Friday, February 22, 2013

On the Many Uses (none of which are abuses) of Perfume

Business as usual

Many different kinds of people use and produce perfume, and they do so for all different kinds of reasons. What percentage of people regard perfume as valuable in and of itself—beyond its functional value as a source of money or pleasure or as a tool of seduction? I wonder because even those who wish to exalt perfume to the status of art can achieve wealth and fame from doing so. Whether curators or perfumers, no one stands to lose by aligning perfume among the beaux arts. Or do they? Perhaps only consumers, the people who pay for perfume, should be wary of such initiatives, given the astronomical prices which fine art works command in today's capitalized art market.

Perfume is produced in order to be worn and because it is consumed. Bottles are drained, and they must be replaced, and this generates an enormous potential for profit on the part of those who seize the opportunity to promote perfume in any and every possible way. Each new development which casts perfume in a positive light will automatically generate an increase in sales. Drawing attention to perfume in any approbative way—for example, by calling it art—will make it coveted by an ever-expanding market niche. Art is good, so if perfume is art—in addition to offering a variety of functional benefits—all the better! Whether people regard perfumes as art objects or toiletries, the challenge for anyone attempting to profit from this industry remains how to woo consumers to spend a finite perfume wallet share—whether large or small—on one's own wares rather than those of competitors.

When a single company controls several houses, this goal becomes easier to achieve since a given customer may be persuaded to buy through a variety of different marketing techniques running alongside one another simultaneously. Conglomerate corporatization strengthens all of the houses under the aegis of a single company because it can absorb the shock of revenue troughs at some of the houses, so long as others in the same group are doing well. Independent houses, in contrast, must be more rugged and resilient to survive. A particularly bad year may result in a crippling insolvency, culminating in the need to shutter the store. Perhaps the recent phenomenon of proliferating niche houses under the direction of a single person or small group is a result of perfume makers' recognition that there really is “safety in numbers”.

Boadicea the Victorious and Illuminum, both British luxury lines, are the houses of Michael Boadi, a former hair stylist and self-taught perfumer. There is nothing wrong with those credentials, per se—they are precisely the same as those of Serge Lutens—and Boadi is certainly not the only creative director behind more than one house. Pierre Guillaume's ventures—Huitième Art, Parfumerie Générale, and Phaedon—leap to mind as another example of the same. A further case: Sospiro and XerJoff, two apparently distinct Italian luxury perfume houses, too, are linked. The people running these houses all seem to share an entrepreneurial spirit quite separate from their interest in perfume.

In addition to some niche houses sporing more houses with new names and concepts—or gimmicks—virtually all of them appear to be launching large numbers of new perfumes in a continuous stream, which can be understood as a counter-reaction to the corporate houses' penchant for flanker production. Perfumes used to be launched one at a time by professional perfumers, most of whom learned their trade in Grasse and many of whom were borne and bred by perfumers. The business of perfume has changed a great deal in the past few years, and part of this may be explained by considering parallel developments in the case of the wine industry.

Not so long ago, perfumery was primarily a family business, just as was the case in centuries past for wine making, concentrated primarily around the vineyards of France. Today, perfume houses are sprouting up all over the world, and many perfumers proudly display their lack of formal education as a badge of their independence and creativity. 

Similarly, in the aftermath of the California wine revolution, successful vineyards and producers can be found in countries quite far from France. Many celebrities, such as actor Gérard Depardieu and director Francis Ford Coppola, have started or become involved in wine ventures, despite having no obvious background or training in oenology.

In terms of consumption, too, perfumery appears today to be undergoing some of the same sorts of changes which were seen in the wine sector in the United States over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. Today millions of Americans fashion themselves as wine connoisseurs as a direct result of the success of ingenious schemes to elevate the image of this particular type of alcoholic beverage, to which a sought-after prestige was attached, luring consumers in and away from beer and other spirits.

More alcohol per capita is undoubtedly consumed today in the United States as a result, but the proportions have also changed, for a person who is already drinking a glass of wine does not reach at the same time for a stein of beer. There is a culture peculiar to beer drinking, of course. It remains the beverage of choice for sporting events and college parties. But wine came to prominence as a result of its having been marketed to consumers in an epicurean light, while inviting ordinary, middle class people to lift stemware glasses up to their lips to imbibe.

The paradox of the wine revolution is that it was democratic, reaching ever further down the socioeconomic chain through the marketing of wine as a prestige beverage, the consumption of which would confer on people a sense of being somehow elite. The phenomenon of the wine club, whereby one is shipped regular “curated” selections of bottles being sold at an advantageous price—and often with free shipping—exemplifies this paradoxical democratization of wine connoisseurship.

The same curiously paradoxical dynamic seems to be working in the case of perfume, which has become democratized as well, through the very same seductive device, the sly suggestion that by entering into the world of perfume connoisseurs, one is joining the ranks of elites. People are drawn to consume what they have been persuaded to believe is sophisticated, and the same forces which brought about the wine revolution appear to be acting as well in the case of niche perfume.

The consumption logic of perfume is analogous to the one operating in the case of ingested alcohol solutions. Once one has selected one's scent of the day (affectionately referred to by perfumistas by its acronym, SOTD), the matter has been settled. The challenge for marketers is to persuade consumers to buy and apply their perfume first, before all of the many others which they might have selected instead.

The Perfumery Microcosm

Does perfume have a value independent of its identity as a commodified object? Is there any way to disentangle perfume as a “thing-in-itself” from the business nexus in which it is contained? The status of perfume seems quite confused above all because the producers of perfume themselves seem to vary so much, from those for whom perfume is the ultimate expression of creativity, to those for whom it is primarily—or solely—a very lucrative business. This is why it seems to me false to say that perfumery, in and of itself, is an art. To make such a sweeping, global claim is to indulge in falsificatory abstraction. The truth about perfume is not nearly so obvious and simple as we may wish for it to be, because people produce and use perfume for many different reasons. Are some of those reasons better than others? What is the force of that question? All of them—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful—together conspire to create the complex world of perfumery, a microcosm of the larger world in which it is lodged.

