Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Bottle Controversy: A Philosophical Investigation

In thinking about what might be called “the bottle controversy,” that is, whether the vessel in which a perfume is housed should be an object of our attention and concern, I have become more and more convinced that bottles really do matter, and in more ways than I originally supposed. I have always been pleased by aesthetically beautiful bottles, and I occasionally retain a perfume for its bottle, even though I never (or no longer) wear the liquid inside. But the philosophical significance of bottles I now find even more striking than their aesthetic value as functional objects of design.

There are of course bottle collectors, who have made a hobby of the accumulation of perfume bottles in the way in which some people collect stamps or coins or figurines or baseball cards or... you name it: if an object appears in a variety of instantiations and can be possessed, there are collectors of it somewhere.

My interest in bottles is not that of a collector. I am interested in the philosophical importance of bottles. At the first level, I wonder what it could mean to say that the bottle and packaging of a perfume do not or should not matter. Why, from an aesthetic perspective, should a bottle matter any less than does anything else? has always been a persistent puzzle to my mind. To be honest, it's a version of a question which pops up regularly regarding virtually everything in my experience.

Believe it or not, whenever I see a notebook or even a block-colored cooler or trash can marred by an ugly label still affixed, though its purpose was only to bear an SKU so that the product could be sold, I ask myself why the owner did not peel it off, which would have left behind a smooth monochromatic surface worthy of regard. We don't wear price tags on our clothing, so why do some people leave such labels on objects which, too, will be visible to other people's eyes?

Despite my evident belief that everything in our experience has aesthetic potential, even what some consider to be the lowliest of objects, and despite my puzzlement over the sheer arbitrariness manifested by people in their selection of some but not others things as worthy of their aesthetic regard—I think here again of my well-off yuppie friends who have expensive artworks hanging on their walls but flatware which looks as though it was lifted from a local hospital cafeteria—it occurred to me recently that it would behoove us to dig a bit deeper. What I found was that beyond their manifest aesthetic value, perfume bottles possess a metaphysical and an epistemological significance as well. Indeed, even bottles which I do not find beautiful are nonetheless philosophically important to perfume.

The Philosophical Significance of Bottles I: Metaphysics
The Bottle [Body] as the Temple of the Soul

I have occasionally compared perfumes to persons, pointing out such similarities as mortality, natural progression or change over time, including aging, and how fickle our relations with them can be, in part because our perception of them is intrinsically perspectival. We cannot grasp a perfume in its totality any more than we can grasp a person in his or her entirety. What we have as experiences of them are snippets or screen shots, if you will. In reality, the precise properties which we attend to in a particular encounter may have much to do with arguably irrelevant or extrinsic factors. Were we distracted, perhaps multitasking? Did we not attend to the complexity of the story being told because there were other matters on our mind? Were we tired, exasperated or perhaps in a surly mood?

We also may experience radical changes in our affect toward perfumes as toward people. A perfume which we once loved, we may become unable to endure, whether because we have changed or it has. Some perfumes do not age well; others have been reformulated. Some of them don't change at all, but because we do, they no longer seem to be what we once thought that they were.

We may become more sophisticated in our perfume choices, or we may simply change our tastes, in some cases influenced by what happens to be on the market today, dictated by marketing gurus attempting to capture our wallet share. However slim our own investments in the perfume market may seem when regarded individually, the fact remains that we are all members of market niches. There are literally thousands of others like you, my fragrant friends, at least when it comes to perfume-shopping behavior.

As a result of all of these factors, our relationships with perfumes, just as our relationships with other people, may be shaped and even to some extent determined by arbitrary circumstances of chance. At the most fundamental and obvious level, we cannot develop a relationship with either a person or a perfume whom we've never met!

It dawned on me recently that if a perfume is analogous in so many ways to a person—specifically, what is often thought to be the essence of a person, his or her soul—then this would seem to imply that the bottle is analogous to the physical body of a person. In other words, the bottle, like the body, is the temple of the soul.

Now, not everyone buys this reasoning, and some thinkers woefully neglect their physical well-being, eschewing exercise, eating poorly, and in some cases indulging excessively in toxic substances such as alcohol and other drugs, under the arguably false assumption that they are actually benefiting from this self-inflicted bodily abuse. While a few outlier thinkers and artists may flourish creatively as their bodies self-destruct, generally speaking, the health of the body has predictable effects upon the health of the mind or soul. If poisons are coursing through one's body, then the brain, too, is bound to be affected in one way or another, often for the worse.

