Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lego Perfumery and the Death of the Tattoo Frag

Lessons from Mystery Scent Vial Trial 2
In a recent round of the Mystery Scent Vial Trial Game hosted by savvy perfumista Icekat, I discovered that I do not always know the perfumes in my collection, but sometimes I do. This episode featured perfumes launched in the 1990s, so that was our starting point. Any perfume not launched in the 1990s was eliminated from contention at the outset. The fragrance which I immediately recognized and in fact harbored no doubts whatsoever about after less than a minute of sniffing was not L'Artisan Parfumeur Voleur de Roses (1993), nor Oscar de la Renta So de la Renta (1997), but Christian Dior Dune (1991).
In the case of So de la Renta, I possess a small perfume mini, presumably containing perfume, not edt or edp, and so the liquid in the Mystery Scent Vial Trial was in all likelihood a much weaker concentration than what I have. I also consoled myself with the knowledge that I have not really worn So de la Renta enough to be able to recognize it readily, as I acquired the mini fairly recently, really only for reference purposes, and I had tested it only once. I also, to be honest, am not sure about the condition of the perfume in the mini, as I acquired it from a big discounter for nearly nothing, and it may well have been sitting in a warehouse under less than optimum environmental conditions for years.
As for Voleur de Roses, I'm afraid that every single time I've worn it, I have had an entirely different experience of the perfume. During this Mystery Scent Vial Trial, I was struck by a dominant coriander-like accord in the opening of the perfume which seemed so marked that I became obsessed with finding a perfume with coriander—or something along those lines—and this led me far, far away from Voleur de Roses, which lists only two official notes in any of the hierarchies at fragrance community websites I've seen: patchouli and rose!
In my two reviews of this perfume, one written before acquiring a bottle, and the other after, I have devised such fanciful hypotheses as that the name of the creation is an indication that the roses have actually been stolen by some thief reeking of patchouli. So it is clear that I have never really thought that the rose was very important to Voleur de Roses, and whatever else I may notice about it, the patchouli is always the number one note. But patchouli figures in hundreds if not thousands of perfumes today, so that was not much help in narrowing down what the perfume might be.
In my pre-acquisition review of Voleur de Roses, I seemed to find the earthiness worth emphasizing, but in the later review, I did not even mention it. This may illustrate that we attend to different aspects of a perfume depending upon factors external to the perfume (such as what's on our mind, what's in our bloodstream, etc.). Why did the coriander-like opening catch my attention during this wearing when it had never registered before as even detectable, much less salient? Who knows? Perhaps I was suffering from a bit of decongestion that day, and so suddenly coriander seemed more important than it had before. On ne sait jamais...
My various receptions to this perfume may also simply reflect that the two liquids I reviewed were in fact rather different compositionally, despite their identical name. If L'Artisan Parfumeur uses natural materials, as I presume that they often do, then there is bound to be some natural variation among identically named components, and there is also always the possibility of variations from batch to batch having to do with how the perfume is produced—beyond the issue of the provenance of natural materials and how they may vary. Evidence for this possibility is that in a side-by-side comparison, I did not find the two liquids identical, though they were both drawn from fresh bottles of Voleur de Roses.
Another perfume which I failed correctly to identify, though I had tested and reviewed it before, was Christian Dior Tendre Poison (1994). It smelled rather muddled to me, and at one point I even guessed that it might be So de la Renta! My thinking was that the perfume in my mini of the latter was a kind of mish-mash of fruits gone slightly bad and mingling with “abstract florals”.
What I did not notice in the Mystery Scent Vial Trial sample at all was the strong asafoetida-cum-soap, killer accord of Tendre Poison, which, back when I reviewed it, had caused me an instant and severe headache upon application and probably compromised my ability to assess the perfume. Indeed, specialists in criminal investigation have pointed out in cases where people claim to remember details immediately prior to their having been knocked unconscious, that in fact it is impossible, since the trauma effectively erases the memories of the minutes preceding it!
The liquid in my sample vial (obtained from a decanter before I decided to renounce decanters altogether because of concerns articulated in Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery) was exceedingly strong, as though perhaps an old bottle had evaporated to some extent leaving a powerfully concentrated “extrait” which would explain, perhaps, why and how such a small application could have caused me such a sudden and severe headache. The liquid in the Mystery Scent Vial Trial sample, in contrast, was quite a bit weaker and did not cause me a headache, nor did it make me start imagining large palettes of soap being unloaded by stevedores. So the gross disparity in my phenomenological reception to the two perfumes easily explains why I did not recognize Tendre Poison, although I had reviewed it.

