Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Paper, Skin, or... Cat Fur?

A Modest Proposal

How best to test new perfumes is a matter of some controversy. Many counters today have tester bottles out on display, but do not offer take-away samples, making it prohibitively difficult to give a fair trial to more than a couple of perfumes in a single afternoon. It all becomes too confusing when one attempts to spray a different perfume on each side of the neck, on the inside and outside of each arm, on the décolleté and whatever random piece of skin might happen to remain free of scent.

To make matters worse, few of us are willing to forgo our morning application of perfume in anticipation of a merely possible visit to a counter. Consequently, more often than not, we are already wearing a perfume when we layer others on top, and this compromises—if it does not totally obstruct—our ability to get a good sense of a new scent unamalgamated and unadulterated by whatever we happen to be wearing that day. In the end, many of us who take perfume seriously have difficulty assessing fragrances by such means, among other reasons, because one cannot really “inhabit” the perfume in such a way, certainly not in the manner in which one does when one dons a single perfume for the entire day.

The pseudo-perfume powder “samples” included in fashion magazines for massively advertised launches by the largest, most corporate of houses strike serious perfume-lovers as, at best, unhelpful, at worst, downright deceptive. The substance on those samples is, by definition, not the same as the perfume which they claim to represent. Still, the debate continues to rage over whether it is possible or not to get a fair idea of the essence of a perfume through sniffing it off a paper testing strip.

On the one hand, it may seem that the only way to get a sense of several perfumes during a visit to a counter at a house or department store is to avail oneself of the omnipresent paper strips strategically placed in cups always within arm's reach. On the other hand, presumably no one will deny that paper is not skin, that they differ very much in chemical constitution, and therefore there is little if any reason for believing that perfume will express itself in the same way on these two quite different media. Even worse, the development trajectory of a complex perfume is bound to elude the sniffer who depends on paper strips, if only because no one holds the strip to his or her nose over the course of the hour or so that it can take a complex creation fully to unfurl.

Paper strips may be ideal from a marketer's perspective, provided that the perfume which they are concerned to sell happens to have a beautiful, even if fleeting, opening. Assuming that many sales are made at the counter, on the spot, it would seem that consumers are often seduced by the top notes rather than waiting to see how the perfume might smell in a few hours. Although some perfumes are linear, even in those cases, it is as though longevity is removed from the equation when sales associates attempt to sell a new perfume to a customer on the basis of a quick sniff off a paper strip.

I have heard some people suggest, nonetheless, that the use of paper strips by professional reviewers is a way of cutting through the variables introduced by individual persons' unique skin properties, the temperature, pH, sebum level, etc., which obviously differ from case to case. The paper strip advocate who argues along these lines is assuming that skin chemistry is a relevant factor in determining how a perfume plays out, and wishes not to be misled about the properties of the perfume as they manifest themselves on some other person's skin, non-identical with the person seeking counsel about which are the best perfumes. The problem with this view is that it assumes that the differences between any given person's skin and a strip of paper are less pronounced than the differences between the skin of two distinct wearers. This strikes me as quite dubious, to say the least.

What about the “skin chemistry is much ado about nothing” camp? Presumably they will aver what no reasonable person can deny, that paper and skin are nothing like one another. This would seem to imply that denying the relevance of skin chemistry should actually give one more faith in reviews based upon skin than on paper tests, since different people's skin properties are much more similar to one another than any of them is to a strip of paper, or so it would seem.

Oddly enough, some people appear to deny the relevance of skin chemistry and yet still depend on paper strips when it comes time to pen reviews. This strikes me as a path leading directly to error, as the person is bound to interpret the perfume not as it would smell on wearers, but as it would smell on dead trees. No one applies perfume to trees, do they? It would seem, then, whether one subscribes to the skin chemistry irrelevance hypothesis or The Myth of the Skin Chemistry Myth, that perfume really should be tested on the skin. Or should it?

In all of this debate over paper versus skin, an important third way has been up until now entirely ignored. I come to you today with a new idea which may initially sound outlandish, but which, on reflection, I believe may finally bring a halt to the skin versus paper debate. The reality, my fragrant friends, is that far more important to how our perfume smells on us to us, is how our perfumes smell on us to others. Accordingly, in order to appreciate the true value of a perfume, we would be much better off smelling it on someone else.

One especially vexing difficulty arises from the very fact that we may develop a tolerance to our own perfume and may not even be able to detect it after a while. This problem is a real one, a fact nowhere better illustrated than in the case of persons who, entirely unaware of how they really smell, overapply their perfume to the point where they become unpleasant to be around, if not totally intolerable. So, what to do?

