Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Entry #10: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas


Empirical testing cannot adjudicate disputes when it comes to values. Let's take a case involving morality. You cannot argue a sociopath into believing that what he does is wrong, and you cannot show him anything in the world which proves that he should not do what he does. He feels no compunction whatsoever and will be deterred from acting however he wishes only by the law, specifically, the threat of punishment. He will carefully conceal his activities so as not to get caught, but the reason why he wants not to get caught is emphatically not because he cares what other people think. No, he simply wishes to retain his liberty to continue to do whatever he wants to do while "passing" as a normal person, as though he were moved by moral sentiment, within civil society.

One solution to the problem of disputes in matters of value more generallyboth moral and aestheticis simply to deny that claims about value are anything more than the expression of the speaker's emotions. This is the gist of the theory of value known as emotivism, which offers a straightforward and simple way of understanding what people are doing when they argue about values or morality or aestheticsor anything insusceptible of empirical testing.

Yes, we can observe a painting, and we can smell the scent of a perfume. But can we perceive that either of these are great works of art? No, the emotivist will insist. That sort of talk is a bunch of balderdash. Disputes in morality and in aesthetics are really much more about the disputants' reception of the objects than about the objects ostensibly under discussion. The speaker's attitude can be positive or negative. In this view, ranting about a perfume is akin to throwing a temper tantrum, no more and no less than a way of venting emotions. 

This perspective can make some sense of the otherwise difficult to comprehend tirades by people who seem to harbor a visceral hatred of the house of Creed. I've seen similar behavior toward Bond no 9 as well, and the question becomes: why should anyone care so much about these houses? No one is forcing them to buy, and if anyone finds the price incommensurate with the value of the perfume, then they are perfectly free to walk right on by. 

Instead, people often become highly emotional in denouncing especially Creed, blinded to the likelihood, given the large number of fakes circulating about, that the "swill" which they have sniffed wasn't Creed at all. The emotivist will reply that such strong emotional reactions betray the speaker's own peculiar issues. Maybe they'd be happier with a higher salary? Or less debt?

My distinct impression is that many perfumistas accept something like emotivism when it comes to perfume appreciation in venues such as the fragrance community websites. The tried and true adage one perfumista's treasure is another perfumista's trash leaps to mind once again. The entire enterprise of swapping relies on the fact that people disagree about the value of perfumes. Are some of them right and others wrong? The emotivist will say "No." There is no "truth" of the matter, in the way in which there is truth in matters of science.

Either the earth is flat, or it is not. It's not a matter of anyone's personal feelings about the question. Either a perfume has or has not been reformulated. If so, then it contains different ingredients or different proportions than it did at the time of its launch. That sort of question about a perfume can be answered through a procedure. Take a sample of the earlier perfume and a sample from a bottle produced later and have them analyzed using gas chromatography. You will find that either the graphs match, or they do not. If they do not match, then the perfume's composition has changed, regardless of the fact that it has kept the same name.

Yes, there are matters of fact when it comes to perfume: all of the facts which are amenable to scientific testing, according to the emotivist. What the emotivist denies is that someone's proclamation that a perfume is "one of the top ten of all time" means anything more than that the speaker loves the perfume.

We have seen this again and again in the perfume world, all over the place. In perfume reviews people may wax poetic about the ostensible object of their review, but in the end they tell us much more about themselves than they do about the perfume.

Emotivism may of course be false. It is a theory, after alland a nonempirical one at that! Maybe there are value-laden facts about perfume. But if so, why do people not agree about what those facts are? Some people love Thierry Mugler Angel and Christian Dior Poison. Others find them abhorrent. What principles can be applied to adjudicate such disputes? To counter the emotivist's skeptical denial that value judgments are a matter of objective fact, one must come up with some way of resolving the disputes about value which arise among equally informed, equally intelligent people equipped with equally sensitive noses. 

People who wish to claim that their personal judgments about perfumes are authoritative, somehow more reliable or accurate than those of others, need to produce some basis for this claim. What is it about them that makes them uniquely qualified to judge the quality of perfumes? Or are such people merely projecting their tastes in perfume upon the world? That is the question, my fragrant friends.


