Human beings have been perfuming themselves in one way or another for thousands of years. Yet still today, in the twenty-first century, perfumery has not been widely accepted by most people as a fine art. The best explanation for this neglect and the exclusion of perfumery from the history of the fine arts more generally is undoubtedly the sheer ephemerality of perfume.
Here today; gone tomorrow is a slogan which applies nowhere better than in the case of perfume. Even the names of what were said once to be classic perfumes are applied today to entirely new perfumes as a marketing strategy, thus effectively undermining the very possibility of perfumery's subsumption under the more general heading of the exalted and immortal beaux arts.
In the Big Black Bechstein in the Middle of the Room, I attempted (with limited success) to suggest that perfume is closer to music than it is to the other arts, in that it is intrinsically nonrepresentational in nature. I also find, although I have yet to develop this idea in writing, that perfume and music are similar to one another in terms of our experience of them, as each flows to us in an undulating stream of consciousness.
Just as it is impossible to attend equally to each and every note of a complex piece of music such as a fugue or symphony, it is impossible to attend equally to each and every note of a complex perfume as it unfurls throughout the course of its development. What we catch are snatches of the works, which is one of the reasons why they are so rich and can be experienced over and over again without ever risking boredom.
Setting to one side ontological issues and the psychology of music and perfume perception, and looking at the objects of perception instead, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental difference between the two cases. Nothing that any human being does today will ever change the basic fact that J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations are a masterpiece. Pianists may interpret the work in various ways, and we may or may not like those interpretations (I myself never liked Glenn Gould's grunts, may he rest in peace), but the work remains the same. In perfume, in contrast, the works said to be or to have been great eventually evaporate—quite literally—from the face of the earth.
Small wonder, then, that perfumers, along with their art, have not only been relegated to the margins of history, but their names have been inscribed in invisible ink. People have been perfuming themselves for thousands of years, but how many perfumers' names from more than a century ago does anyone know? We know that the old houses are old. Creed was established in 1760, Guerlain in 1828, and quite a cluster of names appeared on the scene in the early twentieth century: Chanel, Coty, Houbigant, et al. Lately the number of houses and perfumes has been increasing at a dizzying rate, chronicled admirably by Michael Edwards in his compendium Fragrances of the World (2012). But will any of these houses or perfumes be able to carve a permanent notch onto the tablet of human history?
Certainly in the small circles in which perfumers and perfumistas travel, much attention is paid to the originality and creativity of splendid perfumes, with credit given where credit is due to the otherwise unsung heroes of this art. Perfumers' names are explicitly associated with the perfumes of their creation by those “in the know,” but in the larger reality of which perfume collection (and obsession) represents only a minuscule subculture, for the vast majority of the consumers of perfumes, the name of the creator is completely unknown. They buy a bottle of perfume, which comes in a box, and generally speaking (with rare exceptions such as the house of Frédéric Malle) nowhere on either the bottle or the box is the perfumer's name anywhere to be found. This is the first clue that perfumery is more of a business than it is an art.
Houses, not perfumers, are credited when a consumer appreciates their wares. Thus Chanel is well-known even by the unwashed masses as a great creator of perfumes in part because they have produced the likes of Coco, Allure, Coco Mademoiselle, and above all Chanel no 5, but mostly because these have been made into household names by ubiquitous, relentless, mass cultural marketing campaigns.
How many people actually know that these perfumes were the works of Jacques Polge and Ernest Beaux? I would surmise very few, even among self-styled perfumistas who regard themselves as more sophisticated than the average consumer. The truth is that there is no need to know the names of perfumers, and people concern themselves primarily with information relevant to their lives. If someone already knows that Chanel no 5 is and always will be her signature scent, then she may have neither the need nor the desire to find out who the perfumer responsible for its existence is. The question may never even arise in her mind. Her quest is over. She needs to know nothing more about her favorite perfume than where it can be found and purchased. She may even believe (erroneously) that the perfume was composed by Gabriel Chanel herself, just as many people appear to credit designers such as Marc Jacobs and Thierry Mugler with the perfumes bearing their name on the label.
Others, who have more of an eclectic approach to perfuming themselves may well wish to find out who created one of their favorite perfumes in order to be able to seek out others by the same nose. After a while, however, it may become clear that knowing the name will not necessarily be much help in finding other equally beloved perfumes, because every single creation of every single perfumer is unique and manifests a variety of influences beyond the sheer identity of the perfumer, including his or her budget on a particular project, the specifications of the client company, etc. Consider some of the more and less famous works by Maurice Roucel.
Every perfumer well known among the members of fragrance communities has produced one or more duds. Of course, the precise identity of the “duds” varies from person to person, depending above all on their tastes...
Is Amarige abhorrent? Or is it a masterpiece? While perfumistas may have strong opinions about their likes and dislikes, there does not seem to be any real consensus about which of the perfumes of Dominique Ropion are the masterpieces and which are the duds. It's fascinating actually, that so many people can agree that Dominique Ropion is a great perfumer, while vehemently disagreeing over the specific perfumes which validate that claim.
