Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Question of Niche

What does it mean to be NICHE?

This question arises over and over again and is sincerely posed most often by people who are deciding whether they want to make the move to niche. They like perfume, and notice that the world of perfume is much larger than what one would gather from flipping through fashion magazines, but that larger universe—beyond Chanel, Guerlain, Givenchy, Estée Lauder, and all of the other mega-houses which advertise in Vogue—remains intangible and elusive. What are these other, lesser-known houses held in great esteem by perfumistas everywhere? What, precisely, is it that makes them niche?

Many people have offered answers to this question which focus upon extrinsic factors. Often people simply assume that niche perfumes are more expensive than non-niche perfumes, and so this is presumably part of the reason why they seem to be protected by a halo-like aura of reverence. The idea that a perfume is good because it is expensive is yet another example of the heartfelt desire on the part of nearly everyone everywhere to retain at least a vestige of a belief in meritocracy. If it costs a lot, it must be good. Certainly, this may generally be true about perfumes, as of many other things.

On average, a meal which costs $10 is not as good as a meal which costs $100. There are rare exceptions, of course, for example, a recent plate of fish and chips which I happened upon on a cool fall day, and which I am prepared to assert achieved a near transcendental level of deliciousness. Perhaps I was merely hungry, or perhaps the meal really was great, despite its modest cost.

Similarly, the chances that a $20 bottle of perfume purchased at CVS is going to be really good seems rather slim, and not without reason. The reality is that when you sniff a wide range of $20 perfumes you find that, as a matter of fact, they tend to smell cheap. There are rare, felicitous exceptions to the rule, but more often than not, the quality of a cheap perfume will reflect to some extent its price.

Is the converse true? If you sniff a wide range of $100 or $200 perfumes, are you likely to find that they are excellent? I think that there is certainly a higher probability that a $100 perfume is going to be better than the vast majority of $20 perfumes. Whether or not one happens to like a particular composition, it is often quite clear that the materials of which it is made are of high quality. Even at the lower levels, there really is a patent difference in quality between the ingredients of, say, a Coty perfume and a Coty prestige perfume. Compare even a Coty prestige perfume to a triple-digit dollar perfume, and the difference will likely be even more stark. If someone cannot tell the difference, then that usually means that the person does not have that much experience in evaluating perfumes.

A related question which arose in a different forum was whether those who claim (such as the authors of The Holey[sic] Book sometimes do) that low-brow, inexpensive perfumes are excellent might be neglecting the quality of components and focusing solely on the structure and proportion of the various notes. One good example to reflect upon in connection with this issue might be Salvador Dali Laguna, a perfume which does seem interesting and even unique, but which degrades over time to the point where it ceases to be pleasurable to wear after a few hours. The perfume was created by Marc Buxton, and I think that in most cases where he has constructed a perfume for a niche house such as Comme des Garçons, as opposed to a seriously low-brow juice factory such as Salvador Dali (most of the offerings of which are available online for around $20 a bottle), one will not encounter the same unpleasantness. In the case of a considerably more expensive, "niche" Buxton composition, the perfume fades away without falling apart, and this would seem to have something to do with the quality of the components.

Clearly there is a reason why some perfumes regularly sell for so little money, and it's not because the houses which produce them are doing charitable works in giving away their products for free. No, the truth is that the perfumes which are sold consistently at low price points are the same ones which are cheap to produce. They are so cheap to produce, in fact, that there is still a profit margin on a bottle even when sold at online discount emporia for a fraction of the MSRP. But I digress...

In discussing the case of Marc Buxton's Salvador Dali versus his Comme des Garçons perfumes, I referred to the latter as a niche house. What, then, to return to our initial question, is a niche house?

Well, it's not just a house which produces expensive perfumes, because plenty of mainstream houses with gigantic advertising budgets have those gigantic advertising budgets precisely because they charge much more for their perfumes than it costs to produce them. Producing expensive perfumes is clearly not a sufficient condition for being a niche perfumer, but is it necessary? I think not, for there are clear examples of what I term "budget niche" houses, meaning houses with a niche orientation but which offer wares at quite affordable prices. In fact, my view is that focusing upon cost merely obscures the issue and distracts attention from the intrinsic differences between niche and non-niche houses.

Again, some have proposed that accessibility and availability are the key to being niche. Niche houses are generally small and local, without the means to project a global image in the way that mainstream houses do, through massive advertising campaigns. But is this “local” quality—or the fact that the perfumes of a house may be difficult to come by, or that it is difficult to communicate with the house—is any of this relevant to what makes a house niche?

I'm inclined in this case as well to deny that any of these extrinsic factors is really the solution to the niche vs. non-niche conundrum. If we were to say that niche houses are those which are small and inaccessible, then this would imply that if they suddenly took on a sophisticated marketing team capable of projecting an effective global image, then they would cease to be niche. Again, does a niche house which in its early years “does not do samples” cease to be niche upon finally getting its act together (perhaps after reading sherapop's manifesto, Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery) to produce an excellent sample program permitting perfumistas all over the world to partake of their wares without having to turn to the ebay hawks who scoop up free samples and sell them for profit? I think not.

No, the popular answers to the question What is niche? may have a superficial appeal, but to get to the root of this matter we must dig a bit deeper. What distinguishes niche from non-niche houses inheres, I maintain, is the central intention of the niche perfumers themselves. If they are producing perfumes because they are artists and therefore are compelled in expressing themselves to produce perfumes, then I'd say that they are niche. If they are producing perfumes primarily in order to earn money, then I'd say that they are more business persons than artists and do not qualify as niche.

Now, when I recently proposed this answer, one savvy interlocutor rejected it, on the grounds that I seemed to be suggesting that non-niche houses cannot produce great perfumes, and that great perfume artists cannot work for non-niche houses, both of which seem patently false. Although I appreciate these rebuttals, I do not believe that they are fatal to my view. For in locating the essence of “niche”-ity in the intention of the perfumers, I am not suggesting that any person has pure intentions one way or the other. In other words, I concede that even the most artistic of perfumers is constrained by financial considerations. The necessity of dealing with all of the mundanities of life makes it the case that each and every perfumer, including those whom I regard as niche, has some financial interests at stake. After all, if they did not, then why not sit at home and stir up new perfume recipes never to be shared?

Not so fast, sherapop. Could it not be the case that perfumers wish to share their wares for other reasons having nothing to do with the money which they will earn through doing so? It seems clear that some of the more famous perfumers working today have earned a ton of money, so they probably do not have any financial need to continue doing so. Take someone like Sophia Grojsman. This is a woman who is a perfumer through and through. That is who she is. She does not create perfumes in order to line her coffers but because she obviously loves to create perfumes.

In a feature at Fragrantica, I recall that Grojsman referred to her perfumes as her children. In other words, like all great artists, she gives birth to creations which then lead lives independent from that of their creator. Grojsman is opposed to reformulation, but once she has created a perfume for a house, it becomes theirs, so there is nothing to be done when the management of a non-niche house (= with a primary business intention) decides that there are ways to make more profit out of a perfume successfully launched, say, by diluting it or reformulating it so as to cut production costs while marketing it under the original name. I have discussed this topic at length in Reflections on Reformulation.

To return to the question of niche, what I want to suggest is that niche really does inhere in the intention of the primary actors at the house. If the house is concerned above all with profit, and not with perfumic creation or beauty, then it is non-niche. This does not mean that there are no artists working for such houses. No, what it means is that they do not have the final say on what is done with the perfumes which they create under the aegis of the house.

