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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


The drawing was done by coin tosses this time, but still the winner was:


What is it that causes Yuki to win all of my drawings? It must be some magical vibes that connect Seattle with Ithaca. Yuki, I think I already have your shipping address! You will be getting some goodies as soon as I have time to pack them up and ship them. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014


Yesterday morning I happened to see a “news” article on “what you should worry about” and “what you should not worry about”. It was a strange list that suggested people should not worry about Ebola and GMO organisms (really?) and should worry about things like flu and driving. OK, if we’re talking about probabilities this week in the US, flu and driving are higher probability events than Ebola currently is, but they are not biggies in the overall scheme of things. Flu is a minor inconvenience for most people, and driving safety (which is what the article referred to, not broader consequences of an automobile-centric society) is probably at least 75% in the hands of the person doing the driving. Accidents do happen, but if we worried about them, we would never set foot outside the house – or get out of bed for that matter, because lots of accidents happen at home. Some accidents even happen in bed.

In the spirit of that article, I decided to list some things that one could conceivably worry about when it comes to perfume (I won’t presume to tell anyone what they should or should not worry about!) and some that probably don’t warrant as much concern. Here goes.

1. DON’T worry about “synthetics” in perfume. Many synthetic molecules have exactly the same chemical structure as molecules found in nature. They are simply present in their pure form when synthesized, but they are mixed with other things in the natural material. As more and more natural isolates become available, the line between natural and synthetic is blurred anyway. Synthetics themselves are not going to affect you in any way that’s different from the natural molecules. Many synthetic fragrance materials are not found in nature, but there is no evidence that the ones currently used in perfumery are harmful. There’s a lot of paranoia out there, but most of it is based on irrational fears with no basis in reality.

DO worry about adulteration of “natural” materials. As a perfumer, I do not want to be sold an expensive flower absolute that is adulterated with cheap synthetic materials, and I do not want to pass it off to my customers as “natural”.  With experience, I’ve come to trust some suppliers more than others, but no supplier can be 100% trusted to sell 100% natural materials, or materials that are exactly what they say they are.  That is why I’m always skeptical when I receive a new material, especially if it’s from a new source. Some suppliers just plain misrepresent the materials that they sell, and I have no doubt that some “natural” perfume-makers use these synthetics in their formulations, believing what they read on the vendor’s website. This is more of a worry for perfume-makers than for the public, because as far as I know the adulterated materials are not harmful in any way, and some of them actually smell quite nice.

2. DON’T worry about “chemicals” in products that contain fragrance. Everything in the world, your body included, is made up of chemicals. Natural substances may well contain a larger variety of “chemicals” than man-made ones. Warnings about “chemicals” are just another form of scare tactics that play into marketing strategies.

DO worry about misrepresentation in marketing. Many people want “pure”, “simple”, and “natural” products, but do not really have a good grasp of what these terms entail. Manufacturers and marketing teams have been instrumental in creating this desire, and they take advantage of it by labeling products in such a way that they appear natural and/or environmentally friendly even though they were mass-produced from artificial ingredients that are essentially the same as those in standard products. A good example of this is the bottle of dish detergent that appeared in our kitchen after we had been out of town. I think the house-sitter must have bought it. It’s called “Palmolive Pure and Clear”, and has a big banner at the top of the label that says “no unnecessary chemicals”. Huh? Is the nauseating artificial “apple shampoo” fragrance that it reeks of really necessary? This is just one disgusting example of a mass-produced, totally engineered product masquerading as a “natural” one, but every supermarket aisle is filled with them, and they’re not just in the cleaning products and cosmetics sections. 

3. DON’T worry about there being too many perfumes, too many perfumers, or too many perfume bloggers. The marketplace for products and writing about products is a virtual jungle where natural selection occurs. Some will persist and multiply, while others won’t. Some will become invasive pests, some will successfully occupy a tiny, specialized niche, and others will become extinct. That’s how nature operates.

DO worry about taking perfume reviews too seriously. If you’re a perfumer, be aware that perfume is a matter of taste and a negative review is no reflection on you or your product. It’s simply one person’s opinion and not worth worrying about. If you’re a consumer, don’t take every review at face value. It’s one person’s opinion, colored by that person’s intrinsic bias to be kind or nasty, which is further colored by whether the reviewer received a free sample or other perks and feels in some way beholden to the perfume manufacturer. It’s never a good idea to rush out and blind buy a fragrance because there’s a huge amount of hype and/or a reviewer recommended it. You might hate it and be stuck with an expensive bottle of something you’d never wear. Even worse, you might wear it trying to be trendy, but really hate it. To avoid this trap, it’s wise to sample everything before you buy anything.

I didn’t get through very many Dos and Don'ts today, but that just means that I have more for another post. In the meantime, what do you worry about/not worry about when it comes to perfume? 

[All images from Wikimedia except for the dish soap bottle, which is from a box store website] 

Monday, October 20, 2014


Anyone who has ever tried to produce a theatre event has probably experienced the modern version of the deus ex machina phenomenon. Up until opening night everything that can go wrong seemingly does go wrong, and it looks as if the show will never come together. Everyone is grumpy and starting to scream at each other, on the verge of calling it all off. Then, magically, on opening night everything works - the actors remember their entrances and exits, their lines and their blocking, the music and lights come on and go off when they should, the audience laughs at the right times for the right reasons, and everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief. By some miracle it all worked. The deus came down in the machina and made it all right. That’s probably how the Greek dramatists got the idea because in theatre the unbelievable really does happen behind the scenes.

