Thursday, May 31, 2012

Did History End in 2008? Review of The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez

Most perfumistas familiar with The Holey [sic] Book—published under the title Perfumes: The A-Z Guide—appear to be aware that the “latest” Turin & Sanchez contribution to perfume writing is largely a reprint of the purple pages, the five-star reviews. The Little Book of Perfumes: The Hundred Classics is diminutive indeed, with a physical size measuring only 4.5 x 8 inches and spanning a mere 107 pages, including the slightly modified but mostly reprinted glossary and ever-so-slightly amended “best of” lists. For the benefit of those readers planning to embark on a three-hour cruise with one or the other of the authors, each has also included a handy list of top ten “desert island” perfumes.

The bulk of this not very bulky text, logically enough, reads as though its entries were literally ripped out of the original and essentially rebound to re-sell—which, of course, they were. So, for example, the review of Cacharel Loulou still ends with the sentence “This is one of the greats,” and several reviews end with the word 'masterpiece', though this is supposed to be a book of only “the greats”.

The good news is that much of the slander and snark, the rampant allegations of plagiarism, along with all of the vacuous negative criticism which never gave any reader any reason for steering clear of the perfumes despised by the authors—beyond the fact that they happen to despise them—have been omitted from The Little Book. As a result, Turin & Sanchez come off sounding more like adults and less like Beavis & Butthead, which is surely a good thing for all parties concerned. The snarling mongrels have been muzzled and the howling hyenas kept at bay in this reprint of reviews of their favorite perfumes, making this slim volume a short list of recommended fragrances which readers will surely be buying—well, except for a few.

Some of the perfumes included in this volume, notably Yohji Yamamoto Yohji Homme and Issey Miyake Le Feu d'Issey, are identified as “discontinued”. This makes the refusal of the authors to review all sorts of other discontinued great perfumes in their former volume somewhat difficult to understand. Apparently when they published The Holey [sic] Book, they believed themselves to have reviewed fresh samples of perfumes in production. Of course, they reviewed only about 10% of the perfumes in existence, but they excused themselves by saying that they had reviewed everything of which they were able to acquire samples. 

It seems that they meant all of the perfumes of which they were able to acquire free samples, as I, for one, can attest that samples are readily available for many of the houses not represented in The Holey [sic] Book (hence its true name...). In any case, although the snark is largely gone—or at least tamed down to a tolerable percentage of the text, with the authors taking aim primarily at the IFRA—the arbitrariness remains.

To her credit, Sanchez explains in the introduction that
The fragrances reviewed in this book are not the greatest of all time—instead, they are those that struck us as far above their peers in quality, inventiveness, or straightforward beauty when we surveyed nearly 1,900 during the writing of Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, ignoring all publicity, packaging, and the feelings of friends and neighbors and concentrating solely on the scent.

This caveat does not prevent Turin from continuing to proclaim that Chanel 31 Rue Cambon is “One of the ten greats of all time,” and Guerlain Après L'Ondée “One of the twenty greatest perfumes of all time,” while hailing Guerlain Derby as “One of the ten best masculines of all time.”

Where, pray tell, was the editor during the production of this book? Such claims remind me of people who offer four significant-figure answers to the question what they regard as the likelihood of rain. “I'd say there's an 86.54% chance!”

It is unclear, given Sanchez's caveat, why the subtitle of this book, The Hundred Classics, remains just as misleading as that of their first book, The A-Z Guide. The Holey [sic] Book is not “The” guide to anything beyond the authors' taste ("they" have only one...), which is great if you happen to be interested in that topic, but since most readers will never be sharing a space with, much less marrying, either Turin or Sanchez, the value of that information is rather limited.

It would have been more accurate to subtitle The Little Book (which it really is), One Hundred Classics. Of course doing that would be an admission that Turin and Sanchez are not the world-renowned aesthetic experts their publisher has marketed them as being, and which has had a self-propagating effect, as houses and decanters purveying what is said by the couple to be a “masterpiece” naturally quote them in their marketing materials as “the experts”, and then, because houses and decanters say that they are experts, this must, it seems, mean that they are. A vicious circle of deception, indeed.

To return to the question of arbitrariness, Sanchez pokes fun at the publisher for their having added four perfumes to the ninety-six which received their highest accolades in The Holey [sic] Book:
To make up for our arbitrary, ahistorical approach and to satisfy the preference of publishers for multiples of ten, we add, to the ninety-six top-ranked fragrances from our previous book, four brief writings on long-gone fragrances of historical importance.

That remark was apparently intended to be amusing, but nowhere is the choice of Coty Emeraude, L'Origan, and Chypre explained, although the fourth perfume added to bring the total to one hundred, Jacques Fath Iris Gris, created by Vincent Roubert, is pronounced to be “a possibly perfect composition.” So that's, I guess, the explanation: that Turin likes it.

Of course, none of these four perfumes exists anymore, so they were sniffed at the Osmothèque (where the  painstakingly reconstructed liquids are housed) and reviewed, why, exactly? Perhaps this was another one of the publisher's schemes (along with t.v. appearances, magazine features, etc.) to shore up the claim that the self-appointed experts are such experts that they are allowed to sniff perfumes at the Osmothèque. Which, again, confirms the claims by the houses featured in The Little Book, that its authors' judgments are indeed authoritative.

