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.
The second step in making Alyssum’s bespoke perfume was to recreate the scent of sweet alyssum flowers. Turns out it was a lot easier than I thought it would be to make an accord that approximates the scent of the actual flowers. As I wrote in a post last fall, sweet alyssum has a strong sweet fragrance that’s best described as a mixture of honey, honeycomb, and pollen. It’s floral, gourmand and edgy all at the same time.
I was surprised to find that I could recreate the basic scent using only a few synthetic materials that provide a mild basic floral scent, a honey scent, and the sharper honeycomb-pollen scent. It really does mimic the fragrance of sweet alyssum! Of course I have to wait a while to see how the materials blend together, then tweak it if necessary, but it’s close.
The big question that remains is whether anyone would want to wear it in a perfume as is, or whether the sweet alyssum accord will need to be embellished and made larger, broader, and deeper than life. This will depend partly on what Alyssum thinks when she samples it, and partly how it meshes with the other parts of the perfume. I think integrating it with the woody, smoky base is going to be the biggest challenge.
The cedar accord I made has mellowed nicely, and smells just like the cedar prototype I was aiming for. Smoke I already have. The main components are just about ready to test.
Since my first post on sweet alyssum, I’ve examined the plants in the neighbor’s garden more thoroughly and learned that it not only comes in white, but in purple, pink, and everything in between. The flowers all smell pretty much the same regardless of color.
This morning there was a discussion on Fragrantica about what size perfume bottles people like to buy. I was fascinated to see that most of those who posted said that they like to buy the largest size possible. Reasons given mostly had to do with the fact that they perceive it as being the “best bargain” or they are “afraid of running out”. Maybe I’m an old fogey who is out of touch with contemporary culture, but I just don’t get it.
First of all, why would anyone buy a perfume simply because it’s cheap or because the price per ml is less if bought in bulk? Do I really want to buy over 100 ml of a mediocre perfume just because it’s on sale at Walgreen’s or TJ Maxx? What am I going to do with it? Surely not wear it all. Sell it? Swap it? It’s not really marketable because anyone can go out and buy it at their local store for next to nothing. Do I really want to buy a 100 ml bottle of a very expensive perfume just because it costs $3.50 per ml in that packaging as opposed to $5.00 per ml if I buy a 10 ml decant that I might have some hope of using up in my lifetime? With a 3-figure investment in a fancy bottle, it would be hard for me to justify wearing anything else, and that would get boring fast, to say nothing of developing an elevated threshold to the scent from wearing it every day. Come to think of it, maybe this is one reason why people overdose so much on perfume. They have invested in a large bottle and feel compelled to wear it so regularly that they can’t smell it any more.
Another reason given was that people like the look of big bottles sitting on their dresser. Huh? I had to ponder this one for a while. I suppose it plays into the whole cult of “bigger is better”: My perfume bottle is bigger than your perfume bottle. My SUV is higher off the ground than your SUV, so I can see over your head. Wait! My neighbor has an even taller SUV. Gotta go out and find one even taller. Forget about how much it costs to fuel it and how hard it is to find a parking space.
If I go to a restaurant and order what should be a good meal, all too often it comes in such a large portion that it takes my appetite away because I feel like I’m eating out of a trough. If I can eat only a fourth of the meal, does that make it a good bargain? Do I really want to take the leftovers home and eat them for three more meals? Competition for the most consumption and the biggest of everything seems to have resulted not only in oversized portions of food and drink, but oversized people who need oversized vehicles, oversized houses, oversized TVs, oversized furniture, and oversized containers of everything.
Whatever happened to the concept of quality rather than sheer quantity? Oh, silly me. That would cut down on consumption and the economy might stop growing. Who cares if most of the excess production gets thrown away as long as someone pays for it?
[Obscene vehicle photo from Wikimedia; Marc Jacobs ad one of many posted all over the internet and apparently in the public domain since it could be construed as free advertising as well as simply blatantly obvious commentary on the theme of this post.]
