Thursday, June 27, 2013

FRAGRANCE IS FUNCTIONAL: How I learned to stop worrying about art and enjoy my perfume for what it is

Summertime presents a propitious opportunity to reflect upon the nature of perfume. Why? Because it's damned hot outside—at least here in Boston—and a good cologne can vastly improve one's oppressive and muggy and sweaty and otherwise unpleasant afternoon. How does cologne work its mood-elevating magic?

First off, it smells good. From bright citrus to clean musk to grassy green to violet leaf and lightly spiced tea, colognes manage to cover the gamut of scents found in the larger olfactory sphere spanning all perfumes, but the lower percentage of key ingredients makes cologne perfect for the summer months.

Yes, cologne cools and refreshes the body, particularly when applied as a splash, which is possible because of the lower concentrations of scent-making ingredients. More of the liquid which hits the skin is alcohol and water, proving yet again that hydration is good. With a few spritzes or a gentle splash, the spirit is immediately renewed as the air spinning off that ceiling fan suddenly seems twenty degrees cooler than it did. The action of the fan and the cologne are collaborating in a small piece of deceit: neither changes the temperature of the ambient air in the room, but together they fool the body into feeling much cooler than it was before.

My favorite colognes are those featuring a large percentage—preferably 100%—of natural ingredients. That's because in extreme weather conditions newfangled chemical soups sometimes morph in unexpected ways, just as I imagine perfumes do more generally when exposed to heat and light. Because the temperature is elevated even while the cologne is worn, I have found that the more natural it is, the better it tends to hold together and consistently smell nice. 

Cologne used in this way is obviously functional fragrance. Is it anything else? To be honest, my unedited response to this question is: Who cares? Is not fulfilling one important function enough to justify the existence of cologne? Why must it also be something else? Who says that it must be, and why?

I began thinking about this question recently while soaking in a scented tub and listening to one of Beethoven's string quartets. It suddenly dawned on me how much more complex and interesting even a single passage from a work of classical music is than even the most complicated of perfumes. Sure some of them (albeit fewer and fewer these days...) unfurl in interesting ways, transforming from one to another scent over the course of a wear.

In the most dynamic of cases, the perfume may undulate as its component scents wax and wane, leading one's nose to take note of different features of the composition at different moments in time and permitting a form of olfactory reflection and refraction to take place. But even in those rare cases of the most complex of perfumes, probably the closest comparison to complexity in music would be something along the lines of a four-chord pop song.

Perfume simply cannot, even in principle, scale the heights achieved by music, first, because it is so much simpler and, second, because our perception of it is so very subjective. I admit that I am pianist, trained in classical repertoire, and so my apparent disparagement or belittling of perfume may seem unfair to someone who, instead, has spent his life creating new combinations of scents. There may be some truth to that criticism, but I still believe that a finished perfume is considerably less interesting than any sonata or ballade, or prélude or mazurka or étude—or even two-part invention by J.S. Bach. I truly believe that even the profoundest of perfumes is nowhere near as interesting as even the simplest piece of music which I've ever played or heard.

Perfume is there to be enjoyed, a number of scents combined together in a small volume of space and usually not found together in exactly that way in nature. (Exceptions to the rule include realistic soliflores.) If masterfully composed, the combination of these scents will play out over time, but there is nothing even approaching tonal counterpoint to be found in a bottle of perfume. Even worse, owing to a variety of features peculiar to perfume perception in human beings, we cannot even seem to agree what we are talking about!

In approaching music, we have something to point to. There are key signatures and tempos and voices and refrains and codas. These are all written right there into the score, so no one can deny their presence. We can have a conversation about all of those aspects of music in the way in which we cannot so much when it comes to perfume because people do not even agree about what they smell, and its significance appears clearly to be determined by their idiosyncratic past history, values, and beliefs.

Judging by the reviews I've seen online, many people are affected by the note pyramids offered up by the house, even though it seems obvious that they are often a part of marketing the perfume and may or may not have any objective validity. My distinct impression is that many reviewers feel that they must perceive the official notes, and this may lead them to offer a narrative about the perfume which features those notes, even in those cases—such as highly abstract designer fragrances—where nothing even approaching the essences of the named flowers is present. What is in the bottle does matter, but it is mediated through an amalgamation of entirely subjective associations—and market-induced expectations. People are influenced to different degrees by marketing, and since no one else has lived our own life or walked in our shoes, no one else will perceive a perfume in exactly the same way that we do. Yes, you can tell a story about a perfume, but 99% of it derives from inside your head.

