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, February 23, 2013


It’s still cold outside, but the plants and the birds don’t seem to notice. This is the season when my orchids go full steam ahead into growth and spring blooming. One that’s blooming right now is Aerangis distincta, a Central African species. The plant itself is fairly small, and was happily growing in my greenhouse until someone (a walk-in customer, I think) bumped against it and knocked off most of its flower spike. Just one bud was left, but it’s blooming now, wafting out its fragrance as soon as it gets dark.

The flower is creamy-white tinged with orange. I think it must have gone all-out to make up for its missing companions, because it’s huge. The nectar spur is over 8 inches long! Seen in profile, the flower has sort of a streamlined, almost art-deco shape reminiscent of an airplane propeller, or a rocket nose-cone with the nectar spur shooting out after it in a perfect arc. The fragrance is the quintessential tropical white flower scent, like a mix of indolic jasmine, gardenia, ylang-ylang, orange blossom, and tuberose, with mega-sillage. It’s gorgeous. It reminds me of the tropical perfume that I’ve been working on. Over the weeks that the flower blooms, the fragrance changes a little, going from all-out indolic white tropical flowers to white flowers accompanied by lots of spice and aromatic woody notes. I’m always struck by the basic similarity of all night-fragrant white flowers, whether orchids or very different types. 

Another plant that’s blooming right now, in addition to the usual cattleyas and big blue vandas, is Maxillaria juergensii. It’s a tiny orchid species with spiky leaves that produces huge flowers for the size of the plant. The flowers are dark red, with a super-shiny, wet-looking lip. They smell like dead meat. You win some, you lose some. I’m sure the flies like the fragrance, but I don’t think it’s going to end up as a perfume. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


A while back I wrote about some of the elephants that chronically lounge around in the perfume community’s living room and occasionally go on a rampage, stomping around the blogosphere. I don’t think this particular one’s been active lately, but I started thinking about it last Sunday morning when I was taking pictures of my newly upgraded work area, thinking that I’d post them here. I probably will, but in the meantime I got distracted with the philosophical question of how much perfumers should reveal about who they are, where they work, the ways they work, and what they put in the bottles that consumers buy.

Judging by traditional perfume advertising campaigns, consumers want to believe that perfumers are glamorous beings who don’t engage in any of the mundane things normal people do, but instead live an unimaginably glamorous life in splendid palaces when they’re not flitting around the globe on their yacht in search of exotic new scents like angel breath, thousand year old oud trees, fresh morning dew on jet-black orchid petals, and odorless male pheromones that will hypnotize women (or men). These are the minority of consumers who are actually aware that perfumes are created by perfumers, although they may well confuse the “creative director” whose name is on the perfume with the actual perfumers who are employed by that person to make the fragrances. I suppose the majority of consumers want to believe that perfumes are actually made by their favorite celebrity or somehow spontaneously generated in the hands of a perfect, glowingly photoshopped model, who spends all her (or his) time faking self-induced orgasms with a perfume bottle. Often she's in pink or red, he's in blue or black. Keep reading. You'll see his picture, too. It just didn't fit the space here. 

Real perfumers eat, sleep, go grocery shopping, and do all of the same things that consumers do. Instead of flitting around the globe, we flit around the internet trying to find the best Boswellia carteri essential oil (aka frankincense) or fossilized hyraceum excrement (aka Africa stone) at the most economical price. We weigh and measure chemicals, filter solutions, and some of us even wash our own glassware. Do consumers really want to know this? Should we talk about such things in the blogs that we use to document our thoughts and our lives?

Traditional perfume advertising completely ignores the fact that perfumes have to be created in a lab atmosphere. The ads and the hype would have us believe that if perfumes are created at all, it happens in elegant, spacious showrooms complete with plush carpets, chandeliers, vases of flowers, relaxing music, and sparkling crystal shelves, or in a magic, fairy-tale kingdom from a children's story. Each precious bottle of perfume is prepared specially for each consumer by other-worldly blonde fairies in spotless, flowing, designer lab coats, who generate sparkling, rainbow-colored bubbles whenever they mix the magical ingredients together.

