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, July 28, 2013


The title of this post says it all.  A few weeks ago, when I was mixing up a batch of Tropic of Capricorn, I reached for the maile vine-mango fruit tincture that I use to dilute the concentrate, but accidentally picked up a hibiscus flower tincture that I’d been saving for who knows what purpose. The bottle was the same, it looked roughly similar in color, and it was sitting on the shelf next to the tincture that I intended to use. I was in a hurry and didn’t discover the mistake until it was too late, when I looked at the label on the bottle and realized what I’d done.

It just stands to reason that if I were going to screw up on mixing a formula, it would be the one with the most expensive materials in it. That’s a lot of osmanthus, frangipani, jasmine, and other good things wasted. All those flowers that gave their lives to make the absolutes. I decided to go ahead and age and filter the stuff and see how it turned out.

Actually, it’s not that much different from the real formula. It’s missing some of the warm, fruity nuances of the original, but is still a powerful tropical floral scent. What I have decided to do is bottle it and sell it at a bargain price, under a different name – Tropic of Capricorn Hibiscus - an accidental flanker, if you will. That makes me speculate about the origin of flankers. Were some of them formulas of the original that someone screwed up on?

It also made me think about a possible way to balance my insatiable drive to make more and more perfumes with the need to restrict my regular line to a manageable number of fragrances. The solution would be a series of single-batch perfumes that would be sold one at a time until that batch is gone, to then be replaced by another, different, single-batch formula. They would be hand-labeled, but possibly bottled in either super-basic bottles or special, fancy bottles. What I have in mind isn’t meant to be an “exclusive”, ridiculously-priced collector’s-item sort of thing, it would just be a fun art form, a way to share my noodling around in the lab with others, and a way to use small amounts of materials that I can’t be sure of getting more of on a regular basis in the foreseeable future.

Does the single-batch strategy seem like a good idea? Or does it just make the selection more complicated and overwhelming?

[Hibiscus flower and mad Martian chemist images adapted from Wikimedia] 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


What’s going on with my orchids? Three of the big ones that normally bloom in winter are blooming now, completely the reverse of what I’ve come to expect. Cattleya aurantiaca has been blooming for weeks now, with two growths each bearing an uncountable number of bright orange flowers, and another growth about ready to pop out another spray of flowers. Unfortunately, this one is just colorful, not fragrant, so I’m only writing about it as a case study in blooming at the wrong time. 

The second one to bloom is Cattleya jenmannii, with one growth in full bloom today with 4 big, delicate-looking flowers worthy of an old-style prom corsage. The plant has two more growths with different stages of developing buds. Cattleya jenmannii flowers are fragrant, so when I found the blooming plant in the greenhouse, I brought it inside.  I’m looking forward to the indolic, fruity-floral scent perfuming the house for the next few weeks. The third plant that’s ready to bloom is Lc Netrasiri, the iconic Red Cattleya of perfume fame, a plant that I’ve had for years and always thought of as a winter solstice bloomer. It’s just rammed out a huge stalk with at least 8 fat flower buds! These flowers will put on quite a display, both visually and fragrance-wise, once they open.

So why are all of these winter bloomers blooming in July? Could it be global climate change doing weird things to the orchids, making them think that they’ve moved from the northern to the southern hemisphere? That doesn’t seem likely, given that day length hasn’t changed, and I would think that would be one strong signal for orchids to bloom. It has been a little sunnier than usual this spring, but lots of sunlight doesn't send the right message to winter bloomers.

Another theory has to do with the fact that all of these plants are getting old and bulky, and consequently I can’t keep up with repotting them. As a result, most of the roots hang out of the pot. I have no idea why exposed roots would make cattleyas bloom out of season, but it’s a theory.

Another theory is that these plants have gotten so big that they can afford to bloom twice a year instead of just once, and will bloom again in winter. This would be the best possible explanation for their odd behavior. I guess I’ll just have to enjoy their summer blooming spree and wait till winter to see if they want to do it again in December. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Years ago, when I was working in Germany, I had a colleague who liked to quote folksy sayings. One of them could be loosely translated to say, “if you eat old bread, you will never eat anything but old bread”. Maybe this isn’t obviously applicable to modern life in the US, where bread often comes packed with preservatives and can be stored for weeks, months, or years in the refrigerator or freezer, but think about living in a time and place where everyone goes to a good bakery on a daily basis to buy fresh rolls, baguettes, or other forms of freshly baked bread. This sort of natural, unpackaged bread has a shelf life of only a few days at most, and is best when bought fresh every day in quantities small enough to be fully consumed right away. 

