Friday, March 30, 2012

Flankers, Twitter, and the Fall of Western Civilization

Emilio Pucci Vivara (2007)

It has become redundant to the point of banality to observe how much the world has changed since the advent of the internet. The way we write (cut and paste), the way we socialize (Facebook, email, text messaging and Twitter), and even the way we think (in bullet-pointed lists) have all been changed irrevocably by the military-industrial complex's only bona fide gift to humanity: the personal computer. Sure, computers were designed in order be able to direct weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles to home in on their unsuspecting targets in lands far away, but that did not prevent them from being used for less nocent purposes as well, for which we have capitalism, too, to thank.

Old fogies lament the imminent disappearance of the book, while young people revel in the vast array of new outlets for their creative energies made possible by computer technology. But everyone, young and old alike, has been changed by the computer age. Remember those stalwart figures (with stock holdings in the ill-fated USPS?) who claimed that they would never use e-mail? Where are they now? Well, if they're still alive, you can be sure that they are receiving and paying bills online, in addition to clicking on greeting card links and either reading or deleting all of those lame forwarded jokes preceded by lengthy headers.

Similarly, people who were saddened by the disappearance of, first, LPs (long-playing record albums), then, cassette tapes, and now CDs (compact discs) have simply failed to grasp the abundant wonderfulness of being able to store thousands of different musical works on an ipod. The days of scratched and broken records are now forever gone.

Movies, too, have undergone a radical transformation. First, there were only movie reels screened at theaters. Then, long, long ago, the battle between Betamax and VHS tapes was won by the latter, only to be subsequently replaced by DVDs (digital video discs). Today, visual media are being transmitted more and more through wireless streaming onto screens the size of walls in our humble abodes.

This latest development completely erases any remaining vestige of allure which once upon a time motivated us to get dressed and leave the comfort of our couch to journey out into the night in order to sit in a multiplex cinema and listen to rude people talk and smokers cough while trying to watch a movie which usually, being first-run, was not worth watching anyway.

Whether one likes the feel of books or the gleam of an LP, one can scarcely deny that the capacity to carry one's entire library of media with oneself all over the world on a hand-held device constitutes an advance of sorts. So many of these materials—texts, music, and video images—are immediately accessible for free, that there is not even that much need to own such things anymore. Of course, we all need our hand-held devices of preference, whether netbook, i-pad, Kindle, Nook, i-pod, i-phone, or (most likely) some union of the above. But even all of them together would not exceed the volume capacity of a small drawer.

Certainly the people who inhabit tiny studio apartments in Manhattan have been aided by the near obsolescence of the physical book, the physical music track, and the physical movie. Yes, it has finally become possible to realize their sad quest to live a domestic life including family and pets within a space spanning 300 sq ft.

What could be wrong with any of this?

One aspect of this twenty-first-century world which seems to me to be undergoing a devolution rather than an improvement is the value of text. Everyone today is a writer: it is a part of being a person in society at this point. People today interact using written words with great frequency across many different platforms.

Perhaps we should be glad that literacy is becoming more and more a requirement of personhood as computers spread from First to Third World countries. Humanity, it might seem, on the whole, is being elevated by the computer age, which requires us to be able to exercise our written language capacity in situations which formerly called for spoken words. In fact, today even illiterate persons can capture their version of history for posterity by speaking into the microphone of a computer equipped with Dragon software. The question, however, remains: Will anyone ever read the text thus transcribed?

Yes, the downside of all of this prodigious production of text is a veritable bloating of the verbal universe. There are so many words being written by so many people that it has become exceedingly difficult to sift the wheat from the chaff. We have begun to resort to and indeed depend upon social media measures of popularity in determining which among this quasi-infinitude of texts merit our attention.

Part of this transformation has involved an unabashed egocentrism, involving people asking one another to “like” them on Facebook or to “follow” them on Twitter. Regrettably, persons whose calling it might have been in the twentieth century to be a writer, may now find themselves spending vastly more time on public relations and marketing activities than on writing itself. Would-be writers may thereby sabotage themselves by focusing too obsessively upon how to prove that they are not merely one among millions of bloggers but actual writers. By expending their energy and the best hours of their day on self-promotion, they may end by becoming precisely what they aimed to avoid.

One always hopes, of course, that the cream will rise naturally to the top, but what if no one can find the tiny dots of cream floating atop this vast ocean of verbiage? The problem for writers today is that they are no longer competing so much with writers as with companies who use the very same media for peddling their wares.

