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.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


On this gorgeous, sunny fall day, Laelia anceps is in full bloom, with three perfect flowers on a stalk that’s almost 3 feet (1 meter) long. The flowers are large, causing the stalk to arch over gracefully and sway in the slightest breeze. I prefer not to stake my orchid flower spikes because I like to see how they would grow naturally and how they would move to attract pollinators. This year the petals have a bit of a dark magenta splash on them, and are quite beautiful. The whole flower sparkles in the sun with tiny, shimmering points of light. If I were an insect, I would be strongly attracted to the flowers just based on their appearance, which is as nice as that of any hybrid.

My first impulse as an orchid grower is to pollinate the flowers, but I have an orchid show coming up next weekend in Seaside, Oregon, and hope that the flowers will last long enough to make it there and back before doing anything to them. 

Since reading up on orchid fragrance analyses for the making of the “Orchid 17” accord for Sonnet XVII, I’ve started to recognize individual aroma chemical molecules in the fragrances of the orchids that bloom in my greenhouse. What I smell strongly in Laelia anceps is gamma-decalactone. This molecule is a component of many fruit and flower fragrances including gardenia, peach, apricot, and osmanthus as well as fermented products like beer. It’s also used as part of the pheromone communication systems of certain insects. For example, male scarab beetles emit it to attract females – the legendary “chick magnet” fragrance, if you’re a scarab beetle.

In most of the fruits and flowers that contain gamma-decalactone, it’s buried in among many other things, simply rounding, flattening, and mattifying, the scent, but in Laelia anceps, it’s up front and center stage. It’s described by The Good Scents Company as “fresh, oily, waxy, peach, coconut, buttery, sweet”, but that really isn’t how it smells to me. TGSC’s description is more a list of odors that might contain the molecule rather than the odor of the molecule itself. To me, it’s flat or slightly concave, matte, neutral colored, and almost sour, sort of like the smell of a sour dishrag - a sweetish, slightly fermented scent. Laelia anceps surrounds its overdose of gamma-decalactone with just enough bright, fresh floral notes to push it barely over the edge into pleasant territory. I’m sure the insects would love it if I put it outside for them. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Sometimes, when coming back to one of my creations in any medium after a long time, I’m stunned by how good it is, and how I failed to see the merit in it initially. I think anyone who creates has probably had this experience, needing to see their work with objective eyes in order to appreciate it. Sometimes I’m also stunned by the ability of others to draw so much beauty from my creations, and to express it so beautifully, creating an entirely new thing of beauty.

Olga Rowe has done this in her review of Sonnet XVII on CaFleureBon. The review is truly a thing of beauty, both in the words and in the art that she chose to illustrate it. She has not only told a story, she has managed to incorporate into a literary work an accurate and detailed description of the fragrance itself. Nothing sounds forced or contrived. It’s a masterclass in how to write a good perfume review.

I am immensely grateful to Michelyn Camen and CaFleureBon for giving me the opportunity to be a part of this wide-reaching project.

[The puzzle picture that Olga posted on her review reminded me of one that I had painted many years ago, shown here.]

Friday, September 28, 2012


September has been a terrible month, or a very good month, depending on one’s point of view. In any case, it’s been unusually hectic, and I’ve neglected the blog terribly. The first two weeks of September I was spending half of my time teaching an intensive course and half of my time finalizing and preparing Sonnet XVII for release. The third half of my time was spent taking care of the orchids and regular life activities. I probably didn’t do the publicity end of Sonnet XVII justice, but I did the best I could given the time constraints I had. I’m still thinking about the formula. I’m reasonably certain that it’s good, but I need time away from it before I can evaluate it properly. It was certainly well received at the LA Fragrance Salon, with many people (even naïve spillover people from the chocolate show) commenting that it smelled “earthy”, which was one aspect I was going for. When I smelled it yesterday, I could actually detect the spikenard, so maybe the elusive spikenard will come out of the closet after all as the blend ages. It was awarded a bronze medal for “best new product”, but I can’t figure out whether this is a mild and sincere compliment or damning with faint praise. I’ll be an optimist and assume the former.

