Friday, July 27, 2012

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 2: Anaximander, Anaximenes, and the Importance of Contrariness

The heavy rain faded away leaving a thick curtain of humidity hanging in the air. It suddenly dawned on me: could water [or eau de toilette] alone explain this steamy effect? Would it not be more accurate to say that the hot and the dry gave way to the cool and the wet, and then as the heat returned, it transformed the wet into this muggy blanket of moisture now tinging the world rather gray and making me feel as though I were in a permanently decaffeinated state?

My thoughts are running slow; my speech is slightly slurred, but this much I believe, albeit foggily, that I know: Does not reality, my exquisitely scented friends, ultimately comprise pairs of contrary things: the hot and the cold, the wet and the dry, the black and the white, the scented and the unscented?

As a matter of fact, there was a pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximander, who appears to have believed precisely that. This theory is ascribed to Anaximander by historians, all of whom write about other historians' writings, leading back to the sole extant phrase said to have been authored by this man:

They give justice and reparation to one another 
for their injustice
in accordance with the arrangement of time.

Now, the historians who interpret this cryptic phrase pregnant with possibility understand it to mean anything but an assertion of the profound philosophical importance of perfume, and I am confident that no one has ever before ended the list of contraries ascribed to Anaximander with the all-important pair “the scented and the unscented.” Yet it seems obvious that such an exclusion cannot be rationally justified, given the abundance of smells found naturally in the world and of which Anaximander was undoubtedly aware.

Could Anaximander really have been anosmic? I think not. Instead, what has happened is that historians over more than two thousand years have dogmatically re-penned the same old interpretations over and over again, the very interpretations in which they were steeped as students. All too eager to please their mentors, these thinkers have never really made any progress at all. Trapped in what they have been told by equally ignorant others was the worldview of the ancient Greeks, scholars continue to this day to neglect the central role played by perfume in the history of Western philosophy. Let's look now more closely at what Anaximander, clearly an avid perfumista—whether closet or not—really thought.

Anaximander is said to have believed that all of these contraries emerge from an enormous “Indefinite-Infinite,” what he termed the apeiron. The existence of the apeiron would seem to be the only possible explanation, too, for the fact that perfumers still today, more than two millennia after Anaximander reflected upon the nature of reality, continue to make radically disparate, even antithetical perfumes. Translating the terms of the question and its answer to a modern context, how would Anaximander have aligned the opposites in perfumery?

We perfumistas all know that sharp, soapy floral aldehydes such as Hermès Calèche and Amouage Dia bear next to no resemblance to a sweet floral oriental such as Tom Ford Black Orchid Voile de Fleur or Bond no 9 Chinatown

But all of these perfumes are closer to one another than any of them is to a flowerless fragrance such as Prada Infusion de Vétiver or Annick Goutal Mandragore.

How to explain the seemingly endless ability of perfumers to continue to come up with new creations, using a finite palette of scents in the world?

It is through the interaction and exchange of opposite qualities emerging out of the indefinite-infinite apeiron, the wise Anaximander explained, and we may rest assured that he would have wholeheartedly concurred with the application of his theory to perfume. 

Indeed, perfume would seem to offer the clearest illustration of what are said to be Anaximander's own views. This philosopher's metaphysical theory has the added virtue of having prophetically predicted what would happen in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in the world of perfume.

Anaximenes, Air and the Accordion Effect

Anaximander's thought has been admired by many, but another pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes, refined the theory of the indefinite-infinite apeiron, whose generation of opposites was left unexplained by Anaximander himself. In a brilliant anticipation of modern theories of physical chemistry, Anaximenes reasoned that the qualitative differences observed in nature were brought about by quantitative changes.

To give a simple example: think of water at very different temperatures. Water which is frozen has the properties of a solid thing. Water which is heated up acquires the properties of a gaseous thing. On analogy to this case, throughout nature, Anaximenes reasoned, it is through quantitative changes that qualititative differences emerge.