I’ve always been familiar with dried turmeric, the bright yellow powder that gives curry its color, but when I went to our local Indian store the other day, there was a big bin of fresh turmeric roots. They’re orangish tan in color, a little like ginger roots but rounder, with pronounced segmentation lines. They look for all the world like some sort of insect larvae. If you’ve ever seen mealworms, turmeric roots look like giant, fat, stubby mealworms that are budding new babies off of the main body. A whole bin of turmeric roots is a little disconcerting at first glance because of the insect larvae association. Cut open, the fresh root looks very much like a carrot, and tastes like mild ginger with some extra bitterness and aromatic floral notes. Actually, it’s delicious to eat raw.
The turmeric species used in cooking is Curcuma longa, a plant in the ginger family. One of the materials in my perfume organ is turmeric essential oil, which smells pretty much like dried, powdered turmeric. I have used it in making an Indian-themed perfume, which is still in the developmental stage. I don’t think the turmeric is identifiable individually in the mix since there are so many other notes, but it certainly contributes a spicy bitterness to the overall effect.
Curcuma aromatica is another species closely related to culinary turmeric. The plant looks similar, but the flowers are bright pink in the photos that I’ve seen. The essential oil made from its rhizomes is simply called “curcuma”, and is lighter and more aromatic than turmeric. It has a special fragrance all its own and works wonderfully as a bright, rather transparent base note. I used it in Northwest Rainforest and Javanica to provide an undercurrent that was airy and diffusive, but completely natural-smelling. Curcuma has become one of my staple materials, while turmeric is reserved for special effects.
Now that I’ve discovered fresh turmeric, I’m going to start slicing or grating it and using it in food, both raw and cooked.
Currently blooming are two fragrant orchids that couldn’t be more different. Cymbidium Eastern Melody is a primary hybrid between two Asian terrestrial orchids, Cymbidium nishiuchianum and Cymbidium insigne. However, C nishiuchianum is thought to be a naturally-occurring hybrid between C goeringii and C kanran, so it’s probably sort of a mutt. In any case, it’s a big plant, the kind that has grassy leaves as long as my arm and massive roots that break out of big plastic nursery pots made to hold trees. The flowers are beautiful, with lightly striped dark red petals and sepals and a big, white lip with dark red spots. The fragrance is similar to Cymbidium kanran, but stronger, maybe because the flowers are a lot bigger. The scent is mostly sweet and powdery with just a little bit of muskiness and fruitiness.
Meiracyllium gemma, also known as Meiracyllium wendlandii, is a miniature Central American epiphyte that grows on tree branches. It’s one of those super-cute orchids, with little succulent leaves that hug the wood that it’s growing on. The flowers are tiny, just a little over 1 cm across, and pinkish-purple, shaped a little like wild geranium flowers. For such tiny flowers, they’re surprisingly fragrant. The predominant scent is spice, mainly cinnamon, along with a little sugar. In fact, the flowers smell a lot like the little red-hot cinnamon candies.
I don't think either is unique enough to be perfume-worthy, but they're fun to have in the house for a while.
Finally I’ve gotten around to working on the bespoke fragrance described in Alyssum's brief. It’s going to include a base note of burning cedar with a top note of sweet alyssum flowers. Because of the way I work, the first step is to create a cedar wood accord to which I’ll later add the smoky notes and whatever else is needed to complete the base.
You would think cedar would be cedar, and that cedar wood oil would do it all, right? Wrong. First, there are many different kinds of cedar and things that are called cedar, so the first question is which to use. Cedar leaf oil is another whole genre that I’m not even going to go into here. The scent I’m aiming for is something like the aromatic cedar-chest one, but the also the woody and resinous part of the incense-like burning cedar and juniper scent that I remember so vividly from winter in Arizona.
Atlas cedar, Cedrus atlantica, is a true cedar and one of the most common cedar wood oils used in perfumery. It comes from the Atlas mountains in Morocco and does not really smell anything like the wood of a cedar chest. In fact, it has a sticky, oily, fruity, resinous scent reminiscent of myrrh. It’s a lovely material that can enhance the resinous aspect of a base, but it wouldn’t be sufficient for my purposes in and of itself. Himalayan cedar, Cedrus deodara, has a similar resinous scent, but lighter and greener, with a hint of tarragon at first, and later pine needles.
