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 Artisan 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, and the theory and practice of perfume making. I no longer post reviews of the perfumes that I sample, unless specifically requested to do so. To counter my inherent grumpy tendencies, I try to write about something I appreciate at least once a week. Once in a while I get up on my soapbox and write about things that aren't at all related to perfumery. I am grateful to all of you, the readers, who contribute to the blog by commenting and making this a truly interactive perfume project.
We’re finally having a few days of summer, and the bees are buzzing all around the flowers in my yard, wallowing in the warm pollen and bingeing on nectar. They’re mostly bumblebees of various sorts, not honeybees. The disappearance of honeybees is a story to save for another day - but it’s definitely a concern, considering that beeswax and honey are fairly common in perfume and cosmetics.
The bees were not the only inspiration for this post. The other day I was sampling a fragrance that was described by its manufacturer as containing “wild French honey bee extract”. Really? Did someone grind up a ton of poor little bees and make them into an “extract”? Not only that, did someone tramp around through the forests of France looking for wild bee colonies to use? I’ll give this copywriter the benefit of the doubt and assume that he or she actually meant beeswax or honey absolute or extract, not bees. I’ll also assume that the bees that manufactured the materials from which the extract was made lived in comfortable and readily accessible man-made hives, not a hollow tree somewhere on top of a remote mountain in the Massif Central. I’m going to do an entire review piece on this perfume manufacturer sometime, but for now they shall remain anonymous since what I intended to write about is bee products in perfumery.
Recently I was mixing up a new batch of Kyphi concentrate, enjoying the beeswax absolute that I use in it. I don’t know if it’s my imagination or not, but it seems like my newest batch of this absolute smells even better than the old one. I’m sure that, like honey, it depends on what flowers the bees were harvesting to make their products - assuming you buy your honey from the farmers’ market. In the supermarket, it probably depends on what artificial flavoring the manufacturers put in the high-fructose corn syrup that's the basis for their cheap “honey”.
Anyway, the beeswax absolute that I use has a wonderfully rich and sweet honey-like scent, but it’s more concentrated than honey, more floral, more resinous, and almost boozy, like a sweet liqueur. Drambuie is the one that comes to mind. It could be a stand-alone perfume. I really enjoy using it. I just wish it wasn’t so expensive, but when I think about how much labor thousands of bees must have put into it, I really don’t mind.
There are plenty of ways to produce a honey scent without any bees being involved. A whole array of aroma chemicals, many of which have phenylethyl or phenylacetate in the name, can produce the straightforward “honey” scent that’s used in soaps, candles, and probably fake honey itself. The sweet alyssum accord that I made was pretty much a basic honey and pollen scent with slight variations to give it a more floral feel. There’s a Givaudan product called “Miel Blanc” that most likely contains many of the same components. It is probably what is used in many commercial fragrances that contain a honey note. It doesn’t seem to be available any longer, at least not from the suppliers I deal with, so I guess it’s a moot point.
Anyway, here’s to the honeybees! Treat them nicely since they not only make some of your food, they make some of the materials in your perfume. Plant bee-friendly flowers wherever you can, select a variety that bloom from early spring through late autumn, and avoid spraying insecticides and herbicides if you can bring yourself to live with things in a somewhat natural state. Unfortunately, I have a grass lawn on my property, thanks to the suburban contractor who built the place. I’d eventually like to get rid of all the lawn grass. For now, though, I just let the dandelions and clover grow, and the bees come in droves to enjoy it. Even bumblebees make honey of sorts.
It’s been far too long since I’ve posted anything here, but I must have needed an August vacation. So far the whole month of August has been kind of depressing, with cold, cloudy weather and overwhelming work in the orchid greenhouse. I’ve spent several weeks on the metaphorical mountaintop doing some soul-searching. No, the soul-searching wasn’t about perfume, it was about plants.
