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, October 24, 2012


The rains have finally come, in all their forms, from fine mist through heavy downpour. In a way it’s depressing to know that the rain is here to stay until next summer, and that pretty soon it will be getting dark at 3:30 in the afternoon. However, this past week there’s been an up side to the rain, in the form of some of the most spectacular rainbows I’ve ever seen.

On Sunday afternoon, coming home from a rehearsal at the Seattle Center, I was driving north on highway I-5. It was raining hard everywhere, but the sun was shining brightly, creating the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen. It was a full super-double rainbow, with the colors duplicated in reverse in the inner circle, and another complete rainbow above it. It glowed as if it were lit from inside.

The most amazing experience was driving through the end of the rainbow. I didn’t even know this was possible until it happened. Because it was raining everywhere and there was a huge cloud of spray kicked up by the vehicles on the freeway, the rainbow extended from where it was in the sky all the way down to the road surface.  Passing through the end of the rainbow was like being showered with multicolored jewels of light. Because the road curves around a good bit, I ended up passing through both ends of the rainbow multiple times. The proverbial pot of gold took the form of shimmering golden light, which was good enough for me.

When I got home Michael told me that lightning had struck in the field of blackberries across from our house. Thankfully I wasn’t home at the time. Having almost been struck by lightning twice, I really don’t want to experience it a third time.

Yesterday I looked out the window of my office and saw another complete double rainbow, so they just keep coming.  I started to wonder if anyone has ever made a rainbow-themed perfume. I can’t remember ever hearing of one, but it seems like a good idea. I would envision it as being a light, bright scintillating, watery scent, maybe a little bit ozonic from the lightning that sometimes accompanies it.

Does anyone know of an existing “rainbow” fragrance?

[Both photos were taken by my phone. The top one was taken when I got off the freeway and found a good place to pull over. By then the rainbow wasn’t as bright, but you can see the general idea. The second one was taken from my office window, overlooking part of the campus.]

Friday, October 19, 2012


Some time ago I was reading an article reprinted from the New York Times about how people are influenced by photos of other people’s houses (real or imaginary) posted on the internet, and feel the need to surround themselves with props that create the illusion of whatever specific lifestyle they aspire to, usually that of the “rich and famous”, whatever that is. According to the article, it involves, among other things, a certain Botero art book that lies eternally unopened on a certain style of coffee table. Having seen some of these interior design photos, I think it also involves a bowl containing flowers or fruit, and/or puzzling objects with no apparent function positioned on the coffee table next to the book or books.

As a generally stripped-down person who thinks the best place for props is in the theatre, where they actually serve a purpose, the article got me to wondering about how much of what people own really does simply serve the function of a prop, and nothing else. To what extent is their environment a theatrical setting for the drama they wish to enact? How successful is the set in bringing about an enactment of the desired script? How does perfume fit into the concept of a set with props?

Of course, Shakespeare was right in observing that the world is, in some sense, a theatre – a shabby old theatre that’s been extensively modified and, more often than not, trashed by all of its previous users to the extent that it threatens to go out of business if we don’t do something to remedy its sorry state. We and our troupe have to share it with other groups that have competing interests. We have to clean out their trash, ask management to replace the burned-out lights and repair the ripped curtains, and try our best to build a little fantasy world that serves the purposes of our own show for the short time we’re here. In the larger sense, we have to work around all of the sets built by others and use whatever prefabricated pieces are lying around in the shop. For better or worse, everything from sets through props and costumes follows a rigid format dictated by the space we have to work in, the prevailing availability of materials, the current selection of design concepts, audience expectations and, not least, our own budget.

So how does perfume serve as a prop? A lot of people seem to be just as infatuated with the visual image of a perfume bottle as they are with what’s inside it – maybe even more so. Displaying perfume bottles in a bedroom, bathroom, or other place seems to be a common practice, regardless of whether the perfume is actually used. The displays seem to range from a whole horde of bottles, which presumably give the impression of wealth and abundance, to a single accent piece, elaborate, offbeat, or minimalistic, depending on the decorating scheme it’s a part of.

Now here’s a question. If you’re into perfume visuals and your favorite perfume comes in what you consider an ugly bottle or a bottle that doesn’t resonate with your set concept, what do you do about it? Do you not buy the perfume because it clashes with your d├ęcor or your self-image? Do you buy it and decant it into a bottle that you have chosen and love? Do you live with the unloved bottle and gradually become assimilated into its aesthetic world as it is assimilated into your existing one? Do you put it in a brown paper bag and keep it hidden under your sink, pulling it out only to use it?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not discounting the importance of environment in promoting mood, mindset, and even behavior. It’s a huge factor in how we feel and act. I’m just saying we should think about what aspects of our environment really help optimize the actual lives we live and what aspects are contrived attempts to live in a way that is not natural and comfortable, or convince others that we live a certain way. I was going to talk about perfume itself in this context, but got carried away with the visual stage set idea augmented by perfume bottles. More later.

