Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Between Charybdis and Scylla: Is There a Third Way?

The Professor's Signature Scent:
Escentric Molecules Molecule 01
Thurston Howell III's Signature Scent:
Creed Royal English Leather (vintage!)


The world of perfumery is swiftly transforming in so many ways that it is becoming progressively more difficult to navigate the territory, as it shifts constantly under one's feet. The once-independent designer houses have now nearly all been swallowed up by corporate giants such as Procter & Gamble, Coty, Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, Puig, L'Oréal, and LVMH. Are the perfumes being produced by designer houses under the aegis of corporate masters more or less the same as they were before? Or have they essentially and irrevocably changed?

Perhaps no grand and sweeping generalizations can be made, but we can consider individual cases and may discover that the perfumes all being signed by one perfumer under LVMH but issuing from ostensibly distinct houses are converging in style. Similarly, we may take note of the convergence of Rochas and Patou under P&G, or that of Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein under Coty Prestige.

Even while being conducted by publicly traded companies, the business of perfumery remains a secretive one, and it may not be possible to ascertain whether corporate suits get the final say on what happens after a perfume has been approved by the house's creative director. We really don't know. All that we can do is attempt to divine what is going on at P&G, Coty Prestige, LVMH, and the other corporations now in on the perfume business game. We can do this by considering the quality and type of perfumes being purveyed by the houses under their control.

The Skipper's Signature Scent:
P&G Old Spice

Recent restrictions placed by the IFRA on the use of what formerly were regarded as indispensable materials to the twentieth-century classic perfumes have produced a rash of reformulations, which may or may not have been undertaken first and foremost in order to comply with these industry standards. After all, reformulations were carried out by companies long before the IFRA began championing these restrictions—indeed, long before the IFRA existed.

All of this leads some critics to suspect that the IFRA serves the interests of those who stand to benefit from the progressively more abstract surrogates for natural materials being used in perfumery today. When self-appointed "experts" tout the allegedly superior quality of perfumes made with "abstract" florals, such as Estée Lauder Beyond Paradise, it is natural to be suspicious of their intentions, given the seemingly inexorable march forward in the twenty-first century toward maximum abstraction.

It's bound to be a lot less expensive to produce perfumes in a laboratory than it is to harvest tons of flower petals and extract from them the essence of the scent via a labor-intensive method such as enfleurage. Yes, abstract florals are superior from a purely business perspective, which sees only the bottom line. But our noses don't care about dollars and cents; they care about scents.

These sorts of fundamental changes—on the one hand, corporate control of houses; on the other other hand, a move to use more and more synthetic materials in modern perfumery—have generated a fair amount of disgruntlement among perfumistas and various kinds of response. Two very clear and distinct—and diametrically opposed—approaches have been marked out by a couple of my favorite perfume writers, Bryan Ross at From Pyrgos and Bigsly at Bigslyfragrance. If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading these gentlemen, I encourage you to visit their blogs where they have carefully and meticulously argued for their respective positions. I have certain sympathies with each of their approaches, but what I most love about reading them is that they offer so many intelligent reasons that I invariably find myself questioning my own beliefs and sometimes even swaying back and forth like a pendulum. It's great fun to read them because they disagree so deeply and yet both seem so eminently reasonable. It also does not hurt that they have excellent senses of humor...

Mr. Ross and Mr. Bigsly may not be philosophers by profession, but they are truly philosophical in spirit. They are what I call "olfactory truth seekers" because they relentlessly examine the state of perfumery through the application of their searching intellect to the many puzzles which arise as the terrain evolves incessantly. They are not engaging in this search for truth with any ulterior motive such as profit in mind. They are not shills, nor are they starf*cks. They call it as they see it, and although they disagree about nearly everything, they do so thoughtfully, offering reasons and adducing evidence for their bold contentions. It is refreshing to read what both of these thinkers have to say because, whether or not one agrees with their views, it cannot be denied that they are very well thought through.

I do not wish to summarize the perspectives of Bryan and Bigsly, only to encourage you to brew yourself up a stout cup of dark roast coffee and spend some time at their blogs. Here I prefer to generalize a bit, following the From Pyrgos and the Bigslyfragrance approaches to their farthest limits. I do not mean to suggest that the ideas which I shall discuss here are subscribed to precisely by either writer. In fact, the two approaches which I'd like to outline may be viewed as caricatures of sorts (hence, the selection of images, above...), lacking the subtlety to be found within their texts. My hope is to outline two general approaches which illustrate two different and very distinct tendencies: for and against sticking with tradition or, in the case of perfume, vintage.

That was then. This is now.

No one can deny that perfumery and perfumes have changed radically over the course of the past decade. Pre-Y2K perfumery arguably produced many if not mostly perfumes of integrity, which can be attributed in large part, in my view, to the very fact that they were composed over years by professional perfumers. Back then, a perfume launch was an event. Today, it is tantamount to a Tweet.

Post-Y2K perfumery is really all over the map, literally and figuratively. Not only has the perfumery branch of once-independent design houses been handed over to corporate giants, but at the same time, the niche scene has transformed beyond all recognition. Niche houses began, it is sometimes said, with L'Artisan Parfumeur back in the 1970s. At that time, "niche" meant “exclusive” and “difficult to find and access”. In the age of cybershopping, virtually nothing is difficult to find or access anymore. What, then, does it mean to be “niche”?