However, Anaximenes did not embrace water as the ultimate substrate, as Thales had. Instead, Anaximenes hypothesized that pneuma or air was the most basic substance, the underlying foundation of the universe. He reasoned that air becomes denser and denser as it undergoes condensation, to produce all of the other apparently disparate types of matter in a series looking something like this:

air fire wind cloud water earth stone

In tandem, dense matter becomes lighter through the reverse process, of rarefaction:

stone earth water cloud wind fire air

In other words, air is the beginning and the end of all things. It goes perhaps without saying, then, that given his explicit focus on air, Anaximenes would have been very, very conversant with the perfumes of his time, and with only a bit of interpolation, we can derive important implications of his theory for the modern world of perfume.

How did Dior Poison and Giorgio of Beverly Hills Giorgio 
give rise to the house of Clean?

In some ways, what Anaximenes was suggesting held sway was the proverbial “pendulum” or “accordion” effect, which obviously applies directly to perfume. Among other phenomena, the 1980s excesses of super-potent or scent-ful perfumes which filled entire public spaces could only have been followed by the pendulum—or, if you prefer, the accordion—effect of the apeiron. If asked to explain what transpired, Anaximenes would surely have replied that an expansion to the upper limits of scentedness had to be followed by a contraction back to unscentedness.

So there you have it my fragrant friends: the ultimate explanation of the anti-perfume backlash and the mass of perfumes being marketed today which offer no more and no less than the scent which should be expected upon one's emergence from the shower or bath.

Hair conditioner and shampoo florals, sweet laundry scents, and “not a perfume” perfumes all emerged from the inexorable oscillatory expansion and contraction of the apeiron. The “not a perfume” perfumes such as Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 and Juliette has a gun Not a Perfume may represent the limit to which the contraction of the apeiron can still be capitalized upon in persuading consumers to pay for less complexly scented liquids. Or are people also prepared to pay niche perfumery prices for a completely unscented liquid? Only time will tell.

For now, we have Anaximander and Anaximenes to thank for providing us with the explanation so many of us have been grasping for in attempting to make sense of recent developments in the world of perfume, a microcosm of the vast universe which these wise philosophers undertook to explain. Clearly these thinkers, like Heraclitus and Thales, were inspired and enlightened by their experiences of perfume.

A House of Mirrors

What is it, then, which unites all of these pre-Socratic philosophers? No, my fragrant friends, it was not just that they preceded Socrates, nor that they indulged in metaphysical speculation. Nor that they had far too much free time on their hands, as non-philosophers may be tempted to jest. In reality, although their views have been rendered scent-free by olfactorily challenged historians throughout many centuries, all of these monistic thinkers recognized that, far from being a mere cosmetic item, perfume holds within it the key to the deepest mysteries of the universe.

Our memories elicited by scent reflect an infinite kaleidoscope of experiences unique to individuals yet still binding them together as one. When we disagree about perfumes, proving yet again that “One perfumista's treasure is another's trash,” we reveal that each one of us, like Thales, Heraclitus, Anaximander, and Anaximenes, have grasped different facets of Reality. We may lose sight of this truth, under sway of lists of fictitious and metaphorical names given in the note hierarchies for perfumes.

Cotton Candy: Aquolina Pink Sugar and MOR Marshmallow MOR

Popcorn: Dior Miss Dior [Chérie] and Memo SIWA

Vodka: Bvlgari BLV Notte Pour Femme and Parfum d'Empire Ambre Russe

Earth: Tokyomilk Crushed and Tauer Perfumes Pentachords Verdant

Seawater: Comptoir Sud Pacifique Aqua Motu and L'Artisan Parfumeur Fleur de Liane

Suede: Keiko Mecheri Cuir Cordoba and Tangeri; Serge Lutens Daim Blond

Ozone: Bond no 9 Fire Island and Linari Vista sul Mare

In reality, cotton candy, popcorn, vodka, earth, seawater, suede and ozone are found in no perfume. These are names given to the intended evocations of the perfumes in which they are said to figure. People with no prior experience of cotton candy, popcorn, vodka, or suede will not be reminded of those objects when they smell a perfume which its creator intended to call to mind those things. But even less obviously metaphorical notes, such as rose, jasmine, ambergris, and many other naturally occurring things, are also, in truth, metaphorical. There is no rose in a rose perfume. A rose perfume is intended to evoke the effect of a rose on the person who smells the perfume. What is the effect of a rose on a person who comes in contact with it? Depends on the person!