  1. On my blog I've tried to be specific about the different perspectives, for example, people who want to be the center of attention but don't really care what the scent smells like. Then there are others who think in "utilitarian" terms and just buy whatever is cheapest and "gets the job done." Among those of us who seek personal edification, tastes can vary, and other factors may be at work as well. For instance, I'd like to be able to wear Encre Noire but the chemicals cause physical discomfort, apparently (I'm guessing iso e super). This is why I have often ended a blog post with a warning that readers should consider that my tastes may be very different than theirs. Perhaps the most obvious case for making assumptions is the "Perfumes: The Guide" book, which doesn't even possess internal consistency. Long ago, I suggested that the title be changed to something like "Perfumes: The Whimsical Guide."

    1. Welcome, Bigsly!

      It's very nice to read you here at the salon de parfum. I have often enjoyed your ongoing megadebate with Bryan Ross, and I also like reading your insightful reviews at Fragrantica.

      Yes, you are right: we perfume users are all over the map, so to speak. From strict utilitarians to hedonists to, I dare say, something akin to religious zealots. And then of course there are the people who think of perfume only in business terms.

      I also agree with you that our reviews must include an implicit "your mileage may vary", given how different we are biologically and psychologically, on top of the fact that we have traveled entirely different historical paths.

      I, like you, have an issue with iso-E-super. It's great for clearing my sinuses, but it wipes out all of the other notes! The moment I smell it in a new perfume, I mutter under my breath, "Oh no, more radiance." ;-)

      I believe that "The Whimsical Guide" (my nickname for it is "The Holey[sic] Book") was originally titled "Songs and Pongs", which actually seems quite apt to me. The publisher no doubt wanted to sell many copies, so they selected a title which makes it sound like some sort of authoritative reference source. Oh well, with thousands of new perfume launches each year, that book will be out of print soon, being hopelessly out of date as it already is...

      Thanks so much for stopping by and contributing your ideas. I hope to read you here again soon!

    2. Many years ago, I remember thinking to myself that the movie reviews I was watching on that "At the Movies" show were suspect because the two critics never explicitly disclosed their criteria. With scents, it's much more difficult. Even for just one person, sensitivity can vary from one day to the next, so that for example a lavender note may appear too strong, leading you to call it unbalanced. The next day it would have seemed fine, however, and if you would have reviewed it that day, you'd call it nicely balanced. That why I largely gave up with reviews on BN; the idea of a limited number of edits simply is inconsistent with my experience. As to Mr. Ross' ideas, I'd be the first to admit that I may have agreed with him a few years ago. I too thought claims about reformulations were no more than exaggerations. It's only because I smelled the difference for myself that I began to study different formulations. It also seems like many if not most people who write online reviews pay more attention to the top notes or first hour or so then several hours after application, which may make a huge difference, with most scents I'd guess. To be honest I think my sensitivity to base notes is considerably higher than the causal wearer, and in particular sandalwood notes seem to really "pop out" for me, even just taking the cap off a bottle, but the complexity, smoothness, richness, and depth of the great vintage scents is something I have yet to encounter in recent releases, including niche. Some are able to reproduce a number of these qualities but not all of them. And example of this was provided by someone on BN, who recently mentioned that: "I have smelled Jean Kerleo's own effort at reconstruction of PPH which he did in 2011. In his words, there are many many ingredients which cannot be used or are not available anymore. Oakmoss and sandalwood are not real problems, however as the current "safer" oakmoss smells pretty good (in my opinion one of the reasons that the latest batch of guerlain's are superior to their immediate predecessors) and sandalwood is present in very small quantity.

      The reconstruction is definitely recognisable as PPH and is a very good fragrance but it lacks the smooth richness at the beginning and particularly down below in the base. The vintage is much superior.I have smelled Jean Kerleo's own effort at reconstruction of PPH which he did in 2011. In his words, there are many many ingredients which cannot be used or are not available anymore. Oakmoss and sandalwood are not real problems, however as the current "safer" oakmoss smells pretty good (in my opinion one of the reasons that the latest batch of guerlain's are superior to their immediate predecessors) and sandalwood is present in very small quantity.

