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.


  1. Much to agree with here, Sherapop, except I don't agree with you about degradation. Sometimes, although a scent is surely not the same as it was 50 years ago, it is still lovely and worth wearing. I don't do much antique hunting on eBay, but I did treat myself to an old (don't know exactly how old) bottle of Balenciaga Quadrille a while back. I have no way of knowing how it smelled originally, how it was kept, etc. But, wow, it's nice now! I'm glad I didn't write it off just because I knew it couldn't possibly be fresh. (Would you like a sample?)

    Also, it's not necessarily the case that a person selling vintage perfumes on eBay is someone who doesn't love perfume. It seems that there are a few folks on there who make a habit of liquidating collections from estate sales. Those may have been very lovingly tended, but the deceased may not have someone to leave them to who would appreciate them. Those sellers usually test their wares before listing them and, although they can't say that they smell as they originally did, they at least seem to weed out those that smell like water now.

    I've thought about how my perfume collection should be disposed of when I die, and I could think of worse fates for it than to be auctioned off on eBay and go to the homes of people who may love it as I did.

  2. Very nice to read you around these parts again, pitbull friend--thank you for your comments!

    Whether a "vintage find" is a success story or not is bound to be as subjective a judgment call as any of our evaluations of perfumes! I have a feeling that bigsly is going to weigh in here at some point and say that, for him, vintage hunting has been a positive experience overall, so why not continue? Well, he has written that elsewhere... ;-)

    I am sure that there are conscientious peddlers around, and finding them may be faciliated by the ratings system in place at ebay. I still think that we are better off looking for perfumes made by people today who ply their trade in the way that all perfumers did "in the good old days". Why, after all, are vintage perfumes good? It's not just because they are old. It's because they were made with a kind of care which seems more rare today, but is still around in certain corners of the perfumery world.

    Should we allow our perfume estates (lol) be auctioned off at ebay? I suppose that we have little control over what will happen once we're gone. I'd prefer to write perfumistas directly into my will. ;-)

  3. Just to be a bit of a devil's advocate, though, Shera Pop, vintages sometimes do use materials that are no longer available. So even the most conscientious perfumer could not create certain smells.

    I've also had even less success at finding indie perfumers whose work I mostly like & find to be a reasonable value than I have designer ones. I may have "beer taste on a beer budget." For example, I've smelled all of the Tauers except the Pentachords and Carillon - so, about 15 scents. The only ones I like at all (and I actually do LOVE them & have bottles of them) are L'Air du Desert Marocain and Lonestar Memories. I actively dislike almost all of the others. (Which is sad, because I think he's a great guy doing something important.) I've tried 11 of the 52 Keiko Mecheri scents listed on Parfumo and gave up because my reactions ranged from "meh" to "blech." (Again, sad. Another nice person doing good work.) Compare that to Kenzo, which has 86 listed on Parfumo. I've tried 22 Kenzos and found 7 of them full bottle worthy. (And, yes, the prices are lower. But I wouldn't wear the other Tauers or Mecheris I've tried if someone gave them to me, so price is not the limiting factor.)

    I've actually thought a bit about my perfume estate & am at a loss of what to do. I know numerous knowledgeable people who I might persuade to be my perfume executor, but the most knowledgeable people tend also to be the busiest. No one's taste is so similar to mine, I think, that they would actually want more than 10 or so of my bottles, I'm guessing. So, I'd prefer to have someone who is capable of being diligent on eBay do it, with the proceeds to help whatever animal organization I think is doing the best work at the time.(Because people burn out & such so much in animal rescue, a good group now won't necessarily be a good group in 5 years.) Do you or anyone else have a better idea?