One might retort that the same can be said about music, which is just as subjectively processed, and it is true that people have different tastes in music and different levels of sophistication when it comes to understanding music theoretically. But two people who have been trained classically—say, two pianists—can talk about the objective features of a sonata written into the score. In stark contrast, two equally knowledgeable perfumistas may or may not agree about what they smell or whether it is any good.

While sitting in my tub listening to beautiful music and enjoying a pleasant scent wafting off the water, it occurred to me that the value of perfume has absolutely nothing to do with whether it will ever be exalted as one of the beaux arts by Western culture. It simply does not matter, at the end of the day, because the only reason why I really care about perfume is because I use it. My enjoyment of perfume is not different in kind from my enjoyment of the scent wafting off the bath water, even though the two scents may have been produced in entirely different ways.

Let me repeat the above confession: I use perfume, and I value it only insofar as it serves my purposes. It has no importance beyond its capacity to serve my purposes, to be used by me. A perfume never spritzed may as well not exist. I use perfume to scent myself, to cool off, to derive a sense of pleasure. But wait, there's more.

Not that we need any more, but I came up with a new argument against the “Perfumery is art” thesis. Here's how it goes: Home fragrance is functional. But home fragrance differs from perfume not in kind but in degree. We occupy our home, and when we wear perfume we may serve the same function as a scented candle to those around us—and also to ourselves. I have many niche candles: Diptyque, L'Artisan Parfumeur, Sage, Bond no 9, elizabethW, Etro, and all of them smell every bit as splendid as the perfumes of those houses which they feature. 

At the other end of the home fragrance spectrum are found Febreeze spray, Yankee candles, Wick plug-ins, and the like. If we allow that niche candles are art, then how to exclude all of these less noble forms of home fragrance? And if we deny that niche candles are art, must we not deny that the fragrances which scent them are as well? So here we have another conundrum, beyond the concerns so incisively articulated by Bryan Ross at From Pyrgos and Christos at Memory of Scent.

While thinking about this issue again, in the light of recent developments in perfumery, I also began to realize that even if perfumery could be considered art in some rare cases, it will never be recognized as such, in a general way, for the following reasons deriving from the current state of Western civilization:

1. Reformulation. Whether because of the IFRA restrictions (and now IFRA-inspired EU regulations) or for more crassly economic reasons, the once-classic perfumes have undergone vast changes in composition. The same names are being used in most cases (one exception being Christian Dior Miss Dior), but for the most part, the perfume bearing the name of an icon from the twentieth century has changed enough to make it impossible to say much about that perfume in a general way. Yes, once upon a time it was rich and had incredible depth. Yes, today it may seem flatter and less inspired, but people will continue to buy it because its reputation precedes it, and people's reception is informed by what they are told that they ought to believe. In order for objective masterpieces of perfume art to be exalted by posterity, they must exist in the same form as they existed when earlier writers described them. Does the Osmothèque solve this problem? I think not, but that's another story.

2. House management. The twenty-first-century phenomenon of corporate conglomeratization has affected many aspects of business in all realms of consumer goods, but the implications may be starkest of all in the case of perfume. Why? Because the answers to all of the key questions determining the fate of a perfume are made by managers who may or may not have any interest in preserving the original perfume intact. Publicly traded companies, as Coty recently became, are beholden to stockholders, and healthy profit margins become essential if a manager is to retain his position, as all of them obviously seek to do (unless of course they resign).

Such a manager will do what needs to be done to see to it that the stockholders are happy with the way the business is being run. Stockholders in Coty may or may not care about the intrinsic quality of the products. Many people in the world could not care less about perfume, and CEOs may in some cases number among them. The only thing that we can really count on is that if quality happens to translate into sales, then quality will be regarded by managers as good. If, on the other hand, quality eats into profits, then it must be sacrificed. If it becomes more profitable to sell many bottles at a lower price than fewer bottles at a higher price, then the formula will be cheapened. 

The stockholders of companies, in their capacity as stockholders—and whatever their personal feelings about perfume may be—want profit . Perhaps as individual consumers they appreciate perfume, but they'll have no problem with procuring their fine perfume elsewhere, using the funds which they reap from whatever it is that Coty does to maximize profit in the case of its various subsumed brands.