      The reconstruction is definitely recognisable as PPH and is a very good fragrance but it lacks the smooth richness at the beginning and particularly down below in the base. The vintage is much superior."

    3. Hello, again, Bigsly!

      My issue with vintage is that it is a lost cause. It's like lamenting the end of the typewriter era, or LPs or anything else which is long gone and cannot be brought back. The hunt for vintage perfumes seems to me rather like looking for the treasure at the end of the rainbow. Maybe you'll get a good bottle; maybe it will smell stale and gross.

      As a result of the IFRA reformulations, I now have a new approach to perfume: a bottle is a bottle. Here today; gone tomorrow. I don't plan on replenishing any of my current bottles in the future. If I really love something right now, then maybe I'll get a back up. But I feel that the rational approach, given the current state of the perfume industry, is just to focus on new, primarily independent, perfumes and no longer bother with any of the reformulations of perfumes I once loved.

      That said, if a person's first experience of an already-reformulated perfume is good, then it's just the same as loving the first launch. So this can happen to me, too. My first bottle of MITSOUKO was no doubt already a reformulation. The recent reformulations are simply not appealing to me, so that's the end of my relationship with MITSOUKO. Perfumes are not eternal, immortal things anymore than are people!

      I completely agree with you that many reviews are dashed off after only an experience of the top notes. This is really obvious in the cases where the perfume develops and changes a lot over the course of a wear. When I read a slew of reviews of such a perfume which focus on the citrus top notes, it's pretty clear that the writer is only talking about the opening.

      One interesting phenomenon which I've discovered is that many all-natural perfumes are a bit off-putting in the opening minutes, but once they settle down, they are often resplendently beautiful. I've noticed that the ratings of all-natural perfumes (for example, the house of Sama) at Parfumo are quite low, and I can only conjecture that people scrub them off in horror, lacking the patience to wait for the gorgeous drydown.

      Thanks for sharing your experience with reformulations. You've illustrated yet again how very different all of us are! It probably does not make sense to issue general programs or policies about reformulations for all people everywhere. I have my own policy, but it applies only to me. Other people need to figure out what works for them.

    4. Since you hit on the topic of natural perfumes -- if you don't mind my jumping into the jam session -- this is often a hit or miss experience. I came across one that I'd gotten from Monica at Perfume Pharmer that was all-natural and a complete joy to smell (I'm not giving spoilers away, it'll be the subject of an upcoming review), and many naturals are gorgeously creative (Sepia from Aftelier, one example).

      Reformulations, over time, are going to have somewhat subtle differences, but in all they'll normally stay faithful to the original brief and theme. I have a reformulated bottle of Oscar de la Renta Pour Lui as well as Bogart by Jacques Bogart (two Cheap Thrills, I know). The chances that I'll recall a subtle nuance from 30 years ago? Slight. The overall theme and ephemeral impression that I get from it today, however, isn't much changed from what it was back in 1981 when I first tried them. Of course they're reformulated, but the result changed perhaps very marginally in the outcome (and I'd still recommend either or both).

      Incidentally, and as a side note to a behavioral trait I recently experienced...I've just gotta love the sheer audacity of those who post using an "anonymous" tagline to spit some pithy vitriol they'd never have the stones to say in person. Oh the Internet and the cowardice of those who can't help but stay behind the glass house so they can toss stones. I give you credit for leaving those sorts of posts up, but when they become as snotty as some I've seen, I'd challenge them to ascribe a name and then be nearly as obnoxious without the cloaking to hide beneath. :)

    5. Hello, Andrew!

      Your interjection here is a good illustration of why I prefer discussions which allow people to interject. I find the format at Facebook not very conducive to fruitful conversation about anything. Often I do not have the time to read through the ninety comments on a post. If I do add a comment, it may well be repetitive of what someone else has already said. To me, it's just not a conversation. Not to mention the problems you have had with not being present in real time during the work day....