[Perfume bottle grouping from Wikimedia; living room shots from online interior decoration websites]

Thursday, October 18, 2012


Pistacia lentiscus is an evergreen, shrubby tree that grows around the Mediterranean. It’s related to the tree that produces pistachio nuts, but instead of nuts its main product is its resin, known as mastic. Based on photos (as far as I know, I haven’t seen one in person) the tree itself is pretty, compact in form, with a thick, gnarly trunk, looking a bit like an olive tree. Its leaves are a darker, brighter green than those of an olive tree. It blooms with inconspicuous yellow-green flowers, but produces big, showy clusters of red fruits.

The resin is initially transparent, but turns a cloudy, slightly translucent light lemon yellow as it hardens. It’s used for a lot of things, including chewing gum, varnishes, food flavoring and, of course, perfumery.

I first experienced mastic as the dried granules of resin, which provide a unique chewing-gum experience. You can chew the same granule repeatedly and it doesn’t really lose its flavor, which is actually more an odor than a taste.  When I was a kid I used to pick dried pine resin off of tree trunks and chew it. Mastic reminds me a little of that resin, but is harder in texture and not pine-like in flavor. Both types of resin soften up some from the heat of the mouth, but the mastic remains quite “chewy”. It becomes brittle and hard after chewing, but will soften again if chewed a second time. It probably sounds silly to recycle a piece of chewing gum, but why not, if it retains its pleasant properties?

The taste/smell of mastic resin is quite complex and unique. It’s bitter and green in the same way galbanum is, but without the cigarette-ash note that’s in galbanum. It’s as if galbanum had been purified and made into its better self. It’s got a light lemony note along with the bitter, resinous scent, and something that reminds me of the astringent, salty, underlying flavor of pistachio nuts, without the nuttiness. To me, it seems like an elaborately carved or fabricated 3-D filigree construction of brittle ivory.

The essential oil has many of the same fragrance properties as the resin, but it’s a little smoother and not quite as brittle. I really like the oil and, even though it’s relatively expensive, I think I would use it instead of galbanum if I made some of my fragrances over again. As it is, I used it in the newest one, Sonnet XVII, to lend a dry, inorganic, minerally, almost salty aspect to the top notes. Now that the blend has mellowed, I find that the mastic provides an immediate counterpoint to the sensual, moist, cushiony softness of the osmanthus, which has risen to appear at the outset as well as in the heart.

Mastic oil has become one of the staples of my lab, and I imagine I’ll find myself using it in many future compositions.

What is your favorite resinous smell? Leave a comment and be entered in a drawing to win a small sample of mastic essential oil along with a sample of Sonnet XVII. 

[Photos of tree and resin granules adapted from Wikimedia]

Monday, October 15, 2012


Over the past week or so a new item has been appearing at the top of the “Nation & World” column in the online version of Seattle’s local newspaper. It’s called “10 things to know for (fill in the day of the week)”.  It’s not even generated by the local newspaper staff, but pumped in through the Associated Press. I can’t help wondering who makes these lists, and why they assume there are 10 specific “things” that everyone in the country wants or needs to know.

These lists remind me of my students preparing for the latest exam. Before every exam there is a barrage of questions, many of which take the form, “Do we need to know X for the exam? My response is always to quiz them a little, ascertain that they do, in fact “know” the information in question, and tell them that I don’t forbid them to know anything. They’re sometimes confused, but often surprised to find that they actually know much more than their list of “things to know for the exam” would suggest.

In a society where people are raised on ready-made lists, the belief that there are discrete bits of information that one needs to know in any given context seems ubiquitous. Maybe it’s intellectual laziness, maybe it’s a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to process information, but everyone seems to want lists to memorize or consult. 

“The top 10 fashion trends for fall”; “10 signs your partner may be having an affair”; “5 things to watch for in the presidential debates”; “The top 10 fragrances of 2012”; “The 7 habits of highly effective people”; “Five ways to learn to think for yourself” (I made that last one up).

The existence of lists of “must-haves”, “must-tries”, “best of”, etc. is definitely one of the big elephants in the living room of perfume, and I’ll get to it in due course as my schedule clears up. However, in the interest of making your Monday reading easy, I thought I’d make a list of the

10 things you should know about indie perfumers:

1. Perfumers are people, too. Most of us have lives outside the lab, with families, friends, hobbies, and even day jobs. We can’t always fill and ship your order the same day we receive it.

