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.
I have a love-hate relationship with shopping. On the one hand, I passionately hate shopping malls, airport concourse shops, department stores, and other sterile environments that are built to artificially recreate a natural setting in which small shops have gradually aggregated in one part of town, all within walking distance of one another. To me, shopping malls are comparable to a Disneyland attempt to recreate “Paris” or “Italy” or “Asia” - a feeble attempt to create an impression of something that should be enjoyed in reality, not reproduction. On the other hand, I love street fairs, markets, and shopping in the city. In fact, under the right conditions, I can be a real binge shopper. My love of city shopping was brought home to me when I was in Salamanca, where there are several main all-pedestrian commercial streets uninterrupted by parking lots or any of the other scourges of auto-based design. Shops are not organized into predictable categories plus a "food court". Sure, there are the clones, the H&Ms and Zaras and Mangos, but there are also the sidewalk cafés, the street vendors, and the small hole-in-the-wall shops where things are unique or handmade, and often somewhat cheaper than the equivalent quality items in the US. There’s also the rastro (Sunday flea market), which is fun to check out once in a while even though 90% of the merchandise is appallingly shoddy junk made in China.
One afternoon I went on a shopping extravaganza and came home with two new pairs of sandals (Spanish shoes are the best, second only to Italian ones!), a top with a sort of an art-deco beaded theme, two wide knitted headbands of the sort that I like to wear on bad hair days, two pairs of earrings - one pair of chunky silver hoops and another pair made from leather and Greek coins - and a gorgeous silver and mother-of-pearl necklace that M bought me for my birthday. Actually, my birthday’s not till the end of September (I’m a Libra, for whatever that’s worth), but why not celebrate early?
Perfume-wise, there was nothing remarkable in Salamanca. Sephora and the smaller perfume shops all have the usual selection of commercial and designer fragrances, at about the same prices as the duty-free shops, and significantly more expensive than the online discounters. I noticed that several of the Asian-run discount shops had a rack of incredibly cheap imitations of designer fragrances (a 50 ml bottle of “Chanel No 5” for 2 Euros!). I sniffed a few of them, and they smell every bit as bad as you might expect. Several of the handicraft shops had fragrance oils that were a little more upscale, but still poor quality. I really don’t understand why anyone would buy diluted synthetic lavender fragrance oil when it’s possible to buy the real thing. It was disappointing not to find any exotic fragrance potions and well-kept perfume secrets, but I suppose it’s good that I was able to go for two weeks without buying anything in the fragrance category. Now that I’m back in the land of the shopping mall, I can go without buying any clothing or shoes until I travel again.
The “Mystery of Musk” project seems to have created a lot of interest in natural, plant-based materials that can produce a musky scent. Of course, animal-based products like civet and castoreum are natural, too, but there are some convincing and not so convincing reasons for not using them. I won’t go there today.
A few weeks back I wrote a post on amber, but didn’t include ambrette seeds in that category. Perhaps I should have because the name sounds a bit like amber, and it sometimes seems to be described in terms of amber or included as a component of an “amber” accord. The source of ambrette, also known as “botanical musk”, “vegetable musk” and other, less obvious names, comes from a plant in the hibiscus family, Abelmoschus moschatus, shown in the drawing at the top. It’s related to okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), a vegetable that I love curried, fried in batter, cooked in gumbo, or just about any other way you want to prepare it. I used to grow it back when I lived in a place where we didn’t have slugs as big as small dogs, slimy disgusting creatures that can completely mow down a row of okra plants overnight. Come to think of it, okra has a slimy side to it, so maybe there’s something in it that slugs find especially delightful. I now snap up okra whenever it appears in one of our local produce stands, which is all too seldom.
Fresh okra flowers are beautiful, like a light yellow hibiscus with a dark red center, and the fresh pods and seeds have a light perfumey smell. Abelmoschus moschatus flowers and pods look very similar. Ambrette amps up the okra scent to produce a highly distinctive aroma that makes a wonderful perfume base.
A while back I bought a bottle of ambrette seed CO2 extract and have been learning to love it. It arrived in the winter, as a beige-colored solid that looked like just about any other absolute. In that state it didn’t seem to have very much aroma, just a sort of off-putting waxy smell a little like fake oakmoss. To give it a fair chance, I warmed it up enough so that it became liquid, and rubbed a little bit on my skin. At first there was just the waxy smell, only stronger, but before long it bloomed with one of the most amazing and unique scents that I’ve experienced. Unless you’ve smelled ambrette, it’s hard to describe because I can’t think of anything else like it. It’s a little bit floral, a little bit sweet, and a lot of its own musky character. It has decent sillage and lasts for a very long time once it reaches the “musky” phase of its development. I like to wear it by itself, but I’m not sure that hard-core approach is for everybody. Now that it’s summer, it stays mostly liquid, with some waxy stuff in the bottom.