But, again, ask most any person you encounter on the street whether they know who Dominique Ropion is, and you will find that they do not. Some may confuse him with a vague media-generated image of Dominique de Villepin around the time when U.S. congressmen were pouring French wine down the gutters of Washington D.C. and eating “freedom fries”. In all likelihood, most people will frankly confess that they do not know who Dominique Ropion is and have never to their recollection even heard the name.
Unsung Heroes: Film Directors and Perfumers
In some ways, the situation of the perfumer is not unlike that of the film director, who often gets little if any credit for the product of his labor. Instead, most moviegoers attribute the greatness of a film to its stars, though in reality they have little to do with the nature of the artwork, serving only to interpret the lines written by the screenwriter and placed into a visual context by the director. There are of course sophisticated film lovers who are very familiar with the oeuvres of many different directors, but when ordinary people go to the cinema, they are not drawn by the director's name but by the movie stars.
Every rule has its exceptions, and I'd surmise that many of the people who go to see or rent a film by Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick (may he rest in peace) are doing so for the director, not for whoever the stars of a particular film by any of these iconic directors might be.
The ultimate exception to the rule may be Alfred Hitchcock, whose name became a household word through the massive exposure to him afforded to ordinary people through his many years on television as the host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In any case, the proportion of savvy movie viewers is likely to be as small as the proportion of savvy perfume users, it seems to me.
Perfumers are in some ways much worse off than film makers, however, because they lose all control over what is done with the perfumes of their creation once they become the property of a house. Reformulation is nothing if not the perversion by someone else of an artist's creation. The reasons for undertaking reformulation appear to be primarily economic, but there may be other considerations as well, including the desire on the part of a house's management team to leave their mark on or shape the quality of their offerings. I touched upon some of these topics in my earlier Reflections on Reformulation, but my point here is that the same thing does not generally speaking happen to the work of film directors.
A film is a film, and it stays that film for all time. Some people have protested the colorization of classic black and white films as a perversion of the original work, and reformulation may seem to be the same sort of thing. One significant difference is that the original black and white film upon which a recolorized version is based continues to exist and is not itself destroyed by the production of another version of the film. Not so in the case of perfume, where reformulations typically supplant the original perfume, usurping its name.
Consider Bernard Chant's Cabochard. A perfume bearing this name, still produced by Parfums Grès (pictured at right), has undergone significant change as a result of reformulation. It is said that Bernard Chant is a great perfumer. It is also said that he created Cabochard. But the vast majority of people who are familiar with this perfume today have only smelled the reformulation. And my hunch is that most of the people who refer to “the great Bernard Chant” have not smelled very many of his original perfumes. We accept on hearsay that he was great because he created perfumes which are said to have been great, though some of them are no longer produced while others have been drastically reformulated.
What is also interesting, however, in contrast to the case of film, is that, in the case of perfume, it is generally accepted as perfectly permissible to do the artistic equivalent of mangling a film and destroying the original. True, people may and do lament the reformulation of their formerly beloved perfume, but they do not, it seems, generally conceive of the injury as one committed against the perfumer but rather against the consumer. It would not be possible, I think, for a perfumer to initiate a successful civil lawsuit against a house for ruining his creation because the property in question belongs to the house.
This is a second clue that perfume is not regarded as a bona fide art in modern culture more generally, no matter how we perfumistas may wish to view things. The only perfumers who retain complete creative control over their works are those who also run their own houses. Perfumers such as Andy Tauer of Tauer Perfumes, for example, are at once the nose and the chair of their own company, and this ensures complete unanimity when it comes time to make tough decisions about discontinuations or reformulations.
I imagine that Andy Tauer, the artist, never proposes to himself, as CEO, to reformulate one of his own perfumes. His wearing of both of these hats simultaneously ensures that his works will not be degraded or destroyed through reformulation. He may of course for a variety of reasons decide to discontinue a perfume or, what is almost the same, to produce limited edition perfumes which literally cannot be reproduced beyond the original batch.
With mass market and designer perfumes, it seems that even sophisticated perfumistas are initially drawn to perfumes by the house label, and then only later do they learn who the creator of the perfume was. This may be in part simply because perfumers often work for many different houses, and there is no simple or obvious way to track the career trajectory of a given perfumer. He may work for L'Artisan Parfumeur and Van Cleef & Arpels, and found The Different Company before taking up permanent residence chez Hermès.
In fact, that appears to be precisely what Jean-Claude Ellena did—among many other things. Most everyone now knowledgeable about perfume is aware that nearly everything coming out of Hermès is the work of Ellena, just as everything coming out of Caron these days is the work of Richard Fraysse, and Thierry Wasser is the house perfumer for Guerlain. But in view of the vague and sketchy history of perfume up to now, all of this really adds up to the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, in the grand scheme of things, again, given the ephemeral nature of perfume.
Can the Osmothèque Legitimate Perfumery as an Art?