The Ce Soir ou JamaisEternityJardins de Bagatelle Connection Elucidated

To my mind, the primary value of The Holey [sic] Book lies in its provision of an answer to the question: How many insults can be squeezed into a single syllogism? Here is the answer:

1. Annick Goutal Ce Soir ou Jamais is an “Eternity wannabe”

2. Calvin Klein Eternity is “a copy of something not worth copying, Jardins de Bagatelle

3. Guerlain Jardins de Bagatelle is “the very best of a lousy lot,” created in “a race to the bottom”

Therefore, Sophia Grojsman is a plagiarist with bad taste, and the perfumer who created Ce Soir ou Jamais is an incompetent plagiarist with even worse taste.


Perhaps you did not see the word 'plagiarist' in The Holey [sic] Book, but every authored perfume condemned as a "knock-off" or "copy" or "clone" implies the existence of a named plagiarist. If you missed this the first time around, you might consider heading on over to your local community college and enrolling in a course on critical thinking or elementary logic. You will then discover that Turin & Sanchez commit every fallacy in the book. Literally.

The Little Book, happily, is largely devoid of such nonsense, although Turin labels the members of the IFRA “traitors” in one of his lamentations about a mangled reformulation. He also calls the perfume houses (rather more vaguely) “vandals and thieves” in his introduction of the Osmothèque. But, overall, this book is far less thuggish and ugly than The Holey [sic] Book, as the perfumers and perfumes disliked by the authors are simply omitted, rather than being subjected to the authors' pseudo-righteous ire and toddleresque tantrums. 

Turinia Mathematics: (1 + 5)/2 = 5!

I did find one passage in particular of The Little Book to be rather depressing. At the end of Turin's review of Etat Libre d'Orange Sécrétions Magnifiques, Sanchez writes:

2011: Smells exactly the same. For the record, there always should have been a dissenting vote from me on this one: one star, absolutely revolting, like a drop of J'Adore on an oyster you know you shouldn't eat. Whatever you do, do not allow any to touch your nose when you smell it off a paper strip. I know Luca is a convincing proselytizer, but trust me. TS

Please correct me if I am wrong in the math here, but I believe that the average of 1 star and 5 stars would be 6, divided by 2, equals 3 stars. So there you have it: a bald demonstration of what some of us suspected all along, that Tania really is just Luca's rib. The books both bear copyrights to Luca Turin, and she has no veto power to his decree of masterpieces. Should we be happy that our suspicion has been confirmed? I have to confess that I was depressed.

Nonetheless, The Little Book is a much more pleasant read, albeit a repetitive one to anyone familiar with The Holey [sic] Book. The reviews have hardly been touched, so it's the same old anecdotes about memories from the authors' idiosyncratic lives which supposedly justify the claims that these particular perfumes are not just the authors' favorites, but truly great.  

I never quite grasped that connection before: Smells like an office Turin used to work in? Or a car that he rode in as a boy? Is a perfume his dad wore? Sanchez experienced an eschatological deliverance during her fourth sniffing?

The problem with those sorts of reviews is that they are valid only for the people who had those experiences and retain those same memories. For others, L'Artisan Parfumeur Dzing! may simply smell like bandaids and dung, whatever the contents of Turin's memory bank happen to be. 

The reviews of The Hundred Classics nearly all relay stories from the authors' past experiences of these perfumes, revealing that they have worn them in some cases many times before—Turin ends his review of Parfums de Nicolaï New York with these words: Reader, I wore it for a decade. Apparently this is supposed to constitute a reason to buy the perfume for readers non-identical with Turin and likely to have divergent tastes from his own.

The autobiographical nature of the contents of these reviews strongly suggests that many, if not most, of the perfumes were pre-selected by the authors for inclusion. How many of the two- and three-star perfumes identified in The Holey[sic] Book left the authors cold or indifferent in just the way that Sanchez explicitly claims she failed to recognize what she came to regard as the greatness of Badgley Mischka the first, second, and even third time she smelled it? Only on her fourth smelling did she “grasp” that this perfume belongs among The Hundred Classics.

In order for this list to have any real merit—beyond autobiographical value—the testings would all need to have been conducted in blind trials. Of course, then the anecdotes would have disappeared, and the authors would have needed to comment on the perfumes rather than sharing memories and stories from their personal lives.

That the judgments were made independently of the packaging and the circumstances under which the perfumes were acquired seems equally dubious. Turin spends easily half the review of Amouage Gold describing his interest in the origins of the house and the packaging of the perfume. About Amouage Homage, he writes:
At the impossibly swank launch in Muscat of Amouage's two Jubilation scents, guests found, upon arrival in their hotel rooms, a limited edition bottle in a plain white box labeled simply Attar; i.e., "fragrance." When sampled, this anonymous thing turned out to be breathtakingly beautiful: at once lofty, tremendously radiant, and dizzyingly rich.

If such factors as "impossible swankness" were not taken into consideration in the evaluation of the perfumes, then why are they included in the reviews? Can anyone, Turin included, truthfully claim that their evaluations of a perfume are completely divorced from their encounter of its presentation in reality?