One possible basis for the folk wisdom that “the body is the temple of the soul” can be found in the thought of Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who maintained that human beings are rational animals. Yes, we have minds or souls, but we also are connected in a fundamental way to the earth and the rest of nature as embodied souls.

There is no way for a person to live in this world without his or her body, and there is no way for a perfume to exist without being somehow housed in a physical object which will prevent it for a finite amount of time from evaporating. Eventually, every last drop of any perfume will disappear, no matter how carefully it is stored, and this is precisely what I mean when I say, metaphorically, that perfumes are every bit as mortal as persons are. The question becomes: given that our souls must inhabit bodies, should we not take care of the vessels in which we travel, and should we not care about the image which they convey to others?

Curmudgeons will of course reply “No.” They don't give a damn what other people think of their appearance, and some may even revel in their grunge attire and generally slovenly demeanor. In conducting themselves thus, such people sell themselves short, it seems to me, because while they may be rejecting the values of mainstream society, they do so to their own detriment. One reaction to what appears to be the undeniable fact that people really do care how we carry ourselves and how we generally look is to deny that those people's opinions matter.

Another reaction is to cultivate and provoke precisely the sort of disapproval which most people work hard to avoid, endeavoring as they do to conform or to “fit in,” so as not to appear abnormal or deviant. This sort of reaction might be termed the “rebellious teenager” response. People who during adolescence get mohawks and conspicuous tattoos and body piercings precisely in order to mortify their parents, unwittingly find themselves right back with the others, the herd, so to speak, conforming as they do in their nonconformity to the behavior of other members of what is in effect a subculture of "rebels". When the deviant appearance cultivated matches a familiar profile (Sid and Nancy, anyone?), then it all starts to look like a uniform and undermines the initial basis of what once was a creative revolt. Defining one's self in response entirely and only as a reaction to other people is the essence of what the nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche termed slave morality.

Another, more sophisticated, approach to this question can be found, again, in the thought of Aristotle. The philosophical question for someone convinced of the equal importance of the mind or soul and the body is simply this: if we comprise both a body and a soul, why should we care only about the latter? The Christian response is of course that the soul is immortal, which the body is not. Therefore, the reasoning goes, because the soul exists infinitely, it is infinitely more important than the body.

Is there—or could there be—any compelling evidence for that sort of super-religious view, which pretty much negates the value of terrestrial existence? Many people throughout history have certainly believed in the immortality of the soul, which explains, among other things, the readiness of Christians such as Augustine and Aquinas—among many others—to defend wars whose most obvious and immediate outcomes are to bring some human beings' lives to a premature close. 

In reality, having only the evidence of the existence of our own mind and our own body, as we exist here on earth, it seems to me (and Aristotle) that there is no clear basis for favoring the mind over the body. The fact is that we are embodied beings. 

The question, again, quite naturally arises: are our bodies any less a part of us than our minds?

In the case of perfume, both the bottle and the liquid inside are eventually going to disappear or be discarded, but until then, they are bound together in just the way that we are housed in our bodies. The bottle naysayers take themselves to be exalting perfume, but they do so through a perverse denial of the aesthetic potential of the vessels themselves.

Many perfume houses clothe their perfumes in attire befitting of the glory and nobility of the elixirs which their resident or contracted perfumers have painstakingly created. Others appear to pour their perfumes into n'importe quoi, as though the user could somehow access the perfume without interacting with the bottle. No, I'm afraid that just as we cannot have direct physical contact with a person in reality except through his or her body, we cannot apply perfume without interacting with its bottle.

In fact, this is even more graphic in the case of perfume than in that of human beings. Modern technologies such as the telephone and the internet have made it possible for us to develop meaningful relationships with persons whom we have never encountered physically. 

Not so with perfume. In order to experience a perfume, you must apply it to your skin, which necessarily involves removing it from a physical object, its bottle or some sort of vial. The naysayers proclaim that we need to strip perfume of its irrelevant packaging and experience it as an art object in itself. Let us now examine a bit more closely the prospect of doing such a thing.

The Philosophical Significance of Bottles II: Epistemology
The Bottle as a Metaphor for Context

I find the application of the Aristotelian concept of the person to the case of perfume to be very helpful in understanding the importance of bottles. However, it is possible to ascend to an even higher, metalevel in thinking about bottles as well. It seems to me that bottles ultimately reveal themselves to have not just metaphysical but also epistemological significance.