Perfumes may all be liquids containing a variety of solvents and essences, but perfumery is not a single “thing in itself”. Perfumery is a multilayered, multifaceted network of people and practices, the end products of which are perfumes. In reality, many of the practices which lead to the production of perfumes bear no resemblance to the production of art by individual creators. When one attempts to speak of “perfumery” as a whole, one is bound to emit falsehoods, because the people whose industry results in perfume differ so much from one another in their intentions and values.

Perfumers themselves appear to cover a rather heterogeneous range. Perhaps some perfumers are truly olfactory artists, but most of them appear to be contracted designers or noses for hire. Certainly some artisan and truly independent perfumers would seem to fall into the former camp, at least initially, but their creative output is undoubtedly modified according to business constraints and exigencies. In one way of looking at art, there can be no “rules” whatsoever at the outset, so if a perfumer commences his or her work under the assumption that perfumes must be wearable, then the resultant creations would seem to be intrinsically functional products. This alone should suffice to demonstrate that such creators are designers, not artists, at least not in the strictest sense of that term.

Things in the world come in various colors, shapes and sizes. The world of perfumery, like the world more generally, contains artists, visionaries and hacks; entrepreneurs, shysters and cads. (How could it not?) Some houses maintain high compositional standards and seek out and use only the finest materials; others prefer to sell more bottles of less expensive perfume. Perfumery is conducted by perfumers, but also by CEOs, chemists, and accountants. Some of these people hold beauty to be of paramount value; others are concerned primarily—or only—with profit and may use marketing data and surveys to decide what to produce. The many fragrances created by this motley cast of characters range from masterpieces to disasters, although which are which appears to depend largely upon one's idiosyncratic tastes.

Is it a category mistake to claim that an unwearable perfume is a perfume? Or is it just a bad perfume? Do we know of any intrinsically unwearable perfumes? Or is the fact that a perfume exists to the extent that we are made aware of it not proof that someone, somewhere does wear it, and so it is not entirely unwearable? Does the survival of a perfume in the marketplace not prove that a perfume is a perfume, whether we happen to like it or not? We may denounce a fragrance as swill, but so long as someone else somewhere stills wears it, then it meets the minimal criterion needed to qualify as perfume.

Perfume users, like perfume producers, vary enormously from one case to the next. Some wear perfume in order to garner the attention—and favor—of other people. They may seek out perfumes which will augment their appeal to a prospective mate. They may wish to convey an image of glamour and sophistication, or to radiate facts about their lifestyle, as they do with their manner of dress. Other consumers wear perfume solely for themselves and may not even don it in public places precisely because they prefer not to attract the unwanted attention of strangers or to send out any signals at all.

In this regard, too, perfume use can be compared to wine and spirits consumption. Some people drink solely in order to get drunk. Whatever will accomplish that aim is fine: beer, cheap wine, hard liquor, even Everclear will do. Others drink fine wine to accompany cuisine and enhance their experience of a meal. Even everyday food can be elevated to some extent by being served with a delectable wine. Still others may drink wine in order to "decompress," for its psychological effects. The connoisseurs among connoisseurs regard wine as an object of transcendent aesthetic value. Many of today's self-styled connoisseurs may enjoy both the taste and the effects of their ingestion of wine. In reality, the list of reasons why people consume alcoholic beverages, including fine wine, goes on and on...

Niche perfumers may or may not be primarily interested in producing perfume as an expression of their creativity, although many perfumistas tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. Luxury niche seems pretty clearly to be a business-oriented approach to perfume. How to seduce consumers into believing that they should pay $200, $300, even $800 for a small bottle of consumable liquid? Why in the world, for example, should a bottle of simple vanilla perfume cost two hundred times more than the same volume of organic vanilla extract? Some of the creations of niche houses are quite good, while others are at best mediocre, but the emphasis among luxury niche firms appears to be on packaging and the cultivation of a house image. Let's put it this way: more effort, time and money appear to be poured into those aspects of the business than into the liquid inside the bottle, just as we learned about mainstream perfumes from “Behind the Spritz.”

One issue which might seem on its face to muddy the waters is the celebrity and glitz which has come to surround the business of perfumery, and especially exclusive, niche perfumery. Perhaps the latter, too, is a result of the inextricable link between ad campaigns and successfully mass-marketed perfumes. Image matters for not only designer but also niche perfumes, and the aura of exclusivity surrounding the latter undoubtedly contributes to the success of those who produce them. If a consumer is being asked to pay two or three or four or five times more for a perfume, there has to be some reason for that. There must be a pretext grounded in something. Hope springs eternal.

Christos at Memory of Scent recently raised the interesting question of quality. Are we willing to pay more for niche perfumes because they are of higher quality? Or do we simply assume that they must be of higher quality because they cost more? So many counterexamples leap to mind, of hyped niche perfumes which do not seem to be of high—or high enough—quality to warrant the exaggerated price, that we may safely conclude that, as much as we'd like it to be the case, it simply is not true that you get what you pay for. Or do you? What, exactly, is it that we are paying for when we buy a perfume?

Mixing Business with Pleasure: 
You Get What You Pay For

Confusions begin to arise in the case of perfume when the liquid is abstracted from the context. For consumers, it's all a package deal. Part of what we like is the scent, to be sure, but we also like the feeling of being associated somehow, in some way, with the images linked to that scent. The images may be of “beautiful” people, but they most certainly also include the whole aura of exclusivity surrounding niche perfume houses. We want to believe that we have refined tastes, that we are privy to olfactory secrets and wonders to which others have no or limited access.

