Friday, April 27, 2012

The Question of the Osmothèque

Human beings have been perfuming themselves in one way or another for thousands of years. Yet still today, in the twenty-first century, perfumery has not been widely accepted by most people as a fine art. The best explanation for this neglect and the exclusion of perfumery from the history of the fine arts more generally is undoubtedly the sheer ephemerality of perfume.

Here today; gone tomorrow is a slogan which applies nowhere better than in the case of perfume. Even the names of what were said once to be classic perfumes are applied today to entirely new perfumes as a marketing strategy, thus effectively undermining the very possibility of perfumery's subsumption under the more general heading of the exalted and immortal beaux arts.

In the Big Black Bechstein in the Middle of the Room, I attempted (with limited success) to suggest that perfume is closer to music than it is to the other arts, in that it is intrinsically nonrepresentational in nature. I also find, although I have yet to develop this idea in writing, that perfume and music are similar to one another in terms of our experience of them, as each flows to us in an undulating stream of consciousness.

Just as it is impossible to attend equally to each and every note of a complex piece of music such as a fugue or symphony, it is impossible to attend equally to each and every note of a complex perfume as it unfurls throughout the course of its development. What we catch are snatches of the works, which is one of the reasons why they are so rich and can be experienced over and over again without ever risking boredom.

Setting to one side ontological issues and the psychology of music and perfume perception, and looking at the objects of perception instead, it becomes clear that there is a fundamental difference between the two cases. Nothing that any human being does today will ever change the basic fact that J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations are a masterpiece. Pianists may interpret the work in various ways, and we may or may not like those interpretations (I myself never liked Glenn Gould's grunts, may he rest in peace), but the work remains the same. In perfume, in contrast, the works said to be or to have been great eventually evaporate—quite literally—from the face of the earth.

Small wonder, then, that perfumers, along with their art, have not only been relegated to the margins of history, but their names have been inscribed in invisible ink. People have been perfuming themselves for thousands of years, but how many perfumers' names from more than a century ago does anyone know? We know that the old houses are old. Creed was established in 1760, Guerlain in 1828, and quite a cluster of names appeared on the scene in the early twentieth century: Chanel, Coty, Houbigant, et al. Lately the number of houses and perfumes has been increasing at a dizzying rate, chronicled admirably by Michael Edwards in his compendium Fragrances of the World (2012). But will any of these houses or perfumes be able to carve a permanent notch onto the tablet of human history?

Certainly in the small circles in which perfumers and perfumistas travel, much attention is paid to the originality and creativity of splendid perfumes, with credit given where credit is due to the otherwise unsung heroes of this art. Perfumers' names are explicitly associated with the perfumes of their creation by those “in the know,” but in the larger reality of which perfume collection (and obsession) represents only a minuscule subculture, for the vast majority of the consumers of perfumes, the name of the creator is completely unknown. They buy a bottle of perfume, which comes in a box, and generally speaking (with rare exceptions such as the house of Frédéric Malle) nowhere on either the bottle or the box is the perfumer's name anywhere to be found. This is the first clue that perfumery is more of a business than it is an art.

Houses, not perfumers, are credited when a consumer appreciates their wares. Thus Chanel is well-known even by the unwashed masses as a great creator of perfumes in part because they have produced the likes of Coco, Allure, Coco Mademoiselle, and above all Chanel no 5, but mostly because these have been made into household names by ubiquitous, relentless, mass cultural marketing campaigns.

How many people actually know that these perfumes were the works of  Jacques Polge and Ernest Beaux? I would surmise very few, even among self-styled perfumistas who regard themselves as more sophisticated than the average consumer. The truth is that there is no need to know the names of perfumers, and people concern themselves primarily with information relevant to their lives. If someone already knows that Chanel no 5 is and always will be her signature scent, then she may have neither the need nor the desire to find out who the perfumer responsible for its existence is. The question may never even arise in her mind. Her quest is over. She needs to know nothing more about her favorite perfume than where it can be found and purchased. She may even believe (erroneously) that the perfume was composed by Gabriel Chanel herself, just as many people appear to credit designers such as Marc Jacobs and Thierry Mugler with the perfumes bearing their name on the label.

Others, who have more of an eclectic approach to perfuming themselves may well wish to find out who created one of their favorite perfumes in order to be able to seek out others by the same nose. After a while, however, it may become clear that knowing the name will not necessarily be much help in finding other equally beloved perfumes, because every single creation of every single perfumer is unique and manifests a variety of influences beyond the sheer identity of the perfumer, including his or her budget on a particular project, the specifications of the client company, etc. Consider some of the more and less famous works by Maurice Roucel.

Every perfumer well known among the members of fragrance communities has produced one or more duds. Of course, the precise identity of the “duds” varies from person to person, depending above all on their tastes...

Is Amarige abhorrent? Or is it a masterpiece? While perfumistas may have strong opinions about their likes and dislikes, there does not seem to be any real consensus about which of the perfumes of Dominique Ropion are the masterpieces and which are the duds. It's fascinating actually, that so many people can agree that Dominique Ropion is a great perfumer, while vehemently disagreeing over the specific perfumes which validate that claim.

But, again, ask most any person you encounter on the street whether they know who Dominique Ropion is, and you will find that they do not. Some may confuse him with a vague media-generated image of Dominique de Villepin around the time when U.S. congressmen were pouring French wine down the gutters of Washington D.C. and eating “freedom fries”. In all likelihood, most people will frankly confess that they do not know who Dominique Ropion is and have never to their recollection even heard the name.

Unsung Heroes: Film Directors and Perfumers

In some ways, the situation of the perfumer is not unlike that of the film director, who often gets little if any credit for the product of his labor. Instead, most moviegoers attribute the greatness of a film to its stars, though in reality they have little to do with the nature of the artwork, serving only to interpret the lines written by the screenwriter and placed into a visual context by the director. There are of course sophisticated film lovers who are very familiar with the oeuvres of many different directors, but when ordinary people go to the cinema, they are not drawn by the director's name but by the movie stars.

