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.


  1. Extremely thought provoking as always.

    The truth is that perfume, be it an object of marketing or an object of art, is most of all an object of desire. One never buys a perfume only for the olfactory pleasure but instead for the entire imagery it carries with it. A rare, expensive extrait carries the its myth. A cheap, approachable lovely smell carries its value for money qualities. It seems unreasonable to try to examine the virtues of a perfume by separating it from its context.

    In the same way unwearable perfumes hold their value. Secretions Magnifiques is a disgusting concoction to most but still it is not just that: it made a statement by decomposing the essential maxim behind perfume, that it must smell good. Regardless of its purely olfactory merits this creation made a statement, it asked a question and everybody had to answer in their mind. This is somehow closer to perfume as art as Shalimar will ever get (in the strictest possible definition of art).

    In a similar way Molecule 01 by Escentic Molecules has none of the ordinary credentials of a perfume, no high quality materials, no intricate composition. But in effect it asks another important question: how relevant is to describe perfume in terms of fruit, herb, spice, wood constituents. Iso E Super has crept in most mainstream compositions yet it was not very fashionable for artificial ingredients to be listed. Contrary to popular belief Iso E Super has an extremely complex olfactory profile with a non-linear temporal behaviour. A single molecule creates a temporal vibration many perfumers strive to achieve by mixing complex natural essentials. In one sense the release of Molecule 01 has many similarities with Duchamp's work, it asks a question, "is this perfume?" much like Warhol asked "is this art?"

    In short, there is perfume, there is art and there is a fine line between them that needs to be defined historically

    1. Thank you very much, Christos.

      I agree with you: desire is key. Perfume and passion are partners. Desire is intimately related to pleasure, and what I have suggested is that the source of pleasure provided by perfume differs from case to case. The network of desires is as heterogeneous as the group of characters who together collaborate to produce what we encounter, finally, in the market, as a perfume.

      The people who shun perfume simply do not derive any pleasure from it, and some among them find it unpleasant or even painful. That seems to be an unbridgeable chasm separating perfume lovers from perfume haters. So another obvious difference between art and perfume is that no such division seems to exist in within the art world. People who have no interest in art do not tend to get all fired up about it. They simply ignore it.

      The people who continue to embrace a pre-twentieth-century notion of art, one which includes beauty as an essential component, may be the ones most apt to conflate perfume and art. It may be that they simply do not have enough knowledge of developments in the art world over the course of the past century to recognize that beauty, far from being sufficient, is no longer even a necessary condition. On the contrary, these days, beauty seems to be a detracting factor in considering whether something is REALLY art!

      One thing is clear: before we can answer the question “Is perfume art?” we must have arrived at an answer to the question “What is art?” The fact that we love and cherish and desire perfume does not make it art.

      I agree with you that Etat Libre d'Orange Sécrétions Magnifiques might qualify. I tried to argue this a while back by comparing it to Duchamp's Fontaine, and considering the possibility that it, too, was a work of conceptual art. Unfortunately, some of the people who commented on the post were adamant that SM really is beautiful! Unbeknownst to them, they were undermining the case for its inclusion in the realm of bona fide art objects!

      Escentric Molecules MOLECULE 01 is an interesting case for the same reason: it may have been launched as a provocation, but people took it up as their signature scent! In fact, when I read the explanation accompanying my sample of Juliette Has A Gun Not A Perfume, I was struck by the perfumer's explicit denial that the launch was meant as a provocation. He unselfconsciously claimed that ambroxan was one of his favorite materials for its [pleasurable] properties. So much for art.

      Perfume must smell good to someone somewhere—if it is to survive in tact as perfume, that is, on the market. Discontinued perfumes, too, are remembered as perfumes only if they smell good to someone somewhere. Art, on the other hand, doesn't have to be anything. For these reasons, I am becoming increasingly inclined to think that the line between them is not fine at all.

      Thank you for these insights, Christos!

    2. It seems that one can never serve two masters. If "Not a Perfume"is an artistic statement, a provocation as the name implies then it will not go down well with the customers which makes the company push it like a regular perfume which obviously strips it of any merits as an artistic creation and as a product as well.

      The only way out of this vicious circle is to have perfumers/artists create unique bottles of perfume that will be sold as art but Katherine Chan over at Mad Perfumista the writer who is an art critic once mentioned in a discussion that this is not marketable in today's art world.

