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.

Monday, May 15, 2017


The winner of last week's Sunny Day Drawing is:


Please contact me with your shipping address at olympicorchids at gmail dot com.

If unclaimed by Monday, May 22, the items will go into the jackpot for next time.

[Geranium photo is mine]

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Sometimes social media can be incredibly frustrating. Today I was reading Gail’s post on Çafleurebon about whether it’s useful for perfume brands to list notes, or whether it’s better just to provide story-like descriptions. I wrote a long comment, tried to post it, and got a message saying that the “captcha code” was incorrect. :-( I tried again, and got the same message. Then everything I had written disappeared. Time down the tubes.

I’m not sure why I persevered, but I closed my browser, went back to the page, and tried again, more or less recreating the post. Surely it was not verbatim, but when I tried to post it, I got a message saying that it was a “duplicate” of something that was already posted. Posted, maybe, but not displayed. Algorithms can act so stupid sometimes. Fortunately this time I copied my comment before trying to post it, so didn’t lose it. After a couple more ineffective attempts, I gave up and decided to elaborate a little and turn it into a blog post.

The inspiration for Gail’s post was the fact that an increasing number of perfume brands don’t list notes, either because they condescendingly imply that to do so is beneath their elite status and/or their artistic sensibilities, or because listing notes is not useful to the consumer, who would rather get an overall impression through a piece of creative writing. Others think that, in the interest of full disclosure, it is best to list raw materials rather than notes, so we are now seeing things like “ambroxan” appear in lists of notes, even though I have yet to see cis-3-hexenol, methyl anthranilate, or anything else reminiscent of organic chemistry class.

Listing materials vs listing notes is something of a false dichotomy because many of the single aroma chemicals used to build "notes" are also found in nature. In fact, if one were to list all of the materials that the plant puts into synthesizing the fragrance that ends up in a rose absolute, it would read like the typical allergen list and would be incomprehensible to the average consumer at best, and frightening at worst. The term "rose" immediately evokes a clear general concept regardless of how it is constructed and despite the fact that it comprises multiple exemplars, each of which is perceived differently depending on context. As a general guideline for consumers and reviewers, I think a list of notes has a real function.

I'm not a big fan of "stories" as perfume descriptions in the same way that I'm not a big fan of music videos that impose a single vision on an artistic work that can evoke many different "stories" depending on each listener's tendencies.

Something that I intensely dislike is the pseudo-artistic gibberish "descriptions" of perfumes that make absolutely no sense, even as a piece of abstract/poetic “creative writing”. However, as one of the comments on Çafleurebon said, there's no right or wrong way. Some people like to read randomly strung together words that sound vaguely intellectual or sexy but make no sense, others like to have prefabricated stories to go with their olfactory experience, and others like to have lists of notes. As a perfumer, I try to supply a narrative general description for those who don’t just want a dry list, as well as a list of the main notes for those who want an idea of what went into making the perfume. Sorry, no gibberish.

[Notes header from Chapbook 1894; travel poster and romance novel image adapted from random online searches; other images from Wikimedia]

Friday, May 12, 2017


During my long blogging sabbatical I've gotten way behind on posting. I think I mentioned long ago that I wanted to use palo santo in a perfume, but never followed up. Here is the story of how I incorporated this rather difficult note in a way that actually works. After a couple of false starts, a project came along that turned out to be the perfect medium. 

The hamsa is a stylized hand-shaped symbol with obscure origins in the Middle East. It serves as a sign of protection in both Islam and Judaism, and often has a stylized eye positioned in the center of the palm to deflect the evil eye.

When Michelyn Camen contacted me to participate in the Çafleurebon multi-perfumer project “Scents of Protection”, I was excited by the opportunity to somehow render this symbol as a fragrance, but also a little intimidated by the challenge that it represented. Rather than thinking of the hamsa as an occult, magical amulet that works through mysterious external powers, I ended up considering it in the symbolic kabbalistic context of the ten sefirot. The sefirot represent the modes or attributes through which the divine power is manifested throughout the universe, and hence the modes or attributes that we, as humans hold within us and can call upon for the power, confidence, and goodness that will deflect evil and provide the strength to combat it. Ironically, these powers seem to be even more necessary now than they were when I started the project.

The sefirot can be thought of as abstract and concrete, intellectual and emotional, infinite and bounded, with one overarching concept that contains all the others and another that accumulates and channels their energy to create and interact with the world as we know it.