    1. Hello, pitbull friend and devil's advocate! ;-)

      Yes, the materials may no longer be used (animalic musk is a good example), but nothing lasts forever, and the idea that the treasure at the end of the rainbow is sublime just because it was acquired after a long, arduous journey strikes me as quixotic, if not delusional. I am sorry if this sounds bitchy, but when I read people raving about their imminent scores from ebay of "sealed, perfect condition, vintage masterpieces", I have to believe that in many cases their expectations of greatness color the reception of the (obviously) degraded perfume. I talked about this in The Question of Vintage (or perhaps it was in another piece): will Jessica Simpson Fancy and Britney Spears Circus Fantasy suddenly become masterpieces once they are thirty years old and can only be "scored" from estate sales at ebay? Guilty as charged: I'm a cynic.

      As for your estate, my impression is that perfumes made today do not hold up as well as those from the twentieth century. They all bear that "use within 36 (sometimes 24) months" logo, and I do not believe that it is just a ploy to get people to throw out perfume and buy new bottles ever 2-3 years. I believe that the integrity of materials has really plummeted. Everything by Coty Prestige and LVMH now lists BHT among its ingredient. Why?

      If it's true that these newfangled, laboratory-produced perfumes are even more shortlived than the creations of the past, then all of your bottles will contain unwearable liquids by the time you pass, so I'd say: don't lose any sleep over this question, as your perfume estate may end up being worthless--aside from the value to collectors of the empty bottles. ;-)

      A propos of niche houses: I'm under no illusion that anyone should love all of the perfumes of any independent house. Why and how should that be the case? Since I do believe that it all comes down, eventually, to individual taste, there is no reason why you should fall head over heels with all of the works of Andy Tauer. That you found two is already cause for celebration, is it not?

      We've changed our sensibilities in the twenty-first century. The "signature scent" seems to be a dinosaur of the past, but your remark above suggests that you'll not be satisfied by any house with less than a 100% success rate. You're already one bottle ahead in the case of Tauer: you have found two creations which might have served you as signature scents--before the days of perfume promiscuity.

      Thank you for these excellent comments, pitbull friend!

    2. Hey, dear sherapop: A couple of quick clarifications (or efforts at them). I'm not saying that one should love all the perfumes of a particular house, indie or not. Just saying that I seem to have a better "batting average" with several designer houses than I do with indie ones, even though I might wish it were otherwise because I'd rather support the "little guy."

      And, also, I'm not saying that the old materials aren't degraded. But, given that a particular material is now unavailable, one may prefer having a degraded older version of it to having none of it at all.

      Hmmm. I guess whether Circus Fantasy is a classic in 30 years is going to depend a lot on what comes out between now and then, right? If the only things that come out in the interim are along the lines of Clean Shower Fresh (?), thennnnnnnnnn, maybe? ;)

    3. Thanks for these clarifications, pitbull friend, and more good points!

      Regarding "the little guy": I think that Bryan is right that I have adopted what looks to be something of a political stand. on this issue. However, it is not based on blind faith in indies. It is based on disappointment after disappointment in the mainstream realm. I do confess, however, that even if the quality were the same (which I am convinced it is not, because mainstream houses are producing so much abstract "stuff" right now, and I really prefer that some plant life be sacrificed in the production of the perfumes which I apply to my skin lol), I would have a weakness for the indies just because of what they are trying to do.

      If I clung to the indies even though their perfumes were worse than mainstream, then that would start to become irrational. But I do not believe that I am doing that. The reason why I love houses like Miller Harris and Keiko Mecheri is that, even when the compositions are not revolutionary, I can depend on the quality of the materials. Maybe I just care more about good materials than novelty, but I'm not finding either at the big houses these days...

  4. I have to say, I'm not sure I understand this third way. I'm not entirely sure I even understand the idea of needing a third way, or any way, but that's beside the point. By "islands of true perfumery," are you suggesting that designer fragrances, even reformulated, aren't true perfumery? What is separating the indies from the mainstream? Quality of materials? Olfactory "aesthetical" vision? Most of the niche fragrances that succeed are happy accidents, not planned megahits - if Tauer had known beforehand that Lonestar Memories and L'air du Desert Marocain would be headliners in the niche world, he might have become too neurotic to fulfill that prophecy. He was throwing a lot of things at the wall, hoping something would stick, and very little did. It seems to me that this is the reason why, as pitbull friend points out, so many niche fragrances fail to move, while perhaps one or two out of dozens manage to feel right.