      Anyway, yes: natural perfumes are hit or miss. I completely concur. Some of the houses work for me; others do not. There's a huge difference between the professionals and the people who mix essential oils together in their kitchen. That sounds bitchy, I realize, but there really is a difference. I want to support the professionals.

      Perfumery is a profession, which requires lots of knowledge, if it is to been done well. I know that it has become "cool" for people to vaunt their lack of credentials, but sometimes it really shows in the final perfumes. I am interested in the works of people who have dedicated their life to perfumery, people who have been trained in and studied perfumery. People who are experts through years of experience, not through bold proclamations.

      That said, I do not wish to harm small independent perfumers who are really amateurs and probably would be better off doing something else. Anyway, the point is: there is a world of difference between great natural perfumes and stuff just thrown together on someone's whim. I've smelled some such creations which really seem sour and offputting--like twigs and dead leaves thrown in a blender--and frankly unperfumelike to me. Of course, we all have our idiosyncratic preferences:

      One perfumista's trash is another perfumista's treasure!

  2. *People who wish to claim that their personal judgments about perfumes are authoritative, somehow more reliable or accurate than those of others, need to produce some basis for this claim. What is it about them that makes them uniquely qualified to judge the quality of perfumes? Or are such people merely projecting their tastes in perfume upon the world? That is the question, my fragrant friends.*

    Do you mean like that sherapop who makes those lengthy, circular and self-indulgent reviews on fragrantica? Those reviews reek of her wanting us to believe she is more authoritative and reliable in her assessment of perfume. Yet I have never in her 100s of reviews seen a basis for that claim. Perhaps she is just projecting her tastes. But why do it in such a way as to annoy others? Now that is fodder for entry #11.

    1. I suppose that taste in reviews varies as much as taste in perfume! Excellent point. The good news is that anyone who finds my reviews annoying can easily avoid them because they are always accompanied by my avatar. ;-)

      I do not believe that anyone writes reviews specifically to annoy people, but it's probably inevitable that it's going to happen. If I appear to be proclaiming that someone's favorite perfume is a piece of junk, then their initial response may be to take offense. But, as Bigsly astute observes above, our perceptions of perfume vary so much that we cannot really presume to be speaking for everyone, nor does it make a lot of sense to suppose that anyone else should necessarily agree with us. I know that I do not mean to convey that impression.

      I have thought about the possibility of adding a little operator or disclaimer to my reviews to the effect that YMMV, but I figure by now that most people who have read a lot of reviews already know that. Even my own perceptions of a perfume sometimes change over time, at which point I sometimes decide to pen a new review. But I do not delete my earlier review, because it was valid for me at that time, which implies that it was true for someone somewhere--even if I no longer agree!

      Thank you for your incisive criticisms!

  3. "In perfume reviews people may wax poetic about the ostensible object of their review, but in the end they tell us much more about themselves than they do about the perfume."

    The above is exactly what motivates me to seek out and read others' words and opinions on perfume or any other subject. Everything we communicate reveals our viewpoint, experience, choices-- the factors which both join us to and separate us from other individuals. I like it as much when the reveal is inadvertent as when it is deliberate; like glancing into a window in passing.

    Thank you for tackling the very structure of perfume discourse with courage and clarity, bringing sense to a topic which sometimes (to me, anyway) seems like a version of the fabled Winchester House-- stairways leading to blank walls, doors opening to sheer exterior drops, rooms within rooms within rooms (and so little closet space!) Usually, "meta" -- the whole what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about maze -- unnerves me a bit. I peer around every corner suspiciously, expecting double-binds to snap their steel-trap jaws at me. But your series comes across as friendly and accessible. You do more than give us a window; you open a door.

    1. Hello, olenska, and welcome back!

      I am so happy that you like this series. I was not sure whether people would go for this sort of thing, but I suppose that anyone who intentionally visits the salon de parfum is by now used to my idiosyncratic approach to perfume. I, too, tend to believe that in interpreting just about anything, we end by writing something akin to an autobiographical text--what else could we do?