    3. Hello again, Christos!

      Regarding your first point, I agree: you cannot have it both ways. Same story for ELdO Sécrétions Magnifiques. If you are marketing it as a wearable perfume, then is it art? And if it is unwearable, and therefore cannot be sold to the consumers who keep perfumers in business and make perfumery possible, then it cannot be recognized as an object at all. A perfume exists solely insofar as the market sustains it. Once the market withdraws its support, the object ceases to exist, evaporates irrevocably into the cosmos...

      As for your second point, you wrote: "to have perfumers/artists create unique bottles of perfume that will be sold as art..."

      That almost sounds like bespoke perfumery! There certainly is an ultra-exclusivity to bona fide bespoke perfumes, created specifically for individuals, but I suppose that art would have to be accessible to others beyond "the patron", so to speak. So maybe there is a conceptual impossibility to the idea...

      I'll try to find Katherine Chan's writing on this topic. Very interesting. Thanks so much, Christos!

    4. I think there is a difference between bespoke perfume and unique (or in very limited numbers) bottles. A bespoke perfume is commissioned by the client while what I am talking about comes only from the artist with no limitations, no cost limitations, no compliance limitations. I wonder what would be the result of someone commissioning Bertrand Duchaufourd for instance to create a perfume carte blanche, without any limitations, not even the limitation of selling it. Aren't paintings, photographs and performances unique "objects"? Of course I do not like the idea as a perfumista because I would never be able to smell such unique creations. But as a person interested in the artistic potential of perfumery I would be very excited by this.

    5. Have you forgotten about the bona fide olfactory artists? I mean the ones of whom no mention is made--it's as though they don't even exist--and who would seemingly be erased from art history if the multicorporate conglomerate-funded MAD exhibit had its way?

      The truth is the truth, my friend.

    6. Yes, why don't we speak about them? They are only mentioned on art blogs and articles but the perfume world completely neglects them as if they have nothing to do with it. We have to talk more about them. And there is another drawback here: it is so difficult to talk about olfaction and olfactory art! No photos can be taken. But still this is what I think we should focus on more. I made a brief mention on Martynka Wawrzyniak's Smell Me installation but what can I say about it if I cannot be there?

  2. So many important ideas for consideration have been raised here, Sherapop - a number that stuck with me as I was falling asleep last night. The question of perfume as art, in particular; you've dissected this very well. I'm sure there are many people who want to see all perfume as art, but there are simply too many market forces that compel perfume creators to fill perceived needs. 'Art' can't be created in that kind of environment.

    However, I wonder if, almost against all odds, occasionally, unexpectedly, a certain combination of chemicals comes pretty close to art, or at least, the sensation that is created by art. It's a slightly sentimental view of art, but a perfume that is a 'thing of beauty' and stands the test of time, it might come close to art. Actually being art? Hmmm, that's a tougher call. I don't know. I do believe we are at the very beginning of these questions, since so far, perfume really has been a luxury commodity.

    I agree with memoryofscent who says that the line is hard to define. I remember the first time I smelled Etat Libre d'Orange's 'Rien' - I found it so unpleasant that I was almost a little shocked. Then, I spent a lot more time with it and realized (without any pressure to do so from any outside force) that there was a complexity and 'beauty' to it that required a deeper experience - a deeper dive. So, are some of these 'edgy' perfumers pushing boundaries in the way that Dadaists did, and is that, in a way, pushing perfume closer to art? All such interesting questions.

    Also, I was thinking a lot about the points you raised about perfume maker credentials. I think this has changed vastly in the past 20-30 years. There are many self-taught perfumers in the field now. The optimist in me again thinks this is a good opportunity for meritocracy, where the best will rise upward. I think the meritocracy impulse will be stronger than the democratization impulse. I'm glad you make the comparison to wine; I was not aware that there has been such wide-reaching trends based on the opinions of a few.

    You open up many conversational windows on the perception of perfume in this piece; enough so that I'm still thinking about all of them!

    1. Hello, john greenink, and welcome back!

      I am so glad that you've joined the ranks of the salonistas! ;-) I am also very happy to have induced in you idea-scented dreams!

