The “-ization” of Perfumery
I love to explore perfumes by house. My preference is to experience a cluster of offerings and see whether there is a theme or an approach or a style running through them, such that it becomes possible for me to have a basic grasp of the house's outlook or vision. This is becoming more difficult to do than it was back in the twentieth century for houses such as Guerlain, Acqua di Parma, and Dior, for a variety of reasons. François Demarchy, the head perfumer at LVMH, signs the perfumes of some of the formerly independent houses now operating under the umbrella of the conglomerate. Guerlain, however, has changed quite a lot for another simple reason: Thierry Wasser is not Jean-Paul Guerlain. On top of all of this administrative upheaval, nearly all twentieth-century perfumes seem to have suffered under reformulation, as perfumers “struggle” (more on this below...) to comply with the restrictions imposed by first the IFRA and now the European Union.
Similar forces may be acting upon Guerlain and Dior, despite the fact that the creative director is not the same in those two cases. In addition to owning Sephora, LVMH is the overlord of several other formerly independent and quite distinct houses as well. Some of the trends which I've noted, such as the use of solid plastic sample vials, are no doubt superficial. Someone at LVMH thinks that it's better to protect the liquid inside than to use transparent glass, despite what are arguably the latter's aesthetically superior properties and practical superiority to the consumer, insofar as it is possible to see exactly how much—if any—liquid is really contained within the vial. The opaque plastic sprayers often seem to be defective and even more often contain an unexpectedly small amount of perfume. But, again, these sorts of practical business matters do not necessarily reflect anything about what is going on at the perfume end of things.
However, other trends, such as the rampant flankers being launched after the namesakes of the once-classic perfumes of both Guerlain and Dior do seem to have effects upon the world of perfume proper. I have not seen any Mitsouko or Diorissimo flankers yet, but Shalimar and Addict flankers abound, and all of the newer perfumes seem to be launched in waves of flankers: Insolence, Insolence eau de toilette, My Insolence, Insolence Eau Glacée. Insolence Blooming, Insolence Shimmering Edition.... Idylle, Idylle eau de toilette, Idylle Eau Sublime, Idylle Duet Rose-Patchouli, Idylle Duet Jasmin-Lilas. Idylle extrait de parfum, ...
|Shalimar and Flankers|
The mediocre quality and staggering number of Shalimar flankers does not inspire confidence in the once-glorious house of Guerlain: Fleur de Shalimar, Eau de Shalimar 2008, Eau de Shalimar 2009, Shalimar Initial L'eau, Shalimar Parfum Initial, Shalimar Parfum Initial L'Eau Sensuel, Shalimar Black Mystery 2007, Shalimar Eau de Parfum 2009, Shalimar Edition Charmes Eau de Parfum, Shalimar Fourreau du Soir, Shalimar Légère, Shalimar Ode à la Vanille, Shalimar Ode à la Vanille Sur La Route de Madagascar, Shalimar Oiseau de Paradis, Shalimar Parfum Initial à Fleur de Peau, Shalimar Talisman Byzantin. Shalimar Yellow Gold.
All of this flanker folie might not be a matter of concern, were it not for the unfortunate fact that the once-classic perfumes, including the original Shalimar, all appear to have been serially reformulated and some appear even to exist simultaneously in different versions marketed to different niches. Do the Guerlain boutique bottles of Shalimar contain a different perfume than what is found at discount drugstores such as Walgreens and CVS? I suspect that they do, and rumors to that effect abound.
What in the world is going on here? Why would a company do such as thing? Well, because they know that most of the people who purchase perfume at the Guerlain boutique know a thing or two about perfume, or at the very least are used to wearing the real thing, not some muzak facsimile tantamount to a flagrant act of self-desecration. As versions proliferate, the Tower of Babel problem of communication—already bad, given that we all seem to have divergent tastes and variable sensitivities to the many different components of perfume—can only grow worse.
As a business strategy, I cannot find fault with the practice, if indeed it is one, at least not in the short term. In the long term, however, I fear that such tactics are bound to lead Guerlain down the not-so-felicitous path taken by Coty and Halston before them. Coty did manage, it appears, to rebound financially from its early missteps by creating the Coty Prestige division and acquiring many well-regarded designer names. But Coty renounced its status as a great perfume house long ago, and there has been no looking back. Coty is a successful company not for creating great perfumes—though they did once upon a time—but because they have managed to sell lots and lots of mid-range and bargain bin bottles to many, many people over the years.