    What's to become of brands like Tauer, L'Artisan, "Free Orange State," Serge Lutens, in twenty, thirty, forty years? Will they remain independent, or be bought out in a new bid for market share by massive corporations that offer sums so large no sane person would ever refuse? Be reformulated and repackaged and reduced, as some seem to see it? Or simply become accessible at mass market prices? Is the third way then to move on, abandon the affiliation with fragrances that you fell in love with? Find new independents, and hope that the cycle doesn't repeat itself?

    Or end up scrabbling around for the vintage Tauers, the vintage Lutens, the vintage "Free Orange States," etc? Some may think that this won't happen because it hasn't happened yet, but they'd be very wrong. Take a good look at William Lightfoot Shultz, founder and creator of Shulton Old Spice (and numerous other perfumes and matching toiletries). Seemed pretty niche to me. Almost one hundred years later, Old Spice bears a different manufacturing stamp . . . the rest is history.

    So, okay, I can now abandon Old Spice (or not) and focus my sights on something by any number of niche brands nascent these days, but if they're good enough, how do I know that thirty years later something won't change? I'm only thirty-one. In thirty years I'll look a lot like those old guys on ebay who are buying vintage Old Spice from me, and sending me gushing emails about how happy they are that I saved my grandfather's stock.

    1. Hello, Bryan, and thank you for your frank expression of consternation! ;-)

      The grounds for believing that the independents offer the greatest hope for perfumes with the integrity of the perfumes of the twentieth century are simply that "there is a perfumer in the house". That's it. The person who creates the perfume gets the last word. You can visit an independent perfumer and have a conversation about his/her creation in the way that you cannot do that with the houses now embedded in gigantic corporate structures and layers upon layers of public relations and marketing.

      I do believe that this is our best hope and it will remain our best hope for finding good and fresh perfumes here and now. Part of my perspective on this question, which to me is one, since the two alternatives, faith in mainstream and search for vintage, strike me as untenable, has been formed by my personal experience with new launches. Many of them, in a word, suck. I used to buy perfume blind all the time--in fact, in the twentieth century, I ONLY bought perfume blind. Okay, yes, I'd try stuff at the counter, but most of my perfumes were purchased scent unsniffed from Guerlain.

      This is simply not a possibility any longer. There are no rational grounds anymore for believing that a new launch from Guerlain is going to be likable--or even wearable. Times have changed, and there's got to be an explanation for this state of affairs. My best guess: it's the corporatization which has eaten away at these once independent houses through imposing new layers of bureaucratization and business mandates which may not only guide the production of new perfumes (created out of marketing data, not personal inspiration--why else would there be dozens of fruitchouli perfumes in the mainstream?) and cost-cutting modifications of formulas--both classic (in reformulations) and new.

      I do own, Bryan, that my Third Way is an approach which I have hit upon for myself. If you are happy with the mainstream, then by all means wear those perfumes. I have been disappointed over and over again to the point where I simply no longer trust Guerlain and Dior in the way that I was able to in the past.

      What I have called "The Third Way" counsels sticking with the independent houses--both today and in thirty years. When the houses you list above cease to be independent, then they will indeed be less appealing to me, because I have inductive grounds for believing that subsumption within a gigantic corporate structure leads to quality-degrading compromises. Because all of my arguments against vintage hunting today will apply to vintage hunting in thirty years, my advice will be then as it is today, to stick with independent houses, where there is a real, live perfumer who gets the final say on what is poured into the bottles bearing his or her name.

