One feature of perfume which makes it difficult to compare to the beaux arts is that it is consumed and cannot be recaptured once it has dissipated into the cosmos. Attempts to immortalize perfume seem for this reason in some ways confused and ultimately doomed. Perfumes are born through the industry of perfumers and are introduced to us by houses, but unlike a piece of music or literature, a perfume is bound to come to an end, sooner or later, by its very nature.
Perfumes change over time in a way that musical compositions and poems do not. Yes, such works will be interpreted variously by different people at different periods of time, determined in part by the peculiar cultural milieu in which they live, but the score or the text remains the same.
A great poem or piece of music may be discovered where it was left in a drawer by its author decades or even centuries after it was composed, but a bespoke perfume forgotten in a closet would no longer exist by the time its bottle was found after the same period of time. Having been created and produced by finite human beings out of equally exhaustible materials, every perfume will eventually meet with its own demise.
The well-meaning, if naïve, intention of those who conceived of the Osmothèque was to elevate perfumery to the status of poetry, music, and the other beaux arts. It is true that any art form which involves natural materials will eventually decompose—paintings, sculptures, architectural structures, … —but perfume is far more evanescent than all of the rest, being made of highly volatile molecules which will immediately evaporate if the bottle in which it is housed is left uncapped, and eventually decompose, even if the bottle is tightly sealed. Storing perfumes under argon gas may help to postpone the inevitable, but such a measure does not make the ultimate fate of a perfume any less inexorable.
Some perfumes' lifetimes are longer than others, but none is very long compared to the works of music and literature which have stood the test of time, and it requires a continuous, concerted effort on the part of someone somewhere to keep perfumes alive (in production). Like periodical publications—currently in crisis (no doubt to the great relief of trees everywhere)—a perfume requires a vigilant support system in order to persist.
Many magazines have folded in recent years due to insolvency. Even magazines with devoted readerships may abruptly shutter their offices when funding is suddenly withdrawn for no better reason than that the benefactors or producers have lost interest and decided to redirect their energy and financial support to other projects. The texts may of course be archived, but the magazine, as a thing in reality, ceases to exist, just as the leaves of a tree deprived of water will shrivel and dry, and ultimately die.
Perfumes, too, require a benefactor of sorts: a house willing to do what it takes to keep the perfume in production. In recent times, as small houses have been absorbed by large corporate conglomerates such as LVMH, Estée Lauder, and Procter & Gamble, the fate of a given perfume has come to have more to do with whether it makes business sense to maintain it than whether the creation has intrinsic aesthetic worth. One might have thought that no one could be so obtuse as to refuse to continue to produce a widely acclaimed perfume, one touted as a masterpiece, and yet this has happened and will no doubt continue to happen, perhaps with even greater frequency as corporations continue to expand, cordoning off more and more of perfume land.
The trend these days appears to be to focus more on heavily advertised mass market fragrances which sell not for their composition but for the appealing images which are tied to the products. The profligate production of flankers is best explained by the fact that they provide companies with a head start on marketing, being parasitic as they are on the namesake perfume and the images used to promote it. True, the visual images used in advertising perfumes are independent of the perfumes themselves, but through image-based marketing campaigns, consumers are persuaded to part with relatively large sums of money for even mediocre juice. Consumers are, in effect, paying more for the advertisements than they are for their perfume.
In the end, perfume is consumed, so the goal of marketers is to get people to buy a bottle, after which, if it is at all wearable, then the perfume will be used. This situation is similar to that depicted in Mondovino regarding wine. Once people have purchased a case of wine, then they will drink it, provided that it is potable.
In the case of perfume, having spritzed through a good 100ml, the wearer may find that it has become a part of his or her perfumed identity, and he or she may well purchase the same perfume again. Signature scents become signature scents through a process of habituation. As with wine, a certain type of perfume may be an acquired taste, but because human beings are naturally habit-forming creatures, our preferences can be molded by tastemakers who decree what we should wear or drink and persuade us to agree.
Why do people drink wine, and why do they drink tea?
I had a professor a while back (in California) who told me that he thought that wine connoisseurs were a bunch of alcoholics. I think that he was probably overgeneralizing, but surely there are some wine connoisseurs who are alcoholics, and certainly many people appreciate wine more for its effects on their mind than for the lingering taste on their palate. Or do they separate these two effects at all?