3. Niche houses—and autodidact perfumers—today abound and continue to proliferate. This niche perfumery industry has obviously proven to be profitable, requires little initial outlay or even professional training, and gives the power to create and profit from the fruits of one's labor even with no background or history in the area. It's remarkable, actually, the marked distinction between perfumery and the (other) arts in this regard.

No one decides as a result of a mid-life crisis (or reasonable facsimile) that the time has arrived to become a concert pianist, though one never took any piano lessons as a child or adolescent. To publicly profess such a plan would probably be taken as a sign of mental instability, even delusions of grandeur. Accomplished pianists have spent years upon years training to achieve even basic competency, and even more years to achieve the skill of a master pianist. In perfumery in the past, more or less the same situation appears to have obtained, which is probably why so many perfumers were born into families whose business it was to produce perfume.

In the past, during the golden age of perfumery, the skill of a trained perfumer was handed down from generation to generation, not claimed to be acquired in a short period of time by someone who liked perfume and decided to try to make some from an assortment of fragrance and essential oils which he began mixing together in his kitchen or garage. Just as a fondness for instrumental music does not alone suffice to make one a skilled musician, is it not rather pretentious and insulting to the history of perfumery (not to mention unrealistic) to suppose that one can simply “decide,” with no prior education or experience in the subject, to be a perfumer, in fact, next week?

But anyone has the right to pick up a paintbrush and take a stab at landscape or portrait painting, so why should aspiring perfumers not be able to do the same? one may well rejoinder. People can do such things, of course, but the lack of training and attention to detail of a professional perfumer will likely be missing. For this reason, among others, I believe that most of the current niche firms will cease to exist in short order. Some of these people will decide to move on, perhaps to obtain a realtor's license or to open up a fast-food franchise store. With so many choices, so many established and very fine perfumers who have dedicated their lives to perfecting their craft, why should consumers invest their modest wallet share in the work of dilettantes? The answer is clear...

4. Hype is what appears above all to sell perfume in the twenty-first century. New is good, everyone seems to assume. The next big thing is always just around the bend, and people are willing to invest large sums of money to own bottles of the latest “it” perfume. Once they have invested, they become more apt to defend the integrity of their acquisition, so as not to feel like a dupe.

Given the current state of the industry, it seems safe to say that the golden age of perfumery is behind us. Why? Because most perfumes produced today are simple, linear, and abstract. They are essentially mixtures of a few components to produce a “pleasant” scent. Perfume making in the age of the multilaunchers, who put out several or even dozens of perfumes at a time, has become a matter of mixing a set number of ingredients together in every conceivable logical combination. Lego perfumery is not the exception but the rule.

This, my fragrant friends, is what the business of perfumery has become, and it is hard to see how anything might reverse the seemingly inexorable forward-marching trajectory to greater simplicity and more cost-effective and abstract scents. Because nearly everyone in the mainstream is doing this--and many in the niche category as well--anyone concerned to survive in the competitive market must do the same, and all the more because modern people's tastes are being transformed in the process. 

Not so long ago, the house of Clean hit on a market-viable idea: give all people, including those who have previously shunned perfumes, a product which they can feel comfortable with. How could anything be more naturally and intuitively appealing than the scent of being clean? Today abstract sweet laundry and shampoo and conditioner scents are being sold as perfumes. The process by which this "clean agenda" is being inculcated in modern consumers is precisely the same as the process by which Gabrielle Chanel convinced women that they should smell like aldehydes: seduction.

Market forces and consumer behavior are mutually reinforcing. When consumers are essentially told that good perfume is clean and simple and abstract, then that becomes their concept of perfume. Now that the companies holding the key formulas of the classic perfumes of the twentieth-century have capitulated to the “modern way,” we appear to be moving more and more toward a toiletry-centric conception of perfume, which will become less not more expensive and comprise a large number of "temporary" fragrances whose market life can be expected to become shorter and shorter in the age of Twitter launches and flankers

Given this state of affairs, I see no hope for the vindication of the "perfumery is art" thesis. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, as things currently stand, the art thesis is no more and no less than a marketing tack used by exclusive niche houses. It adds an extra appeal to some sorts of consumers not unlike the appeal enjoyed by a perfume which is explicitly associated with a celebrity's name. It's probably not a coincidence that the celebrity phenomenon has infected niche perfumery as well, with “rock star” perfumers worshiped by throngs of fawning perfumistas, when in fact most such perfumers are simply doing their job!