Do consumers really want to know that we indies wear ratty sweats while we work in dark, cramped spaces with messy-looking shelves of unmatched bottles and geeky equipment that looks like it belongs in a molecular biology lab? Or at the other end, do consumers want to know that the magic potion they pin their fantasies on came out of a dark, ugly, scary-looking factory, maybe a sweatshop in a third-world country, or a sterile, mechanized factory that produces thousands or millions of identical bottles, untouched by human hands, let alone pretty fairies? Probably not.

Maybe the biggest issue has to do with the contents of the bottle. Traditionally, perfume formulas are proprietary secrets, like a chef’s recipe, which makes sense given that they can’t be copyrighted. Advertising traditionally lists fantasy notes that may or may not have a lot to do with how the fragrance smells. People’s olfactory systems are so suggestible that they can usually find a note if they’re told it’s in the perfume. It doesn’t actually have to be there. They’ll perceive the promised angel skin, fresh morning dew, black orchid nectar, odorless pheromones, star dust, or rubber car tires simply because they expected to. Ads promise sex appeal, self-confidence, happiness, and the lifestyle of the rich and famous, all in a bottle. Should we, as perfumers, burst those ephemeral bubbles of harmless deception by talking about what we actually do?

For me as a perfumer and a blogger, it’s always a dilemma how much to reveal. With any art form there arises the question of whether knowledge about its creation process interferes with instinctive, gut-level appreciation of the art. Does detailed knowledge of music theory or technique make you less appreciative of the emotional effects of music? As a consumer, does knowing the technical details of how perfume is made render you less appreciative of its emotional effects and less likely to enjoy the imagery and fantasies that fragrance evokes?

For me, knowing the details may make me more critical of technically mediocre work, but when I hear a moving piece of music or smell an evocative perfume, the effect is just as strong as if I had no knowledge of the technical details. In fact, maybe it’s stronger because I’m aware of the imagination and skill that went into the creation of the art. It’s even more surprising when something that seems like technically mediocre work has a strong emotional effect or a technical masterpiece leaves me cold.

I know the answers to these questions are going to be different for each person, but it would be interesting to hear readers’ thoughts on whether knowing the details of how perfumes are made interferes with, or even ruins, the illusions and fantasies that perfume creates. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing for a 5-ml parfum spray of the Olympic Orchids fragrance of your choice. 

[Revelation painting from Bamberg, 11th century. Perfume ads were all taken from various internet sources. I assume that no one minds given that negative or dubious attention is better than none at all.] 

Friday, February 15, 2013


The numbers are probably confusing, but Neil's first Devil Scent was named, not numbered, so his #2 is actually the third in the series. Once again, the quality of these fragrances is impressive. 

Neil Morris DevilScent #2
Sweet, resinous, and just a little bit bitter to start with, with faint notes of wintergreen, this version is lower-key than the previous two, but still extremely compelling. A few minutes in, I think I smell a lot of cumin along with some labdanum and sweet floral notes. For a while the cumin dominates, a raw smell of freshly crushed cumin seeds. However the strength of the cumin seems to fluctuate.  I smelled a lot more cumin the first time I tried it than I did on the following trials. Maybe I was just expecting it on subsequent wearings, so didn’t notice it as much. The strong spicy mixture sweetens as it develops, becoming almost like candy or amaretto, but still with a hint of cumin.  In this phase it’s incredibly rich and sensuous. As it continues to dry down, I start smelling some sort of animalic musk. At this point the fragrance changes completely, becoming quietly gorgeous, almost a “one’s own scent but better” feeling. It doesn’t last as long as the others, only 4-5 hours, before it’s pretty much merged imperceptibly into my skin.

Amanda Feeley Devilscent #3
Devil Scent #3 is another bitter fragrance, but this time it’s more green, Artemesia-like herbs than wood or sawdust, almost like a purified version of #2 with a tiny hint of citrus and some resinous labdanum. As it develops, it becomes a little bit spicy and peppery, then luminous, almost translucent. It’s quietly beautiful, a scent to meditate on. Towards the end, it becomes sweet and slightly incense-y. Longevity is excellent. It’s a truly lovely fragrance that reminds me of walking through a field of sun-warmed dried grass and sagebrush, a fragrance that I want to sniff and sniff. It’s my favorite of Amanda’s Devil Scents. I want a bottle of it!

