the fragrance that you would like and your full mailing address.

As usual, all of the names were written down on identical little scraps of paper, folded in the same way, shaken up, and drawn with closed eyes.

Thanks to everyone for your constructive comments regarding the websites. Oh, by the way, the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the color scheme white on a black background. 

[Running chicken photo from Wikimedia in honor of the chicken races that will take place in Fort St. James, BC, on September 29. Bummer that I can't be there.] 

Monday, August 13, 2012


The last few posts have been pretty heavy, so I thought I’d go to some lighter fare today. For the past two weeks Phalaenopsis deliciosa (aka Kingidium deliciosum) has been blooming. It’s a cute little Asian species that just loves to bloom. In fact, it loves blooming so much that one of its children, not yet a year out of flask, is also blooming with two large spikes, and is bigger than its parent. There are many small flowers to a spike, creamy yellow with red on the lip. Flower color seems to vary a lot with conditions, being lighter when it blooms in winter or early spring.

The flowers may be small, but they make up for it with a lovely fragrance that is mainly emitted in the mid-morning. It’s citrusy and floral in the way that perfumes are floral. At times it seems heavy, like a vintage perfume, but at other times it seems light, like a cologne. It reminds me a lot of the original Phalaenopsis javanica flower that I used as an inspiration for Javanica, and also of some citrusy hybrids using Phalaenopsis gigantea.

What’s interesting is that many people seem to be anosmic to these Phalaenopsis fragrances. I offered the Phalaenopsis deliciosa to Michael to sniff, at the peak of its fragrance puffing, and he couldn’t smell anything. When I had some fragrant hybrid Phalaenopsis at a show, about half of the people who smelled them couldn’t detect any fragrance and the other half loved them. I guess the bottom line is that these flowers are delicious if you can smell them, but if you can’t, they’re just another pretty flower. 

These examples of anosmia to a strong (to me) flower fragrance points to the difficulty of evaluating perfumes given how much variability there is in human olfactory perception. If I were to synthesize a perfect Phalaenopsis deliciosa fragrance, half of the people who tried it wouldn't be able to smell anything. Now that I think about it, that might be the perfect solution to "perfume-free" environments - a fragrance designed to be perceptible to the wearer but not everyone else, sort of like the high-frequency "teenager ringtones" mentioned in one of the recent comments. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Nearly every day I get a dire message in my inbox from some organization that “needs to raise $X00,000 to …” counter some political manoeuvre or another. Or to prevent an environmental disaster. Or a social disaster. If they don’t get the funds immediately, the sky will fall and we’ll all be burnt to a crisp in the ensuing economic meltdown/natural catastrophe/social chaos, or whatever their pet threat is. It’s sad because I support most of these groups in theory and have donated to them or otherwise supported them at some point in the past. However, I am not an infinitely rich cash cow that can send each of them a big donation every time they ask. And they’re asking far too often for their own good.

It’s no wonder the entire population has grown apathetic. Every side of every issue cries wolf so loudly and so often, always with their palm outstretched for contributions to build the latest wolf trap, that we no longer believe any of it, or want to help in what seems like a scramble to see who can raise the most money, not who can do the most good. I don’t want to hear who’s raising the most money in an election and I don’t want to be part of that game. What I want to hear is candidates’ relevant qualifications (not details of their personal life) and their specific plans to improve (or at least maintain) every relevant aspect of the areas over which they have influence.

If it were up to me, voters would not see campaign signs, pictures of the candidates, any form of advertising, or gratuitous blurbs about their families, pets and other private activities. They would all have to take a rigorous exam to make sure that they’re qualified for the office they’re seeking and, if they pass, write a paper on their positions and plans, and engage in a written debate with their opponents. In fact, the debate could take the form of an ongoing social media exchange, closely controlled, i.e., proctored to make sure that the candidate is actually the one writing the responses without help, and moderated to make sure that the candidates stay on topic and do not engage in ad hominem arguments. The results of the exam, the paper, and the debate transcripts, along with the candidate’s CV, would be published in all of the news media free of charge (after all, this IS news).

Maybe it sounds dry and boring, but at least it’s better than the uninformative and boring ads and solicitations that are infesting every corner of the real and virtual environment now. And it’s a lot cheaper. The only expense would be designing and administering the exams, and proctoring the paper-writing and debates. This could all be done by one of the companies that makes up and scores the exams for entrance to graduate and/or professional school. The millions (or is it billions or trillions?) of dollars that would otherwise be spent on political advertising at all levels could be spent on something real, like education, health care, infrastructure maintenance, food, hiring real people to answer the phone and, of course, perfume.