Every rule has its exceptions, and I'd surmise that many of the people who go to see or rent a film by Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen or Stanley Kubrick (may he rest in peace) are doing so for the director, not for whoever the stars of a particular film by any of these iconic directors might be.

The ultimate exception to the rule may be Alfred Hitchcock, whose name became a household word through the massive exposure to him afforded to ordinary people through his many years on television as the host of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In any case, the proportion of savvy movie viewers is likely to be as small as the proportion of savvy perfume users, it seems to me.

Perfumers are in some ways much worse off than film makers, however, because they lose all control over what is done with the perfumes of their creation once they become the property of a house. Reformulation is nothing if not the perversion by someone else of an artist's creation. The reasons for undertaking reformulation appear to be primarily economic, but there may be other considerations as well, including the desire on the part of a house's management team to leave their mark on or shape the quality of their offerings. I touched upon some of these topics in my earlier Reflections on Reformulation, but my point here is that the same thing does not generally speaking happen to the work of film directors.

A film is a film, and it stays that film for all time. Some people have protested the colorization of classic black and white films as a perversion of the original work, and reformulation may seem to be the same sort of thing. One significant difference is that the original black and white film upon which a recolorized version is based continues to exist and is not itself destroyed by the production of another version of the film. Not so in the case of perfume, where reformulations typically supplant the original perfume, usurping its name.

Consider Bernard Chant's Cabochard. A perfume bearing this name, still produced by Parfums Grès (pictured at right), has undergone significant change as a result of reformulation. It is said that Bernard Chant is a great perfumer. It is also said that he created Cabochard. But the vast majority of people who are familiar with this perfume today have only smelled the reformulation. And my hunch is that most of the people who refer to “the great Bernard Chant” have not smelled very many of his original perfumes. We accept on hearsay that he was great because he created perfumes which are said to have been great, though some of them are no longer produced while others have been drastically reformulated.

What is also interesting, however, in contrast to the case of film, is that, in the case of perfume, it is generally accepted as perfectly permissible to do the artistic equivalent of mangling a film and destroying the original. True, people may and do lament the reformulation of their formerly beloved perfume, but they do not, it seems, generally conceive of the injury as one committed against the perfumer but rather against the consumer. It would not be possible, I think, for a perfumer to initiate a successful civil lawsuit against a house for ruining his creation because the property in question belongs to the house.

This is a second clue that perfume is not regarded as a bona fide art in modern culture more generally, no matter how we perfumistas may wish to view things. The only perfumers who retain complete creative control over their works are those who also run their own houses. Perfumers such as Andy Tauer of Tauer Perfumes, for example, are at once the nose and the chair of their own company, and this ensures complete unanimity when it comes time to make tough decisions about discontinuations or reformulations.

I imagine that Andy Tauer, the artist, never proposes to himself, as CEO, to reformulate one of his own perfumes. His wearing of both of these hats simultaneously ensures that his works will not be degraded or destroyed through reformulation. He may of course for a variety of reasons decide to discontinue a perfume or, what is almost the same, to produce limited edition perfumes which literally cannot be reproduced beyond the original batch.

With mass market and designer perfumes, it seems that even sophisticated perfumistas are initially drawn to perfumes by the house label, and then only later do they learn who the creator of the perfume was. This may be in part simply because perfumers often work for many different houses, and there is no simple or obvious way to track the career trajectory of a given perfumer. He may work for L'Artisan Parfumeur and Van Cleef & Arpels, and found The Different Company before taking up permanent residence chez Hermès.

In fact, that appears to be precisely what Jean-Claude Ellena did—among many other things. Most everyone now knowledgeable about perfume is aware that nearly everything coming out of Hermès is the work of Ellena, just as everything coming out of Caron these days is the work of Richard Fraysse, and Thierry Wasser is the house perfumer for Guerlain. But in view of the vague and sketchy history of perfume up to now, all of this really adds up to the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, in the grand scheme of things, again, given the ephemeral nature of perfume.

Can the Osmothèque Legitimate Perfumery as an Art?

As some consumers have become more sophisticated about perfume, thanks in large part to online fragrance community websites such as and, they seem to have contributed to the general feeling among practitioners in the industry that perfume deserves to be recognized as le huitième art. Enter L'Osmothèque, inaugurated in 1990 and currently directed by Patricia Nicolai of Parfums de Nicolai. According to the Osmothèque website:

Premier conservatoire de parfums de l'histoire, elle préserve ces créations si vulnérables et si précieuses de l’usure du temps, de la perte et de l’oubli. Collection vivante de parfums existants ou disparus, elle protège le patrimoine mondial de la parfumerie. 

[The first conservatory of perfume in history, the Osmothèque preserves these precious and vulnerable creations from the ravages of time, from loss, and from oblivion. A living collection of perfumes, both currently available and discontinued, the Osmothèque protects the heritage of perfumery.]

It may seem that it is straightforward to assimilate L'Osmothèque with one of the great visual arts museums, but my distinct impression is that it lies much closer to a Museum of Oenology, of which there are a surprising number in existence. Why is perfume closer to wine than to the visual arts? Because both are consumable and therefore exhaustible. It is possible to empty the last bottle drawn from the last vat of a discontinued perfume after which it is essentially extinct. The reason why vintage wines command such high prices and give rise to the likes of Rudy Kurniawan is because they, too, are exhaustible.

