Thursday, September 27, 2012

Is Pierre Montale William Shakespeare?

Over the course of the past year, perfumistas have been debating whether Pierre Montale is or is not the nose behind the perfume house bearing his name. Clearly Montale is the creative director, but does he exert any real influence over the compositions poured out by his house? Or is an obscure Palestinian man, Ammeh Atmeh, working behind the scenes in a shop somewhere in the United Arab Emirates, really the genius behind the launches for which Pierre Montale has become famous in the perfume world?

My fragrant friends, I come to you today with an alternative hypothesis. This theory, if I may, has yet to receive any sustained treatment by any of the bloggers I've read, but I am sure that upon reflection you will agree that it has much merit and is in all likelihood true. Let me begin simply, by boldly asserting what many of you have been waiting to hear: Pierre Montale is not the nose behind the illustrious Montale niche perfumes.

This is not, however, for want of talent, I hasten to add. The man has in fact had much bigger designs in mind than either you or I might ever have imagined or divined. Mixing together liquids using eye droppers and pipettes in a small laboratory in Paris? No, I'm afraid that Mr. Montale has been spending the best hours of his nights—he sleeps by day—penning the works of one William Shakespeare.

That Pierre Montale is in fact William Shakespeare may on its face seem an absurd proposition—and I own that it is. Key phrase: on its face. The trouble, my fragrant friends, is that for far too long you've been attempting to peer into the wrong atelier. You've been imagining a man in a beret mixing liquids into delightful Middle East-inspired oud elixirs.

In reality, Mr. Montale, far from being a French man with suspected relatives—whether legitimate or illegitimate—in Grasse, is the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon. I am well aware that Shakespeare's dates are commonly given as April 26, 1564 – April 23, 1616, but these were fabricated by Mr. Montale, along with all of the names of perfumes in which all of his literary works, attributed to “Shakespeare”, have been encoded.

Your skepticism is fully warranted, and indeed praiseworthy, O Gently Scented Reader. You encountered the works of William Shakespeare long before you sniffed Pierre Montale's perfumes. If Montale is really Shakespeare, then how and, more importantly, why would he not have taken credit for the prodigious oeuvre of the man said to be the greatest writer in the English language? What evidence could I possibly have to back up such an outlandish claim? I am afraid, my fragrant friends, that the evidence is not merely compelling, but overwhelming.

Exhibit A:

All the world's a stage,
and all the men and women merely players:
they have their exits and their entrances;
and one man in his time plays many parts...

As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7

Clearly Montale is playing cat and mouse with the reader, teasing him, taunting him to discover the truth that Pierre Montale is really William Shakespeare, and William Shakespeare was not in fact a committee, as scholars have sometimes so vigorously argued. No, William Shakespeare is a complete and utter fiction created by one clever man, Pierre Montale. 

The virtual existence of Shakespeare has permitted Montale to live off royalties paid into tax-free off-shore bank accounts from which he has drawn the funds needed to remunerate Ammar Atmeh to produce perfume ostensibly on Mr. Montale's behalf and in his name.

Why has Montale not stepped forward to answer the charges made against him by bloggers all over the world wide web?

Men of few words are the best men.

King Henry V, Act III, Scene II

I sense furrowed brows before me. Inquiring minds are prepared to reiterate and insist: Why not take credit where credit is due?

The better part of valour is discretion.

King Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene IV

But why, you may continue to protest, should Pierre Montale pretend to be a lowly perfumer, not even considered an artist by contemporary standards, if in fact behind the mask Montale has composed and credited to one William Shakespeare, 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and about 10 other poems?

Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

King Henry IV, Part II, Act III, Scene I).

Pierre Montale has often been claimed or thought to be the nose behind the many, many perfumes launched by his eponymous house over the past decade and sold in the Montale Paris boutique which opened in 2003. To date, the Montale perfumes number about 93. To some this would seem excessive, going beyond even Bond no 9 in frequency of new launches, which, in about the same amount of time, has launched approximately 73 perfumes (both figures are from the database). The Bard himself retorts in a well-known passage:

Can one desire too much of a good thing?