This is why, in the end, perfumes make up an infinite house of mirrors, into which we glimpse each time we take a sniff as our memories and associations rise to consciousness. This is also why perfume reviews reveal much more about the author than about the ostensible object of his or her critique.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Profound Philosophical Significance of Perfume: A Reconsideration of the Historical Record

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics, Part I

Perfume has been sorely neglected, entirely omitted from the history of Western philosophy. One reason for such a glaring omission no doubt derives from the simple fact that the history of Western philosophy was written by men. White men, to be more exact.

Perfume has often been regarded as a woman's weapon for attracting men—what remains true in some circles today—and until rather recently in human history, a woman's intellectual energies appear to have been largely directed toward finding a husband to support her. Once married, many women throughout thousands of years of human society all over the world and up to the present day devoted nearly all of their time and energy to raising children. Who has time for philosophy when toddlers are scurrying about the floor attempting to turn every available object into an implement of self-mutilation, poisoning, or even death?

Times have changed, but not all that much, I'm afraid. Most philosophers still today are men, and although it has become socially acceptable for men to wear perfume and for both men and women to discuss perfume, such exchanges have yet to make it into the hallowed halls of philosophy, where the ideas of men and men alone continue to dominate. Philosophical women dissatisfied with those topics tend to end up ghettoized, talking amongst themselves about what has come to be termed “Feminist philosophy.”


Someone once said (I believe it was Alfred North Whitehead—a man, of course) that all of Western philosophy is but footnotes to Plato. Well, Plato was a man, so it's not that surprising that the same old ideas and concepts keep getting hashed and rehashed with a few epicyclic curlicues added on here and there. It is very difficult for anyone to say anything very new and be taken very seriously in philosophy. Why is that? Because the people who judge what are good ideas in philosophy were selected by people who were selected by other people who wrote footnotes to Plato. QED.

In some ways, this is just the nature of institutions, of which academia is obviously one. They are intrinsically conservative, because the individuals currently occupying the administrative posts of an institution, including the institution of professional philosophy, are interested first and foremost in institutional preservation. They defend, in other words, the status quo.

Revisionist History: Writing Perfume into the Narrative

I think that it's time that we struck out on our own, my fellow fragrant travelers, having now seen the reasons for the total neglect of perfume throughout the lengthy history of philosophy. Better yet, let us consider how the history of philosophy might be rewritten more insightfully, had only the earliest recorded philosophers grasped the supreme importance of perfume.

Let us back up to a bit before Plato, or even Socrates, and begin with the pre-Socratic philosophers. I have made a few passing allusions here at the salon to a couple of these thinkers before, Heraclitus and Parmenides, but there were others as well. Since my earlier remarks met with silence from readers, it might be a good idea to provide a bit more background on the pre-Socratics more generally.

These philosophers lived in ancient Greece and, logically enough, preceded Socrates, who arrived on the scene more than two thousand years ago in about 500BC. It is a bit misleading to talk as though the philosophers before Socrates formed a well-defined school or group, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, because the individual thinkers lumped together under this label appear to have had very different theories of reality. The monists were united in their belief that reality comprised one ultimate substance, but they did not agree about what that substance was. Other pre-Socratic philosophers, the pluralists, rejected monism, maintaining that there were multiple primary substances in reality.

Of course, similar conflations occur in perfumery as well. Consider the different types of chypre: a classic fruity chypre (YSL Yvresse, Nina Ricci Deci Dela) is very different from a classic floral chypre (Jean Patou Sublime, Sisley Eau du Soir).

Adding leather imparts to such perfumes a very distinctive demeanor (Robert Piguet Bandit), yet they are all united by their chypre quality no matter how different any two of them might be from one another. 

Modern sweet patchouli floral chypres (Chanel Coco Mademoiselle, Van Cleef & Arpels Oriens) bear very little resemblance to the oakmoss and galbanum-rich chypres of the classical era in perfumery, pre-Y2K. I would say that the single feature uniting all of these very different perfumes is a texture which makes all chypres closer to one another than they are, say, to citrus aromatic fragrances.

What was it that united the pre-Socratic philosophers, aside from the fact that they preceded Socrates? They shared a desire to explain the phenomena of empirical reality by appeal to simplifying metaphysical theories. In some ways, it would be accurate to say that they were reductionists, who looked for the fundamental principles or substances or substrates, as they are sometimes called, of reality.