In the houses which I regard as indisputably niche, including Tauer Perfumes, Keiko Mecheri, Mona Di Oro (may she rest in peace), Ineke, and many others as well, the mission of the house is perfume, not profit. Yes, they need to make money, but this is a means to producing more beautiful creations.

I am not denying that such houses may metamorphose over time. Take L'Artisan Parfumeur, for example. L'Artisan used to be considered the quintessential niche house, and they may have been one of the first to focus on distinguishing themselves from the mass market houses. However, my impression is that they have moved farther from the niche category as they have become a more successful business. The house itself does not seem so niche to me anymore, though certainly they enlist great artists to produce new perfumes.

All of this is to agree with one wise perfumista who, in responding to my post focusing on intention, said that he thinks that the distinction between niche and non-niche is not all that important, in the end. What he cares about, and what we all should care about, as consumers, is finding perfumes which give us what we're looking for. In fact, many people are not even looking for great art in perfume. They just want to smell good, and for them this goal can be achieved using mass market or in some cases even low-brow drugstore juice. Mainstream houses are aware of the fact that many consumers of perfume are uninterested in perfume as an art. That is why mainstream houses avail themselves of marketing data and may commission the production of perfumes which are created only in order to capture the wallet share of a broad swath of likely consumers.

Others perfume users, we perfumistas, are looking for more, and our quest for great perfumes is an ongoing adventure. Perfumistas will be happy with a beautiful, breathtaking, unforgettable perfume whether it was produced under the aegis of a mega-conglomerate corporation or in a quaint corner of Switzerland by one man with a small lab and a garden. They will sniff critically and be wary of so-called niche houses which charge astronomical prices for their wares as yet another marketing ploy. Price may be a rough indicator of quality, but it can also be hype, pure and simple.

Caveat Emptor!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Perfumes, Persons, and Poems: A Triangular Investigation


While reflecting upon reformulation and my futile attempts to come to terms with some recent disappointments, I eventually wound up concluding that, although some of our favorite perfumes will continue to disappear due to forces entirely beyond our control, we can rest assured that new ones will be born. In reasoning thus, I appear to have been trying (vainly) to derive solace from the oft-invoked refrain of folk wisdom according to which sometimes the best course of action is to “let bygones be bygones,” to simply pick up the pieces and move on. Suddenly it dawned on me: I was thinking of perfumes as persons, in two distinct ways!

(2) Several years ago, when asked to give an oral presentation in a French Poetry class, I offered up a little theory of sorts, “Un parfum est un poème,” which probably left some people in the room wondering whether I might have a screw loose. But the more I have reflected upon this thesis, the more I have come to believe in it. The similarities which I presented to my classmates and professor were largely structural, but the deeper one delves into the nature of poems and the nature of perfumes, the more overlaps one discovers...

Is it possible to reconcile these two apparently preposterous and seemingly incompatible beliefs, that perfumes are persons, and that perfumes are poems? I am sure that every intellectually curious reader—and, above all, those of Parmenidean persuasion—will readily aver that is high time that someone in this universe undertook to investigate the tripartite ontology of Perfumes, Persons, and Poems. Fortunately, sherapop has arrived on the scene to get the ball rolling...

Proof of (Perfumes = Poems)
Looking back at my rather modest and very inchoate “theory” of perfumic and poetic identity, I must say that today (a decade later—gasp!) I find it rather quaint (a word which I hesitate to use in the wake of Alberto Gonzales's notorious dismissal of the Geneva conventions through the use of the same, but it really is the best choice in this case, as the reader will shortly see). The subtitle of my presentation, “A perfume is a poem” was “What we can learn about poetry from perfumery?

Although I had initially planned to post my little “theory” directly translated and unedited, I decided instead simply to concede without protest that what I really came up with was a list of platitudes. This frank admission is obviously intended to preempt criticisms to the effect that “This is not a theory!” so I'll just go right ahead and admit that too! Hopefully, as a felicitous consequence of this selfless expression of abject humility, we'll be able to move swiftly to more substantive and edifying discussions rather than squandering our precious time quibbling over the proper use of the word 'theory'.

In what follows, I offer two sets of platitudes: one about perfumes; the other about poems. Bear in mind that the basic idea here is that the word 'poem' can be read in the place of the word 'perfume', and vice versa, throughout the text (mutatis mutandis)—thus establishing the identity of the two!

Ten Platitudes about Perfumes

1. Perfumes can be bad in many different ways and for a variety of different reasons.
—Everything must be just right for a perfume to be great.
—Even a small flaw can prevent a perfume from being good and can even make it bad.

2. Perfumes can be complex or simple.

3. Complex perfumes have distinct parts (stages).

4. Each part of a complex perfume can be simple or complex.

5. Great perfumes have structural coherence (although that is not sufficient—see #7).

6. The form of a perfume (simple or complex) does not determine its quality.

—Some simple perfumes are very good; some complex perfumes are very bad.
—Some simple perfumes are very bad; some complex perfumes are very good.

7. Great perfumes comprise quality components (although that is not sufficient—see #5). —Some brilliantly composed perfumes are disasters because of poor-quality components. —Incoherently composed perfumes are disasters even if they cost a fortune to produce because of their high-quality and sometimes rare components.

8. A huge amount of knowledge must be acquired before even having a chance at creating a good perfume. But knowledge alone is not sufficient.

9. It would probably be impossible to produce a great perfume as a first trial.

—Great perfumes must be edited and re-edited, revisited and tweaked over a period which may span a number of years.

10. Perfumes can be over-edited (reformulated) to the point where the beauty of the original is completely destroyed.

Ten Platitudes about Poems (continuing the sequence of numbers, to avoid confusion)

11. Great poems are not composed by committee (counterexamples are most welcome!!!)

—Committees create marketing jingles, not poems deserving of our critical attention.

12. All poems are multiply interpretable.

13. Even seasoned critics can disagree vehemently about the meaning of a poem.

14. Critics may also disagree with the author about the meaning of a poem.

—Socrates once observed that if you want to understand the meaning of a poem, don't ask the poet to explain it to you.
—To commit the “Intentional Fallacy” is to erroneously constrain or determine the interpretation of a text by appeal to the author's professed (or inferred) intentions.

15. Although anyone is at liberty to call a text a “poem”, critics tend to focus on a small subset of the many texts claimed to be poems, the ones rich enough to be susceptible of complex and subtle interpretation.

16. Interpretations of poems can be good (insightful) or bad (shallow).

—“This sucks” is not a fruitful interpretation of a poem—which is not to deny, however, that it might be true.
—“This sucks” is no more and no less than a negative emotive response which conveys only the reader's disapproval, with no indication of why.

17. Some people hate all poems and even the very idea of poetry.

—They obviously are not good critics of the genre and tend to avoid poetry altogether.

18. The fact that millions of people may have incorporated a “poetic” text (often rhyming) into their psyche through massive exposure (AM radio, etc.) does not mean that the text is good.

19. The beauty of a poem may lie in the mind of a reader, but that does not mean that there is no such thing as doggerel!

20. Great poems are not composed by computer program.

—Even the best vocabulary, and complete knowledge of every innovation of the entire history of poetry would not suffice to produce a great poem.
—The missing ingredient in such as a case would always be:


****************end of proof****************


Now, if it is true, as I maintain, that perfumes are poems, then all of the above platitudes about poems should apply equally well to perfumes, and all of the above platitudes about perfumes should apply equally well to poems (mutatis mutandis). In other words, according to me, I have now presented Twenty Platitudes about Perfumes and Poems. Are all of these statements true of both poems and perfumes? If not, where are the disparities between the two cases? To refute any of my claims, it will suffice to produce a single counterexample. I anxiously await your contributions to this debate, which has lain fallow for far too long in a quasi-solipsistic state, O fellow fragrance travelers!