Unfortunately, we cannot spritz a sales associate and bring him or her home with us, continuing to sniff as the perfume develops and ultimately dries down to its later and longest phase. However, I recently happened upon a solution to this problematic situation in my very own home. It turns out that HRH Emperor Oliver (my cat) has an uncanny way of smelling scrumptiously wonderful the day after I have worn certain perfumes. I often marvel at his resplendent perfumic beauty, which is captured for me as a form of souvenir of how I must have smelled the previous day—or at least I hope! Did I really smell that great? I wonder on the day after I donned Hermès 24, Faubourg. Again, if I wore La Perla one evening, I am reminded of that fact the following day as the perfume continues to waft gorgeously off my cat's fur.

What I am proposing is that, rather than resorting to scraps of paper bearing no relation to our skin, and rather than depending upon our own perception of how a perfume plays out while we walk around in it, we have a third option: to avail ourselves of the divinity of felinity and, specifically, the capacity for the faithful conveyance made possible by the fine palette of our cat's fur. I myself have found this to be a fail-safe, fool-proof method for identifying perfumes which may seem to have a superficial appeal, but which reveal their less noble properties the following day, when I find myself saying, Oh, no, did I really smell like that?

Some may obstinately proclaim: I wear perfume for myself and myself alone! and in this they are not alone. But we all live in an intersubjectively shared universe, and it is a fact that sometimes we need to be told what we perhaps find unpleasant to hear. If your perfume or your manner of perfuming yourself stinks, then you will only harm yourself by permitting the number of people sharing this view to augment with each passing day.

The zipper of your fly is down; spinach is trapped between your teeth; a piece of toilet paper is stuck to the bottom of your shoe and trailing behind you everywhere you go. I ask most sincerely: Would you rather be informed of this embarrassing state of affairs by the first or the four-hundredth person to notice? This is where cats can step most helpfully into the perfume picture: to let us know, in no uncertain terms, what we really need to know about the perfumes which we choose to scent the air hovering about us wherever we go and readily detectable by everyone we meet.

Now, lest the people at PETA become alarmed at my modest proposal, I would like to clarify that I never spritz perfume directly on my cat's fur. Instead, he manages to lift enough off my skin by sidling up to me—which he himself chooses freely to do—that I can effectively sample the perfume the next day simply by nuzzling the nape of his neck or the top of his head. Great perfumes reveal all of their beauty through this mode of presentation, and mediocre perfumes are exposed for the imposters that they truly are.

But the highest virtue of my cat's ability to sift the wheat from the chaff, the carp from the bass, is that he will not even get near me on days when I am wearing a perfume which no one in the universe should be wearing. Yes, it has happened: my cat has fled upon sensing my approach on occasions when I have worn a concoction so synthetic, so vile, so repulsive to his ultrasensitive sense of smell, that he scrupulously avoids coming in contact with me.

Lest anyone forget, a cat is the quintessential rationally self-interested creature. Sure, cats have been valued by ignoble, calculating types throughout history for their ability to keep larders free of mice. The truth, however, is that never have the cats who have agreed to fulfill such helpful functions been used as chattel. No, the cats have agreed to watch over stores of grain not in demeaning, despicable obedience to people foolish enough to believe themselves to be the cats' masters, but because the cats knew what rewards awaited them, that just and equitable remuneration was a part and parcel of the bargain they had struck.

That the owners of larders and granaries have since time immemorial persisted in their delusive belief that somehow cats are indentured slaves, is of little interest to the cats themselves. That cats should squander the precious hours of their lives in the ultimately futile endeavor of attempting to disabuse human beings of their profound misconceptions about the universe and their place in it has never been a preoccupation of cats' minds. They have bigger fish to fry.

The cat's position on all of these matters is perhaps best assimilated to that of Aristotle: although they benefit from all that they freely choose to do, cats do not refuse to act in ways which may be helpful to people, too. No, the cat succumbs to neither the victimology/slave morality trap diagnosed by Nietzsche nor the inane idea promulgated by certain deeply confused souls (and popularized by Ayn Rand) that acting in helpful, apparently “altruistic” ways is somehow morally wrong. No, the cat who catches mice and rats performs a useful function to others while he himself benefits as well.

So, too, does the cat who agrees to serve as a perfume tester in the home benefit through fulfilling this apparently selfless role. Stinky perfume is through the cat's beneficent intervention removed, bottle by bottle, from the abode, and he himself stands to gain the most from this improvement in air quality. Why? Because cats are olfactory geniuses, what no one who shares his home with a cat is in a position sincerely to deny.