Tech people are the bane of my life as a producer. It’s easy to find actors, because they all love their time on stage. Being on stage is its own reward. Playing a role well is like being skillful at a sport that requires a lot of concentration and coordination, all the while being cheered on by a crowd. Designing and running sound and lights is an invisible, thankless job that everyone takes for granted. The lights and sound appear to come from nowhere, seamlessly integrated with the events on stage.

Every time our little playwrights’ group puts on a show, the question arises of who will run tech.  All too often the people who say they want to do tech are completely unreliable and after their initial one or two contacts we never hear from them again. Then somehow, magically, a person drops from the sky offering to run tech and all is well. It happened again with the show that opens this Friday. We theoretically had a tech director, but I hadn’t heard from him in weeks and was waking up at night in a panic, wondering if he’d bailed. Day before yesterday I finally got hold of him, and our lighting setup and sound testing yesterday was the smoothest we’ve ever had. Deus ex machina saved the day again.

Of course, for this blog I had to think how to relate the topic to perfume, but it’s really pretty easy. I’m sure we’ve all been dismayed to put on a perfume that smelled awful, but after some time did an about-face and ended up smelling wonderful. Which perfume(s) have you experienced that were saved in the end by an olfactory deus ex machina? Leave a comment and be entered in a drawing for a set of interesting fragrant samples, to be searched out from my infinite store. The drawing will be on Monday, October 27.

[Images from Literature Wiki and a site called TVTropes that Google coughed up.] 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


Maybe a perfume blog isn’t the best place for a post on my decision to stop doing neuroscience research, but right now that decision is a big part of my ridiculously fragmented life, and one that occupies my time and impacts everything else, including blogging and perfume-making. I don’t know whether anyone in my university life ever reads my blog, but some of the things I say here need to be said, whoever reads them. This post is basically an updated version of an unpublished essay that I wrote a few years ago, thinking I’d send it to some academic publication like the Chronicle of Higher Education. I never did - or if I did, they didn’t publish it. In any case, it’s even more valid now than it was when I first wrote it, and this is my personal space for venting. So here goes.

One of the clich├ęs among those who do grant-supported research is that we have to reinvent ourselves every few years, whenever a new application is due. For more than a quarter of a century I did just that, taking my research in new directions based on conceptual turning points and technological breakthroughs, each time asking questions and adopting approaches that I would never have dreamed of when I submitted the previous application. It’s been a good run.

It’s past time to reinvent myself again as a researcher, but the playing field has slowly been changing, and certain aspects of the research process have finally progressed beyond the threshold of what I find tolerable. It seems that grant applications are increasingly judged on factors other than the quality of the science. For example, one government agency has, for some time now, required descriptions of things like community-service activities, K-12 (kindergarten through high school) partnerships and other public education activities, explicit descriptions of training programs for postdocs who work in the lab, ways in which the research will benefit society and the economy, how the research will help train underrepresented minority students, and other such tangential bits of information.

These requirements may all be well-intentioned, but they end up consuming a good part of the application. The latest addition was a “data management plan”, which is a 2-page statement of how the data obtained will be stored, analyzed, published, and made available to colleagues and the general public. Doesn’t it go without saying that data will be stored, analyzed, and shared? Writing grant applications always involved a certain amount of glibness in describing the science, but increasingly we are evaluated on our ability to generate pages and pages of gratuitous, bureaucrat-mandated fluff, with the stakes ever higher as applicants try to outdo each other in the novelty and scope of their peripheral activities. These gratuitous pages have slowly proliferated to the point where they leave progressively less and less room for substantive descriptions of the science itself.

In addition to the proliferation of busywork, there seems to be a trend toward politicization of what is deemed fundable. There have always been fashions in science, a fascination with flashy new techniques, reluctance to fund research that is truly outside the box, and individual reviewers who shamelessly promote or attack people in their own field or other fields. Now, in addition to these “normal” factors, it appears that most government funding organizations have a blanket policy of preferentially funding what they euphemistically refer to as “translational research”, research that clearly will produce a product, process, or treatment that can be patented, manufactured and/or sold for some corporation’s economic gain.

Over the past couple of years I’ve done a lot of soul-searching, wondering if I truly want to reinvent myself in the 21st-century bureaucratic and translational image, using the technique du jour and hoping that my project can be reviewed and funded before a new technique du jour comes along. The answer is that I wouldn’t mind too much if doing science were still fun, but it’s not, at least not for me. As the years have passed, more and more of our lab budget has been eaten up by mandated bureaucratic chores and paraphernalia. I’m tired of paying the people who work in my lab to write reports on how often they cleaned behind the refrigerator and when and where the lab coats were laundered. I’m tired of weekly inspections, one of which tells us to move the refrigerator regularly and clean under it, while the other tells us to bolt it to the wall so that it can’t be moved. I’m tired of repeatedly taking online “courses” and “tests” to comply with some regulation or other. I’m tired of paying mandatory submission fees and page charges every time I publish a paper in a “prestigious” scientific journal, subsidizing what is, if the truth be voiced, just another form of vanity press. 

No, research isn’t fun any more. I’m too much of an old fogey and academic cowboy to want to be hemmed in by micromanagement, arbitrary regulations, bureaucracy, and bottom-line bean-counters. I’m not content to design research projects that will help line some CEO’s pockets or look for answers only under the streetlight beam of the current politically correct approach using the latest flashy (and expensive) technology.

About two years ago I decided that I wanted to be grant-less by choice and stopped applying for federal grants. Finally the money is running out and the time has come to close the doors to the lab. Making final arrangements for the “going-out-of-business” process has been taking a lot of my time, but once it’s all over I’ll have more fun than I’ve had in years reinventing myself in an entirely new image that is no longer a variation on the old one and has nothing to do with high-ticket grant-funded scientific research. 

[All illustrations adapted from Wikimedia]