The Los Angeles Fragrance Salon was different from the one in San Francisco in that it was a tag-on to a big chocolate show. Many of the people who attended were chocolate-lovers who wandered in through curiosity or accident. I think all of the fragrance exhibitors spent a lot of time educating those chocolate enthusiasts who were interested in perfume. Some were interested, and some weren't. The typical exchange at my booth went something like this:

Me: What type of fragrance do you like?
Visitor: I don’t know. I don’t really wear perfume. Something light.
Me: (thinking, I don’t have anything “light”. I don’t do “lite”.) OK. Do you like florals?
Visitor: Yeah, I guess so.
Me: Try these orchid fragrances (I spritz Red Cattleya, Golden Cattleya, Little Stars, Osafume, and Javanica on test strips).
Visitor: mmmmm….. what’s this one?
Me: (thinking, “This one is anything but lite”) Red Cattleya (or one of the others). It’s an orchid fragrance.
Visitor: Ooooh…, I like it.  (happily buys a 5 ml spray bottle of Red Cattleya (or one of the others) and moves on to the next booth).

The saving grace of the LA Salon was that we flew down to LA a day early and got to spend a whole day at the Santa Monica Beach. There’s something magical about the beach, the sun, the warm sand, and the salt water with wave after wave surging and breaking in a rhythmic pattern. It was a time of total relaxation and renewal. A year’s vacation compressed into a day. The first time we had been in real sun in about 3 years. Michael got painfully sunburned. I just turned a slightly darker shade of tan. It was wonderful! Being in a warm place made me realize how tense we all get when we live in cool or cold climates, and how unnatural it is.

As soon as I got back to Seattle from LA, the fall quarter started, with more teaching, meetings, and the usual round of academic stuff. My theatre group’s fall show is coming up soon, so I’ve also been busy with casting and rehearsals. I have a lot of pending orders that I have to ship out this coming week.

For some unknown reason, I’ve been wearing nothing but really good ouds since I’ve been back, none of the usual sample tests. I don’t know why, but I just can’t face standard, conventional perfumes right now. Somehow, straight oud is comforting.

The weather in the Pacific Northwest is still dry and sunny, so I’m enjoying that, even if it’s not as warm as LA. Every day that I can go barefoot at home or wear sandals when I go out, is a gift. I think this whole past week I’ve really been in recovery from traveling and the LA show. I forgot to bring my camera (as usual) so didn’t take any photos. I know people came by and took pictures of my booth, so as they’re posted, I’ll put them on here, if I find them. I suppose the bottom line is that I’m in a fall funk, sad to see summer over so soon. That will change, and I’ll get back to posting regularly, I promise.

[LA Fragrance Salon poster from their website; other photos from Wikimedia]

Thursday, September 20, 2012


I've been holding back on talking about the new perfume, waiting for the definitive post to be published on CaFleureBon. It appeared tonight, and includes a long description of how this collaborative project with Michelyn Camen developed from the brilliant idea she had of making a fragrance to celebrate one of the most famous love poems by Pablo Neruda, one of the greatest Latin American poets. The post also documents my approach to the actual making of the fragrance, our back-and-forth discussions as the concept and the fragrance developed, the notes, the final packaging, and a drawing for the first full bottle produced.

I feel like it's been an all-out sprint to the finish line, but with the feeling of exhaustion comes the exhilaration of knowing that I've had the opportunity to participate in a truly unique experience in the art of perfume. I have a special fondness for Latin American writers and the magical realism genre, so the whole project resonated with me to the extent that I mentally obsessed about it so much that I went through periods of not being able to accomplish anything in the lab and had to work in intensive spurts. Now that it's done (at least this stage of it) I feel like I'm too tired to think straight and I need to collapse and go to bed so that I can get up and travel to LA tomorrow for the Los Angeles Artisan Fragrance Salon, where Sonnet XVII will make its debut. As I said in the other post, I only hope that the fragrance does justice to the poem:

I do not love you as if you were salt-rose, or topaz,
or the arrow of carnations the fire shoots off. 
I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, 
in secret, between the shadow and the soul. 

I love you as the plant that never blooms but carries
in itself the light of hidden flowers;
Thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance 
risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where.
I love you straightforwardly, without complexities or pride,
so I love you because I know no other way than this

where I do not exist, nor you,
so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep.