A further complicating factor is that at this point in history everyone and his mother, brother, cousin, and uncle appears to be jumping on the perfume business bandwagon, asserting their claim to a piece of the perfume pie as "creative directors" of “niche” firms. As a result, 'niche' has become more of a marketing term than anything else. Much niche (non-mainstream) perfume is relatively expensive, but the term can also be applied to some scattered houses offering less-expensive wares, including several of the traditional houses of France, some of which remain independent and based in and around Grasse. Houses such as Molinard and Fragonard appear to be overlooked by some snobs precisely because of the modest cost of their wares.

At the traditional and designer houses now under corporate control, such as LVMH-owned Guerlain and Christian Dior, there has been a radical increase in the number of launches, including seemingly endless lists of flankers and limited edition releases. In tandem, the number of new niche houses continues to augment, and each arrives on the scene touting the virtues and distinctness of their vision, with a slate of multiple, sometimes dozens of, perfumes. What to do?

One way of approaching the situation is to look back to the great classics, and track them down wherever they may be found. Vintage hunters spend untold amounts of time and energy in their quest for the treasure at the end of the rainbow. Often what they find is not gold but pyrite, but sometimes they have no way of knowing that this is the case because there is nothing to compare it to which might validate—or refute—the seller's claim to absolute integrity and authenticity. Nonetheless, the hunt continues.

Vintage hunting is to some a form of low-stakes gambling. Something about gambling appeals naturally to human beings, and for some people, hanging out at ebay and bidding in auctions is as much a form of entertainment as it is a way of acquiring vintage treasure. Of course, victory in this game is to have "scored" the rare and splendid jewel among the wide array of objects being sold there. Ebay has done a lot to make participation in the auctions a positive experience by implementing rules to prevent fraudulent transactions and protect consumers.

I have laid out the reasons for my skepticism about the general enterprise of hunting down remaining bottles of the vintage classics in The Question of Vintage. Probably my biggest concern regarding the hawks themselves is the very fact that people should be selling their supposed masterpieces and treasures at all. This implies that they are not great amateurs of perfume. But if they do not value perfume, then they may think that dilution or other other forms of tampering are perfectly fine. They may truly believe that “no one will notice” because they would not notice. Even stronger grounds for skepticism lie in the nature of the substances which make up perfumes: they degrade, and hence change, over time. It's anyone's guess what a perfume produced thirty years ago is going to smell like today, even if it was stored with the utmost vigilance and care.

Please note that I do not deny that, as a form of entertainment, ebay vintage hunting may have a value to the participant which transcends his or her ability to actually score great perfume. I have instead argued that there is something vaguely irrational about this hunt for treasure, given the nature, first, of perfumes, which fall apart over time; and second, sellers, who, being human beings, are subject to vices such as greed and unscrupulousness in their quest to maximize profit.

As a matter of fact, greed and unscrupulousness in the quest to maximize profit are the virtues of Gordon "Greed is Good" Gekko big corporate business types, precisely, I hasten to add, the types of people who head up conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble, Coty Prestige, Estée Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, Puig, L'Oréal, and LVMH. They, too, may not care about the products which they peddle. They, too, may think that it is “no big deal” to remove all of the natural components from the Guerlain Aqua Allegoria launches. “No one will notice,” the person who makes such calls may mutter to himself as he issues an executive decree, in the hope of improving the company's bottom line.

A generally realistic view of human nature would seem to imply that any skepticism which one harbors about the shady gray market operators who trade in now-discontinued, once-classic perfumes, should transfer directly to the purveyors of perfume by the once-independent but now corporate-conglomerate-ruled design houses. Greed and unscrupulousness are everywhere, my fragrant friends, when money is what is at stake.

I part company with both the vintage hunters and those who "believe in" the possibility of relaunches of the classics by the companies currently holding the keys to the safes where perfume formulas are stored. Call me a
cynic, but I trust neither the design houses under management by megacorporations, nor the peddlers of old vintage perfumes at ebay and elsewhere. And, with my solid background in chemistry, I found it preposterous that so few people acknowledge the reality of chemical degradation, which virtually guarantees that once-classic perfumes produced years ago are no longer the same.

Even when the peddlers are honest, they have no control over the condition of the perfumes which they peddle, which have changed hands many times over the course of the decades since the perfumes were produced, adding yet more cause for skepticism. As for the houses “under new management”: it's anyone's guess what the new boss thinks—or likes and values. Maybe he believes that Joy edp should be preserved in tact. Maybe he finds it stinky and will therefore order his minions to cut costs and “tame” the perfume in one fell reformulation.

We've seen plenty of blunders on the part LVMH, just to pick on them again. They discontinued nearly every Fendi perfume upon acquisition of that house. Clearly, someone did a miscalculation in cases such as Theorema. Perhaps the perfume did not do well because it was poorly distributed and marketed. Perhaps a more savvy marketing team could have squeezed some profit out of that beautiful perfume. No, the decision was made: destroy it. Now, if they announce that they are going to “bring back” Theorema, should we trust those very same decision makers? Or should we be skeptical that the same fools who axed the perfume in the first place (and therefore did not recognize its greatness), may also see nothing wrong with fobbing off a muzak version and calling it a relaunch of the original?

Who knows? Maybe the relaunches will be good. Once again, it's a numbers game, but when we see poor decision after poor decision being made by the powers that be (the renaming of Miss Dior Chérie as Miss Dior? Pray tell, whose call was that????), then it becomes less and less rational to believe that we should have any hope for anything that they will do in the future. This is not to deny outright that a relaunch might be good, but it is to predict, based on past behavior that it is not likely to be. That's just a question of probability based on prior experience. It's not irrational doom and gloom, it seems to me.