2. Perfumers, being human, sometimes make mistakes or unwittingly perpetuate the mistakes of others. If the spray bottle you received doesn’t spray, we need to know, so that we can find a new source for bottles. We can’t test sprayers before shipping. If our packing wasn’t adequate, we need to know so that we can pack properly. Feedback, whether positive or negative, is always appreciated.

3. Indie fragrances will not smell like mass-market fragrances. That’s the whole idea. On the other side of the spectrum, they will not smell like ready-made fragrance oils. Most indie perfumers are highly skilled artists who strive for originality in a world of cookie-cutter products.

4. Most indie perfumes contain a higher proportion of natural materials than mass-market fragrances. This means that they may have a more intense color than mass-market fragrances, and they may have different characteristics when it comes to sillage and longevity.

5. Natural materials, even from the same source, may vary from one batch to another. The “same” vetiver harvested in different years, or even from different farms in the same region, may be significantly different in color and other properties. Natural perfumes may vary slightly in color from batch to batch, but this should not significantly affect the scent of the finished product. Think of it as comparable to the hand-loomed garments that come with a tag that says something to the effect that there may be slight variations in color or pattern, but that those variations are part of their beauty.

6. If natural materials are used, perfumes need time to age and blend. Occasionally a batch of concentrate will run out because a material is back-ordered. In this case, there will be an unavoidable delay in filling orders while the perfumer waits for the material to arrive, and then while the concentrate rests and melds.

7. Small-scale perfume production is more expensive than mass production. Most of an indie perfumer’s budget goes into the perfume itself rather than fancy custom packaging, celebrity endorsements, and advertising, so you’re likely to get a quality product.

8. Indie perfume production is labor-intensive. Making small sample vials is probably the most tedious and time-consuming task we do. I feel like a molecular biology technician whenever I’m pipetting racks of hundreds of 1-ml sample vials. Whatever you pay for sample vials, whether from the perfumer directly, or from a decanting business like Surrender to Chance, you can be sure that they’re a bargain.

9. Indie perfumers love what we do. We got into the business because we love perfume and tinkering with fragrant materials, not because we love running a business for its own sake. If we wanted to make big bucks, we would have chosen a different type of business, maybe a loan company or a company that sells cheap plastic gizmos imported from China.

10. After giving you all of these generalizations, obviously I can really only speak for myself. Every indie perfumer is an individual with different tastes, goals, ways of working, and business models. Indies range from the extreme rebels and rogues to the slick pseudo-mass-marketers, and everything inside and outside the box. The beauty is that it’s all there for your enjoyment. 

[images from Wikimedia, two with added captions]

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


The orchid show in Seaside was successful for many reasons, not least of which was that it provided an opportunity to get away from everything overly familiar and spend two gorgeous, warm, sunny days at the beach. Seaside is a small tourist town on the Oregon coast, about a 3 to 4 hour drive south of Seattle. The beach is wide, with very fine sand, and a good many broken sand dollars and razor clam shells lying around, but not so many that they can’t be avoided when running or walking along the water’s edge. Between our hotel and the beach was a grassy dune area and a paved pedestrian promenade. The view from our window was the dunes, the beach, and the hill to the south of the beach. At all times of day there was a lot of “fog” kicked up by the surf, but it was especially noticeable in the early morning and evening.

I had to spend most of both days at the show, but did manage to get out on the beach for a few hours each day between closing time and sunset. I’m not a water person. I don’t particularly like to swim, and am not good at it. I don’t like to be in water over my head, and I don’t like to put my face in the water. I hate cold water in all forms, but I do love the beach. I was thinking about this over the weekend, and how strange it is that I’m attracted to the beach when I don’t like to be immersed in bodies of water larger than a hot tub. I decided that the beach itself is neither water nor earth, but air and sun. I’m not superstitious, but I do have enough information about my horoscope to know that it’s almost all air signs, mostly Libra, with a rising sun and some Leo fire thrown in for good measure. This accident of birth could be used to rationalize why I love the beach, and why I grow only “air plants” that don’t require soil, although I suppose it could be used to rationalize just about anything, including why I love the “saltwater taffy” that’s always sold in beach candy shops. To me, the beach represents freedom from whatever earthy constraints there are on land and, at the same time, freedom from whatever dangers are lurking in the deep water. It’s a magical place at the interface between two worlds that I really don’t want to be in.

Fall quarter is in full swing, so it was back to the reality of the classroom as soon as I got home, with theatre rehearsals in the evenings. I need some quality time with my orchids and with the list of orders waiting to be filled, but it probably won’t happen until the weekend. In the meantime, I’ll just try to get through my list as best I can.