Sunday, December 30, 2012

Can We Talk? About Perfume? Part 2

What does disagreement 
about the value of a perfume really mean?

Perfume reception is the consummate expression of subjectivity. This is how and why two different perfume enthusiasts can disagree vehemently about the value of the very same perfume. Chandler Burr hails as masterpieces Diptyque Eau de Lierre and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. Turin & Sanchez deride both of those perfumes as one-star failures. If the value of a perfume were a matter of objective fact, then one of two critics who held diametrically opposed views would have to be wrong.

So is Light Blue a triumph of modern perfumery? Or is it a hopeless wreck, less a perfume than it is swill or dreck? Perhaps it all comes down to idiosyncratic tastes. Burr likes clean scents, which Turin & Sanchez appear generally to abhor. Burr appreciates streamlined scents, while Turin & Sanchez are easily bored. Burr likes amber and hails Prada Amber as a masterpiece. Turin & Sanchez dislike amber in general and, logically enough, Prada Amber more specifically. A chacun son goût. One person's masterpiece is another person's disaster. End of story.

Or perhaps the critics who disagree in their most basic evaluations really disagree because they actually smell different things, owing to the natural range of variations in scent sensitivity within a human population for all of the components of the complex mixtures known as perfumes. Perhaps those who despise some perfumes fail to detect their beauty because they do not smell everything that is there. Another possibility is that they smell more than most other people do. They may smell substances the presence of which would ruin another person's experience of the perfume, if only he were capable of detecting them. A chacun son nez.

If this way of understanding aesthetic disagreement about perfumes is true, then in seeking out the opinions of critics, we would do well to hew to those who seem to share our basic sensitivities. Otherwise, we'll be led astray by the advice of people different enough from us to make it the case that we actually smell different objects when we smell perfume even drawn from the very same bottle.

Given the considerable evidence of heterogeneity in human scent perception, the effort to point outward, attempting to taxonomize perfumes as stable things in the world alongside other stable things—whether various types of paintings or the products of less-exalted crafts such as cooking or winemaking—would seem ultimately to be an otiose endeavor. To do such a thing is to walk down a path to a dead-end, because the primary value of perfume—beyond its simple inducement in us of pleasure—is not artistic but philosophical. The aforementioned critics want to uphold the objective reality of perfumic masterpieces. But they cannot even agree amongst themselves about what the pillars of perfumery are supposed to be.

The best—and most charitable—way of understanding profound disagreements about perfume among self-proclaimed experts is simply to accept the intrinsically subjective nature of perfume perception: A chacun son goût et son nez! This vindicates the critics—they are neither incompetent nor anosmic—while however simultaneously implying that no one is really a better expert than anyone else when it comes to perfume, a conclusion which will likely make the self-styled experts bristle. If their opinions are no more worthy than anyone else's, then why should anyone listen to what they have to say? For what, precisely, are professional perfume critics being paid? 

I think that the answer is clear: they are promoting some perfumes which will be bought because many ignorant people will simply accept the self-appointed experts' advice as authoritative. They end by serving as marketing shills when they hail certain perfumes, holding them up as objective masterpieces, and effectively advise their readers to avoid those which they either omit from mention or vociferously decry. The “experts” become marketing tools—whether wittingly or not—because perfume, being essentially and inextricably enmeshed in an economic context, is consumable and commodified. People pay to wear perfumes, and they choose to buy some but not others on the basis of the so-called experts' advice. Or am I giving the critics too much credit? How many of the millions of perfume consumers out there even know their names?

Probably not that many, I'd surmise. But another bottle sold is still another bottle sold, so marketers will support those who support the products which they are trying to sell. This explains how and why mutually beneficial arrangements such as The Art of Scent Exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design can arise under the guise of objective art appreciation when in fact the works being exalted are already best-selling perfumes.

What do perfume marketers do?

Christian Dior does not use screen captures of Charlize Theron from the film Monster (2003) to advertise their best-selling perfume J'Adore

Instead, they seduce consumers into believing that they, too, will be bathed in a golden light of glamour, if only they buy and wear the perfume. 

J'Adore has been reformulated, but the advertisements remain more or less the same and are apparently just as effective as—if not more than—they were at the perfume's launch.

It probably does not matter much anymore what's inside the bottle. So long as it is at least wearable, women will continue to buy the perfume, seduced by the vain hope that they, too, can be as glamorous as Charlize Theron. But the properties of the perfume are completely distinct from the images used to market the perfume. This point is graphically illustrated when the same model advertises a variety of different perfumes.

Given the highly subjective basis for perfume appreciation, slapping new and foreign but apparently approbative labels on familiar perfumes, exalting them as masterworks of this or that movement in art, would seem to be just another variation on the marketer's game. 

In advertisements for perfumes, we are told, in effect, that we will be beautiful and glamorous or sexy and alluring, if only we don the product which the advertisement is attempting to persuade us to buy. There is no logical connection between the models who pose in perfume advertisements holding bottles and the liquid inside. All of this is no more and no less than a game of sleight of hand.