All of this is the essence of luxury, and perfume is a luxury. To strip perfume of the complex marketing apparatus erected in order to sell it would be to remove the rich context which imbues creations such as Chanel no 5 with profound significance to countless consumers. Are they wrong to be seduced by the suggestion that they are as sexy as Marilyn Monroe or as glamorous as Carole Bouquet or Nicole Kidman when they don the perfume? Of course not. They are indulging in a fantasy made possible not by the smell alone but by the context in which it has been embedded, nurtured, and disseminated around the globe.

To remove the perfume from the bottle and abstract it from its marketing context is, in theory, possible. In reality, we can attempt to ignore marketing forces, but our efforts will ultimately be for naught. Why? Because the entire enterprise of perfumery is anchored in an image-based production mechanism. People do not buy perfumes solely on the basis of scent. Even those who think that they do cannot really abstract the scent from the cultural context which made perfume appreciation possible for them in the first place.

No matter how assiduously we may attempt to abstract the scent and to pull it conceptually out of its packaging, in the back of our minds, our origins in perfume appreciation will always remain. No matter how sophisticated we may become in our knowledge and understanding of perfume as a “thing in itself”, each and every one of us began as the unsophisticated consumer at the counter. It's the only entrance possible to the world of perfume for anyone, in principle.

We may wish to kick the ladder away, to use Ludwig Wittgenstein's metaphor, but in reality we cannot. To persuade oneself to believe that we can is to succumb to self delusion. If one orders a sample set from MinNewYork or Aedes, and then sets out to test the samples blind, one will still know, in the back of one's mind, where the perfumes came from: niche emporia. The prestige is inextricably present even when the liquid in the vial is tested without reading the label.

Perfume bottle collectors who focus on the vessel in which perfume is housed, like perfume lovers who would strip perfume of its packaging, view the bottle from a somewhat skewed perspective. The bottles can of course be regarded as objets d'art (or, rather, design) in their own right, alongside other kinds of bottles—those used for milk, beer, etc.—but their significance derives in part from having been anchored in the complex luxury perfume nexus.

A glass bottle is infinitely more valuable when it is filled with a precious elixir which excites the senses and may induce a flood of memories in the wearer. We perceive solid glass objects with our eyes and through our sense of touch. We perceive perfume through our nose. Why should one or the other of these modes of perception be more important than the other? Designers create bottles, and designers create perfume. We can love and appreciate each, but our enjoyment of both will be enhanced by keeping them together, as they were produced, in a package devised precisely in order to lure us in and fill us with delight to the point that we become willing to buy.

The pleasure of perfume derives in part from the fantasies which arise and are made possible by the luxury context in which perfume is inextricably fixed. Going against what seems to be the orthodox view, I have come to be skeptical of the idea that we are somehow harmed or tricked by the barrage of images associated with the perfumes which we may eventually acquire. We will be seduced in determining how to dispense with our wallet share, one way or the other. Whether we are wooed by pictures of Brad Pitt and Audrey Tautou, and historical images of Marilyn Monroe and Catherine Deneuve, or the scent of jasmine, rose, and strong aldehydes which make up the composition of Chanel no 5, matters not in the least to those who are trying to sell the perfume.

The only criterion, at the end of the day, is pleasure. If we derive pleasure from donning the perfume, then we have not been swindled at all. We got what we paid for: an image, a scent, a feeling of satisfaction, the sense of of being somehow more sexy and glamorous, a flood of memories induced by our perfume. Why should one of these be more valuable than any of the rest? Images, like bottles, may enhance our experience by adding a rich layer of fantasy to our encounter with the perfume. Is it wrong to wish to be glamorous and sexy or to believe that by wearing a perfume we become more so? Seems rather harmless to me.

The same should be said, of course, for those who find a deeper satisfaction in wearing a perfume because someone somewhere has decreed it to be a masterpiece. Should we care what they think? Probably not, if perfume reception is ultimately a matter of taste, as it seems to be. Nonetheless, the experience of some wearers will indeed be enhanced by having come to believe that they share the refined taste of experts, whoever they may be, and no matter how that label came to be applied, even if “the experts” have been self-decreed.

Witness, again, what happened in the realm of wine. Robert Parker essentially appointed himself the Tzar of taste, and because people clamored to be like him, red wines became denser and more like Merlot, while white wines cured in oak barrels became all the rage. It's a fact: people desire to be like the experts, to share their presumably superior taste, and that is why exalting best-selling perfumes as masterpieces, too, is a clever marketing scheme. It ends by enhancing the sense of luxury associated with wearing the perfumes thus showcased.

A House of Mirrors

Chanel no 5 was marketed into women's—and men's—brains as being sexy and seductive and, above all, glamorous. Was it worn by glamorous women because Chanel no 5 was glamorous? Or did Chanel no 5 become glamorous because women—and men—came to associate images of celebrities in slinky black dresses with the scent of the perfume? Did Marilyn Monroe wear Chanel no 5 because it was sexy? Or did Chanel no 5 come to seem sexy because sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe were known to wear it?

To see why the packaging (including marketing images) and the perfume are inextricably connected and cannot be divorced from one another without transforming the thing thus abstracted, consider what perfume would be to someone who did not come to it through the usual path, by visiting a cosmetic counter at a department store. To someone coming to planet earth from a galaxy far away, I am quite sure that Chanel no 5 would be a smell with zero significance, whether sexual or socioeconomic or artistic or otherwise. Certainly the white sheets of the orphanage where little Coco was raised and the white steppes of Siberia where the perfumer who composed the perfume spent a good deal of time would not be images easily connected to the scent of aldehydes by a newcomer to our planet. Would the perfume seem sexy or glamorous without being presented simultaneously with images of sexy and glamorous women? Evidently not. It would be only a smell.

Indeed, even right here on planet earth there appear to be a fair number of young people who associate the scent of Chanel no 5 not with Marilyn Monroe or Catherine Deneuve but with “the mad old cat lady”. I recently read a string of comments to that effect in response to a piece on the Brad Pitt Chanel no 5 campaign. Those who wrote comments did not seem to “get” the iconic perfume. Or, rather, what they got was that the scent evokes images of something which they would never want to be.