I was planning on using ambrette in a perfume when I acquired some samples of Strange Invisible Perfumes. The first one that I tried, Musc Botanique, was almost pure ambrette with the waxy notes at the beginning covered up with some geranium. I love it. The next was Prima Ballerina, mostly a mixture of ambrette, rose, and lime. Also very nice. The third one, L’Invisible, seemed weak compared to the others, but there is a slight ambrette note in the drydown along with some oakmoss. I still have two more SIP samples to try, so am curious to see if they have ambrette in the base, too. If so, I’ll have to conclude that the trademark of SIP is ambrette. Not a bad thing to use, but it would be nice to mix things up a little. Once I try all of the samples, I’ll probably post reviews here. In the meantime, I’ve concluded that ambrette is a good scent for hot summer weather, and will go to the produce stand to look for some okra. A big pot of gumbo sounds like a good meal for the coming weekend and an opportunity to think about the musky side of okra.
[All Abelmoschus illustrations are from Wikimedia]
Just off the Washington coast is a network of small islands called the San Juans. One of these, Lopez Island, is where we spent our honeymoon ten years ago, and where we just spent a hot and sunny weekend combining business with pleasure and celebrating our anniversary. M had a gig playing music for a friend’s birthday bash, so we had double reason for revisiting this beautiful, quiet corner of the world, which is as about as close as you can come to the Shire in the Lord of the Rings.
I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful the approach to the island is, with rocky cliffs covered with madrone trees, junipers and other evergreens. We arrived at the Lopez Community Center in the morning to find that there was a “farmers’ market” nearby. It turned out that there was only one booth selling produce, just vegetables, no fruit, but there were dozens of craft stands. I love craft fairs, so wasn’t too disappointed by the lack of produce.
Most of the stalls were selling the usual beads, beach glass trinkets, unremarkable pottery, bad paintings, overpriced knitted items, and snacks. However, two stalls stood out to me. The first one that I spent some time with was Manya Pickard, a talented silver worker based in Friday Harbor, on a nearby island. I liked almost all of her work, and ended up buying a pair of earrings in a design that she calls Alhambra.
The second stall that impressed me was Stonecrest Farm, operated by Susan Corbin, who makes jams and jellies with fruit grown on Lopez Island. She let me taste all of her creations, including rhubarb jam (tasty, but too sweet), apricot-rum preserves (yummy!) and plain apricot preserves. I was surprised to find that I liked the plain apricot better than the one with rum. The rum flavor masks the wonderful floral note that’s in the apricots that Susan uses. Sometimes less is more, a principle that most definitely applies to perfumery as well as jam-making. After I had chosen the jar of apricot preserves, I saw that she had a few jars of lavender jelly. Lavender is one of the things that grows in yards and on farms all over Lopez Island, so I would catch a whiff of it at various times throughout the day. According to Susan, she first makes a tea by steeping the lavender flowers in hot water. The process extracts not only the flavor and fragrance, but also the color so that when the flowers are removed they are almost white. She then adds sugar and pectin to make jelly. I tried it, and it really does taste like lavender. It’s also lavender in color. How could I resist buying a jar?
I’ll spare you the details of the party and the music performance, but suffice it to say that the food was delicious and plentiful and the music had everyone up dancing. That night we camped in the back yard under a sky that was crystal clear, with every star showing in crisp detail. The milky way appeared in the most spectacular detail that I’ve seen since I was on a deserted beach on a clear night in Australia years ago, far from any city lights. An added bonus was that we saw shooting stars from time to time, the tail end of the Perseid meteor shower. What a view!
Today, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed to the ferry. Sunday afternoons are the most crowded time, but we used the wait to have a picnic on the cliffs overlooking the water, with a view of snow-capped Mount Baker in the distance. To complete the weekend, on the ferry trip home we passed by a group of at least 20 orca whales who were playing, jumping up out of the water. The ferry captain slowed down almost to a stop so that we could watch them. It was the perfect anniversary trip.
Here's a pic of the earrings that I got from Manya. You can see more of her work at http:www.manya.net.