Yes, the “social media” originally intended to help people “connect” with one another, and soon thereafter touted by some as a boon for humanity, have been progressively capitalized, and are being used more and more by companies and organizations with profit-making agendas. If you click “like” for any product or store, your Facebook friends will shortly thereafter learn about this fact, for it will appear as an advertisement on their profile.

Worse, when you go to a site which has been “liked” by your friends, their names will be used as an advertisement at that site to you and all of their other friends (who are only one friend removed and therefore likely to be similar to you), whether they had any idea that this was going to happen or not.

People are probably beginning to catch on to how their seemingly innocent clicking of “like” to enter a contest for a free give-away leads directly to their open-ended—indeed, infinite (barring future legislation...)—endorsement of the company and its products. Still, many seem not to be very bothered by any of this at all. It's all a big, fun, “FB Friend”-ly, “like”-able (and not dis-”like”able) connected world! Pass the Prozac (or one of its SSRI [selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor] successors and/or add-ons), log on, and tune out from physical reality while you track the number of “likes” you received on your Facebook comments on other virtual people's comments since the last time you logged on.

Better yet, carry your wireless mobile device with you wherever you go and Twitter to your fawning followers throughout the day so that they will feel connected with you as you peruse the aisles at the grocery store, stop for a bite to eat, or wait fuming in a traffic jam. Boredom and loneliness are clearly things of the past, thanks to Facebook and Twitter, which keep us connected potentially 24/7 to anyone who regards us as worthy of their followership. (I, of course, would never have as a follower anyone willing to follow me.)

Do I detect a slight look of consternation in the reader's eyes? What in the world does any of this have to do with perfume? you may well be wondering. Quite a lot, it will emerge very soon.

Facebook and Twitter may seem on their surface to be harmless and free, but they have hidden costs, as we shall shortly see. Some of these costs are already fairly well known. The misfortunes which have befallen some persons imprudent enough to publish on the internet information of a personal or confidential nature (thought to be shared only among select Facebook Friends, perhaps in a closed group turned open by a careless administrator) have been used as cautionary tales to those who would trash their boss or their former roommates on the very public world wide web.

I am interested in a different sort of effect, one which heretofore appears not to have been recognized by anyone else. I openly aver that the question which I would like to present for your consideration today, my fellow fragrant travelers, may seem initially preposterous. Nonetheless, I am confident that, on reflection, you will come ultimately to agree that, like Prozac and the other SSRIs, social media, too, may have unforeseen and untoward consequences, specifically, in the case of Twitter, for the world of perfumery.

Does Twitter Cause Flankers?

I am aware that this question has probably not flittered through any of your minds before. What in the world does Twitter have to do with flankers? inquiring minds may well want to know. And I do not deny the manifest reasonableness of the question, because few, if any, people have to date taken note of the Twitter-Flanker connection which I propose here to illuminate.

Many perfumistas have lamented the massive explosion of perfume flankers launched in the twenty-first century. Is it a mere coincidence that Twitter, too, has grown exponentially over the course of the very same few years? I think not.

Flankers and limited-edition releases (often of the same perfume or a tweaked version in a newly decorated bottle) are creatures of the twenty-first century. Michael Edwards, author of Fragrances of the World—which, by the way, is actually a genuine guide to perfume—reports these dramatic changes over the past two decades: there were “1200 new launches in 2011, compared with 372 launches in 2001 and just 76 in 1991.”

The 28th edition of Fragrances of the World, to appear in 2012

According to Edwards, “In 1991, no one had really heard of limited-edition scents or ‘flankers’, while in 2001 there were 32 limited editions and 52 flankers. Those numbers have now sky-rocketed to 236 limited-edition scents and 197 flankers in 2011.”

Part of the disparity in the numbers can be explained by the increased tendency toward simultaneous multiple launches, which have become more and more common over the course of the past decade. Consider the Dolce & Gabbana Anthology simultaneous release of five new perfumes in 2009: 

D&G Anthology (2009)

The original five perfumes launched in 2009 were: Le Bateleur 1, L'Impératrice 3, L'Amoureux 6,  La Roue de la Fortune 10, and La Lune 19. These were then followed up upon by new members to the series, La Force 11 (also in 2009), La Tempérance 14 (2011), Le Fou 21 (2011), and L'Empéreur 4 (2012). Are any of these perfumes flankers? Not in the strict sense, but they are created in the same spirit: quick and easy releases in readily identifiable bottles which capitalize on the success of earlier releases and all of those which look the same. The cryptic digit labeling system of these perfumes suggests that new series members bearing the numbers 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 18, and 20 may be imminent!