These favorable reviews, while arbitrary, do have content, which is more than could be said for the bulk of the reviews in The Holey [sic] Book—which follows from the fact that only 96 of the 1800 perfumes reviewed there garnered five stars. Many of the two-, three-, and even four-star reviews from The Holey [sic] Book give the impression of having been hastily dashed-off notes, as though Turin & Sanchez sat down with a pile of paper testing strips and a table covered with perfume bottles and had a sniffing marathon. It is painfully obvious that many of the perfumes were not given the benefit of a single full wear—much less four (or ten years' worth!). One can hardly resist the impression that all of this was a kind of “get rich and famous quick” scam which happened to pan out pretty well.

Perhaps, in the beginning, Turin & Sanchez didn't ever really believe that they'd be taken seriously as art critics. After all, hardly anyone in Western culture regards perfumery as one of the beaux arts. This might explain their sloppiness in talking about perfumes not reviewed in the volume and bestowing star ratings in what sometimes appear to be utterly random ways, driven entirely by caprice and even mood. Turin himself actually admitted as much when he told a reporter from The Independent:
They [the houses] hate my guts, but they know I can get them in the store. Perfumes are public domain, so they might as well get me in a good mood as have me trudge to Harrods in driving rain.
In The Holey [sic] Book, perfumes which garner praise are sometimes rated with only two stars, while perfumes scorned for one reason or another may receive three or even four. Perfumes are trashed for being misleadingly named or too sweet or for not containing natural this or that, but it emerges in other reviews that those “reasons” were only pretexts.

The authors are not really opposed to misnamed perfumes: Ambra di Venezia, they joke, should be named “Tuberose di Las Vegas” and has “nothing ambery or Venetian in sight,” but nonetheless receives four stars. Nor are the authors opposed, in principle, to confectionary perfumes (By Kilian Love, a meringue facsimile composed by Calice Becker, is said to be “brilliant”) or synthetic flowers (Estée Lauder Beyond Paradise—also by Becker—is said to be a masterpiece not despite but because of its “abstract” flowers). It is hard to believe that Turin would have raved so favorably about By Kilian Love, had he tested it blind, without knowing the perfumer's identity, at least judging by the strident condemnation of “candy floss” perfumes throughout The Holey [sic] Book.

In the end, there really seems to be no rhyme or reason to all of this beyond the authors' personal tastes and loyalties, and maybe that's fine. Perhaps that's all that perfume criticism can ever aspire to be, given that the meanings we find in and ascribe to perfumes derive directly from our idiosyncratic histories, our past experience, which is necessarily unique to ourselves. Everything you've heard and read about perfume is true!

The force of the authors' prescriptions—Avoid or Stock up!—presumably derives from their superior taste, or so some naïve readers apparently came to believe, having accepted that Perfumes: The A-Z Guide really was what it claimed to be. The deception campaign continued in the late summer and fall of 2011, when the imminent publication of The Little Book was announced and discussed at all of the fragrance community websites.

On her blog, Sanchez, in an effort to drum up excitement (and pre-orders) alluded to the “new essays” to be penned by Turin for the volume. The hyped new material did not materialize, aside from a plug for the Osmothèque and the four reviews of discontinued, reconstructed masterpieces entirely inaccessible to readers, as far as I am aware.

One odd feature of The Little Book is that the authors seem in the short emendations (post-reformulation) to presume the reader's familiarity with The Holey [sic] Book. Perhaps, this, too, is part of the grand marketing scheme to sell as many copies of these books as possible, before anyone else finds out that much better resources for perfume lovers are now available on the internet—for free.

Are The Hundred Classics The Hundred Classics?

 In the approximately 1,000 word new introduction by Sanchez, she takes aim at the IFRA, and in the short updates on some of the perfumes, the IFRA is blamed, again, for the damage done to some of the perfumes, apparently rendering them less than classic. It's all a bit confusing: are these The Hundred Classics? Apparently not anymore—not even to the authors themselves.

But the creation of new perfumes also did not come to a screeching halt in 2008, as the entries in this volume, published in late 2011, would suggest. The database includes 1,031 perfumes launched in 2009; and 1,169 perfumes launched in 2010. Some of the perfumes included among The Hundred Classics are discontinued; four are reconstructions preserved under argon gas at the Osmothèque, and a few of the former masterpieces are said to have suffered as a result of reformulation. The authors did not remove them, however, apparently because they did not want to take the time to find any replacements to bring the number back up to one hundred again.

All of this gives the impression, once again, that Turin & Sanchez had better things to do—in this case than to explore the possibility of new masterpieces launched since 2008. It's odd, in a way, given that quite a few of the perfumes included in this volume (Guerlain Insolence, Amouage Homage, LUSH Breath of God, Chanel Cuir de Russie, Chanel 31 Rue Cambon, and others)  were launched after 2006.

This would seem to suggest, would it not, that others have certainly been launched since 2008. But no, perfume history appears to have ended on the day when Turin & Sanchez published The Holey [sic] Book, and they seem not to have much more to say. Which is fine with me. Maybe they're too busy dancing and singing around the kitchen table.

I do believe that this text has now surpassed the number of new words in The Little Book, so perhaps this would be a good place to stop.

review of The Holey[sic] Book

Saturday, May 19, 2012


Esteemed members of the International Fragrance Association, I come to you today with an urgent matter requiring your immediate attention, if the death of perfumery is to be averted before it is too late. I shall detail the crimes being committed by certain parties who have been insidiously laboring heretofore undetected in your midst, in an ever-more zealous effort to hasten the demise of perfumery, but first I need to provide you with a bit of context. Please indulge me briefly as I relay a recent anecdote from my life which bears on the question at hand:

I called my mother last Sunday to wish her well on the holiday, and one of the topics which came up was this blog. She said, “I've enjoyed reading your pieces, but I can't wear perfume because of allergies.”