Similarly, the application to perfumes of labels borrowed from the visual arts such as Neo-romanticism and Surrealism is essentially equivalent to what marketers have always done. In other words, one way of understanding the current exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design is as an innovative and ingenious marketing scheme. Perfumistas may wish to believe otherwise, but perfumery is a business, and anyone who has even the faintest grasp of the nature of the enterprise of enterprise should be well aware that the managers who agreed to invest money in the Art of Scent exhibit were concerned above all with one thing: selling more of their perfume.

Perfumistas see this:

and hail the dawning of a new age, in which perfume is finally given the recognition it deserves as one of the beaux arts.

In contrast, the people at the corporate headquarters of the perfume conglomerate giants making financial investment decisions—whether or not to fund The Art of Scent exhibit and donate free perfume to the Museum of Arts and Design—see, instead, this:

As they deliberate over whether to fund such an initiative, they may rub the palms of their hands together while dreaming gleefully about upcoming second-quarter returns. 

I do not mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with any of this. Savvy businessmen have always succeeded through such schemes. Indeed, the very point of marketing—its raison d'être—is to persuade people to believe that they need what they do not need, and to buy what they would not otherwise have bought. We have a wide range of choices in deciding how to dispense with our wallet share available for nonessential expenses, including luxuries such as perfume. Marketers' job is to see to it they we spend our money on their products, not those of the competition.

The marketing masterminds who agreed to promote the event are well aware that the fact that the perfumes on display in “The Art of Scent” are not being sold in the museum's gift shop certainly will not prevent enthusiastic exhibit goers from stopping at the nearest Sephora or other retail perfume purveyor on their way home. As for the countless people who have no way to travel to New York City to see the exhibit, they can console themselves by purchasing bottles of the “masterpieces” online.

The reason why all of this should matter, to supporters of independent perfume houses, is because consumers only allocate a portion of their budget to perfume, and once that money has been spent, it will not be spent again. Judging by some of the gushing I've seen around the blogs, some perfumistas have come to believe that exalting bestselling perfumes as artistic masterpieces will somehow help independent perfumers, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth.

In reality, the more money people spend at the big houses funding the exhibit and whose works are being heralded as masterpieces, the less they will spend on the unnamed houses not being celebrated. The irony in all of this is that the perfumistas who rush to lavish praise upon Chandler Burr and his initiative seem to be entirely unaware of the likely economic outcome of this scheme: to buoy and promote the ongoing corporatization of perfumery. If Chandler Burr's funding, including his own salary, derives from the megacorporations controlling the houses whose works are currently on display at the Museum of Arts and Design, then he works for them. If his initiative succeeds in improving those companies' bottom line, then he will keep his job. If not, he will not.

The Good News

Can we talk about perfume? Yes, of course. Why? Because we do. Hundreds of new perfume reviews are written online every day, and people are reading them. The reviews combine personal anecdote and feelings with references to terms recognizable to other perfume lovers because they derive from what has emerged as a full-fledged perfume culture. The discourse among members of fragrance communities is informed by an idiom used by perfumers themselves. This makes perfect sense because perfumers know more than anyone else what their own intentions are in developing a new creation with particular aesthetic properties.

Certain conventions have already been widely embraced. Because perfumistas often commence from the text created by perfumers and marketers themselves, they have become fond of talking about the objects of their devotion in triangular hierarchies, as though there really were a distinct and distinguishable top, middle, and base to perfumes. 

In reality, the various stages in the evolution of a nonlinear perfume—from spritz to disappearance—are infinitely more nuanced and unfold continuously with no sharp breaks from one stage to the next. In some ways, perfume development bears similarities to music, which, too, flows through time in ways that static paintings, sculptures, and buildings do not.

The complex evolution of a perfume over time can also be compared to the aging process of a person. Each person is born an infant, grows and transforms continuously over the decades comprising his or her life, until old age and finally death, at which point there is little—if any—resemblance to the person's appearance at birth. At any moment in time we can describe how the person looks: her size, weight, and shape; the color of her hair and eyes; the texture of her skin; the presence or absence of skin pigmentation, etc. Just as in the case of perfume, we can decide to divide the life into three parts: childhood, adulthood, and old age, but those are in some ways arbitrary divisions, although they can be useful in certain circumstances.

Despite its somewhat fictional quality and the grayness of its boundaries, the tripartite hierarchy in perfume profiles may be nonetheless helpful because in fact the opening stages in a perfume's development are detectable but also transient, ceding quickly to the later stages, the longest and most memorable part of which we refer to as the drydown.

In discussing what they perceive during their experience of a perfume, reviewers sometimes lament not “getting” this or that note, but in reality the notes are nearly never ingredients, as some of them are explicitly claimed to be by the perfumers themselves in self-consciously minimalist perfumes such as Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 and Molecule 02 and Juliette Has A Gun Not A Perfume.