      Thank you for these skeptical remarks, Bryan. I hope that I have clarified why I believe that a third way is necessary and how my prescription does not imply that in ten years I'll be hanging out at ebay--I will not! ;-)

    2. Thanks for clarifying some of your points Sher. "Owning" your Third Way approach is certainly a wise thing!

      I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Bigsly here. He basically states that if you're someone who falls into either of the other Two Ways, then a Third Way is automatically unnecessary, and if you fall in neither of the Two Ways, then a Third Way would not be an option you'd ever consider, because you can't have a Third Way without first understanding those original Two. Geez, that's a lot of counting to three, isn't it?

      But if you like designer and niche and just pick whatever you like based on that, then you can steer yourself around, on a case-by-case basis, anything that fails to satisfy you, even if it used to satisfy you. For the theoretical shift into an "all-indie" universe would require a theoretical shift in how one approaches fragrance. Instead of being concerned with the final product, we're concerned now with the politics - Does the brand have an in-house perfumer or not? Is it using good raw materials or cheaping out? Are there unique products or copies of familiar territory? Tania Sanchez's "Law of Aspen" suddenly holds surprising weight - "the great secret of the nonluxury perfumes is that the only allure they have for their buyer is their smell." And indeed, I can point to any number of inexpensive "designer" or "drugstore" fragrances that were once lauded and still hold reign over niche variations on the same themes. Politics be damned.

      What about simply, "Does it smell good?" If you like vintage in general and feel vintage fragrances smell good, then you'll gravitate toward vintage. If you prefer new and designer fragrances, you'll probably stick to new bottles of everything.

      This highlights how Bigsly and I agree, but I'm not sure it highlights a way to compensate for how we (and people like us) disagree. We have a fundamental difference in how we view the value of the past, the legitimacy of reformulation, and what could only be described as a hypothetical "placebo effect of perfume" in considering vintage fragrances to possess virtues that reformulations do not. The bridge to these differences in opinion does not exist, because there are more than one territories of thought here, and no one bridge can ever cross multiple chasms. If there's a way to take our segmented thinking and connect it, make it all part of a "true narrative" so to speak, then we're getting somewhere.

      If I tell you that vintage Paco Rabanne is better than the current, and you disagree, then there's no way to insert the Third Way argument that we should consider indy brands in lieu of designers, and then come out with consensus on Paco Rabanne (and have us understand each other better, for that matter).

    3. So many interesting points, Bryan, and I was so sure that my case was iron clad! (Now, at last, it emerges that at least one of my images was well selected after all!)

      And you agreeing with Bigsly of all people: this is truly a bonanza! Let me get my wits about me (which will require my next caffeine fix, not scheduled until the morning since the only thing more important than coffee is sleep!), then I'll be back...

    4. Okay, here I am in a competently caffeinated state once again. Let's begin with this statement:

      "the great secret of the nonluxury perfumes is that the only allure they have for their buyer is their smell."

      Isn't this obviously false? Maybe I'm not sure what "nonluxury" is supposed to mean. Clearly, the vast majority of mainstream perfumes are sold by marketing images, not by scent. My distinct impression is that it is still true today, as it obviously was in the past (recall the story of Chanel No 5 in post-World War II France being bought up by GIs for their loved ones back home), that most consumers receive or give perfumes without having smelled them.

      When they are given as gifts, the purchaser may sniff it at the counter and choose based on his/her preferences--specifically how he/she wants the intended recipient to smell. But the recipient will accept AND WEAR the gift, so long as it is wearable at all.

      The alleged consumption based only on "olfactory properties", involves a false sense of "liberty", for the choices are exhaustively determined by massive marketing campaigns to such an extent that when untutored consumers hit the counters at Macys or Bloomingdales or Saks or Neiman Marcus or wherever they shop, the SAs already have a small palette of perfumes which they are attempting aggressively to sell.

      The range of choices, then, is determined by forces far greater than "pure scent" itself. If you disagree about this, please explain why most of the stuff on "the wall" at Sephora is becoming progressively homogenized. Isn't this because consumers are offered a small range of choices, they buy their bottles, and then their tastes are determined by what they have been offered? It seems to me a nice but romantic and patently false notion that people are selecting "nonluxury" perfumes based on some sort of context-free scent test.