Above, I boldly asserted the identity of perfumes and poems, offering twenty platitudes which I claimed to be true of both perfumes and poems. I was thinking along the lines of Leibniz' Law, according to which, in this case, if everything true about poems is true of perfumes, and everything true about perfumes is true of poems, then this should establish their identity! I invited counterexamples to my “platitudes” (which were premises in the “argument” I advanced), and discovered that the most contentious claim I had made was #11:

Great poems are not composed by committee.

However, astute fellow fragrance travelers stepped forward to reject not only the claim that great perfumes cannot be composed by committee, but also that great poems cannot be composed by committee. It appeared, therefore, that I was still on safe ground, and my proof remained unscathed. All that I really needed to do was to delete that “platitude,” which had turned out to be so far from being platitudinous that it was actually false of both poems and perfumes!

A less humble (or epistemologically exigent...) soul might at this point smugly proclaim victory in demonstrating once and for all that, in fact, perfumes really are poems, with all that that implies. Alas, over the course of the past month, the wheels have been whirring ever faster, and the more I think about this question, the more dubious the identity is seeming to me. Sure, there were nineteen identity platitudes, but that was only a tiny fraction of the infinitely many other possible statements yet to be examined!

In what follows, I offer a list of ten Counter-conjectures, which I am not supposing are true but certainly suspecting might be:

Ten Counter-conjectures about Perfumes and Poems

CC1: Perfumes are ingestible and therefore exhaustible. Poems are neither. TRUE or FALSE?

CC2: Poems are archivable, even across hundreds or thousands of years. Perfumes, in contrast, are not archivable, and they are relatively ephemeral, at least compared to the poet's art. TRUE or FALSE?

CC3: Most poets are unknown, but if they become renowned even posthumously, they may achieve immortality. (Emily Dickinson is one example.) Most perfumers, even those today who are world famous, will never achieve immortality because of the ephemeral and nonarchivable nature of their work, which makes it impossible for their creations to perdure and to be appreciated by more than a few generations. TRUE or FALSE?

CC4: Everyone is potentially a poet, even if only a mediocre one (poetaster), because everyone uses language. Not everyone is a perfumer. TRUE or FALSE?

CC5: Most perfumers earn their livelihood from creating perfumes. Most poets do not. TRUE or FALSE?

CC6: Perfumers often become perfumers by family lineage (Creed, Guerlain, et al.). Poets are not usually the children of poets. TRUE or FALSE?

CC7: Most perfumers work for other people/companies and therefore are constrained by their values (or the company's “guidelines”). When a perfumer begins to create solely for the promise of wealth, then he has become a hack. Most poets do not work for other people, but there is no real analogue to an industry hack in the case of poetry. TRUE or FALSE?

CC8: Reviews of poems nearly never make explicit reference to details of the reader's historical circumstances (though interpretations are certainly influenced by them....). Reviews of perfumes often make explicit references to the wearer's subjective experience and associations. TRUE or FALSE?

CC9: Faced with an unpleasant poem, one can simply close the book. Faced with an unpleasant perfume, one must either leave the room, take a bath, or ask the offending party (if nonidentical to the offended party...) to leave the room. TRUE or FALSE?

CC10: Poetry criticism is a form of art criticism. Because we physical ingest perfumes (through our cells), perfume criticism is closer to food and wine criticism. TRUE or FALSE?

Now it is left to you, O Fellow Fragrance Travelers, to set me straight once again: Are these conjectures in fact true? Or are they merely the conjurings of an overcaffeinated mind? Have I myself “succeeded” in undermining my very own quest to prove the equivalence of poems and perfumes by unraveling all of the progress I made to this point in proving my identity claim? Any light which you may be able to shed on these never-more pressing questions will be met with abundant gratitude!!!

(written in October and November 2011)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery: A Manifesto in Separate Plaints


I once worked for a miserable, wretched little man, in every sense of those words, who wanted me to produce beautiful things in his name and on his behalf, but with neither a budget nor a staff. I tried in vain to explain what he never seems to have understood, and no doubt still does not today: “If you want nice things, you have to pay for them. If you can't pay for them, you can't have them.” Shortly thereafter, perhaps predictably, I was laid off.

The point of this poignant little autobiographical anecdote may be conveyed equally well through a hypothetical thought experiment. Imagine that someone invited you to a five-star restaurant and then, indignantly decrying the menu prices, asked you to drink only water and to stare at an empty plate while he ate the least expensive appetizer. You might want to say that he was a despicable cheapskate, but it would be in no way unreasonable for you to claim, I think, that your host was simply insane.

Perfume is a luxury. There are plenty of people on this planet who have never sniffed the stuff and certainly do not have the time to learn how to distinguish a chypre from an oriental from a fruity-floral perfume. They are too busy trying to locate some potable water or gather up food for their next day's meals or even to find a shelter in which to sleep.

This context makes it puzzling to me that there should be so much manifest niggardliness in the world of perfume today. It is high time that perfumistas everywhere united to take the villains to task. We, as patrons of perfume houses and purveyors, are not their slaves but the very source of their wealth. It is just, therefore, and necessary that we assert our rights before them.

Plaint 1: The Solution is *Not* Dilution

Here in the United States, we live in a “bigger is better” culture, where muffins have grown to the size of loaves of bread, and the girths of those who eat them have expanded proportionately as well. I recently read that British visitors to this not-so-fair land gain an average of 8 lbs during their stay, and this is not without reason. The true clash of civilizations may ultimately be grounded only in this: the concept (or lack thereof) of portion control.

Over the years, large drink cups in the United States have increased in volume from 16oz to 24oz to 32oz, and now some stores offer even 48oz and 64oz soft drinks (where's the nearest restroom, pray tell?!), packing enough calories to cover half the day's meals, though they are usually purchased to accompany thousand-calorie “snacks”. Even Starbucks, once the gated-community preserve of yuppies, now offers its iced coffees and teas in an über-venti size (32oz), in a
diaphanous effort to woo over some of the Dunkin' Donuts clientele.

This general “fill it up, and up, and up” cultural phenomenon may explain in part the tendency toward producing larger volume bottles of perfume than were available to consumers in the past, but there is more to it than that, for in addition to the jugs, there are just as many “travel size” formats in circulation. The very existence of roller balls is significant, but their near ubiquity means even more.

Once upon a time, a tiny dot of perfume behind each ear and one at the décolleté sufficed to perfume one's self for the entire day. Not so anymore. Today, we have “portable”perfumes to carry in our bags so that we can “touch up” our scent in the way that we might reapply lipstick or powder half way through the day. Do we now wear more perfume than the fair ladies and debonaire gents of centuries past? I think not. No, the same amount of perfume has been spread much thinner, diluted to produce the need to reapply. Whence the concept of the roller ball, which would have made no sense to a person already properly perfumed, as in earlier times.

When we speak of “good longevity,” those words are relative. Many fragrances put out today are so evanescent that even a few hours of staying power starts to seem like excellence. The glaring exceptions to this rule are perfumes made of new synthetic materials: going far, far beyond fat solubility, these appear to be closer to plastics, which seem to form polymers with the fibers in our clothing and possibly cling to our cells as well. On ne sait jamais. I find such science fiction-like longevity rather scary, if the truth be told. What I lament is the rarer and rarer type of classical longevity, that which is conferred by an ample concentration of natural materials in a well-made perfume.