Yesterday I was testing the sample of Strange Invisible Perfumes Musc Botanique that I got from the perfume shop, sitting at my work table and really getting into huffing the geranium and ambrette seed mixture. At some point it seemed to me that the sillage miraculously developed into the most wonderful thing that I had ever smelled, something that was indescribably sweet, powdery, musky, floral, and like nothing I had ever smelled before. I wrote an over-the-top review raving about how wonderful the sillage was, and how strange it was that it wasn’t detectable close to the skin. I was ready to go out and buy a full bottle of the stuff.
At some point during that rapturous experience, I had to go outside. Once I was out of the house, the scent reverted to a fairly simple ambrette, and the wonderful sillage was gone. When I went back in the house again, the rest of the scent came back and I realized that what I was smelling was a combination of the Musc Botanique and the fumes rising up from several batches of newly-made soap that were curing in the sun on a table in the back greenhouse room. I had to laugh and, of course, re-write my review. However, I have to say that the combination of everything at once was heavenly.
Another similar incident happened when I was at the meeting in Saint Louis. I had put on Sel de Vetiver that morning, but when I got to the meeting, I smelled sandalwood, a very nice sandalwood indeed, almost like the one in the original Samsara. At first I thought someone else in the room was wearing a perfume with lots of sandalwood, but at some point I realized that the smell was coming from my wrist. At that point I thought to myself how remarkable it is that Sel de Vetiver smells so different in a warmer, more humid climate. Then I realized that the sandalwood smell was coming from my left wrist, in the vicinity of my plastic watchband. Apparently one of the experimental mixtures that I had applied a couple of days before had gotten under my watchband and been soaked up by the plastic. I think I know which one it was and when it happened. Weeks later the watch still smells vaguely like sandalwood. Amazing.
Have you had an experience where you thought you were smelling your perfume but it turned out to be something else? Write a comment about it, and you will be entered in a drawing to win a 5 ml bottle of Golden Cattleya perfume, the newest addition to the Orchid Scents line. If you’re in the US, I’ll also include a full-size Golden Cattleya soap, one of the ones that was drying yesterday. The drawing will be on Saturday, August 28.
Two of these beauties are blooming in my greenhouse this month and, although they are the same species, you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. The name bicolor refers to the fact that the lip is a very different color from the petals and sepals. Both of the plants have a spade-shaped neon magenta lip, but that’s where the resemblance ends. One of the plants has wide, bronze colored petals and sepals. Yesterday it smelled like pure indole, but today the indole is fairly well masked by the addition of a sweet, spicy, slightly powdery scent. Lovely.
The other plant has narrow, bright lime green petals and sepals and has no scent as far as I can tell. The contrasting colors of this flower truly make it live up to the bicolor name, but it’s disappointing that it’s not fragrant. I suspect that selective breeding for the green color has eliminated the fragrance, which is generally considered unimportant in orchid judging at shows.
I think many orchid breeders concentrate on the appearance of the flowers and don’t consider fragrance at all. One of the reasons that I like to grow wild-type orchid species is that they are likely to be fragrant, even though they may not be as big and showy as their selectively bred counterparts. They also tend to be hardier than the ones that have been overly manipulated to select for characteristics that humans, as overly visual creatures, find desirable.
This little cutie is one of my all-time favorites. It belongs to a group of Brazilian orchids that grow on rocks under extreme conditions, and for that reason is referred to as a rupiculous (rock-growing) Laelia. The plant itself is less than 6 inches high, the leaves and pseudobulbs are fat and succulent, and it just loves to bloom. This is the second time it’s bloomed this year. The first time it had two flowers, this time it has four. They’re much brighter in color than the spring flowers were, illustrating the influence that growing conditions can have on the appearance of orchid flowers. The fragrance is the same as before, but this time it seems stronger, probably because of the warmer weather. The flowers have a unique fragrance that's sort of like violets, iris, suede, a note that's vaguely fruity, and black pepper, smooth on the one hand and piquant-spicy on the other. I plan to make a perfume based on this scent. The challenge is going to be to get the black pepper top note pumped up enough to mimic what I smell in the flowers. They do it so well, and keep pumping it out all day. Right now the plant is sitting on my desk as I write, and I keep inhaling the fragrance to try to commit it to memory so that I can in some way reproduce it.