      Again, perhaps "nonluxury" does not mean "niche"? Are you talking about Old Spice? Or drugstore Shalimar? What about cheap-o celebrity scents readily available in drugstores, such as the Halle Berry and Jessica Simpson perfumes? In all of these examples, it's the name recognition which sells the perfume in the vast majority of cases as well, is it not? Indeed, most drugstores do not even have tester bottles available.

      I'll post these one at a time, so that you can respond, if you wish, Bryan!

    5. You ask whether I have not embroiled myself in a logical quandary. We all seem to agree that if one is satisfied with the current state of mainstream perfumery or the vintage hunting enterprise, then a third way is unnecessary. But then you propose: "you can't have a Third Way without first understanding those original Two."

      I must not understand your point here. My experience with mainstream designer fragrances is that, as a group, they have plummeted in quality since the onset of what I call "the age of abstraction", which happens to coincide with the takeover of most design houses by megacorporate conglomerates. So I understand precisely what has happened in the first case, and I have offered reasons for doubting that vintage hunting is the best approach, given the absolute unpredictability of how old perfumes will actually smell.

      I share your skepticism, Bryan, about the term 'vintage' which is uttered with such reverence by "vintage lovers", who assume that "old" = "great". As a matter of fact, some of the vintage bottles in my collection are there because I never wore the perfume, which would seem to demonstrate--would it not?--that I myself did not find that perfume great. I never wore my bottle of Dior J'Adore edp. It is nearly full, in fact, and now it is "vintage". But if I did not like it when it was launched, how does its being old and the fact that the perfume being sold under that name has by now been reformulated change any of that?

      I suspect that the change in quality which I have observed at mainstream designer houses may be more manifest in the case of made-for-women than made-for-men fragrances. Why? Because men's fragrances launched in the past appear in some cases to have been afterthoughts. This may be changing today, as more and more men have crossed over the line which formerly prevented them from wearing "perfume". But it may help to explain why I am more disenchanted with the quality of recent mainstream launches than are you.

    6. Hi Sher, thanks for your response.

      It's not obviously false to me - it rings very, very true (maybe the truest statement made in The Guide). Aspen is the perfect example. Tell me - why would anyone buy Aspen? It has no marketing apparatus. It is at most $27 a bottle. People who go out to buy things have varying degrees of knowledge about fragrance. My parents, for example, had no idea Cool Water ever existed until recently when I told them. So for them, buying something like Aspen would be a reference directly to Aspen, as tried from a store shelf. Unlike Old Spice (which is steeped in eighty years of tradition), Aspen smells fresh and timeless. As long as they keep using real wintergreen oil in there, which is rather cheap but smells great, Aspen will sell because it smells good. Cheap packaging and non-existent marketing is no hindrance to people who walk into K-Mart looking for a cologne for the road.

      In addressing "non-luxury" I think you may have skipped a tier. Fragrances sold at Macy's and Sephora often go for over $70 a bottle. That's luxury, the lowest rung of luxury. Notice Sanchez didn't use the word "niche." Sephora is selling Tom Fords at around $120 per bottle, so that's not even the lowest rung. For "non-luxury" you have to look to the Aspens, the Jovan Sex Appeals, the Passion for Mens, The Wind Songs, Vanilla Fields, etc. Most of these I have not actually seen in drugstores, but you may have, although getting into the drugstore label here is a little precarious in my view. It's a matter of semantics and not actually a true classification, because drugstores are all different, and merely labeling something as such suggests that drugstores are the only place something is sold - like Mennen's Skin Bracer, for example. We're looking to older fragrances that have survived many tidal waves of designer trends and are still sold by certain departments like K-Mart and Target. Some are cheaper than others, but all fall under $35 per bottle.

      The outcome of this is that people are buying fragrances like Aspen across generational gaps, and those who were not around when it was released are still finding it appealing enough to buy.

    7. type-o above: I meant to say "perhaps "nonluxury" does not mean "NON-niche"

    8. You write: "The outcome of this is that people are buying fragrances like Aspen across generational gaps, and those who were not around when it was released are still finding it appealing enough to buy."