One might argue that a big part of the experience of tea, too, has to do with its felicitous provision of a source of caffeine, and that many tea drinkers imbibe their beverage of choice in part for the mental effects which they can expect to derive from doing so. True, there are people who drink only herbal infusions and decaffeinated teas, but many tea drinkers really do prefer good old stout black tea or a bracing cup of green, which strikes a balance between herbal and black, providing a medium-sized dose of caffeine.
Tea drinkers often have very specific loves and likes, and some of them are familiar with the many fine grades of darjeeling and assam, to say nothing of the thousands of other varieties of tea available on the market today. Still, I suspect that for many such tea drinkers, part of the joy of drinking tea is indeed the joy of achieving a state of caffeination—or recaffeination when it is consumed later in the day.
My impression is that the vast majority of tea drinkers are of the unsophisticated variety, the millions of people who think that iced tea tastes only like the liquid produced using Lipton's instant iced tea powder, and many of whom believe that orange pekoe is a flavor of black tea (not a size of cut tea leaves). I would venture to guess that most people do in fact drink tea as a source of refreshment with enough caffeine to reinvigorate. They are not looking at tea for its aesthetic properties but for its functional benefits.
I may as well confess here that I happen to be a caffeine addict (or has it been obvious all along?), and so although I can accurately answer all of the above questions and many more, my development of an interest in tea was tied up with my need to ingest enough caffeine to make it through the second half of the day. At one point I was becoming very involved in tea drinking, learning what the acronyms TGF BOP1—(Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1), CTC (Crush Tear Curl), and FTGFOP and all of the other arcane designations mean, and even writing reviews at one site—until I discovered that my negative reviews were deleted, at which point I stopped.
I was delighted to find that tea forms a lively subculture in Western society, and began ordering all sorts of varieties of black and green teas from all over the world, brought together for me felicitously by my favorite tea emporium. During my journey through the world of tea, I discovered that certain varieties work very well for me and taste delicious, while others are far less appealing.
I cannot drink oolong or jasmine teas, for example. Sadly, they induce in me a sort of gag reflex, not unlike my reaction to the sight or smell of canned spinach, or of rum and Coke. I'd love to know which chemicals in these teas—or which proportions—push me over the edge so as to have this effect on me, but in the end it does not really matter. Given the choice of a strong black assam, a grassy darjeeling or a flowery oolong, my choice will always be one of the first two and never, ever the third.
Could I develop a tolerance—and even a taste—for oolong and jasmine teas? I'm skeptical, to say the least, because the experience of drinking those varieties is so very unpleasant to me that I cannot imagine picking up the habit. Perhaps if I tricked myself by slowly mixing larger and larger portions of oolong with a darjeeling, I could reach the point where I was drinking 100% oolong. This very method is recommended to pet owners when changing from one to another dry food rejected by their beloved furry friend: mix a small amount in and keep increasing that amount until finally, at long last, the new food tastes like the right food and will be gobbled up as though it had never been changed.
In any case, to return to the ostensible topic of this post, the parallels between the world of tea and the world of perfume seem to me to be virtually limitless. Let us begin with the most basic attitudes toward each of these liquids. There are people who dislike tea. They do not drink it, even when it is the only beverage available. There are people who dislike perfume, and never wear it, whether because of allergies or simple distaste. The case of specific tea intolerance (such as mine to oolong and jasmine) seems very similar to me to specific cases of perfume intolerance. There are some notes which simply do not sit well with some people, and they will avoid them to the best of their ability, in order not to suffer undue strife. Some people, for example, steer clear of jasmine. I myself love jasmine perfumes, but there is no way that I would drink them!
There is a broad swath of ignorant people who use “tea” in the form of “black” tea bags filled with very inexpensive, cheap-tasting, low-grade tea, just as there is a broad swath of ignorant people who use mass-marketed perfumes which they buy not for the qualities of the perfumes but because they have been persuaded to do so through advertising.
The bottle is often also a part of the lure.
At the same time, there is a small subculture of perfume lovers who have undertaken to explore the olfactory universe just because it is out there to be explored: a vast, uncharted territory to be conquered. These people love well-crafted perfumes and the many fine nuances and distinctions which make each particular perfume unique. These people interact with one another at perfume community websites and on blogs, and they select their perfumes not on the basis of marketing but because it passes their personal inspection and coheres with their general sense of olfactory aesthetics.
Determining which perfumes to purchase requires, for self-respecting perfumistas, testing, which is where it seems that wine tasting may be closer to what many tend actually to do. Connoisseurs of tea who know their general categories will simply buy small packets of tea to drink—that is, in fact the way to test tea: to brew it up and drink it.
