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)


  1. Fragrances are usually reformulated due to IFRA requirements, which change yearly. Unfortunately, many of the ingredients in a fragrance are no longer allowed to be used for one reason or another - allergens, animal cruelty, etc. so it is necessary to reformulate to the best of the perfumers ability.

  2. Hello, Anonymous, and welcome to the salon.

    Yes, the question in my mind about the IFRA requirements has two primary parts, which ramify in various directions.

    First, what is the sanction for refusing to abide by these guidelines? Are they enforceable by law? Or will a perfumer be blacklisted for ignoring them? Who are the IFRA police, so to speak?

    Second, is it not better to allow a perfume to die a natural death than to attempt to keep it alive through reconstructive surgery, which has resulted in some cases in a complete mangling beyond recognition of a former masterpiece? Is it not misleading to consumers to suggest by the use of the same name that the perfume inside the bottle is indeed the same?

    Any further insight which you might be able to provide on these questions would be most welcome, Anonymous! Thank you for stopping by and commenting on this topic.

  3. Well, perfumery is a self-regulating industry, so there is no international law that states the fragrances have to be changed, but they always are. And the perfumers wouldn't get in trouble, but the companies selling the fragrances. There is always an attempt to come as close as possible to the original fragrance, but of course it is difficult. If we let the perfumes die a natural death, that would mean basically all pefumes have a shelf life -any fragrance made eventually has to get changed. I'm not sure consumers are willing to face this.


All relevant comments are welcome at the salon de parfum—whether in agreement or disagreement with the opinions here expressed.

Effective March 14, 2013, comment moderation has been implemented in order to prevent the receipt by subscribers of unwanted, irrelevant remarks.