In any case, the data seems beyond dispute: flankers and serial releases are a twenty-first-century phenomenon. Twitter, having been created only in 2006, is undeniably a full-fledged twenty-first-century phenomenon. Correlation or causality? I ask most sincerely. And I am persuaded that the reader will come over to my side having once ruminated upon the essential nature of a Tweet.

A Tweet is a tiny, 140-character-maximum-length message. What does it convey? It conveys news. Something new has happened in the world to someone (the Tweeter or Twit) somewhere, who decides to report this event in a Tweet to his or her followers.

Perhaps he bought a new car, or she a pair of shoes. Perhaps a happy couple is meeting to dine at a new restaurant or to attend an art exposition and one or both of them wish to share this news with their friends. The keyword common to every single Tweet ever Twittered by any Twitterer (or Twit) is: NEW.

Now, we have considered above how companies have elbowed their way into the social media landscape to become our “friends” and fearless leaders (when we “follow” them) through a variety of machinations usually involving special offers and/or discounts, also known as “bribes”.

But these companies do not buy new cars and shoes or eat at new restaurants or attend art exhibitions. No, companies,  no matter how well they may masquerade themselves as our friends, in reality, have only one thing to tweet: they have something new which they would like you to buy.

It may be difficult to face the music, but the truth is that perfume companies are no exception to this general rule. The launch of a new product, and in the case of perfume houses, a new perfume, is the content of a meaningful Tweet, from the perspective of the company itself, a profit-seeking organization.

I see in my mind's eye the readers in my midst in the grip of an “ah-ha” moment. Yes, my fellow fragrant travelers, I contend that Twitter is indeed, against all appearances and expectations, the ultimate cause of what may be best described as Flanker Madness. Make no mistake: Twitter has single-handedly generated such a rapid proliferation of perfume launches that the vast majority of perfumes being produced at this point in history are either flankers or quasi-flankers, most of which are hastily composed and poured into the bottles of their predecessors in order to able to announce, in a Tweet, to the followers of the house, that there is news.

Does the Success of Twitter Spell Disaster for Perfumery?

The Flanker folie has ramified beyond the realm of mainstream houses to infect niche houses as well. Hence the ever-more frequent specter of launches by niche houses of entire series of new perfumes. No, they are not flankers in the strict sense of the word, but they do appear to be produced under a new principle guiding perfumers today which has eclipsed the former telos of beauty and art. This new guiding principle is, stated succinctly: “Safety in numbers”.

The examples of these multi-launches are too numerous to enumerate, and I should clarify that I am quite fond of a few select creations of many different houses, but the vast majority of niche launches have about as much value as one should expect something to have which was created in one-tenth of the time that perfumers used to take in creating a single new perfume.

Some of the most prolific houses established in the twenty-first century, Montale, Bond no. 9, Keiko Mecheri, Boadicea the Victorious, to name a few from an ever-expanding group of multi-launchers, now boast perfume lists whose numbers approach the triple-digit mark.

Fine, you may say: what's wrong with that? In order to illustrate the problem here, let us pause to reflect for a moment on what has happened to text in the twenty-first century. In the case of the text explosion occasioned by the advent of the internet, the value of each individual text is diminished by its relative obscurity vis-à-vis all of the rest, and all the more because writers themselves are spending less time on their craft and more on public relations.

I contend that, in the case of perfumery, too, the bloating of the perfume universe with meaningless flankers and the use of social media to increase sales and thereby dictate taste (because most consumers tend to wear what they buy, and once they buy a perfume, they don't need another) has a similar effect.

The veritable explosion of new launches, both mainstream and niche, virtually guarantees that quality will suffer, for perfumers themselves, like writers, are fighting to survive in a world which rewards quick and frequent releases. This means that perfumers, too, are being changed by the need to alter their behavior in response to the demands placed upon them by the capitalized social media.

As perfumes become more and more subjected to the selection processes shaping the market through social media measures, perfumers, too, may find themselves preoccupied more and more with public relations and self-promotion than with the art of perfume. What is worse, it is very difficult to see how this vicious spiral, now well underway, might ever be called to a halt. Perfume houses large and small, mainstream and niche, have heeded the cry “Tweet or die” in their endeavor to survive in the ever-more competitive company-colonized social-media market today.

