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 6, 2018


A couple of weeks ago I was surprised to hear a colleague describe several perfumes as “sophisticated”. My surprise was due to the fact that I personally perceived these compositions as being random mash-ups of common materials without regard to balance or overall wearability, and not very enjoyable. I’m sure we all have our own definitions of “sophisticated”, but the first ones I found in a Goggle search are as follows:

1) having, revealing, or proceding from a great deal of worldly experience and knowledge of fashion and culture;

2) (of a machine, system, or technique) developed to a high degree of complexity.

Did the perfumes in question fit either of these definitions? Not in my book. The first definition would imply that they fit into some highly developed socio-cultural schema that is the result of everything that has preceded them, and that each makes a coherent additional and novel statement based on that body of knowledge. The second would imply that they were technically well put-together in such a way as to intentionally evoke complex thoughts, emotions, and other states. After all, a perfume could be thought of as a “machine” designed to influence out physical, mental, and emotional state in a pleasurable way. The term can even be applied to the natural world. When I searched for images epitomizing the term “sophisticated”, these wings of an African beetle kept popping up as an example of a sophisticated design for flight.

In all cases, “sophisticated” is in many ways a moving target, very much of the moment, but in other ways a fixed quality. Junk is junk and kitsch is kitsch no matter when and where it was produced, but does that mean that the junk and kitsch are not sophisticated? Is a perfume with 942 ingredients more or less sophisticated than one with 15? Or one that consists of a single material? Is a creation designed to shock sophisticated? Is it sophisticated the second or third time around? Is a badly constructed perfume made by an upscale designer house more sophisticated than the same perfume made in a dilettante’s kitchen? This question is analogous to the question I often ask myself when I see pictures on Vogue of designer garments that look like they were failed experiments in an elementary school sewing class, or embarrassing Halloween costumes. Can context create the aura of “sophistication”, or is some intrinsic quality necessary? Can something be too “sophisticated” to be of any practical use?

I know this is an unanswerable question given that we cannot really even define “sophistication”, but to me it’s an interesting issue to think about. Readers, how do you define “sophisticated”?  Can a perfume be “sophisticated”? If so, what would make it that way? If not, why not?

[First cartoon by Rube Goldberg; beetle wings from Wikimedia; fashion photo one of the first that I found when opening catwalk images on Vogue - it's good enough to make the point] 


  1. I compare sophistication in perfume preferences to sophistication in food palate. A young, immature palate goes for uncomplicated, sweet tasting things. My nine year old thinks the apex of taste is overly sweet white cupcakes with a thick layer of white frosting and sugar sprinkles. A older person with a more mature palate would most likely lose their taste for so much sugary sweet, preferring a complex balance including salt, bitter, sour and umami. I think this is reflected in the preponderance of fruity florals and bakery style gourmands that are targeted to young people. I think the key to a sophisticated scent is balance. So a perfume that is not well blended would not qualify as sophisticated no matter how many notes they decide to throw into it. Similarly, I also wouldn't call fragrances that set out to be daring or discordant (i.e. some in the etat libre d'orange line) sophisticated. Some of these I personally like but I like them for their oddball nature not because they're elegant or sophisticated.

  2. Anne, I agree that you could define "sophistication" as changes in preference that come with experience, so that would be one way to look at it.

  3. I suppose a sophisticated perfume should have certain features such as harmony and smoothness. High quality of the ingredients is also a must: it could be a simple composition but if something sticks out (like a note of wet newspaper or a musk that just cannot go away), it ruins the impression.

    Diana (for some reason I can't use my LJ account)

    1. Diana, I agree with what you say. However, there may be perfumes where the intention is to have one dominant note, and I don't think I'd like to exclude those from the definition of "sophisticated", if that even means anything.