The Osmothèque Vault
The minds behind the Osmothèque appear keen to capture for posterity the great perfumes of the past, but it is unclear whether this can or even should be done. For one thing, unlike visual arts museums, the  direct experience of the perfumes preserved at the Osmothèque is not going to be possible for the general public. Yes, select invitees may be permitted to take a sniff here and there, but the whole reason why the perfumes are kept under argon gas is because they are subject to decomposition and evaporation. If L'Osmothèque began opening up its storage containers of famous perfumes from times past to the general public, they would not last long.

In fact, even if the vessels are carefully guarded and stored, it is inevitable that one day in the future their contents will be exhausted. This implies that, in the future, all talk of such extinct perfumes will be mere hearsay. At some point, every person on the planet who ever smelled the original perfume will actually be dead, and those who continue to talk about it will simply be parroting what others have told them. Indeed, this is the case for the early perfumes listed at the Osmothèque, which are intelligent, educated reconstructions by modern perfumers of works of the distant past. What are these reconstructions based upon? The written words of others.

This is, then, one of the dangers of a book written by people with very strong but idiosyncratic opinions who claim to be offering up a guide, as opposed to a sort of autobiographical chronicle of their own peculiar tastes. Call a book “The A-Z Guide,” and lots of ignorant and gullible people will parrot whatever it says, even with no knowledge of the objects to which the words refer. This is one of the many reasons why I believe that the caustic tone of so much of The Holey [sic] Book (see A Found Review) can only have a negative effect on the world of perfumery as a whole.

Perfume users looking for "expert guidance" may follow the lead of the Royal [ties] Coup[le] and slam perfumes which they've never even experienced and dismiss without so much as a sniff many works which in fact merit our consideration, as of course the perfumers who created them believed that they did. Ignorant readers may operate under the reasonable assumption, given the title of the book, that the authors are actually experts about something beyond their own personal tastes and beliefs.

One problem I see with the Osmothèque is that it promotes this same notion, that self-proclaimed aesthetic experts really are experts, when in fact perfume perception is highly subjective (Everything you've heard and read about perfume is true!), which implies that such "perfume pundits" are really just people with particular likes and dislikes. It's one thing to be an expert about the science of olfaction and quite another to be an “aesthetic expert” about perfume—whatever that is supposed to mean. Even worse, the whole concept of institutional preservation of select perfumes holds the potential for corporate cooption.

I recall reading an announcement by Chandler Burr of his new position as curator of the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. One of the first things he mentioned was that funding was being provided by Estée Lauder, a company which obviously has a lot at stake financially in the identification of some of its and its subsidiaries' perfumes as genuine masterpieces.

Now, the arts have always had their patrons, of course. But the difference in this case as, say, from that of the visual and literary arts, which receive a great deal of public funding, is that in order for legislators to fund such an undertaking, they would need first to believe that perfumery is an art. It's a chicken-egg problem or, if you like, a catch-22. Because perfumery is not generally regarded as an art by average people (as opposed to perfumers and perfumistas), it cannot receive the sort of public funding enjoyed by the established arts. This leaves primarily corporations to foot the bill, but they obviously have a very self-interested reason in seeing to it that the products of their making receive stamps of approval from "the experts".

On the very face of it, there would seem to be the potential for deep conflict of interest in this structure, with a perfumer as the curator and the institution being funded, I presume, by some of the houses. It seems to me rather like the situation with a Museum of Oenology underwritten by Robert Mondavi or some other winemaking giant. These apparently truth-seeking institutions may start to seem more like just another promotional tool rather than an apparatus for celebrating the great perfumes of the past. Perfumery as it has developed in human societies, and in the form to which we are granted access, is a business. There may be artists working behind the scenes, but the real power at the houses lies elsewhere.

In the end, rather than attempting to turn perfume into something which it is not and could never be, perhaps we should instead celebrate this art form's essential ephemerality. Just as the value of travel inheres primarily in the experience, and not in the souvenirs and snapshots or videos which one may gather along the way, perhaps we should focus more upon the precious beauty of the fleeting moments of pleasure which perfume can bring to us, and worry less about how to bottle that experience for all time.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wine Fraud and Perfume Reformulation: A Distinction without a Difference?

Just when I think that I've finally laid my Reflections on Reformulation to rest once and for all, along comes Rudy Kurniawan to rehydrate all of the same puzzles and concerns once again.

Mr. Kurniawan first caught my eye in a recent New York Times article, in which he was exposed to public shame for I believe the very first time. The guy is a con artist and a shyster who fooled lots of people who thought that they knew a lot about wine. Some among his associates did not even believe the story when the fraud first came to light. Kurniawan had been using his home as a “laboratory” for the production of facsimiles of exorbitantly priced wines:

The photos showed reams of printed labels for some of the most expensive wines in the world, like Château Pétrus, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Château Lafleur, as well as corks, foils, rubber stamps with vintage dates and bottles that prosecutors said were being prepared as counterfeits.

Upon seeing the photographs, Kurniawan's friend and associate Paul Wasserman, who was in denial about the charges, finally lamented:

Once you see those pictures, you’re kind of like, O.K., game over...Today, I feel really stupid. Back then, there were always enough alternative narratives that were really plausible.

Yes, the radical underdetermination of theory by data strikes once again. This poignant little tale calls to mind the revelation to Holly Martins of his friend Harry Lime's crimes in Carol Reed's classic 1949 film, The Third Man. In that case, too, not until photographic evidence was produced that Lime had been conducting a racket involving penicillin in post-war Austria was his friend able to accept the regrettable truth.

Penicillin is not perfume, so why in the world did the case of Rudy Kurniawan make me think about perfume reformulation all over again? Because it is difficult, on its face, to understand how the brash, brazen reformulation of a once-classic perfume to a mere shadow, a muzak version, or a caricature of its former self does not, too, constitute an instance of fraud. Certainly the consumer seems to be made into a laughing stock in both cases.