As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I

Could a man shamelessly fool all of Western civilization through the perverse fictional creation of what is thought to be the greatest of all fiction writers in the English language? Does not such an act of arrant duplicity and deception assault the basic presuppositions of honesty and trust underlying and essential to peaceful cohabitation in civil society?

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
devised at first to keep the strong in awe.

King Richard III, Act V, Scene III

Many a perfumista has poked fun at the boring names of the Montale collection, which seem to be pieced together using a random name generator. The Bard scoffs:

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

Some have wondered about the excessive focus of the house of Montale on oud perfumes: Aoud Rose Petals, Steam Oud, Aoud Shiny, Moon Oud, Aoud Blossom, Aoud Leather, Aoud Lime, Red Oud, Aoud Forest, Golden Oud, Aoud Amber, Wild Oud, Aoud Safran,... the list literally goes on and on. We find a clue to this obsession in the master's own texts. With these telling words, he reveals his ultimate intention, to continue to launch oud perfumes iteratively until the Middle Eastern elixir to end all Middle Eastern elixirs has finally been achieved:

All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.

Macbeth, Act V, Scene I

To the bloggers and forum trolls who have attacked him, the Bard has answers as well:

The common curse of mankind, - folly and ignorance.

Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene III

Nothing will come of nothing.

King Lear, Act I, Scene I

What's done is done.

Macbeth, Act III, Scene II

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Toiletries Trap—or is it a safe haven?

Arts and Crafts and the Status of Perfume

The status of perfume continues to be debated, but it seems that the reigning climate these days is inclining people to join the “perfume is art” camp. There are many possible sociological, economic, and psychological explanations for this phenomenon relating specifically to this moment in history, but the question whether perfumery is really an art may be but one iteration of an age-old dispute regarding the distinction—or lack thereof—between arts and crafts. Is an accomplished potter an artist or a craftsman? What about a gourmet chef?

Is a genuine object of art essentially useless, serving no mundane function? Does an artist whose medium is clay become a mere craftsman on the days when she produces bowls and mugs? Should what she does be judged by appeal to what other people may or may not do with her creations? If she drills holes in the bottom of her mugs, making it impossible to use them for the purpose for which they appear to be intended, then will this act—senseless to some—elevate her, the creator, to the status of artist? Or will she just be a bad (mad!) potter?

The genre fiction writer offers another useful example for reflection. Authors of detective and mystery, science fiction, and romance novels are producing books which fit into certain predelineated categories and which follow certain basic conventions. 

The readers of such works have a set of expectations which must be met in order for the work to succeed. A mystery novel without any suspense is a failure because being suspenseful is essential to being a good mystery novel. A romance novel with no hot and steamy scenes of love and betrayal would be a flop. A science fiction novel which made no reference to the current state of technology and possible future developments would crash like a rocket with a faulty O-ring.

The Toiletries Take

To many, indeed most, consumers, perfume is a toiletry. Perfumistas have been known to bristle at the suggestion that the object of their olfactory love might be anything less than the most exquisite work of art. Nonetheless, like it or not, perfume is regarded by many people as a toiletry because it is a consumable product just like soap, lotion, and toothpaste. 

Such products all serve functions and offer certain very specific benefits to the user.

People generally perfume themselves in order to smell good. Often the goal is to smell attractive to other people. Some wearers, at least judging by comments in fragrance community website forums, appear to care more about others' receptions of their perfume than they do about their own perceptions of their own scent. 

Whether those who perfume themselves care more about their own opinions' or the opinions of those with whom they come in contact while wearing perfume, they appear to be united in their commitment to the idea so often recited in perfume reviews, that Perfume should smell good. From this perspective, if a perfume does not smell good, then it is either a bad perfume, or it is not perfume at all because it is unwearable.

Bad poetry has its own name: doggerel. Bad perfume is sometimes referred to as swill or dreck. Bad food is slop, but food which cannot even in principle be consumed is really garbage in disguise. In this way, perfumery is obviously similar to cuisine. A meal, no matter how painstakingly prepared by a chef, must be edible, in the end. If it is utterly inedible, because it is repulsive or poisonous, then the chef has failed. Food should taste good, and perfume should smell good. Does this not imply that niche perfumery is completely analogous to haute cuisine? Blasphemy of all blasphemies...