      You raise a fascinating question about art. Should it be regarded from the perspective of the object or its creator? Can we “find” art? If that were the case, then perfumes might qualify as art, even when they were produced under the yoke of a corporate-imposed brief. You might say: “business reality be damned, this great perfume emerged out of the brouhaha to be a bona fide, timeless masterpiece.”

      This seems to be precisely what Chandler Burr is up to. He identifies a perfume as a masterpiece and basically ignores the real-world forces which led to its creation. This seems to me to be a mistake. Just as we don't want to say that the Grand Canyon, albeit a splendid “work”, in some sense, is not an art object, “accidentally” masterful perfumes, ones which have been shaped by such things as corporate-imposed budget constraints and CEO tastes, are not works of art, either.

      Let's take our old friend (;-)) Chanel no 5. It is said by some that the formula accepted by Coco Chanel, in the bottle labeled number 5, was in fact a mistake. The person preparing the solutions for her review accidentally added a ten-fold portion of aldehydes. So this was not the perfumer's intention at all. Now, one could counter that the artist in this case was then Chanel herself, who in some sense “christened” the perfume a perfume by selecting it. So it became, according to this line of reasoning, a masterpiece because she “recognized” its greatness, and the rest is history.

      As you know, I believe that “the rest is history” part needs to be fleshed out, to include all of the thousands (millions?) of little things which were done to catapult the perfume to fame and make and keep it the best-selling perfume of all time. Without the complex marketing history behind the perfume's success, exalting it as a masterpiece, as supposedly proven by its popularity, is akin to a leap of religious faith.

      There's a strange tension within accounts according to which “great” perfumes or “masterpieces” are also the most popular. Since when was popularity a measure of greatness or masterfulness? In every other realm, it seems to be quite the opposite. Bestselling novels, for example, are likely (although not guaranteed...) to be forgotten in subsequent centuries. They tend to lack the timeless quality which we associate with great literature.

      In the case of perfume, in contrast, best-selling perfumes are being held up as masterpieces. There's a problem here, I think. Just as I do not believe that the currently most popular musicians will be inscribed permanently into music history, I do not believe that the most popular perfumes are evidence of anything but superlative marketing. They should be inscribed in the history of marketing, not the history of art. The case for the claim that they should be included in the history of art as well has yet to be adequately made.

      As for your belief in meritocracy and the “survival of the best”, I wholeheartedly share your romantic hope! (hmm... or is it quixotic?)

      Thank you so much for contributing to this discussion, john greenink: ball's in your court!

    2. It's true, it does get dangerous when you start looking at perfume as art, because then you invariably have to draw that line between what is art and what is commerce (a line that Andy Warhol completely played around with all the time.) And also, when putting the demand to myself, 'Well, John, OK: Name one perfume that is a work of art' I get very nervous! That's a pretty high status to bestow on a commercial object.

      A good example of this would be Hermes' 'Terre' - a groundbreaking scent that's received universal accolades, and devotees worldwide. But is it a masterpiece? Is it art? I don't think it's possible to give masterpiece status to something created in such recent times. And the art status? No, no, far too soon to be talking about art. So after some thought on the subject, I'm tending to agree that the art categorization is not really appropriate here (and in that, I'm going to leave myself an out for a possible exception for future consideration :-) )

    3. Thanks for these follow-up remarks, John,

      I go back and forth on the question whether it matters or not if the label 'art' applies. I just cannot decide. Clearly, we love perfume—some of them individually, and the enterprise as a whole (though we may sometimes complain about aspects of it...).

      The safest route for me is to continue to maintain that great perfumes and perfumers are great. Nothing wrong with trading in tautologies.. ;-) The term 'art' is thrown around as loosely as 'genius', to the point where the only thing that it really shows is that the speaker admires that of which s/he speaks.

      I should add, however, that the point you make about it being, in effect, too early to decide, might preclude perfume as a whole from being art. By its nature, perfume is evanescent and will, with certainty, evaporate away—quite literally—before having stood the proverbial test of time, which is what validates works in other realms.

      Consumable goods are anchored in the historical contingencies of time both because their production depends upon whatever is available (which changes a lot) and whoever happens to be in charge (which also changes a lot) but, in addition, because perfumes, like persons, are in a sense mortal.