The Hamsa, with its five fingers, right and left, can be conceived of as a depiction of the sefirot. The two fingers of one side symbolize four virtual qualities, while the two fingers of the other side symbolize the related actual qualities. The center finger symbolizes the first and last sefirot, the origin and the realization of everything.  At least this is the scheme that worked when I set out to create a perfume.

How to depict this in a perfume? It was not an easy task! I first considered making it all-natural, but in the end decided to include man-made materials to symbolize the interaction between nature and what we, as humans, have devised as protective measures both tangible and intangible, through superstition and science. I decided not to limit my materials to those that would have been traditionally used in ancient Israel, but to add a few international touches to celebrate the diaspora that has carried the symbolism of the hamsa throughout the world.

The first sefirah, the overarching idea, is symbolized as an invisible veil of olibanum smoke and the tenth, the unification and channel for worldly manifestation of everything else, as a solid block of sandalwood. The four pairs of contrasting properties are symbolized by contrasting pairs of materials. The first is palo santo and cognac, an ethereal woody incense paired with ceremonial wine to symbolize spiritual ideas, and the ritual celebration of those ideas; the second is mastic paired with liquidambar, bitter incense and honey-sweetness to symbolize strength and justice tempered with love and kindness; the third is myrrh paired with citron, earthy incense and an aromatic fruit of the earth to celebrate inspiration and the resulting human creations of beauty and utility; the fourth pair is oud and apricot, a resinous material produced by agarwood trees to protect them, paired with a fleshy, sweet fruit to stand for resistance to physical and emotional attack and the fruits of physical and intellectual bonding. The end result is a combination of the hard and the soft, the bitter and the sweet, tangible and the intangible.

The perfume is not intended so much as a “magic potion”, but rather as a reminder of the amazing powers that we have within us, powers that we can use to repel evil  from ourselves at the same time we use them to help other individuals and the world.

I decided to release Hamsa as a special edition in the traditional square spray bottle, decorated with a lampworked glass “evil eye” symbol on a detachable ring that can be used on a keychain, as a piece of jewelry, or just hung somewhere that seems right for it.

[All images except for the bottle and the hamsa on the door  (my photos) are from Wikimedia or educational sites online.]

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


It’s time to get back on track with Materials Wednesday and finish up the series on resins. I’ve written before on myrrh and mastic, but somehow missed one of the important resins, benzoin. This material is used extensively in perfume, mainly as a fixative; it is also used medicinally,  and burned as incense. In other industries, benzoin is used to enhance and fix food flavorings, especially vanilla, as a chewing-gum base, and to flavor tobacco. It is sometimes used in the manufacture of varnish.

Benzoin is the gummy resin obtained from trees in the genus Styrax, mainly Styrax tonkinensis, which grows in Southeast Asia. Benzoin is also known as “styrax” “storax” or “Siam benzoin”. The raw material is harvested in much the same way as other resins, by making cuts in the trunk of the tree, waiting until the sap runs out and solidifies, then scraping the “tears” off of the tree.

Because benzoin is an important commercial product, efforts have been made to study and improve methods for its cultivation and harvesting. There are now Styrax plantations, so benzoin is not in as much danger as some other materials that are still harvested from the wild.

The scent of benzoin resin is mildly sweet and, of course, resinous, and bears some similarity to vanilla. Because the scent is mild, it is a little hard to pick out of a perfume mix, but it does lend its own subtle signature to a blend. A lot of my perfumes contain benzoin in various concentrations.

Benzoin resin comes as a solid, which can be burned as incense or tinctured. When burned as incense, a magical transformation occurs and the smoke creates a powerful scent that is very different from the raw resin, absolute, tincture, or other preparation for use in perfumery. The beautiful, characteristic scent of benzoin used as incense is especially startling the first time you burn it, if you are used to smelling the tinctured or otherwise treated resin. It is unlike any other form of incense, and is one of my favorites.

For perfumery, benzoin can also be obtained as an “absolute”, which is generally pre-diluted with alcohol. Although this dilution makes it pourable, it is still dense and sticky, and cleanup is not fun. The hassles of working with benzoin aside, it is a useful material that I like having in my main selection of basic perfume-building blocks.

[Benzoin resin on tree trunk from Givaudan website, although it seems to be a cropped version of a photo from Accademia del Profumo, or from a website on “securing the future of benzoin in Laos”, or from some other ambiguous source. It seems to be very popular. Benzoin resin clump from an essential oil vendor’s website; Styrax trees image from an Indonesian commerce promotion website, Styrax flowers and botanical drawing from Wikipedia.]