I've seen similar remarks made about such perfumes as Guerlain Shalimar and L'Heure Bleue, reportedly favorites among senescent women in retirement homes. My own view is that Guerlain screwed up rather royally by mass-marketing Shalimar at drugstores and discounters and basically any- and everywhere. Rumor has it that various “levels” of Guerlain's most famous creations are circulating about—not just a case of reformulation, but formulations tweaked—and made more cheap—for specific markets. This sends very mixed messages. When the cleaning lady wears Shalimar as her signature scent, then the woman for whom she works may think twice before donning it herself. Luxury is essentially elitist, and perfume is a luxury product. In order for the illusion to continue to work on prospective consumers, there must be a division between those who have access and those who do not. Without insiders and outsiders, the notion of luxury is evacuated of sense.

In the twenty-first century, we seem to be living in the age of democratization of everything, including perfume. Since there are no true experts on taste in perfume, everyone is suddenly an expert. The fragrance community websites are frequented by their share of snobs, but also Jill Q. and Joe Q. mainstream fragrance consumers, who buy on the basis of ads and may evaluate a perfume more on visual associations and packaging than on the composition itself. Or perhaps we all do that? No one seems to know. Everyone has opinions, and no one is afraid to express them, and enthusiasm is taken to be the necessary and sufficient condition for sound perfume evaluation. Which brings us back to the question of the many uses of perfume.

It seems quite clear that people wear perfume for the pleasure which they derive from doing so, but the sources of their pleasure vary. In some cases, compliments garnered from others compound whatever pleasure the wearer may enjoy through smelling the scent. Still, surely no one wears perfumes which they themselves find to be ugly—except in testing scenarios where they are attempting to wait out the disappearance of what they take to be a bad perfume.

With the globalization of media and the spread of images from first world industrialized countries to even the farthest reaches of the globe, more and more people have become exposed to mass-marketed fragrance, if only through the advertisements created in order to sell it. A homogenization of culture is inevitable given the power of capitalism-generated media images to seduce potential consumers, as objects once nonexistent from a person's perspective suddenly come into view and then become coveted. We need more and more things, including perfumes, because increasingly we are made to feel that our life is incomplete without them.

With the advent of online fragrance community websites, perfumistas have been able to connect with fellow perfume lovers and mutually fertilize their passion through penning reviews and participating in forums about every conceivable topic related to the object of their olfactory fascination. Above all, it has become possible learn about the latest—and presumably greatest—offerings from our favorite perfume houses, in addition to the birth of brand new houses with vast collections to tempt us. Do we need any of this? No. All of this is a luxury in which we indulge with the free time and money which we are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy, unlike the vast majority of people in the world, past, present, and future.

Perfume, the liquid, is microcosmic of perfumery, the enterprise. Why? Because it comprises a complex nexus of components or factors only some of which are relevant to any given person. We literally smell different aspects of perfumes to different degrees, just as all of the motivations giving rise to perfumery are found to varying extents among the various participants, from producer to purveyor to consumer. Perfume as such reflects the means of its production: a multifaceted crystal which evades all efforts to capture it in short, simplistic and categorical ways. Whatever we may attempt to say about perfume will be false from the purview of some, while nonetheless true, if only from our evanescent and limited glimpse—until we blink.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Tendentious History of the World's Most Hyped Perfume

Reflections on the state of perfume writing occasioned by my reading of

The Secret of Chanel no. 5: 
The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume (2010)by Tilar J. Mazzeo

There is a serious dearth of books on perfume. Trust me, I've looked. A short stack of books are read and praised by perfume lovers because only that short stack exists. To be honest, most of the best of a bad bunch are not really up to snuff, if compared to works about other cultural phenomena written by serious critics with the appropriate theoretical background to support their claim to expertise regarding the topics about which they write.

Part of the problem in the area of perfume—aside from the gushing enthusiasm which seems to substitute in some cases for training and education—appears to be a general deficit of critical acumen among people who are really quite good at self-promotion but much less good at digging very deeply into the topic of perfume. They exalt themselves as experts and then, because there is no one around to dispute such claims, readers simply accept that the authors are what their publishers vociferously proclaim: the experts.

Perfumistas brush all of this aside. They don't care about credentials. “All you need is love” is what many apparently think. Guide groupies bristle at anyone's attempt to point out that personal attacks on perfumers and houses are not a form of valid criticism—and indeed exemplify fallacious reasoning. It all becomes ugly when critics attempt to criticize the pseudo-critics. That, it seems, is not permitted. We must love all perfume lovers who are attempting to elevate the object of our love—no matter how inept and self-defeating their efforts may be in the grand scheme of things, beyond the cloistered community of full-fledged fragrance fans.

Chandler Burr studied business and economics before studying, well, Luca Turin, after which Burr was curiously named the perfume critic for the New York Times. Was that appointment, too, like his current post as The Curator of the Department of Olfactory Art at MAD, his very own idea and a result of his own pitch to have himself appointed to the position? I ask because it has been years since Burr departed from The Times, and no person has yet been named to fill the “vacancy”. Is it that no one can fill his shoes? Or is it that no one else has dared to assert that their undying love of perfume qualifies them to bear the impressive title “The New York Times Perfume Critic”?

The nearly total absence of serious intellectuals directing their energies to the topic of perfume has given rise to what looks rather like a Lockean property first-dibs expertise schema, whereby the first people to have the bravura to label themselves “experts” become through that very act accepted by the ignorant masses as “the experts” about perfume.

There has been no need for intellectual rigor in writing about perfume to this point in history for the simple fact that there are so few perfume books in existence that virtually anything which anyone manages to get published will be praised as great by a small cluster of perfume enthusiasts—dare I say fanatics? In a culture which continues to regard perfume as a mere toiletry—or, at best, an accessory—anyone who cares (obsesses?) enough about perfume to be buying books about the subject is not going to be all that selective. They do not have that luxury, again, for the simple reason that perfume has yet to be taken seriously as an object of sustained intellectual critique.