My own Olympic Orchids DEV #3 is my primary go-to scent when I want to relax. I wear it sometimes when I sleep, and always have amazing dreams. It’s 100% natural (as I think Amanda’s is, too). It starts out with a spicy-boozy-fruity note that reminds me of an old-fashioned plum pudding, but gradually becomes darker, more animalic, and almost sinister as the labdanum, ambergris, and African bluegrass come to the fore. If I put it on at night, it lasts until well into the next morning. For some reason it reminds me of my grandmother’s room when I was a kid.

I think we all based our #3 fragrances on the part of the story when Dev and the heroine part company, convinced that it will be forever (literally, since they are both immortal at that point). It’s the adagio movement of the piece, in a minor key as they both walk away from each other. Neil turned it into a traumatic parting followed by a swirl of conflicted memories as the heroine revisits the past, viewing it through a new lens, gradually making her peace with it all. I think Amanda and I both interpreted the separation process as a sort of quiet resignation to the inevitable. Her fragrance evokes the heroine crying a few tears initially, but walking quietly away with fond thoughts of the past, looking forward to peace and an almost religious enlightenment in the future. Mine, like Neil’s, has her kicking and screaming a little as she says goodbye, but then walking away in quiet resignation, into a bleak future in which she sees an empty, dark stone tomb extending outward into infinity. As before, all of the perfumes complement each other, like different musical instruments playing their parts in a single piece. 

[photos from Wikimedia. Paintings (top to bottom) by: Herbert Maxen, 1950, James Tissot, 1871, Heinrich Vogler, 1898] 

Monday, February 11, 2013


It’s getting to be spring, the birds are singing, the crocuses, hyacinths, and tulips are sticking their heads up, and there are several projects, perfume salons and other events on the horizon, each of which is going to be honored with a special edition perfume if things go as planned. In the works are a 100% natural white floral tropical perfume for Lyn Ayre’s Tropical Challenge Project at the end of this month, two different chocolate-themed ones for the San Francisco and Seattle chocolate + fragrance salons in March and May respectively, and an offbeat one for my Blackbird event in July.  In the meantime, I hope to finish a few others that I’ve been working on (or not working on!) for way too long.

Some of you have volunteered as testers in the past, so this is a call for about a dozen noses willing to sniff my latest experiments and provide written feedback. If you’re still reading this blog and are up for the task, please leave a comment to that effect. I already have addresses for those who participated in the testing exercise in the past, but I’m sure there’s going to be considerable turnover from year to year. Even if you’re on my list (or think you are), please confirm that you’re interested. For those who volunteer and provide feedback, there will be some sort of fragrant reward at the end of the process.

I’m looking forward to finishing up a whole list of projects before summer comes, including a start on upgrading my packaging and website. More about that project soon. 

Update on February 13: I still have room for 4-5 more testers, so there's still a chance to sign up. 

[The top flower is Adenium obesum - not an orchid, but one of the cool plants that I grow for fun. The lower one is Clerodendron trichrotomium, aka Harlequin Glory Bower, a tropical-looking tree that grows at the Ballard Locks in Seattle] 

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Today we have a guest post by GAIL, who is my accomplice in oud sampling. Here's what she writes:

We are still working on sampling what we believe are real oud oils, so Oud Fest II was devoted to sampling four medium-priced (for real oud!), fine quality oils from Assam.

Ensar Oud: Assam Organic
The first sample, Ensar Oud's dark golden, honey-like "Assam Organic", was applied to the left wrists of the participants. It opened with a scent of bright, fermented wood and the smell of a clean milk-house (a combination of sweet hay, milk, caramel and manure). At five minutes the milk-house and fermented wood vanished leaving an impression of purple plastic and camphor that morphed into the scent of oat bran and brewing mash. About twenty minutes into the test "Assam Organic" suddenly took on the odor of an open third world drain or gutter with a relatively strong sillage.  This phase persisted for about twenty minutes, eventually thinning to a cloud of sulfurous smog.  After about an hour the odor of drainage and smog evolved into a sweet, grassy, semi-indolic perfume.  The dry down lasted through the night, changing to an understated floral accented with citrus peel and tea.

Sampling "Assam Organic" was like taking a day tour beginning at a dairy, continuing on to a brewery, then traveling through a large and dirty third world city, finally stopping for a cup of tea in a grove of flowers and citrus trees. 