      The mission of the Osmothèque appears to be to attempt to confer an immortality of sorts upon perfumes, but to me it seems contrived. A perfume, to exist as a perfume, must be able to be worn, does it not? Storing reconstructions of historic perfumes under argon gas in a museum far away and inaccessible to all but a few noses deemed worthy of sniffing them seems rather ill-conceived to me, particularly if the whole production is underwritten by companies keen to promote their own wares.

  3. Hi, literature is a good example, in many ways. The definition of "literature" by now seems a lot broader than that of perfume. There are authors that I refuse to read. But still, I call their works literature. (At times I think the world of literary criticism is a lot more benevolent than that of perfume criticism. Literary crit. is directed against the writer; perfume crit. against the wearer) By the way, even writers get hyped -- yes esp. those that create "contemporary literature". There have always been writers who had an eye on the market. Today they are considered lit. Dickens, who wrote in installments, had an eye on the market.
    But, on the other hand, nobody "modernizes" a e.g. Henry James' novel because the contemporary reader is not familiar with customs, habits and traditions of the 19th century. Perfume classics are modernized all the time because our habits change.
    Perfume at best is a document of zeitgeist.
    White wine in oak barrels on a large scale is a shame. Wine has a regional tradition!
    Well, I think that people that pay that much money for perfume don't expect experiments. So I wouldn't be too surprised if these products were more conservative than most of the mainstream releases.
    Perfume a luxury commodity? I am not so sure. You can get nice fragrances for very decent prices, so .... Calling something art, by the way, is also a very exaggerated way of saying that sb likes something a lot.
    Liebe Grüße, Girasole

    1. Guten Morgen, meine liebe Sonnenblume!

      Lots of fruitful points here! First, what you said about "not so readable" literature. ;-) Or perhaps it is simply "not so enjoyable to read..." I recall attempting to read some of the works in le nouveau roman category. More work than pleasure, in some cases... Like a homework assignment rather than a good read. I also prefer tonal to atonal music--so I guess that I am a nineteenth-century kind of gal!

      A propos of oak barrels: You should definitely watch Mondovino, given your terroir concern!

      You question whether perfume is luxury, given how inexpensive it can be. Maybe it's the illusion of luxury? Certainly perfume has been brought down, and down, and down to ever-lower socioeconomic strata, in precisely the same way in which not only wine but also fashion has. So lots of designers now have their haute couture line but are probably making most of their money by selling made-in-China “knock-offs” of their own line at Target, JCPenny, HM, and elsewhere. It's bizarre because they are not really knock-offs, since they use their own name to sell them. This phenomenon of two-tiered fashion has always fascinated me, and I am looking forward to reading a book which treats this topic (I believe that there is one called "Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster").

      That's a good point also about authors whom we regard as writers, though they were motivated at least in part by money. There is undoubtedly a gray area and a lengthy continuum from total hack to completely independent—someone who writes but has no constraints whatsoever, because they don't need the money at all, and they are not obsessed with fame either. Hmmm... I'm not sure about that one. What do you think? Is thirst for glory another possible cooption factor? Why do we write???????

      A propos of your point about modernization—how no one fiddles with great literature once the author is out of the picture: We were talking about translations before, and they certainly are fiddled with for that reason, but I agree that in the original language, the text is generally regarded as quasi-sacred.

      In the case of perfumes, I'm not sure whether the same motivation applies. Are the classics being “fiddled with” (or, rather, mangled!) to appeal to new standards of taste? Or is it not more often to reap greater profits. So cheaper ingredients are used, and in a switch and bait, consumers are persuaded to believe that the “classics” are the same ones that women were wearing decades ago, when in fact they are not at all alike. Added to that, the production of new mass-market perfumes seem to be both shaping and responding to market forces. The more fruity patchouli perfumes there are out there, the less inclined consumers are going to be to wear classic chypres and floral aldehydes, as they begin to smell “wrong”. In fact, this phenomenon can be seen in perfume reviews of classics such as Chanel no 5, which younger persons sometimes decry as “old lady” perfumes which they would never wear. Part of the reason why they smell outdated is because they smell nothing like the vast sea of fruity-floral fragrances flooding the market.

      The big houses can shape tastes in this way—and they do. If one goes to Sephora and consults their board of top sellers, they are all very similar qualitatively, so it begins to seem as though THAT is what perfume IS. Only more sophisticated perfumistas—not average consumers, who may buy one or two bottles a year—know how vast the olfactory universe truly is!