What? Allergies? What allergies? She is allergic to what, precisely, in perfume? Could it be geraniol, limonene, linalool, cinnamal, citral, citronellol, hexyl cinnamal, farnesol, coumarin, benzyl alcohol, benzyl benzoate, eugenol, geraniol, isoeugenol, benzophenone, benzyl salicylate, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, ethylhexyl salicylate, methyl paraben, propylene glycol, methylpropional, alpha-isomethyl ionone, amyl cinnamal, cinnamyl alcohol, butylphenyl methylpropional, hydroxycitronellal, butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, alpha-isomethyl ionone? Or is it, perhaps, the dreaded and feared evernia prunastri, better known as oak moss?

I rather doubt that it is the latter, given that it has figured in relatively few perfumes—and fewer still today, thanks to restrictions imposed by the IFRA. Who knows what precisely in “perfume”—not this perfume or that perfume, but Perfume in general—my mother cannot tolerate, but it is obviously in enough different perfumes, or at least every perfume she ever tried, which is why she claims today to be allergic to “perfume” and therefore does not wear it at all.

What an eye-opener that was! For years I have wondered—but never asked—why there was next to no perfume in my house while I was growing up. I recall vaguely that there was a bottle of Revlon Charlie (not coincidentally my father's name) on my mother's dresser, and a bottle of Old Spice sitting on the back of the toilet in my parents' bathroom. Apparently it was used on occasion for air freshening purposes. Both of these bottles, my mother informed me this past Mother's Day, were gifts from my grandmother (my dad's mom). Were it not for those gifts, our house would have been entirely perfume-free.

How, then, to explain me? I'm sure that my parents have often scratched their heads, puzzling over precisely how far fruit really can fall from the tree, but my current perfume obsession does seem extreme in the light of such historical revelations. Or does it? Perhaps I am but a rebellious child who never grew up, fighting to resist the values of my parents at every turn.

It is true, I openly aver, that I nearly never practiced the piano until the lessons provided for me by my parents came to an end. (My teachers somehow never noticed...) Only later, free at last to choose to tickle the ivories did I discover the profound pleasure of playing music.

Nonetheless, I do not believe that my mildly obstinate and contrarian nature suffice to explain my current perfume craze, because I left home long, long ago, and get along quite well with both of my parents today. No, I do not think that it is mere perversity which draws me both to perfume and to music, while neither of my parents finds these things to be nearly so important and even less do they find them to be necessary components of a happy life.

Both are remarried to spouses who, too, wear no perfume, at least as far as I am aware. One thing is clear: perfume is not a part of these people's culture. Nor that of most of the people whom I have ever met. Nor that of most of the people in the world. Only in our virtual fragrance communities have I discovered the likes of me: people who love and cherish perfumes as dear friends. People who delight in discovering new elixirs and may even cry upon learning that a beloved friend has died (been discontinued or, what is often worse, lobotomized). Meanwhile, most of the people in the world, and most of the people I know, including my parents and siblings, and my colleagues past and present, live in universes not structured by perfume.

It's not just that perfume is the last thing that they think about spending their hard-earned money on. No, perfume is not even on the list. I, in contrast, spend more money on perfume than on anything else, and if the truth be told, on occasion I find myself shuddering at the thought of the explosion that would ensue should an errant spark somehow be generated in my humble abode, setting the entire place ablaze in a conflagration of perfume flames beyond the means of even the keenest team of fire fighters to contain. But I digress...

Avid perfumistas may lament that for so many years I should have been so very deprived, but I did not mind. The truth, my friends, is that I did not notice at all. I was like a  colorblind child, with no access to color but entirely unaware of what I missed. My world contained no red or green, and so, to me, it simply did not exist. To this day, I have not the slightest idea what either Old Spice or Revlon Charlie smells like.

I retain, in fact, only two other memories of perfume from that period of my life. One is of a girlfriend of mine who had a big, bright yellow plastic bottle of Jean Naté, which seemed to me to be somehow too racy for her age—as though she was a teenage pregnancy waiting to happen. I also thought at the time, believe it or not, that her very use of such a product evidenced a type of dirtiness needing to be masked. I never even brought myself to sniff the stuff, that's how little interest I had in that big yellow plastic bottle filled with juice sourced from a vat.
My other childhood fragrance memories are of two blonde sisters who, precociously, were members of a make-up club which sometimes sent them small glass bottles of brown stinky perfume. It was really nothing that I had any desire to meddle in, and so for years, not only did I not feel deprived, but I seem to have been quite happy to be perfume-free.

My own personal history of perfume did not begin until my freshman year in college, when suddenly my sight was restored. But that's another story...

Let us now, with this background in mind, return to the matter at hand: the existence of people with allergies. These people are bothered by perfume, which is why they do not wear it. They do not seek out perfumes devoid of eugenol or coumarin or one of the hundreds, even thousands, of other possible ingredients which may appear on the box of a randomly selected perfume or be contained within the mystery ingredient parfum. They do not, let us be precise, go out of their way to evade evernia prunastri.

