Esteemed members of the International Fragrance Association, I come to you today with an urgent matter requiring your immediate attention, if the death of perfumery is to be averted before it is too late. I shall detail the crimes being committed by certain parties who have been insidiously laboring heretofore undetected in your midst, in an ever-more zealous effort to hasten the demise of perfumery, but first I need to provide you with a bit of context. Please indulge me briefly as I relay a recent anecdote from my life which bears on the question at hand:
I called my mother last Sunday to wish her well on the holiday, and one of the topics which came up was this blog. She said, “I've enjoyed reading your pieces, but I can't wear perfume because of allergies.”
What? Allergies? What allergies? She is allergic to what, precisely, in perfume? Could it be geraniol, limonene, linalool, cinnamal, citral, citronellol, hexyl cinnamal, farnesol, coumarin, benzyl alcohol, benzyl benzoate, eugenol, geraniol, isoeugenol, benzophenone, benzyl salicylate, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, ethylhexyl salicylate, methyl paraben, propylene glycol, methylpropional, alpha-isomethyl ionone, amyl cinnamal, cinnamyl alcohol, butylphenyl methylpropional, hydroxycitronellal, butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, alpha-isomethyl ionone? Or is it, perhaps, the dreaded and feared evernia prunastri, better known as oak moss?
I rather doubt that it is the latter, given that it has figured in relatively few perfumes—and fewer still today, thanks to restrictions imposed by the IFRA. Who knows what precisely in “perfume”—not this perfume or that perfume, but Perfume in general—my mother cannot tolerate, but it is obviously in enough different perfumes, or at least every perfume she ever tried, which is why she claims today to be allergic to “perfume” and therefore does not wear it at all.
What an eye-opener that was! For years I have wondered—but never asked—why there was next to no perfume in my house while I was growing up. I recall vaguely that there was a bottle of Revlon Charlie (not coincidentally my father's name) on my mother's dresser, and a bottle of Old Spice sitting on the back of the toilet in my parents' bathroom. Apparently it was used on occasion for air freshening purposes. Both of these bottles, my mother informed me this past Mother's Day, were gifts from my grandmother (my dad's mom). Were it not for those gifts, our house would have been entirely perfume-free.
How, then, to explain me? I'm sure that my parents have often scratched their heads, puzzling over precisely how far fruit really can fall from the tree, but my current perfume obsession does seem extreme in the light of such historical revelations. Or does it? Perhaps I am but a rebellious child who never grew up, fighting to resist the values of my parents at every turn.
It is true, I openly aver, that I nearly never practiced the piano until the lessons provided for me by my parents came to an end. (My teachers somehow never noticed...) Only later, free at last to choose to tickle the ivories did I discover the profound pleasure of playing music.
Nonetheless, I do not believe that my mildly obstinate and contrarian nature suffice to explain my current perfume craze, because I left home long, long ago, and get along quite well with both of my parents today. No, I do not think that it is mere perversity which draws me both to perfume and to music, while neither of my parents finds these things to be nearly so important and even less do they find them to be necessary components of a happy life.
Both are remarried to spouses who, too, wear no perfume, at least as far as I am aware. One thing is clear: perfume is not a part of these people's culture. Nor that of most of the people whom I have ever met. Nor that of most of the people in the world. Only in our virtual fragrance communities have I discovered the likes of me: people who love and cherish perfumes as dear friends. People who delight in discovering new elixirs and may even cry upon learning that a beloved friend has died (been discontinued or, what is often worse, lobotomized). Meanwhile, most of the people in the world, and most of the people I know, including my parents and siblings, and my colleagues past and present, live in universes not structured by perfume.
It's not just that perfume is the last thing that they think about spending their hard-earned money on. No, perfume is not even on the list. I, in contrast, spend more money on perfume than on anything else, and if the truth be told, on occasion I find myself shuddering at the thought of the explosion that would ensue should an errant spark somehow be generated in my humble abode, setting the entire place ablaze in a conflagration of perfume flames beyond the means of even the keenest team of fire fighters to contain. But I digress...
Avid perfumistas may lament that for so many years I should have been so very deprived, but I did not mind. The truth, my friends, is that I did not notice at all. I was like a colorblind child, with no access to color but entirely unaware of what I missed. My world contained no red or green, and so, to me, it simply did not exist. To this day, I have not the slightest idea what either Old Spice or Revlon Charlie smells like.
I retain, in fact, only two other memories of perfume from that period of my life. One is of a girlfriend of mine who had a big, bright yellow plastic bottle of Jean Naté, which seemed to me to be somehow too racy for her age—as though she was a teenage pregnancy waiting to happen. I also thought at the time, believe it or not, that her very use of such a product evidenced a type of dirtiness needing to be masked. I never even brought myself to sniff the stuff, that's how little interest I had in that big yellow plastic bottle filled with juice sourced from a vat.