Guerlain and Dior bore the cachet of exclusivity in the past, but that glory has been slowly abraded by their very own practices in recent years. True, each of these houses has its niche-esque branch producing exclusive perfumes targeting more sophisticated perfume users separately from their big-profit mainstream launches. Nonetheless, I am finding it harder and harder to take these niche-esque launches very seriously. Many of them strike me as little more than gimmicks.
Guerlain Muguet is sold only on May 12th, for about $600 a bottle. Lily of the valley can only be constructed, so the perfume is obviously synthetic. No one is traveling to the ends of the earth to collect tiny, delicate, white bell-shaped lily of the valley cups for enfleurage in fresh goose fat by artisans back at Grasse. No, it is created in a lab. The mainstream launch Idylle is also a lily of the valley perfume, which costs about 10% of the price of the special edition “niche” perfume Muguet. I'm afraid that in this case I cannot find fault with one astute reviewer's plaint (at Fragrantica):
And I do think this "only for sale one day a year" concept is ridiculous. And for $580 it should include a big, juicy man to spray it on me whenever needed.
Guerlain issued a preemptive response to complaints on the part of such curmudgeons with this public relations statement to Allure magazine in May 2012:
"It's not the lily of the valley that's expensive; it's the addition of natural extracts," says perfumer Yves Cassar -- in this case, rose and jasmine. "These flowers require many petals to produce a tiny bit of oil."
Nice try. So why does this perfume cost five times more than either Nahéma or Chamade, both rose perfumes from the very same house? Why does it cost five times more than Chanel no 5, said to contain a fair dose of the precious natural jasmine of Grasse? In fairness, I should add that the 1,345 special edition bottles of Muguet for 2012 were decorated with “a removable green-glass-and-gold necklace from Gripoix, a 143-year-old jewelry house in France.” So the ultimate explanation of the price would seem to be not the natural jasmine and rose essences, but the bling.
At the same time that such gimmicks as necklace-wrapped bottles continue in a steady stream, the price of regular Guerlain perfumes has been plummeting, as they have flooded the discounter market. A 100ml bottle of Eau de Cologne Impériale can now be had for $40 or even $30, if one shops around. The Mitsouko reformulation, too, seems to be foundering, as bottles can be had at any of the discounters for a fraction of the original MSRP, which, I might add, was never anywhere near the prices being asked by Guerlain for the “niche” launches.
When I see such developments, I wonder, at the first level, how such companies can be both mainstream and niche, business savvy and artistically driven, at the very same time. The evidence is to me overwhelming that the suits have a lot more to say about what is going on at these houses than do the creative directors and the perfumers themselves. Or is that these days the creative directors and perfumers are business people first, and designers only second?
I also wonder about developments such as the “Private Label” phenomenon. Perhaps this idea originated at a board meeting of the Estée Lauder group, since not only the eponymous house but also that of Tom Ford, subsumed by the same group, have pursued this strategy with what appears to be resounding success. The first question which came to my mind upon encountering one of the Private Collection perfumes at Estée Lauder, Tuberose Gardenia, was: why do they cost more than the perfume whose name is Private Collection? Can someone please explain this to me?
To be honest, I've always found this sort of two-tier strategy to be in some ways preposterous. It may have started with Calvin Klein—a trendsetter in so many ways and in so many different realms, including perfume—who began mass-marketing jeans to a Levi's-obsessed culture now quite some time ago. Calvin Klein jeans never cost much more than Levi's, and yet they carried with them the prestige of a fashion designer, rather than the homey comfort of a dry goods store, and this, I believe was the secret to their success.
The colonization of the mass market by famous designers has approached ubiquity by now. But the nagging question remains: if a designer of haute couture has a line also at HLM or Target, does that not demonstrate that their designs can be effectively executed for very little money? So what accounts for the difference in price? In the case of perfume, the suggestion—usually implied but sometimes explicitly stated—is that the ingredients used in the “private” perfumes are far more costly and rare than those used in the “public” perfumes. Still, a puzzle remains: does not the success of the latter demonstrate that such costly ingredients are in fact dispensable, unnecessary to the production of great perfumes? Or perhaps the entire pretext is nothing but a lie. Think, again, of synthetic lily of the valley: how expensive can it possibly be?