What is everything else made up of? 
What is really real, behind all appearances?


These were pressing questions to the philosophers grouped together under the label Pre-Socratics. Socrates' skeptical stance may have been, in part, a reaction to what he regarded as the metaphysical excesses or the epistemological pretenses of those who would claim to have at last grasped the True Nature of Reality.

Metaphysical theories are, by definition, not susceptible of empirical confirmation or refutation, so philosophers who posit such ultimate substrata are necessarily speculating as to the true nature of reality. Whose theory is right? seems to have been Socrates' response to the flurry of substantive philosophical assertions made by the philosophers who preceded him. But it's not just metaphysicians who feel threatened by critics such as Socrates, as his own history clearly reveals.

In any case, the theories of the pre-Socratics are worth considering, especially in the light cast by the sun as refracted through perfume.

Perfume as the True Source of the Wisdom of Heraclitus

We've been experiencing a lot of very hot weather in Boston over the past couple of weeks. It is perhaps natural, then, that lately I've found the thought of Heraclitus rather persuasive. For this pre-Socratic philosopher, the ultimate substance or principle of reality was fire. Heraclitus left behind very cryptic, aphoristic texts such as

One never steps into the same river twice.”

The idea for which Heraclitus is most famous is that of change as the basis of everything:

Everything is in flux, everything is change.

Let us consider these two statements in turn. I wonder, first, whether Heraclitus in making the statement about the essentially changing nature of a river, into which one can never step twice, was not also making a statement about perfume perception. I have laid out this idea in more detail in Everything You've Heard and Read About Perfume is true, and I explicitly brought Heraclitus into the sequel to that lively discussion, which however ended as a monologue, since no one ever replied. Silence usually signifies complete agreement, so I cannot really claim to have been surprised.


My hunch is that Heraclitus, too, if asked a direct question about the nature of perfume perception would subscribe to more or less the same theory, which, after all, is a version of his own! The idea, essentially, is that each time we wear a perfume, our experience of it will be different. This implies, does it not, that we never wear the same perfume twice?

To those who will object that the evidence points only to the changeable nature of the perfume wearer, I rejoinder: can a person be mistaken about what she herself perceives? I am not talking about the object of the perception. I am talking about the perception itself. It seems to me that, just as a person cannot be wrong about being in a state of pain—whether or not there is a documentable physical basis for that pain—if a person claims to smell roses, cat pee, rubber, jasmine, leather, oakmoss, patchouli, vanilla or whatever, then she does.

If she thinks that is what she smells, then that is the nature of her perception. In other words, she cannot be wrong about what she thinks that she smells. This is a very different claim from saying that if a person smells dung, then dung is there. But if dung is what the person perceives, then that is what she smells, in the sense that that is the content of her perception.

But wait, there's more. This would seem to imply that the object of perception is capable of presenting itself to different noses and even the same nose in very different ways. Yes, those ways depend to some extent upon the wearer and the circumstances, but a person cannot be wrong, it seems to me, about what he or she smells.

Different notes are salient at different times and to different degrees, which implies that perfume itself is inherently mercurial, presenting itself, as it does, to different wearers under various guises. This is the primary reason why it does not make a lot of sense to me for people to base their purchases of perfume upon someone else's perceptions of them, perceptions with which they may or may not agree. The “same” perfume has many different appearances, if you will, and not only do different people attend to different facets, even the same person attends to different facets at different times, affected by not only temperature and humidity, but also the wearer's state of mind.

Now, turning to Heraclitus' second idea, that Everything is in flux, it seems equally clear to me that the wise philosopher was actually reflecting upon the undeniable fact that perfumes metamorphose over time. They change. Not only do perfume wearers change, but perfumes do, too. They do not remain the same, as much as we may wish for them to. Even when perfumes are not reformulated, they are bound to change as the ingredients used to create them depend upon the source from which they derive, and as they age, they metamorphose over time, all of which raises in a dramatic way the Question of Vintage.

Are these sorts of insights about perfume ever attributed to or said to have derived from Heraclitus? Of course not. He was a man, who could not have thought that perfume had any philosophical significance, or so have presumed perfume-ignorant scholars over the more than two millennia since Heraclitus wrote. It is time, at last, that we set the historical record straight about what Heraclitus really meant and wrote. Could stepping into a river have inspired such profound thoughts alone? I frankly doubt it. Only the joys of perfume could have created the conditions for such an epiphany.