Iso-E-super is usually not mentioned as a note even though it is quite frequently used as a cedar surrogate, just as ambroxan is used to mimic natural ambergris, which is often listed as a note though it is in such cases a fiction. All of this should suffice once and for all to demonstrate that the ingredients are not the notes, and the alleged notes said to be salient in a given creation by marketers are metaphors and manifest evocations: an attempt to tell consumers what they are supposed to find in the perfume.

Those who know the difference between the scent of cedar and the scent of the aromachemicals used to confer a cedar-like quality to a perfume, may say that they do not detect cedar in a perfume which lists cedar as a note. And they are right. Others may have arrived at a concept of cedar which is more open and includes the scent of the aromachemicals used to mimic the scent of cedar in nature, just as the perfumer intended them to. 

Once we know what iso-E-super and ambroxan smell like, having compared them directly to perfumes containing real cedar and ambergris extracts, then we may become difficult to fool, jaded and even annoyed by the near ubiquity of the use of such blatant aromachemical surrogates under the guise of more natural substances. But iso-E-super and ambroxan are only the beginning of the story, or the first drops in a sea of metaphor. 

No perfume literally contains a cedar tree. Even those which contain substances derived directly from cedar wood are abstractions. Why are certain substances included in perfumes while others are not? Why do perfumers choose to produce a cedar scent, or one which smells like ambergris? For their effects on our sensory apparatus.

Ionones are used to produce a violet-like scent; and eugenol smacks of clove to many. But because different people have variable sensibilities and sensitivities to all scents, the first-person experience of a perfume may bear little—if any—resemblance to what the press materials decree is the nature of the creation which they have launched and are attempting to sell. Sometimes this is because they use unfamiliar metaphors: oud and papyrus may have scents, but how many times have most of us encountered them beyond the realm of perfume?

When we identify notes, we are sharing with others our own subjective experience of a perfume. Likewise, when we laud a perfume as beautiful or great, we may be saying something about its aesthetic properties, but we are also saying something—indeed, much more—about ourselves. The reason why we perfumistas have been flocking together to discuss perfume is that we have established a language through which to share our experiences with others who also appreciate these same sorts of insights made possible by perfume.

By penning reviews and commenting on them, explaining how our own experience coheres or does not with that of another perceiver of the same perfume, we broaden our understanding of not only perfume, but also ourselves. We come to see what it means to perceive different facets of a perfume and how two equally valid experiences may arrive at divergent judgments about the value of the very same thing, as a result of each individual's distinct history, memories, personality, and tastes.

Perfume language should be exactly what develops among perfume lovers informed by perfumers and marketers because the only reason why we have any understanding of perfume at all is because it is sustained through the perception by some people of perfume as profitable. If no one believed that they could make money from selling perfume, then they would sell something else, and we would not be meeting to discuss perfumesthe good, the bad, the beautiful, and the uglybecause they would not exist at all.

At the end of the day, what matters is our personal experience of perfume. This implies, among other things, that if one loves celebrity fragrances despised by niche snobs, one should nonetheless wear them with one's head held high. How could anyone be a better judge of what one likes than one's self? 

It does not matter whether other people disagree with our taste in perfume, although it would be decent of us, whenever possible, to make an effort not to offend others or induce in them undue strife, as a courtesy to our fellow community members, by which we express our respect for and tolerance of difference. Within the privacy of our home, anything goes: we are the kings and queens of our scented castle!

What are perfume reviews?

Perfume is a cultural artifact, but it has no meaning unless it is experienced, and for many people, the perfume story ends at pleasure. It is no coincidence that perfumes lauded as “great” are also thought by many to be delightful to smell. But perfume perception can also serve as a phenomenological tool, providing insight into our place in the universe and how we in fact construct it, conceptually speaking. Because of the intimate connections in our nervous system between the processes of olfaction, cognition and emotion, perfume immediately elicits memories of our past and may trigger in our mind a cascade of emotions, images, and ideas. 

There is no question that marketers attempt to shape those images through advertising, but any positive label or image attached or implied points the consumer in the very same direction: to reach for his or her credit card. 

Looking beyond the perceiver, to the established art world in trying to make sense of perfume, is to turn away from the profound philosophical insights to which perfume may give rise. It is also to diminish or deny the value of the uniquely intimate engagement which forms the very basis of our love of perfume. We do not love a perfume because someone else has labeled it in one way or another or hailed it as a masterpiece. No, we love a perfume, when we do, for the pleasure it provides and the richness it adds to our mental life, thanks to its ability instantly to evoke ideas and images in our mind. 

The language in which we discuss perfume must connect directly with the objects of our own experience as recorded in our memory bank because that is both how and why perfume succeeds in affecting us. We compare perfumes to other, noncomposed scents, because we have memories of them, too. As perfumistas grow more and more familiar with the vast terrain of the universe of perfume, they may begin to compare perfumes to one another. However we choose to convey our experience, it must commence from ideas in our own minds, whether rudimentary or complex, and whatever their provenance. We are, in the end, products of our culture.