Having recently re-read some of my reviews of reformulated versions of a few once-classic perfumes, Coty Muguet des Bois and Eméraude, Nina Ricca L'Air du Temps, and Worth Je Reviens, I realized that the disappointment I felt that these imposters were being sold under the same names as the perfumes which they had once been, may mask a deeper sentiment: righteous anger that I and so many other consumers have been robbed through a sinister form of false advertising.

We are told that these are great perfumes because they once were. People continue to buy these perfumes because they believe what they are told. Here is an example of how the ruse works. According to one online emporium, L'Air du Temps, now a reformulated disaster, is nonetheless and still:

an icon fragrance that upholds eternal values: peace, love, freedom. A timeless and refined fragrance with a strong personality.

Perfumistas have of course determined that the latest reformulations of all of these perfumes are something of a bad joke. So my question stands: Does this not constitute a case of fraud every bit as scandalous as Rudy Kurniawan's shameless heist in bottling cheap wine and fobbing it off for masterpieces at mindboggling prices?

One reason why perfume comes naturally to mind in thinking about wine is that both are products consumed by many people, and both come in a wide range of genres and at many different price levels. Most people who drink wine have never and will never spend $1,000 or even $100 on a single bottle of wine. Of course, in a world where many people have difficulty even locating potable water, it can hardly be said to be a violation of anyone's rights that the upper echelons of wine should be out of most people's financial reach.

Perhaps there is a sort of poetic justice in the fleecing of people who are able to spend so much money on wine in the first place. Perhaps that is precisely what Rudy Kurniawan thought as he amassed millions of dollars hob-nobbing with the rich and powerful while he secretly exposed—to no one but himself—that they, too, were really poseurs, at least when it came to wine.

Wine is a fascinating case to my mind because the range of prices is so much more vast than the range of prices for perfumes. This is why whenever I hear someone complaining about the price of perfume, I am able immediately to infer that he or she is not a wine connoisseur. It's almost laughable how inexpensive even the most costly perfume is next to the upper echelons of the sort of wine in which connoisseurs indulge. Do you really think that a $200 bottle of perfume which you may be able to wear one hundred times is expensive, when you can easily spend that much money on a single bottle of upper-mid-range wine to be consumed over the course of one meal? QED.

I have often puzzled over the disparity in pricing of all other luxury goods, as compared to perfume, and my best guess is that we are aided enormously by market-generated price control when it comes to perfume, because most people do appear to use it as a toiletry. When ordinary people purchase a perfume, it seems in their mind to be closer to a deodorant or a tube of toothpaste or a moisturizer than it does to a Rolex watch or a yacht.

We perfumistas may then benefit from the mass-market creation of a widely accepted notion of what constitutes a “normal” price for a perfume. Comparing a bottle which costs $20 to $200, then, it may seem “outrageous” that if the liquids are phenomenologically similar in quality, that one of them should cost ten times more than the other.

This is, of course, the basis of the complaints which people make about relatively expensive lines such as Amouage, Bond no 9, Creed, Boadicea the Victorious, and the über-expensive lines such as Clive Christian, and Xerjoff. I understand these complaints. If you can buy essentially the same perfume for $20 that you are being asked to pay $300 for, then it just seems plain stupid to do so. Just because you have some money does not mean that you want to throw it away.

At the same time, I don't think that there is anything wrong with companies charging whatever they wish for their perfumes. If a consumer does not think that a perfume is worth the price, then he will not buy it. End of story. There is no question of morality in these scenarios, it seems to me.

Reformulation, in contrast, raises some of the same vexing moral questions brought to the fore so colorfully by the case of Rudy Kurniawan. To see this, we need to reflect upon what exactly is supposed to be wrong with what this young man, age 36 at the time of his apprehension, did.

What's Wrong with Wine Fraud?

Some Known Knowns 


Wine: Rudy Kurniawan lied about the wines he sold at auctions to wealthy wine collectors. They were not what he claimed them to be.

Perfume: Do not houses in effect lie when they claim that a perfume is what the name suggests it to be, when in fact the bottles are filled with something entirely different?


Wine: Rudy Kurniawan intended to make a lot of money (and he did!) by bottling less-expensive wines and selling them at the prices which the rare wines which he claimed them to be command in today's market.

Perfume: Houses obviously reformulate perfumes such as Coty Muguet des Bois and Eméraude to drastically slash their production costs, after which they are sold in large volumes at low prices. The intention is to maximize profit. Rather than targeting a smaller niche with perfumes produced in smaller volumes at higher cost and sold to discriminating clientele, such drugstore reformulated classics are primarily sold to people who do not know very much about perfume.

Perfumistas, who are much better informed than the average consumer of perfume, are aware of the fact that such perfumes have been reformulated and bear very little resemblance to the perfumes which made the names famous in the first place. But the companies do not lie and deny that the perfumes have been reformulated. So where does the responsibility lie when someone who re-purchases what she thought was her beloved perfume and discovers that it has radically changed for the worse? Am I, not Guerlain, at fault in the case of My Ugly Divorce From Mitsouko?

Clearly there is at least one well-known distinction between the case of wine fraud and that of perfume reformulation. The former is illegal; the latter is not. Indeed, many houses now claim that it precisely in order to conform with restrictions imposed by the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) that they have been compelled to reformulate their perfumes. The houses, then, may sound like innocent victims in all of this. Is our anger that they should have reformulated our once-favorite perfumes misdirected?

My distinct impression is that most reformulations have not been undertaken in order to conform with the new IFRA standards. Certainly many have not, including all of those reformulations which were carried out before the IFRA issued its paternalistic directives intended, apparently, to aid people with allergies, though anyone who knows anyone with allergies is aware that they are basically the last people on the planet to perfume themselves.