This morning I was reading a news article bemoaning the fact that the US economy is not growing fast enough. According to this report, the annual growth rate was “only” 5% last year, and is less this year. Pardon me if I think like a biologist, but why should anything, including the economy, be expected to grow indefinitely? Why not try to attain a state of stability in which individuals or individual enterprises can grow (and eventually go to the great perfume shop in the sky), but the whole stays the same size? Isn’t that how living organisms and ecosystems work? Once we are adults, our skin keeps growing new cells as old ones die and are washed down the drain, but the size of our skin doesn’t increase (unless, of course, the goal is to become morbidly obese, in which case the skin must expand to cover the excess flesh). What happens if cells in any part of our body grow unchecked? I think everyone knows the answer to that question. It’s called cancer.
Do we really want an economy that grows according to the cancer model? It may be a healthy model from the tumor’s point of view, but eventually it will end up killing its host. The current economic woes may well be society’s way of trying to find a state of equilibrium in a world where growth cannot continue unchecked. I think of it in terms of human society finally having reached adulthood (or at least adolescence), a state in which additional growth is counterproductive. If that is the case, then the main activity should be maintenance, improvement in the quality of what exists, and replacement of whatever elements are lost through normal attrition, not unchecked growth.
Of course, it could be argued that increasing the world’s population would increase consumption and lead to economic growth. However, unless we intend to expand our economy to new planets, we are dealing with limited resources. This world can only sustain a limited number of people in the style to which they are accustomed. Another way to increase consumption is to destroy existing goods and make new ones to replace them. Wars and natural disasters are one way to accomplish this, production of shoddy goods and planned obsolescence another. I don’t think any of these solutions are very palatable to the people who have to suffer their consequences. It seems to me that it’s time for some of the economists and politicians to take a look at designing a zero-net growth policy that would obviously still allow for growth and decline within the system.
I know, I’m on my curmudgeonly soapbox again, but this whole obsession with the sacred cow of economic growth and complete disregard for alternative models is something that I find deeply troubling. What does this have to do with perfume? Not much really, but anything can be related to anything else if you try hard enough. When I first started making perfume, I bought materials at a fast rate, stocking my perfume organ with all manner of goodies and some not-so-goodies. I’ve now reached a point where the acquisition has slowed down considerably (an economic downturn, if you will), but I still have a wonderful and highly functional perfume-making setup that is far better than it was during its rapid growth phase. I use the existing materials in making perfumes, gradually deplete my supply, and replace that particular item. Zero net growth. Some materials I discover to be of poor quality and pour them into my millefleurs jar (aka waste jar) or give them away. I then replace them with a better version, or with something else entirely. Zero net growth. I have only so much room in my work area, so continuing to grow my “perfume-materials economy” indefinitely would quickly become counterproductive since I wouldn’t even be able to get into the space. Given my current “world” and its resources, the zero-growth (or minimal-growth) model works just fine. I just wish someone would consider it as a model for local, national, and world economies.
I’m back home again after a week of not posting due to being busy with conference activities, the chronic difficulty of getting on the internet, and just plain inertia. Now that I’m getting back into a normal routine, I have to decide whether to post some more of the travelogue-type things that I started writing about on the road, or switch to something directly perfume related. Perfume wins, hands down.
Before I left I had made an appointment to go show my line of fragrances to Christen Cottam, who has recently opened up a wonderful shop in West Seattle called “Knows Perfume”. West Seattle is like a self-contained little beach town, and Knows Perfume is right on the main drag, California Avenue. The entrance is simple, but attractive. The shop is easy to find, and there’s plenty of street parking, at least on a weekday. The inside looks inviting, with a couch, lots of artwork, tall stools at the counter, and plenty of floor space, with items nicely displayed on shelves and tabletops.
Christen herself is friendly, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and clearly loves what she’s doing. The lines that she sells are all ones that would be considered niche or indy, ranging from L’Artisan, Montale, and Bois 1920 to Strange Invisible Perfumes, Tallulah Jane, Smell Bent, and Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. These are the perfumes that you won’t find in the drugstore, department store, or duty-free shop. In addition to the merchandise, Christen keeps her own personal collection of perfumes at the shop for sampling, decanting, and trading. With hard-to-find perfumes to suit every taste and a level of communication and service that’s almost unheard-of these days, I predict that Knows Perfume will be a huge success.
Before opening the shop, Christen studied biology, taught high-school science, worked for a biotech company, and was a roller derby skater. Quite a life! She has obviously been interested in perfume for many years, and the shop is the culmination of that interest. She says that she considers herself more of a “curator” of perfumes than a vendor, and this attitude shows in every aspect of the shop and in her interactions with the people who come in.