As some consumers have become more sophisticated about perfume, thanks in large part to online fragrance community websites such as Parfumo.net and Fragrantica.com, they seem to have contributed to the general feeling among practitioners in the industry that perfume deserves to be recognized as le huitième art. Enter L'Osmothèque, inaugurated in 1990 and currently directed by Patricia Nicolai of Parfums de Nicolai. According to the Osmothèque website:
Premier conservatoire de parfums de l'histoire, elle préserve ces créations si vulnérables et si précieuses de l’usure du temps, de la perte et de l’oubli. Collection vivante de parfums existants ou disparus, elle protège le patrimoine mondial de la parfumerie.
[The first conservatory of perfume in history, the Osmothèque preserves these precious and vulnerable creations from the ravages of time, from loss, and from oblivion. A living collection of perfumes, both currently available and discontinued, the Osmothèque protects the heritage of perfumery.]
It may seem that it is straightforward to assimilate L'Osmothèque with one of the great visual arts museums, but my distinct impression is that it lies much closer to a Museum of Oenology, of which there are a surprising number in existence. Why is perfume closer to wine than to the visual arts? Because both are consumable and therefore exhaustible. It is possible to empty the last bottle drawn from the last vat of a discontinued perfume after which it is essentially extinct. The reason why vintage wines command such high prices and give rise to the likes of Rudy Kurniawan is because they, too, are exhaustible.
|The Osmothèque Vault|
In fact, even if the vessels are carefully guarded and stored, it is inevitable that one day in the future their contents will be exhausted. This implies that, in the future, all talk of such extinct perfumes will be mere hearsay. At some point, every person on the planet who ever smelled the original perfume will actually be dead, and those who continue to talk about it will simply be parroting what others have told them. Indeed, this is the case for the early perfumes listed at the Osmothèque, which are intelligent, educated reconstructions by modern perfumers of works of the distant past. What are these reconstructions based upon? The written words of others.
This is, then, one of the dangers of a book written by people with very strong but idiosyncratic opinions who claim to be offering up a guide, as opposed to a sort of autobiographical chronicle of their own peculiar tastes. Call a book “The A-Z Guide,” and lots of ignorant and gullible people will parrot whatever it says, even with no knowledge of the objects to which the words refer. This is one of the many reasons why I believe that the caustic tone of so much of The Holey [sic] Book (see A Found Review) can only have a negative effect on the world of perfumery as a whole.
Perfume users looking for "expert guidance" may follow the lead of the Royal [ties] Coup[le] and slam perfumes which they've never even experienced and dismiss without so much as a sniff many works which in fact merit our consideration, as of course the perfumers who created them believed that they did. Ignorant readers may operate under the reasonable assumption, given the title of the book, that the authors are actually experts about something beyond their own personal tastes and beliefs.
One problem I see with the Osmothèque is that it promotes this same notion, that self-proclaimed aesthetic experts really are experts, when in fact perfume perception is highly subjective (Everything you've heard and read about perfume is true!), which implies that such "perfume pundits" are really just people with particular likes and dislikes. It's one thing to be an expert about the science of olfaction and quite another to be an “aesthetic expert” about perfume—whatever that is supposed to mean. Even worse, the whole concept of institutional preservation of select perfumes holds the potential for corporate cooption.
I recall reading an announcement by Chandler Burr of his new position as curator of the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. One of the first things he mentioned was that funding was being provided by Estée Lauder, a company which obviously has a lot at stake financially in the identification of some of its and its subsidiaries' perfumes as genuine masterpieces.
Now, the arts have always had their patrons, of course. But the difference in this case as, say, from that of the visual and literary arts, which receive a great deal of public funding, is that in order for legislators to fund such an undertaking, they would need first to believe that perfumery is an art. It's a chicken-egg problem or, if you like, a catch-22. Because perfumery is not generally regarded as an art by average people (as opposed to perfumers and perfumistas), it cannot receive the sort of public funding enjoyed by the established arts. This leaves primarily corporations to foot the bill, but they obviously have a very self-interested reason in seeing to it that the products of their making receive stamps of approval from "the experts".
On the very face of it, there would seem to be the potential for deep conflict of interest in this structure, with a perfumer as the curator and the institution being funded, I presume, by some of the houses. It seems to me rather like the situation with a Museum of Oenology underwritten by Robert Mondavi or some other winemaking giant. These apparently truth-seeking institutions may start to seem more like just another promotional tool rather than an apparatus for celebrating the great perfumes of the past. Perfumery as it has developed in human societies, and in the form to which we are granted access, is a business. There may be artists working behind the scenes, but the real power at the houses lies elsewhere.
In the end, rather than attempting to turn perfume into something which it is not and could never be, perhaps we should instead celebrate this art form's essential ephemerality. Just as the value of travel inheres primarily in the experience, and not in the souvenirs and snapshots or videos which one may gather along the way, perhaps we should focus more upon the precious beauty of the fleeting moments of pleasure which perfume can bring to us, and worry less about how to bottle that experience for all time.