      This still does not show that it is the scent itself which is selling the bottles. Many buyers at that tier may view cologne like deodorant: you have to have one on hand, but whatever is on the shelf will do. This may be similar to parts of the country which have come to be termed "food ghettos". Everyone must eat. People will eat fast food because it is available, and they don't know any better.

      The fact that the ghastly drugstore versions of Worth Je Reviens or Caron Muguet des Bois are still being sold certainly does not demonstrate anything beyond the fact that there are people wearing fragrance with very poor powers of scent discrimination. It seems to me that many such people--and they may also be the consumers of "Smells Like" knock-offs, have a pre-set budget which keeps them away from department store counters. Some of them may have the money but regard perfume as trivial--again, like deodorant or toothpaste.

      Perhaps the statement is tautological? The fact that Je Reviens, as ghastly as it is, still sells at all proves that some people do like the scent enough to be able to wear it? In the same way that the fact that people continue to eat Spam proves that some people find it appealing? That does sound like a tautology to me.

      So it's not the "law of Aspen" at work here at all, for the same "law" explains the longevity of the perfumes which one abhors as well. If you happen to like Aspen, then it sounds like a wonderful explanation. But what about the survivors which are abhorrent to the authors? Then you need a whole different explanation, which will cover the abhorrent as well as the esteemed perfumes...

    9. Sher, your comparison of perfume to food ghettos above contradicts the premise of one of your earlier arguments:

      However, in that article you do clearly state that you are "on the side of GOOD perfume," and that "if they focus exclusively on business at the expense of art, then they may become the object of my critique" - I seem to recall you shifting away from the "pefume is art" camp in subsequent months, but your previous points remain intact. I'm not sure though, in light of your desire to separate perfume from food analogies, that I can really address that one with any inspiration.

      Again, as Bigsly and I have mentioned, the qualitative aspect of perfume can only be assessed subjectively. So wordings like "the fact that ghastly drugstore versions of . . . " simply suggests that YOU find these fragrances to be ghastly, and in no way implies that they actually ARE ghastly. Bigsly thinks Caron Pour un Homme's lavender in the latest formulation smells like burnt plastic. The vast majority of wearers are familiar with lavender, both expensive and cheap, and seem to feel otherwise, but that does not nullify Bigsly's experience, it simply isolates it. So Caron Muguet de Bois may seem cheap to you, but lovely to others, and no party would be wrong. The terms in your statement are therefore difficult to work with.

      The survivors of fragrance that I find horrible, like Le Male for example, continue to sell because they smell good to others. They may not smell good to everyone, but they smell good to many, and their fans are the buyers who keep them in production. If something does not smell good to ME, then it does not smell good to me alone as far as I'm concerned, but that does not mean it does not smell good at all.

      I also do not really agree that many buyers at lower tiers view cologne as deodorant. Some might, but most buy deodorant when they want to deodorize, just as most buy cologne when they want something to go beyond the call of functional deodorizing duties.

      I think there's an agree to disagree outcome for us here.

    10. Hi Bryan, my food ghetto example was more about availability and access than about intrinsic qualities of food and perfume. Sorry if I seemed to be contradicting myself, I continue to believe that "perfume is not milk", but the point of that piece was to criticize people who moan incessantly about what they take to be the high cost of perfume.

