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, January 30, 2016


I am a sample junkie – I admit that I enjoy using samples much more than the full size of anything. I have thousands of 1-ml vial perfume samples, and quite a lot of skin care and cosmetic samples. For some reason the samples always seem better than the full size, and my theory is that alternating and rotating is much more effective and enjoyable than finding a “favorite” and sticking with it. I know some people use samples as a means to the end of finding the one fragrance or other product that they will commit to using continuously, but to me, samples are an end in themselves.

I recently acquired some samples of various make-up removers and face cleansers, some of which are (in my opinion) better than others. Here’s my report:

Sephora Waterproof Eye Makeup Remover: This comes as two phases, a water-based blue one at the bottom and a clear oil-based one on top. Basically, it’s just water and oil, which, when shaken up temporarily mix together as a suspension and can take off both water-soluble and oil-soluble makeup. It works effectively on eye make-up, but not as a complete face wash. It costs $14 for about 7 ounces, so is not prohibitively expensive.

Clinique Take the Day Off Makeup Remover: Almost identical to the Sephora product except for the fact that it appears to be colorless. It also comes as two phases (oil and water) that have to be shaken together before using.  It takes eye makeup off effectively, but is not meant to function as a complete face wash. At $19 for 4.2 ounces, it costs about twice what the generic Sephora product does, so I see no advantage to using it.

Fresh Soy Face Cleanser: This is a strongly cucumber-scented runny gel that has to be squeezed out of a tube and plops in odd places if your hand isn’t under the mouth of the tube to catch it. It doesn’t really work as a night-time remover for eye makeup or any other type of makeup, so I use it in the morning in the shower where it basically functions as a shower gel for the face. It works OK in that context. It doesn’t foam at all, but it does seem to clean my skin. So does soap. The sample tube doesn’t seem to contain much product given its size, but I’ll give the full size the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is completely full. At $38 for 5.1 ounces, it doesn’t seem worth it.

Ole Henriksen Pure Truth Melting Cleanser: My favorite of the bunch, this is a gel that melts on the skin to function as a complete eye makeup remover, general makeup remover, and face wash. It comes in a jar, so it’s easy to control how much you use. A tiny dab scrubbed around on the face really does remove everything from waterproof mascara to just plain dirt. It has a light citrus scent, does not end up particularly oily, and simply rinses away with water, leaving my skin feeling clean, but moisturized. It’s great for quick makeup removal at night. I really like it. It seems kind of pricey at $34 for 4 ounces, but a little goes a long way, and the convenience of a single product that does everything justifies the price. My small sample is lasting a long time, so when it runs out I might just spring for a full size.

[Sample photo is mine, others are from a retailer's website] 

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Before moving on to a series on what we usually think of as the perfume materials themselves, I thought it might be interesting to consider the component of most perfumes that everyone takes for granted, the carrier. Perfumes are generally fragrance materials diluted with a more or less odorless substance, never completely odorless, but benign enough to be masked and/or quick to evaporate.

By far the most common carrier is alcohol, usually 95% ethanol (ethyl alcohol), the same alcohol that’s in alcoholic beverages. Perfumer’s alcohol is typically grain alcohol that contains a bitter, low-odor “denaturant” that renders it unpalatable to drink, thus minimizing the chances that the alcohol could be resold as a beverage without the authorities having collected beverage taxes on it. If you see “SD alcohol” or “alcohol denat” on a perfume label, it just stands for “specially denatured alcohol”.

Some perfumers also use non-denatured alcohol, which can be obtained with the proper type of license. It is usually considerably more expensive than SD alcohol, and may be produced by craft distilleries that cater to the beverage and/or natural perfumery trade. Popular types of non-denatured alcohol include grain or potato alcohol, which have very little extra odor from the plant matter that was fermented and distilled, grape alcohol, which has a strong grappa smell, and sugar cane alcohol, which has a rum-like smell. These special effects are fine, if you want them in your perfume, but because of the extra expense and extra smells, most perfumers stick with the garden-variety SD alcohol.

Because alcohol is a non-polar solvent, it works well with most essential oils and aroma chemicals, which readily go into solution in alcohol and stay there. It is volatile, so evaporates quickly, leaving the less volatile fragrance materials behind for our enjoyment. Alcohol-based solutions are thin enough to easily be sprayed. The only down side is that ethanol is flammable at relatively low temperatures and has some smell of its own. Other than that, it’s the ideal carrier.