No, they avoid perfume tout court, en bloc, because, far from deriving pleasure from wearing it, they find it a source of distress. And I understand and agree that a perfume with which one is physiologically incompatible—the kind that makes me feel like Alex in Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange as Beethoven's Ninth symphony is pumped into his flat, an experience I have on occasion felt upon donning a perfume produced in a giant vat—is simply unbearable to wear. Better to avoid even risking the chance of feeling that extraordinarily unpleasant sensation than to make the mistake of donning it again.

My question for you—and eventually where this is all leading will become clear—O Illustrious Members of the International Fragrance Association, is this: Whom, exactly, do you purport to be helping by imposing restrictions on the use of certain ingredients in perfumes? And are you in fact helping more people than you hurt?

It should be clear from the case of my mother, and the many other people in existence like her, that people with allergies to components of perfume severe enough to make perfume an unpleasant experience in general, choose, reasonably enough, not to wear perfume. Furthermore, they tend to marry and live with people who also do not wear perfume.

I wonder, then, what all of these new restrictions are really about? I wonder, first, because so many people in the world wear no perfume at all. But I also wonder as I have begun to notice the proliferation of these three tiny letters on the boxes of more and more perfumes in recent times:


BHT stands for butylated hydroxytoluene, and it contains, logically enough, toluene, which features, for those who never experienced the joy of organic chemistry, the benzene ring:

Benzene is a known carcinogen, and toluene was identified in 1993 as a toxic air contaminant. This is part of the reason why the use of BHT as a preservative is fraught with such controversy. Not only is BHT used in foodstuffs, and in the lining of food packaging, it is also used as a preservative in cosmetic and skin products, including, with greater and greater frequency, perfume.

Now, we all know that Guerlain perfumes have been reformulated. Both of my bottles of mangled Mitsouko (produced in the twenty-first century) contain not evernia prunastri but evernia furfuracea, and who knows what other substitutions were also made along the way. The only thing that noses know for sure is that Mitsouko is no longer the same. But perfumes have not only been reformulated to remove restricted ingredients such as oakmoss. They appear to contain new ingredients as well.

As far as I can tell, based on the bottles in my collection, Guerlain perfumes did not, in the twentieth century, contain BHT. Over the past few years, every single Guerlain box I've bought has borne those letters, even formulas claimed to be unchanged, as in the case of Eau de Cologne Impériale, created by Pierre François Pascal Guerlain in 1853 for Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoléon III. The ingredients listed on my box are these:

Alcohol, parfum (fragrance), limonene, aqua (water), linalool, citral, geraniol, farnesol, BHT, citronellol

It cannot be the case that the bottle of this cologne which I purchased recently contains the same cologne that was worn by Empress Eugénie. Why? Because BHT is listed among the ingredients on my box, and BHT was first used as a preservative in 1954. QED

BHT, a preservative the safety of which is wildly disputed far beyond the perimeters of the world of perfume proper, made the cut, but oakmoss did not? There's something very fishy going on, and I'm not talking only about Thierry Mugler Womanity, which, incidentally, happens also to contain BHT. What can all of this mean? you may well be wondering, as I myself have been pondering for quite some time. I ask now for your patience and indulgence once again while I sketch out what has emerged as the best explanation of the phenomena before us and, therefore, one may reasonably infer, is also the truth.

Some perfumistas have speculated—consistent with the reigning paradigm according to which multi-conglomerate corporations are gobbling up smaller houses and laying waste to former masterpieces left and right—that all of this is being done in a crass effort to improve their bottom line. Procter & Gamble, having acquired the house of Rochas, subsequently opted to end it for all time. That's right, it's not just that the perfumes of the house of Rochas have undergone in some cases criminal reformulation. No, they are to be entirely removed from the face of the planet, having failed to pull their weight under the yoke of their multi-conglomerate corporate master.

Many people are now aware that Coty has absorbed many formerly independent houses, including Calvin Klein, Cerruti, Marc Jacobs, Jil Sander, Roberto Cavalli, Guess, Balenciaga, Chôpard, Davidoff, Philosophy, Chloé, Lancaster, Karl Lagerfeld, Vera Wang, Stetson, Vivienne Westwood, and others.

LVMH (Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton), for its part, has taken over not only Christian Dior but also the once-illustrious house of Guerlain, among many other less notable but still important acquisitions, including Givenchy, Kenzo, Acqua di Parma, Fresh, Fendi, and Emilio Pucci.

The Estée Lauder Group now controls not only Estée Lauder but also Clinique, Tommy Hilfiger, Donna Karan, Jo Malone, Michael Kors, Missoni, Tom Ford, and Coach, among many other houses.

Procter & Gamble, too, continues to swallow up new houses—Gucci, Anna Sui, Dolce & Gabbana, Hugo Boss, et al.—even as they have forsaken some of their former “protégées”.

 Let us now pause for a moment of silence to mourn the death of the house of Rochas.


I do not deny that the “evil mega-corporation hypothesis” holds much appeal and is indeed quite plausible in this particular case. It explains an awful lot, no doubt, and it may seem that we can blame the corporations, too, for pretending to reformulate in accordance with the IFRA rules, using that as their pretext, when in fact they are implementing much more drastic changes in order to make their wares more profitable.

The problem with this hypothesis, I am afraid, is that it does not explain all of the data at hand. If the reason why people wear perfume is because it is beautiful and does not cause them physiological distress, then adding highly controversial ingredients such as BHT is likely to decrease the number of sales, and especially as public awareness grows over the use of such substances in perfumes, which are applied directly to the skin, the largest organ of the human body. So what is really going on here?