There's a chicken-and-egg problem here: no one—aside from perfume junkies and geeks—seems to be taking perfume very seriously as a cultural phenomenon, one worthy of sustained critique, precisely because no one aside from juice-addicted perfumistas takes perfume seriously at all, with the notable exception, of course, of those who are in the business of perfumery for the bountiful profits which it reaps.

There are a few astute bloggers here and there, but in the published book category, not much has happened yet. Pseudo-intellectual drivel spewed out about perfume by slick public relations teams deployed in the service of a few aspirants to wealth and fame (and free perfume!) does not help in this regard. Outsiders, the non-perfumistas, cannot take diaphanous perfume marketing campaigns masquerading as high theory seriously. And why, after all, should they?

So there is Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which portends to be a work of criticism and vaunts being the “only” book of its kind. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the only book of its kind is both the best and the worst of its kind, and until better books come along, many people will continue to praise that work as great. In reality, Turin and Sanchez do no more in that book than to broadcast their own tastes and promote some perfumers and their creations, while demoting others in rude and sometimes vicious terms.

This point is obviously lost on many perfumistas, but in every other realm of inquiry there is a clear distinction between criticism, on the one hand, and slander and insults, on the other. Unfortunately Turin and Sanchez do not appear to recognize that distinction and brazenly and boorishly conflate the two, offering ad hominem attacks and personal insults in lieu of arguments or principles of aesthetic criticism. An abundance of passion and enthusiasm is not an effective substitute for reason, and being ready and willing to yell louder than anyone around does not imply that one is right.

Books for and by perfume lovers tend to show their bias—and pretension—on their covers. Turin and Sanchez allowed their musings to be published under the highly misleading title Perfume: The A-Z Guide, when it is nothing of the kind. The title is in fact triply mendacious. Fortunately, members of online fragrance communities are slowly becoming more savvy through their exposure to a wide range of reviews written by many different people. As a result, even some of the former Guide groupies appear to be coming to the recognition that, however passionate Turin and Sanchez (and Chandler Burr after them) may be about perfume, they are ultimately, at the end of the day, attempting to persuade readers that idiosyncratic and subjective values and tastes are objective truths.

Another Case in Point

Provocative titles sell books, as many consumers do judge a book by its cover. Tilar Mazzeo's The Secret of Chanel no. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume (2010) offers another example of the same. To sell books, one must have a claim to exclusivity and expertise—or pay deference to those who have made that their claim to fame. Chandler Burr's name is emblazoned prominently as the author of the first blurb on the back cover of The Secret of Chanel no. 5. Mazzeo thanks Turin and Sanchez on her acknowledgment page for having taken the time to speak with her. This is how the “expert” system works, too, in academia, where the back-cover blurb industry is frankly laughable, so perhaps I should not be surprised. The difference is that there are no checks and balances of any kind in the tiny universe of entirely self-appointed perfume critics.

What is odd about this book is not that Mazzeo is a true believer in the greatness of Chanel no 5—who but a true believer would bother to attempt to write the cultural history of a single perfume? No, what is a bit surprising is only that her preaching to the choir should be so very flagrant. Leaps of logic abound throughout the story of Chanel no 5 as told by Mazzeo, as she sets up what appear to be genuinely intriguing possibilities, and then in a short phrase resolves the question at issue with the bald statement, in effect, that Chanel no 5 is great, what is both the first premise and the conclusion of this work.

In this regard, Mazzeo provides a book-length example of the informal fallacy known as “begging the question”: to assume as a first premise what one is attempting to demonstrate. (As an aside, in the vernacular, “begging the question” has come recently to be used by people as a substitute for “raising the question”. So one often sees the observation that “this begs the question..., after which a question is posed.)

Unfortunately, all of the leaps in Mazzeo's “history” lean toward the protectionist side, minimizing any detraction from the hypothesis of the greatness of this perfume and its creator, all of which leads one to suspect that this is not at all “The Unauthorized Biography,” as the inside jacket of the book enticingly boasts, but the “thoroughly approved by the suits at Chanel” version of the story. Devotees will complain (as did Guide groupies before them): "So what? If you want a better book, why don't you write one?”

This sort of response, according to which it is somehow gauche or inappropriate to criticize already published books, that the only acceptable response is to publish another one to replace it, misunderstands the nature of criticism. You publish a book, and you put it out there in the world to be read. Some people will disagree with what you say and call you out on your false, and in some cases fraudulent, claims. That's the chance that you take.

Is the solution to stuff critics' mouths with socks and duct tape them shut? No, it is not. Is the only acceptable response to a mediocre book to publish a better book on the same topic but which avoids making the same mistakes? No, it is not. A critic may not have the interest or desire to devote the years of research needed to get to the bottom of the question. That does not mean that she is required to accept as gospel whatever the shucksters say.

There is a genuinely interesting question here: why is Chanel no. 5 so popular and famous? Well, to anyone familiar with even the broadest contours of the business of perfumery—or business more generally—it might seem that the obvious answer, superlative marketing and hype, should indeed be the best explanation of this perfume's phenomenal success. But, no, Mazzeo “informs” the reader: it is not just marketing; it is not just hype. It is that Chanel no 5 is something somehow transcendent. But is it, even according to Mazzeo's own marshaling of the facts?

