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)