Consumable Crafts

Unlike most other crafts, cooking and perfumery are united by the fact that the products of the craft are consumed. We might consider wine in the same group and place oenology on an equal footing with other crafts the ultimate objective of which is to produce consumable goods. The artisan may and often does aim to produce fine, excellent, beautiful, even transcendent goods, but they must, at the end of the day, be consumable all the same.

What I find especially interesting about these crafts is not just that the goods produced are consumed, it is that the goods must be consumed in order to be experienced. Perfume appreciation, like fine wine and cuisine appreciation involves destroying the very object of appreciation through an act of ingestion. There is no point to food which is not eaten or wine which sits in a cellar never to be imbibed. Similarly, perfume in a capped bottle may hold potential for appreciation, but it is not truly appreciated for what it is, the unique combination of notes which unfurl before the nose, until it is sprayed.

This is, in part, it seems to me, the basis for the claim sometimes made that large perfume collections are ridiculous. If the person who owns hundreds—or even thousands—of perfumes cannot even in principle wear them all, then is she really any different from the notorious hoarder, who amasses and clings to objects in a desperate attempt to create meaning from an otherwise meaningless existence?

Perhaps we can think about large perfume collections in a more charitable light. Perhaps what they reflect is a desire—widely shared by perfumistas today, or so it seems—that we should be able to have our perfume and sniff it too, so to speak. This would seem to be the guiding idea behind the Osmothèque, an institution established in order to preserve perfume which however, in reality, can only be experienced through its very annihilation.

My distinct impression is that most people, even sophisticated perfumistas, have not really thought through the very many different kinds of judgments which they make regarding perfumes. The term 'art' has been appropriated to express approval, without any real examination of what it could mean for perfumery to be an art. It is unclear in what aesthetic principles of judgment applicable to perfumery might consist. People appear to judge perfumes solely by appeal to their own idiosyncratic tastes. Are there principles of perfume criticism? No one has yet to make the case. We can of course use language in any way we like and, yes, we may express our approval of a perfume labeling it a masterpiece or a chef d'oeuvre. But that just seems to be code for: “I love it!”

Certain nagging contradictions need to be addressed, if we are to get to the bottom of this question, it seems to me. On the one hand, many perfumistas seem to want to exalt perfume to the status of an eternal, immortal art. Most notably, in his Untitled series, Chandler Burr has been exhorting people to smell perfume as an art object. A sentence from one of his introductory texts at OpenSky reads: For the first time, experience perfumes in a way that will allow — in fact encourage — you to rethink each scent by freeing you from all visual cues and marketing techniques.

Burr appears to be addressing the unwashed masses most of whom have never participated in the sorts of Mystery Scent Vial Trials which have been hosted by perfumistas for years now. But even people who sample perfumes from vials, independently of the bottles, have already been experiencing perfume as perfume, not as marketing hype. 

To be perfectly frank (quoi d'autre?), it is not at all clear to me what smelling perfume as a work of art is actually supposed to mean. Does smelling a perfume differ from smelling a perfume under the label objet d'art? In what might the allegedly distinct experiences inhere? Both would seem to involve ingesting molecules through the nose which transmit messages to the brain. How does calling a perfume a “work of art” change any of that?

Another problem with such an idea is that perfume is the only example of an alleged art which leaves no traces of itself behind having once been experienced. We must first purchase perfume for our personal consumption before we are able to appreciate it—whether as an objet d'art or something rather more mundane, to wit: a toiletry. Because it must be acquired and destroyed to be appreciated, perfume is essentially commodified.