Wine tasting and Perfume testing
Ideally, to give a perfume a fair chance, one should wear it for the entire duration of its development and persistence. How else can one ascertain a perfume's longevity, wearability, and general aesthetic appeal? To know whether a perfume is right for one's self, it would seem that one must wear it, on one's own skin, precisely as a tea connoisseur will drink a tea in order to determine whether it should be purchased in larger quantities.
In reality, perfume testing is often carried out in a rather abrupt and perfunctory way, by taking a quick sniff off a strip, or wearing a minuscule amount which may not convey the full experience which one would have were one to partake of the luxury of spritzing on a regular-sized “serving”. The typical abbreviated testing—whether using a quick spritz from a jealously guarded tester bottle at a counter, or a few dabs from a small vial obtained from the house or a gray market decanter—is similar in some ways to the manner in which people test wine. Well, the manner in which professional wine tasters test wine, I should say.
How do ordinary people test wine? They remove the cork from a bottle and drink it. They definitely do not take a quick slurp and swirl it about their mouth before spitting it out, as professionals do. Of course, this is what professionals who test sometimes dozens of wines in succession must do, else they would be incompetent to render judgment upon the later wines tested. So this method of wine tasting has arisen with the arrival on the scene of wine professionals and consultants.
This situation raises an interesting question about whether the results obtained from testing in such a cursory way really have any bearing on the experience which consumers can expect to have when they buy a bottle of wine based on such tests. Is part of the experience of wine not actually ingesting the alcohol for which many people reach for it in the first place?
The fact that wine may impair faculties while neither perfume nor tea does, makes me think that perfume users may potentially be more in control of their perfume judgments than are wine drinkers. Let's face it: a bottle of wine which initially seemed mediocre may start to seem pretty good by the time one reaches the last glass. Indeed, by that point the “wine taster” may no longer care what the wine tastes like, singing under his breath, “Que será, que será,” or perhaps intoning some helpful advice to his companions such as: “Don't worry; be happy!”
The group most in control seem to me to be tea connoisseurs. This is not only because tea contains not a depressant but a stimulant, but also because the subculture is so obscure and does not significantly overlap or compete with the mass-market tea industry. The people who seek out specialty teas and develop tastes for exotic first- and second-flush varieties of super-rare teas from far-away estates, cannot really be wooed away by the Lipton tea company.
I think that we perfume lovers would do well to emulate the estimable members of the subculture of sophisticated tea drinkers by attempting to the best of our ability to focus more on the perfume and less on the hype, whether it be the mass advertising campaigns with which we are constantly barraged or the more exalted form of hype surrounding every new recent serial launch by niche perfumers. To retain our autonomy, to be fully in control of our perfume preferences and judgments, we need to find ways to separate out the perfumes from their packaging and promotion.
This focus on the object of critique itself is possible in the world of tea in the way that it seems much less possible in the world of wine, where hype is rife. Clearly this is because the worldwide market for wine is enormous, much greater than that even for supermarket varieties of tea. As a result, all wine drinkers are subject to the forces acting upon them when tastemakers decree that certain wines are better than others based on a five-second swirl and spit.
The reason why the most expensive bottles of wine are orders of magnitude more expensive than the most expensive bottles of perfume is itself a matter of hype, but also of demand and supply. With more people clamoring for a few select cases of allegedly great wine, the prices quickly spike. Wine shysters such as Rudy Kurniawan simply take advantage of the peculiarities of that market in rebottling lesser wines as sought-after vintages which they are not. But people succumb to such a ruse because they have placed their faith in the wine tastemakers and are not able independently to judge when they have been duped.
With perfume, we could cut through all of the hype by testing perfumes blind, with no knowledge of their provenance, although that would be logistically difficult to do. More realistically, we can attempt to test perfumes fairly by giving them a complete wear, preferably multiple wears, before pronouncing upon what we take to be their virtues and vices. To heed the alleged authority of anyone in the world of perfume nonidentical with one's self seems to me to be to walk down the path to error.
In order to achieve the heights of perfume appreciation, we need to focus more on our personal experience of wearing perfume and less on all of the irrelevant nonsense.
Let us call it how we sniff it, my fragrant friends,
and let us have the courage of our sniffing convictions!
Let us call it how we sniff it, my fragrant friends,
and let us have the courage of our sniffing convictions!