There are other possibilities as well. Should we perhaps hold out hope for tweaked relaunches of old classics and reformulations undertaken in order to appeal to new, modern sensibilities? This would seem to be an amalgamation of the vintage-valuing with the forward-looking approach, recognizing that "it's not 1988 anymore", but upholding the sanctity of the classics. The nature of consumerism has changed radically over the course of the past decade, with cybershopping achieving its furthest expression in the recent phenomenon of social shopping, made possible by the capitalization of sites such as Facebook and a general frenzy among cyberworld denizens to share with their "friends" everything they do, including buy.

Mrs. Howell's Signature Scent:
Why Chanel No 5, of course!

The same forward-looking attitude applies equally well, however, to the science of perfumery, as synthetic organic chemists endeavor to create new molecules for use in perfumes to supplant rare and expensive natural materials and also to create brand new scents. Indeed, the story of Chanel No 5 is that of a new idea applied to the perfume of its time. By adding aldehydes, never before successfully used (they had been used, but not widely), to a floral perfume, a classic icon of twentieth-century perfumery was born. Gabrielle Chanel proclaimed that women had no business smelling like flowers, and derided the “backwards” nineteenth-century soliflores dominating the perfume scene.

Maryann's Signature Scent:
Parfums Berdoues Violettes de Toulouse

There is a curious logical tension, it seems to me, in believing in the possibility of excellent relaunches of vintage classics, which seems to involve the very same nostalgia of which vintage hunters are sometimes accused. Should we really be wearing the perfumes of the twentieth century in the twenty-first century? Or is it not time to move on?

Like it or not, perfumery continues to march ahead and will soon be leaving "classics" such as Chanel No 5 behind—not only because using the precious jasmine of Grasse will be financially prohibitive from the perspective of the suits running the businesses, but also because consumers' preferences will continue to be transformed as new scents are created and widely marketed and disseminated in venues such as Sephora, which literally create tastes in mass market perfume.

Nowhere is the dependence of the range of perfumes available upon the whims of fashion—as molded by companies—better illustrated than in the current oud craze. The “need for oud” has been created out of nothing for people with no knowledge of that substance whatsoever by perfume companies! What next? Elves' sweat and fairies' breath?

The formidable forces of fashion explain how sweet laundry scents and gourmand and fruitchouli scents (in the model of Thierry Mugler Angel) before them flooded the market. Consumers came to view those types of scents as "appropriate" perfumes. The reason why people describe loud, megasillage perfumes as "so 1980s" is because back then people wore those scents, but very few people do today.

These changes took place not because Christian Dior Poison was objectively good twenty years ago and has now become objectively bad. No, this came about only because fashions change, and perfumery is part and parcel of fashion, as should be obvious by the very fact that so many clothing design houses launch perfumes as accessories of sorts, to embellish their line, not to replace it.

This also explains why designer after designer, beginning with Gabrielle Chanel, have handed over the perfumery end of their businesses to other parties to tend to. Fashion designers are first and foremost concerned with clothing, not perfume, so it is not that surprising that so many of them have handed over control of their perfumery branch to major corporations in the twenty-first century. From Calvin Klein to Fendi to Kenzo to Givenchy, Christian Dior, and Yves Saint Laurent, the perfumery end of things has been delegated to another entity, the multicorporate conglomerate.

The Third Way

If all of these people are selling their rights to control their perfume output, then whom ought we to trust? My view is that the way forward is not to hunt down decaying bottles of juice from times past, nor to hold out hope that the new corporate masters have any intrinsic interest in producing excellent perfume. The only people who really care about producing excellent perfume, in their heart of hearts, are perfumers. The third way which I propose today is to stick with the independents, where there really and truly is a perfumer in the house, not just a bunch of hired hack-chemists working under restrictions imposed upon them by their employer.

Independent perfumers offer us today the best hope of finding perfume which embodies the integrity found more often than not in early-twentieth century perfumery. Think about it: back then perfumers worked in small ateliers and both composed their elixirs and balanced their own books. They did not issue perfumes as frequently as Tweets. They invested time and energy in their creations rather than producing dozens of perfumes using combinatorial permutations of a set of fixed notes.

All of this may sound vaguely quaint in the twenty-first century, but independent perfumers represent the only case where we have rational grounds for believing that the fresh perfumes will not be either a con job (as in nasty, cheap, and insulting reformulations), or the creation of new tastes to shape a market solely for profit-making purposes (as in the case of launching the scents of laundry and personal hygiene products as perfumes).

There are no good reasons to cling religiously to vintage perfume nor to quixotically hope that the business people in charge of multicorporate conglomerates are somehow going to start caring more about matters olfactory than about their bottom line. Business is driven inexorably by a quest for profit. Nothing is sacred but the bottom line.

In making this proposal, I am emphatically not claiming that all niche houses are purveyors of excellent wares or perfumes of integrity, as I conceive of what all of us are really looking for in the end, whether we tend to look backward, forward, or around us right now. No, the niche scene is filled with façades in front of crass labs where, too, perfumes are being quickly composed and poured into fancy bottles and hyped in part by slapping on exorbitant price tags. So one must tread carefully in this realm as well. Many of the glut of current "niche" ventures will fold like a house of cards in a gust of wind, and their creative directors may move on to running fast-food franchises or selling real estate.