There are houses, thankfully, which still produce parfum-strength parfum and eau de parfum-strength eau de parfum, and eau de toilette-strength eau de toilette. But for every niche house which does, there is another one which bottles cologne as edp! The truth may sometimes hurt, but here it is anyway: those of you who are guilty of dilution are not fooling anyone, and least of all me.

If profit is what you seek through this not-so-clever ploy, I exhort you to double the strength of your wares, and you'll immediately receive a just recompense for your efforts, as it will be possible to shrink the packaging by 50%. Surely a 50 ml bottle costs less to produce than a 100 ml bottle, hence affording a net profit—a reward of sorts, if you will—for giving us back perfume-strength perfume.

It is not entirely clear who is at fault in the rampant practice of dilution taking place at mainstream houses. They tend to have many employees, with work therefore delegated narrowly, so that the person who makes the dreaded “dilution decision” may hand it down anonymously to everyone else. “Mistakes were made” in some cases, such as the 1oz “parfum spray” of Badgley Mischka which I recently acquired in the hopes of at last seeing the beatific light cast by that composition upon certain select sniffers. Far from providing the means to achieve the throes of olfactory ecstasy reported by some, the alleged parfum spray turned out to be weaker than the eau de parfum. Things that make you say “Hmmm....”

To my chagrin, rather than scoring a great deal on a large volume of extrait, I had been tricked once again. But instead of the all-too-familiar reformulation bait-and-switch, this time I was lured into buying eau de toilette at an elevated price because it had been bottled and labeled as full-strength perfume. Was there conscious deceit involved? If I called the company, would they send me the perfume?

Honestly, I am not at all sure that these houses even know what “pure perfume” means anymore. That expression itself was always misleading—suggesting, as it did, that when we purchased full-strength perfume it was 100%, rather than closer to 20%. Therein lies, perhaps, the explanation of why producers of mass-market perfumes decided that they could play fast and loose, call anything whatever they wanted and get away with it.

After all, they use the same name for reformulations of once-classic perfumes with scandalous impunity. Small wonder, then, that the producers of perfumes have come to believe that they can call anything they want anything they like, reasoning along the lines of the colorful example discussed by the ancient Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus in an argument adduced by some in favor of the moral permissibility of incest: it is permissible to touch your grandmother's big toe with your little finger, and everything else differs only by degree. But I digress...

Yes, it appears that some houses are now counting “water” and “alcohol” among the notes of their perfume, so when they bottle dilute solutions as eau de parfum, they are able to do so in good conscience and with no duplicity whatsoever. In such cases, and Badgley Mischka may be one, increasing the concentration of one of these "notes"—either water or alcohol or perhaps another solvent—will, paradoxically enough, transform an eau de parfum into a parfum! Then, if some savvy soul dares to complain about the change in proportions of these “notes”, it is possible to wave one's hands about while vaguely alluding in a tone of moral indignation to the draconian new perfume industry regulations codified in law.

Ponzi and Madoff salute you diluters, they really do.

Plaint 2: Please, sir, may I sniff before I buy?
Although I have plenty of high SPF products at home, I have been known to squirt on some sunscreen from a tester bottle at CVS while shuffling through that store en route to some other destination. (I walk nearly everywhere I go.) Frequent travelers abroad may similarly avail themselves of the tester bottles out on display in the duty-free shops readily accessible at every international airport. The post-9/11 implementation of restrictions on what passengers may carry on their person while travelling has caused many a perfumista a modicum of strife. I know that before boarding a long flight, I myself have often taken advantage of the ready-at-hand Chanel bottles—especially Allure edp, which tends to calm my nerves and seems affable enough not to offend my fellow travelers. Well, at least I can say that no one has ever complained. (Luca Turin has obviously never been on any of my planes...)

I imagine that there are a few people out there who in fact only don perfume as they cruise through their local department store on the way to work, or after work, when they may stop by a counter to spritz something on before going out for the night. There is nothing wrong with using testers for one's own idiosyncratic reasons, though it is obvious that they exist only in order to lure in new buyers. But surely the people who apply perfume only from the tester bottles at counters, with no intention ever to buy, form a tiny minority.

The vast majority of people who care enough about perfume to want to put some on, are also consumers of the product. They purchase bottles which they may proudly display in their boudoir. Those who value perfume may also give and receive gifts of perfume. They know that not all perfumes are good for all wearers, which is why they rarely make a blind buy—unless they happen to have a competing penchant for gambling, as some most certainly do, a proposition decisively demonstrated by the existence of me.

All of this makes it puzzling, to say the least, that it should be so very difficult to get our noses on a sample of some houses' new perfumes. Why would a perfumer want an unhappy customer, who would steer clear of their shop having once made a bad buy based on mere conjecture, having been seduced by the effusive verbiage poured out in marketing campaigns to make the big sell? Hello: earth to perfumers? No one is trying to rip you off by requesting a 1ml sample of a perfume which they might, if they like it, end up buying a 100ml bottle of, leaving you with a profit on 99/100ml.

True, the consumer may not buy that particular perfume, but even if you provide him or her with 5 separate samples of 5 different perfumes, you'll still end up ahead with the profit on 95ml of perfume. To be honest, I'm not even keen on persuading you to give me the 5 ml for free. Please, just permit us—I beg, beseech, entreat, and implore you—to buy the damned samples at cost so that we can make informed judgments about which perfumes to acquire.

Despite the obvious potential for profit should perfume houses lure new customers in through allowing them to sniff their wares, I have personally encountered some who “do not do samples,” as they put it so unceremoniously. One invited me to “stop by” the next time I'm in Paris—as though I might purchase a bottle on the spot having grasped the top notes? Thanks, but no thanks. Another perfume house “generously” sent me strips of paper on which they had sprayed a selection of their perfumes. That magnanimous gesture would be helpful indeed, were my skin made of dead trees. Alas, it is not.

I am not in the habit of and do not delight in public shaming (well, except perhaps every now and then of those who revel in the same...), so I'll not name any names, but another house advertised on the internet that they would send out a sample of their new perfume to all those signed up. What did I receive in the mail? A postcard with the powdered substance used to produce “samples” in fashion magazines.

The very fact that these pseudo-samples continue to appear in paper publications—which for some unknown reason continue to exist, though that's another story—clearly reveals that they have been determined by perfume marketers to be effective strategies for making the big sell. And I have no problem with people who buy perfumes based on such “re-creations”. My question is: Why not give those of us who do not (because we cannot) take those pseudo-samples seriously what we need to make informed decisions on which perfumes to buy?

Newsflash, Niggardly Perfume Houses:
your refusal to step up to the plate and provide your customers with what they need has resulted in the creation of an entirely new “manufactured” profession. Yes, your abject negligence has spawned a veritable industry of persons whose primary source of income is none other than YOU! So you see, it's really true: what goes around comes around, or so it seems...

Contemporary Western society has many “manufactured” professions, by which I mean vocations invented in order to address a problem that arose through negligence or deficiency of one sort or another. Take “tax consultants”. We have a tax code, and it applies to each of us, but it is so lengthy and complicated that an entire profession arose so that the rest of us could remain gainfully employed doing whatever it is that we do, rather than spending all of our waking hours poring over thousands of pages of legalese so that we might be able competently to file our annual tax returns. Should anyone with complex economic circumstances naïvely attempt to prepare their forms without the (paid) aid of experts, they may rest assured that another profession, that of tax attorneys, has been invented to make it possible to defend themselves from the tax man when he comes knocking on the door, shotgun in tow.