So there you have it, my fragrant friends, how I learned to stop worrying about art and enjoy my perfume for what it really is: functional fragrance. If we are honest with ourselves, we must own that, in our day-to-day use of perfume, the art question does not matter in the least. So long as we are able to use our perfume to serve our own purposes, then we'll continue to be happy that it exists. Calling our favorite perfumes "works of art" adds nothing to them whatsoever. They are what they are: collections of scents which fill us with delight whenever we wear and smell them.

Now I do believe that it is time for a bath.


  1. Sometimes you hit the sweet spot. I bought my house some years ago when the neighborhood was considered "troubled." Now, its inner-city location has made it very desirable.

    I developed an interest in perfume back when eBay allowed inexpensive sales of decants and samples and P&G, Coty, LVMH, and others hadn't bought up anywhere near as much of the market as they have now. That probably was the Golden Age.

    If I were getting started on either one, I could neither afford my house nor my perfume collection. Perhaps what this means is that each generation finds its own joys, and few can repeat what the generation before had. As Carly Simon said, "These are the good old days."

    1. Hello, pitbullfriend and thanks for these comments.

      Yes, I believe that the corporate take-overs are a key factor in the end of the golden age. It is simply not true that Fendi is still Fendi, Kenzo is still Kenzo, Marc Jacobs is Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein is Calvin Klein, Jean Patou is Jean Patou, Rochas is Rochas, and, yes, I dare say: Guerlain is Guerlain and Dior is Dior. They have become new houses, in my view.

      It used to be that truly great, exquisite, wonderful, profound perfume was to be had from the mainstream houses. I no longer find this to be the case. At all.

      Oh well, time to move on!

  2. Oh Shera I agree with you the era of "Le Grand Parfum" is behind us. But a new era is opening. Basically we can divide the market in three segments, the inoffensive (mainstream or niche), the traditionalist and the novices. Sadly I see more interesting things coming from the novices. I hope that they will evolve and not become realtors. Much like in every other aspect of the market (and art) the underground seems to be becoming the place where the big things will be coming from. It may be just wishful thinking but I much rather smell Slumberhouse or O' Driu than another over-hyped, over-priced, over-packaged "beautifully blended" olfactive yawn.

    1. Dearest Christos,

      I admire your sunny optimism (perhaps it derives in part from living in the Mediterranean? ;-)), but I'm pretty sure that when it comes time to put juice to skin, I'll choose the "beautiful yawn" over the garage-produced "unique" oeuvre de jeunesse every time.

      To be perfectly frank (quoi d'autre?), I feel that these people are for the most part shooting in the dark. Occasionally they'll have a hit, but mostly we're just serving as their guinea pigs when we test their perfumes.

      I know that you believe in some of these people, and I certainly wish them the best, but as creative as some of them may be, novelty and innovation alone do not translate into great perfume in my book. If it is true, as I attempted to argue above, that fragrance is functional, then an "interesting" sample is not going to do much but translate into a new memory since I'll never acquire a full bottle of something solely based on novelty. It must also be wearable and indeed a pleasure to wear.

      Moreover, practically speaking, the long-term viability of the "garagistes" (to use the term from the wine industry for analogous producers in that sphere), depends on their ability not to sell samples and sample sets but full bottles. They will not do a lot of that without producing some "beautiful yawns", it seems to me. If no one can actually empty a bottle (or even decant!) of one of their creations, then it will never need to be replaced!

      I'm intrigued by your straddling simultaneously of two seemingly irreconcilable theses: first, that perfume is not art; and, second, that our best hopes lie in the novice innovators. Or can these two positions be reconciled? Pray tell!

    2. As all things "beautiful" and thought provoking, perfume can be part of an artistic process. Not all perfume is and clearly funtionalistic perfume (a perfume created to please) is by definition not art. However a perfume that comes alive through an artistic process can be art. It can also be beautiful or not. Wearable or not. I have argued with Mad Perfumista that truly artistic perfumes can only come in limited quantities, either because the creative process limits their quantities (O'Driu) or because the limited amount of raw material does (Slumberhouse). MP does not think that this kind of approach can be profitable for perfumers. But this is more of a functionalistic argument.

      What I mean is that the same way not all paintings are art (some are beautiful craft) not all perfume is art. And although there is nothing wrong with a perfume that just smells good, my personal inclinations are looking for those perfumes that are created by a need to say something, to experiment. Corticchiato is a perfumer that manages to play both fields and he has my respect.


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