Epistemology, for those who were too busy in college learning trades to be able bother with electives such as Philosophy 101, is the study of knowledge. What do we know? What are we justified in believing? How do we know what we know, if we know anything at all? These questions are at the heart of epistemology.

When perfumistas today say that they don't care about the packaging, they mean to be expressing a sophisticated view about the importance of taking the perfume on its own terms, as a thing in itself. This all sounds very lofty and nice, but the reality, my fragrant friends, is that no perfume exists in a vacuum. Perfumes arise always and only in social and economic contexts. Perfumes cannot be fully abstracted from this context. Why? Because even the very act of abstraction is culturally prefigured by an antecedent desire to elevate perfume to the status of one of the beaux arts.

Without a context, a liquid is just a liquid. It becomes christened as a perfume only as a result of having been created by a perfumer—whether professional or amateur—and then appreciated in a particular context. If a perfume is to be recognized as such, it must be placed into a larger cultural apparatus, a framework whereby other people are afforded the opportunity to experience it as well. All of this is done through the reproduction of perfumes according to recipes or formulas specified by perfumers. The mixing together of the various components is typically carried out by chemists or technicians conversant with all of the different ingredients and aware of the proper procedure to be followed in order to faithfully reproduce the original perfume.

Because a perfume cannot even in principle be shared without being placed into this apparatus, situated within this complex system—what is no more and no less than the business of perfumery—this implies that bottle-free perfume is a sort of intellectual fancy with no correlate in reality.

The fact is that we experience perfumes not in spite but only because of the marketing which is carried out in order to sell the product to consumers. This is true whether the perfume is being purveyed by a large megacorporate conglomerate such as Procter & Gamble, LVMH, Estée Lauder, et al., or by a small independent house such as those of perfumers Andy Tauer and Ineke Rühland or even less well-known perfumers such as John Pegg of Kerosene or Josh Lobb of Slumberhouse.

All perfumes known to us are known to us only because their creators, whether contracted or self-employed, have agreed to play the perfume business game. If they had been content to mix private bespoke perfumes for themselves and their families, then we would never have heard of them and would never have had the pleasure of experiencing their perfumes.

Now, the putative purists will reply, the fact that perfumes come in bottles and packaging and are marketed using a variety of gimmicks and techniques does not mean that there is not an olfactory object there to be appreciated as a thing in itself. We need to clear away all of the irrelevant matter and focus on the perfume, not its packaging—or so the self-styled sophisticate's reasoning goes.

This is all well and fine as an abstract argument, but as a project, it is entirely quixotic, at best. It is not just that our access to perfume requires that it be somehow stored and conveyed to us. No, the problem is much deeper than that, inhering not in fortuitous facts about the world, but in our very capacity to understand anything at all.

The truth is that our entire understanding of perfume derives from the business apparatus in which it is situated. Why do we talk about notes? Why do we talk about development trajectories, longevity, and sillage? Because they are created concepts which we only know about because they have been used extensively for marketing purposes. Why do we discuss perfumes in the terms in which we do? This one is a floral aldehyde, that one a chypre; both are very different from citrus colognes and gourmand perfumes.

The truth, my fellow fragrant travelers, is that we could have no conversation about perfume were we not to avail ourselves of the very language developed in order to sell perfume. What's more, without our memories of other perfumes, presented to us in rich contexts, of which their bottle is a metaphor, we could not identify or say anything whatsoever about a perfume. It would only be a smell.

Some may perhaps suggest that we return to the proverbial state of nature with regard to perfume. My reply:  Why would we want to do that? As a matter of fact, it's rather easy to determine what the untutored sniffer thinks of perfume. Ask any ignorant person whom you encounter on the street. Is that the sort of fresh, guileless naïveté which we should be striving for? In fact, there are plenty of such people opining about perfume all over the place. Their sincere proclamation that this or that new celebrity launch is a breathtaking masterpiece is a reflection, it seems, of their limited perspective on perfume, grounded in a lack of experience of anything but creations made in that mold.

But all of us have the very same problem of skewed perspective, it seems to me. There is no way for us intellectually to process perfume outside of the context in which it has arisen and is sustained in the culture in which we live. We come to any perfume, whether it is in a bottle or an unmarked vial or a room of scent devoid of visual cues so that we'll not be distracted from “the scent itself”, with a robust set of beliefs and theory. We cannot abstract perfume from marketing contexts because our understanding of perfumes derives primarily from our own memories of perfumes experienced in the past, all of which were anchored in that very same apparatus. This implies that in order to smell a perfume in and of itself, we would need somehow to suppress all of our memories of all of our prior experiences.