Another good example: real estate agents. Buying and selling houses is complicated. You have to know a lot of information which most of us would be perfectly happy to skip, preferring to let such trivial details wash over our minds so that we can get back to whatever it was that we were doing before we were so rudely interrupted by such utter, ignoble mundanities. (As the recent mortgage foreclosure debacle in the United States reveals, most people do not even read the terms of the contracts which they sign.)

A profession has arisen to address this situation. Real estate agents find out everything that needs to be done and how to get it done, and with their silver tongues they even persuade people to buy houses, thus allowing homeowners themselves to spend their leisure time doing whatever they like to do rather than becoming experts on matters that may be of no intrinsic interest to them and, most importantly of all, without being required to acquire the skills of a proficient peddler.

Which profession has been engendered by the withholding of samples from potential purchasers of perfume? The dreaded decanters, whose income is totally and utterly parasitic on the work of others. Decanters do not create, and they do not add any value to the products which they dispense. Far from it, in fact.

Who would have thought that entire companies might one day arise whose sole purpose would be to provide people genuinely and sincerely interested in perfume with samples withheld by the perfume makers themselves? Now, I am acutely aware that the decanters have their fans, but I steer clear of them, not only because “Mistakes were made” when I used them in the past, but also, on a more principled ground: because this is just plain wrong.

Let me make my position crystal clear: I do not oppose the provision of samples by small niche emporia which represent the perfume houses whose wares they sell. Take Aedes, for example. I love Aedes. I buy some products from them, and they allow me to select seven samples of other perfumes which I might want to buy in the future. It's a win-win situation: my knowledge of perfumes is expanded through being sent samples of perfumes which I might have acquired through the manufacturer, but instead, I am receiving them from one of their retailers, which acts as the house's representative.

There is accountability in this scenario, accountability which is inherent to the very concept of customer service. Satisfied customers return again and again to the same places to empty their purses and wallets. When the company has a license to sell bottles of perfume, then they have a vested interest in making sure that customers are happy, since then they will return naturally to their store, rather than one of the hundreds—if not thousands—only a few keystrokes away on the internet.

My complaint about decanters is not merely that they mark up the prices of perfumes by 1000% in order to keep their little businesses afloat. No, I oppose the very notion that this entire invented profession should exist parasitically off the products and industry of others and with no accountability to consumers, who are literally at their mercy, left to accept on faith that the liquid in that tiny vial is what the label says.

For the very same reason that perfume houses approve only certain sellers as licensed purveyors of their bottles of perfume, I believe that they should exert some sort of control over how samples are dispensed as well. We all know that when we buy a bottle of perfume from an e-bay seller, we risk the real possibility that the sale is a scam, because the juice is a fake. But we know with near certainty that if we purchase a bottle from a licensed provider, we are getting precisely what we paid for—notwithstanding, of course, the vexing issue of reformulation (which I cannot seem to purge from my mind!).

I am not alleging that decanters pipette from bad bottles or dilute the perfumes they provide to customers, but given the nature of their enterprise, this would not surprise me in the least, to be perfectly frank. (Where, after all, do they obtain the vintage bottles from which they prepare decants and samples?) In any case, if it were true, it would be nearly impossible to prove, since by definition the people purchasing samples are trying to find out how a particular perfume smells—the sample in their vial is, then, in the vast majority of cases, their sole reference.

But even if no decanter ever knowingly and willfully cheated any customer—though few patrons, I think, will deny that there have been, on occasion, mislabeled vials—the point is that I should not be placed in the position of having to act on faith in people whom I've never met and who are, by definition, parasites. People who have made and do make mistakes, and some of whom appear to adhere to the strict antithesis of the first precept of Customer Service 101, that “The customer is king (or queen).”

I resent being placed at the mercy of parasites in any area of society—and I am only all too aware that the thick tax code will not be going away in my lifetime, barring nuclear holocaust—but this is one arena where the situation can actually be remedied. Yes, perfume houses possess the power to take back the night, so to speak, to reclaim their territory by offering sample programs as helpful and mutually beneficial as those of Keiko Mecheri, Tauer Perfumes, Ineke, Ormonde Jayne, Bond no 9, Sonoma Scent Studio, The Different Company, and others as well.

I exhort those straggler houses who continue to resist the entirely rational development and maintenance of a sample program to revisit this issue at your very next board meeting, before any more decanters—empirically indistinguishable from e-bay sellers—arrive on the scene. Perfume houses do not wish their wares to be peddled illicitly by e-bay scammers, so why would they condone the very same enterprise being carried out by wolves dressed in sheep clothing, who suck the blood of none other than YOU?

(written in August 2011)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Reflections on Reformulation

Introduction: What's in a name?

Every single thing in existence is what it is and is not what it is not. You may call a thing whatever you want, but if all and only the properties of one thing are shared by another, then they are the same. You may apply names to a certain endearing and beloved furry creature, say, chat, Katze, gatto, gato, cat, neko—or, if you happen to be blessed with the enlightenment of the ancient Egyptians: divine feline. Our labeling by this or that name the comely creature to which each of these locutions refers does not change his properties in the least, and those particular properties are what make him what he is. I may refer to my own cat as “The Emperor,” “Nanook of the North,” “Howard Hughes,” “Orson Welles,” “Oscar Wilde,” “Diogenes,” “Houdini,” "Julius Caesar Kitty," "Napoléon," or any other moniker which strikes me as apt, but doing so in no way alters who he is.

Applying such value-laden labels, however based in reality they may seem, does nothing to change anything about the properties of anything in the world. Instead, such labels reveal properties of the speaker, what his or her own opinions happen to be. Anyone who has ever swapped perfumes knows well that “One perfumista's trash is another's treasure,” but calling a given perfume “toxic industrial waste” or “transcendent chypre” is not going to change what it is. If you call one of my favorite perfumes “screechy,” “harsh,” or “fit only for use as an air freshener,” you'll be telling me something not about that perfume but about you. So, please, I entreat, beseech, and implore you, go right ahead: write scathing reviews. I say: “Bring 'em on!”

Inquiry 1: When does a thing stop being what it is?

My favorite perfume by any other name would smell as splendid as my favorite perfume, but what if, instead of changing the name, you change the properties of the thing? What if, for example, you change the essential qualities of a perfume—its notes or their proportions—but keep the name the same? If rose geranium now replaces rose but the name remains the same, is “it” still the same perfume? Virtually every perfumista can name a perfume once beloved to him/her but which has been reformulated so as now to be a mere shadow of its former self.

There are few more disappointing discoveries (rivaled only by decanting errors left uncorrected by nincompoops who claim decanting as their area of expertise...) than that one's back-up bottle of a peerless perfume bears scant or even no resemblance to the treasured elixir which one was so intent upon cherishing for precisely so long as the corporeal shell in which one's soul is housed continues to grace the face of the earth.

How could they have destroyed a masterpiece? we lament, and not without reason, given that such tampering—as we view it—violates even the most fundamental pragmatic principles governing our lives, including the hackneyed yet still somehow profound “If it's not broken, don't fix it.” To serious perfumistas, of course, the violation of a pragmatic principle is nothing next to the aesthetic crime committed through such vile acts of reformulation. A draconian reformulation strikes a devotee to a particular perfume with a deeply cherished, intimately understood, and readily identifiable composition as every bit as offensive as a muzak version of a musical masterpiece must be to a professional violinist who pours his soul into heartfelt interpretations of his favorite composers' exquisitely crafted creations.