Of Rules and Shopping Carts

Further evidence for the craft status of perfumery may be found in considering the complacent adherence by perfumers to the IFRA regulations restricting the use of certain materials. Perfumers appear, by and large, to be abiding by these regulations or guidelines. But since when did artists follow the rules? The attitude of perfumers themselves toward the IFRA, their willingness to line up in a row even as this severely restrains their own creative potential, suggests that perfumery is not really an art, at least not as practiced by the vast majority of professional perfumers today. Olfactory art is possible because any kind of art is possible, but perfumers do not, for the most part, seem to be engaged in that enterprise. Most of them are, instead, “noses for hire”.

Successful professional perfumers such as Alberto Morillas and Yann Vasnier secure contracts with a variety of different houses because they can be depended upon to create perfumes which consumers will wish to wear and, by extension, buy. Of course, the same is true, mutatis mutandis, for successful chefs. They are not hired by restaurants unless they have demonstrated their dependability at producing pleasing food which patrons will want to consume. The similarity of the vocation of successful perfumers and chefs suggests, then, that whatever one wishes to call what these professionals do, that label—art or craft—should apply to both cases.

It is worth underscoring here that the Untitled Series being “curated” by Chandler Burr is being carried out under the auspices of the social shopping site OpenSky. The scare quotes are intended. The word 'curated' has become fashionable of late and is now applied to any collection of just about any goods being offered up for sale. I recently received an advertisement from Henri Bendel touting the virtues of its “curated” gourmet snack collection!

The mission of OpenSky, like that of Henri Bendel, is clearly to get people to consume more and more random things as quickly as possible. Nothing else can be reasonably inferred from the frequency of their emails to me in an incessant campaign to get me to buy n'importe quoi, above all, whatever I may have been looking at most recently. If I only browse and do not buy something from OpenSky but make the mistake of placing some item in my cart (to avoid wasting time at the only shopping site I've seen which actually lacks a search button—at least as of today), then I am rewarded with stalking messages until such time as I either buy the item or purge it from my cart.

Once my cart is empty, then I am enticed to return to OpenSky to fill it with more random objects recommended by my “friends” Bobbie Flay, Ming Tsai, Chandler Burr, and anyone else whom I've “shopped with” before. Every so often I am sent a “free shipping day” message, and I also seem to be regularly rewarded for my reticence in closing out deals with “credits” of various amounts, which lately have ceased to be applicable to clearance items and now only apply to purchases of at least $50.

Perfume is a commodity, which Chandler Burr is attempting to sell at the same time that he wishes to exalt perfumery to the status of an art. Many perfumistas appear to have jumped on the Burr bandwagon—which is not to say that this whole movement was his own idea, for it was not—but they also want to consume the perfume paid for with their hard-earned cash. Even more striking, they want to have their perfume—as an art—while retaining the ability to consume it on the cheap, applying pricing standards appropriate to toiletries in deciding whether a perfume is worth its price tag or not.

Fine Art at Toiletries Prices? 
Wake Up and Smell the Chemical Soup!

In an earlier manifesto relating to this topic, PERFUME IS NOT MILK, I pointed out that perfume is an affordable luxury or self-indulgence to anyone well-off enough to dine out, drink wine, or to drive a car where that is manifestly not a necessity (as in a city with an excellent public transportation system). Following upon a feisty exchange with Kankuro (of Parfumo fame) over at Fragrantica, I would like to approach the economic question from another angle. My answer, you may rest assured, will remain the same—not because I am a dogmatist, but because my opinion has yet to change!

I have been struck recently by the importance of this question all the more as I have attempted to wrestle with the question of whether or not perfume is an art. As we have seen, there are good reasons for skepticism about the status of perfumery as one of the beaux arts, but I would like to consider what the likely consequences of a widespread affirmation of perfume as an art form would be. Specifically, what would the economic effect be?

As a preamble, let us consider again the somewhat alarming revelations of the Daily Finance article “Behind the Spritz,” in which the breakdown of the cost of a $100 MSRP bottle of perfume is displayed. On first read, it is mindboggling to discover that the perfume itself accounts for only 2% of the cost of an average massmarketed designer perfume. The article no doubt incensed many perfume lovers, confirming yet again in their mind that the price being asked for by houses is far too high.