What appears to have emerged out of all of this chaos is, regrettably, a now fairly well-established Lego perfumery movement, as I have come to label the phenomenon. Lego perfumery involves the piecing together of new perfumes using pre-constructed units or modules, what are, in effect, accord building blocks. Will Lego perfumery prevail in the age of Twitter, and finally render obsolete the painstaking process of composing a classic perfume from scratch over a period of years by an olfactory artist? This is my concern.

So there you have it, my identification and indictment of the primary culprit behind the current crisis in perfumery, which appears to be careering ever more recklessly toward triviality, having yet even to establish itself in the eyes of the masses as a legitimate art in the first place. I rest my case, and call upon you, my fellow fragrant travelers, to illuminate the errors in my argument, if any, as I am unable to discern them myself.

Pray tell: where have I gone astray?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume Is True 2: Heraclitus and Hume

Are there objective truths, and is there knowledge about perfume?

Or are we trapped in the realm of opinion and belief because of, first, the nature of perfume and, second, the nature of persons?

These questions have been pressing more urgently upon my mind as a result of two recent comments at the salon by philosophers Heraclitus and David Hume, penned under the pseudonyms GypsyParfumista and GypsyQueenMother. In effect, these two astute salonistas furnished a couple of key missing lemmas to my argument that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume Is True.

The original lemmas, to review, were:

Lemma 1: The case of the old vial (Robert Piguet Baghari sampled twice with very different results best explained by the age of the samples).

Lemma 2: The case of the erroneous vial (Christiane Celle Calypso Mimosa mistaken for Calypso Rose due to a decanting/labeling error).

Lemma 3: The case of the reformulated perfume (what was written about pre-reformulation Guerlain Mitsouko invalidated by the changes to the perfume's composition).

Lemma 4: The case of the variable batch (the Banana Republic perfumes reviewed initially on the basis of minis needed to be revised—but were they superseded???—after testing the perfumes drawn from full bottles).

In each of the above cases, I attributed the change in view to extrinsic factors involving the handling of the perfume. Somehow I failed to address two equally important cases, which I thank GypsyParfumista and GypsyQueenMother for supplying, the first of which is:

Lemma 5: The case of variations in the natural components of a perfume (leading to variations in the overall effects of the perfume).

Heraclitus, writing under the pseudonym of GypsyQueenMother offered the example of “her” spaghetti sauce:

Even when talking about the same perfume (from the same house)
there will always be differences in the "mix" of each batch. Natural
ingredients are just that, natural. More rain one season in Indonesia
will make the patchouli harvested that year smell slightly different.
The only way to control such things is to use all synthetic ingredients
that can pretty much be made the same way (by man in labs) each time.

What was added, even with strict quality control, will be a little
each time. Unless something is made in a sealed vat with no oxygen
or anything reaching it each and every "batch" will be a little (or a lot)
different from the previous or the next.

It is like when I make spaghetti sauce. I always use (pretty much)
the same things...but every time it tastes different. Sometimes it is
better, sometimes just okay...but it is always "my sauce".

GypsyQueenMother (aka Heraclitus), March 19, 2012

Students of ancient Greek philosophy will recognize immediately the encoded message above:

One never steps into the same river twice.

Yes, that's right, Heraclitus has arrived on the scene at the salon to point out that reality is constantly in flux, including perfumes, which we may however erroneously come to regard as stable things. In reality, they are always made of materials which themselves are subject to a great deal of variation. This would explain why any perfume which is not a completely synthetic laboratory experiment involving zero natural substances will vary quite a lot from batch to batch, just as does GypsyQueenMother's spaghetti sauce.

Fascinatingly and fortuitously enough, immediately prior to Heraclitus' insightful contribution to this discussion, David Hume appears to have been jolted from his not-so-dogmatic slumber to offer (under the pseudonym GypsyParfumista) this little gem:

Tastes also change. I know mine have.
The more I experience and the more I smell
the more my "nose" (as it were) grows.
(Not like Pinocchio either!)
I look back at earlier reviews of mass market
scents constructed of HORRIBLY synthetic
components and things I have since given away
[...] and can scarce believe my own lauding words...
but at the time, THAT was what I felt. I refuse to delete
older reviews as they show a definite journal of sorts
on my perfumed journey through life.

