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.

Friday, January 31, 2014


The other night I dreamed that I was writing a blog post with the title “No one wants to be free”. When I woke up, I realized that it was the perfect title for a rambling series of posts originally inspired by a NY Times article calling attention to the fact that so many people, especially creative ones, are expected to provide free content to feed the insatiable appetite of the internet and entertain that segment of the public that wants to do nothing but sit back like semi-conscious zombies and consume the content of other people’s brains. 

Contrary to the title, some of us (including readers of this blog!) do want to be free to create according to our own vision, whether it be perfume, writing, visual art, music, or even science. The price of this freedom is often doing what we do for free, or at least from the precarious perch of a free-lance existence or a demanding day job.

As an independent perfumer, I’m fortunate not to have to be constrained by a wealthy corporation’s miserly budgets and explicit briefs to make conservative-trendy fragrances that smell familiar to mass-market consumers. I don’t have to make perfumes for detergents or deodorants. If I want to buy expensive osmanthus absolute, I can do so and use it to my heart’s content, and if I want to make a perfume that doesn’t smell like anything else in existence, I can do that, too.

I’m fortunate to have reached a position where I make enough through sales to continue to finance my creative experiments, even as my production capacity grows and sucks up larger and larger amounts of materials. I may not make a living as a perfumer, but at least I break even. This year I even had a little extra to buy myself an expensive treat for my birthday.

The thing that has set me off on my latest rant was finding yet another bug in Blogger. I wanted to do a new post on Arabian perfumes, but needed to know where I last left off. The search function in Blogger doesn’t work! I type in a search term and nothing happens. I sent Google feedback through the window that seems to be there for the sole purpose of directing complaints to an automatic deletion system. Do I feel better for having vented? No, I don’t, because I know it was futile.

Instead of tech support, Google has forums where users can post their complaints and have them addressed by other users. This means that Google has a lot of geek wannabes working for nothing, spewing out html workarounds for Blogger’s many bugs. Google doesn’t have to pay a penny for tech support personnel because these people provide it for free.  The advice that users post may be inaccurate, incomplete, incomprehensible, irrelevant, or it might actually work, which is about the same level of help one would get from many “professional” tech support people. However, I really resent having to rely on self-appointed free workers for information and services that should be provided by the company. Google isn’t the only guilty party. It seems that more and more companies hide behind a firewall of anonymity while allowing customers to discuss problems among themselves and, if they’re lucky, stumble upon solutions.

Apparently the Blogger search function problem has been going on sporadically for a year or more without any resolution, but with extensive discussion on the users’ forum.  Maybe it’s time to finally move on to another platform, even though I’d probably lose a lot in the process. If anyone has made a successful switch from Blogger to Wordpress with no loss, I’d like to hear about it.

I’m eternally optimistic but profoundly cynical, so I would like to think Wordpress is better, but expect that it has its own set of problems, most likely similar to those of Blogger, especially a lack of real tech support.

[Painting of frustrated writer by Leonid Pasternak; zombie, osmanthus, and chain-gang images adapted from Wikimedia] 

Sunday, January 26, 2014


Some things can be done at leisure but other things demand to be done right away. Orders have to be shipped in a timely way, and a lot of outdoor gardening tasks have to be done at a certain time of year. Yesterday was a glorious sunny day. When I went out to inspect the garden, I saw that the cyclamens and primroses were in full bloom, the hyacinths were poking their heads up, and the red hellebores were pushing up their new growth. I realized that if I didn’t prune the roses and fruit trees immediately, it would be too late.  So prune I did.

After the roses and fruit trees, I started in on a butterfly bush that had become a problem, growing to the height of a tree and encroaching on neighboring vegetation. It was a huge job, and I’m not through yet because I have to go back with a saw to hack away the bigger pieces.

A few years back I planted a tiny sprig of a butterfly bush, a Buddleia species or hybrid, and it’s grown into the monster in question. I am confident that, even with severe pruning, it will again grow huge in no time. I planted it because I’d seen small, well-behaved Buddleia bushes in Europe, and didn’t think about the fact that in the Pacific Northwest everything grows to many times the size it does elsewhere.

Buddleia is native to North and South America, Europe, and Asia, and has been bred and domesticated in gardens throughout the world. I recently learned that it’s considered a “noxious weed” in Washington state, but if given the choice, I’d rather have it growing everywhere than blackberries. Bring on the armies of Buddleia to do battle with the hordes of Himalayan blackberry orcs!

Last spring the butterfly-tree was completely covered with electric purple flowers, and was quite a sight to see. With such colorful flowers, I expected a correspondingly colorful fragrance. However, this particular specimen isn’t the star member of its genus when it comes to scent. Yes, it’s fragrant, but it’s not perfume-worthy. It has its floral facets, including a generic lily-of-the valley type scent along with a bit of heliotrope, but it also has a flat, sour-milky smell along with the florals, and it has a little bit of that “semen” smell that’s characteristic of a lot of shrubs with small white flowers (more on that in another post).

Other butterfly bushes have a pleasant fragrance. There’s a magenta one down the street that has a light, floral fragrance with citrusy notes. There’s an even redder one on the university campus that has a deep, full floral fragrance that’s altogether pleasant, if not really novel. I suppose the moral of the story is that if you want to make sure that your garden shrub has pleasantly fragrant flowers, you need to check it out in bloom before buying it. 

[All photos are mine, from my garden]

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


It appears that as we in the Northwest enjoy our usual interminable stretch of cool, damp weather, the rest of the US is being frozen solid and buried under a massive blanket of snow. In a serendipitously timely post, John Reasinger of Cafleurebon just wrote a review of Fleurs de Glace, a perfume that I was in the process of discontinuing.  His description of it is so eloquent and evocative that it makes me have second thoughts about pulling it from my line!