I'd liked to dig a bit more deeply into this issue. First off, the assumption being made in the article and by anyone who is troubled by its revelations, is that the price of a good should be more or less the same as the combined price of its constituent components, plus perhaps a small profit margin to those who peddle the product. It seems like common sense.

Let us take a simple example. No one really thinks that a pizza should cost the sum of the cost of flour + yeast + tomatoes + cheese + oregano + olive oil + the heat needed to cook it. If that is what a pizza cost, its price would be something like $1. Add some sausage or anchovies, and maybe it would cost $2. Instead, pizzas cost ten times that much. Part of that price difference is due to the cost of labor to produce the pizza.

Somebody had to harvest the wheat to make flour, to mix with yeast and water, to knead and punch dough, to roll or throw it out to form a disc, to adorn the dough and to convey it into an oven for it to bake. Someone else had to grow the tomatoes, chop them up, transform them into pizza sauce. Yet another chain of persons was needed to milk the cow, to make the cheese, to catch the anchovies, etc. In fact, the costs involved in each of these separate chains to the production of the various components of a pizza is already embedded in the cost of the end product of that chain. So if wheat flour costs $1 for a pound, that price already includes the cost of producing it, along with the profits enjoyed by the various persons employed within the chain.

If one were to produce all of the components of a pizza from scratch—don't try this at home!—that would be another matter altogether and an exercise which would swiftly demonstrate the virtue of the divisions of labor which have arisen in the modern world. Once one reflects upon the chain of labor involved in the production of a pizza, its price no longer seems exorbitant at all. Restaurants buy their basic ingredients in bulk at a significantly lower cost than the volumes typically used by individual consumers. Consequently, to make a pizza at home, which would require first purchasing all of the separate ingredients, would probably cost quite a bit more than the finished pizza parlor product itself—even without the (paltry) wages paid to the restaurant workers.

Turning now to the case of perfume, the consternation over the cost breakdown of a bottle of perfume arises because the aspects of the perfume which we truly value account for the smallest portion of its price. Everything else, much of it extraneous—or so it seems—costs more. Even the bottle, at an average of $6, costs three times more than the juice inside, at $2. On its face, then, the case of perfume seems rather different than that of pizza. True, some pizza parlors do advertise, but many do not—or at least not in the way that Chanel and Dior do—and we are confident that most of the money which we pay for a pizza covers the cost of the pizza itself, not its box!

The concerns raised in “Behind the Spritz” are precisely why people have decried the price of perfume, and often complain about it in their reviews. But what, my fragrant friends, is the cost of anything—and why? Why does a professional baseball player earn millions of dollars a year for donning a costume, hitting a fast-moving ball with a stick, and running around a parallelogram as fast as he can? And why in the world do people pay hundreds of dollars for their families to be able to sit in the stands and watch him do that? For heaven's sake, they could be spending that money on some very fine perfume!

In some cases, a vast disparity arises because the objects in question have an emergent value, which far transcends the value of their material components. Consider a painting by any famous dead artist. Obviously, the cost of the canvas + paint + labor does not add up to the millions of dollars which such a work may command at Sotheby's.

When perfume reviewers complain that they would never pay so much for this, they mean a type of perfume which can be had for a much lower price. We perfumistas demand a lot of the perfumes said to be worthy of our wallet share. We want beautiful and original compositions which wear well and have excellent longevity and which will not spoil before we reach the bottom of the bottle. Many people also want all of this on the cheap. They seem truly to expect original masterpiece perfumes at knock-off prices.

I myself believe that the originality requirement has been grossly overstated and thoughtlessly applied in the case of perfume. Perhaps this is in part a result of the rampant charges of plagiarism made through The Holey [sic] Book. Many reviews by perfumistas seem keen to dismiss as redundant perfumes whose sole demerit is to have reminded the wearer of another perfume created earlier—and often with a lower price tag. To call a perfume a “clone” or a “knock-off” is to allege a conscious act of plagiarism on the part of the perfumer who created it.