GypsyParfumista (aka David Hume), March 19, 2012

Yes, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume's theory of the self—which incidentally coheres quite well with that of the Buddhist tradition—according to which a person is like a rope, no single thread of which spans the entire course of his or her life, is encoded within GypsyParfumista's comment:

We regard ourselves as single, stable entities, but in reality all of our cells change over the course of our lives. What did you look like when you were born, and what do you look like now? QED.

Given that persons themselves change constantly throughout the course of their lives, what reason is there for believing that their opinions about a given perfume will not also change over time—assuming for simplicity's sake that the perfume itself has not been reformulated or suffered any of the problems described in Lemmas 1-5? So, yes, we need a sixth lemma:

Lemma 6: The case of a reviewer's own change in view.

Perfumistas change their minds about perfumes. I myself have experienced a radical change in attitude about any number of perfumes, some of which I wore nearly religiously (Oscar de la Renta Oscar) or occasionally (Calvin Klein Eternity), but no longer wear at all as a result of not changes in the perfumes themselves, but changes in myself. In other cases, in an intial wearing (or wearings), I disliked a perfume which I later came to appreciate (Sarah Jessica Parker Covet and Calvin Klein Contradiction are two examples).

So, how do such examples bear upon the question at hand: is it the case that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume Is True, or not? In the second half of that post, I focused upon interpersonal differences: some people are anosmic to certain substances and others are sensitive to varying degrees to those same substances.

What I failed to acknowledge and have now recognized thanks to the beneficent interventions of Heraclitus and Hume, is that intrapersonal differences may be every bit as important as interpersonal differences in our evaluations of perfumes.

Yes, I mentioned before that our reception of a perfume is affected by our background history and memories, but in reality those factors are salient to different degrees at different moments in any given person's life. This would help to explain why I changed my view about perfumes which have not themselves undergone significant—if even perceptible—changes.

If I wear a perfume taken from the same bottle six months after an initial test, and the bottle has been well-cared for (sheltered from heat, light, and fluctuations in temperature), yet I completely change my view, then something else must explain this radically different reception.

That “something else” is none other than me. I changed, therefore, my opinion of a perfume changed. The question remains: Was I wrong before and am I right now? We certainly prefer to believe that updates to our opinions are more valid than their predecessors were, but in the case of perfume, I am driven irresistibly by the factors pointed out by our honorable guests Heraclitus and Hume to the conclusion that, in fact:

Thank you, GypsyParfumista and GypsyQueenMother for raising Lemmas 5 and 6 and further strengthening this proof!


But wait, there's more: At the same time these philosophers have broached an equally compelling Parmenidean idea which has been circulating through my mind for quite some time and occasionally erupts to consciousness: Perfumes are very much like persons, and persons are very much like perfumes. Are they in fact the same, my fellow fragrance travelers?

According to standard readings of ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides (whose view, by the way, finds expression also in the ancient Indian philosophy concept of Atman—proving yet again that nihil sub sole novum est...):

All is one. Change is illusory.

Many scholars (obviously ignorant of the world of perfume) have interpreted Parmenides' idea (according to him, there can be only one!) to constitute the strict antithesis of the Heraclitean view, according to which

Everything is in flux. All is change.

But I wonder now, thinking about persons and perfumes (the latter having been entirely neglected throughout the history of both Western and Eastern philosophy), if it is not rather the case that both perfumes and persons can be in flux in the Heraclitean sense, in the very same way, thus demonstrating, paradoxically enough, the Parmenidean claim?

The time has arrived at last for you
to weigh in on these profound ontological matters,
my fellow philosophical fragrance traveler(s)!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume Is True: The Case for Ecumenicalism

Although I have always been of a rather skeptical bent, I am a relativist about neither morality nor reality more generally. I do not deny and indeed appear to believe that there are facts in the world and that some actions really are reprehensible and wrong. Torture and the execution of suspects without trial are two examples of actions which seem to me to be obviously wrong. I also happen to find those actions to be generally ill-advised when directed toward practical purposes such as extracting potentially useful information from people or diminishing rather than fomenting future potential threats.

Setting the question of inanity to one side, and focusing solely on morality, I would go so far as to say that such actions are wrong even when they are inflicted upon guilty parties. The fundamental problem with such practices, as seems pretty clear from the long, ugly, thuggish history of tyranny, is that the willingness to torture or execute without trial a suspect is the willingness to do the same to an innocent person, since suspects are, by definition, suspected of guilt.