But wait, there's more: it seems, too, that moral indignation may come into play as well. The most extreme cases of what we regard as criminal reformulation may strike us as tantamount to debasement of property or even aggravated assault and battery. True, no one touched our particular bottle of cherished elixir, the one we drained before setting out in search of a replacement, but we feel nonetheless wronged. We feel when we spray on the contents of the new bottle, which looks the same, and bears the same name, that we have been cheated, swindled, and betrayed.

This is not Mitsouko! I found myself proclaiming in the not-too-distant past, exasperated not only that an aesthetic crime had been committed, but, further, that I, sherapop, had been duped. I, a long-time wearer of what once was a bona fide masterpiece had become the unwitting purchaser of a perfume based upon a lie, to wit: that this bottle, too, contained my precious perfume. How, we may wonder on a day when we consumed an entire venti bold coffee (unaware at the time that it packs a full 400 mg of caffeine), does such a case differ morally from that of the e-bay scammer who fills empty Chanel bottles with crass imitations of that house's perfumes?

Inquiry 2: Is a Reformulation a Fake?

It's the name on the bottle, ma'am. The most crucial distinction between an e-bay perfume scam and a reformulation is that in the latter but not in the former case it is the maker of the bottle, the house whose name is printed on the bottle and whose perfume it is, who fills the bottle. Still, we may earnestly protest, a perfume company may have the right to produce and sell whatever it produces under any name it wishes, but is there not a point at which a form of false advertising is taking place, post-reformulation? We bought the perfume under the entirely reasonable belief that it was what it said that it was. But, now, we discover, it's not what it once was anymore. Our beloved treasure has disappeared, having been snuffed out, erased, while the name lives on and, perversely enough, is used to peddle inferior wares to unsuspecting and occasionally witless buyers.

Contemporary companies bearing the illustrious names of houses established centuries ago can thus benefit from a long history of excellence by luring new consumers in under the belief that the hype is true and the reputation warranted: all perfumes produced by that house are great, so we can rest assured in handing our perfume wallet share over to them in exchange for their renowned wares that we are getting the best of the best. When, in reality, the new perfumes being fobbed off under the names of old perfumes produced by centuries-old houses are but pale and inferior imitations, then those of us who know why and how the perfumes became famous in the first place feel that we have been wronged no less than we would if a butcher tried to sell us dead horse meat instead of beef, or a bartender poured cheap whiskey from a previously drained and refilled bottle with a prominently displayed high-end name on the label.

The difference between the case of reformulation and other forms of bait and switch may—or may not—inhere in the intentions of the persons who perform what we regard as the switcheroo. The reason for reformulation is sometimes legal, occasioned by changes in the law regarding what is permitted to perfumers, as in the case of oak moss. But sometimes the reason is purely economic.

Inquiry 3: Are Rumbas like Drumsticks?

Adam Smith's not-so-invisible iron-fisted grip.
Economic factors underlying product modification figure frequently in many other realms as well, of course. Take ice cream, for example. Those who read the labels of foodstuffs before putting spoon to mouth will most certainly have taken note that in recent years “ice cream” once regarded as high end now may list “whey” as its very first (dominant) ingredient. Interestingly enough, such frozen confections no longer claim on their packaging to be ice cream: there is no cream anywhere to be found in the carton—which, by the way, has shrunk from a half-gallon capacity down to 1.5 liters, and now I believe weighs in at about 46oz. A carton no longer means a half-gallon carton, but the companies which have implemented these changes do not lie about the ingredients any more than they lie about the weight. Instead, what is being sold under the same name brand is now being called frozen dessert or some such stuff, by which the company evades altogether any possible charge of false advertising. I recently bought a box of Drumstick “ice cream cones” (I thought...) for the first time in many, many years, and realized that they tasted completely different from my fond memories of that delightful treat. Reading the label, I discovered that, lo and behold, Drumsticks are no longer “ice cream cones” but “cones”, and in fact they contain no ice cream at all, because they contain no cream! Is it within the company's rights to change its recipe? Yes, of course, but in the case of food items, there is a limit to the bait and switch that is permitted by law without alerting the consumer in some way. It is not permitted to claim that a box of frozen dessertis ice cream when in fact it is not.

Drumsticks are still Drumsticks, though they are now only cones, but are Ted Lapidus Rumba and Balenciaga Rumba one and the same? I was keen to acquire a bottle of the Balenciaga perfume, having heard so many good things about it and having myself become quite smitten with Le Dix. On my tester bottle of Rumba, the primary top, heart, and basenotes are clearly and explicitly identified, but they are not the notes I was expecting at all. Neither was I expecting to read the words Ted Lapidus written on the bottle where Balenciaga should have been. Yet the bottle housing the liquid is empirically indistinguishable from the original Balenciaga bottle—except for the fine print.

What I should have done was return the bottle immediately, but I didn't really notice all of this until a couple of months after having made the purchase, when I finally decided to test out my new perfume. (Okay, it's true: I, too, have a long queue...) To my great disappointment, the liquid inside this bottle smelled slightly sour, somewhat unbalanced, and not very pleasant, which is what finally led me to examine the writing on the bottle. Was I deceived? That's an interesting question in this case, as I had never worn Rumba before, so I had no phenomenological basis upon which to claim that this was not really Rumba. I was nonetheless disappointed because I could not believe that this was the perfume about which so many had raved and as a result of which I had set out to buy it scent unsniffed in the first place.

Sometimes decisions to reformulate have been made by a company “under new management,” as appears to have happened to a number of historically important houses. Of course, there is a sense in which even those which remain “in the family” come under new management with each new generation, as successors with different properties, perspectives, and values are born, and the magic perfume wand is passed from parents to children.

Sometimes upon acquiring a previously launched perfume—and this may be what happened in the Balenciaga-Ted Lapidus Rumba case—a company decides to put their own stamp on it by tweaking the recipe a bit—or a lot. The immortal words of Frank Sinatra come to mind here and may apply in some—though certainly not all—of these cases: “I did it my way.”

Perfumery is not only an art, but also a profession and, above all, the basis of a highly lucrative business. The exigencies of these very different facets of perfumery may come into conflict—and I imagine that they frequently do—for the logic of business is the logic of profit, pure and simple. If a company is being run by profit-mongers who happen also to have poor taste, and furthermore feel the need to “leave their mark” on the company's products—not unlike the nouveau-riche couple who mangle and mutilate their decorator's best-laid plans—then all olfactory havoc may be let loose upon the world, much to our chagrin.

Inquiry 4. Do“Ancient Family Secrets” Also Protect Reformulations?

Some ingredients matter much more than others...

One reason why the case of reformulated Rumba is different from the case of “reformulated” Drumsticks is because we never knew what was inside the bottle of Rumba in the first place. Sure, there may be a list of ingredients, but the key ingredient, fragrance or parfum or profumo—usually second only to alcohol and, in the case of colognes and some edts, water—is a Big Black Box.

The precise identity and proportions of the various chemical substances that make up a perfume is a complete unknown to the consumer, a “mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma,” as it were. Specifically hidden from the consumer, and even more likely from other perfume houses, the top-secret recipe that defines the essence of a perfumer's creation is known only to him or her and those privy to the formula (most likely the owners, who paid the perfumer to produce it). I would surmise that such secret formulas are in all likelihood kept in impenetrable vaults under maximum security. The formula is the key to the dream or the nightmare hidden inside the bottle, a bottle which remains the same and often looks identical pre- and post-reformulation.