My other childhood fragrance memories are of two blonde sisters who, precociously, were members of a make-up club which sometimes sent them small glass bottles of brown stinky perfume. It was really nothing that I had any desire to meddle in, and so for years, not only did I not feel deprived, but I seem to have been quite happy to be perfume-free.
My own personal history of perfume did not begin until my freshman year in college, when suddenly my sight was restored. But that's another story...
Let us now, with this background in mind, return to the matter at hand: the existence of people with allergies. These people are bothered by perfume, which is why they do not wear it. They do not seek out perfumes devoid of eugenol or coumarin or one of the hundreds, even thousands, of other possible ingredients which may appear on the box of a randomly selected perfume or be contained within the mystery ingredient parfum. They do not, let us be precise, go out of their way to evade evernia prunastri.
No, they avoid perfume tout court, en bloc, because, far from deriving pleasure from wearing it, they find it a source of distress. And I understand and agree that a perfume with which one is physiologically incompatible—the kind that makes me feel like Alex in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange as Beethoven's Ninth symphony is pumped into his flat, an experience I have on occasion felt upon donning a perfume produced in a giant vat—is simply unbearable to wear. Better to avoid even risking the chance of feeling that extraordinarily unpleasant sensation than to make the mistake of donning it again.
My question for you—and eventually where this is all leading will become clear—O Illustrious Members of the International Fragrance Association, is this: Whom, exactly, do you purport to be helping by imposing restrictions on the use of certain ingredients in perfumes? And are you in fact helping more people than you hurt?
It should be clear from the case of my mother, and the many other people in existence like her, that people with allergies to components of perfume severe enough to make perfume an unpleasant experience in general, choose, reasonably enough, not to wear perfume. Furthermore, they tend to marry and live with people who also do not wear perfume.
I wonder, then, what all of these new restrictions are really about? I wonder, first, because so many people in the world wear no perfume at all. But I also wonder as I have begun to notice the proliferation of these three tiny letters on the boxes of more and more perfumes in recent times:
BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene, and it contains, logically enough, toluene, which features, for those who never experienced the joy of organic chemistry, the benzene ring:
Benzene is a known carcinogen, and toluene was identified in 1993 as a toxic air contaminant. This is part of the reason why the use of BHT as a preservative is fraught with such controversy. Not only is BHT used in foodstuffs, and in the lining of food packaging, it is also used as a preservative in cosmetic and skin products, including, with greater and greater frequency, perfume.
Now, we all know that Guerlain perfumes have been reformulated. Both of my bottles of mangled Mitsouko (produced in the twenty-first century) contain not evernia prunastri but evernia furfuracea, and who knows what other substitutions were also made along the way. The only thing that noses know for sure is that Mitsouko is no longer the same. But perfumes have not only been reformulated to remove restricted ingredients such as oakmoss. They appear to contain new ingredients as well.
As far as I can tell, based on the bottles in my collection, Guerlain perfumes did not, in the twentieth century, contain BHT. Over the past few years, every single Guerlain box I've bought has borne those letters, even formulas claimed to be unchanged, as in the case of Eau de Cologne Impériale, created by Pierre François Pascal Guerlain in 1853 for Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoléon III. The ingredients listed on my box are these:
Alcohol, parfum (fragrance), limonene, aqua (water), linalool, citral, geraniol, farnesol, BHT, citronellol
It cannot be the case that the bottle of this cologne which I purchased recently contains the same cologne that was worn by Empress Eugénie. Why? Because BHT is listed among the ingredients on my box, and BHT was first used as a preservative in 1954. QED
BHT, a preservative the safety of which is wildly disputed far beyond the perimeters of the world of perfume proper, made the cut, but oakmoss did not? There's something very fishy going on, and I'm not talking only about Thierry Mugler Womanity, which, incidentally, happens also to contain BHT. What can all of this mean? you may well be wondering, as I myself have been pondering for quite some time. I ask now for your patience and indulgence once again while I sketch out what has emerged as the best explanation of the phenomena before us and, therefore, one may reasonably infer, is also the truth.
Some perfumistas have speculated—consistent with the reigning paradigm according to which multi-conglomerate corporations are gobbling up smaller houses and laying waste to former masterpieces left and right—that all of this is being done in a crass effort to improve their bottom line. Procter & Gamble, having acquired the house of Rochas, subsequently opted to end it for all time. That's right, it's not just that the perfumes of the house of Rochas have undergone in some cases criminal reformulation. No, they are to be entirely removed from the face of the planet, having failed to pull their weight under the yoke of their multi-conglomerate corporate master.