Nonetheless, within the vast sea of niche perfume being pumped out today, there are small islands of true perfumery, where people who are generally committed to producing beautiful things (and you may call them “artists” if you like, but you'll mean that in the pre-twentieth-century sense). That is where we are most likely to find the sorts of perfumes which vintage lovers remember and cherish as they slowly disappear, never to be replaced.

The Third Way, then, is not to look back to the past, nor to dream wistfully of the future, but to look into the true perfumers plying their trade at independent houses today. These people are much more believable than either the anonymous chemists composing at IFF or the “rock star” perfumers attaching their names to dozens of perfumes simultaneously across all categories. In many cases, “super-star” contracted perfumers appear to be signing off on perfumes which are then left to the chemists and accountants to modify with the aim of cutting costs. That would explain how some of the perfumes allegedly created by big names such as Calice Becker and Yann Vasnier are as mediocre as they come.

My advice, for those who wish to find the treasure at the end of the rainbow without having to travel back in time, and for those who are understandably skeptical about future “relaunches” of previously reformulated or discontinued perfumes—reformulated or discontinued in some cases by the very company claiming to be about to “bring them back”—is not to cling to the past, nor to hope for something logically possible but unlikely to occur. Instead, focus on the currently active and identifiable (not dead or anonymous) perfumers who run their own businesses and make their own creative decisions, over which no other person has veto power. There and there alone you will find the integrity of perfume still alive and well, and that is our best chance for finding great perfumes here and now, even today, in the ever-advancing age of abstraction.

Ginger's Signature Scent:
Keiko Mecheri A Fleur de Peau

Carpe Diem!

Screen captures were taken from Gilligan's Island, season 2, episodes 1 &2, 1965.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Entry #19: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

The Is-Ought Problem or Facts versus Values

From no matter of fact does any course of action follow. Descriptions do not produce prescriptions. Values must also be thrown into the mix. This is why it is impossible to argue someone into abiding by morality. They must already affirm the value of a moral perspective, and if they do not appreciate the value of morality, then nothing you can say will convert them to your view. You can show them pictures of atrocities and explain the negative consequences of acting immorally, but they will simply shrug their shoulders and say, "So what?" 

The same divisionor unbridgeable chasmbetween facts and values explains why you cannot talk anyone into loving or even liking something which they do not love or like. Many people would rather read a genre fiction "page turner" than an abstruse and labyrinthine multilayered and nonlinear nouveau roman. They may affirm the brilliance of the latter (if they understand it), but when it comes time to pick up a book to read onboard a plane en route to a land far away, they may select a paperback book from the bestsellers shelf.

In perfumery, you might recognize that a great deal of technical skill was needed to produce a given creation, but that alone will not make you like it. You might in fact detest it so much that you would never wear it. Nonetheless, we tend to think that the perfumes which we dislike are not good perfumes, because we consider our perceptions to be authoritative, and they areto us. 

"I know what I like" rings nowhere truer than in the realm of perfume, because at the end of the day, perfume is for wearing, and wearers have personal idiosyncracies and likes and dislikes which appear to determine their evaluations. Our values precede our experience of perfume, not the other way around. 

Philosophers usually talk about the "is-ought" problem as it applies in moral contexts. How can you convince a seasoned killer that what he does is wrong? In fact, you cannot. Once someone has already crossed over the line from within to beyond the pale, he may become even more inclined to do what he has already done in order to prove to himself that there was nothing wrong with what he already did. Indeed, it may be the very act of committing a moral transgression which converts some people to belief in amorality or immorality. 

Can the analogous thing happen with perfume? Can you force yourself to wear a perfume which you truly dislike initially to the point where it becomes familiar and somehow comforting to you? Can you habituate yourself to a scent which you did not initially like? I do not believe that an intrinsically unwearable perfume can work in this casesay something like Estée Lauder Intuition, which in my experience was so unpleasant that I actually returned the bottle for a refund at the counter where I had bought itThat is something which I nearly never do, but I could not bear the thought of wearing Intuition again, as it was an experience akin to forcibly removing my toenails, which, needless to say, I would never choose to do.

However, I do believe that fragrances toward which we are more neutrally inclined are easy to become habituated to. That explains the tsunami of sweet laundry and shampoo and conditioner scents which one finds littering the wall at Sephora these days. People are being slowly habituated to the idea that that sort of composition is perfume. It makes a lot of sense really, when you think about who's in on the perfume business game these days. Procter & Gamble, anyone? 

The very concept of perfume has been transforming as a result of the models being fobbed off on Joe and Jill Q. Consumer, who may go to purchase gifts for each other at Sephora and end up with an aquatic cologne for him and a pink fruity-floral fragrance for her, which they will wear until they are gone, at which point they'll go shopping again and look specifically for what they have already wornor something like it.

This explains, too, the culture shock on the part of perfumistas whose formative sniffing and wearing experiences pre-dated these new developments. Anyone who is old enough to remember what perfumes were like before the twenty-first century may simply deny that the aromachemical-heavy "stuff" being pumped out of vats into plastic-flower-capped bottles these days is perfume at all.

We are in the midst of a complete breakdown of perfume culture as a result of the fact that many perfumistas do remember the good old days, while at the same time, the ever-encroaching forces of abstraction engendered in part by the IFRA continue to act on everything produced in the mainstream realm. 

