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, 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]


  1. I use spikenard in incense and find the same disappearing trick. It seems to give a smooth, earthy, slightly herbaceous vibe in a mix, but like you, I can't pick out the note once it's in a blend. It is weird, isn't it?? L'Artisan Parfumeur once had a summer cologne called Jatamansi, which was supposed to be all-natural and very good, but I never found some to try out. (It was supposed to be quite ephemeral, however.)

  2. Marla, I'm glad I'm not the only one who has had this experience with spikenard. I tried a sample of L'Artisan's Jatamansi and found that the word "ephemeral" describes it perfectly, but then, a lot of L'Artisan's creations could be described that way. Jatamansi did not smell like spikenard, either, so it must have done its usual disappearing act.

  3. I remember the original reviews, and a response from the perfumer. A lot of people loved it but were perplexed because it didn't "smell like spikenard"--the response was that it was loaded with spikenard! So yeah, I suspect the disappearing act had occurred.... It's very weird, though, that the material on its own is so strong-smelling and distinctive, think of others like hay and immortelle and patchouli, they sure don't disappear! (even when you beg them to go)

    1. Marla, after a week or two of sitting, I think the spikenard is detectable in the blend, it's just not as prominent as I would have expected it to be.