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, July 5, 2016


When I suddenly phased out my Monday review feature, I felt like I had to replace it with something. I thought of interviews with other perfumers, but decided that those had been done enough on other blogs. Right now I am in the process of trying to bootstrap a new feature that requires recruiting of other writers, but it will take at least a few weeks to get it going.

In the meantime, I am motivated to reflect on the current state of perfume reviewing, which seems to be taken far too seriously by far too many people on both sides of the aisle. Today’s rumination was a long time in the buildup, but the final straw prompting me to comment was Luca Turin’s post announcing that his four stars no longer mean four stars; in fact, they are actually an artificially inflated sop thrown to artisan perfumers whose work is, by his definition, inferior in quality to those perfumes to which he assigned four stars in the Perfume Guide. I must confess that I have never looked at the Perfume Guide and do not understand why one person’s subjective opinion should be regarded as the ultimate truth. I understand even less why Luca Turin feels the need to apologize to another blogger for his reviews and his rating system.

I can see the point that the trend of  bloggers to only say good things may not ultimately be in the best interest of anyone. First, this tendency may lead consumers to regard all reviews as insincere, negating the usefulness of the reviews and casting reviewers in the role of paid shills who collect free perfume in exchange for promoting it. I do not believe this, but the danger of such a perception by the public is real.

Second, it leads to the idea that perfumes that are written about constantly have high merit and those that are not written about as much must necessarily be inferior. The consequence of this perception is potentially damaging to those brands and perfumers who are not highly active in releasing a constant stream of new perfumes and distributing samples to bloggers. Damning by not mentioning a perfume could ultimately be worse than damning by faint praise or negative comments.

Third, the idea that perfume “quality” can be quantified and that there is a single standard for excellence is absurd. Evaluating the quality of a perfume is not like solving a simple mathematical equation where there is (usually) one right answer. Every individual has his or her own unique biology, history, and preferences. My scrubber may be your holy grail and vice versa. Evaluation of perfume is ultimately subjective, and reading a variety of opinions is valuable as well as entertaining, especially when reviewers do not pretend to be the ultimate authority on what is good for everyone. Perfume reviewers are like the blind men and the elephant, with each seeing something different from his or her own unique point of view. In the end, “each is partly in the right, and all of them are wrong”, but that’s not all. In the end, there is no coherent elephant to reconstruct from the parts. Perfume “quality” is in the nose and brain of the beholder. It's unique for each individual and even for a given individual it's a moving target.  

If people in the perfume community try to come up with a monolithic definition of “quality” as an ultimate “truth” and use it to implement a simplistic one-dimensional quantitative rating system of zero to five, they will end up like Phaedrus in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, insanely sitting in a corner in a pile of their own excrement, beating their heads against the wall as they try in vain to capture an aesthetic and intellectual will-o-the-wisp and define the undefinable.

Back off folks, perfume should be fun, and so should writing and reading about it.

[Inflated pufferfish and inflated balloons images from Wikimedia; Robert Pirsig photo grabbed off an internet search; red balloon painting by Paul Klee, 1922; blind men and the elephant illustration by an anonymous artist, early 20th century; blind monks and elephant image by Itcho Hanabusa, 18th century; foxfire image by Toyohara Chikanobu, 19th century] 


  1. Hi Ellen,

    I was taken aback by Luca Turin's three star/four star post. I've always been suspect of perfume ratings, but re-counting the numbers of and then re-defining the meaning of the resulting meaningless stars was just too much for me.

    That being said, the "let's all just say something nice" all of the time (and get along) reviews are not only disingenuous but flat out boring! I enjoy sincerely critical (and that doesn't necessarily mean negative) reviews because I find them fun to read and helpful. I don't always agree but I can tell when a perfume writer is making a real effort to describe his unique, subjective experience and when he is simply (and madly) in love with his own adjectives.

    A lot of wonderful perfume, beautiful music and art never get any press or attention. Often these things come into being simply for the sheer pleasure of creation. Sales and success are secondary. If the numbers and the growth of the brand are the ultimate goals then notoriety should be as important as quality and negative press should be better than no press at all.

    For some strange reason this whole debate recalls Mel Brook's character Yogurt in the 1987 movie Spaceballs "Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from da movie is made...".

    Is this a post or a comment?

    Azar xxx

    1. Azar, thank you for your very perceptive mini-post/comment! I couldn't agree more.

    2. One more thing. Luca Turin's deciding to change his rating system makes about as much sense as it would for me to go back and arbitrarily change all of my students' grades from past years because someone mentioned that my grading criteria were not high/low enough ... but grade inflation in academics is an issue for another time and another venue.

  2. Heya Ellen
    A well crafted, sincere negative review that doesn't rip the perfume, nose or house to shreds while still leaving the reader in little doubt that this FRAG did not work for the person described is a beautiful thing.
    I love how differently reviewers enjoy a fragrance and also how much scope their noses offer over the notes. There can even be light and shade in the positive reviews.
    Thanks for making me think
    Portia xx

    1. Portia, You are absolutely right that the joy of reading reviews comes when they reveal the individual's own unique reaction to the perfume. And you are also absolutely right that any good and honest review is crafted in shades of gray rather than black or white, good or bad.

  3. Replies
    1. Lucy, Thanks! I'm glad I'm not alone in my reaction.