You knew I’d eventually drag perfume into it, didn’t you? This is because I started out to write a post on the optimal amount of advertising for perfume businesses, but words have a way of doing their own thing. This post is getting too long, so I’ll save that for next time. 

[All images from Wikimedia. US Grant being examined by Uncle Sam by Frank Leslie, 1872, so it's not a novel idea. In fact, the theory that political candidates should be knowledgeable and competent is an old-fashioned idea.]

Friday, August 10, 2012


While we're on the topic of website design, I'd like to pose a question to all of you about the design of this website. When I first started the blog, I chose the white text on black background just because I like the way it looks, but recently I've read comments by several people (not here) saying that they find it hard to read white text on a dark background.

So, dear readers, would you prefer to have black text on a white background? If a majority prefer black on white, I'll switch over at some point.

So please vote: White on black or black on white?

If you vote, you'll be entered into the website design random drawing for a 5 ml spray bottle of an Olympic Orchids perfume. The drawing will take place on Thursday, August 16.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


I seem to be taking the elephants in the room in random order as they dance onto my landscape. This one’s a fairly benign one, a meek and geekly elephant who has his computer hooked up to multiple big screens, eats bland elephant chow while typing away hunched over a tiny keyboard, is fluent in every programming language known to the elephant herd, but has yet to master his own native language. If he were in flash, he would be rotating around so that you don't have to stare at his backside all the time. His wares have been discovered and exploited by the snake-oil salesmen who sell them to unsuspecting victims with the promise that showing gratuitous videos on their websites will make them appear professional and sophisticated.

Here’s the backstory of how this elephant got into my room. I was recently sent some samples of two perfume oils made by Yas, a perfume manufacturer based in Saudi Arabia, and have been testing them. Reviews will follow, since I don’t see any harm or conflict of interest in posting basic information about products that never get reviewed elsewhere (at least not in English). I thought it would be interesting to find out a little background on them, but the Yas website is every bit as aggravating as any European manufacturer’s, all flash and no information. The flash is so overdone that it takes forever to load. It’s one of those websites that requires you to go have a cup of coffee while you wait for something meaningful to appear on the screen. If the wheel in the center of the coffee cup were in flash, it would be rotating ... and rotating ... and ... Once the site does load, there is no information whatsoever about the individual perfume oils, just a rotating flash parade of bottle pictures. I keep my laptop’s sound turned off to avoid being assaulted by music, verbal commentary, or any of the other sound effects that often accompany flash shows, so can’t say if there was any sound track.

But if it looks cool to a geek, it must appeal to the viewer, right? Not necessarily. I’m willing to wait a few minutes for a YouTube video of a snowboarding crow to load, since it’s an oddity of nature that I’d like to check out just for entertainment and to increase my respect and admiration for crows. However, I’m not willing to wait a few minutes for the home page of a perfume website to load.  So what’s the difference? On the one hand, if I expect to watch a video, I know up front that it will take a little while to get going. If there’s an unavoidable commercial ahead of the video, I open another window and do something else until it’s over. When I go to a perfume website or any other commercial website, I expect to find still pages with the information I want easily accessible. It’s analogous to the difference between having to load and watch an entire video from start to finish to get a small bit of information that’s embedded somewhere among a lot of irrelevant stuff versus flipping through a hard-copy booklet to immediately find the relevant information on the page where the index says it is.

Maybe other people have more patience than I do, or maybe they need the visual stimulation of moving objects on their screen. Personally, if I go to a perfume maker’s website I’m generally looking for information about the company, a perfume line, a specific perfume, or just to browse their selection. I’d like to know something about each perfume, where/how to buy it, and how much it costs. Why else would anyone go to a perfume maker’s website? To watch pastel butterflies flitting around on a white screen for five minutes, only to find out that the website just says how wonderful the products are, not what they are or how to obtain them? I would be just as frustrated if I were a retailer wishing to place a wholesale order as I am as a curious individual consumer looking for a sample.