I did manage correctly to identify Pierre Balmain Vent Vert (1991) which was apparently more or less the same reformulation as the bottle in my collection, so it was a simple matter to test my hunch by doing a side-by-side comparison, after which I was convinced that the perfume had to be Vent Vert. But I did not identify Vent Vert in the way in which I identified Dune. I initially observed that the Vent Vert sample “could be something from Annick Goutal, definitely has hyacinth” and proceeded to deduce the correct answer from the evidence. My recognition of Dune, in stark contrast, was direct and unmediated. I did not detect any notes; I detected Dune.
I also managed correctly to deduce the identity of Chôpard Wish (1999), a perfume which I however do not own and had never reviewed or tested, nor even sniffed. Based on the notes, and what I had heard about Wish, including the quality level and color of the liquid, I was able to make an “educated guess” which turned out to be right. It was way too watery to be Thierry Mugler Angel (to which it is often compared), but I figured it out by thinking about the quality level of Chôpard perfumes, along with the listed notes.                      
The most remarkable event of the trial to me was without a doubt my immediate recognition of Christian Dior Dune as Christian Dior Dune. I say that it was remarkable because although I have a large bottle of the vintage perfume, I nearly never wear it, and I really have hardly worn it at all. I always wanted to wear it, but somehow I never really find myself reaching for it, although I have always thought that it is a good perfume. So why is Dune so immediately recognizable although I hardly ever wear it? Because Dune falls into the general category of what I take to be a dying breed of perfumes: The Tattoo Frag. I do not credit myself with having identified Dune so readily. All of the credit belongs to Dune itself, for being an utterly unforgettable and unique creation. Dune, I explained to my comrades, smells like nothing to me but Dune. No isolable notes whatsoever, just Dune.

Many of the most famous iconic perfumes are tattoo frags, by which I mean, readily identifiable and indeed impossible to mistake for anything else than what they are—at least by anyone who has ever worn them or shared a space with someone who does. Givenchy Amarige (1991) is a good example of a tattoo frag. These are perfumes which stake a bold claim on a portion of the grand olfactory map, a territory which thereafter becomes forever their own. One of the most famous examples of a tattoo frag is obviously Thierry Mugler Angel (1992), for literally hundreds of perfumes call it to mind today, twenty years after it was launched. Angel got there first, and every other perfume which features a significant subset of its tapestry of notes—above all, sweet patchouli—is considered by many to be either a knock-off or a pale shadow of the original. Something about the way they are composed make these perfumes literally unforgettable, and my theory is that they effectively tattoo themselves into the wearer's olfactory memory bank, never, ever to be forgotten, once they have insinuated themselves into one's brain.

The quintessential tattoo frag, to my mind—and nose—is Calvin Klein Eternity(1988). In fact, during its golden age, the house of Calvin Klein produced an entire series of tattoo frags, but Eternity stands out even among its brethren—Obsession, Escape, Truth, Contradiction, CKOne—for being not merely unforgettable, but eternally unforgettable. Yes, Eternity may be the most aptly named perfume in the history of the world, because it lasts an eternity—or until the wearer scrubs it off in a long hot bath or a steamy soapy shower.

With the veritable explosion of flanker and limited-edition perfumes (see Flankers, Twitter, and the Fall of Western Civilization), even Calvin Klein has altered its creative direction to accommodate seemingly endless series of regurgitated special editions and flankers, most of which are entirely forgettable, and, while some of them have their appeal, their status as flankers virtually guarantees that they will be relegated to the dust bin of perfume history in the not-too-distant future. For the most part, they are not even very memorable fragrances, much less tattoo frags.