Gabrielle Chanel granted control of the perfume branch of her eponymous company to the Wertheimer brothers in exchange for a percentage of profits paid back to her. Why? Because she wanted to focus on fashion, not the production and distribution of perfume. When the perfume became more popular and profitable than her haute couture, Chanel came to experience seller's remorse. This sort of thing is not at all uncommon in the history of business. The person who came up with the idea of Victoria's Secret, a company amazingly devoted solely and unashamedly to lingerie, so that ordinary women could walk into the store without feeling like a whore, sold the idea to someone else who developed it to resounding success. The woman who masterminded the root idea of The Body Shop, also sold her rights, and we all know how that story ended, with stores in cities all over the world. Even Facebook is said to have derived from the root idea of a couple of Mark Zuckerberg's cohorts at Harvard. (See The Social Network (2010), if you are unfamiliar with the story.) What matters in all of these cases is not the bright idea, but how it is nurtured and capitalized upon. Bright ideas are a dime a dozen. Entrepreneurs take such ideas—wherever they came from—and run with them hard and fast.

In the case of Chanel no 5 perfume, the Wertheimer brothers were incredibly savvy at business, more so even than Coco Chanel. The brothers, being Jewish, expatriated right before the German occupation of France to avoid—well, extermination—having sold the majority of the company to an Aryan partner, Félix Amiot, under whose management the company, too, could continue to survive. Under the law at the time, Jewish persons were not permitted to own businesses, and Coco Chanel was ready and willing to do what she needed to regain control of what had by then become a thriving perfumery business. But she was not quite as savvy as her partners, for they beat her to the punch, selling the company before she wrote her infamous letter to carry out her “civic duty” by reporting the Jewish ownership of the perfume branch to the appropriate authorities.

Working in the United States, the Wertheimers continued to devise ingenious marketing strategies. They got the needed Grasse jasmine smuggled out of France and delivered to humble Hoboken. Mazzeo describes how the brothers also decided to stop advertising in the 1940s in order to cut costs. As she tells the story, the natural materials needed to keep the perfume top quality required that corners be cut elsewhere. Of course, they did not reformulate—that would have been to ruin the perfume! Let's see, what would the Chanel company line on reformulation be, I wonder? I believe that it would be in their best interests to deny that the perfume was ever reformulated in any way. Until, of course, that becomes impossible. With the end of the use of natural musk in perfumery, reformulation became ineluctable, but Mazzeo assures the reader near the end of her tale:

Chanel No. 5 fans need not worry, though, because Chanel No. 5 still has those rich, warm scents of skin and that note of intense sensuality that Coco Chanel always wanted. As Christopher Sheldrake explains, while those nitromusks were wonderful, powerful, and inexpensive, they were not irreplaceable. There are ways to re-create their warmth and powdery textures in a perfume. It's just that they can't be replaced on the cheap, and most fragrance houses aren't prepared to spend the money. And, as perfumer Virginia Bonofiglio quips, "You can't make cheap that smells like Chanel No. 5."

In discussing the restrictions imposed by the IFRA regarding the use of jasmine in perfume, Matteo assures the reader, again:

New IFRA allergy restrictions won't threaten the perfume either, because for several years researchers at Chanel have been committed to finding a permanent solution. Among those hundreds of molecules in natural jasmine, it is only one or two that have the potential to cause even the most sensitive among us any problems. Creating a synthetic jasmine as nuanced and subtle as the natural jasmine of Grasse would be an impossible undertaking, but breeding just one or two molecules out of a plant or finding a technique to remove one or two molecules from an extract is entirely possible. Soon, Chanel hopes simply to have resolved the problem of jasmine sensitivity entirely. They hope that, eventually, the jasmine from Grasse will be something anyone can wear without hesitation—no matter how daringly high the doses.
For now, the legacy of the perfume is safe. Despite changes around it, the world's most famous fragrance remains essentially unchanged and timeless.

Goodbye scholarship. Hello, marketing text! And three cheers for GMOs!

To return to the World War II scenario, Matteo explains that rather than compromising the quality of the perfume through cheapening its formula, the Wertheimers instead undertook an initiative which made Chanel no 5 not just profitable, but universally loved: they distributed the perfume through the same channels—the military commissaries or PXs—which delivered food and cigarettes to the troops abroad, wherever they were stationed. Soldiers bought up the perfume for their mistresses or their loved ones back home, and by the end of the war, every woman, it seems, as Mazzeo tells the story, wanted nothing more ardently than a bottle of Chanel no 5—perhaps even more than world peace!

The question which Mazzeo does not answer is this: if it is true that the Wertheimers were so keen to sell as many bottles as possible, and if they knew that their new and vast client base had no perfume sophistication whatsoever, then why in the world would they not reformulate, so as to cut costs further and dramatically increase profits? No, Mazzeo insists. They would never have done such a thing.

Throughout the book, Mazzeo deflects any worries about any possible compromises to the formula of Chanel no 5 in exactly the same way: by flatly denying that they ever took place. Unfortunately, her grounds for this denial appear to be no and more less than her own fervent belief in the continuous integrity of the perfume, through thick and thin, and even at its low point, when the perfume had come to be broadly distributed through American drugstores.

As we all know, the other perfumes which went the drugstore route—consider the sad case of what once were the Coty classics—were horrifically reformulated and never restored. Reformulation in other cases has been a one-way street. Mazzeo simply denies that it ever took place at all in the case of Chanel no 5—despite the fact that it was being sold alongside other ghastly reformulations at the drugstore at the same time.

It is true, of course, that Chanel no 5 is in much better shape today than, say, Coty Muguet des Bois or Emeraude or Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps or... the list goes on and on. But that does not show that Chanel no 5 was never being sold in an inferior formulation while being mass-marketed at drugstores. Instead, it suggests that under subsequent management, the perfume was brought back to its luxury status—and, one surmises, was re-reformulated to the point of at least approximating the original perfume.

What can the grounds be for Mazzeo's insistence on the perfume's uninterrupted integrity beyond the fact that the company denies that reformulation ever took place? The Wertheimers were businessmen, not believers in the sacred immortality of the product which they were peddling. To them, it was a commodity like any other, so why would they cut into their own profits by producing Chanel no 5 at a quality level likely to go altogether unnoticed by the sorts of people—soldiers and their lovers—to whom it was being sold? No answer is given to this question by Mazzeo, because it should be obvious to any of her readers—most of whom are no doubt already true believers—that such an aesthetic crime would be tantamount to murder.