[Note: Assam Organic is from plantation-cultivated trees. Unlike wild-harvested ouds, it is a renewable resource, albeit slowly renewable. One can only hope that, as wild Aquilaria populations are decimated, more producers will turn to ethical planting and harvesting of agarwood trees.]  

Agar Aura: Royal Assam
The next oud, Agar Aura's "Royal Assam", a dark golden oil with the consistency of honey, was applied to the right wrists. The initial impression of "Royal Assam" was that of a translucent green, slightly camphorous floral veil covering a sharp, bright woody scent.  At about two minutes the fragrance developed into a creamy spice and dusty plum that gradually changed to a combination of anise, champaca, sweet grass and tea. Twenty minutes into the test "Royal Assam" took a surprising turn toward dark chocolate, toffee, pink pepper, allspice and the scent of some sort of small berry (perhaps our Northwest native huckleberry?).  Despite the spice and fruit, the oil retained its airy, translucent character, even as it gradually dried down to a melange of vanilla, tea, champaca, the tiniest whiff of something like passion fruit, and dried maple leaves.

Agar Aura: Hindi Qademe
The third sample, Agar Aura's "Hindi Qademe", also the consistency and color of dark golden honey, was applied to the inside of the left arms below the elbows. It opened with a strong, pointed, bitter chocolate, a hint of camphor, fermented wood and barnyard.  After about a minute the camphor became more intense.  Around five minutes, notes of burnt sugar, warm tea and dusty dried leaves replaced the chocolate and barnyard.  This combination remained relatively linear with an occasional breakthrough of sweet hay.  As the fragrance dried down it became somewhat drier and cooler, but the sweet hay and tea remained, finishing with a hint of plastic and a suggestion of a woody, cedary scent reminiscent of  norlimbanol.

Oud Select: Indian Assam
The final oil tested was Oud Select's "Indian Assam", a thick and very dark oil applied to the inner right arms below the elbows. "Indian Assam" began as a pungent combination of green camphor, sun-dried tomatoes, fine olive oil, mushrooms and acidic tomato paste.  After about ten minutes the olive oil picked up a flavor of candied vanilla, tea and sweet wood.  An hour into the test, an aroma of thyme and other green culinary herbs made an appearance. The dry down of translucent sweet hay, tea and fine olive oil stayed close to the skin until the following morning.  While not a true gourmand scent, "Indian Assam" was definitely a foodie.


Gail: When we decided to test only Assams we thought we might find a scent that would be common to all four oils.  Many articles on oud consider barnyard and animalic odors (perhaps an outcome of the traditional curing and distillation processes used in Assam) to be characteristic of Assam oils. The results of Oud Fest II suggest instead that the scents of tea, sweet grass, hay and camphor were common to the four oils tested.  Of these notes tea seemed to be the most obvious and persistent. The Indian state of Assam is famous for the flavor of its tea. Why not oud that smells like tea?

Having completed over two hours of intense testing the participants adjourned Oud Fest II to their favorite pizzeria where they enjoyed items from the happy hour menu.

Ellen: Like Gail, I was looking for some common features that would link all of the Assam ouds, or all Aquilaria agallocha oils, together. However, there’s such a variety of oils from every region and every species, that it’s hard to make any sort of generalization. Traditionally, Assam oud is noted for its “barnyard” smell, but one of the four we tested had no “barnyard” odor whatsoever. I didn’t get the strong impression of tea that Gail did, although there was a hint of tea in some of the oils. If I had to put my finger on one or two characteristics, I think it would be a sweetish, slightly matte, caramel-like character that all of the Assam oils had when contrasted with the sharper, more sparkling Indonesian and Borneo ouds that we tested before.

One thing that particularly struck me when we went outside into the cold air, was a sharp, woody smell that stuck in my nose and was activated by the cold. It was almost like smelling a cedar or juniper wood fire on a cold winter night. I’m sure it wasn’t from an actual fire because I smelled it outside Gail’s house, again in the parking lot of the pizzeria both arriving and leaving, and in an attenuated form all night. I don’t know which oud was the main contributor to this beautiful fragrance, or whether all combined to produce it. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. 

[Top photo from Wikimedia. Other photos from the websites of the respective companies]