So far we have not made much progress. After all, the legal distinction may simply mask a moral equivalence. For many centuries, slavery was legal. It did not become immoral when it was outlawed. Rather, it is because people recognized the immorality of slavery that it was finally outlawed.

Perhaps, then, perfume reformulation should be illegal, too, and it has simply taken longer for legislation to be developed regarding perfume than wine because many more people drink alcohol than use perfume. In fact, I think that there is a real distinction between the two cases, despite the fact that perfume reformulation may elicit righteous anger as well, whenever an unwitting consumer purchases a perfume under the assumption that it is what it was before.

What makes a Wine the Wine that it is?

To understand the difference between wine fraud and perfume reformulation, it may be helpful to think about the ontological differences between the two cases. Wines come in many different types: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, etc., etc. Perfumes, too, come in many different types: floral aldehyde, citrus cologne, leather chypre, aromatic fougère, floriental, fruity floral, aquatic, etc., etc.

Wine and perfume bear similarities to one another above all in this regard: the products of a particular vineyard are unique to it, just as the products of a particular perfume house are unique to it. Just as the wines which were being faked by Kurniawan were not actually produced by the vineyards he claimed, in the case of perfume fakes, some other agents are conducting themselves in the manner in which the wine shyster did. They buy bottles and labels and liquids and put the whole production together so as to trick consumers (usually on e-bay, these days) into buying their pseudo-Chanels, pseudo-Creeds, etc.

In the case of perfume reformulation, in contrast, the sole act of deception is the use of the name of a perfume with a new formula when it used to be the name of a perfume with the former (classic) formula.

The recent and bizarre case of Christian Dior's renaming of Miss Dior and Miss Dior Chérie offers a telling lesson for our investigations. 

Dior has relabeled as Miss Dior L'originale what used to be known as Miss Dior. At the same time, the perfume formerly known as Miss Dior Chérie has been renamed Miss Dior. This absurdly incoherent managerial decision on the part of some nincompoop at Dior has received a lot of attention and negative criticism from perfumistas.

However, I believe that for the first time in perfume history, LVMH has actually done something positive (albeit unwittingly...) for the world of perfume. What they have done is to illustrate the autocratic prerogative of houses to name whatever they produce whatever they wish to call it. By this strange renaming of their perfumes, Dior has made it abundantly clear and virtually unforgettable to us perfumistas that the perfume houses are capable, in their own narrowly circumscribed domain, of making it the case that
2 + 2 = 5!

Houses have this god-like prerogative because they alone are privy to the recipes of their perfumes. If they want to change those recipes, they are free to do so, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. It is not clear that it is even in principle possible to do anything about it, because the secret ingredient of every perfume is “parfum”, which contains such small amounts of the key (identity-making) components that the companies are not required to list them individually, because no one who produces anything is required to list such tiny quantities on the labels of their products.

What is interesting about the case of wine production is that there is no real analogue to perfume reformulation because the names of wines are intrinsically tied up with the years of their production. The quality of a particular lot of wine is essentially determined by its ingredients: how they have been handled and produced, including the nature of the grapes of the particular harvest used. Yes, winemakers do things to their wines to produce certain effects, but the basic ingredients themselves change from year to year.

The house of Demeter produced in 2009 a series of Vintage Natural perfumes (Geranium, Lavender, Mimosa, Patchouli, and Rose) which embrace and extol this very feature of wine, making a virtue of the uniqueness imparted to any perfume by the particular “harvest” from which its natural components derive.

There is no possibility that these perfumes will ever be reproduced by Demeter, because the names of the perfumes contain the year in which they were produced. It would be impossible to re-produce the 2009 Vintage Natural perfumes in 2012, because the components would not derive from 2009 but from 2012.

By producing these perfumes, Demeter underscored the similarities between wine and perfume. In reality, what Demeter says about its 2009 Vintage Natural perfumes should apply to every natural perfume, though many houses continue to produce what they claim to be the same perfume under the same name, admitting in some cases that there will be slight variations from batch to batch.

In the case of reformulations of perfume labeled in the same way but the formulas of which have been intentionally changed, it seems that there is a trick being played upon the consumer. While it may be that many of us perfumistas are aware of reformulations, it seems quite clear that ordinary consumers often are not. Thus many people continue dutifully to buy readily and cheaply available drugstore Guerlain Shalimar under the assumption that it is indeed a great perfume.

This is the sense in which I believe that perfume reformulation can approach the sort of moral fraud committed by shysters such as Rudy Kurniawan. Still, houses are free to call whatever they produce whatever they like, as Christian Dior so brashly and shamelessly demonstrated in renaming Miss Dior Chérie as Miss Dior and Miss Dior as Miss Dior L'Originale. At the same time, Dior has been, it seems, regularly reformulating all of its perfumes, so in the end, all bets are off when you buy what you hope to be a second or third bottle of a perfume which you once loved, and their renaming of these perfumes serves as a handy reminder of all of this.

The world of wine and the world of perfume are distinct in at least this way: reformulation is not possible in the former as it is in the latter case. To call a wine produced in 2012 in Rudy Kurniawan's home laboratory a 1985 Château Pétrus Pomerol—which, by the way, retails as of today at 4pm EST for $2,412.94—is simply and utterly a lie.

Interestingly enough, Kurniawan was tripped up through a series of unbelievably amateurish errors, including this one, reported by

The case against Rudy Kurniawan is that in 2008 he consigned at auction some 84 bottles purporting to be from Domaine Ponsot in Burgundy, including one from 1929, which was impossible as the estate did not begin bottling until 1934.

Let's see, the money used to buy a bottle of 1985 Château Pétrus Pomerol could be used instead to purchase ten bottles of niche perfume. Is the price of perfume too high? I think not. Do you get what you pay for? Yes, indeed. But the rules for perfume admit the form of marketing deception known as “reformulation,” for whatever reasons a house may deem fit, and this is why it is important to be ever vigilant in buying famous-name perfumes.