      Yes, you are right: I have changed my view about the art question--in large part thanks to you and Christos! Chandler may have inadvertently helped as well. lol

      You seem to concede above that "the law of Aspen" is tautological, but it also sounds as though you are prepared to shake hands on this one and "agree to disagree". Okay with me! ;-)

  5. Where I would raise a major issue with your post is that it seems too theoretical. I doubt that more than a very small number of people would be thinking along these lines. Instead, some people just buy niche, while most people buy what's at either Walmart type stores or "major" department type stores. Most people who think their old favorite has been debased or changed in some way probably either return it, just use it anyway (since it's not that important to them), or put it in the back of a cabinet, never to be seen again while they are alive (unless one of their kids "steals" it). As to "vintage hunting," if these are the kinds of scents you want, why would you pay niche instead? You can get great deals on ebay if you are patient, so that even if you get stuck with one or two fakes, such as the liquid being replaced by cheap stuff, it's still a terrific bargain! And with ebay, the problems are almost always settled in favor of the buyer, even if it means you return the item (and so wasted some of your time). The thing is to avoid the most sought-after scents, such as Patou Pour Homme or many if not most older Chanels. I would need you to make a better argument to deter me from vintage hunting, even if it was just on ebay and even if I was "starting from scratch" right now. What I have now that I didn't a few years back is the knowledge of what to look for (for example, in terms of bottle designs), but the reality is that those who really want vintage (like myself) already have plenty of it, whereas those who don't have you to understand the difference, if they ever will. And so we are back the where I started, meaning that I don't think many people will feel a need to consider the "third way" because they are already satisfied enough with where things stand. The one major dissatisfied element seemed to be those I call the "chronic samplers," and many of them seem to have gotten disgusted and left the hobby within the last few years.

    1. Good morning, bigsly, and thanks so much for your sage reply.

      I know that you already have a great collection of vintage bottles, so even if a world-wide moratorium were placed on the sale of perfume tomorrow (say by the EU and related entities), you'd be covered up to and including your dying day (just read your new post... lol).

      The important thing in all of this is that we not lose sight of what we are doing. As long as we are all still having fun and enjoying our perfume--whatever its provenance--then all is well. I think that sometimes people lose sight of the bottom line here: pleasure. Maybe this has something to do with the recent attempts by some to elevate perfume to a higher stratum. At the end of the day (again: just read your post!), perfume is about sensory pleasure. Once we are no longer capable of sensation, then perfume will be meaningless to us. And if we become obsessed in our quest for "the perfect scent", then we are bound to be disappointed.

      I was thinking again about pitbull friend's remark, in a comment above, that only a small percentage of niche perfumes appeal to her. It seems to me that given the explosion in launches, the same number of truly excellent perfumes must still be out there, but one must now sift through all of the "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" creations (thanks to Bryan Ross for that way of characterizing that mode of "composition"..) in order to find just a couple which we really like.

      Since I sometimes liken perfume testing to olfactory world travel, I don't have a problem with dead ends and "destinations" to which I have no desire to return. I agree with you that some people have become disenchanted, but that seems to be because they are looking for some sort of higher meaning in this enterprise where none is to be found.

      Thanks for weighing in on this issue, bigsly! I believe that you and Bryan and I are all more or less in agreement about the value of perfume, but we have opted for different approaches owing to our unique experiences and histories and values.

  6. Two points I want to make clear, one being that I am generally a very skeptical person, and in this context was as well. It was only when I compared some vintage samples to the new formulations I bought (thinking I was getting a "great deal") that I noticed some huge differences. Another blogger, AromiErotici, in fact, was someone who figured out the differences before I did and posted about them on Basenotes (he hasn't posted there in a very long time, it seems) was one person I thought was exaggerating years back, for example. And I didn't know I had vintage samples, so there could not have been a placebo effect. I think largely avoiding top notes helped, because you can really tell the significant differences in the base notes in many reformulations. Another point is that one can get a perfumer like Chris Bartlett to make you an oakmoss-rich scent ("bespoke"), but that's not going to be cheap; vintage is clearly the way to go if you want to save money, at least on ebay right now (where the buyer is well protected).

    1. I own some "vintages" myself, and while I understand there are differences, there are also drawbacks, too - one being that certain raw materials like sandalwood can "survive" the years more intact than certain synthetics, to the point where drydowns seem dominated by it, becoming one-note wonders instead of rich arrangements. By "placebo effect of perfume," I'm describing the kneejerk reaction to something being called "vintage," where such a label automatically elicits a belief in an almost-mystical superiority held in the formula, before, during, and after experiencing it. If someone handed you the same formula unlabeled and said simply, "this is becoming popular, try it," without revealing its age, one wonders if it would still hold pride of place over known reissues. I think you need to show people that you are blind for them to believe you can truly see.