      Moving even closer in that direction, I am planning to attempt some phenomenological analyses of perfume experience in the future. I'll probably start with the Serge Lutens wax samples. First, however, I must define "phenomenological" (a word which, according to my mother, no one else uses! ;-)) Oh, and there are a few film reviews on the horizon, one of which I mentioned over at your place...

      By the way: I am looking forward to your new blog--it's already looking beautiful! ;-)

  4. Well, it seems more than a couple of posts today got people out of their shells and commenting profusely, Sher. :)

    1. Andrew, what in the world happened to your excellent SOTD post? I mean your post about SOTD posts? Was there a riot? Was your server sagging from the weight of angry replies? ;-)

      I must say that it was a good read--while it lasted!

    2. You don't want me to get into that topic. People will follow the conversation here, take it out of context, and immediately jump all over it. This is the Internet, after all. :)

    3. And's back up with some explanations, feel free to jump on the Facebook page, then the updated post for the aftermath. Still a good read, thanks for the support on it.

  5. Actually, the question you raised in your last sentence was one that I've seen thrown about in any number of forum posts. One perfumer actually took the blogosphere to task over "reviewers", or those who view themselves as 'perfume critics' when those folks simply say "I hated xxx."

    That perfumer's response was dismissive, but when you dug down past the surface, you really found the answer as to why he dismissed the comments: They provided nothing substantive on which someone could understand the opinion (that word is intentional, since all reviews are subjective). Had the reviewer or critic said something such as "I hated XXX because..." and simply continued the thought, there may have been some useful content to understand the 'why' as much as understanding the simple, raw statement. Ergo, if I'm reading something, I would like to understand the reasons and the factual information (which is how I'm wired) versus the simple opinion without that detail.

    I'll conclude that with an analogy: There is a genetic trait in human taste that certain people have a specific gene that predisposes them to tasting the bitterness of certain foods, broccoli being one ( If you find it bitter, you have a taste receptor that is absent in some other people. Some people will like broccoli or kohlrabi, others will not, and it's wired in the human genome. Is it possible that as we study the human genome we might learn more about our olfactory preferences since smell and taste are linked? Or will this just be a matter of opinion?

    I don't think there are easy or clear-cut answers that can yet be proven by scientific method. Something to ponder.

    1. Thank you very much, Andrew, for these thoughts on perfume reception and reviews.

      I have a question about the broccoli example. Does the bitterness make it likeable or dislikeable to people? I'm wondering because I like broccoli (and kohlrabi even more), but I find it a bit bitter.

      Anyway, back to your example of the "dismissive perfumer". I believe that I know who that was, and I must say that I do not envy perfumers in these days of loud and often abrasive reviews. To some extent, I blame The Holey[sic] Book for the lack of civility among brash reviewers. It's brim with so much gratuitous nastiness, and a yet a lot of people seemed to be emulating it for a couple of years after its publication. Recall that their explanation for a one-star rating to Amarige was: "We hate it."

      Fortunately, that sort of behavior has died down quite a lot as people have come to realize that a man and his wife are just a man and his wife. Sure they are perfectly entitled to their opinions and even to dismiss perfumes derogatorily for no discernible reason beyond their dislike of or disgust with it. But their opinions are just opinions. (Or perhaps I should say his opinions are his opinions...)

      From a perfumer's perspective, the arbitrariness of the decrees of The Holey[sic] Book must have seemed unsettling, especially in some of the more extreme cases, Mona di Orio being one. The tyranny of the majority at places such as Fragrantica seems a lot less damaging than the tyranny of a couple who have been decreed by their publisher the Tsar and Tsarina of perfume.

      To be honest, I'm not sure whether knowing the human genome is going to help with any of our differences of opinion about perfume--or anything else. I'm not sure that it matters what the reason for our disagreement is. The important point is only that we do disagree. A lot... But think how boring the world would be if we were all biologically identical clones!

      Your irreverence and authenticity are always welcome here at the salon de parfum, Andrew Buck!