We should first determine whether our beloved perfume has been reformulated, and if it has, we should exercise caution by testing before we re-buy. If it turns out to be yet another case of a drastic and crass reformulation, where a once-great perfume has been reduced to something akin to paint thinner, then it is time for us to move on.

Fortunately—or not—new perfumes are being launched faster than breeding rabbits, which of course raises the problem of locating the new classics, if there be any such things.... As for me, I console myself with the existence of a few good bottles of discontinued perfumes, the likes of Guerlain Mahora and Kenzo L'Eléphant Jungle, which have thus been spared the chemist-accountant scalpels now carrying out their carnage at most of the big houses.

In conclusion, perfume reformulation is not akin to wine fraud; it's a different sort of beast.

Caveat Emptor!!!!!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lego Perfumery and the Death of the Tattoo Frag

Lessons from Mystery Scent Vial Trial 2
In a recent round of the Mystery Scent Vial Trial Game hosted by savvy perfumista Icekat, I discovered that I do not always know the perfumes in my collection, but sometimes I do. This episode featured perfumes launched in the 1990s, so that was our starting point. Any perfume not launched in the 1990s was eliminated from contention at the outset. The fragrance which I immediately recognized and in fact harbored no doubts whatsoever about after less than a minute of sniffing was not L'Artisan Parfumeur Voleur de Roses (1993), nor Oscar de la Renta So de la Renta (1997), but Christian Dior Dune (1991).
In the case of So de la Renta, I possess a small perfume mini, presumably containing perfume, not edt or edp, and so the liquid in the Mystery Scent Vial Trial was in all likelihood a much weaker concentration than what I have. I also consoled myself with the knowledge that I have not really worn So de la Renta enough to be able to recognize it readily, as I acquired the mini fairly recently, really only for reference purposes, and I had tested it only once. I also, to be honest, am not sure about the condition of the perfume in the mini, as I acquired it from a big discounter for nearly nothing, and it may well have been sitting in a warehouse under less than optimum environmental conditions for years.
As for Voleur de Roses, I'm afraid that every single time I've worn it, I have had an entirely different experience of the perfume. During this Mystery Scent Vial Trial, I was struck by a dominant coriander-like accord in the opening of the perfume which seemed so marked that I became obsessed with finding a perfume with coriander—or something along those lines—and this led me far, far away from Voleur de Roses, which lists only two official notes in any of the hierarchies at fragrance community websites I've seen: patchouli and rose!
In my two reviews of this perfume, one written before acquiring a bottle, and the other after, I have devised such fanciful hypotheses as that the name of the creation is an indication that the roses have actually been stolen by some thief reeking of patchouli. So it is clear that I have never really thought that the rose was very important to Voleur de Roses, and whatever else I may notice about it, the patchouli is always the number one note. But patchouli figures in hundreds if not thousands of perfumes today, so that was not much help in narrowing down what the perfume might be.
In my pre-acquisition review of Voleur de Roses, I seemed to find the earthiness worth emphasizing, but in the later review, I did not even mention it. This may illustrate that we attend to different aspects of a perfume depending upon factors external to the perfume (such as what's on our mind, what's in our bloodstream, etc.). Why did the coriander-like opening catch my attention during this wearing when it had never registered before as even detectable, much less salient? Who knows? Perhaps I was suffering from a bit of decongestion that day, and so suddenly coriander seemed more important than it had before. On ne sait jamais...
My various receptions to this perfume may also simply reflect that the two liquids I reviewed were in fact rather different compositionally, despite their identical name. If L'Artisan Parfumeur uses natural materials, as I presume that they often do, then there is bound to be some natural variation among identically named components, and there is also always the possibility of variations from batch to batch having to do with how the perfume is produced—beyond the issue of the provenance of natural materials and how they may vary. Evidence for this possibility is that in a side-by-side comparison, I did not find the two liquids identical, though they were both drawn from fresh bottles of Voleur de Roses.
Another perfume which I failed correctly to identify, though I had tested and reviewed it before, was Christian Dior Tendre Poison (1994). It smelled rather muddled to me, and at one point I even guessed that it might be So de la Renta! My thinking was that the perfume in my mini of the latter was a kind of mish-mash of fruits gone slightly bad and mingling with “abstract florals”.
What I did not notice in the Mystery Scent Vial Trial sample at all was the strong asafoetida-cum-soap, killer accord of Tendre Poison, which, back when I reviewed it, had caused me an instant and severe headache upon application and probably compromised my ability to assess the perfume. Indeed, specialists in criminal investigation have pointed out in cases where people claim to remember details immediately prior to their having been knocked unconscious, that in fact it is impossible, since the trauma effectively erases the memories of the minutes preceding it!
The liquid in my sample vial (obtained from a decanter before I decided to renounce decanters altogether because of concerns articulated in Against Petitesse in Modern Perfumery) was exceedingly strong, as though perhaps an old bottle had evaporated to some extent leaving a powerfully concentrated “extrait” which would explain, perhaps, why and how such a small application could have caused me such a sudden and severe headache. The liquid in the Mystery Scent Vial Trial sample, in contrast, was quite a bit weaker and did not cause me a headache, nor did it make me start imagining large palettes of soap being unloaded by stevedores. So the gross disparity in my phenomenological reception to the two perfumes easily explains why I did not recognize Tendre Poison, although I had reviewed it.