And in Spanish:

No te amo como si fueras rosa de sal, topacio
o flecha de claveles que propagan el fuego.
Te amo como se aman ciertas cosas oscuras,
secretamente, entre la sombra y el alma.

Te amo como la planta que no florece y lleva
dentro de sí, escondida, la luz de aquellas flores,
y gracias a tu amor vive oscuro en mi cuerpo
el apretado aroma que ascendió de la tierra.

Te amo sin saber cómo, ni cuándo, ni de dónde,
te amo directamente sin problemas ni orgullo:
así te amo porque no sé amar de otra manera,

sino así de este modo en que no soy ni eres, 
tan cerca que tu mano sobre mi pecho es mía,
tan cerca que se cierran tus ojos con mi sueño.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


September has been an unusually bad month for blogging. It’s the start of the academic year, with its tasks and deadlines. The weather has been unusually warm and dry, so the orchids have needed more attention than usual, the needy little scoundrels. I’ve been waiting for a new batch of spray vials to arrive, so have a backlog of sample orders that I have to fill. I’ve been preparing to go to the Los Angeles Artisan Fragrance Salon, which takes place this coming Sunday, September 23, preparing sample sets, bottles, display materials, and press kits, packing and shipping them all, and trying to get the house in order for the house-sitter/orchid-sitter to come in for the weekend. Oh, and then there’s the fall theatre showcase that I have to work on. I still have to pack my clothes for LA, but that’s the easy part.

To top it all off, I’ve been working feverishly on a new fragrance that will debut in Los Angeles. As you might have guessed if you’ve been reading this blog, it’s the one with the “osmanthorchid” accord and the disappearing spikenard, finally to a point where it has a chosen version, a name, a label, and enough of it on hand to make some samples and fill a few orders. I’ve been writing press releases and descriptions, taking photos, and doing all of the stuff that I’m learning has to be done to publicize a new fragrance release. I feel like I’m in the last stages of labor, just about ready to push the product out and breathe a big sigh of relief. This fragrance was made faster than I usually work, so it was a little stressful all along the way. However, it was a wonderful and unique concept that I enjoyed working on from start to finish. It’s my understanding that the full story and details about the fragrance will come out this Friday, September 21, on Cafleurebon, along with a drawing – perfect timing if ever there was such a thing.

I’ve stopped promising anything any more. Instead, I just give probabilities that I’ll be able to do things. I’d say there’s about a 75% chance that I’ll be back to blogging more regularly after I get back from LA. 

[Diving birds drawing and Santa Monica palm photo from Wikimedia]

Saturday, September 8, 2012


I’ve written about spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) before, because it’s one of my staple natural materials. I usually use it in combination with many other elements as part of the base, in such small quantities that I would not expect it to stand out, but recently I decided to make a perfume in which spikenard was the dominant note in a very earthy base meant to represent certain types of orchids that are saprophytic, living on dead vegetation like the coral-root on the right, or the imaginary scent of orchids that have flowers that do not open fully like Zootrophion, shown in the illustration below left.

I was surprised to find that I was foiled at every turn by the tendency of spikenard to run off and disappear amongst everything else, almost as if it were wearing olfactory camouflage. I tried red spikenard, green spikenard, and even the new spikenard CO2 extract that I recently got. I mixed them all, I used whopping amounts of spikenard, but no matter what I did, the spikenard disappeared into the woodwork.

One of my paranoid thoughts was that I’d been huffing so much spikenard that I’d completely adapted and couldn’t smell it any more. However, if I put straight spikenard oil on my skin I can smell it just fine, exactly as it’s supposed to smell, like the earthiest patchouli ever. I can only conclude that the spikenard merges completely with whatever it encounters and takes on a new olfactory form. I suppose one has to deal with this property and use it as a modifier, not a prominent note, or else stick to materials that the poor, impressionable spikenard can resist, whatever they are.

In one variation I combined spikenard with vanilla, cacao, cabreuva, henna absolute, and some musk and woody notes. The spikenard disappeared. In another variation, I combined it with vetiver, synthetic oud, vanilla, and some musk and woody notes. The spikenard disappeared. Maybe it’s a good thing that spikenard has this property, because it can function as an earth-toned palette on which to paint with other, brighter fragrances. The learning never stops!

[Coralroot and Zootrophion orchid images from Wikimedia]