    2. I'll only say that I interviewed the perfumer whom I found very engaging, knowledgable, and keen on discussing the topic of perfumes. While I really wanted their side of that story, the backlash on the original story made it a once-bit-twice-shy proposition for opening up.

      One more point, promise this is the last one. The focus needs to be on the product and traits, not the person. People inherently want to make it an issue of the person, or whether they're likable or credible in their view, not whether whether they're accurate or correct. This is done with big name noses like Mark Buxton or Andy Tauer or the sort. Because people find them likable as individuals, they believe that they must be producing the best creations. I personally cannot point to a Tauer creation I'd have an occasion to wear, whether or not I like the guy. At the end of the day, it's the result.

      That seems to make the discussion of fragrance a debate over whether it's "art or science" when perhaps it's a mixture of both.

  6. You are incorrect about LPs they are being brought back and they actually never left.

    As far as you believing... "...why I prefer discussions which allow people to interject."

    You are lying to us and lying to don't welcome interjection you censor. The word is allow, and you don't allow.


    1. I defy your order, Anonymous! ;-)

    2. LP's are coming back! So are disco and the 8-Track. What were you thinking?

      I already know you want people to interject. I had to show people my ignorant and irrelevant comments to see whether you'd post them. I'm being an idiot when I don't know the difference between welcome or allow. The result is the same.


    3. Now I am confused. Are you joking about the LPs & eight tracks? I thought that everything was being wirelessly streamed from here on out...

      Since you've mentioned disco, I gather that you were being facetious?

  7. As I predicted to myself you surely would do.


  8. The disco anonymous is a's not me....I'm going to have to send a code word that you can delete....

    LOL...must be that CT moron I insulted.

    interlocutor =)

    1. Really? There's a battle of the anonymous posters going on here? Forgive my skepticism.

      Oh well, at least you seem to be in better spirits. Keep the relevant comments coming! ;-)

  9. This fake anonymous is proof though, that someone that is your declared friend is duplicitous and low-down....someone you you know and admire has come down to a base level...LOL.

    I love it!!!!!

    interlocutor. :)

    1. I re-read the comment and now see that s/he was trying to criticize you! No?

    2. p.s. You've come this far, why not break down and register as "interlocutor"? That way your posts will stand out as distinct from your same-named "anonymous" rivals! ;-)

  10. You big dope, you were supposed to erase the code word first...

    1. In Blogger, comments are either published or not published. Other people's comments cannot be edited. So I cannot delete your code word. What was it, by the way? ;-)

  11. You're not exactly right...the FAKE anonymous is someone that is a regular here that you know and respect.

    I'm enjoying that I got one of your pals to expose their true nature.... :)

    He must be OLD since he even knew what an 8-track was....LOL

    interlocutor (accept no substitute)<----- DELETE before posting FFS

  12. My rival is a Will & Grace fan, in the long run we won't be confused. =o)

    1. Why do I suspect that you may have many enemies? ;-)

      By the way, in case you were wondering, my publishing of all of these ostensibly irrelevant comments is justified because the post is about EMOTIVISM!

  13. Because people are jealous I'm smarter than them, hence the fake came out of the woodwork.

    Your justification is a stretch, even for you....LOL...

    I wasn't wondering though.... :)

    1. I think that your "jealousy" pretext may be a stretch COL (cackle out loud)

  14. Salon de parfum

    The house that sherapop built...

    and anonymous made into a home.... =o)

    1. Pull up a chair, let me make you a cup of tea. ;-)

  15. This is so great I can't wait for entry #11

    1. This may be sarcasm, but I'll accept it as a compliment anyway. Thank you. ;-)

  16. I will now state my true identity.

    My name is Luca Turin.

    And I love perfume.

    I am here to settle a disagreement.


All relevant comments are welcome at the salon de parfum—whether in agreement or disagreement with the opinions here expressed.

Effective March 14, 2013, comment moderation has been implemented in order to prevent the receipt by subscribers of unwanted, irrelevant remarks.