Some perfume reviewers take themselves to be offering advice to their readers about which perfumes are good and which are not. Others, however, regard their task as a more modest one: to record the subjective experience of their own encounter with a perfume. Such an experience can never, strictly speaking, be replicated, even within the very same perceiver who spritzes on the very same perfume. Why? Because the perceiver will have changed, and the conditions in which the perfume is being used will be different, too.

In fact, the two different kinds of reviewers may inhere in the very same person, someone who chronicles his or her subjective experience in order to inform other people that there is someone somewhere who has experienced the perfume thus. In other words, the review expresses one possible reaction to the perfume, which may or may not cohere with other people's experience. It is interesting, all the same, because it reveals how other people may perceive what we perceive in an entirely different way. Therein lies the profound philosophical importance of perfume.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Can We Talk? About Perfume?

What is the Language of Perfume?

Perfume is made to wear, just as food is made to eat. However, there is an important distinction between the two: people must eat to survive. Perfume, in contrast, is a luxury product with which the vast majority of human beings past and present have very little experience, if any at all. Most everyone can smell scent and appreciate the olfactory beauty of a field of lavender or a grove of orange trees, just as they can appreciate the sight of those things. But the practice of perfuming oneself arises only in rather complex cultural contexts.

Created scents, or perfumes, like the combinations of sound known as music, are infinitely nuanced and not limited to the objects delineated by us as numerically distinguishable denizens of reality. In nature and in society, scents occur in groups and layers and can be partitioned in various ways, but often they are not, although particularly striking scents become instantly recognizable intersubjectively and can serve as evidence of the presence of a thing. The scent of a cigar lingers for hours in a hallway though the person who puffed on it disappeared long before. The scent of smoke really does signal the likely presence of fire, and natural gas is made by its providers to waft of a rather acrid odor precisely so that people will notice it before they succumb to its deadly effects.

Like burning cigarettes and car exhaust, cough drops and cheese really do have scents. Cherry cough drops smell different from honey lemon cough drops, and some people will know that swiss cheese has a different scent from that of cheddar. True epicureans may even be able to distinguish Jarlsberg from Emmental by scent alone, and yet they may agree that “cheese” in general has a scent which binds various cheeses together more than any of them is bound to anything else.

The same thing happens with perfume, of course. Untutored perfume enthusiasts may rave that a perfume smells “just like Chanel no 5! even though it contains no aldehydes and in fact smells nothing like it at all to someone with a wider range of experience with perfumes. But sophisticates and dilettantes alike probably can all agree that composed “perfumes” have a smell which makes any two of them closer to each other than either is to the scent of cheese. I am talking here not about facsimile scents such as produced by the house of Demeter, but perfumes composed so as to stand out as distinct from the smells occurring in nature or in human society. (The recently launched perfume Eau de Pizza Hut apparently does not really smell like Pizza Hut, but that's another story.)

We manage somehow to talk about perfumes by appealing to a combination of mutually familiar scents in nature and makeshift fictions devised largely for marketing purposes. In order to sell his perfume to a client, who will then hopefully produce the creation for general consumption, a perfumer must seduce the prospective buyer through the use of provocative metaphors. It will not do to leave it at “this is a beautiful perfume.”

The perfumer needs to weave a story to convince the prospective producer of the perfume that it meets the producer's own criteria for what constitutes beauty. It is also necessary, of course, that the client actually like the scent and believe that others will too, but the perfumer may offer an appealing framework of metaphors through which to understand the new creation and the sorts of images and feelings it is intended to evoke.

The perfumery business has developed in a certain direction in recent decades, with fewer and fewer independent perfumers working in their own atelier-businesses, and more and more contractual arrangements being struck between self-appointed creative directors—often themselves working under the aegis of a large corporation—and the noses whom they enlist to realize their dream. When a perfumer is not given complete creative license but issued a brief of conditions to be satisfied, then it is the perfumer who must produce a scent which somehow reflects the metaphorical dictates of the client. Miuccia Prada, for example, apparently dislikes dirty, skanky scents, which is why all of the members of the Prada Infusion series, created for Prada by Daniela Andrier, smell clean and elegant.

Because the language in which we discuss perfumes was essentially invented by perfumers and their collaborative marketers, it is not really feasible to think about perfume without its attendant scaffold of concepts, including what have come to be termed “notes”. To talk about notes is not to talk about ingredients. In a few cases, perfumers have “shown their cards,” so to speak, by brazenly disclosing that minimalist perfumes such as Escentric Molecules Molecule 01 and Molecule 02 essentially comprise iso-E-super and ambroxan, respectively. In such cases—Juliette Has A Gun Not a Gun is another minimalist ambroxan perfume—the notes are identified as ingredients. But those are exceptions to the general rule.