Now, I may of course be wrong in my moral condemnation of such practices. Perhaps there is nothing whatsoever wrong with tyranny because nothing at all is absolutely wrong, morally speaking. Perhaps morality is but a vain and chimerical notion, as Immanuel Kant worried it would be in a world devoid of God (whose existence, by the way, for the record, I neither deny nor affirm). Perhaps the torture and execution of suspects without trial are merely stupid in the way in which friendly fire is stupid. Or a war which depletes a country's coffers and sacrifices soldiers while making its people less not more secure.

Because in many if not most cases it is not clear how to adjudicate rival intuitions about a given matter, I feel that permitting John Stuart Mill's “marketplace of ideas” to flourish is, generally speaking, the best way to proceed: let people articulate their views, and through a healthy process of discourse and debate, the good ones will survive while the bad ones will fall to the wayside.

Of course one rather epistemologically humble reason for supporting the free marketplace of ideas is that we might just discover that some of our very own beliefs really are muddleheaded. Surely some of the many things which each of us believes to be true are really false. How have racism and sexism survived for so long? Probably because lots of people refuse to examine their own beliefs. As paradoxical as it may at first glance seem, this is precisely why I believe that even people who hold views which to me are wholly untenable and obviously false, and even obnoxious, should be permitted to air their views nonetheless.

Yes, I am of the considered opinion that even people who hold very offensive views should be permitted to articulate them. Such views are easy to expose for the nonsense they are, and it's much better practically speaking to know who the culprits holding such views are than to let them ferment and stew inside the person's head like a pressure cooker until one day, to everyone's surprise, they go postal and blow everyone in their office building or neighborhood away, convinced all along, as they are, of the veracity of their intuitions and what they seem to imply within the fermented folds of their mind.

When faced with counterexamples provided by others, people do sometimes modify their views. When left alone to brew, in contrast, they become more and more committed to their belief that their bilious fantasies are true.

But what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with perfume? In fact, quite a lot, it will emerge very soon.

Why Read Perfume Reviews?

I value various forms of tolerance, including freedom of speech, so it might seem that I appreciate reading other people's perfume reviews for the same reason that I enjoy listening to what they have to say—whether or not I happen to agree. It certainly is fascinating to find out what other people think, and all the more when it emerges that their way of looking at things is very different from mine.

This does not mean that I believe that every possible perspective on any possible thing is equally valid. No, some perspectives are self-contradictory and therefore incoherent and cannot describe reality as it is. When I read some perfume reviews I am immediately struck by how wrongheaded they seem. A person claims to smell aldehydes in a perfume entirely devoid of the same. Another person compares Britney Spears Circus Fantasy to Chanel no. 5. Because such people seem so obviously to be just plain wrong, one might upon reading such comments simply take note of the author's name and bear in mind that what they say must be taken with a grain of salt. Should they be forbidden from articulating their views? No, of course not.

I think that a natural response to reviews which appear to be replete with preposterous falsehoods is to conclude that the author really does not know very much about perfume. However, certain nagging cases may make it difficult to accept that the persons involved were in fact wrong in any objective sense. Those cases involve, perhaps unsurprisingly, me: my very own radical revision of a formerly stable opinion about a perfume—or so it seemed.

Lemma 1: The case of the old vial

The first time I reviewed Robert Piguet Baghari, I waxed rhapsodically about what a thick sledgehammer amber perfume it was. “It” actually became my reference amber, to which I alluded in a number of other reviews.

Later, upon receiving a fresh sample directly from the house, I discovered that Robert Piguet Baghari bore very little resemblance to the perfume which I had earlier described. How could I have missed the aldehydes in this aldehyde-rich perfume? Or all of those layers of complexity—the near antithesis of a sledgehammer amber perfume?

The answer, I deduced, was that my earlier sample, obtained from an online discount emporium, must have been quite old. The aldehydes had obviously, I inferred, evaporated away by the time I got my nose on the sample, just as vintage lovers are known to aver that the top notes “burn off” of their vintage treasures, though they love them all the same.

The Question of Vintage is of course a topic of abiding interest to me, but in this context, I am interested rather in this particular phenomenon: that the more volatile components of a perfume will evaporate faster than the denser ones, leaving behind a skewed picture of what the perfume once was. Exhibit A: my reading of Robert Piguet Baghari as a monolithic amber perfume!

Should I delete my review? But why? When I wrote it, it was true...