In this way, the company which owns the formula is protected from allegations of false advertising because they never told us what was inside the bottle to begin with, so we have no legal basis for allegations of “false advertising” when the formula has been tweaked. Maybe the perfume has been changed, or maybe only our perceptions of the perfume have changed. But even when the company admits to having modified—or “modernized”—the formula, the fact remains that they never promised us a rose garden, so it's their prerogative to substitute rose geranium, should they so desire.
Concluding Aesthetic Resignation
Reality check
The question of interest is not whether all reformulations are necessarily worse than the original perfumes. Surely some of them are better—at least to some wearers. The whole reason why some companies choose to reformulate is because they feel that “times have changed”—and wearers too. What might have been appropriate fifty years ago can seem dated or “old ladyish” (not a term of derogation in my own book, but according to many it is...) and if the company wishes to attract a younger market niche, based on studies which clearly indicate that there is more economic growth potential there, then they may turn what seems to be a stern—even aldehydic!—floral creation into a lighter, less serious, perhaps even fruity-floral fragrance. While some wearers of the original perfume may be thus alienated, others among them are already dead.

The hope of marketing strategists is obviously that many more new consumers will be persuaded to acquire this “fresh take” on a venerable classic. Why pitch to young women and men, or even teenagers? C'est simple, comme “bonjour”: they have lengthy consumer lives ahead of them, with many potential purses and wallets to be emptied on perfumes and colognes they learned to love while crossing the threshold into woman- or manhood.It seems likely that some reformulation has been motivated by perceived culture changes.

The very fact that we identify certain bombshell perfumes as "so 1980s”, that we associate them with big hair and shoulder pads and other fads now long passed, reveals that our perceptions of what is appropriate not only in fashion but also in perfume are subject to revision. The anti-perfume backlash of the 1990s, when many of the currently popular trends were first born—from the office-ready inoffensive fruity-floral frag (which I refer to affectionately as ORIFFF), to the shower-in-the-bottle “non-perfume” empirically indistinguishable from the smell of mass-marketed hair conditioners and shampoos—was clearly a reaction to the all-too-frequent experience of sniffing over-perfumed persons who somehow never seemed to grasp how it was that upon their arrival they were able so quickly to clear a room.

Blithely unaware that sometimes more is not only more but altogether too much, they sprayed on and on, not unlike the women who start with modest amounts of eye make-up and keep adding a bit more, until one day they look like Tammy Fay and cannot even fathom the thought of going out without spending an hour on painstaking application of layer after layer in front of their huge magnified mirror framed by two-dozen blazing bulbs. Not at all unlike, I might add—and I mean no offense here—homeless people who, too, appear entirely unaware of their own voluminous sillage and wonder why when they enter free public events they are able to empty the space faster than a fire alarm. But I digress...

Like it or not, reformulation is a reality. There is nothing we can do but move on: find the houses that still hold the art of perfumery in high enough esteem to draw a line in the sand and say “No” to the noseless quest for profit. Yes, some of our beloved treasures will continue to to disappear, but we can rest assured that new ones will be born.

This collage/mosaic was created using the open source software program AndreaMosaic.
May HRH Emperor Oliver rest in peace.

(written in July and August 2011)

The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth


There has been quite a bit of babbling about the blogs regarding the explanatory relevance of skin chemistry in understanding radically disparate reactions to perfumes by different wearers. Luca Turin, co-author of Perfumes: The A to Z Guide (written with his wife, Tania Sanchez), maintains that much ado is made about nothing by a bunch of people whom he evidently regards as ignorant. He himself is an academic biologist who studies the science of olfaction, but he also feels qualified to make grand judgments about perfumes, to offer advice to all willing to accept it about his particular likes (“Stock up!”) and dislikes (“Avoid.”), as though readers of his screed not only shared his aesthetic values but also inhabited his skin.

According to Turin, we smell the same things but interpret them differently. Unfortunately, that thesis does not explain why some people smell cat pee where others smell manna from heaven. We all know what cat pee smells like, so does he really mean to suggest that some people confusingly interpret the smell of cat pee as divine? Or does he think that those of us who do not think that cat pee smells divine are wrong?

Clearly, it's time to set the man straight once and for all. Blindness is bitter, and anosmia all the more, but fortunately for Turin, sherapop has arrived on the scene to counter once and for all the silly rejection of skin chemistry as mythic. I offer three separate lines of reasoning.

Proof 1: Why do some perfumes make us ill?

The answer is simple, really. Just as every other human trait is distributed over a bell curve, so, too, is sensitivity to the various chemicals commonly included in perfumes. When you learn, as have I, that your physiology violently rejects a certain peony rendition, then you naturally become wary of its presence in all future perfumes, and you learn to recognize it quickly—as in before dousing your entire body with the vile stuff—when it appears.

There are some notes for which the distribution is better described as an inverted bell curve: you love it, or you loathe it, and nary a nose finds itself in between these two extremes. Patchouli may be such a note, since people are not usually neutral toward it. For some perfumistas, the mere presence of patchouli destroys any perfume; for others, it makes it a dream.

Is “skin chemistry” a myth? Well, interpreted literally, as a chemical reaction that takes place directly using test tubes somehow mysteriously planted within the epidermis, perhaps. But interpreted in the spirit of those who wield the phrase to explain why perfumes that they hate are beloved to others, “skin chemistry”—as a code for the physiological experience of the various of components—is obviously a reality.

It's not just the case that we describe what we experience differently. We all know what patchouli smells like, but that's not the end of the story. If patchouli induces vomiting in someone, as certain chemicals do in certain people, and some chemicals more generally than others, then that person is not going to enjoy the experience of having it on his skin or smelling it on others. Whence the notion of “chemistry” incompatibility.

It makes a lot of sense, really. Some people like beer, and others hate it. Many foods are highly polarizing: eggplant, black licorice, anchovies, to name but a few. Some, such as wheat gluten, are deadly to some and the staff of life to others.

Why are some people coffee addicts, while others don't touch the stuff? It may not be strictly “skin” chemistry, in that case, but there is clearly something going on physiologically to mark the distinction, and what happens in our cells is indisputably a matter of chemistry. Therefore, “skin chemistry” is not a myth, after all, whatever the so-called experts (including those with stock holdings in the Estee Lauder company) may say!

Proof 2: The case of the stinky guy

Everyone knows someone who needs to shower frequently. Everyone has known someone with halitosis. Everyone knows someone who simply smells unpleasant, for reasons which remain somehow inscrutable. Do they eat a lot of garlic? Wear dirty clothes? Live in a slovenly hovel teeming with vermin? Who really knows? All that we really need to know is that physical closeness is very difficult to conceive of with such a person.

Some among us, the savvy urban dwellers who are blissfully car-free, have also had the dreaded encounter with the guy who rides the subway in summertime and thought that he'd skip a shower to save some time on the day when we happened to be riding in his car, which happened to be precisely the day when, in that particular car, of all the cars we might have boarded, the air conditioning just happened to have been broken. Yep, it happened. A guy holding the bar above my head actually dripped sweat on my arm. This is no joke. Honestly, it must have been my grossest public transportation experience ever.

Some among us, the gals who prefer exclusive no-men-allowed health clubs, do so for a simple reason. To find out for yourself what that reason might be, drop by your local co-ed health club about one hour after the end of any work day, and take a deep breath through your nose. It's a fact: guys who work out, on the whole, are a very stinky lot.