I do not understand nor have I ever understood, first, why people derive such a sense of smug satisfaction through leveling such (fully unsubstantiated!) charges, nor, second, why this slander/libel has not been recognized for what it is by nearly anyone—save sherapop—to date. Instead, this condemnation of the efforts of hard-working, well-meaning perfumers continues in a spate unlikely to abate until The Holey [sic] Book is so badly out of date that people stop turning to it at all.

The strident tone and fervor with which this perfume is denounced as a clone of that one, far from establishing the validity of the charge, diminishes the reviewer, not the perfumer, in my mind. How many Beyond Paradise clones exist? Let us count the number of entries in which this manifestly preposterous assertion is made about perfumes which really smell nothing like Beyond Paradise at all! (Marc Jacobs Essence? Really?)

A Modest Proposal

The irony of the knock-off and clone complaints by perfumistas is that often some of the very same people complain from the left side of their mouth that perfume is too expensive and, from the right side of their mouth, that perfume has not been adequately recognized for the art that it is. In reality, the reason why perfume remains affordable, and is by far the least expensive among all luxury products, is precisely and only because the vast majority of consumers regard it as a lowly toiletry.

We may wish to duly acknowledge the greatness of transcendent perfumes, but we'll be much better off if we keep the artistic quality of our cherished elixirs a closely guarded secret among fragrant friends! When was the last time that an art collector picked up a masterpiece for $100 or $200 or even $300? If the word gets out that niche perfume is really art, then the market price will skyrocket and all middle class perfumistas will suffer as a result.

This argument against exalting perfumery as an art is diaphanously pragmatic and self-serving. But I wonder whether those who insist on characterizing perfumers as artists and perfumery as an art have ever thought this matter through and entertained what the consequences would be, were they to succeed in exalting perfume above the (other) toiletries. I recently read a review in which the author expressed “deep regret” at having shelled out all of $15 for several perfume samples from a house whose wares were not to her liking. Need I say more?

When was the last time, O Gently Scented Reader, that you picked up a painting at Sotheby's—or even drained a bottle of vintage wine? My Fragrant Friends, I humbly enjoin you to abandon your vain and self-sabotaging insistence on labeling perfumery as one of the arts, for we will only be able to continue to have our perfume and sniff it too so long as the secret doesn't get out!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 5: Was Anaxagoras the first Lego Perfumery theorist?

The Question of Qualities

Suppose that there were only four different perfume qualities: floral, fruity, aquatic, and green. It's easy to see how one could mix things up to produce fruity floral and floral green perfumes. Even floral aquatic and sweet laundry scents could be produced through the judicious mixing of aquatic with fruity elements:

But how, pray tell, could one build from those basic building blocks—or types, if you like—a woody oriental perfume or a leather chypre?

This was essentially the response of pre-Socratic thinker Anaxagoras to the theory of Empedocles according to which all of reality comprises air, earth, fire and water mixed together in various proportions as a result of the competing forces of Love and Strife. The critical question said to have been posed by Anaxagoras naturally omitted his thoughts about perfume, but the idea is clearly the same:

How could hair come from what is not hair or flesh from what is not flesh?

translated into perfumery terms:

How could chypre come from what is not chypre or fougère from what is not fougère?

Never one to gush over “abstract florals,” Anaxagoras was among the earliest, and may indeed have been the first to observe that there is no such thing as a floral perfume.

Tuberose? Yes.


          Jasmine? Yes. 

                    Narcissus? Yes.

                   Heliotrope? Yes.

Violet? Yes.

Orange blossom? Yes.

Rose? Of course. 

In fact, in virtually all cases there are multiple varieties of any given flower designated by a simple name, but we can consider the name 'rose' as code for a set of different types of roses, Damascus, Ta'if, Bulgarian, etc .“Floral perfume,” in contrast, could only be a fiction, unless by that expression one meant a floral bouquet of specific flowers, say, gardenia, tuberose, and jasmine. Or perhaps the expression “floral perfume” should be reserved for “abstract floral” perfumes?

What about the mixing of the various elements of a perfume together? Anaxagoras was certainly sympathetic to the idea of there being fundamental forces or actions, but instead of Empedocles' Love and Strife, he posited the existence of something not unlike the view of God promulgated by sophisticated believers. He called it Nous, which is Greek for Mind.