Usually, in identifying notes, perfumers are not disclosing ingredients, although it is true that all-natural perfumers may be keen to fully list, to the best of their ability, all ingredients on the labels of their creations so that consumers can see which specific chemical substances are found inside the bottle. Marketing and labeling are distinct activities, of course, but in marketing an all-natural perfume, the list of ingredients itself becomes a selling point to those consumers who have decided to make a conscious and concerted effort to avoid poisoning themselves. Far more often than not, however, in both mainstream and niche perfumery, notes are in fact no more and no less than metaphors.

All of this makes it seem rather curious to me that some people—most vociferously and visibly, Chandler Burr, and I am not at all sure whether anyone else agrees with him—should decry, in public displays of apparently righteous indignation (he studied under Luca Turin...), attempts to have meaningful discussions about perfume in terms of notes as somehow insulting to perfumes and their creators. I'm inclined to think precisely the opposite: to claim, as Burr does, that the language of visual arts is the best or most desirable language of discourse to use in coming to terms with perfume would seem to imply that perfume is somehow parasitic on the other arts, when in fact it is entirely independent and sui generis.

No one would use the language of music theory to talk about architecture, and to attempt to do so strikes me as a category mistake. Do buildings have “keys” and “tempos” and “time signatures” and “movements”? Those terms can be applied metaphorically, I suppose—metaphors are infinitely applicable to anything—but to have a meaningful discussion about architecture with other people, rather than simply talking to oneself, it seems best to use the language which has developed along with the enterprise of architecture itself, by the very people who know architecture best: architects.

One can, if one so desires, label Guerlain Jicky as a work of Romanticism; Givency L'Interdit as Abstract Expressionism; Clinique Aromatics Elixir as a product of the “Early American” school; Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir as a work of Industrialism; Thierry Mugler Angel as an example of Surrealism; Issey Miyake L'eau d'Issey as Minimalism; Estée Lauder Pleasures as Photo Realism; Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue as Kinetic Sculpture, Prada Amber as Neo-romanticism, Hermès Hermessence Osmanthe Yunnan as a work of Luminism, and a perfume created by Daniela Andrier for Martin Margiela, Untitled, as an example of Post-brutalism. Why not?

Yes, indeed, one can apply language to anything in any way one likes. However, if one is simply making up the terms as one goes along, appropriating the well-developed discourse of an entirely disparate enterprise in a vain effort to come up with something new to say, then one will end up occupying a rather solipsistic space. Why? Because the art critics who are experts on the various schools of visual art have developed their language and criteria of critique in a particular context to which perfume simply does not belong, and they may or may not have any personal interest in and knowledge of perfume.

At the same time, from the other side, perfume enthusiasts—both perfumers and consumers—may in many cases be altogether ignorant of such movements in visual art. To expect them to become versed in the theory of another, rather erudite discipline before they're able to say anything meaningful about their direct experience of perfume seems dubious, to say the least.

The truth is that perfume lovers have come to their knowledge of perfume through their personal experience of perfume, to which the terms of visual art may or may not bear any relevance. If people are to have meaningful discussions about perfume with other people, they must together accept the terms of the debate rather than simply submitting to the proclamation of a single man that a completely foreign set of concepts and labels are the best way to discuss perfume.

The terms Romanticism, Abstract Expressionism, Early American School, Industrialism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Photo Realism, Kinetic Sculpture, Industrialism, Neo-Romanticism, Luminism, and Post-Brutalism are all a part of a discourse which applies to a particular range of human activity. In order to succeed at hijacking this theoretical apparatus and applying it to perfume, one would have to simultaneously convince the art theorists and the perfumistas that they are all completely wrong: in the former case, for “failing to see” that, appearances notwithstanding, perfume is akin to the visual arts; in the latter case, for “failing” to use the prescribed language of visual art in talking about perfume.

I have noticed recently that many bloggers seem to be supportive of Chandler Burr's efforts, having apparently been hoodwinked into believing two manifest falsehoods. First, perfumistas continue to labor under the misconception that to deny that perfumery is an art is somehow to pay it a grave insult, when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth. To claim that perfume is a product of design is to appreciate the cultural context in which it arises and to acknowledge that, if not for business interests, we could have no knowledge of or access to perfume. To own that perfume is a product of design is to affirm what most everyone already does, that “Perfume must smell good,” just as as “Food must be edible.”

The constraints placed upon contracted perfumers are such that they are tasked with producing creations which satisfy the values of other people, not the creator him- or herself. If this enterprise can be said to be art, then it is a deeply coopted form of art. Why not simply acknowledge, then, that contracted perfumers are in the business of design? Just as the people who write advertising copy for companies are not, strictly speaking, literary writers, not all perfumers are olfactory artists—in fact, most of them are not. But perfumer is not a dirty word or a term of derogation.

To return to the basic confusion here, it simply does not follow from the fact that “Perfume is good” that “Perfume is art.” The value of perfume is an independent question from its status as a conceptual object. This is what the art critics and sophisticated perfumistas who scoff at Burr's ambitious and arguably befuddled initiative already know. Those bloggers who deride the art critics as somehow benighted in their failure to appreciate the artistic quality of perfume are in fact the ones who would seem to be confused.