Returning to the "is-ought" problem, the fact that many women's fragrances are abstract, pink, fruity-floral fragrances does not imply that they should be. But they are. The question remains: what to do? This is a very deep question which divides perfumistas into two camps well-represented by savvy perfume writers Bryan Ross at From Pyrgos and Bigsly at In the not-too-distant future, I'll take up their debate and attempt to navigate a third way between their two seemingly incompatible and irreconcilable approaches. 

Stay tuned... 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Entry #18: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Non-contradiction, the Law of Non-contradiction

I have an uncanny knack for eliciting people's capacity to contradict themselves. This tendency goes way back. In sixth grade, I corrected my English teacher's grammar, and she slapped my face in response. That put a real damper on my motivation to do any school work or to participate in any way in any intellectual activity. By the time I reached high school, I was doing no homework whatsoever, having diverted my energies to "other priorities," as former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney would say. It took me quite a few years to muster up the wherewithal to begin applying my intellect to the world once again. What I have found since then, repeatedly, is that lots of people contradict themselves, and the more power they have, the worse their behavior tends to be upon being confronted with their contradictions. My sixth grade English teacher does not hold a candle to some of what I have seen.

Socrates did a lot of this sort of thing, and look where it got him: a goblet of hemlock! To be honest, I believe that Socrates committed suicide, since there is no historical evidence that anyone forced his mouth open and poured the liquid down his throat. We know that he could have simply departed, moved to a different place, but I think that by that stage of his life, he probably realized that his legacy would be best served by a small act of martyrdom: all in the name of the law of noncontradiction.

It cannot be the case both that p and that not-p 
at the same time and in the same way.

or for those who prefer symbols:

~(p &~p)

The law of non-contradiction is the skeptic's bestand only!theoretical friend. The skeptic can question everything under the sun, but the law of non-contradiction is the basis for all criticism, so it cannot be abandoned without lapsing into complete and utter dysfunctional insanity. No, I have not tried. The law of non-contradiction is an article of faith which I am proud to hold high, as the sole irrefutable proposition in all of space and time.

What are the perfume applications of the law of noncontradiction? Every single act of criticism depends upon this law, and while we may not know whether p or not-p is true, we can be sure that both of them cannot be at the same time.

Has Mitsouko been reformulated or has it not? p or not-p? Since this is an exclusive and exhaustive disjunction, one or the other must be the case. Guerlain and most other companies have not denied that they reformulated their perfumes, but when they claim at one point in time that they reformulated as a result of the need to comply with the restrictions placed on the perfume industry by the IFRA, and then, later on down the line, that they will soon be restoring the former classic to its original state, something has to give. 

I've encountered other self-contradictions in the perfume world as well. The Holey[sic] Book is marketed as a work of criticism, so presumably its authors value criticism, no? The answer, I'm afraid, is "no." Their goons travel to the ends of the internet to quash criticism of criticism wherever it may appear, what on its face is a flagrant contradiction. 

Not so fast, sherapop. Perhaps the authors are not really critics after all. Perhaps they are only masquerading as critics, which resolves the apparent contradiction in one fell swoop! They do not value criticism in the first place, so it is not a contradiction for them to revile criticism of criticism, since they probably think that it is twice as bad!

A third example: a fragrance community website claims to uphold freedom of expression, but then arbitrarily censors at the caprice of some of its members. This would seem to be a genuine contradiction. In order fully and truly to uphold freedom of expression, you have to accept what you take to be the good, the bad, and, yes, the ugly. To claim that one upholds freedom of expression, provided that the expression reflects one's own values and beliefs, does not demonstrate a commitment to freedom of expression. The real test of one's commitment to freedom of expression is how one reacts to expressions of ideas and values with which one disagrees...

Monday, May 13, 2013

Entry #17: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

This collage/mosaic of HRH Emperor Oliver was produced using the open source software program AndreaMosaic

Leibniz' Law

For any two things X and Y, X is equivalent to Y 
if and only if every property of X is a property of Y, 
and every property of Y is a property of X.

It might seem on its face that Leibniz' Law is being violated left and right in the age of reformulation. Nina Ricci L'Air du Temps is no longer L'Air du Temps, because the properties of the early and the more recent perfume bearing that same name are not one and the same. The ingredients have changed, in this particular case, a lot.

What's in a name? I discovered through an auto-Google that my given name is shared by several other people in the United States. I was surprised by this, as my name is not Jane Doe, and it seemed hard to believe that my first name would be attached to the same last name in so many other cases. But it was. As a result, multiple entities bearing no resemblance to me share my name.

The same can be said for sherapop, of course. Who is sherapop? Is she the princess of power? Or is she the philosopher of perfume? Or is she the philosopher of power? Or is she the princess of perfume?

All of these examples illustrate nothing really, because no one ever said that the same name could not be attached to two very different things. An interesting example in natural language is the string of letters g-i-f-t. Gift means present or wife or poison, depending on the language, and most people would consider those three to be very different things!

When a perfume company retains the name of a classic perfume for a less expensive or "re-imagined for the modern wearer" reformulation, have they violated Leibniz' Law? Not exactly, but they are banking (literally) on the fact that consumers will assume that the praise enjoyed by the earlier perfume is shared, transitively, as it were, by the newer perfume. 

In fact, the praise only applies or applied to the perfume actually sniffed, and when the two are dramatically different, then speaking of them as the same thing is rather like speaking of the very different people bearing my given name as one and the same, which is absurd. I do not deserve credit or blame for anything done by anyone else bearing my name. 