According to Anaxagoras, “in everything there is a portion of everything.” Reality is made up of lots of things which are made up of lots of little parts or bits. The orchestrator of all of this is Nous, the all-pervading Mind which imposes an intelligible pattern in an otherwise unintelligible universe.

We can infer what the individual parts are by considering the distinct qualities manifested by disparate things. Jean Patou Sublime does not smell anything like Fendi Theorema, despite the fact that the two liquids look similar in terms of color and viscosity. How to explain the disparity in scents? Well, Anaxagoras would have reasoned, had he lived to sniff those two great perfumes, Sublime is made up mostly of little Sublime bits, while Theorema is made up mostly of little Theorema bits!

I see some smirks on your faces. Yes, the reasoning sounds not unlike Molière's jibe at the explanation of opium's sleep-inducing properties, said to derive from the quality of being somniferous. But Anaxagoras was no fool. No, he was really on to something, as we can begin to appreciate through reflecting on this matter as it relates specifically to the case of perfume.

The formula or recipe of a perfume is a complex list of a variety of different chemical substances, but the reproduction of the perfume requires strict adherence to that recipe, if the same perfume is to be produced. Conversely, any perfume which contains those very same substances in the very same proportions—or similar enough to be indistinguishable by the human nose—will smell just like the original perfume.

Of course, some noses make finer discriminations than do others, and for those people even small changes in formula will result in what seems to be a very different perfume. For those with more obtuse olfactory receptors, it may not be possible even to distinguish a kiosk “smells like” knock-off from a masterpiece. Are those people fortunate or unfortunate? A question for further reflection...

In the view of a pluralist such as Anaxagoras, what makes two visually indistinguishable perfumes olfactorily distinct is the fact that they contain different proportions of a variety of different bits. This is a rational inference which is illustrated by the faithful and continuous reproduction of perfumes first composed in some cases decades ago. In contrast, reformulated perfumes, which do not adhere strictly to the original recipe, obviously will not smell the same to those capable of making fine olfactory discriminations, and according to whom reformulations—auto-knockoffs, if you will—are misleadingly named for marketing purposes.

Given his views on the nature of things, Anaxagoras can be not implausibly regarded as the first Lego perfumery theorist in history. Lego blocks are very similar to the qualitative bits of which he wrote: they come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, and can be combined in different ways to build the larger things of which they are comprised. Consider a few simple examples.

Building a structure out of only yellow Lego blocks will yield a yellow structure, just as building a perfume essentially out of ambroxan will yield no more and no less than bottled ambroxan. Same story, evidently for iso-E-super, which we could symbolize metaphorically as blue Lego blocks.

What if one builds a structure of interlaced yellow and blue Lego blocks? From a distance, when viewed together, the structure may look green. More complex perfumes will also have different overall qualities depending upon which individual components are snapped together into a single structure (poured into a bottle).

What marks the distinction between an iconic perfume and a mess? It has to be the skillful layering and interlacing of the various components in judicious proportions so as to produce consistently perceivable and pleasurable effects, as when a classic perfume unfurls in stages. A good comparison might be to pointillist or impressionist paintings. Up close, there are no figures discernible—only dots or brushstrokes. Stepping back a certain distance causes the figures intended by the artist suddenly to pop into view. Sometimes they are more obvious than others, but in order to succeed, they must be recognizable by people who are capable of appreciating such things.

Any child can fill a canvas with dots or mix the contents of a number of different vials together. Only someone with a great deal of skill and experience can create a chef-d'oeuvre from the same materials. In the view of Anaxagoras, this process is guided by Nous, which could be interpreted as artistic or perfumic inspiration. In order for a great work to be recognized as such, intersubjective affirmation is necessary as well, and painters labor under cultural and market forces no less than perfumers do.