A neo-Thalesian Theory of Reality

Thank goodness rain finally came to our rescue, and with it a swift drop in temperature of more than twenty degrees Fahrenheit! As I watched the sheets of water pour down all around me, and the heat began to dissipate, I felt as though a heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders. A clamp holding my brain in a fixed configuration was suddenly loosened, allowing the cells of my cortex to breathe freely and my thoughts to expand. Suddenly my ways of thinking about reality began to change. Questions began to arise and circulate through my mind once again. I wondered whether Heraclitus was really right after all that fire could be the basis of everything else. Is not water, at the very least, the source of life?

It turns out that there was a pre-Socratic philosopher, Thales, who believed precisely that, and indeed that rather than fire, water was the basis of everything else. I am quite big on hydration, so it makes a lot of sense that I should always have found a lot to like in the theory ascribed by historians to Thales. According to the skimpy extant fragments of texts said to be penned by this philosopher:

All is water

or, in French:

Tout est l'eau

What does this mean? you may with good reason ask. Thales of Miletus was struck by the importance of water and hypothesized that water is the source and first principle of everything else. Or did he?

I would no doubt have been kicked out of graduate school for making such a bold, brash, insolent, and self-indulgent conjecture, but here, protected within the free-thinker haven which is the salon de parfum, I am able to express my true beliefs and propose what may seem initially to be provocative or even outlandish theories.


I wonder, for example, whether a couple of words may have been missing from the key fragment allegedly establishing the philosophical position of Thales. What if the fragment, if found with the words immediately following it, actually said this:

Tout est l'eau [de parfum]

or, in English:

All is eau [de parfum]

Now, since eau de parfum is a dilute solution of perfume, this would seem to imply that Thales was in fact asserting a rather different theory of reality:

All is perfume

To those who wonder why Thales would have insisted upon “eau de parfum” rather than making the more straightforward claim, “All is perfume,” I reply: where did Thales live? It was indeed a warm climate, and this makes it doubtful that pure perfumes or extraits would have been the preferred concentration in such weather conditions. I know that I've been wearing a lot of light colognes throughout this scorching summer. I do of course recognize that Thales' first stab at a comprehensive theory of reality may well have been

All is eau de toilette

But let us not decant drops. It seems clear to me that Thales' theory of reality has suffered at the hands of persons all too eager to find in his words a theory appealing to themselves, reflecting as it does what they themselves wish to believe. Yes, it easy to see how in reconstructing Thales' thought, historians of philosophy have been tripped up over and over again by their inability to think out of the male cranium. If men were not wearing perfume for most of human history, then why would they ever even have considered the eminently worthy theory above? I rest my case.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Question of BHT: Should I wear as perfume what I would never eat?

"Cool Whip Original is made of water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (including coconut and palm oils), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, light cream and less than 2% sodium caseinate (a milk derivative), natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate and beta carotene (as a coloring). In some markets, such as Canada and the United States, Cool Whip is available in an aerosol can using nitrous oxide as a propellant." 
(from Wikipedia) 

It's easy to become disenchanted and slide into a sad cynicism when one observes what has happened to the corporatized perfume industry in recent years. There are ridiculously many flankers and trivial launches. Under the guise of IFRA health directives, companies are mangling former masterpieces left and right. At the same time, industry views about how perfumes should be made seem to be changing.

I've noticed of late that many perfume houses which did not formerly list BHT among the ingredients in their perfumes now do. Does this mean that they are only now acknowledging that BHT is an ingredient but it was in fact there before? Or is the ingredient now being added when before it was absent? My suspicion is the latter, as entire houses' line-ups have changed as they have come under the yoke of LVMH and Coty, to offer two examples where I have observed a preponderance of labels boasting BHT among the ingredients of perfumes formerly produced independently.