Names are crude bookkeeping devices, no more and no less, but they can be and are used by marketers to a company's advantage. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Entry #16: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Ontology, Ontological, Ontologist

A few entries back I boldly asserted that epistemology and phenomenology were the two most reviled philosophical terms. What was I thinking? Even philosophers hate the word ontology! "Ontology, schmontology," has often been muttered by lovers of Quine and scientistic types more generally. The science worshipers and analytic philosophers (not quite coextensive, but close enough), all roll their eyes whenever anyone expresses an interest in the topic of ontology. So what is it, exactly?

We covered the basics of ontology in the episode of The History of Philosophy Refracted through Perfume dedicated to Parmenides, an ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher who was the ontologist to end all ontologists. The key concept for Parmenides was Being. Ontology is the study of Being. And, yes, I do believe that it is supposed to be capitalized, to underscore its importance. So what, exactly, is BeingTo be or not to be, that is the question, and it's a lot more profound that you might initially have thought. 

To begin with, what are the things in reality? Sounds easy, right? There are chairs, and there are tables, and there are bottles. Now we come to perfumes. Are there individual perfumes? Perfumes actually perfectly reflect the profundity of ontological studies. What makes a perfume a perfume, after all? When and how does a perfume come to exist? 

In terms of chemistry, a perfume is made up of a bunch of molecules. All of the ingredients on the label, including the mystery ingredient parfum, which especially distinguishes a perfume from all others, are components which, before being mixed together are other things: alcohol, eugenol, linalool, geraniol, the list goes on and on. So in mixing a bunch of different substances together, a perfumer ends up creating something new, a perfume which did not exist before. This is a grand creation act. How can a mere human being create new objects in reality? Perfumers appear to do it all the time. Chanel no 5 did not exist, and then suddenly, thanks to Ernest Beaux and Gabrielle Chanel, it did.

But are these new perfumes really real? Or are they not merely a part of the unstable world of becoming? That was essentially Parmenides' view. All of the change and movement which we observe in reality is illusory. There is only one real thing, and that is Being. Ontology is the study of Being, but since there is only one real thing, Being, nothing can be said about it, since any spoken words are going to divide up reality into pieces. 

Understood in the Parmenidean sense, ontology digs deeper than metaphysics, which is still concerned with cause and effect and ultimate divisions between things, even if those things cannot be accessed through empirical means. Ontology, my fragrant friends, is deep, and I suspect that at least some ontologists throughout history have grasped Being only under the influence of powerfully psychomimetic drugs. For now, we are mired in the world of becoming, which is of course why we are functional. 

We do distinguish things from one another in what we perceive to be reality. Not all perfumes are the same. Perhaps if we were enlightened enough, we would cease making any distinctions whatsoever. For now, let's just keep reviewing all of the different perfumes which we believe ourselves to be encountering while we wallow our way through the shadowy world of becoming.

I will say that when I see the tsunami of new niche launches, I start to understand the appeal of the simpler approach. Is every single possible combination of any possible liquid substances a perfume? Are there then infinitely many perfumes? Apparently so, if the behavior of the multilaunchers means anything. So long as they can keep coming with new namesoften through the use, it seems, of random name generatorsthen they can continue to christen new perfumes. 

We sometimes identify perfumes as very similar to already existent perfumes, but as the grand map of the olfactory world becomes populated with more and more perfumes, at some point there will cease to be any iconic perfumes. At that point, perhaps, we will all be carried away in a sea of perfumes, the names of which will cease to matter anymore.  

If we could adopt the perspective of Parmenides, we'd be cured forever of our disappointment and anger over reformulated perfumes. They were never real to begin with, so how could they be any less real today than they ever were? Mitsouko was always an illusion.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Is Mayotte Mahora? First sketch of an outline of a theory of perfume identity

How many times have I heard Guerlain Mahora denounced by perfumistas as an epic failure on the part of the otherwise venerable house of Guerlain? How many of those who parrot this refrain have even experienced the now-discontinued perfume? 

Mahora was launched in 1999 (according to the date on my bottles) but swiftly pulled from the counters and boutiques. How many times have I heard it said that Guerlain Mayotte, launched in 2006, is no more and no less than Mahora? In fact, the claim is frequently made that Mayotte is Mahora, albeit rebottled and sold under a new name, and this appears to be widely accepted as the truth.

Needless to say, the blogosphere- disseminated "factoids" to the effect that, first, Mahora is horrible and, second, Mayotte is Mahora, have left me puzzled and perplexed. I have been known to gush about Mahora, so the first and foremost source of my perplexity inheres in the simple fact that such an excellent perfume should be trashed so volubly by so many people. But there is more to my puzzlement than profound disagreement on a matter of taste. After all, the Mahora haters may well love Insolence, which at least in the eau de toilette form (I've yet to muster up the courage to try the eau de parfum), I find utterly repulsive. If so, then I can remind myself how very subjective perfume perception is, deriving a modicum of solace and comfort once more from the handy adage

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

That little piece of folk wisdom, however, is not enough to dispel the logical quandary posed by the second of the two claims, that Mayotte is in fact Mahora. On the face of it, the claim is preposterous, and I have never believed it to be true. Why? First, because if Mahora was a resounding market flop in part because of its "nasty" scent, then there would be nary a reason for Guerlain to have launched the "disaster" all over again. Would there?