If they actually knew what the terms Luminism, Photo Realism, and Kinetic Sculpture meant, in the deep way in which people who have dedicated their lives to learning about art have done, then they would recognize immediately that Burr's appropriation of this discourse constitutes no more and no less than a long series of category mistakes. Burr may have successfully linked himself with the “pro-perfume” camp, but one can be “pro-perfume” without being pro-Chandler Burr. The fates of the two are not linked, as much as he may wish for them to be.

My primary concern here is not with the economic implications of selecting a set of best-selling perfumes to essentially market in a new way by labeling them masterpieces. Suffice it here to make a simple economic observation: that every bottle of Light Blue or Pleasures purchased by a consumer in response to having learned that those perfumes have been exalted as masterpieces by someone who seems to be situated so as to competently make such claims, is one less bottle purchased from an independent house. Consumers have finite wallet shares.

The second falsehood seemingly embraced—whether wittingly or not—by anyone who supports Burr's initiative is that, up until now, both perfumistas and perfumers have somehow been confused in making use of the language devised by perfumers themselves in order to communicate with one another and their clients about perfume. In fact, Burr himself erroneously conflates ingredients and notes, as is illustrated by this excerpt from a New York Times piece (in which Burr is quoted) on "The Art of Scent" exhibit:

"I am completely opposed to this idiotic reductionism of works of olfactory art to their raw materials, which is as stupid as reducing a Frank Gehry building to the kind of metal, the kind of wood and the kind of glass that he used."

Burr may know a lot about the business of perfume (which, to be honest, makes me wonder how he of all people could believe that client-contracted perfumery is art), but simply to repeat over and over again that a perfume such as Diptyque Eau de Lierre is “an extraordinary work of photorealism,” and that perfume is art because it is a product of artifice, is not enough. Dryer sheets are a product of artifice. Are they then works of art, too?

Unfortunately for Burr, his greatest virtue, the ability to persuade people to believe in him enough to invest in him, is also his worst vice. It was Burr himself who proposed the very idea of the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design, with none other than himself as its curator! If the package is pretty, that's all well and fine, but if this ambitious initiative is to survive, there must also be something inside. It's hard to imagine that many art critics are going to embrace with starry eyes Burr's makeshift apparatus and his slapping onto perfumes decreed by him to be masterpieces (and produced by his funders) of labels seemingly pulled out of a hat.

In order to succeed in this venture (and it is, let us be frank, a business venture), Burr's having persuaded perfume companies to donate to his cause will not alone suffice. He must also somehow wipe the theoretical slate clean of both the history of art and the history of perfume, and that, far more difficult task, would seem to be altogether beyond his means.

Monday, December 17, 2012

STOP THE OUD MADNESS! An open letter to perfumers and perfumistas alike

My fragrant friends, I come to you today with an urgent matter requiring your immediate attention if we are to avert impending doom: 

the complete take-over of perfumery by the Oud Machine (hereafter, OM). 
You may find my warning alarmist, and I own that it is—as it must be, given the gravity of the crisis before us. Before I offer you the tools to extricate yourself from the insidious OM, let us review the facts. According to the database:

  1. In 2006, no perfume was launched with the word oud in its name.

  1. In 2007, three perfumes were launched with the word oud  in their name.

  1. In 2008, thirteen perfumes were launched with the word oud  in their name, but all came from the houses of Montale, Mancera (more on the “M” connection, below...), or Ajmal.

  1. In 2009, twelve perfumes with the word oud in their name were launched, distributed over eight different houses.

  1. In 2011, all hell broke loose, with twenty-two oud-named perfumes launched by sixteen different houses

  1. In 2012, the numbers leapt to thirty-four oud-named perfumes launched by thirty different houses

I think that you can see where all of this is leading:

Scores of sheep flock together and head in the same direction
after being told by a sales associate in a niche emporium
that cool people wear oud perfumes.”

Three oud-perfume producing houses became eight, became ten, became sixteen, producing where there were none only five years earlier: thirty new oud perfumes!

Let's look at some of the mathematical series involved, selecting a few choice data points:


The change in the numbers:


The next number in the series, those readers proficient at standardized tests will aver, is:


From there we can continue the series:


As you can see, within five years, the world will be literally awash in oud perfume. By the end of a decade, there will be an oud perfume purveyor on every corner, all asking for our precious wallet share, and what choice will we really have by then????

Yes, I'm afraid that the complete and utter homogenization of niche perfumery looms before us. The turning point may have been the admission of Estée Lauder and Jo Malone into the oud club. So now middle-class suburban housewives are wearing oud as well? Adding oud perfumes to their shopping carts along with their BB creams so that they can qualify for the latest GWP (gift with purchase) worth all of $1? What is this world coming to? I ask most sincerely.