Let us take the case of the house of Marc Jacobs. Perfumes launched by this house before its takeover by Coty did not list BHT as an ingredient. In the last few years, all of the labels of this house, whether the cocktail splash series, Curacao, Cranberry, and Ginger; earlier splashes such as Fig or Gardenia (also produced in the post-takeover period); or recent launches such as Lola and Bang, have listed BHT among the ingredients. In contrast, there is no BHT listed for pre-takeover perfumes such as the original (eponymous) Marc Jacobs or Essence or Blush, all of which I own and which were produced in connection with Givenchy, according to the boxes.

Another in some ways even more disturbing example is Guerlain. Pre-takeover perfumes, such as the early Aqua Allegoria fragrances, or earlier versions of Shalimar, Samsara, Mitsouko, L'Heure Bleue, among others, did not list BHT among the ingredients. In recent years, all of the Guerlain perfumes (all of the ones I've seen, at any rate), including Eau de Cologne Impériale—which is said to be the original formula from the time of Napoléon—have come to list BHT as an ingredient.

Clearly the head chemists at LVMH and Coty think that adding BHT to perfumes is a good idea. Why else would it be found in virtually all (if not all) of the perfumes now being put out by those companies, while it continues to be absent from the perfumes of most independent and niche houses and all traditional houses I've looked at, which suggests that perfumers were not using BHT before.

I'll offer one further example, the house of Fresh. Pre-takeover Fresh perfumes such as Sugar and Sugar Lemon appear not to have contained BHT. All of the following Fresh perfumes now list BHT among the ingredients: Cannabis Rose, Cannabis Santal, and Hesperides, along with what appear now to be discontinued perfumes such as Strawberry Flowers, Sake, and Pink Jasmine. I do not understand this. The whole image of the Fresh company is that of being, well, fresh and natural. Image and reality appear to be diverging...

It is obviously possible to produce fine perfumes without adding BHT. None of my Hermès boxes (and I have several) lists BHT among the ingredients. Not a single one. (Thank goodness that house held its ground!)

I should perhaps make clear that I am not making a global claim here about the safety of BHT, although I am not at all convinced that it is safe. I realize that its use is currently legal. (Is there a need to list here all of the morally repugnant practices which used to be legal and even a part of longstanding tradition?) Despite the legality of BHT, I certainly avoid it in foodstuffs—as readily as I avoid sucralose, which, although also currently legal, completely and utterly repulses me. The question for me (and anyone relevantly similar) is: given that I do not eat BHT, should I wear it in my perfume?

Now, I am aware that there are probably millions of people who are not troubled in the least by the fact that only one variety of Cheerios does not list BHT among its ingredients, and there are obviously millions of people drinking nonnatural diet sodas, laced variously with sucralose or aspartame (nutrasweet), one of the breakdown products of which is … drumroll … formaldehyde! Obviously, companies want to use whatever they can to maximize profits in their products, and that's fine with me, but I do not have to buy and consume them. Given my general avoidance of BHT in food products—whether justified or not—I am currently toying with the idea of boycotting all BHT-laced perfumes in the future.

I already appear to be leaning that way, as I've noticed in a few cases that purchases which I was on the verge of making I changed my mind about after reading the label and seeing those ugly three letters yet again. I do not think that I am being overly cautious here. The problem has been exacerbated for me as I've been noticing that the quality of these BHT-laden perfumes is degenerating in direct proportion to what I believe to be their potential toxicity.

A case in point: I purchased a tester bottle of La Perla J'aime from an online emporium. This is not an old perfume, having been launched in 2007. Upon arrival, the liquid in the previously unsprayed clear glass bottle was pink. In the ensuing weeks, although the bottle was stored under controlled climate conditions and away from light (in a closed armoire), the liquid turned brown. To be honest, I did not like the perfume from the very beginning: the first time I wore it, I woke up in the middle of the night wanting to wash it off. I had made the purchase scent unsniffed based upon my love of the original La Perla, which appears since its launch to have undergone serial reformulation and now no longer appeals to me nearly as much—evernia prunastri has been replaced by evernia furfuracea, among no doubt other changes.

La Perla gets a makeover--or will it be a lobotomy?
I definitely will not be purchasing a bottle of the latest version of La Perla, which was recently announced, but I will say that at least the house is being decent enough to repackage the perfume so that consumers will have a clue that the perfume inside is actually new. To return to the case at hand, the new perfume which I purchased from the house of La Perla, J'aime, struck me as off from the very beginning, so the change in color merely confirmed my suspicions. It seems obvious to me that there is something seriously wrong with a perfume which goes bad in such a short time, and BHT clearly did not help matters. So why, exactly, is the BHT there?