Lemma 2: The case of the erroneous vial

I was confounded to discover upon initially reviewing Christiane Celle Calypso Rose that, in fact, it was not a rose perfume at all! There is certainly no dearth of ridiculously misnamed perfumes, and those which claim to be amber perfumes but really are not may be the most obvious cases here to adduce. What does Nez à Nez Ambre à Sade have to do with either amber or Sade? In a word, at least to my nose: Nothing.

Why perfumers persist in naming perfumes in ways which lead directly to their condemnation as liars is a mystery to me, but they do. In fact, when it comes to oud perfumes, I no longer even expect to smell oud, having concluded on the basis of a relatively lengthy inductive series that most so-called oud perfumes are really about any- and everything but oud!

So, given this context, a perfume world where names are often very misleading to begin with, I was not astounded by my apparent discovery that Calypso Rose was not a rose perfume, and wrote it off to the perfumer's poetic license. A rose is a rose, except when it is not, and in this case, it smelled an awful lot like mimosa. But mimosa would smell as yellow and fluffy by any other name, would it not?

It turns out that my decanted vial labeled Calypso Rose actually contained Calypso Mimosa! I only came to this realization about a year later, having acquired a bottle of Calypso Rose and discovered that, lo and behold: it really was a rose perfume! In the meantime, of course, my review announcing to all that Calypso Rose was not really a rose perfume sat there, being read by people, who either believed me or thought that I was clearly mistaken. Could a person actually be so ignorant and/or olfactorily challenged as to mistake the scent of rose for that of mimosa? some no doubt wondered to themselves upon reading my review.

Should I delete my review? But why? When I wrote it, it was true...

Lemma 3: The case of the reformulated perfume

My review of Guerlain Mitsouko offers an enthusiastic endorsement of that perfume along with a proclamation that it is a genuine masterpiece. Since emptying the last divine drops of the bottle of the perfume upon which that review was based, I have discovered in three separate cases, that Mitsouko is not Mitsouko anymore. This multiply confirmed discovery would seem to invalidate my former review altogether.

If, based upon reviews such as my own, people are purchasing new bottles of Mitsouko now, after it has undergone massive reconstructive surgery akin to that to which Michael Jackson (may he rest in peace) subjected himself, then I can only say: I am sorry. I did not lie when I wrote those words, but the sad truth is that Mitsouko's rhinoplasty went way beyond the pale, too.

Should I delete my review? But why? When I wrote it, it was true...

Lemma 4: The case of the variable batch

When I first reviewed the perfumes of the house of Banana Republic, I was very pleasantly surprised by what I found. I had ordered a complete set of minis of all of their available perfumes and sniffed my way through them, penning reviews along the way. When I later acquired bottles of a couple of those perfumes, Malachite and Jade, I discovered that they smelled very, very different from the minis of the same names. What in the world had happened?

Since I bought the minis directly from the company's website, I could not believe that they were old. But I also bought the perfumes directly from the company's website. This was not a matter of failed memory, as I worried might be the case, for in a side-by-side comparison of the perfume from the mini and the perfume from the full bottle, I found that, while somewhat similar, they really were not the same.

My best guess is that a company such as Banana Republic, whose primary focus is not perfume but clothing, may simply have batch problems. They swirl the ingredients about in a giant vat, and sometimes it gets stirred completely, and sometimes it does not. Perhaps it has something to do with who happens to be working at the factory on any given day. In any case, it seems safe to say, my reviews of the perfumes from the minis refer only to the perfumes from the minis and, more specifically, the minis which happen to be in my possession.

Should I delete my reviews? But why? When I wrote them, they were true...

In this connection, it is worth mentioning the house of Caron, asserted by some to be involved in a nearly continuous process of reformulating their perfumes, which makes it very difficult to have meaningful conversations about them with other people, who in all likelihood have not even smelled the same thing. Frequent or serial reformulations have the same effect as inconsistent batch quality control, and in fact there is a sense in which batch problems can be viewed as mini, inadvertent or unintended reformulations, it seems to me!

Rather than delving more deeply here into the topics of reformulations or vintage perfumes, let us pause to take stock. What do the above four lemmas demonstrate, pray tell? The reader may well be wondering: Has sherapop actually shown that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is True?

No, of course not. The above are merely pseudo-lemmas, critics will be quick to point out. They show nothing whatsoever about the nature of perfume, and only illustrate that there are practical problems involved in making sure that different people have access to the same perfume bearing the same name.

So is it not in fact false that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is True?

Not so fast, my finely tuned and no doubt well-caffeinated critic. There is much more to this apparently simpleminded “proof” than meets your myopic eyes.