I attribute the death of the tattoo frag above all to what I have come to call the Lego perfumery movement: the increasing tendency of perfumers to piece together quick and easy new launches using modular accords. My first recognition of the reality of Lego perfumery occurred during my review of Guerlain Insolence edt (2006) at Fragrantica on January 14, 2010. I'll re-post it in its unedited entirety here because it's too difficult to locate there, but it illustrates some important points. Plus I just like it for its direct and brutal honesty:
I was shocked to discover that Guerlain's Insolence smelled upon initial spritz nearly identical to Météorites. Shortly thereafter, however, some darker elements began to emerge, both spicy and "je ne sais quoi" kind of stuff. Still, I feel that Insolence is not a new Guerlain creation. Rather, they appear to have attached Météorites to a solid, resinous base.
So solid, in fact, that upon awakening this morning, more than twelve hours after application, I found myself still enveloped in some sort of bizarre resin aura. I couldn't identify it, but the violets and irises had all long ago disappeared, leaving only this very insistent resin on my skin.
I was dying to find out the identity of the strange fat-soluble substance that had infused itself into my cells, and for a brief moment I thought that it might be the styrax or benzoin from Tanglewood Bouquet, which I had been wearing yesterday during the day. But then I remembered that I took a long, hot bath last night, after which I applied Insolence. All I knew at this point was that there was a serious film of resin attached to my skin.
Unfortunately, no help was forthcoming from the Fragrantica description, which lists only the incredibly general "resin" as the note that was commanding the attention of my nose. "Resin," if synthetic, means: some sort of polycarbonate substance, often produced at the culmination of an organic chemistry experiment. Thick, oily, viscous, usually black. Basically a plastic byproduct. That's how this smells, for sure!
My edt is, suffice it to say, quite strong enough! I won't be buying the edp or the parfum of Insolence, because the thought of waking up to an even higher concentration of black gooey pot liquor odor wafting through the air is simply unbearable.
A word about the bottle: this 3.4oz thick-glass, asymmetrical spaceship-type shape is really beautiful. In fact, I love just to hold the bottle: c'est un vrai objet d'art! The pink color of the edt is also new to Guerlain, à ma connaissance, and pleasing to the eye. Visually, it cannot be denied that the presentation is gorgeous and unique. But the contents are not: Météorites + a lot (a glob!) of resins and a bit of fruit is what I found here!
36 hour update: resins still clinging tenaciously to my pajamas. This stuff could survive a nuclear holocaust!!!
66 hour update: time to do laundry ASAP!
108 hour update: detected Insolence still infused through my sheets last night before retiring in clean pajamas! Help!!!!! AIDEZ-MOI, SVP!!!!
By way of conclusion: The capacity to form a permanent polymer with my pajamas is not a property that I am looking for in a perfume. Now I think that I understand the spaceship metaphor: this substance is truly sci-fi! I may have to add the designers of Insolence to my "just say no" list, along with the creator of the perversely po-mo Rumeur... Désolée, vraiment!
Needless to say, I am not a fan of this perfume. Within months of having acquired a 100ml bottle scent unsniffed—still laboring under the false belief that Guerlain in the twenty-first century is the same as the Guerlain I knew and loved in the twentieth century—I swapped the bottle away, because each time I removed the nozzle, considering the mere possibility of application, a feeling of revulsion welled up inside me. I finally realized that even the bottle was not worth keeping because the contents were so vile. I literally cringed at the very thought of a more concentrated version than the eau de toilette which I had tried, although many people have claimed that the eau de parfum, launched in 2008, is better. It is possible that, as in the case of Chanel Allure, the edp (1996) is a different formula from the edt (1999). I don't know, because I've yet to muster up the courage to try Insolence again. Just as I loved both versions of Allure (past tense because I have not tried the reformulations...), I fear that I would loathe both versions of Insolence. Why? you may inquire. Because, I reply, the concept is confused, according to both my nose and my mind.
Although I find it to be an unwearable perfume, Insolence bears within itself plenty of philosophical value, as it simultaneously illustrates both the phenomenon of Lego perfumery and the idea of a tattoo frag. First, Insolence, having appropriated the critical Météorites-making Météorites accord, was itself subsequently appropriated for use as one of the building blocks of Iris Ganache (2007) from the collection “L'Art et la Matière”. I find it fascinating that Météorites itself is the scent of Guerlain's colorful ball-shaped face powder. In other words, Météorites eau de toilette, too, was a Lego-type creation, some resourceful person's idea to squeeze as much as possible out of the colorful little balls:
Unsurprisingly, I was not smitten with Iris Ganache either (created by Thierry Wasser), and here's what I wrote in my review of April 17, 2010:
Guerlain Iris Ganache is a close cousin to Insolence, with all that that implies. Basically, if you like the Météorites opening of Insolence, which morphs into a sweet plastic iris, then you'll like Iris Ganache too. I love Météorites, but I cannot wear Insolence. I had thought that it was the plastic raspberries, but now, by process of elimination I have deduced that what I find repellent in both Insolence and Iris Ganache is the combination of plastic iris with cloying sweetness. In the case of Insolence, the sweetness comes from raspberry; in the case of Iris Ganache, the note is white chocolate. Both of these fragrances seem more like something that I would have expected from the house of Calvin Klein than from Guerlain. I have no desire even to finish my sample vial. Désolée!
Luca Turin's wife Tania Sanchez describes “what's wrong” with Insolence in her review of Iris Ganache (while comparing the two) as “hairspray and terror,” so our perceptions and judgment appear to intersect at one tiny node in all of space and time. Well, to invoke a saying recently cited by GypsyParfumista in a salon comment: “Even a broken clock is right twice each day.”
Notwithstanding the "hairspray and terror" remark, The Holey[sic] Book proceeds to confer the label “five-star masterpiece” upon the source of hairspray and terror, while I regard the perfume as a symptom of the tragedy which has befallen the late, great house of Guerlain. Apparently Iris Ganache is being discontinued, no doubt because the price tag does not match the appropriate market niche... Or did others find it as repulsive as I did? I've seen a lot of love for this perfume by bloggers, most recently lamenting its discontinuation, but perhaps the naysayers have simply held their tongues? On ne sait jamais...
So where were we? Oh, right. Insolence strikes me as an attempt to produce a tattoo frag using Lego methodology involving another Lego-esque creation, Météorites. Obviously, I think it's a failure. And of course the Insolence flankers are forgettable.