Second, it has been brought to our collective attention that Guerlain has reformulated most if not all of their perfumes. Why would Mahora, even if under a pseudonym, not, too, have been put under the chemist/accountant's knife, all under the pretext of needing to comply with the IFRA?

There are a few possible responses to these concerns, commencing with the most obvious, that when Mahora was launched, Guerlain was still an independent house. Such apparent logical preposterousness would not be precluded in the least by Guerlain's new corporate master, LVMH, which after all is now infamous for having worked wonders for the house of Christian Dior by renaming Miss Dior Chérie as Miss Dior and Miss Dior as Miss Dior L'Originale, sowing confusion far and wide.  LVMH also appears to be responsible for the complete and utter perversion of the once-beautiful Aqua Allegoria line. In the wake of these sorts of wild and wacky business moves, it becomes difficult to insist that relaunching Mahora as Mayotte can only be written off as completely out of the question. Everything is permitted, it seems, chez LVMH, so why not that, too?

After all, it might be thought, or it might have been thought by the marketing gurus at Guerlain under the aegis of LVMH, that Mahora's real problem was her marketing campaign. Perhaps people were put off by the shiny-skinned naked model standing in an exotic scene before what looks to be a volcano in the middle of the desert and channeling perhaps the gods of Indian mythology. But wait, did not Tom Ford put naked flesh to good use in marketing the decidedly unedgy Tom Ford Cologne

Details, details. Are they or are they not the same?

The Proof is in the Juice?

Fortunately, there is no need to delve further into the inscrutably labyrinthine strategic cogitations of the marketing team at LVMH. Thanks to my perfume pal Andrew Buck at The Scentrist, who recently gave away a large bottle (125ml) of Mayotte, of which I was the lucky winner, I am able to compare the juice of Mahora to the juice of Mayotte side by side and decide whether or not they are the same. One nose, one set of skin, two bottles of juice. Are they the same?

HRH Emperor Oliver stands by, ready to assist in the definitive sniffing test

Let's begin with the visuals. The juice inside the Mahora and the Mayotte bottles is similarly colored and appears even to have approximately the same viscosity. I had remembered Mahora as having a thicker, more viscous texture, but as I compared the two perfumes, both at eau de parfum concentration, side by side, I recognized that my memory had built up Mahora in my mind as a golden elixir. In fact, it's just as watery looking as Mayotte. So are they then the same? Not so fast. Colored water is sometimes used to fill perfume bottles put on display. We cannot be sure that the juice is the same from the color alone.

The day I received my package from The Scentrist, upon my initial application of Mayotte, I was absolutely convinced that it was nothing like Mahora. In fact, I found Mayotte much closer to Versace Blonde! More animalic, more vague and cloudy, less golden and gleaming and glistening. Still, I could not be sure until comparing the juices side by side.

When I tried that, on a different day, I found that the opening of Mahora and the opening of Mayotte are not all that different, although Mahora does seem more sweet. The real story does not reveal itself until the drydown, when the two perfumes smell nothing alike. Mayotte  turns out to be rather linear, smelling more or less the same from start to finish, with only a diminution in strength until it finally fades away. 

Please rest assured that I sprayed the same amount of these perfumes on (Mahora on the left, Mayotte on the right), so the radical distinction in longevity, sillage, and trajectory cannot be explained away by spritz-versus-dab phenomenology. The Mayotte bottle does not have a sprayer, but I decanted the liquid into a purse spray vessel for the purpose of this comparison.

Mahora, in contrast to Mayotte, grows stronger and more luxuriant as it melds into the skin, which heats up the perfume to create a much bigger sillage than the perfume initially seemed to have. After a couple of hours, there is no comparison to be made whatsoever. At best, Mayotte can be read as a reformulation of Mahora, quite a bit weaker, and much less sweet and intoxicating. Mayotte is a pleasant enough tuberose scent, but it is not Mahora, the complex elixir which I fell in love with at first sniff and which I continue to love still today, long after my esteem for the house of Guerlain has dwindled to nearly nothing. Mahora is the last vestige of a by-gone era.

My conclusion: the two perfumes are not the same. But is my reasoning sound?

What are the criteria for identity in perfumery?

Perfumes, like persons, are rather complex things, ontologically speaking. What makes a perfume a perfume, and how do we decide that it is or is not the same as another? I argued above that Mayotte is not Mahora. The basis of my claim is that the two perfumes smell rather different, especially in the drydown.

It may be objected, however, that Mayotte is closer to Mahora than to any other Guerlain perfume. After all, there is a relative dearth of tuberose in the Guerlain line-up. Rose and vanilla abound, but tuberose? Perhaps that is what everyone who has propelled this falsehood far and wide, faster than the speed of sound and throughout the world wide web, really meant. Perhaps when people say "Mayotte is a relaunch of Mahora," they mean no more and no less than that Mayotte is a lot closer to the discontinued Mahora than it is to any of the extant creations, so it must be a relaunch of the same, more or less. 

Why get bogged down with picayune details? Hardly anyone knows what Mahora smells like anyway, and even fewer want to find out, now that it has been pervasively, and I dare say perniciously, denounced as the worst perfume ever to have been designed by Jean-Paul Guerlain. The received view appears to be that Jean-Paul Guerlain had a very bad nose day when he signed off on Mahora. I respectfully demur from the "conventional wisdom", needless to say.