      Yes, most people seem to be praising perfume as art because they like perfume. It's a non sequitur, of course. We use “masterpiece” to compliment the host of a great meal as well, but we are using the term approbatively. We could say “what a great meal!” but if we REALLY loved it, we may say instead, “this was a transcendent masterpiece scaling the heights of culinary art!” ;-)

      Thank you so much for these great comments, meine liebe sokratische Sonnenblume!

    2. Hi, thank you for your long response.
      Well, I think translators do not re-write the original text. Let's assume in a German text of the pre-internet age we find a sentence like: Sie schrieb ihrer Freundin einen langen Brief. A translation reading: "She wrote her friend a long email" is unacceptable even though it might cater to the reality of readers of the 21st cent. Translators don't adapt texts to new traditions.
      Why do people write? Good question ... this weekend I came across the following definition: Writing is a good way to excuse one's solitude -- and make money out of it. :))) However, I do believe that as soon as people make their living out of it, they have an eye on the market, be it for the money (we all got bills to pay) be it for the popularity (which is measured in "books sold" and that brings us back to the money question). Who can live on a rave review in the NY Times without actually selling one book? The question is: How far will you compromise?
      Ad chypre -- sweet patchouly: But in the days when chypres were all the fashion, some women may have had the same objections against chypres, because they were tired of the harsh leather scents and were yearing for something softer :))) As I said above: zeitgeist. when you love chypres you love them, no matter how many non-chypre perfumes there are out on the market. No one can take that away from you. Scent preferences are very intimate choices ... in my opinion as intimate as the choice of intimate partners. No matter how many magazines tell me which type of male is all the rave right now, I know what I want.
      And this brings me to another point: In all honesty I find most perfume commercials repulsive. I cannot identify with the women in the pictures. Not a bit. In fact, they stress me out. Some I find even eerie (the one for the Escada rose scent I guess it was "Especially yours" sent shivers down my spine -- not in a good way though. "What's that, the wives of Stepford?") I can think of only 3 comercials that I liked: The one for Idylle, most of the Comme une evidence comercials, and a Jicky com. which shows a woman in a convertible going down a road. But I do notice one particular thing about me and comercials: When the perfume is presented by a blonde I'm very reluctant to try it ... yes, you guessed right: I have dark curly hair.
      Ah talking about blonde: Cathrine Deneuve (who is not a genuine blonde, by the way)said in an interview with arte that if actresses wanted to work they had to dye their hair first. Directors prefer blondes. As I was surprised by her statement I started counting how many blonde female presenters there were in the public TV of my country. Then it dawned upon me: the vast majority was blonde. But do more men prefer blonde women because of that? I doubt that.
      Luxury and the mass: When I read "Jugend einer Arbeiterin" I was surprised to find out that Ms. Popp (a very important figure in the Social Democratic movement of her time) was yearning for the aesthetics of the aristocracy, i.e. in her ideology: of the ruling class. She aspired to sth higher. I found that very interesting. And I always remeber that when I see luxury products spread out for the masses.
      So long, Girasole

    3. Meine liebe Girasole,

      1. I did not mean to suggest that translators introduce what were nonexistent objects into their texts but only that new translations continue to appear. Why should that be the case if not for the fact that the language of the earlier translations starts to connote or even refer differently, producing a completely different meaning? The attempt, of course, is to preserve the original meaning, but one's interpretation of that meaning is always filtered. Someone who studies ancient Greek learns it from a modern teacher who learned it from a modern teacher, in a series leading all the way back. Well, this is simply a point about skepticism, I guess. ;-)

      Let's take a simple example from French. Le tutoiement must be somehow relayed to English language speakers, and the correct way of doing so is going to be dependent upon the reigning conventions at the time. It can be mistranslated if, in fact, the conventions among contemporary French speakers have in the process changed. So that's what I'm talking about, not the introduction of cell phones and ipads into texts where they never appeared before. ;-)

      2. You write: “The question is: How far will you compromise?” That is the question, indeed, and a matter of soul-searching for each and every person, not only writers and artists...