My friends at the IFRA, I regret to inform you that my considered view on this matter is that your ranks have been infiltrated by members of the Anti-Perfume Crusade currently attempting to call a halt to the use of all perfume. You are no doubt aware that there are people alive today writing on the world wide web in vivid, emotional, and even litigious terms, demanding that the use of perfume be outlawed in all public places and open spaces. They compare perfume to second-hand smoke and decry the discomfort, health hazard, and even pain which they are forced to endure at the hands of egocentric perfume wearers who pay no heed to the consequences of their actions for other human beings.

These anti-perfume activists exist, and their numbers appear to be on the rise. Why, then, are perfumes being dumbed down, emasculated, rendered muzak versions of what once were masterful classics? The answer, I think, is plain: the more IFRA restrictions are imposed upon perfumers, the less appealing perfumes will become. At the limit, there will be only vat-produced synthetic juice which no one wants to wear. And that, my friends, is the ultimate objective of the Anti-Perfume Crusade (APC): to so compromise the ability of perfumers to produce true masterpieces, that all of the genuine artists flee to another realm, leaving behind only hacks and industrial chemists who take and obey orders from accountants who spend the best hours of their days poring over ledger lines.

At the end of this ugly process, perfume will have been pommeled down to a product of personal hygiene alone. People will reach for it only out of necessity, to cover bad smells, and most of the people on the planet will arrive at the view shared by my parents and perfume haters everywhere, that clean people do not need perfume.

Perfume will cease to be viewed as an art form by anyone. Everyone, former perfumers and perfumistas alike, will move on to other means of achieving aesthetic satisfaction. If this insidious scheme is not thwarted soon, the Anti-Perfume Crusade (APC) will have won, and the world will be much less than it once was, having begun to chart the path to the elevation of perfume as an art but then stopped in its tracks by perfume haters currently masquerading as benevolent environmental health advocates and working in your offices at the present time under assumed names.

I humbly entreat you, therefore, dear members of the IFRA, immediately to cease and desist from imposing restrictions on the world of perfumery having at last seen through this clever ruse. All restrictions over the use of ingredients which were worn for centuries in perfumes by people who lived normal, healthy life spans enriched by transcendent olfactory experiences should be lifted posthaste.

Yes, these tricksters have attempted with some success to convince you that the restrictions are helping the general public. In reality, however, as the cases of my mother and father and their spouses reveal, people with allergies do not wear perfume, and nothing could be clearer than that your restrictions are being used as a pretext and an excuse to reformulate classic perfumes with devastating effect to perfume lovers, all in an underhanded effort to render  perfume banal to the point where no one wants to wear it anymore. 

Speaking on behalf of perfumistas, perfumers, and true perfume lovers everywhere, I thank you in advance for your swift attention to this matter.



Monday, May 7, 2012

Do Perfume and Serial Killers Mix?

Reflections on Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006),
directed by Tom Tykwer

The first time I watched Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, I very much disliked it, so much so that I gave my copy of the DVD away to an unsuspecting recipient, who however appears to have loved the film, as have many members of fragrance communities, at least judging by their comments on threads and blogposts treating this topic.

I recognized that the cinematography was exquisite and the musical scoring excellent, but I could not surmount my gut revulsion to the basic construct of the film. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the central protagonist, is a serial killer, and this film attempts to offer a measuredly sympathetic perspective on what he does. Both nature and nurture are wheeled in to explain Grenouille's aberrant behavior.

The Tale

Born in the midst of a filthy fish market in a squalid quarter of Paris, Grenouille soon finds himself an orphan, as his mother is hung for the attempted murder of her child. She has birthed Jean-Baptiste, like her previous four children, under the table where she sells fish. Jean-Baptiste, unlike his ill-fated siblings, who were apparently all miscarriages or stillborns, manages to survive rather than being swept out and discarded along with slimy fish guts at the end of the day.

The infant's cry alerts people in the marketplace to his location, and his mother tries to flee but is apprehended and executed for her crime. So here we have both nature and nurture intertwined. Deprived of maternal love, the child will later come to demonstrate the truth of this pithy maxim of biological determinism: “like mother like son”.

From there, little Jean-Baptiste is conveyed to an orphanage and later to a tannery where he works essentially as a slave. At some point, the boy discovers his superlative olfactory ability and his entire world becomes structured by scent.

When he learns of perfumery and makes the chance acquaintance of Giuseppe Baldini (played in the film by Dustin Hoffman), the young man (now played by Ben Whishaw) proves his olfactory artistic worth and is taken in as an apprentice to help the elderly perfumer to revive his flagging business.

During these, his discovery years, Grenouille “accidentally” kills a a young woman with red hair whom he has been stalking because of her delightful scent, which induces in him, by all appearances, a sensation akin to ecstasy. To prevent the maiden from screaming when a couple walks by the place where Grenouille has been sniffing her (of which she has only just taken note), he covers her mouth. Women are to be smelled, not heard. Alas, by the time the couple has left, the girl is dead, evidently of suffocation.

This event marks Grenouille for life, constituting the point of no return for the young murderer in the making. His entire existence now becomes directed toward the end of “capturing scent,” as he puts it. Specifically, he appears intent upon capturing the scent of the red-haired girl whom he inadvertently killed, what he clearly appears to regret.