If purveyors of the received view mean that Mayotte is "more or less" Mahora, then what they are perhaps saying is that Mayotte began in the lab as Mahora but then was reformulated. That would, in fact, make a lot of sense, given that Mahora was a market flop, and Guerlain has in any case reformulated just about everything else.

But if that is what happened, then why claim that Mayotte is Mahora in the first place? How can identifying a recent launch with a previously launched failure help anyone? Oh right, LVMH marches to the beat of their own drummer, which in their case means operating beyond the realm of logic. Has the conglomerate perhaps been infiltrated by spies from the competition, say, Procter & Gamble or Elizabeth Arden or Coty or Estée Lauder? On ne sait jamais...

I strongly suspect that the real reason why this falsehood has gained such traction is simply that the two perfumes do look similar, and they also smell similar in the opening minutes. Anyone who writes a review on the basis of the opening, without waiting around for the lengthy and complex drydown of Mahoranonexistent for Mayottemay easily conclude that the two perfumes are "more or less" the same, and depending upon their sensitivity, they may or may not notice the difference in sweetness between the two.

One thing, perhaps the only thing, of which we can be absolutely sure is that Mahora was never reformulated. It was launched and discontinued, thank goodness, I might add, since now when we score a bottle at least we know what's really inside, what certainly cannot be taken for granted in cases such as ShalimarSamsaraJickyMitsouko, and many other of the classic perfumes from the house of Guerlain.

I have based my judgment that Mayotte is not Mahora on the simplest of evidence: how the liquids in the bottles smell. In reality, perfume identity is not at all dependent upon scent, as odd as that may seem to those who pride themselves on learning as much as they possibly can about perfume. 

Clearly, the formula is not considered an essential part of the perfume. Why? Because countless perfumes bearing the same names have been serially reformulated. The scent of Coty Muguet des Bois has changed, but the name stays the same. The identity criteria are quite different in the case of perfume than they are in virtually any other realm. If a company owns a perfume formula, then they have the right to retain the name and fiddle with formula, and there is nothing that anyone can do about it.

By this logic, the only way that Mayotte could really be Mahora would be if Guerlain had kept the name Mahora and slapped it on the perfume instead of the name Mayotte. The two are not the same because the house says that they are not the same. By using a different name, Guerlain has stipulated that the perfumes are not identical. Mayotte is not a relaunch of Mahora, because only same-named perfumes can be relaunched.

That is all that perfume identity amounts to: the house and the name. No, wait! Even that is too much. Take cases such as Balenciaga Rumba. The formula for Rumba was sold to Ted Lapidus. They proceeded to reformulate the perfume, while still selling it in the same bottle, albeit with the house name Ted Lapidus replacing the house name Balenciaga. This is not a case where a corporate overlord has arrived on the scene to manage the company. No, Balenciaga still exists as a house, and it is not owned by Ted Lapidus. Balenciaga continues to launch new perfumes, but no longer owns Rumba. Balenciaga is owned by Coty, and Ted Lapidus is owned by the Jacques Bogart Group. (As far as I know, Coty does not own the Jacques Bogart Group. Perhaps it's on their future acquisition wish list?)

Yet Rumba continues to be sold as Rumba, despite the fact that Ted Lapidus completely reformulated the perfume, and the bottle emblazoned with the Ted Lapidus label now boasts completely different notes than did the Balenciaga original. This example shows that what matters is who owns the formula for a named perfume. They then own the name, and can at their caprice completely change the formula! Perfume names are no more and no less than brands. If a company decides that it will be more lucrative to completely transform "the product", as they view the matter, then they will. 

Perfumes, from the perspective of business people, are no more and no less than products. Mahora did not sell well, so Mahora was terminated with extreme prejudice. Mahora does not exist anymore, according to Guerlain itself, and for that reason Mayotte is not Mahora. The fact that different recipes were used to produce the two liquids is entirely beside the point. What matters is what the house says. Guerlain says that Mayotte is Mayotte. Guerlain ceased production of Mahora. Therefore, the two are not the same.

The nail in the coffin in this case is the simple fact that the official notes, provided by the house itself, are different for the two perfumes.


top: green notes
middle: frangipani, jasmine, neroli, tuberose, ylang-ylang
base: sandalwood, vanilla vetiver


top: green notes, almond blossom, orange
middle: jasmine, neroli, tuberose, ylang-ylang
base: sandalwood, vanilla vetiver

Frangipani is listed for Mayotte, but not for Mahora. Almond blossom and orange are listed for Mahora but not for Mayotte. How, in the light of such evidence has this clear-cut case of false identity persisted for so long?

In fact, applying my well-intentioned but ultimately irrelevant olfactory test to any number of pairs of reformulated perfumes, one would conclude, erroneously, that they are not the same. That is to fall into a sort of fantasy world about perfumes, which do not exist as objects independent of the houses which produce them. The houses are the gods of the universe of perfumery, and the perfumes are at the complete and utter mercy of their gods. There are no Platonic Forms when it comes to perfume. There are only products being peddled to markets by hook or by crook.

The sort of deception which we deem unacceptable in our dealings with other human beings is the order of the day when it comes to the business world. The line between false advertising and seduction is impossible to locate when it comes to perfume, so long as its provenance is the house which owns the rights to the formula. By definition, Guerlain cannot commit fraud when it comes to their own perfumes, as odd as that may seem. They exhaustively define the parameters and contents of the microcosmic perfume universe coextensive with their house.

Whoever owns the formula of the juice, makes the rules.