A different German colleague was in the habit of eating old bread every day at lunch. His wife would buy new bread for the household every day or two, but he felt compelled to finish up all of the old bread so that it wouldn’t go to waste. I remember him laboriously sawing away at a desiccated loaf of heavy, sour rye bread that looked as if it were petrified, eventually cutting off a slice that he would spread with butter and top with a slice of old, dried-out ham. In all of the years that I knew him, he never ate anything but old bread, old butter, and old ham. The poor guy died a few years ago, never having eaten anything but that stereotyped lunch of foods that were well beyond their prime.

I’m certainly not in favor of wasting anything, whether it be food, paper, perfume, or other goods. On the other hand, I’m puzzled by the old bread eaters who apparently feel that they have to save everything good for the future, so by the time the future comes, if it ever does, the items have gone bad. The good bread they were saving for the next meal has molded, the good dishes they were saving for their daughter’s wedding have cracked, the good cashmere sweater they were saving for a special occasion has been eaten by moths, the good perfume they were saving has all evaporated, and in the meantime all of these things just took up space until the person died without ever having enjoyed them.

By now you may be wondering what any of this has to do with mascara, but there really is a connection. Mascara is a very simple cosmetic, meant to do one thing, which is make one’s eyelashes look longer, thicker, and darker. That’s it. There’s only one way to use it – apply it to eyelashes. However, given the plethora of mascara variations on the market, one would think that it can serve an infinite number of functions, and be applied in an infinite number of ways. No mascara is perfect, so we who use it are always searching for the holy grail. I nearly found mine years ago when I was traveling and stopped in the duty-free shop to spray myself with perfumes and apply some minimal cosmetics after a night sleeping on a plane. The best mascara I’ve ever found is one made by Dior, which is what I tried in that duty-free shop. It’s pricey, it’s not 100% perfect, but it works effectively, and it keeps working until it’s used up, which is more than I can say for most other brands.

Every time I go to the store and survey the cosmetics section, there’s something new. There’s the mascara with the spherical brush. It doesn’t work. There’s the one with the vibrating brush. Come on, you really think I’m going to buy batteries for my mascara? The three that I’ve been testing recently just don’t measure up to my exacting standards.

Megalash Clinical Mascara, made in China for Markwins Cosmetics (left in photo), is supposed to make your eyelashes grow longer and fuller. It doesn’t do anything except function minimally in the way mascara was intended to. The flattened brush makes application a little awkward, but it’s not bad. Like most other mascaras, it gets clumpy after the first few applications, so the brush has to be repeatedly wiped to remove clots of black, gunky stuff. It’s cheap, it’s reasonably functional, but it doesn’t grow bigger, longer, or better eyelashes. Why would that surprise anyone?

Photoready 3-D Volume by Revlon, made in USA (right in photo), is another disappointment. What is meant by “3-D volume”, anyway? Aren’t eyelashes, by definition, 3-dimensional? The mascara itself is thin, but it functions minimally in the way intended. The brush is all slick plastic, including the short bristles, so that very little fluid product sticks to it, just the clumps. It’s also quite inefficient at transferring the mascara to eyelashes. This is another one that works minimally, but doesn’t deliver as promised. The slick rubbery brush was a bad idea, so maybe with a conventional, porous-bristle brush it would have worked better. Different is not always better. 

Voluminous False Fiber Lashes Black Lacquer by L’Oreal (center in photo) is another mascara that promises the world and delivers very little except the basics. The product itself is thin, a far cry from the “false lashes” look that is implied by the name. Come to think of it, there's no mention of false lashes, it's "false fibers", an ambiguous term if ever there was one. There’s considerable clumping right from the start, but the worst feature is the brush. The tube itself has sort of a twisted design, which is gratuitous but harmless. Some designer apparently thought it would be a novel and artistic idea to repeat the twisted design in the brush, but this wonderful example of design for its own sake interferes with function. The twisted brush makes application extremely difficult, uneven, and unpredictable. Combine random twists with clumps, and you have an eye-makeup accident waiting to happen. This is probably the worst of the three in terms of functionality.

Having tried these three, I feel no need to use them up. Instead, I will abandon the bad mascara for the next great novelty on the shelf, which may be just as bad, but the manufacturers always keep us hoping with new gimmicks. Ultimately, I may just haul out that nice tube of Dior that I recently purchased, on the premise that life is too short to wear bad mascara. It's also too short to save your favorite perfumes in the back of a closet, so spritz away! And you could also try some really fresh bread from your local bakery, if you have one. 