Grenouille begs his boss Baldini to share the secrets of capturing scent, which he does, beginning with distillation. Unfortunately, this method proves inadequate to the young man's progressively more obsessive needs. In his experiments, Grenouille discovers that the scent of horseshoes, copper, glass, and cats cannot be captured through distillation.

Ironically enraged, Grenouille confronts Baldini, accusing him of being a liar for having told him that all scents could be captured by this method. Baldini, entirely incognizant that this is a foreboding sign of things to come, pulls his dead white cat (gasp!) from the distillation chamber and admonishes Grenouille, not for his evil doing, but for his confusion in supposing that the scent of a living being might be distilled into an essence.


At Grenouille's insistence that he be instructed in other methods for capturing scent, Baldini sends his apprentice to Grasse to learn the skill of enfleurage. Unfortunately, for this historic perfume-making community, Grenouille embarks upon a murderous rampage, killing young woman after young woman, beginning with his first victim, whose essence he attempts to distill.

The other young women's bodies are slathered with animal fat and wrapped in cheesecloth, after which the great perfumer Grenouille scrapes off the fat to use in securing the victims' essences, each of which is poured into a tiny bottle.

A prostitute, whom Grenouille initially attempts to enfleurage while still alive, unfortunately puts up resistance to the idea and is thus met with a blunt blow to the back of her head. Women are to be smelled, not heard.

This series of murders is, apparently, all a part of Grenouille's heartfelt artistic quest to capture and create the perfect scent. What “the nose” needs are twelve different essences: four for the top notes; four for the heart; and four for the base. Baldini has instructed him that the greatest perfumes have also a thirteenth, mystery essence. So this theory of perfume-making, which Grenouille obviously accepts, is the explanation for why he has set out to kill and extract the scent of thirteen young female victims.

About half way through this film, it becomes quite clear that Grenouille matches the classic serial killer profile. Such killers often begin at an early age by torturing and experimenting with animals. Grenouille, for his part, attempts to “distill” the essence of a white cat, killing it in the process. Many serial killers have been said to lack meaningful relationships both with their family and with other people. Grenouille, an orphan with no friends or family, fits this description as well.

Being unlucky in love and sexually frustrated, in addition to having low self-esteem and a deep-seated need to prove to themselves their power in the face of what is manifestly their impotence—all traits also illustrated by Grenouille—lead such killers eventually to commit their heinous deeds.

Serial killers typically become obsessed (and this is precisely why they kill serially...) with very particular traits which they seek out in their prospective victims. In Grenouille's case, the victims have to be young and preferably virgins with red hair, though he does settle for some brunettes and one prostitute. However, the final essence, he determines, must be that of a red head, and he expends great effort in stalking and killing a beautiful young red-headed woman whom he has become completely obsessed with. Later when interrogated under torture by the woman's father, Grenouille explains his murder thus: “I needed her.”

Given this altogether classic portrait of a serial killer, up to this point, one might consider Perfume: The Story of a Murderer to be not so different from other films treating the grisly phenomenon of serial killing, perhaps the most horrific of which, at least in my experience, is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), directed by John McNaughton and based on a true story. But wait, there's more.

After evidence of his crimes is uncovered (dug up) back in Grasse, Grenouille is hunted down and apprehended, then thrown into a dungeon where he awaits execution for his ghastly and serial crimes. An angry throng of the peasants of Grasse, all of whom appear to be beset with bad teeth, fills the town square, where they call out for the killer's painful death at the hands of the local bourreau, who looks rather like a professional wrestler-cum-motorcycle gang member, and may actually be the brother of the man who ran the tannery where Grenouille was enslaved as a boy.

Unbeknownst to any of these unsavory characters, the “great perfumer” Grenouille has a secret weapon, the perfect scent, which he just managed to compose immediately prior to his arrest, thanks to his successful killing and enfleurage of Laura, his final victim.

He takes out his small bottle of this magical elixir and disarms the guards who have come to his cell to drag him out to the public square for execution. The guards drop their ugly demeanors, and their anger melts into kindness as they become putty in Grenouille's hands, going even so far as to dress him up from head to toe in blue velvet togs befitting of his role as the ruler of the universe, or so it seems they have become convinced.

After being conducted by chariot to the public square, Grenouille whips out and waves a handkerchief spotted with a dot of his perfume (which he has also applied to both sides of his neck) as he stands at the scaffold which might have been the site of his death. At first a hush falls over the crowd, and then after a short while, when Grenouille releases the handkerchief to float over the air above them, the crowd lapses into a paroxysm of erotic ecstasy, ripping off their own and others' clothing after which they all participate in a gigantic group orgy in a scene reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights.

The most obvious interpretation of the orgy and the power over the people which Grenouille is able to wield is that this sick serial killer has by now completely lost his mind and is suffering a massive hallucination consistent with the delusions of grandeur characteristic of killers of this type. But wait, there's more.

At this point, the film really takes a turn for the worse, and it is entirely unclear to me what coherent interpretation might be offered for what next transpires. (I am hoping that commenters on this post will be able to help out here!) Having disarmed the guards and led the angry crowd into a massive love fest, after which they all fall asleep—not unlike Dorothy in the field of poppies in the Wizard of Oz (directed by Victor Fleming in 1939)—Grenouille is now free to return to the womb, so to speak.