Oil is another traditional carrier for perfumes. Like alcohol, it easily mixes with essential oils and aroma chemicals. However, not every oil can work as a perfume base. Many oils have strong smells of their own (think about olive oil, or sesame oil). Unless the scent of the carrier oil is intended to be part of the fragrance, it is best to use low-odor oils. The other problem with oils is that many of them go rancid quickly. I will never forget pulling out some samples of oil-based perfumes that had been sitting around for about a year and being hit with the smell of rancid oil. It was so bad that I had to throw them away.  The oils that I’ve used that tend not to go rancid are argan and fractionated coconut oil (FCO). Grapefruit seed oil can be added as a natural preservative and, of course, there are lots of synthetic preservatives that will work with oil.
Traditional attars are made from flowers or other materials distilled into a carrier of sandalwood oil or vetiver oil, both of which have their own scent that contributes to the attar. Today some attars are distilled into diethylphthalate (DEP) or dioctylphthalate (DOP), which act as cheap substitutes for the traditional oils. If you are buying attars and want to avoid phthalates, you should find out what the carrier is.  Oil-based perfumes tend to go on sticky, with the fragrance developing more slowly than it does in alcohol-based ones.

I have tried a few water-based perfumes and was not impressed. First, most fragrance materials are not soluble in water, so the best that can be done is to produce a suspension or emulsion of the oils or aroma chemicals. For this reason, water-based perfumes tend to be cloudy. The amount of fragrance that can be added to water is limited, so they are usually quite weak.

Concentrations of fragrance materials in carrier are all over the place, ranging from minute amounts of fragrance materials to the pure concentrate. The highest concentrations are found in attars and concentrated perfume oils (CPOs), followed (in theory) by extraits/parfum, eau de parfum (EdP), eau de toilette (EdT), eau de cologne (EdC), and body sprays, which typically use a carrier with a high ratio of water to alcohol. However, you can’t really go by these designations because an EdT may smell stronger than an extrait. It depends on the fragrance itself and how the manufacturer defines the terms.

[Except for (maybe) the 190 proof grain alcohol in the first photo, all are things that should not be in perfume, just included for the visual interest. All images are from Wikimedia] 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


The drawing for the full bottle of Ines de la Fressange has been held, and the winner is ANNE. Please e-mail me (olympicorchids at gmail dot com) or send me a PM on Facebook. I will need your full name and shipping address.

The photo of hellebore buds celebrates the fact that it's hellebore season again! The original red-flowered plant, shown in the photo, has scattered seeds every year, and the first three babies that survived the house painters are about to burst into bloom. One is red, one is pink, and the other is green/white. It's interesting that they turn out looking so different from the parent.

Daffodils and crocuses are starting to pop up too, so spring can't be far off!

Monday, January 25, 2016


Today, as a special Monday treat, we have a post from Azar along with an unusual giveaway. 
A few years ago, several on-line self help magazines, as well as various consumer psychology journals, were pushing the notion that the best way to be happy and enjoy life was to accumulate positive experiences (e.g. vacations) rather than possessions. Recently a number of psychologists have modified this stance to include purchases that facilitate good experiences  (experiential products). Ever the skeptic, I tend to suspect that any article referencing consumer psychology is nothing more than a sneaky way to sell me something, like a trip to Bali or another guitar. But what does this have to do with perfume?

When we buy a bottle of perfume we are obviously not just buying the bottle, however elegantly simple or gorgeously ornate it might be.  We are purchasing days and sometimes decades of fragrant experiences.  When the jus is gone we can chose to save the experience and the artifact!

Even though I don’t go out of my way to collect perfume bottles I have, over the years, accumulated a nice little stash of vintage commercial bottles as well as several hand blown originals. Just the other day I spotted three partially full, mid-20th century perfumes on e-bay for  $18 total. They appeared to be in perfect condition and the largest looked like a Lalique.  I was the only bidder and was thrilled when the bottles arrived, better than described. My three lovely treasures were in perfect condition, except that the glass stoppers were seriously frozen in place.

If I were simply a collector of artifacts I would have put my new acquisitions on display to enjoy as possessions. But, as a collector of experiences, I felt compelled to release the long imprisoned djinni from each bottle.  I knew that this could be risky business but I had to give it a try.