I suppose that I should share with those of you who do not know that “BB creams” or Beauty Balms, too, were a capitalist-generated need now clamored for by all image-conscious women of the world. But let us return to the far more pressing matter at hand: the question of oud and the spectre of OM.

The Story of OM

Perfume tastes cycle, just like tastes in everything else fashion related. How else to explain the oft-wielded locution by younger perfumistas, Old Lady Perfume, used to denounce perfumes which the whippersnappers deem fit to be worn only by octogenarians rotting away in retirement homes? Proud wearers of so-called Old Lady Perfumes may smugly reply: “ignorance.” But do you really know anything whatsoever about what you do not know, aptly termed by former U.S. defense secretary and epistemologist Donald Rumsfeld, the “unknown unknowns”?

Our concern here is not with the question of Chanel no 5, whether it is as cool as Brad Pitt or as outmoded as Zsa Zsa Gabor. No, we have much stinkier odors to mask. Yes, the latest craze in perfume, which has yet to run its course and is gaining strength with each passing day, is in fact the basis of some of the stinkiest perfumes ever concocted on the face of the earth, to wit: oud.

In truth, we are being shepherded quite contradictorily from two sides simultaneously. At the mainstream designer level, we are being told to scent ourselves as though we were dryer sheets, shampoo and conditioner, or even household cleaning products, as the influence of industrial giants such as Procter & Gamble continues to swell unabated.

Yes, the perfumers creating scents for Oil of Olay face products are indeed the same perfumers creating scents for Pantene shampoo, and they also design pseudo-niche series of perfumes for the once independent houses now comprising but a thin page in the P&G portfolio. Will they survive? Does it even matter anymore?

If we stray from the designer herd, attempting to identify creativity and novelty in the niche arena, we find ourselves corralled more and more narrowly into yet another, perhaps even more insidious olfactory ghetto: the land of oud perfumes.

This clever plot has obviously been designed to secure our conformity with what we are told is desirable in perfume. But have we ever spent any time asking ourselves, in our heart of hearts, whether this is really true? Why in the world should we want to smell and waft of oud, pray tell?

I recently experienced something of an epiphany in this regard, which I am anxious to share with you O Not-so-gently Scented Reader. You may have reservations, having come to the conclusion—and not unjustifiably so—that “one person's epiphany is another person's hallucination.” And I do not deny that this is true. Fortunately, however, true epiphanies wear their veridicality on their face, and I was blessed to have been the recipient of one only just recently, which happens, not coincidentally, to bear on the topic at hand.

I was testing the latest oud creation to have found its way into my queue, Rosamunda, from the house of Laboratorio Olfattivo. It smelled good, and it smelled comfortingly familiar. Sure enough, it was that tried-and-true triad of rose, saffron, and oud rolled together once again and poured into a bottle to entice those of us by now accustomed—and drawn like iron filings to a magnet—to the scent.

My first reaction was: “Hmm.... smells like Bond no 9 New York Oud.” In my admittedly obsessive-compulsive quest for truth in reviewing, I decided to do a side-by-side test of the two perfumes. What did I find? I discovered that I preferred the Bond no 9. Why? Because it wafted much less of oud and much more of rose. Suddenly the truth flashed before my eyes like a javelin hurled down from the heavens by an angry God with no stock holdings in niche oud ventures:

Do I even like oud?

I was shocked, at first, by the question. I had spent many a review taking a house to task for producing what appeared to be an oudless oud perfume, but here I was at last confronted with the fact that in a comparison of two oud-boasting perfumes, I preferred the one with less, not more of the allegedly precious substance, which I had been incessantly indoctrinated by the OM to believe that I desire!

What, then, was the basis of my complaint in earlier reviews of oud-challenged oud perfumes, my fragrant friends? That the perfume in question, allegedly issued for we oud aficionados, was too oud weak to meet our oud need.

What oud need might that be? Why it's none other than the very one which was created by the launch of so many oud perfumes over the course of the past six years! First there were no oud perfumes. Today there are dozens, and they continue to proliferate as so many of us have been tricked by the OM—the most effective promulgator of propaganda since Goebbels himself—into believing that we not only want but in fact need oud.

We will travel to the ends of the cyber-world and pay exorbitant sums (relative to the price of other perfumes) to be able to sniff yet another new oud perfume, and to be thereby granted the privilege of bitching when the perfume inside an oud-labeled bottle contains nothing of the kind. Or so we think.

But do we really know this, in the first place? Many of the honest perfumistas among us must own that we have never been to Oman and do not expect to travel there anytime soon. Our concept of “oud” derives solely from what we have been presented as “oud” in perfume. This means that if rose, oud, and saffron are often rolled together in the same composition, we may find difficulty discerning the oud as an isolable note from the complex in which it is conveyed to our nose. And if we think that we don't, we may be deluding ourselves.