      3. Zeitgeist: stimmt! I neglected to comment on your beautiful statement perhaps because I was blinded by its luminescence: “Perfume at best is a document of zeitgeist. “

      4. I share your disdain for many commercials, including perfume advertising, but it obviously works on many people, which is why it continues and rehashes the same variations on the same themes over and over again. Even what might have been the revolutionary Brad Pitt Chanel no 5 ad ended up pulling in the glamorous woman in the slinky black dress as the deus ex machina of the campaign.

      Blondes are a big part of the picture because of the bizarre tenacity of “blondes have more fun” and the notion that women with blonde hair are somehow less intelligent ( = threatening) and more promiscuous. Marilyn Monroe pretty much sums it up. Jayne Mansfield was an interesting case, but most people who looked at her images probably assumed that she was stupid, and she herself in fact cultivated that belief.

      You ask: “do more men prefer blonde women because of that?” I suspect that they do. Why? Because people in general, including men, seem to be very sheeplike. They accept what they are told that they should desire, do they not?

      5. Bargain bin luxury is a way of permitting less wealthy people to indulge in a bit of fantasy and to keep them superficially happy so that they will not rock the boat. All of the gadgets and devices coming out in a steady stream have a similar effect. Shopping apps make it possible to ensure that most people spend most of their precious little free time in spending the money which they earn while working most of the day. Hmmm.... I really am starting to sound like a Marxist (someone accused me of that in a comment at another forum recently). Oh well.

      Vielen Dank, meine liebe schöne braunhaarige sokratische Schwester!

    4. Thanks for clarifying our misunderstanding on translations. :))
      When you put it this way, I can agree.
      I do not believe that you can tell people what to desire. You can make them feel ashamed about what they desire. People can be ignorant about what they really desire. People can choose to ignore what they really desire in order to "fit in". And in some very few cases society (and the law) has the right to demand that some people don't give in to their desires. Any forensic psychiatrist would be delighted if there were a method that could change some people's desires.
      I think that at some point in one's life a person has to accept the responsibility for his/her life. Blaming everything on somebody else (society, marketing, they told me to etc.) is so childish. I was taught that the moment you take over the responsibility for your life you're an adult.
      Is shopping the new opium for the people? :))) Well I guess it's a good way to remain indebted for the rest of one's life.

  4. An interesting article, though I must say I disagree quite profoundly with much in it.

    What it seems to me you have described are the inherent contradictions of any applied or decorative art. Nothing more and nothing less.

    Of course these are issues that have been with us since the age of first serial and then mass production arrived. These concerns have been, as you eloquently point out, amplified in the age of the mega-corporation and globalisation but they are no different to those posed to designers of fashion and furnishings in the 19th and 20th centuries, for example.

    It seems to me to be throwing the baby out with the bath water, to put things colloquially, to put any artistic endeavour that exists at the intersection of fine art and commerce beyond the pale of true art.

    Life is compromise and, as such, so is all art. You talk as tough fine artists were not faced with the pressures of commissioners or the availability of raw materials.

    Quite, quite untrue, the church and the aristocracy in the past held as tight a reign on the subject matter and metiers of artists as do corporations today on the noses that you dismiss as 'guns for hire'. Michelangelo was a 'gun for higher' with one might argue a higher and more powerful authority that mere Coty to answer to.

    So yes a fascinating and provoking piece and I will certainly be intrigued to read more, but I simply don't buy your anti-art thesis.

    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    1. Greetings, The Perfumed Dandy, and welcome to the salon de parfum!

      Thank you very much for both your compliments and your criticisms. You have offered some excellent challenges to the anti-art position (just so you know, I myself have gone back and forth on this issue a couple of times now, so I'm quite far from occupying an entrenched, dogmatic position...). In fact, some of your concerns were aired recently as well by Blake Gopnik, who pointed out to me that the issue cannot be money, else all sorts of works which virtually everyone accepts as art would be excluded. Here's the link to that discussion, which you may want to participate in:

      I especially appreciate your observation about the church and aristocratic patrons of art in the past. Point well taken. I agree with you that it is too extreme to maintain that financial considerations cannot even be lingering in an artist's head. That would require all artists to be independently wealthy, which is obviously absurd. ;-)

      Your comparison of perfumery to the decorative arts is very interesting. Do we wear perfume to decorate ourselves? Some of us do, no doubt. This makes me think about interior design and how people in that profession help their clients to achieve a beautiful living environment. So the client is a sort of creative director to the interior decorator, who is analogous to the perfumer. I'll have to think about this some more.