    2. I have experienced over and over again what you, bigsly, are describing, in cases where a perfumista kindly provided a sample of a "classic" perfume, which I fell in love with and then purchased a bottle only to discover that the perfume currently going by that name is but a faint shadow of its former self. Naturally, it seems like a big fat con job to anyone who has had such an experience. We want to make judicious purchases, so we carefully test perfumes before buying only to discover that we have been duped in what is tantamount to a crass bait-and-switch operation.

      Bryan's point is well taken: only by doing a side-by-side using unmarked vials can we be sure that we are not succumbing to the allure of the epithet 'vintage'. However, since I am already a skeptic about the vintage enterprise, I feel that my experiences of disappointment upon sniffing new bottles of perfumes which were formerly lovable to me--the most flagrant example of which may be Mitsouko--I do not believe that my disenchantment can be explained away by some sort of nostalgic or irrational or mystical or religious fascination with all things old.

      As a matter of fact, I learned about the reformulation of Mitsouko only through my discovery that the two more recent bottles which I had purchased under the assumption that they contained the same perfume smelled nothing like the perfume in the bottle which I had drained. In other words, I learned of the reformulation after the sniff test, not before.

  7. Another thought. Because I am fairly involved in dog rescue, I know several people who have self-published books about dog rescue or about the stories of particular dogs. This leads me to read self-published books when I'd be unlikely to otherwise. It drives me NUTS how many of them skimp on editing. In fact, there has been a substantial decay in decent editing among books put out by large presses, too, but I can usually count on them to have only a handful of glaring errors. One charming but annoying self-pub book written by someone I know had at least one per page. (I volunteered to do some editing if he was going to reprint, but it has now been picked up by a regular press, which I hope will edit it.)

    So far, I haven't read a self-published book that I think is superior to a non-self-published one. I have, though, read stories that regular presses would not have picked up - some for good reason, some not. There's something to be said for the process of having several people go over a book and clean up not only language but logical inconsistencies, etc. Is this analogous to the world of perfume? Do I find a higher percentage of "hits" among certain mainstream houses because these products go through a panel of experts who smooth them out? (Not a well-developed thought, this. Just throwing it out there.)

    1. Great analogy, pitbull friend, of book editing to perfume editing.

      The "editing" process can go both ways, but it sounds as though you believe that the pros outweigh the cons. I do believe that Bryan Ross agrees with you and wrote about this very issue at his blog recently, extolling the virtues of the layers of approval which a finished perfume at a corporatized designer house must pass through.

      My hunch is that these days there is more homogenization than "correction" being done. The quirky, weird, "who would have thought of that?" perfumes probably get axed as unlikely to be profitable. Another problem is the "too many cooks in the kitchen" phenomenon, where a good idea is mangled because a perfume turns into a group project rather than a coherent creation by a single designer. I strongly suspect that good perfumes are also being tweaked after acceptance (a form of reformulation) to meet financial goals.

      In theory, yes, editors are good, and there is no doubt that the general lapse in standards in the publishing world in recent years to be lamented. (I spot grammatical errors in the New York Times all the time!) You are absolutely right that even the big publishers are skimping on the editing process. My recently published book (under my carefully guarded real name) was sent by my publisher to India for copyediting. I kid you not. The "editor" (scare quotes entirely intended) was so bad that I decided to copyedit the book myself (I worked as a professional editor in the past). There is nothing worse than the equivalent to "iatrogenic" editing, and I suppose that the same can happen in perfumery as well...

      For poor or sloppy writers, any editor is better than none. For people who already write well and know how to edit, a bad editor can do more harm than good. In perfumery, I suspect that the same is true, and "editing" by committee at large corporations must be market-data driven. What else could it be?


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.