The so-called Eastern red cedar that is used for chests, boxes and other scented cedar artifacts, also known as Virginia cedar, is not a true cedar at all, but a juniper, Juniperus virginiana. Like Atlas cedar, it’s used extensively in perfumes. I have both the standard oil from this species as well as one called “blood cedar”, made from the red heartwood of older trees. Blood cedar is a beautiful deep red in color. The oil does have some of the cedar-chest scent, but it’s not as prominent in the oil as it is in the fresh wood. Texas cedar, which I also have, is another juniper with a similar scent. The problem with juniper oils is that when they dry down, they smell like pencil shavings. Virginia cedar is, in fact, the same wood that’s used to make old-fashioned pencils.
One of the more unusual cedar oils that I have is Port Orford cedar, also not a true cedar but Chamaecyparus lawsonii, classified as a “false-cypress” or “white cedar”. It comes from Oregon, and smells nothing like the cedars and junipers. It has a bright, aromatic scent that’s reminiscent of the pine oil that’s sold as a cleaner and disinfectant, but has other herbal aspects as well.
In making the cedar accord, I started with Atlas cedar to give the base a balsamic body, and to counteract the pencil-shavings note in the drydown of the juniper. I added Virginia cedar and blood cedar for the heart notes, making the whole mixture a bright red color. This is going to be a colorful perfume! To get the aromatic incense-like note that’s in the fresh wood and, even more, in the burning wood, I added a trace of frankincense, and traces of a couple of different cedar-related aromachemicals that I hope will punch up the cedar-chest notes. I’m now letting it sit and marinate for a while. The next step is to meet with Alyssum, have her smell it, give me feedback, and tweak it until it’s to her liking. Then comes the smoke.
Ever since I can remember I’ve been around burning incense. My parents had some sort of charcoal cones or lumps that they burned occasionally, but I was never really involved with the process. Later on I had the usual Indian agarbatties or stick incense in all its different incarnations. Many years ago I discovered Japanese incense while visiting a bamboo nursery that we just happened to drive past and stopped to check out. My all-time favorite is called Seiun Chrysanthemum Light and is made by Nippon Kodo. It’s a “smokeless” incense, all charcoal with no bamboo stick in the center. It’s not really smokeless, but it does smoke less than the standard kind. It has a lovely woody-patchouli fragrance that seduced me as soon as I sniffed it years ago in the bamboo place. I also have their Mainichi-Ko Sandalwood, which smells more or less like Indian nag champa incense, and Shin Mainichi-Ko, which is labeled “patchouli” on the package, but doesn’t smell like patchouli. The website describes it as “green tea”, so maybe that explains why it’s very subtle. Now that I’ve found their online store, I may try a few more kinds.
Recently I decided to branch out into what I suppose could be called “primitive” or “minimal” incense, burning pure resins and woods on a little charcoal tablet over a bed of sand. I reasoned that this way I’ll get to experience all sorts of incense ingredients in their pure form. A few days ago I received a pack of bamboo charcoal tablets in a cute little Japanese box. Each tablet is covered with silver paint, which was a surprise. I also got some aloeswood, myrrh, opoponax, and one type of frankincense that I didn’t have. I already have quite a collection of woods, resins and other materials that I keep on hand for tincturing, so I might as well try burning some of them.
Tonight was the perfect night for the first experiment. It’s cold and dark outside, it just started snowing, the wind is blowing, and the ground is starting to get white. I carefully broke off one of the charcoal tablets, held it in a pair of forceps and lit both ends on a candle. It caught fire right away and started glowing perfectly. On went a chunk of Nadji frankincense (Boswellia sacra), and - oh my goodness! It immediately went up in the sweetest, most delicious smoke imaginable. The effect was beyond words. This is the way to burn incense!