My encounter with Insolence was the first time I recognized, albeit vaguely and in only an inchoate form, the Lego perfumery movement underway. I got another inkling of it when I reviewed Bvlgari Blv Notte (2004), a composition by Alberto Morillas which seemed clearly to my nose to include the iconic Kenzo Flower (2000) baby powder accord. Blv Notte is not that well known, and I do not regard it as a tattoo frag, despite its incorporation of an accord from the arguably tattoo-ish Flower (also by Morillas). But it illustrates the direction in which perfumery as a whole appears to be moving, in a seeming vortex of quick and easy launches now spinning out of control. The more perfumers are pressured into producing new perfumes, the more apt they are going to be to piece together Lego perfumes, making it impossible for new iconic perfumes to be created, it seems to me.
I think that I've rambled on for quite long enough, so rather than inflicting any more of my reviews upon you, I'd like to open up the floor and hand off the karaoke mike. I'd be most grateful to hear your thoughts on Lego perfumery and the death of the tattoo frag. Pray tell: am I overreacting?
The questions are now pulsing through my mind, so let me just download some of them here:
Can anyone out there offer an example of a successful recent tattoo frag launch?
What have been the latest iconic perfumes produced in the twenty-first century, and are they as unique and unmistakeable as Dune and Eternity? Or are they mere variations on earlier themes?
Finally, is it possible for a niche perfume house to produce a tattoo perfume? I guess that at this point I'm torn on the concept here. Would a niche tattoo frag be a category mistake? Do we need to smell an iconic perfume wafting off the skin of the masses in congested public places in order for it to insinuate itself permanently into our olfactory memory bank? Or am I conflating two distinct categories: the tattoo frag and the iconic perfume?
Perhaps some perfumes are only tattoos, two examples of which may be Grès Cabotine (1990) and Alfred Sung Sung (1986), while others are also iconic and so transcend the era of their launch?
I anxiously await your insights on these matters,
my fellow fragrant travelers!

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