Many people are now aware that Coty has absorbed many formerly independent houses, including Calvin Klein, Cerruti, Marc Jacobs, Jil Sander, Roberto Cavalli, Guess, Balenciaga, Chôpard, Davidoff, Philosophy, Chloé, Lancaster, Karl Lagerfeld, Vera Wang, Stetson, Vivienne Westwood, and others.
LVMH (Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton), for its part, has taken over not only Christian Dior but also the once-illustrious house of Guerlain, among many other less notable but still important acquisitions, including Givenchy, Kenzo, Acqua di Parma, Fresh, Fendi, and Emilio Pucci.
The Estée Lauder Group now controls not only Estée Lauder but also Clinique, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Jo Malone, Michael Kors, Missoni, Tom Ford, and Coach, among many other houses.
Procter & Gamble, too, continues to swallow up new houses—Gucci, Anna Sui, Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss, et al.—even as they have forsaken some of their former “protégées”.
Let us now pause for a moment of silence to mourn the death of the house of Rochas.
I do not deny that the “evil mega-corporation hypothesis” holds much appeal and is indeed quite plausible in this particular case. It explains an awful lot, no doubt, and it may seem that we can blame the corporations, too, for pretending to reformulate in accordance with the IFRA rules, using that as their pretext, when in fact they are implementing much more drastic changes in order to make their wares more profitable.
The problem with this hypothesis, I am afraid, is that it does not explain all of the data at hand. If the reason why people wear perfume is because it is beautiful and does not cause them physiological distress, then adding highly controversial ingredients such as BHT is likely to decrease the number of sales, and especially as public awareness grows over the use of such substances in perfumes, which are applied directly to the skin, the largest organ of the human body. So what is really going on here?
My friends at the IFRA, I regret to inform you that my considered view on this matter is that your ranks have been infiltrated by members of the Anti-Perfume Crusade currently attempting to call a halt to the use of all perfume. You are no doubt aware that there are people alive today writing on the world wide web in vivid, emotional, and even litigious terms, demanding that the use of perfume be outlawed in all public places and open spaces. They compare perfume to second-hand smoke and decry the discomfort, health hazard, and even pain which they are forced to endure at the hands of egocentric perfume wearers who pay no heed to the consequences of their actions for other human beings.
These anti-perfume activists exist, and their numbers appear to be on the rise. Why, then, are perfumes being dumbed down, emasculated, rendered muzak versions of what once were masterful classics? The answer, I think, is plain: the more IFRA restrictions are imposed upon perfumers, the less appealing perfumes will become. At the limit, there will be only vat-produced synthetic juice which no one wants to wear. And that, my friends, is the ultimate objective of the Anti-Perfume Crusade (APC): to so compromise the ability of perfumers to produce true masterpieces, that all of the genuine artists flee to another realm, leaving behind only hacks and industrial chemists who take and obey orders from accountants who spend the best hours of their days poring over ledger lines.
At the end of this ugly process, perfume will have been pommeled down to a product of personal hygiene alone. People will reach for it only out of necessity, to cover bad smells, and most of the people on the planet will arrive at the view shared by my parents and perfume haters everywhere, that clean people do not need perfume.
Perfume will cease to be viewed as an art form by anyone. Everyone, former perfumers and perfumistas alike, will move on to other means of achieving aesthetic satisfaction. If this insidious scheme is not thwarted soon, the Anti-Perfume Crusade (APC) will have won, and the world will be much less than it once was, having begun to chart the path to the elevation of perfume as an art but then stopped in its tracks by perfume haters currently masquerading as benevolent environmental health advocates and working in your offices at the present time under assumed names.
I humbly entreat you, therefore, dear members of the IFRA, immediately to cease and desist from imposing restrictions on the world of perfumery having at last seen through this clever ruse. All restrictions over the use of ingredients which were worn for centuries in perfumes by people who lived normal, healthy life spans enriched by transcendent olfactory experiences should be lifted posthaste.
Yes, these tricksters have attempted with some success to convince you that the restrictions are helping the general public. In reality, however, as the cases of my mother and father and their spouses reveal, people with allergies do not wear perfume, and nothing could be clearer than that your restrictions are being used as a pretext and an excuse to reformulate classic perfumes with devastating effect to perfume lovers, all in an underhanded effort to render perfume banal to the point where no one wants to wear it anymore.
Speaking on behalf of perfumistas, perfumers, and true perfume lovers everywhere, I thank you in advance for your swift attention to this matter.