To return to the question of how Chanel no 5 ascended to universal icon status, what Mazzeo does not address is whether the distribution of the perfume to emotionally fraught and love-starved troops—allied and axis alike—would not have done the same for any other perfume distributed in that way. This was what catapulted Chanel no 5 to its status as the number-one selling perfume, where it has stayed since World War II, and what secured what Mazzeo seems to think will be its eternal fame. In truth, the wild popularity of this particular perfume could be explained by the ingenious distribution scheme alone—the creation of this perfume as a coveted object replete with profound significance as a symbol of survival and the scent of victory and relief.

After spending the entire book beating back any possible suggestion to the effect that Chanel no 5 might not be a sacred and transcendent object worthy of our eternal worship—akin to a religious totem—Mazzeo waffles in her final chapter, ascribing the greatness of this perfume to its legion of fans and attempting to anchor it in individual wearers' subjectivity. She writes:

Instead, the secret at the heart of Chanel No. 5 and its continued success is us and our relationship to it. It's the wonderful and curious fact of our collective fascination with this singular perfume for nearly a century and the story of how a scent has been—and remains—capable of producing in so many of us the wish to preserve it. Think of that number: a bottle sold every thirty seconds. It is an astounding economy of desire.

The root problem with this account is that the author simply ignores what would seem to be the real reason why throngs of fans wore and continue to wear this perfume. They were lured by marketing and hype to buy the perfume, or their lovers or husbands were seduced to purchase it for them. Once a bottle of the perfume had found its way to their vanity tray, these women wore Chanel no 5 and then, of course, it did become their own—for many it was and remains a signature scent.

The problem with Mazzeo's logic is that she supposes that the inherent properties of the perfume are the explanation for the perfume's fan base. If that were the case, why in the world would Chanel need to pay Brad Pitt $7 million to jump start sales? Clearly Chanel no 5 does not sell itself. It requires a huge marketing outlay and ingenious schemes for its continuing success. The first generations of wearers are now dead or moribund. What to do next?

Today, in the twenty-first century, as World War II fades from people's memories, the company is trying once again to drum up enthusiasm for a perfume whose time may have come. An overdose of aldehydes combined with precious essences of jasmine and rose was new and exciting in 1921, and the popularity of the perfume was renewed with each successive marketing scheme, but as the last World War II soldiers and survivors take leave of this world, so will the profound existential significance with which Chanel no 5 was infused throughout much of the twentieth century. We still associate this perfume with images of Marilyn Monroe, dead now for more than fifty years, and the models who represented it in subsequent decades: Catherine Deneuve, Carole Bouquet, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tatou, and now Brad Pitt. Perhaps Pitt will be the nail in this coffin.

Needless to say, I am not a believer and was not converted by Tilar Mazzeo's book to the view that the resplendent success of Chanel no 5, a good perfume to be sure, has more to do with its allegedly divine beauty than with how it was promoted and distributed throughout the twentieth century. If you are a true believer, then you'll surely read this book as the welcome revelation of gospel. You may enjoy Mazzeo's attempt mystically to link the pristine white sheets at Coco's orphanage to the glacial plains of Siberia and the prominent aldehydes featured in Chanel no 5. No harm in that—don't we all like to read what we already believe? But for everyone else, the most plausible answer to the question What is the secret to Chanel no 5's success? remains unchanged by the publication of this book. The answer, in a phrase, is: marketing and hype.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Perfume and the Pre-Socratics 7: Pythagoras and the Importance of Proportion

Pythagoras stands apart from the other pre-Socratic philosophers for having focused primarily on mathematics rather than observable phenomena to be explained in terms of other observable phenomena such as air, earth, fire, and water. In the view of Pythagoras, number is the first principle of the universe, which is ordered in a mathematical sense. The word cosmos, which means order, was first applied to the world by Pythagoras, although some of the other pre-Socratic philosophers are now referred to as cosmologists and regarded as the earliest scientists in human history.

The colony founded by Pythagoras is sometimes characterized as having been a religious cult of sorts, yet his prodigious contributions to the history of mathematics are beyond dispute and have to a large extent saved his legacy. Every child learns the Pythagorean theorem in grade school:

a2 + b2 = c2

The sum of the square of each of the two sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of its hypotenuse.

Pythagoras was essentially the founder of the discipline of mathematics. In his view, embraced still today by modern thinkers, numbers reflect structures in the universe, beginning with 0, 1, 2, and 3, corresponding to the zero-dimensional point, the one-dimensional line, the two-dimensional plane, and the three-dimensional volume of space. Later mathematicians have worked in many more dimensions, but everything started back in ancient times with this man in awe of the mathematical beauty inherent in the universe.

Unlike Parmenides, whose contribution, that “All is one,” may escape attention by the vast majority of humanity past, present, and future, Pythagoras provided us with the foundations of all modern applied science and physics.

Many people dislike mathematics, or at least they claim to dislike mathematics. In truth, they appear not to understand mathematics. It was never presented to them in the proper way and from the proper perspective. They were forced by martinet schoolmarms to memorize the principles of mathematics rather than being taught how to deduce them.

As a result, mathematics remains for such people an arcane, inaccessible, and even painful subject. Because physics is the most directly mathematical of the sciences, requiring the use of many abstract formulas and mathematical concepts, it, too, has left many people with bad memories. Organic chemistry is another case where the logic of the theory must be understood in order to achieve an understanding of the profound beauty which it embodies.

It is unfortunate that many teachers of these subjects either do not themselves grasp the essential logic involved or else they are for some reason unable to communicate it to their students. The truth is that mathematics exhibits a profound beauty in its aesthetic simplicity and symmetry, as do the more theoretical of the sciences.