I did manage correctly to identify Pierre Balmain Vent Vert (1991) which was apparently more or less the same reformulation as the bottle in my collection, so it was a simple matter to test my hunch by doing a side-by-side comparison, after which I was convinced that the perfume had to be Vent Vert. But I did not identify Vent Vert in the way in which I identified Dune. I initially observed that the Vent Vert sample “could be something from Annick Goutal, definitely has hyacinth” and proceeded to deduce the correct answer from the evidence. My recognition of Dune, in stark contrast, was direct and unmediated. I did not detect any notes; I detected Dune.
I also managed correctly to deduce the identity of Chôpard Wish (1999), a perfume which I however do not own and had never reviewed or tested, nor even sniffed. Based on the notes, and what I had heard about Wish, including the quality level and color of the liquid, I was able to make an “educated guess” which turned out to be right. It was way too watery to be Thierry Mugler Angel (to which it is often compared), but I figured it out by thinking about the quality level of Chôpard perfumes, along with the listed notes.                      
The most remarkable event of the trial to me was without a doubt my immediate recognition of Christian Dior Dune as Christian Dior Dune. I say that it was remarkable because although I have a large bottle of the vintage perfume, I nearly never wear it, and I really have hardly worn it at all. I always wanted to wear it, but somehow I never really find myself reaching for it, although I have always thought that it is a good perfume. So why is Dune so immediately recognizable although I hardly ever wear it? Because Dune falls into the general category of what I take to be a dying breed of perfumes: The Tattoo Frag. I do not credit myself with having identified Dune so readily. All of the credit belongs to Dune itself, for being an utterly unforgettable and unique creation. Dune, I explained to my comrades, smells like nothing to me but Dune. No isolable notes whatsoever, just Dune.

Many of the most famous iconic perfumes are tattoo frags, by which I mean, readily identifiable and indeed impossible to mistake for anything else than what they are—at least by anyone who has ever worn them or shared a space with someone who does. Givenchy Amarige (1991) is a good example of a tattoo frag. These are perfumes which stake a bold claim on a portion of the grand olfactory map, a territory which thereafter becomes forever their own. One of the most famous examples of a tattoo frag is obviously Thierry Mugler Angel (1992), for literally hundreds of perfumes call it to mind today, twenty years after it was launched. Angel got there first, and every other perfume which features a significant subset of its tapestry of notes—above all, sweet patchouli—is considered by many to be either a knock-off or a pale shadow of the original. Something about the way they are composed make these perfumes literally unforgettable, and my theory is that they effectively tattoo themselves into the wearer's olfactory memory bank, never, ever to be forgotten, once they have insinuated themselves into one's brain.

The quintessential tattoo frag, to my mind—and nose—is Calvin Klein Eternity(1988). In fact, during its golden age, the house of Calvin Klein produced an entire series of tattoo frags, but Eternity stands out even among its brethren—Obsession, Escape, Truth, Contradiction, CKOne—for being not merely unforgettable, but eternally unforgettable. Yes, Eternity may be the most aptly named perfume in the history of the world, because it lasts an eternity—or until the wearer scrubs it off in a long hot bath or a steamy soapy shower.

With the veritable explosion of flanker and limited-edition perfumes (see Flankers, Twitter, and the Fall of Western Civilization), even Calvin Klein has altered its creative direction to accommodate seemingly endless series of regurgitated special editions and flankers, most of which are entirely forgettable, and, while some of them have their appeal, their status as flankers virtually guarantees that they will be relegated to the dust bin of perfume history in the not-too-distant future. For the most part, they are not even very memorable fragrances, much less tattoo frags.