Beyond the seeming illogic of claiming both exclusivity and accessibility to the masses under the very same label, I continue to wonder about it as a marketing strategy. I am reminded in some ways of Starbucks' decision to begin producing instant coffee, thereby cutting into their very own profits on the piping hot liquids served up at the cafés by real-live baristas. The explanation in that case is, I imagine, that some people are satisfied with instant coffee and prefer not to leave their homes or offices. But of course most people who drink instant coffee, drink cheap instant coffee, and the very thought of a cup of instant coffee may be anathema to those who drink real coffee such as Starbucks and related coffee dealers purvey. At the same time, the people who drink instant coffee are not about to pay $1 a cup to do so, which is about what the Starbucks packets cost at MSRP. Even purchased on sale, the packets cost multiple times that of a cup of Folgers or Taster's Choice crystals spooned from a glass jar.
Starbucks also partnered with Tassimo for a time (or maybe that's misleading, since they both appear to be owned by Kraft at this point, which for all I know may be owned by General Electric, which for all I know may have joined forces with Citibank by now...), offering coffee discs to be used in the home with the patented Tassimo machine to produce coffee said to be just as good as creations produced by live baristas at the store. I was “gifted” a Tassimo machine by the Gevalia company, oddly enough, after having ended my subscription to their coffee service some time before. The logic appeared to be to coax me back to Gevalia with this new machine, for which I would naturally need some discs, if I were to use it.
I did not bite, but I did indeed acquire some discs of Starbucks coffee and for a while was using the machine on days when I wanted a very quick and clean coffee preparation. The big virtue of the machine is that it produces no mess whatsoever, unlike my favored methods of pump expresso maker, Melitta drip filter, or Bodum French press. Is the coffee produced by a Tassimo machine as good as a fresh cup from Starbucks? No it is not, but it is pretty good, good enough, perhaps to have motivated Starbucks' termination of the relationship.
I was surprised to learn that Starbucks subsequently teamed up with Keurig, which has taken over the quick-brew-at-home market, it seems, though I must say that I was very unimpressed by the sample of Keurig coffee which I was offered one day when walking through Sears to enter the mall where I then proceeded to stop at Starbucks for a real cup of coffee.
What does any of this have to do with perfume? you may not without good reason be wondering. I see these as business tactics, one and all. I do not believe that Tom Ford Private Collection perfumes cost any more to produce than do Tom Ford Public Collection perfumes, though they cost four time more to own. I am basing this bold conjecture on a few recent testings of some of these perfumes, the most unbelievable of which to my nose was Tom Ford Neroli Portofino, a glorified version of Mauer & Wirtz 4711 Original Eau de Cologne. The two creations do not smell identical, and I own that the Tom Ford is probably a bit better, but it commands something like fifty times the price of the traditional eau de cologne launched back in 1792.
Perfumery Placed in Perspective
The “bling thing” obviously works, and I have no principled objection to bling, per se. While bling is not perfume, there are concept houses, I'm thinking especially of Bond no 9, for which bling is an essential part of their image. I don't have a problem with that. If bling makes some people happy, then bling is good. My point in the above critique is only that traditional houses such as Guerlain have been changing their strategies to focus more on bling and less on perfume.
Perfumery is firmly anchored in the world of companies and commodities. People buy and sell perfume just as they buy and sell any number of other things for all sorts of different reasons. What makes perfume unique among all commodities is that the liquids themselves—within the bottles, however they may be marketed—map out a distinct world of their own, a parallel universe, if you will: the olfactory universe. This is a universe unknown to the vast majority of people, because they do not think of perfume in any but functional terms.
The apparatus which sustains perfumery is intimately connected to this functional outlook, regardless of how religious perfumistas may begin to become about the object of their love. Perfume houses are run for the most part by business people, who enlist perfumers to produce market-worthy products for them to sell for profit. Many of these business people could be selling literally anything: zippers and buttons, cars and boats, cereal and milk.
This fact is easy to see in the strange partnerships formed in recent years as corporations have grown larger and larger, swallowing up all sorts of ostensibly disparate businesses into one über-entity with the power to squelch most competitors emerging from below. A favorite example of mine is Unilever. Believe it or not, Breyer's, once noted as an independent source of excellent ice cream, is produced by Unilever, famous especially for products such as body wash and deodorant.