In a flashback of sorts, occasioned by his sighting of a basket of what appear to be bright yellow persimmons, which induces a flood of memories of his first victim and an erotic fantasy involving her, Grenouille reveals his recognition that there is something wrong. He seems to grasp, at last, that his effort to capture the scent of this woman has led him astray. His eyes well up with tears as he appears to recognize what he has done.

He journeys back to Paris and, specifically, the fish market where he was born. There, too, is gathered a group of peasants with bad teeth, hovered about a fire to keep warm on this cold night. Grenouille pours the entire remaining volume of his perfume over his head and the local peasants clamor about and close in on him. They then proceed to pile on top of "the great Grenouille", in effect, consuming him, which, the narrator helpfully explains, is what they believe to have been the only act of pure love in which they have ever engaged.



So what's wrong with this film? And why do I appear to be the only perfumista on this planet to have found it problematic? (By the way, everything I say here relates only to the film. I'll review the book later, but prefer to take films on as self-sufficient works, independent of their literary precedents.)

Where to begin? How about with the radical objectification of women? Some men like breasts, others legs, others booty. Grenouille has a penchant for scent. The value of a woman inheres solely in her identity as a repository of olfactory delight. Are women not rational and sentient beings, too? Irrelevant. Their deaths are a small price to pay in the quest for the perfect perfume.

A version of this question was raised recently by Girasole in her comment on The Question of L'Osmothèque

      I also find that there's a de-humanizing aspect to the perfume is art dogma. If perfume were art then the wearer would be a piece of art. I see something similar going on in the fashion world. Women starving themselves just to wear a dress. It's all upside down. It's the commodity (the dress in my example) that should serve the customer. But to the contrary, it's the other way round. I (the customer) serve the commodity to the point of denying my body. The designers must feel extremely flattered. There is nothing that the fashion piece of art is not willing to do to themselves (or others. As in the case of those two sisters from Latin America who died of starvation literally on the runway in front of the audience. That is the moment when I think that I'm living in a Pasolini movie.)
        ---Girasole, May 2, 2012

Far from believing that scent should be captured for all time, a view apparently shared by those who conceived of the Osmothèque and Jean-Baptiste Grenouille alike, Girasole believes the opposite, and her view has, I think, much merit. But for now let us return to the film and reflect a bit upon its reception by perfume lovers.

Thierry Mugler produced a special, expensive, limited-edition coffret to commemorate Perfume: The Story of Murderer. That's right, to symbolize the “beautiful” idea from the film of extracting the essences of thirteen murder victims and using them to produce the perfect scent! The Mugler coffret contains fifteen essences, said to represent the fifteen chapters of the book, although it was launched to coincide with the film's release.

This seems to me akin to wearing Charles Manson t-shirts or collecting memorabilia from the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, et al. There are of course people who do these things, having become strangely enamored of such heinous criminals. My question is: Why would anyone want to celebrate the deeds of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who is manifestly a serial killer? Is he more of a perfumer than a serial killer? No, he is first a serial killer, and then a perfumer. Why, after all, did he leave Laura's body, her head shorn, on her bed for her father to find?

I do not know whether there have been any copy-cat killers in response to this film, but I do know that copy-cat killing did occur after Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film A Clockwork Orange. What does seem clear to me is that watching the proliferating aestheticized images of the murdered virgins is bound to be a source of titillation to real serial killers existing in the world. These people do exist, whether one wishes to believe it or not.

Nonetheless, in all of the threads about this film which I've seen at fragrance community websites, people have waxed romantically about the nobility of art and how great artists are willing to sacrifice any- and everything in their quest for beauty. Clearly, Grenouille is laboring under the handicap of a coddled cortex. Is he a great artist, even in the fictional world of this film?

Why did he not remember that distillation does not work for living beings, as he himself demonstrated when he boiled a cat, and a point which was specifically spelled out for him by his mentor, Baldini? If Grenouille was such a genius, why did he not whip out his magic potion upon his initial apprehension, rather than wait until the day of his scheduled execution? If Grenouille was so convinced of the sanctity of the life of his first victim and so crushed by the fact that he had killed her, thus destroying her scent forever, why, then, did he set out to kill thirteen more young women, also with scents which would be removed from the world, immediately decreasing its aesthetic value, upon their deaths?

Finally, and this bears directly upon The Question of L'Osmothèque: why would a vial of the perfect perfume (assuming that it was such) have any value for anyone unable to sniff it and, specifically, the perfumer himself after his own death? Could he not have experienced the scent of thirteen more living young maidens for all of his life, had he not taken theirs?

Capturing the scent “forever”—which is necessarily relative to the perceiver's own life—comes to an end with death, which implies that, to him, the experiencer, the scent can never survive him. Even if others will be able to perceive the perfume for another year, decade, or century, it will eventually evaporate away. Does this film not then definitively demonstrate the folly of attempting to “capture scent” forever, which is, in principle, impossible?

Now, I am quite confident that some will reply (if not here, at least in their minds...) that the film does not glorify serial killers, as Grenouille ends up dead, and the perfume, the product of his labors, too, ceases to exist. The problem I have with the ending of the film is that the perfume is said by the narrator (a person not identical with Grenouille) to have these magical properties upon the people who come in contact with it. In other words, the value of the perfume itself is affirmed, in spite of the fact that it was produced through the serial murder of innocent young women.

Does not the affirmation of the value of an end entail an acceptance of the necessary means to that end? If not, why not?