The devoted-to-oud reader may snort in response to my concern, to which I can only reply: the problem is much more profound than it may on its surface seem. Perhaps the art-mongers will own that perfume is subject to the whims of fashion no more and no less than anything else proposed to consumers by design houses. Perhaps they will not worry that they have been molded into oud-ingesters, always wanting more and more oud, never satiated, just as Marx and others so incisively diagnosed.

The truth, my fragrant friends, is that the proverbial wool of your very own coat has been pulled over your eyes, blinding you to the reality of what has been transpiring in niche perfumery over these past few years.

Is it too late to stop the OM? Has my little manifesto been for naught? I think not, my comrades-in-noses, but we must take action now, and we must do so swiftly, prepared to beat off those who would draw us back into the oud-herd once again.

For those stalwarth souls who are now ready to take back the oud-saturated night. I offer the following four-step program for recovery.

Saying “No” to the OM

It is high time for us to get our wits about us and nip this oud monster in the bud. Just say “No” to OM. The challenge before us may seem daunting, but a few guidelines may help you to win back your perfuming autonomy. If you are a perfumer, at last ready to break from the pseudo-niche herd, I encourage you, too, not only to cease and desist from producing oud perfumes but also to refrain from succumbing to what will no doubt remain the temptation to wear some of the oud stockpiled in the back room of your atelier. Please be forewarned that we will stop the OM, and when we do, you will want to be on the right side of history.

  1. Don't fall for the price trap—all that glitters of oud is not gold. Oud perfumes often cost more than the non-oud perfumes of the very same house. The first step, then, must be to refuse to pay the price being asked for über niche perfumes. Let niche be good enough for you. Don't be fooled by this little game, the suggestion that you get what you pay for. In the case of oud, my fragrant friends, you pay only to be enslaved by the OM.

  2. Temptation must be thwarted. When you espy a new oud offering, beckoning you from the counter of one of your customary niche emporium haunts, take a deep breath, count to eight, and walk slowly toward the door. Do not run, because you do not want to draw the attention of an SA, who may, and likely will, run after you to spritz you with a bit of the evil elixir, hoping that this will precipitate your return to the herd, that a few drops will cause you to throw open the oud floodgates, and your wallet, once again.

  3. Repeat after me: Rien n'est gratuit... [Nothing is free.] You will no doubt for the foreseeable future continue to receive “free” samples of oud perfumes from “generous” emporia and houses with new launches. Don't be fooled. Upon receiving one of these vials, proceed with dispatch and purpose to your kitchen sink, remove the lid from the vial, and pour the contents down the drain. This will be difficult at first, I am aware, but with time, and as your own sense of your perfumic autonomy slowly begins to return, you will become stronger and more determined with each vial emptied in a haughty show of disdain for the OM.

  4. Knowledge is power. Be ever vigilant of the forces at work behind the scenes of the OM. Everyone knows deep down inside that behind every Machine hides The Man, the puppetmaster pulling the strings. Is it a coincidence that in this case his name also happens to begin with the letter 'M'? I think not. The veritable flood of oud perfumes over the last few years has been yet another ingenious scheme on the part of The Man to convince perfume enthusiasts that they desire nothing more than Middle Eastern inspired oud perfume. 

    But once the oud seed has been planted—like a tick, or a microchipit won't be long before the sheep all flock back to Montale/Mancera. Why? Because all oud roads lead ultimately to Montale, one way or the anagrammatically other. The Man's man on the ground, Ammar Atmeh is there to authenticate the perfumes being produced by the OM (not coincidentally located in OMan) as the real thing. That's right genuine oud perfumes, and in sufficiently high concentration so as to be detectable by even the marginally hyposmic nose, can be dependably found at one and only one house, and it does indeed begin with the letter 'M'.

So there you have it, my fragrant friends, the peculiar phenomenon of oudless oud perfumes, too, has as at its source The Man. As difficult to believe as it may be (not at all to the savvy shoppers among my readers, those who have studied up close the wily ways of capitalists, and devised ways to beat them at their own game), Monsieur M. has been sending oud-siphoning elves out to dilute the stores of oud juice at his competitors' houses the night before aliquots are to be measured and mixed into the final perfumes.

The results we have all seen—or rather sniffed—and we have indeed become, as was the intention of this ploy, ever more cynical, wary of the sheer possibility of finding a decent oud perfume produced by any house other than Montale/Mancera. I rest my case.

To those perfumers whose interest may have been piqued by my posting of pictures of their oud creations, I offer commiseration. Yes, I am afraid that you have become the feckless minions of The Man. Until today, you, too, were being tricked into complicity with the OM. Yes, lurking in the shadows of every machine, even those of which we have become unwitting cogs, stands The Man, whose covert actions keep it chugging along as though in perpetual motion, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

My dear, honorable perfumers, it is time for you to throw your own wrench into the OM's works. Just say “No” to future oud-perfume launches! Working together, as a team, we perfumistas and you, the perfumers not profitably affiliated with the OM, can take back the oud night, allowing creativity and autonomy to reign in the glorious universe of perfume once again.