After five years I’m finally ready to acknowledge the fact that I’m just not cut out to be a farmer, even a farmer of exotic plants that don’t involve dirt. It’s hard for me to deal with the day-in-day-out grind of having several thousand plants that depend on me for water, repotting, and protection from pests. I really don’t like dealing with the combination of living things and conditions that are beyond my control, like the weather. It’s sad to see orchids freeze when it gets bitterly cold and the heating system fails, or dry up when it gets too hot and I’m not around to water adequately. There’s nothing more depressing than to walk into the greenhouse and see a huge grasshopper or slug whose greedy gut is bloated with several dozen seedlings of a rare species that I’m not likely to ever get hold of again. Grasshoppers and slugs always go for the most valuable plants.
After much thought, I’ve decided that it’s time to let go of orchids as a business so that I can concentrate on a few other things that I enjoy doing - like perfume making. Of course I’ll continue to grow some of my favorite orchids as a hobby, but that’s far different from farming them. I’ve decided to put the orchid business up for sale and hope for a good buyer to come along, someone who has more time and greenhouse space than I do and can take the plant business to the next level. There. I wrote it. It’s real. Wish me luck!
Realistically, it may take a long time to sell the nursery business to someone that I’d want to have take it over, but in the meantime getting out of the business is just as much an exciting dream as starting a business is in the first place. It’s a dream that will keep me going a while longer on the watering and bug zapping and other chores, knowing that there’s at least a theoretical end somewhere in sight.
Next post, I’ll be back to perfume, and would like to remind those who are testing the new ones to send me any comments you have before I start doing writeups on each one. Thanks to everyone who has sent comments already. They’re fascinating, and really useful.
Gotta go now, there are several dozen huge adult cymbidiums in desperate need of repotting. I should at least water them.
A famous psychology experiment on implicit peer pressure and conformity conducted by Solomon Asch back in the 1950s not only has major implications for human social behavior, but is also relevant to perfume. In the Asch experiments, subjects were asked to judge the length of a line, a task that humans are alarmingly accurate at doing. However, a single test subject was unwittingly surrounded by other people posing as subjects, all of whom stated their answers verbally, with some or all intentionally giving wrong answers. The result was that subjects almost never gave a wrong answer when alone, but a high percentage gave wrong answers when they heard other people do so, following their lead. Presumably people fear being “wrong” in their opinions, so will follow the lead of others even when they really do not agree with the majority. The implications for political manipulation are obvious.
The implications for perfume evaluation hit home this morning when I sampled Santa Maria Novella’s Nostalgia. Every review I have read, without exception, mentions racing cars, mechanics, garages, leather, petroleum products, rubber, and all of the general grunge associated with auto mechanics and their shops, and I was looking forward to smelling all of this. However, when I sniffed my sample, I was blown away by the smell of prickly green tea and sweet, clean musks. Believe me, I was trying hard to conjure up the leather-oil-and-rubber image, but it just didn’t happen no matter how hard I tried. Yes, there are trace amounts of leather and what might be myrrh, but they’re mostly masked by the other super-strong notes.
There are two possible explanations that I can think of right away for why I didn’t smell what everyone else does. One is that many people are anosmic to the prickly green tea note (there’s some evidence for that in other reviews, by the way) and/or they’re anosmic to the sweet, fruity musks like celestolide, so what are actually minor notes come to the fore for them. The other explanation is the Asch phenomenon. If the hype put out by the manufacturer says “racing car-leather-motor oil-rubber” and at least one or two reviewers repeat this interpretation, everyone else will jump on the bandwagon for fear of deviating from the majority opinion. Now that I think of it, there’s a third explanation, which is that smells are just so ambiguous that people are intrinsically highly suggestible and can be directed in just about any way given the right pattern of guidance. If there's a picture of a car steering wheel on the bottle, that's what they'll smell. Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors.
This experience gives me new respect for those perfumers who refuse to release a list of notes, letting consumers make up their own minds about what it is they perceive.
[Nostalgia bottle photo is the stock one that appears on numerous commercial websites]
I am a research scientist based in the Seattle metropolitan area who has many other parallel lives. This blog is primarily about my experiences as a perfumer but will also weave in threads from my lives as an orchid grower, runner, theatre person, and lover of food, fashion, travel, and other good things in life.
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