It also made me think about the symbiotic relationship between perfumers and reviewers. It’s fascinating to see how a talented writer can make us see our creations in a new light, and perfume reviewers are especially adept at doing that. Perfume is like poetry. Everyone gets something a little different from it, and every interpretation is right. A good reviewer shows the perfumer aspects of their creation that they had not thought of and translates the perfumer’s intangible work into tangible words for the public to enjoy.

This may sound strange, but it reminds me of what happens in the relationship between a playwright and a director. Having been on both sides of the process and caught in the middle as an actor, I’ve always marveled at the transformations that invariably occur depending on the interpretation of the director and cast. Even though the words written in the script don’t change, their intent and message inexorably evolves on its own unique trajectory as rehearsals progress. Each production is a completely different entity that picks up on different aspects of what the writer intentionally or unintentionally put in the script. Sometimes the writer is surprised to find that what they thought was a fluffy comedy actually makes some profound statements, or what they thought was a serious philosophical and conceptual piece actually comes across as uproariously funny.

I hadn’t thought of this before, but perfume reviewers really do interpret the perfumer’s “script” for an audience, with many audience members doubling as actors, extending the interpretation with their informal reviews and comments. No one should ever underestimate the importance of perfume writers at every level in making our creations come to life. There can never be too many writers because each brings something unique to the process of understanding a perfume.

Writing this makes me realize how thankful I am to everyone who writes about perfume, whether they are professional journalists and bloggers or consumers who post informal reviews and comments. I learn something from each one of you, and that is the more valuable than I can express.

I’d like to end this by pointing out that there’s a drawing on Cafleurebon for a full-sized bottle of the reader’s choice of Olympic Amber or Fleurs de Glace for readers in the US. 

[All photos are mine. Snow and ice photos are from the last time we had a significant snowfall in Seattle. I don't remember what year it was.] 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Orchids, loquats and new boxes: A January update

I got caught under an especially strong wave of orders after my 20% discount went public, and spent days doing nothing but pack and ship. This is a good thing, but it took precedence over writing blog posts. Now the orders have gotten pretty much back to normal, so I can sit here and think back on what it was I would have written about if I’d had time.

One notable event was the first bloom of my Cattleya percivaliana, a plant that I’d raised from a tiny seedling. The flower is almost gone now, but it lasted a long time and was a beautiful lavender with a dark magenta lip, pretty much the Pantone color of 2014, “radiant orchid”. This species is fragrant, but not what you’d expect from a lavender Cattleya. My first impression was of a mixed bouquet of aldehydes, bitter-citrusy, somewhere between industrial and medicinal. The fragrance has been described by others as being “like stink bugs”, and I can certainly smell that aspect of it. But it’s more than stink bugs. It’s stink bugs on dried bitter citrus peel with a squirt of industrial-strength cleaner added for good measure. It’s not really a perfume candidate, although it could be tweaked to make something interesting.

Another surprising discovery was a large shrub or small tree that grows outside the classroom where I’m teaching this quarter. I’d walked past it a number of times, but last week I discovered that the fragrance I’d been smelling was coming from tight clusters of fairly inconspicuous cream colored and brown-fuzzy flowers all over the tree. It was like heliotrope with honey, almond, and a faint undercurrent of orange blossom. I picked a cluster of flowers and sniffed them all afternoon, eventually looking them up and identifying them as loquat, Eriobotrya japonica, also known as Japanese plum. It is native to southern China and belongs to the rose family. It produces edible fruits in spring, so I’ll have to look for them when the time comes. A loquat flower accord would make a nice addition to a perfume.

In other news, the packaging upgrade continues to move forward. Last week I finally received the custom boxes for the 15 ml triangular bottles. It’s a good thing because I just ran out of the old boxes. The new ones look much more attractive than the old brown cardboard ones, and the bottle actually fits properly inside. I’m redoing all of the labels to go with the new boxes. It’s tedious, but will be worth it in the long run because I intend to keep the triangular screw-top bottles for the 15 ml size. The last step is to get custom boxes for the square 30-ml sprayers that I’ve been using all along and will continue to use for certain things. Those are being printed now, and should arrive soon, probably coinciding with running out of those boxes, too.

It’s all fun, but I look forward to finally being finished with the redesign work. 

[Loquat flower photo adapted from Wikimedia. Other photos are mine] 

Saturday, January 11, 2014


The paper scraps have been shaken up and one was drawn. The winner of the one-of-a-kind bottle of A Midsummer Day's Dream is YUKI.

If you are the winner, please e-mail (olympicorchids@gmail.com) or PM me on Facebook with your shipping information. If the prize is not claimed within 10 days, another name will be drawn.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


Yesterday when I was out running I smelled the most remarkable thing. It was so compelling that I had to stop and inhale it until I had the scent fixed in my memory. On my short route, a vacant lot that formerly was half of someone’s property is starting to be developed. The loggers and earth-scrapers have done their evil job, and now someone has put up a new fence on one side of the development. My guess is that it’s probably the people who live next to the construction activity, not the developer.

The smell emanating from this new fence was one of the most remarkable wood scents I’ve ever experienced. It was like a mix of freshly cut pine, fir, cedar, and oak wood with not a hint of green leaves, topped off by a smoky, burnt, caramelized sugar. I can't even begin to do it justice in words. 

The really interesting tie-in to this wood smell is the fragrance of a small orchid that’s usually blooming in my greenhouse, Maxillaria variabilis. It has a similar oak wood and caramel smell, and I’ve always been tempted to make a perfume based on it. The fence I smelled today was like a larger-than-life version of the Maxillaria, but even better.

The Maxillaria-new fence perfume is going on my list of ones to make this year!

[Board fence photo from Wikimedia; Maxillaria variabilis photo is mine.]