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.

Thursday, June 30, 2016


In life, everything evolves. Ever since I can remember I have always tried to get samples of as many fragrances as possible, and have tried to test one or more every day. I started out doing this simply because I enjoyed it, and eventually continued to do it because I felt like I needed to know what was going on in the perfume world outside my studio, so it was not only fun, but educational. Whenever I tested a perfume, I wrote notes to myself about it. I have a huge archive of these notes from over the years stored in digital form.

Before I started making my own perfumes, I used to post reviews on Fragrantica on a fairly regular basis. Soon after my business started to take off and I started this blog, I stopped posting reviews on Fragrantica, partly prompted by a colleague’s complaint that my modest praise was actually a condemnation, and partly because I now had a new platform for my reviews.

A few companies started sending me samples to review, and I happily did so. A couple of years ago I made it a rule to review only what I considered mass-market perfumes because reviewing the work of artisan or small independent brands with limited distribution could be perceived as a conflict of interest. In the meantime, the lines among categories have become progressively blurred, and as I’ve become more generally known as a perfumer my degrees of separation from colleagues have become ever-smaller and more intricately enmeshed.

I have been surprised several times to find that one of my old reviews or posts is the first item that shows up in a Google search. Unfortunately this increased visibility has started to attract vitriolic comments on some review posts as well as spammers who vainly hope that readers of the comments will click on their links. I don’t need this.

The fact that one never really knows where a perfumer’s work will show up means that I could unknowingly write an honest review of a colleague’s work and only discover the direct or indirect connection later. For better or worse, I have reached a point where everyone in the perfume community is my colleague. The danger of creating a conflict of interest is too great to take that risk. 

For that reason, if you look at my blog today you will see that I have gone back and deleted all perfume reviews (at least I think I got them all). I will no longer post reviews of any type, but will continue to do giveaways. Instead of Mass-Market Mondays there will be some new feature associated with a giveaway. I haven’t decided what it will be, but it will definitely be something meant to promote engagement and constructive discussion. I welcome any ideas about a regular feature you would like to see here.

[All images are by M C Escher]

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


When writing about the Cymbopogons last week, I should have mentioned my old post on Cymbopogon validus, aka African bluegrass, yet another one of the grasses that yield perfumery materials. It’s an excellent material that is hardly ever used, but it’s in a few of my perfume formulas, especially the Devil Scent series. The oil gets better with age, as I found out after getting a new batch that smelled “raw”.  It needs to sit for a year or more to mellow, so I’ll always have one bottle to use and one to age. 

I thought about where to go from the Cymbopogons, and decided to stick with the “green” theme until I exhaust it.

One natural material that’s always thought of as “green” is galbanum, although I think that reputation comes from the fact that it is often combined with other “green” materials, as in the famous Balmain Vent Vert, which dates back to the mid 1940s.  Incidentally, I just obtained a vintage Vent Vert mini from the 1950s or early 60s, and it smells absolutely amazing, nothing like the current version.

Galbanum comes from a plant that looks like a giant fennel plant, Ferula galbaniflua  (also called Ferula gummosa), native to Iran and other parts of the Middle East. The galbanum essential oil I have comes from Turkey. The essential oil is distilled from a resin exuded from cracks in the mature stems of the plant. For many thousands of years galbanum has been burned as incense, so it has a long history of use in scent-making. To me, galbanum essential oil smells more bitter-resinous than green, so it’s useful for giving scents a bitter-woody, almost mineral-like note that lasts pretty much throughout. I have heard the scent of galbanum described as being like old cigarette ashes, and I can sort of see their point, but it’s cleaner. It would be a good addition to any perfume that aimed to recreate a landscape with semi-dry grass, bark, and stones. I don’t know why I don’t use it more because, wearing pure galbanum oil, I really like it.

Ferula asafoetida is a relative of galbanum, but with a different scent entirely, made from the sap exuded by the root of the plant, which also looks like a giant version of fennel. The smell of the resin is completely unique, and is used mainly in Indian cuisine, where it is known as “hing”, and in Ayurvedic medicine for a variety of purposes. I like to use hing in cooking, partly because I like the flavor and partly because it enhances the effect of other spices. There is an essential oil of asafetida, but its use in perfume is extremely limited. I tried to use it in one perfume, in extremely diluted form, but no matter how little I added it ended up hijacking the fragrance and I gave up. I may give it another go at some point, but for now the oil is sequestered in a double plastic bag to prevent it spreading to other things.

Do you like galbanum as a perfume note and, if so, what is your favorite scent that contains galbanum?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


The random choice has been made, and the winner of the surprise artisan fragrance is:


To claim your prize, just send an e-mail to olympicorchids at gmail dot com or leave a message on our Facebook page.

[Photo grabbed this morning from the roving webcam at our local ski area]

Friday, June 24, 2016


July brings the sixth anniversary of Olympic Orchids Perfumes. It seems like only yesterday that we started out as a business, but as new artisan, indie and niche brands, along with mass-market “luxury” niche wannabe spinoffs, sprout up like mushrooms after a rain, it is starting to feel like we are suddenly one of the old, established owner-perfumer brands (I guess that’s analogous to singer-songwriter).