In perfumery, one of the biggest stretches may be Procter & Gamble, which added the historic houses of Jean Patou and Rochas to its portfolio, leading many to fear the progressive toiletrification of the perfumes of those houses, a fear which may have been justified, given what happened in the reformulations of some of their perfumes. The general approach of the corporate sharks at places such as Proctor & Gamble and Unilever is ruthlessly to maximize profit. “Swim or sink” is the governing philosophy, and when a subsumed entity such as Rochas does not pull its weight, it will lose the protection of its “guardian” in short time, as was reported by some fragrance community members to have happened a while back, although this was never confirmed and may not be true... at least not yet.
These corporate realities are obviously not going away during our life time, but one nice thing about the world of perfumery is that it has an existence independent of that realm. There are no doubt plenty of perfume hacks, but there are also people who create beautiful perfume as an expression of their unique creativity. When the corporate takeovers begin to seem overwhelming, I pause to think always of the independent perfumers who against all odds continue to create original elixirs for us to enjoy. How they manage to stay solvent is a testimony not only to the excellence of their work but also to their belief in what they do.
I do not, however, naïvely believe that all niche houses are oriented toward the production of excellent perfume. My impression, especially in the last couple of years, is that self-proclaimed niche perfume houses have been rapidly proliferating like rabbits for the same reason that investors turned to cell phone developers some years back, anticipating the ever-greater role that such devices would play in people's lives. Being “niche” has itself become a sort of sales strategy or gimmick.
In the case of perfume, the advent of online fragrance community websites which permit people to converse and educate themselves about perfume has evidently been recognized by a number of savvy entrepreneurs, and new houses continue to emerge as the community of self-proclaimed perfumistas continues to expand. The avalanche of new launches is the result of a combination of factors, one of which is surely the sheer number of new niche houses whose ventures involve the production of a set of perfumes to coincide with the creation of the house.
I do not envy the struggle of artistically driven perfumers as their professional world becomes progressively populated by profit mongers who have arrived on the scene to seize upon this moment in history to benefit from this relatively new cultural fascination with perfume. The numbers are still small, relative to the other market niche populations for just about any other product, but the potential for growth is enormous, given the evident allure of perfume for people from all walks of life. The promotion of perfume as a luxury product potentially as profitable as upper-echelon timepieces or fine leather items—or even fine wine—does seem to hold a great deal of promise, in part because modern people have become fashioned to some extent into epicureans, unbeknownst to themselves.
Witness the very creation of the Food Network, an entire television channel dedicated to the art of food! Every middle class housewife today is familiar with trendy phrases for gourmet cuisine ingredients such as EVOO (extra-virgin olive oil), when only a couple of decades ago, those same women would have been firmly entrenched in Hamburger Helper and canned vegetables territory. The world of food has changed in part because of the opportunities laid out before us at supermarkets.
We can buy better food today for less money, and for this reason alone people's tastes have evolved. They may not change fundamentally—someone who hates anchovies or eggplant always did and always will—but the nuances and subtleties which even average people are now capable of appreciating has a great deal to do with what has been made available to them by business people attempting to profit from these new manufactured desires.
To return to the case of perfumery, I have to say that I do not understand many of the recent developments at all. Let's take, once again, the IFRA restrictions. As far as I know—and please correct me, if I am wrong—the IFRA is a self-regulating body comprising people from the perfume industry. So how can perfume houses blame the IFRA for the restrictions, if they are ultimately self-imposed? Now that government bureaucrats have gotten in on the regulation game, the rules are obviously going to change, and it's a whole different story when laws start being imposed with penalties for failure to comply. Nonetheless, before the bureaucrats began their officious meddling, the IFRA was a body of perfume professionals issuing guidelines to themselves, was it not?
All of this reminds me of a Twitter which I saw flitting about the world wide web a while back. Guerlain was sending out a message to the effect that Mitsouko was going to be reconstructed by Thierry Wasser and brought back to its former glory. Please correct me if I am confused in my logic here, but if it is true that it is possible to bring Mitsouko back to its former glory, then it is false that Guerlain was forced to reformulate the perfume as a result of the IFRA restrictions. By sending out that message, Guerlain effectively convicted itself of duplicity. Is it true, or is it not true that the mangling of Mitsouko was a result of an attempt to comply with IFRA restrictions? If it is possible to bring the perfume back to its former glory, then it is obviously false that it was ever necessary to mangle it in the first place. QED.