What the Lemmas really show...

The sharpest among my very sharp readers will have taken note that my interpretation of each of the above cases was, well, an interpretation! I reasoned to my conclusion in each case based upon the best available explanation. But all of my explanations focus on factors extrinsic to me: how the perfumes in vials and bottles were handled and produced.

All of this leaves open the possibility that there is a single creation to which the name of a given perfume, launched at a certain time in history (setting to one side for present purposes, the ever-vexing Question of Vintage), the perfume in the world about which we should all agree, if only we could figure out a way to get our noses on the very same liquid.

In reality, it seems more likely that the radical disparities in reception reflected in the reviews of a given perfume often have much more to do with factors intrinsic to the reviewers than to variations in the ways in which a given perfume was produced or handled. Or perhaps it would be safer to say that the intrinsic factors are at least as important as the extrinsic factors.

It's not just that reviewers may fall along a broad spectrum of possibilities as regards experience, extending from persons with extremely limited experience, say, of only a couple of perfumes, to those who have sniffed literally thousands of different perfumes. That is only one axis of difference.

Next we need to factor in the anosmia axis for each and every detectable component in a perfume. It is well known that a fair number of people are incapable of perceiving certain musks. Obviously, whether or not one perceives a sweaty musk component, and how (as pleasant or unpleasant), if one does, is going to have a great effect upon one's reception of a perfume containing that component.

Is it not also true that human beings are going to be distributed over a bell curve with regard to their sensitivity to any and all of the components in a perfume? Musk may be the most well-studied case, but given that people vary in sensitivities to all sorts of chemicals, take salt, for example, what reason is there for believing that this is not the case for the constituent chemicals of perfumes? None whatsoever, it seems to me.

But wait, there's more: we also attend to some but not all elements in our immediate experience at any given moment in time, depending upon not only our interests, but also whatever happens to be on our mind. This selection process is prefigured by all sorts of background information peculiar to us. Our perceptions are also colored by our expectations, which is why I have suggested in some of my reviews that perfumers would do well to name their creations metaphorically in order to deflect a priori potential criticism to the effect that the name of their perfume is misleading or mendacious. If you call your perfume Oud Something, then everyone approaches the perfume sniffing specifically for oud, and if they do not find it, then they may cry foul.

Even perfumes which are metaphorically named, however, are bound to set up certain expectations in the minds of some sniffers, based upon their own idiosyncratic experience. One person may associate the color red with love; another may think of murder and mayhem. All of these sorts of factors together conspire to make it nearly miraculous that people ever agree about anything when it comes to perfume.

I do not believe that reviewers lie, with the notable exception of shills. But I also do not believe that some of the honest reviewers are right and others are wrong. This is because the very act of interpreting perfume is similar, as odd as this may sound, to the act of reporting a state of pain: one cannot be wrong, phenomenologically speaking.

If you think that you smell roses, then you smell roses, regardless of what the perfumer may have wanted you to smell. If you feel that you are in pain, then you are in pain. It does not matter whether there is some medically documentable reason for your pain. Your pain is self affirming, just as is your reaction to a perfume.

This, then, is what I mean in boldly proclaiming that Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is True. People cannot be wrong about what they believe themselves to perceive, since that is all there is to the perception of scent. It will be intertwined with personal memories of experiences and will be colored by what one has already experienced. But if what is a scrubber to me is to you a treasure trove of olfactory delight, I do not believe that you are somehow wrong and that I am right. We are different people, and there is no reason for believing that a person inhabiting completely different skin, and who has a different history and radically different experience, should ever have the same perception of a particular perfume as does anyone else.

After having written many reviews but also having read many times that number more, I have become convinced that it is senseless to condemn reviewers as wrong in some sort of objective sense. True, some perfume reviewers' perceptions cohere, generally speaking, better with my own than do others. But that does not imply that we are right, and the others are all wrong. I have come to embrace ecumenicalism in perfume reviewing not because I am some sort of raving relativist (which I am not, see above) but because the phenomenon of perfume perception is an intrinsically subjective one.

I've encountered enough intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate perfumistas whose opinions diverge radically from my own about individual perfumes that it makes no sense to me to say that one of us wrong, and the other is right. But our differences in opinion are not merely about vintage, reformulations, and batch problems. No, we perfumistas are different people, and by reading each others reviews, we can learn how diverse the world in which we live really is.

What say you to all of this, my fragrant friends?