If we were to succeed in doing that, we would no longer possess the capacity to understand what we encountered. In the paraphrased and translated words of the eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant:

Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind.

Perfume bottles are, I would like to suggest, a metaphor for the epistemological apparatus which we must bring to any object in order to be able to apprehend it. Without all of our prior beliefs and memories, we would not be able to make any sense whatsoever out of a perfume. Removing it from its natural habitat, the bottle in which it is housed, therefore seems like a vain and arbitrary abstraction. Why should such a feat of isolation yield a more veridical experience than the use of a perfume directly from a bottle, which is precisely the manner in which we came to love perfume in the first place?

It's not just that context matters aesthetically—which it does, as anyone who enjoys fine cuisine will readily aver. Why, after all, was silverware ever invented when we have hands which are perfectly adequate to the task of feeding ourselves? The answer, of course, is that beautiful place settings enhance delectable food. The same, therefore, seems to be true in the case of perfume. Beautiful bottles are not distractions but enhancers of beautiful perfumes.

You can't judge a book by its cover!” some will reply. And it is certainly true that if the text inside is ugly or incoherent, then even the most aesthetically exquisite book cover will not be able to hide this regrettable fact. However, sometimes gorgeously produced books do reflect the value of the text inside. Again, as in the case of collectors of empty perfume bottles, there are book collectors who may or may not actually read the books of which they amass large libraries. They are truly interested in the presentation of what others have claimed to be great works and may or may not have the time or inclination to read all or even any of them.

Some perfume lovers appear to be troubled by the use of bottles to seduce consumers into buying perfumes. In reality, however, if most perfumes are purchased scent unsniffed—as I presume that they are—then marketers are acting rationally in luring potential buyers through the use of bottles produced by designers every bit as talented as the perfumers who created the liquids inside. In some cases, a house or corporate conglomerate may become jaded, fill beautiful bottles with chemical soup, invest far more time, money, and energy in the bottle, marketing, and packaging than on the liquid inside. That was, of course, the take-away lesson of “Behind the Spritz,” the Daily Finance article which revealed that 98% of the purchase price of a bottle of mainstream celebrity brand perfume has nothing whatsoever to do with the perfume itself!

These facts are a reflections of the nature of business and in part the nature of the sorts of human beings who enter into business ventures. They may or may not share our aesthetic values or our interest in what we take to be a worthy object of our affection, in this case, perfume. They may regard perfume as an exalted toiletry which just happens to have a fantastic mark-up potential. (It appears that only cosmetics have a higher profit margin.)

Business people dressed up in artists' clothes may of course seize the opportunity to establish a niche perfumery house having discovered that perfume lovers are willing to spend $100, $200, even $800 for a bottle of perfume! The people who are willing to pay so much money for what hoi polloi regard as a toiletry along the lines of mouthwash and deodorant are investing in luxury products, which generally command huge amounts of money relative to the production costs. The price in fact becomes a part of the aura and fascination.

Many of the most expensive perfumes come in gorgeous packaging. Why? Because the people who consume them are enjoying them as luxury items in the way in which they might enjoy a watch which costs thousands of times more than a Timex but which serves the very same function: to tell time. That is the reply of people who scoff at Rolex timepieces. They prefer to pocket the thousands of dollars in change which they will save by wearing an inexpensive watch because the real reason why they care about watches is only as a source of information. I suspect that with the panoply of omnifunction handheld phone gadgets now in near ubiquity, the watch will soon become purely a piece of jewelry, if that has not happened already...

People who wear perfume as body spray are simply scenting themselves. They are not interested in spending hundreds of dollars for a bottle of perfume, because they have an entirely different attitude toward what they take to be its function. The truth is that perfume is dispensable. Unlike food and water, human beings can live without perfume. That we come to appreciate it at all is a result of the happy fact that some people in the business world, as crass and mercenary as they may sometimes be, have decided that marketing and selling perfumes is a worthwhile venture. 

We may idolize our favorite perfumers, but unless they are also business people or find ways to work with business people, then we can have no access to their creations. Unless they team up with persons interested in profiting from perfume through presenting it to consumers in enticing ways, then we will never have any knowledge of what they do.

Perfume exists in a social and cultural context, not a vacuum. To abstract it from this context would be to evacuate it of all meaning. Can we smell Chanel no 5 as a thing in itself? No, my fragrant friends, we cannot. Our consciousness has been literally flooded by images of beautiful women presumably wearing Chanel no 5. Therefore, our understanding of this iconic perfume derives not only from the smell of the liquid itself, which some maintain is divine, but much more importantly from nearly a century of incessant, relentless marketing campaigns which have created a narrative through which the perfume is understood by us. The very words 'Chanel no 5' evoke an avalanche of visual images and memories, even among people who have no idea what the perfume itself smells like!