I eat well, and whenever possible choose natural and organic foods over “stuff” containing long lists of nonsense and the ultimate mystery ingredient, “artificial flavor”. Think about it: it could contain literally anything. All bets are off when you buy a food which lists among its ingredients “artificial flavor”. Why, then, should I be any less exacting when it comes to my perfume, which I apply directly to my skin and breath in as well? I may not be able to find out what all is contained in the mysterious, carefully guarded secret parfum ingredient of a perfume which I purchase, but if the blaring letters BHT are staring back at me as I glance at the box before checking out, I have the option of just saying “No.”

In some ways, it's quite odd that as modern people become more health conscious when it comes to food, perfumes seem to be becoming far less appealing aesthetically, with restrictions placed on many of the key natural ingredients of the masterpieces of the past, and the scents of household products such as dryer sheets and laundry detergent, along with shampoo and conditioner, all now being bottled and sold as perfumes. At the same time, these less aesthetically appealing perfumes may actually be more toxic. In my manifesto on this topic, PEOPLE WITH ALLERGIES DO NOT WEAR PERFUME, I attempted to navigate all of these seeming contradictions.

At the end of the day, given the natural historical trajectory of capitalism and its effects upon profit-driven corporations and those who run them, what has been transpiring in the perfume industry is not really all that surprising to me. In some ways, none of this should be surprising at all. Many of the big players in the perfume industry are also big players in the fashion world, and everyone knows (don't they?) that fashion is much more about business than it is about art.

Our tastes are molded by the fashion companies and magazines, which is the only possible explanation for how ultra-low-rider jeans are nearly the only ones available, with the result that sightings of plumber's cracks and muffin tops have become virtually ubiquitous, not to mention—though I will—the increased display of mid-back tattoos and thongs. So fashion is supposed to be about aesthetics, true believers continue to claim? (I have a very nice plot of land for you near Alligator Alley...)

The clothing designers all begin, of course, as artists, but many at some point along the path to success become much more involved in the management and augmentation of businesses than in the direct creative production of their line and the many objects which come eventually to bear their name. I recently watched Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), directed by Matt Tyrnauer, which relays the story leading up to Valentino Garavani's retirement. The overall picture painted in the film of this fashion icon is pretty much that of a diva. He gives his teams of dress designing seamstresses a few vague ideas, and they get immediately to work attempting to realize the capricious deliverances of his will in cloth. Meanwhile, Valentino himself (at least as depicted in the film...) seems far more occupied with his various residences and keeping up the appearances of the diva which he has become.

So what is the point? The point is that when design houses are in cahoots with companies such as Sephora, devising schemes by which to persuade people to part with their perfume wallet share there, not somewhere else, then the tastes of those people will indeed be molded so as to reflect what is currently available—which is dictated by the taste makers. An abundance of sweet patchouli perfumes were launched in the post-Angel period, and in the twenty-first century, shampoo and conditioner and sweet laundry scents seem to be holding sway.

What to do? Should we throw our hands up in dismay and spend the best hours of our day placing bids on e-bay for vintage perfumes which may or may not smell the same as they did decades ago? I am happy to be able to say that there is a better way. It may seem that perfumery is a dying art, given all of the developments outlined above, but what we need to do is to recognize that designer-based perfumery is merging with the fashion industry and thereby moving farther and farther away from the original vocation of the perfumer as an olfactory artist. True perfumers do still exist, but they are often working in their own ateliers, not under the yoke of corporate conglomerates.

The solution to the changes in the perfume industry is not to give up hope but to, in a phrase: follow the perfumers. Where have all the perfumers gone? some may ask. Have they all become hacks? The answers to these questions may not be obvious because of our long-engrained habits of believing that the designers are an excellent source of fine perfume. No, my fragrant friends, just as those hoping to imbibe fine wine exhibiting the traditional virtues need to seek out smaller producers, we perfumistas, too, have a much better chance of finding perfume worthy of its name by patronizing the indie and natural perfume houses.

Should we really be supporting the perfume industry's equivalent
of plumber's cracks and muffin tops?

Follow the Perfumers, my Fragrant Friends!