The year since our last anniversary has been quite eventful, with the launch of a popular new orchid fragrance, White Cattleya, a branching out to create a fragrance for another brand, resulting in my second Institute for Art and Olfaction Award for Zoologist Perfumes Bat, and a steady growth of our Olympic Orchids Perfumes business. We even have a new Instagram account, Olympic_Orchids_Perfume! I’m posting some sort of photo every day, trying to avoid being too “commercial” by mixing in interesting random photos like the baby seagulls that I showed yesterday, so check it out.

Because I’m planning all sorts of fun things to celebrate 6 years of perfume-making, I want to start early with a summer sale and a contest. The sale will be announced in the newsletter, on our Facebook page, Twitter, and wherever else seems appropriate. It will start with a 20% discount that starts now and runs until July 6 (code = SIXYEARS1), 15% until July 16 (SIXYEARS2), and 10% until the end of July (SIXYEARS3). This means that those who see the announcements early will get the best discounts, but even those who are as out of touch as I usually am will still get a break on prices. The codes are the same on the Flagship Store and the Original Boutique. I used this method on my orchid nursery website (10 years in June!) and it seems to have worked well.

The other thing I want to do is sponsor two different  photo contests. The first one will be a “product glamour shot” contest. For this contest, anyone who owns any size Olympic Orchids fragrance is invited to take a photo of it in some sort of interesting and appropriate setting. Photos can be submitted via e-mail attachment (olympicorchids at gmail dot com) or Facebook message upload.  Full instructions will be forthcoming this weekend, so start thinking about what kind of visual setting you might use for your Olympic Orchids fragrances, or just go ahead, take some photos, and submit now! Winners will receive a voucher for their choice of a full bottle or discovery set of their choice. Photos will be displayed on the website home page, with your photo credit.

I have relatively few commitments during the month of July, so I’m looking forward to having a lot of time to work and play in the perfume studio!

[Cake photo greatly modified from Wikimedia; shop display photo straight from Wikimedia, baby seagulls photo is mine; Woodcut bottle by Antonia Kohl] 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Last week’s materials post was on vetiver, so this week’s will continue with three related grasses that are used in perfumery and other aromatic applications, Cymbopogon citratus (lemongrass) Cymbopogon nardus (citronella) and Cymbopogon martini (palmarosa). Like vetiver, these are all in the grass family, growing as big clumps, but for the Cymbopogons, the essential oil is derived from the tops of the plants, not the roots. All of these species were probably originally native to India and/or Southeast Asia, but have become widespread throughout warm parts of the world due to culinary and agricultural uses.

Lemongrass is most commonly thought of as a food flavoring due to its extensive use in Asian cuisine. Lemongrass oil is obtained by distillation of the green parts of the plant, with most of the aroma contained in the base rather than the outer parts of the leaves. I think of lemongrass imparting a delicate flavor to Vietnamese cuisine, and working well with coconut-based curries. The essential oil contains citral, limonene, citronellol, geraniol, and many other molecules that have insecticidal properties and mosquito-repellant properties, as well as medicinal properties, especially anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal activity.

Lemongrass essential oil has a characteristic, unmistakable top to mid-range scent that can be quite heavy, strong, and overpowering if used in perfumery, so needs dosing with a light hand and with the proper accompaniments. Given that most of the lemongrass constituents, and all of the main ones, are available as pure aromachemicals (that’s for another post!) the perfumer has the option of creating a unique “lemongrass” accord to use, or choose which aspect of it to emphasize in a blend.  I used lemongrass essential oil in Kyphi, but I think if I used it in another blend I might opt for a lighter reconstruction that’s more like the flavor one gets in delicate lemongrass-flavored cuisine.

Citronella, the evil cousin of lemongrass, contains large quantities of citronellal, citronellol, geranial, limonene and other “lemony” molecules. It is an important source of these and other isolated aroma chemical molecules. Like others of its genus, it looks like a small clump of pampas grass, not a very attractive sight. Perhaps the best known use of citronella is as an insect repellant, with citronella candles traditionally burned to keep mosquitoes away from outdoor gatherings and to scent insecticidal sprays. Because of this association, in my opinion, citronella does not work well in perfumery. Who wants a perfume that smells like bug spray? Having said that, the aroma molecules obtained from citronella have a multitude of uses in perfumery, and are probably present to some degree in the majority of perfumes.

Palmarosa is yet another one of those plants that looks like pampas grass. The green part of the plant is distilled once it has flowered,, but plants can live for many years, regrowing the parts cut for distillation. The essential oil contains mostly geraniol and geranyl acetate, along with linalool, myrcene, farnesine, and ocimene. As in the case of other essential oils, the reported percent of constituents, and the constituent profile itself varies depending on whose publication you read. Apparently the composition differs depending on which part of the plant is used, and I’m sure it also varies by season, harvesting techniques, and distillation techniques. 

Palmarosa essential oil smells sort of like a mixture of rose geranium and lemongrass, not too surprising given that it’s a Cymbopogon. It seems a little sharp and raw by itself, and I have not used it in a perfume. I can see how it could work as an excellent substitute for rose geranium. However, I can’t see how it would work as a substitute for rose, although it seems that it has commonly been used to adulterate rose oil or absolute. It is reported to have antiseptic properties and to be very good for the skin, with “anti-aging” properties. I’ll have to try it in my formula.

[All plant photos are from Wikimedia; product photos are from retailers' websites. I see one of them used the Wikimedia palmarosa image in their advertising.]