[All photos except the mascara products taken from Wikimedia. The mascaras were photographed on their final trip to the bad cosmetic depository.] 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The Blackbird party on Saturday night was a huge success. Nicole, the owner, and Liz, her assistant, did an amazing job of decorating the place with all kinds of vegetation, flowering orchids, and bell-jars full of blackberries and hydrangea flowers. The perfumes were beautifully displayed, there was wine sponsored by Wine World, champagne, vodka, lots of snacks, and best of all a wonderful mix of people from the Seattle perfume community. It was a real pleasure to see those I’ve met before and to meet new people. I am dismayed that I forgot to bring my camera, and was too busy and distracted during the event to even think of using my phone to take some pictures. If anyone reading this has any photos, I would love to see them! Surely someone took a photo or two? Why is it that taking photos at social gatherings is always somewhere at the bottom of my priority list? I seem to be hopelessly bad at documenting events of this sort.

Last weekend was strange in a number of ways. Saturday night was the launch party at Blackbird, and Sunday was the memorial service for my mother-in-law who died about two weeks ago. There’s no need to go into details about that, but there is one spin-off that’s of interest from a perfume point of view. After the reception, several family members divided up a huge bouquet of roses and lilies that were still in bud. The poor flowers were sprinkled with little dabs of silver glitter. I suppose some florist felt a need to gild the lily. Because Michael’s sister doesn’t like the smell of lilies, she took the roses and I took all of the lily buds. In the car on the way home, I smelled something phenolic, very much like guaiacol. It was the lilies. I don’t know whether these lilies had been bred to eliminate the powerful floral smell that most lilies have, or whether they were just an odd variety, but the fragrance continues to be bizarre and phenolic even now that they’re opened up fully. They have a little bit of the normal floral smell, but it’s minimal.

If you haven’t ever smelled guaiacol (why on earth would you?) it has a slightly smoky phenolic-medicinal smell that’s quite disgusting in large amounts. Now I’m beginning to wonder if all lilies have this phenolic note, but that it’s usually masked by other things?  Could the phenolic note be the reason why some people dislike the smell of lilies so much? Have the breeders who seek to eliminate flowers’ fragrances inadvertently eliminated everything except the note that people dislike?

Another random observation is that the “voodoo lily” bulbs that were given to me last fall are finally sprouting. I have no idea what will develop, but it’s always a surprise to find plants that I had completely forgotten about showing up in the garden.

Two of my orchids are blooming for the first time, putting on a surprise flower display. The first is Bulbophyllum lasiochilum (photo at beginning of post), which has wonderful red-spotted flowers accented with dark red, and nearly black petals and sepals. It smells a lot like cloves, at least at this stage of flower development. The second surprise was a little Cadetia taylori (photo at left), with tiny white flowers only a few millimeters in diameter. The lip is yellow and fuzzy like velvet, the petals are thin and curved, looking exactly like an insect’s antennae, and the fragrance is a strong anise-like scent. 

Friday, July 12, 2013


This is an exciting week. Tomorrow is the big party to celebrate Olympic Orchids third anniversary and the launch of the perfume I made for the Blackbird store. It’s a big day in a lot of ways because it marks several important transitions. For me, it marks the transition from the first, experimental, years of establishing my business to the realization that it’s here to stay. Something has been created out of nothing, and now there’s the task of polishing and perfecting every aspect of the operation and allowing the natural growth process to take place. 

For Blackbird, it’s the last event before they move out of their Ballard clothing and perfume stores and into a mostly online retail and wholesale format. It’s possible that the brick-and-mortar Apothecary will be reinvented in a new way, in a new place, but that’s for the future to decide.

For the Northwest Indie Perfumers Circuit, it’s also the last event in the Blackbird space. I hope the circuit will continue in another venue but, again, that’s for the future to decide.

Every end is a new beginning, so I hope that all of the new beginnings, whatever they are, will be successful.

My first-ever screen-printed bottles came from the printer day before yesterday, and a batch of them are filled and ready to sell. They look great! It’s really different just being able to grab a bottle from the box and not have to spend time putting a sticky label on it, trying to get it centered. The labels aren’t the final version, but they’re good enough to make me believe that printing on the bottle is the way to go.  All of the merchandise and props have been delivered to Blackbird, and I just went shopping for snacks. We’re good to go!

I would like to invite every reader in the Seattle area to come to the party tomorrow evening. Once again, it’s from 6:00 PM until it finishes, at 5404 22nd Ave NW, in Ballard. There will be food, drink, good company and some nice door prizes!