How else to explain that my cat knows that I have opened a can of tuna or even a packet of dental treats located in a completely different room from where he may be taking an afternoon nap, even in a state of deep REM sleep? It's a fact: he detects scent-making molecules long before and in much lower concentration than any human being, with even the most sensitive or hyperosmic of noses.

Even more importantly, and rarely if ever heretofore acknowledged, no perfume is capable of tricking cat fur, which frustrates any attempts to fool naïve customers such as those who await in rapt attention the advice of a sales associate whose job it is specifically and obviously to sell perfumes, and who has been instructed, on pain of unemployment for failure to do so, to push certain products before others.

It is high time, my fellow perfumistas, that you welcomed a cat into your humble abode, should you as matters now stand be bereft of the same, not only as a way of introducing the divine light of felinity into the chambers of your soul, but also for this more practical reason: when it comes to perfume, your cat will never lead you astray.

The ancient Egyptians equated cats with gods, and they were not wrong. Cats have the superlative capacity to capture and convey the true beauty of olfactory masterpieces and to unmask all of the cheap pretenders, the bad frags only posing as perfume. You've been perfuming for awhile now, dabbling in expensive niche offerings here and there. Now you've reached a crossroads: do you want to continue to wallow in mere opinion and ignorance, or are you ready at long last to aspire to perfumic truth?

Isn't it about time
that you teamed up with a cat?


  1. The New York Times: June 29, 2007

    "Some 10,000 years ago, somewhere in the Near East, an audacious wildcat crept into one of the crude villages of early human settlers, the first to domesticate wheat and barley. There she felt safe from her many predators in the region, such as hyenas and larger cats. The rodents that infested the settlers’ homes and granaries were sufficient prey. Seeing that she was earning her keep, the settlers tolerated her, and their children greeted her kittens with delight.

    At least five females of the wildcat subspecies known as Felis silvestris lybica accomplished this delicate transition from forest to village. And from these five matriarchs all the world’s 600 million house cats are descended.

    Unlike other domestic animals, which were tamed by people, cats probably domesticated themselves, which could account for the haughty independence of their descendants."

    Now your perfume idea could be the second great collaboration between cats and humans. If they will let us.....

    1. Ah, yes, Njeb, that is the question: Will our furry feline friends oblige? I do believe, on the basis of the Emperor's case, that they can be made to see the virtues of domestic living. Down comforters, fresh food and water, heat ventilators, my old cashmere sweaters, the list goes on and on...

      Thank you so much for the NYT excerpt on the history of kitties' sly insertion of themselves into human society!

  2. Oh, dear Shera Pop. Some of us don't actually want to have cats in our houses. And, frankly, everything I wear smells lovely on my dogs (I'm guessing that's because I think clean, healthy dogs smell great, so there's always a lovely base note.) Do you think this could maybe be amended so that perfume counters in stores would have cats available for sniffing? ("Fluffy was delicately misted with Chanel No. 19 15 minutes ago. If you want to smell the later drydown, go sniff Garfield, who has been wearing it for an hour.")

    1. A capital idea, pitbull friend! What perfume emporium would not be enhanced by a resident cat--or twelve? (-;

  3. I so want to reply, but with massive allergies and asthma I just can't :/
    But: I read it all :D ;)

    Hug, Guusje (who I now going to read the piano piece)


    1. Gosh, Guusje: a perfumista with allergies and asthma? That must be very challenging! I hope that you feel better soon!

      My sister and father both suffer from severe allergies, but I was spared the plight, although for some reason during a single spring of my life I found myself afflicted with horrible pollen-related allergy symptoms--I recall that cottonwood fluffs were like little monsters to me. Fortunately, it never happened again, but now I know what you guys are talking about. It's not easy... I think that it's similar to migraines, in that you have to have the experience in order to understand it. I also had migraines for a short period of my childhood but then never again.

      Well, that veered off topic, but I cannot even begin to imagine the cruel fate of people who are allergic to cats!!!!!

      Anyway, like I said: feel better and get lots of allergen-free air!!!

  4. I love the smell of my cat au naturel, so whatever I have on, it can never be as comforting smelling as he does himself. He is old, and when he dies I bet I will miss his smell the most...

    Also funny to find the different smells, his paws, his breath, when he just wakes up from sleeping or when he comes inside after a stroll in the garden.

    Gawd I love that little hairball... It is quite surprising my boyfriend is not jealous of my feelings for my pet...!


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