To see the patterns of mathematics in these disciplines requires that one ascend above the formulas to the spheres from which they derive, and this was naturally Pythagoras' strong suit. Among the theories devised by human beings, mathematics offers the one source of and glimpse into eternity, because nothing that happens on the planet which we happen by chance to inhabit will ever change the truths of mathematics.

Psychologists have discovered correlations between mathematical and musical ability, and not without reason: all of music is grounded in the proportions of mathematics. In this way the beauty of mathematics is inherent to that of music. Most people never study music seriously and have no idea why the compositions of J.S. Bach are perfect or what is meant when someone makes this claim, which may strike them as the ravings of a zealot. People who have never studied and played an instrument may enjoy music in a superficial way, but they will never be able fully to grasp the highest pleasure of musical art, to participate directly in its production, which can be likened to traveling to another sphere of reality.

Is there a parallel mathematical universe, where musicians and physicists interact? In a sense, yes. They are privy to secrets to which most people have no access. Plato, who arrived on the scene in ancient Greece a bit later than Pythagoras, attempted to capture the distinction between mundane appearance and eternal truth with his theory of the Forms and the Allegory of the Cave, to which, he claimed, most people are effectively chained. We remain mired in delusion and tricked by images cast on the wall by politicians and other shucksters who wield flickering candles to persuade us to believe in their opportunistic lies. Plato's Allegory of the Cave has never been more relevant than today, as images and packaging have come to take precedence over content in the internet age.

Plato was influenced by all of the pre-Socratic philosophers in one way or another, but his metaphysics reflects a belief in truth and and beauty clearly captured by the Pythagorean world view. The realm of knowledge is separate from the realm of opinion or mere belief, which is a fluctuating sea of ideas deriving from the contingent ephemera of the perceived world. Beyond the realm of the senses lies the realm of truth. This is the insight of Pythagoras which explains the magical effect of music and also the more mathematical sciences, at least to their practitioners.

It is probably worth observing here that in the worldview of Plato and some of his pals, art and beauty are not at all the same thing, despite the common tendency on the part of modern people to conflate them. Plato disliked poets because he thought of them as deceivers or even liars. Beauty and Truth are absolute and immutable Forms in which both instrumental music and perfume would seem to be able to participate because they cannot “lie”. Why? Because they are non-representational and therefore have no propositional content

All of this poses problems for people who erroneously conflate beauty and art. The two are conceptually distinct. A naturally existing canyon is beautiful. When Christo “wraps” it, he thereby creates a work of art—one which many local residents may regard as ugly. We shall return to the important distinctions between art and beauty, art and design, and truth and artifice, in future episodes of the History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume.

Valley Curtain, 1970-2
by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

The Pythagorean-Perfume Connection

As we have seen in the other theories of pre-Socratic philosophers, perfume has been omitted or deleted from the version of the story to survive. It might seem that since the world of mathematics is divorced form the senses and the world of perfume is intimately connected to sense perception, that the two do not intersect.

By that argument, however, it should follow that because we apprehend music through our ears, therefore, it can have nothing to do with the eternal realm of mathematical truth. These misunderstandings arise when we make the same mistake as the schoolteacher who forces his students to memorize mathematical formulas rather than teaching them how to deduce them from first principles.

Most people wear perfume in the way in which they listen to music and balance their checkbook. They use perfume functionally, just as they use music for entertainment and numbers for the math needed to accomplish this or that task. Music is there in the world and they hear it, and perfume is there in the world, so they use it, But their limited appreciation of perfume's beauty is similar to the person who enjoys the chirping of birds or the sound of rain in the springtime. It's there, and they notice it, and it gives them pleasure, but that's where their understanding ends.

There is more to perfume than just the superficial scent, just as there is more to music than the sound waves by which we apprehend it. Pythagoras, as a master of mathematics, no doubt appreciated perfume as well, having recognized that the mathematical proportions so crucial to music are equally important to perfume.

Any professional perfumer will aver that the distinction between a masterpiece and a disaster may lie only in the proportions used. The ingredients of a perfume are obviously very important, but even more important, once the basic shape and demeanor of the perfume have been determined, are the precise proportions of the various components used. We laypersons might consider a comparison in the case of cooking: a dash of salt may perfect a batch of carrot ginger soup. A spoonful may ruin it by rendering it inedible.

Lists of notes are only the most basic way of approaching perfume. The experience of perfume is subjective and intimate, and the joy of perfume is found at the first level in the judicious proportions of ingredients combined by a skilled perfumer. But the perceiver contributes to the creation as well, just as the beauty of a poem emerges only upon its conscious appreciation by an interpreter. Poetry, too, pace Plato, exhibits mathematical proportions of cadence and rhythm, in addition to the use of colorful metaphors to produce something far more valuable than the sum of the letters used to write it.

Pythagoras no doubt recognized that perfume, like music and poetry, offers a transcendent glimpse into the only certainty in the universe: mathematics. The heavens may fall, but the truth will persist. The truth is unassailable. Behind all of the deceptive techniques used to market fragrances in the modern world, there is a reality. Not all that glitters is gold, and hidden treasures are out there, ready to be found by those who do not allow themselves to be distracted by all of the hype and folderol and focus instead upon the quality of the perfumes which they seek out and test.

We may disagree about which precise perfumes achieve a transcendent level of beauty, but that is because we perceive them from our own peculiar and idiosyncratic starting points, which are determined not only by our biological constitution, but also all of our past experiences and memories. Just as people exhibit various degrees of awareness about other aspects of reality, we should expect them to disagree, too, when it comes to perfume. We are all on a journey, and while our perceptions may sometimes coincide, often they do not.

The music of the spheres is ringing in the background, beckoning us to seek out the truth by whatever means available to us. We are fortunate to be among the select few to have access to perfume, through which we are able to travel to an olfactory universe unknown to the vast majority of humanity but nonetheless real.