We spent a long time talking about perfume and, as I was about to leave, I asked her what she would recommend to a jaded perfumista who has a closet full of samples and bottles at home (to say nothing of a fully loaded perfume organ). She first said that she would just turn them loose in the shop to sniff around, but then she started pulling some things out for me to try. I ended up coming home with generous samples of six different scents from Strange Invisible Perfumes, Costume National Homme, and Montale Attar. I just tried the SIP Musc Botanique and absolutely love it. Thank you, Christen!
The heat of the first two days has subsided, and it was almost cool this morning when I set out to run some errands and work with colleagues at the university. The town has changed very little since the last time I was here two or three years ago. A few shops have come and gone, a few old buildings are being propped up and renovated, and a big vacant lot that was always full of dead grass and thistles has been paved over and turned into a public square. I liked the vacant lot better because it brought a little nature into the city. All of the monumental buildings are the same - the cathedral and medieval university buildings with their musty interiors, and all of the old residential/commercial buildings that have the original facades but are completely modern inside - new buildings with old masks covering them. It seems odd that there is very little scent of incense or candle wax in the cathedral, just the smell of stone and old wood.
There aren’t as many tourists around as there usually are at this time of year, presumably because of the economy. However the local people are as active as ever, especially in the evening after the hottest part of the day. Quite a few people wear perfume, more than in Seattle, and the perfume is generally better. I get whiffs of D&G Light Blue and such, but I also get whiffs of really interesting sillage. What I haven’t smelled are the overpoweringly strong hair conditioner-type scents that the students in Seattle like to use. I checked out the perfume selection in Sephora, and it’s not much different from the Sephora in Seattle except that one of the sales girls followed me around breathing over my shoulder, as if she were deathly afraid that I’d make off with one of her precious bottles of Light Blue. A long and disapproving stare caused her to back off a couple of paces, but that sort of behavior eliminates any possibility that I would ever buy anything from that shop.
This is wedding season, so there are weddings every Friday and Saturday afternoon. People go all out for weddings here, so it’s quite a sight to see the guests dressed in their fancy clothes. The highlight of one of Friday afternoon’s weddings was a young man dressed in a shiny gold suit, complete with gold shoes. At one of Saturday’s weddings there was a man with a shiny silver suit. The women are even more colorful, with bright shawls, stiletto heels, ruffled skirts, and flowers in their hair. In the evening we walked around one of my favorite places in Salamanca, the Jardin de Calixto y Melibea, a small oasis-like park perched on the corner of a cliff above the river. A beautiful bride and groom arrived to have photos taken. Later, when we walked down to the bridge to watch the bats, the same couple followed us down there for more photos. Spanish weddings are wonderful! I love the fact that people go all-out in dressing up and celebrating. There’s too little of that in the world.
Salamanca is fundamentally a medieval university town that still strongly retains that character. Traveling by bus, car, or train, it’s over two hours from anywhere, halfway between Lisbon and Madrid, on the river Tormes. I can only imagine what a journey it was for students to get here back in the 13th century when the university was founded. The town is a little oasis of ancient tan stone buildings and green trees sitting right in the middle of the central plateau. The land all around the city is deserted, flat and dry, all dust and bleached dead grass this time of year. It looks a lot like the African savannah, yellow grass with the occasional tree, in this case scrubby live oaks or cork oaks. To me, one of the characteristic smells of this part of the world is dry grass baking in the sun. There’s a short time during the spring when the grass is green and filled with wildflowers, but they come and go quickly between the cold winter and the hot summer. Because of the altitude, winters are cold, with occasional snow.
Last night we walked down to the Roman bridge over the Rio Tormes, an arched stone structure that is about 2000 years old and still functional. The water is low this time of year, but still flowing, full of wriggling gray fish. As soon as the sun goes down, the bats come out and fly over the still water that stands in pools next to the fast-flowing part of the river. The bats swoop down to drink and chase the insects that fly over the surface of the water. There's one in the photo, close to the border between the water and grass. I was happy to see that the bats are still here, alive and well, active as ever. In the evening it’s a pleasure to feel the cool air and humidity rising up off the river and smell the water, wet earth, damp vegetation, and wet stones.
Because of its natural setting, Salamanca always gives me the impression of being a gnarled and weathered survivor, a pile of rocks in the middle of a dry field, oppressed by the sun and the wind and the sky, a slowly compacted pile of rocks out of which only the hardiest vegetation can grow. The tallest building is still the cathedral. When I make a scent to typify Salamanca it will have to be something austere, based on earth, dry grass and water.
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