The latest chapter of this lengthy, complex narrative is attempting to broaden the base of this perfume's lovers beyond the tuxedo and mink stole crowd to include, well, people who relate to or are attracted by Brad Pitt, whose current incarnation is housed in faded denims, long stringy hair, and a goatee. As one astute Fragrantican aptly wrote (under the moniker "100mlEDT"): "Brad looks like he needs a dollar, a shave, and a shower."

If the campaign succeeds, then Chanel no 5 may still be around a century from now. If not, at some point in time, somewhere down the line, people will decide that the perfume beloved by so many for so long smells dated and inappropriate: a relic from perfume's past. More likely, Chanel will simply recycle its formerly successful ads. A woman is a woman after all...

Whatever may eventually happen to Chanel no 5, no one can truthfully say that they are capable of abstracting it from its rich context and making objective judgments about its value as a perfume in and of itself, or so it seems to me. Without bottles and ad campaigns, perfumes are just smells.


  1. Wonderful essay. I'm an eager collector of perfume vessels - and hardly ever have I come across such a profound and astute analysis of the subject. Reading you is a pleasure! I'd love to find your thoughts collected between the covers of a BOOK on perfumes some day. For the time boing, thank you for sharing your valuable insights with us on the internet. You're an outstanding expert. BRAVO!

    1. Dear Anonymous, thank you so much for these generous compliments, and welcome to the salon de parfum! (-;

  2. Thank you for this excellent essay. I too believe that bottle and perfume go together. The impact the bottle and packaging make are intertwined with our impression of the scent itself and so it should be. If the bottle design is right it enhances the experience. If the perfume does not live up to the expectations created by the packaging then all the worse for the perfume. Much like with people that is...

    Guerlain has managed to push the envelope of what the relationship between vessel and contents is with a rather gimmicky but very thoughtful and thought-provoking project: The Idylle Baccarat Edition is a beautiful, although simple, crystal sculpture that encloses a void in the shape of Idylle bottle. The void is filled with the perfume but the only way to get to it is by breaking the crystal vessel. Small detail: it costs $45.000! So by accepting the value of the vessel one negates the value of the fragrance and vive versa. Brilliant idea!

    1. You are most welcome, Christos. I agree, the analogy between persons and perfumes works here as well. Sometimes there is a felicitous harmony between the inner content and the outer appearance. It's interesting that people appear to assume that outward comeliness implies inward emptiness. In the case of people, the idea seems to be that no one could have so many good genes: all this beauty, and brains, too?

      With perfume, I find myself wondering why some houses neglect the packaging of their fantastically gorgeous creations. It seems sloppy and disrespectful. Consider the packaging of Miller Harris solid perfumes, of which I own Noix de Tubéreuse. It comes in a cheap plastic container much worse than what normally contains inexpensive lip gloss. Why? I asked myself upon receiving it. The perfume is so beautiful, surely it deserves a better set of clothes!

      Another example is the ugly plastic cap on the original La Perla. It must have cost about a penny to produce. Why not triple the investment and use a cap which is a pleasure to hold and behold? Honestly, it makes no sense to me. I suppose that the houses are attempting to uphold this line that what matters is the perfume inside. But there is another way in which to view it: the perfume, being divine, deserves to be housed in a beautiful vessel!

      Guerlain. Well, what can I say? I am an apostate. Désolée. I must not be alone to have taken note of the low quality of their recent launches and ghastly reformulations, as I continue to see the prices plummet at discounters...

      Perhaps with their Idylle Baccarat special edition Guerlain is trying to follow Bond no 9's lead in producing these überexpensive vessels to entice a separate market niche comprising people who care more about Swarovski crystals than scent... That's a nice metaphorical touch, to make the perfume inaccessible—no one really wants to smell Idylle anyway! If they did, after all, it would have enjoyed market success such that this sort of last-ditch effort to salvage something from the wreck would not be necessary at all.

      I'm sure that it's tough to stay in business with the massive proliferation of launches and flankers over the last few years--not to mention houses!—so these extra measures are not that surprising to me. The tourist collection of I Love NY launches seems to be another example of tapping into a separate consumer niche, in this case, of people seeking souvenirs, not perfume...


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