The charcoal itself doesn’t smoke, but the frankincense resin smokes like an erupting volcano. Maybe I should use smaller chunks. But who cares when you can be indoors, in the warmth and the light, and surrounded by clouds of burning frankincense?
The first buds on my Dendrobium Sea Mary ‘Snow King’ have opened. This is probably my favorite hybrid dendrobium due to its hardiness, its prolific flowering, and its gorgeous fragrance. Nobile-type dendrobiums like this can take much colder weather than the very tropical phalaenopsis-type that are so often sold in box stores, garden centers, and florist shops, the ones that are grown in Hawaii and will slowly decline and die if you don’t keep them warm and cozy every instant of the day and night. The trademark of nobile-type dendrobiums is that, instead of sprouting from the top, the flowers spring from every possible location along the canes, covering the whole plant with a mass of large, frilly flowers.
I like everything about this plant - its fat, juicy, sturdy canes, its shiny green leaves, and the lacy white flowers tinged with just a little pink. The colder the winter, the more pink there seems to be on the flowers. The fragrance is light and airy, with top notes of citrus and pine, the tiniest hint of orange blossom and jasmine, and a definite vanilla base. If this were a dessert, it would be cool and delicious. I think the pine note is what really sets this fragrance apart from other orchid scents. It’s definitely on the list of perfumes that I want to make.
I have several items ready for posting on the blog, since I always work on multiple entries in parallel. Now that I’ve recovered from a particularly nasty bout of flu, I was trying to decide which one to use, and was a little dismayed to find that every one of them was complaining about something. Not wanting to start the new year on a completely negative note, I decided to start from scratch, inspired by a perfume that I’m sampling today that isn’t all that remarkable in and of itself, but contains a note that I’m fond of even though I haven’t used it much in my own compositions.
I recently got a sample of Aesop Marrakech, an all-natural EdT made by an Australian company. I guess it’s supposed to represent a Morrocan spice market. It starts out strong, herbal, and slightly spicy with notes of anise, cumin, coriander, cardamon and cloves. The anise note quickly fades away, leaving the sturdier, woodier spices along with a slightly floral-soapy note and a hint of patchouli. The initial impression is dry and transparent, like standing near a homemade soap and potpourri stand at an outdoor craft fair, the kind that sells rough-cut soap with lots of little shreds of unidentifiable plant debris embedded in it. After an hour there’s not much left except patchouli. The patchouli floats around as an all-pervasive sillage, evoking memories of a perfume my mother had when I was a child.
My mother’s perfume came in a plain square bottle with a simple label that said Oriental. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist any more. It was patchouli with a subtle floral and woody accompaniment, it was magic in a bottle, and I absolutely loved it. I would sneak into the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet where she kept it and put it on. She and everyone else in the house must have known, because you can’t miss patchouli if it’s anywhere within 500 meters, but no one ever said anything. My other prominent memory of patchouli is that of a German colleague who always doused himself in patchouli, so you could smell him if he was anywhere in the building or approaching the building. I don’t have particularly fond memories of the person, but I did enjoy his perfume as long as it was at a sufficient distance.
So what is this patchouli stuff? The essential oil is distilled from the leaves of a plant in the mint family, Pogostemon cablin that grows in India and elsewhere. It looks a little like the lemon balm that I grow in my garden. Because it’s a small green plant, it’s a quickly renewable resource, and that’s an exceedingly good thing in this world of overconsumption and exploitation of resources. Patchouli has such a characteristic smell that it’s hard to describe in any other terms. It’s a class of its own like “citrus” or “floral” or “vanilla”. It was abused so much back in the 1960s and 1970s that it is forever doomed to carry the stigma of being a “hippie” or “headshop” scent.
I have yet to make a perfume in which patchouli is prominent, although I have used it to sharpen and round out other notes, always keeping it below the threshold at which it pops out as unmistakably patchouli. One of these days I may try to recreate my mother’s patchouli, or at least the version of it that is permanently imprinted on my olfactory memory.
[Images of Acre Spice Market and Pogostemon cablin adapted from Wikimedia]
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