I attribute the death of the tattoo frag above all to what I have come to call the Lego perfumery movement: the increasing tendency of perfumers to piece together quick and easy new launches using modular accords. My first recognition of the reality of Lego perfumery occurred during my review of Guerlain Insolence edt (2006) at Fragrantica on January 14, 2010. I'll re-post it in its unedited entirety here because it's too difficult to locate there, but it illustrates some important points. Plus I just like it for its direct and brutal honesty:
I was shocked to discover that Guerlain's Insolence smelled upon initial spritz nearly identical to Météorites. Shortly thereafter, however, some darker elements began to emerge, both spicy and "je ne sais quoi" kind of stuff. Still, I feel that Insolence is not a new Guerlain creation. Rather, they appear to have attached Météorites to a solid, resinous base.
So solid, in fact, that upon awakening this morning, more than twelve hours after application, I found myself still enveloped in some sort of bizarre resin aura. I couldn't identify it, but the violets and irises had all long ago disappeared, leaving only this very insistent resin on my skin.
I was dying to find out the identity of the strange fat-soluble substance that had infused itself into my cells, and for a brief moment I thought that it might be the styrax or benzoin from Tanglewood Bouquet, which I had been wearing yesterday during the day. But then I remembered that I took a long, hot bath last night, after which I applied Insolence. All I knew at this point was that there was a serious film of resin attached to my skin.
Unfortunately, no help was forthcoming from the Fragrantica description, which lists only the incredibly general "resin" as the note that was commanding the attention of my nose. "Resin," if synthetic, means: some sort of polycarbonate substance, often produced at the culmination of an organic chemistry experiment. Thick, oily, viscous, usually black. Basically a plastic byproduct. That's how this smells, for sure!
My edt is, suffice it to say, quite strong enough! I won't be buying the edp or the parfum of Insolence, because the thought of waking up to an even higher concentration of black gooey pot liquor odor wafting through the air is simply unbearable.
A word about the bottle: this 3.4oz thick-glass, asymmetrical spaceship-type shape is really beautiful. In fact, I love just to hold the bottle: c'est un vrai objet d'art! The pink color of the edt is also new to Guerlain, à ma connaissance, and pleasing to the eye. Visually, it cannot be denied that the presentation is gorgeous and unique. But the contents are not: Météorites + a lot (a glob!) of resins and a bit of fruit is what I found here!
36 hour update: resins still clinging tenaciously to my pajamas. This stuff could survive a nuclear holocaust!!!
66 hour update: time to do laundry ASAP!
108 hour update: detected Insolence still infused through my sheets last night before retiring in clean pajamas! Help!!!!! AIDEZ-MOI, SVP!!!!
By way of conclusion: The capacity to form a permanent polymer with my pajamas is not a property that I am looking for in a perfume. Now I think that I understand the spaceship metaphor: this substance is truly sci-fi! I may have to add the designers of Insolence to my "just say no" list, along with the creator of the perversely po-mo Rumeur... Désolée, vraiment!
Needless to say, I am not a fan of this perfume. Within months of having acquired a 100ml bottle scent unsniffed—still laboring under the false belief that Guerlain in the twenty-first century is the same as the Guerlain I knew and loved in the twentieth century—I swapped the bottle away, because each time I removed the nozzle, considering the mere possibility of application, a feeling of revulsion welled up inside me. I finally realized that even the bottle was not worth keeping because the contents were so vile. I literally cringed at the very thought of a more concentrated version than the eau de toilette which I had tried, although many people have claimed that the eau de parfum, launched in 2008, is better. It is possible that, as in the case of Chanel Allure, the edp (1996) is a different formula from the edt (1999). I don't know, because I've yet to muster up the courage to try Insolence again. Just as I loved both versions of Allure (past tense because I have not tried the reformulations...), I fear that I would loathe both versions of Insolence. Why? you may inquire. Because, I reply, the concept is confused, according to both my nose and my mind.
Although I find it to be an unwearable perfume, Insolence bears within itself plenty of philosophical value, as it simultaneously illustrates both the phenomenon of Lego perfumery and the idea of a tattoo frag. First, Insolence, having appropriated the critical Météorites-making Météorites accord, was itself subsequently appropriated for use as one of the building blocks of Iris Ganache (2007) from the collection “L'Art et la Matière”. I find it fascinating that Météorites itself is the scent of Guerlain's colorful ball-shaped face powder. In other words, Météorites eau de toilette, too, was a Lego-type creation, some resourceful person's idea to squeeze as much as possible out of the colorful little balls:
Unsurprisingly, I was not smitten with Iris Ganache either (created by Thierry Wasser), and here's what I wrote in my review of April 17, 2010:
Guerlain Iris Ganache is a close cousin to Insolence, with all that that implies. Basically, if you like the Météorites opening of Insolence, which morphs into a sweet plastic iris, then you'll like Iris Ganache too. I love Météorites, but I cannot wear Insolence. I had thought that it was the plastic raspberries, but now, by process of elimination I have deduced that what I find repellent in both Insolence and Iris Ganache is the combination of plastic iris with cloying sweetness. In the case of Insolence, the sweetness comes from raspberry; in the case of Iris Ganache, the note is white chocolate. Both of these fragrances seem more like something that I would have expected from the house of Calvin Klein than from Guerlain. I have no desire even to finish my sample vial. Désolée!
Luca Turin's wife Tania Sanchez describes “what's wrong” with Insolence in her review of Iris Ganache (while comparing the two) as “hairspray and terror,” so our perceptions and judgment appear to intersect at one tiny node in all of space and time. Well, to invoke a saying recently cited by GypsyParfumista in a salon comment: “Even a broken clock is right twice each day.”
Notwithstanding the "hairspray and terror" remark, The Holey[sic] Book proceeds to confer the label “five-star masterpiece” upon the source of hairspray and terror, while I regard the perfume as a symptom of the tragedy which has befallen the late, great house of Guerlain. Apparently Iris Ganache is being discontinued, no doubt because the price tag does not match the appropriate market niche... Or did others find it as repulsive as I did? I've seen a lot of love for this perfume by bloggers, most recently lamenting its discontinuation, but perhaps the naysayers have simply held their tongues? On ne sait jamais...
So where were we? Oh, right. Insolence strikes me as an attempt to produce a tattoo frag using Lego methodology involving another Lego-esque creation, Météorites. Obviously, I think it's a failure. And of course the Insolence flankers are forgettable.

My encounter with Insolence was the first time I recognized, albeit vaguely and in only an inchoate form, the Lego perfumery movement underway. I got another inkling of it when I reviewed Bvlgari Blv Notte (2004), a composition by Alberto Morillas which seemed clearly to my nose to include the iconic Kenzo Flower (2000) baby powder accord. Blv Notte is not that well known, and I do not regard it as a tattoo frag, despite its incorporation of an accord from the arguably tattoo-ish Flower (also by Morillas). But it illustrates the direction in which perfumery as a whole appears to be moving, in a seeming vortex of quick and easy launches now spinning out of control. The more perfumers are pressured into producing new perfumes, the more apt they are going to be to piece together Lego perfumes, making it impossible for new iconic perfumes to be created, it seems to me.
I think that I've rambled on for quite long enough, so rather than inflicting any more of my reviews upon you, I'd like to open up the floor and hand off the karaoke mike. I'd be most grateful to hear your thoughts on Lego perfumery and the death of the tattoo frag. Pray tell: am I overreacting?
The questions are now pulsing through my mind, so let me just download some of them here:
Can anyone out there offer an example of a successful recent tattoo frag launch?
What have been the latest iconic perfumes produced in the twenty-first century, and are they as unique and unmistakeable as Dune and Eternity? Or are they mere variations on earlier themes?
Finally, is it possible for a niche perfume house to produce a tattoo perfume? I guess that at this point I'm torn on the concept here. Would a niche tattoo frag be a category mistake? Do we need to smell an iconic perfume wafting off the skin of the masses in congested public places in order for it to insinuate itself permanently into our olfactory memory bank? Or am I conflating two distinct categories: the tattoo frag and the iconic perfume?
Perhaps some perfumes are only tattoos, two examples of which may be Grès Cabotine (1990) and Alfred Sung Sung (1986), while others are also iconic and so transcend the era of their launch?
I anxiously await your insights on these matters,
my fellow fragrant travelers!