      There is a huge amount of creativity involved in perfumery, no question there. My concern is only whether someone who is laboring under the yoke of accountants and beholden to the tastes of the people in management is not closer to a writer who produces copy for advertisements. That sort of text is not literature, is it?

      If you have access to Netflix, you might want to take a look at “The Mystery of the Senses: Scent” (which I have reviewed here at the salon de parfum), because it shows a struggle of wills between Sophia Grojsman and the supervisor (Ann Gottlieb, in the case portrayed) for whom she is creating a perfume. It definitely causes one to pause at the claim that the activity in which Grojsman is engaged is art. Here's a link to my review, which includes a link to the Netflix profile of the short film:

      Thank you very much for your contributions to this discussion, The Perfumed Dandy. I look forward to reading you here again!

    2. Dear Sherapop

      Thank you most kindly for the welcome and the very considered response.

      I think your analogy with advertising copywriters is a useful one.. consider for a moment that authors including Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie worked in this trade - is there not a certain mercenary artistry in the coining of the most juste of mots juste.

      In Mr Rudhdie's case I believe he came up with the slogan 'Fresh Cream Cakes... naughty but nice' to support the work of the UK's then Milk Marketing Board.

      On the question of writers, on should also consider playwrights - here the spelling is significant - as they have always had to bend their will both to the requirements of the commercial world and the exigencies of sponsors, William Shakespeare being an excellent example. They to have had to deal with control on materials - let's not forget that women did not act on the English stage until after the restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s.

      Just thought to enrich what is already a very wealthy conversation.

      Finally a word on critics, a profession I am but a humble part of, we are not all craven or beholden to commercial interest.. for my own part I allow myself to be guided by others as to where my journeys in fragrance should take me.

      Other scent-ophiles that is.

      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

    3. Dear The Perfumed Dandy,

      Thank you for pointing out that most everyone involved in creative activities (that is, everyone!), has worn multiple hats. Yes, sometimes great artists and writers work essentially as hacks, for lack of a less pleasant word. Your telling examples illustrate that no one is 100% artist 100% of the time. It may be equally misleading, as I attempted to argue in the above piece, to claim that "perfumery" as a whole is an art. That was precisely my point, as a matter of fact! So naturally I welcome your examples.

      I have spent some time at your beautiful blog and even added it to my blog roll, because I see that you are indeed a sojourner for olfactory truth!

      Thank you again for contributing to this discussion. I look forward to reading more of your insights both at your site and here at the salon de parfum!

  5. Hey dandy boy, you have way too many typos to be given any credit here. Go study for 12 years THEN come back and try again.

    1. My dear Interlocutor Man,

      Please come out from hiding, and join in on the discussion! What have you to say about the business of perfumery? Are client-contracted perfumers artists or are they "noses for hire"?



    2. Do excuse my typos - surely in a discussion they should be considered as the umms and ahs and half swallowed words of speech.

      From recollection I was not invited to sit an examination.

      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  6. Why would I be lured into another discussion when you rudely and calculatingly just stopped a discussion in mid-thought and moved on at your own selfish whim?

    My opinions of you have now gotten worse than they were. And believe me they were bad. I understand you care about no one but yourself. And that's never going to change, only get worse as you get more bitter with age.

    1. Many apologies, my dear Interlocutor Man! I must have missed a comment notification. Let me go check my comment queue... xxxooo sherapop

  7. That is not the first time you used that excuse. So that means you knew about the problem, and it's not fixed, or you lied. I'm not happy about either choice. When I have gone through your blog pages except for the two times it happened with me in 2013 alone, I don't see anyone else you "missed" a notification on. The irony is, I am the only one that gets you and can lead you to see things in way you haven't thought of. I can't waste my time to be ignored.

    1. My Dear Interlocutor Man,
      A permanent solution to the problem is ready at hand: Please choose an avatar!

  8. At hand?
    Let me know when it is IN hand.

    1. My dear Interlocutor Man,

      Although I have christened you with this name, I do not have the power to register you at this site! If you register "Interlocutor Man" as a person on Google or Blogger--and hopefully attach a picture, too!--then your comments will never be shunted into my spam box again.



  9. You? without power?


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