A Ciceronian Response
Enough lamentations. There is probably little if anything that any of us perfumistas can do to stop any of the above enumerated nonsense. The time has arrived at last, therefore, to adopt the approach of Cicero—both a Stoic philosopher and a statesman—and invert the Necker cube or switch our attention to the bottle half full. When one recognizes that one has no power to change the circumstances in which one is mired, it becomes time to change one's attitude toward those circumstances and to adopt a new perspective. I am happy to be able to share with you, my fragrant friends, that I recently experienced an epiphany of sorts which resolved all of the above quandaries in one fell swoop.
Flankers and multilaunchers and corporate conglomerate homogenization continue on, but we can adjust our attitude toward perfume just as easily as the big houses can pump out swill. It may sound bizarre at first, but the truth is that the bottle half empty is also half full, for our lives can be enriched by availing ourselves of the opportunities for enhanced olfactory experience afforded by the sheer fact that niche perfumery has become viewed by business people as a profitable endeavor over the past few years. All of the above complaints about the state of perfumery commence from a fundamental confusion: in reality, we do not love perfume, but individual perfumes. We do not love humanity, but human beings. We do not love perfumery, but some of the products of the enterprise of perfumery.
Out of all of the perfumes being produced at any given time, we can and do love only a few. So why should thousands of irrelevant and gimmick-laden launches matter to us in the least? So long as there are a few hold-outs—and there are—perfumers who continue to create the sorts of elixirs which we prefer to wear, is there any harm in millions of gallons of vat-produced chemical soup being pumped out at factories and poured into garish hat-topped flasks? Do we complain about the existence of Spam and pork rinds, though we would never eat them? Of course not.
The massive increase in perfume production in recent years is analogous to the explosion in recent decades in interest in wine, especially in the United States. While wine has a rich history in Europe, it took a while for it to be recognized as the beverage of choice to be imbibed with meals in this country. Today, wine connoisseurs abound, and perfume connoisseurs, too, are on the rise, for the very same reason. We are fortunate, I believe, to have these new universes to explore, and I mean that quite literally.
The olfactory universe has always been filled with smells, but in recent times it has become inhabited by more and more perfumes. We can travel through the olfactory universe by sniffing perfumes one after the other and pushing another pin into the grand olfactory map, penning reviews along the way. In this way of viewing perfume testing, not every perfume is a “final destination”, a place where we feel prepared to hang our hat for more than a very short time. No, the new, ever-more densely populated perfume world is full of dead ends and dark alleys. But how could it not be? So is the real world. We can travel through both of these universes with the expectation of learning more about ourselves and the inhabitants of these worlds. We may not need to revisit some of the places we've been, but we will have grown through the journey itself.
Just as world travel is not the same thing as looking for a home, we can test perfumes for the experience and then move on. The fact that a place to which I have traveled is “a nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there” does not make it any less valuable to have seen. And the same is true for perfumes which I may never choose to wear again, but from which I learned something though I wore it only once, even if only that I immensely dislike a certain combination of notes.
Perfumes and places and persons are all analogous in this regard, which can be seen by considering a third metaphor, that of personal relationships. We do not wish to marry every person whom we meet. Nor do heterosexuals or homosexuals wish to marry half the people whom they meet. Indeed, most of the people whom we will ever encounter will not rise above the status of passing acquaintance. We can regard perfumes in precisely the same way.
There are people who still today prefer to have a single signature scent, but perfumistas seem to be considerably more promiscuous, always on the look out for new prospects, so to speak. The fragrance community websites and Facebook groups devoted to the discussion of perfume are all encouraged by the unending flux of new perfume being poured out by the ever-expanding legion of houses.
For those of use who have moved beyond “perfume monogamy”—a strict loyalty to a single perfume or brand—the recent developments in the perfume industry, whereby some houses and perfumes may fall from our favor, simply opens up new avenues. Divorce is sometimes a good thing, permitting us to exit one chapter of our life in order to embark upon a new journey. Perfumes are destinations in one sense, but perfume testing is a journey, and we should perhaps be relieved that the vast majority of perfumes which we “visit” and “meet” are “places” and “persons” which we can do quite well without encountering ever again.
What makes a perfume special is that it stands out from the crowd. What makes the pursuit worthy is because it is so challenging in a sea of mediocrity to find something worth our sustained attention. The world is filled with things of every conceivable quality. It's up to each person to sift the proverbial wheat from the chaff and to select and distinguish true friends from everyone else. We will not and should not agree about which qualities mark a person or a place or a perfume as special. That's the beauty of heterogeneity and a reflection of human liberty.