To me, a good commercial website is attractive, uncluttered, easy to read, and easy to navigate. The home page functions both as a general overview and an index that takes you directly to whatever page you want to see and from there to whatever item you want to see, quickly and without fuss. You should not have to scroll down through multiple pages to find the one you want. Sequential processing is easy for computer programs, but it’s maddening to humans. If the quasi-stick figure at the computer were in flash, she would be tearing her hair out. The usual “opposite” of sequential processing is parallel processing, but that’s not really what we, as highly functioning information processing systems, do. I would call it “selective processing”, a sort of an instantaneous gestalt process that allows us to immediately skip the many steps of both the sequential and parallel processes, and pick out from a huge array only those details of interest at the moment. It may not be a popular cognitive or programming model, but it sure saves a hell of a lot of time in the real world. It’s an option that a good website should strive to incorporate.

Another thing that I find puzzling is the existence of commercial websites that function as nothing but billboards, whether moving or still. These are the websites that say, “we are suppliers of …fill in whatever product it is that you desperately want  We supply this product worldwide.” That’s it. They make or obtain it, they supply it, and they provide no clue as to how one goes about buying it. Sometimes there’s a “contact us” window that one can fill out to get a product list, price list, or quote. My experience is that more than half the time these windows don’t work, and even when they appear to do so, half of the time the company never responds. To make matters worse, their telephone number is also non-functional. Isn’t the purpose of having a commercial website to facilitate doing business?

I think I’ve probably ranted more than enough for the day, so will pose the question: What do you like and/or dislike in perfume websites? I don’t mean blogs, I mean commercial sites. I’m always trying to improve the functionality of my site, within the constraints of the system I have to work with, so your comments may well be useful. Leave a relevant comment and be entered in a drawing to win a 5 ml spray bottle of an Olympic Orchids perfume, my choice based on what I have on hand when I do the drawing on Thursday, August 16. 

[All cartoons and photo from Wikimedia]

Monday, August 6, 2012


It’s interesting that by going far to the north we were able to finally enjoy a little summer weather. I suppose it’s the difference between inland and the coast, but it still seems counterintuitive. Central BC this time of year is warm and sunny, except for the occasional shower that keeps everything ridiculously green north of . There’s something deeply satisfying about being able to wear minimal clothing and feel warm air even at night, or sitting in the shade at a little motel in Lytton, where we stayed on the way home. It made me realize that warm summer nights are what I miss most living in the Pacific Northwest. I know there are many who would disagree with me, but I’m just a tropical creature at heart.

We set out Monday evening and drove up Highway 5 through Kamloops. Around midnight we were so tired that we just pulled over on what appeared to be a side road with an overlook area, and slept in the car. We woke up to a surreal scene of bright, bright sunlight, blue, blue sky, a housing development-to-be in the middle of the desert along with a newly built, completely deserted, golf course. I don’t think there was another human for miles around.

Going north, there seemed to be fewer dead lodgepole pines than on the last trip. Maybe I was expecting to see dead, purple-tinged ghost forests everywhere, or maybe the loggers have been clearing out the dead trees, which are used to make “blue pine” furniture and other things. There was a riot of wildflowers along the roadsides everywhere, with tall white sweet clover (Melilotus albus) everywhere. It has a beautiful, sweet, tonka-like scent that would periodically waft in through the car windows, reminding me that one of the projects on my agenda is making a really good clover accord.

Other smells along the way, north and southbound:  A pulp mill that I smelled miles before we passed it – not a good smell, but the only really bad form of pollution that we encountered; a sawmill surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh pine logs; the smell of newly cut hay drying in the sun; the damp, cool, earthy smell that rises up from the ground in the early evening after a day of hot sun; the smell of mixed wildflowers along the roadside, usually dominated by sweet clover.

The trip was also memorable for the wildlife that we saw along the way: A bald eagle that flew directly over the car carrying a huge stick; hawks and ravens everywhere; a large deer standing on the side of the road; and to top it all off, a black bear that was slowly crossing the road, probably coming up from the river. 

We slowed down to let it cross the road, it just looked at us, pushed up the barbed wire fence on the other side of the road with its front paw, ducked under, and went off through the field, up the hill, toward the woods. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a bear outside a zoo.

We rolled into Seattle yesterday evening, to find that it was actually warm here, too. I think it was the only warm day of the year. This morning we’re back to cloudy skies and cool temperatures. Oh well, we had a week of summer. 

[Sweet clover, eagle, and bear photos from Wikimedia. It seems I'm always too busy looking at things to remember to have my camera (or even my phone) out at the critical times.]