An iconic perfume has succeeded in carving out a new spot of previously uncharted territory on the grand olfactory map. A second requirement, for even a highly original perfume to achieve true icon status, is that it enjoy widespread market success. Many perfumes carve out new spots of previously uncharted territory, but for one reason or another they are market flops. Typically they are discontinued and fade away into oblivion, for the number of people who wore them inexorably diminishes as they pass away. At some point, it's as though the perfume never existed at all. How many perfumes from 500 years ago does anyone still talk about today?

Only iconic perfumes hit on a formula which appeals to a sufficient number of consumers to warrant keeping the perfume in production. But the contribution of the house, its ability to market the perfume, is even more important to contemporary recognition than is the nature of the creation itself.

Iconic Perfumes and the Question of Reformulation Revisited

I have entertained the idea that the tsunami of flankers and limited edition perfumes over the last few years may have as its ultimate effect that iconic and what I have termed “tattoo” perfumes are now a thing of the past. Like the supermodels of the 1980s and the Rolling Stones, iconic perfumes of previous decades keep hanging on, their marketing limits stretched further and further out.

Indeed, the entire vintage perfume industry trades on the same feelings of nostalgia which may well up inside nearly anyone upon hearing Mick Jagger belt out “Satisfaction” or Roger Daltry wailing “My Generation.” Such songs have been played so many millions (billions?) of times on radio stations all over the world, that they are immediately recognizable to nearly anyone with access to Western media.

The same sort of mass media inundation explains the success of many perfumes as well. Witness the advertisements for Christian Dior J'Adore, or Estée Lauder Beautifulperfumes which have been reformulated and yet continue to be marketed as though they were brand new launches. J'Adore and Beautiful succeeded in the past and continue to do so, even though the perfumes are not the same as they once were.

In some ways, such perfumes are similar to supermodels such as Linda Evangelista, Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, and Stella Tenant, who despite being twice as old now as they were when they burst onto the modeling scene, continue to appear in countless advertising campaigns in widely distributed fashion magazines.

If the plug were suddenly pulled on the non-stop, virtually ubiquitous advertising campaigns for perfumes such as J'Adore, Beautiful, and I dare say Chanel no 5, would the popularity—necessarily measured in terms of market success—of the perfumes being sold by those names continue? 

If Linda Evangelista were to walk into a model agency cold off the street today, what is the likelihood that she would be able to land a contract, now that she is a middle-aged woman? None whatsoever, of course. But because of her successful modeling career, her image has become iconic and can be used to sell all sorts of products today, even to people who are half her age, which is why and how she can continue to refuse to get out of bed for less than $10K—although that figure must of course now be adjusted for inflation.

Will the J'Adore flankers, riding on the tail of the J'Adore marketing machine, enjoy a similar longevity? This seems highly doubtful. In fact, flankers can be viewed as simply another way of extending the market life of a previously successful perfume. Successful perfumes are not necessarily iconic perfumes, though all iconic perfumes have enjoyed at least a period of market success. What has happened in recent times, it seems to me, is that marketing has become far more important than perfumic integrity.

People will buy what is seductively packaged and promoted even without having any idea what is inside—in the case of perfume: how it really smells. Once purchased, provided that the perfume is not offensive or nocent or disagreeable in some other way, then the owner of the bottle will wear the perfume.

The trend, then, appears to be to get perfumes into people's hands and onto their vanity trays, after which as a result of a natural process of habituation, the same perfume will be purchased again and, the marketers hope, again. When limited edition flankers disappear, then the reformulated namesakes may be purchased in their stead.

The retention of the same name for what has become a different perfume, as in the case of Guerlain Mitsouko, may ultimately provide confirmation of the Parmenidean view on the realm of becoming, that it is indeed the realm of falsehood and illusion. Everything is fair game in the realm of becoming, and people will do what they will do in order to get what they want. But if all acts of naming are a matter of convention, then is anyone really to blame for retaining the name of a formerly great perfume and using it to label a less noble variant of the same?

We have jumped ahead to broach the question of convention, which arises quite naturally in the case of a philosophical theory of materialism such as was championed by Democritus, who will be featured in the next installment of the History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume. Democritus also offers a persuasive answer to the question: 

How could chypre come from what is not chypre or fougère from what is not fougère?