Stinky people exist. It's an undeniable fact. What happens when you mix certain chemicals with the stinky people's stinky skin chemistry? Well, it's an experiment: try it and see! What you'll find is that, yes, in fact, a perfume smells different on such a person than it will on you or me—unless, of course, you happen to be just like him! QED.

Proof 3: What swapping implies

There can be little doubt that certain synthetic perfumes are simply intolerably gross. But others actually further induce acute psychological and emotional stress in some but not all wearers. That such compositions remain on the market would seem definitively to prove that some people's nerve endings are far more sensitive than others. Although those who deny the relevance—or even reality—of skin chemistry may attempt to mock those who identify chemical differences as the explanation for their incompatibility with certain perfumes, it seems patently absurd to deny that people have different neurological complexions.

Why, after all, are some people more neurotic than others? Why are some people in good moods all the time, while others are surly curmudgeons? Why do some people become alcoholics and drug addicts, while others have no difficulty with reality as it stands? Obviously, then, if people differ this much in their psychology, which is to say, their neurology—since nerve endings are what's in play in those cases—then why would the same explanation not hold in the case of radically disparate receptions to perfumes?

As the frequently wielded aphorism goes: One perfumista's trash is another perfumista's treasure. Is not that the basis of the entire enterprise of swapping? If everyone found the same perfumes perfect and the same perfumes nightmares, then no one would ever be able to swap anything away! Some people are more sensitive to environmental stimuli, including perfumes, than others. And since perfumes are made up of numerous distinct components, it follows that some people are more sensitive to some of those components than are others.

This is why, then, perfumes that make me want to wretch may make you swoon and strike you as a good deal to boot. Is one of us right and the other one wrong? No. We are simply different people. What works for me may not work for you. Given the undeniable reality of the the vast differences among human beings, it strikes me as nothing short of inane that certain self-proclaimed authorities should issue such sweeping prescriptions as “Stock up!” and “Avoid.” about perfumes which they, in all of their insipid particularity, happen to love or to hate.

In conclusion: Is skin chemistry a myth? No, not at all.

(written in July 2011)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My ugly divorce from Mitsouko

Upon draining the last drop of my beautiful 3.1oz gold-encased bottle of Guerlain Mitsouko, I reached immediately for my back-up 2.5oz bottle containing, I naïvely thought at the time, the same precious elixir. Not so, I was devastated to discover. All of the charm and seduction of the opening had disappeared, leaving a vague, watery opening in its place. As the fragrance dried down, it improved somewhat, but only near the end was I able to recognize anything even faintly resembling the Mitsouko so dear to me. My natural conclusion was that the new bottle, in the classic design, had simply sat on a shelf at some warehouse with sketchy climate control for far too long.

Relieved by these ruminations, I set out undaunted, with a spring in my step, to purchase a new replacement, anxious to be reunited with my favorite perfume. Upon the arrival of the package harboring my treasure within—or so I thought—expedited to my domicile by one of my favorite on-line emporia, with whom I have never had troubles of any kind, least of all the receipt of spoiled perfume, I ceremoniously ripped the cellophane off the box, marking with flourish and even a touch of melodrama what was to be the beginning of a greatly anticipated reunion. I slowly removed the nozzle, savoring the moment, and sprayed some on.

To my horror, I found the same insipid opening I had recently sniffed upon spritzing on the contents of the back-up bottle which I had soberly reasoned must have gone bad. As the famous and frankly plaintive adage goes (pace George W. Bush), “Fool me once: shame on you. Fool me twice: shame on me.” Now I was forced to accept the tragic fact: Guerlain had indeed fiddled with the formula. Whether this unthinkable act was carried out in an attempt to conform with new health restrictions imposed on the perfume industry or simply to save money—or for some other obscure LVMH reason—mattered little.

Whatever the ultimate explanation of this hatchet job might be, it had become as clear as frosty vodka in a lead crystal glass that my days of savoring Mitsouko were now officially over. I do believe that I felt every bit as cheated and jilted as the faithful spouse and homemaker whose formerly devoted husband suffers a mid-life crisis and runs off to the Caribbean with his dental hygienist, leaving only bills and bitterness behind.

When asked to name my favorite perfume, it used to be easy to answer: Mitsouko. To give such an answer today would simply be false. Moreover, to those who have only sniffed the reformulated perfume, such an answer would cast doubts on my own perfumic prowess! That is her favorite perfume? I can imagine those aghast at what Mitsouko has become snickering quietly to themselves. And they would be right, because this Mitsouko is not a perfume that I have any real interest in wearing, and I'm not at all sure that I will ever again.

Reformulations of perfumes such Mitsouko originally launched long ago—when different materials were available and the qualities of certain materials were quite different as well—have been said to be necessitated on various grounds. The legal banning of the use of certain substances is certainly one of the most frequently cited rationalizations for reformulation, but there are obviously many others as well—involving probably more often than not purely economic factors, which play an important if not paramount role in managing businesses.

In many cases, it seems likely that someone in the upper management echelons deemed it financially necessary to cut the production cost of a perfume. The strategic goal need not be to increase the net profit per bottle, as reformulated perfumes are often sold at lower prices as well. The reasoning in such cases appears, then, simply to be that it is more profitable to sell many bottles of a less expensive perfume at a lower price than it would be to sell fewer bottles of the original perfume at an elevated price. The name of great perfumes is the most powerful marketing ploy that there could possibly be. Do whatever you like to Shalimar—reformulate, water it down and even sell it in Walgreens for only a few bucks—but continue to call it Shalimar, and people will buy and wear it, you may rest assured. I'm talking to you, LVMH—though you apparently got the memo long ago.

Many famous perfumes with noble lineages and reputations spanning decades have been reformulated, including such classics as my formerly favorite perfume. Mitsouko can be found in many shapes and forms, and although all bear the same name, only those corresponding to the formula in my first bottle of this perfume actually contain what I regard as genuine Mitsouko. (It is possible, of course, that my first bottle did not contain the original formula, but I fell in love with it anyway...) The second and third bottles, which I purchased in the twenty-first century, harbor, to my dismay, a far less noble perfume disguised in the regal robes of Mitsouko and claiming to be the same, though this is obviously not the case, for it is but a cheap imposter.

In order to relive the wonderfulness of my earlier Mitsouko experiences, I now must settle for removing the cap off the original bottle, sniffing the beauty still there to be found, and then reminiscing about what it was like to wear a truly great perfume. When I attempt to wear either of the two imposter perfumes, rather than finding myself enraptured in olfactory delight, I find myself depressed. (Although I'm no aficionado of country music, a bit of wailing Willie Nelson music in the background would not be unfitting.) Merely donning one of the reformulations of Mitsouko is enough to induce in me a Proust-length meditation on the imminent Fall of Western Civilization and the nature of human corruption. Once a person has taken a single tiny step onto that slippery slope, by sacrificing even one formerly sacred value, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse the damage done.

Perfumes, too, have a hard time traveling back in time, dragging themselves up from the dregs to their formerly pure, unadulterated state. When all has been said and done, it may ultimately be impossible for those who betray their loved ones to ever regain their trust again. The first, most natural, reaction to such a betrayal is anger. Why me? What did I ever do to you, Mitsouko? But this anger is misdirected, ultimately futile, and perhaps even self-destructive. Mitsouko has changed, effectively hit the road with some half-wit harlot half my age while keeping the same name and leaving me in the lurch, devastated and dazed.

(written in September 2011)