When a ground glass perfume stopper is stuck in a bottle it is essentially "glued" in place by old, dried residue that has been forced into the ground stopper time and again by repeated expansions of the glass.  I have had some success loosening stoppers by using a few drops of perfumer's alcohol around the edge to dissolve the "glue".  I gave this method a try but nothing moved.  Next I tried three drops of fractionated coconut oil and waited twenty minutes.  The idea was that the oil would seep down the stoppers and loosen them by lubrication.  Once again, I had no success.  It was time to risk the freezer. 

When ground glass stoppers (primed with fractionated coconut oil) and polished glass bottles are quickly cooled they seem to contract at different rates.  After thirty minutes I removed the bottles from the freezer, gave each stopper a little jiggle and heard a satisfying pop and hiss.  The 50-year-old seals were broken. The perfume djinnis quickly escaped into a new century.  Not only were the old fragrances in near perfect condition there was also no damage to the stoppers or bottles.  A most satisfying experience!

Here are a couple of questions, dear readers:  How do you remove frozen stoppers from perfume bottles?  Do you have a memorable perfume-related experience to share?  Answer either of these and be entered into a drawing for the sweet, little empty 1 oz. Evyan Golden Shadows bottle, circa 1940, pictured above. The drawing will be next Monday, February 1. 

Azar xx 

[vintage bottle photos are Azar's; Glass stopper photo from Wikimedia; ski photo grabbed from the usual webcam source]                       

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Materials Wednesday: Part 1

How to start a series on perfumery raw materials? I suppose I could just dive in and consider individual materials one by one, but somehow it makes more sense to first consider materials by broad category rather than individually. I think everyone is at least vaguely aware that materials can be of different types, but may not realize the advantages and limitations of each type of raw material. So here goes with the most general classification possible.

Single Molecules. Chemically speaking, these are the simplest and most basic of all materials in that they are composed of a single type of molecule, such as phenyl ethyl acetate, amyl salicylate, or vanillin. Molecules with long, unwieldy names like (5E)-3-methylcyclopentadec-5-en-1-one are often given semi-descriptive trade names like Muscenone. Although different versions of an aroma molecule share the same chemical formula, the material itself may consist of different structural isomers (same chemical formula but different arrangement of atoms) or different stereoisomers (same formula and arrangement of atoms, but rotated in different ways). A given material may be a single isomer or a mixture of isomers, conferring different olfactory properties. The advantage of using single molecules is that the perfumer knows almost exactly what is going into the formula, common aroma chemicals are readily available in bulk, and they are usually easy to work with. For the beginning perfumer, probably the biggest down side of aroma chemicals is that there may be no real-world equivalents for their odors, so the properties of each one have to be learned from scratch.

Synthetic accords or bases. These are mixtures of aroma chemicals that, together replicate a complex natural scent such as rose, gardenia, or oud, or a fantasy scent such as “ambrosia” or “clean underwear”. Many bases of this type are available commercially as convenient ready-made components to use in perfumery. They are not the same as the “fragrance oils” that are commonly sold to hobbyists as functional scents for soap, candles, and lotions. The latter are some sort of odorant mix that approximates a complete perfume, diluted in a carrier oil, whereas perfume bases are the pure aroma chemical formula meant to be used as a building block, not a finished fragrance.

Naturals. These are the essential oils, absolutes, tinctures, and other materials derived from plants (and occasionally animals or minerals) that most self-taught perfumers start experimenting with in the beginning. The advantage of natural materials is that their names generally indicate what they will smell like, and most of them have familiar, “real-world” smells. Most natural materials consist of a large number of very different molecules that, together, produce the familiar smell, so are actually complete perfumes or accords in and of themselves. The advantage of using naturals is that they can be readily understood and easily impart complexity to a blend. The down side is that the very complexity that makes them attractive can lead to unwanted interactions and “muddying” of a blend if too many are combined in the wrong proportions. 

Another disadvantage is that naturals from different sources may smell very different, and the same material from the same supplier may smell different from batch to batch, and availability depends on crop yields, international politics, and many other unpredictable factors. A lot of naturals are difficult to work with in that they are sticky, gooey, lumpy, or otherwise nasty in consistency. They have to be melted, diluted, tinctured, or otherwise processed before they are usable, and the final formula often ends up cloudy so that it requires fining and filtering before it is clear enough to sell.

Mixed accords. These are like synthetic accords except that the desired smell has been created by combining naturals and aroma chemicals.

I think the majority of perfumers work with all of the above types of materials unless they are solidly in the all-natural category.

[All photos are from Wikimedia except for the alembic still, which is mine.]