Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lessons Learned:The Serge Lutens Wax Sample Haiku Project

Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Prolegomenon 
to Any Future Phenomenology of Perfume Perception

It all started so simply, as these things always do. One small step leads to another, and then another, and then another, until finally an inexorable sense of commitment is formed, and one must follow through in order to finish what one has already begun.

That is precisely what happened in this case, believe it or not. I did not scheme for five months—from January 31 to July 1—about beginning the very first phenomenology of perfume experiment precisely on July 1, 2013. No, I did not. It happened completely by accident, or perhaps divine intervention—or reasonable facsimile (I am agnostic, after all). Something, some unknown force, led me on July 1, 2013, to pick up the attractive black wax sample folio which was sent to me last year by the house of Serge Lutens. I had thought before about when to begin sniffing the samples, but there was no real planning involved. Instead, I just pulled out one of the cards and began. It happened just like that, and I did not even realize the date, until I came to the salon to post the first wax sample haiku. But then, of course, it all made so much sense: thirty-two wax samples; thirty-two haiku. The first foray on the first day of July. The rest is history.

Yes, OCD kicked in, and I could not resist the pull to continue on and on and on. Once five were finished, then I was already committed. There could be no turning back. To stop then would have been to admit defeat. Now that it's finally over, and all six of us can finally breathe a deep sigh of relief, it is time to take stock. What were the lessons learned from this extended haiku holiday of sorts in the land of le grand Serge?

  1. I learned that perfumes are nothing but a bunch of smells stuck together. They are no different from smells in nature except that groups of them have been clustered together, and that cluster has been christened some name (often arbitrary) and captured in a form where they can be found together again (usually in a bottle). Perfumers can be viewed as matchmakers of sorts, who bring together scents which are not married naturally in nature, but which work together harmonically. Sometimes...

  1. When I sniffed each wax sample, I discovered that the different scents brought together were sometimes confusing and muddled and corresponded to no single and precise scene in reality. Could such a fixed marriage between seemingly incompatible scents be sustained? Or would they not represent a divorce waiting to happen, and accomplished through a bath?

  1. No matter how cacophonous the mixtures sometimes seemed, they did, nonetheless, manage to remind me of groups of objects. Sometimes it took a couple of minutes, but eventually something more or less clear and distinct would pop into my mind.

  1. Haiku ended up being a reasonably good way to capture small parts of my experience of these clusters of scents. In some cases, I had difficulty coming up with an image, because the cluster really smelled like nothing recognizable to me at all. But I was always able eventually to come up with an image or two or three of what the smell(s) reminded me of. The challenge then was to devise a haiku meeting the 5-7-5 syllable requirement. Sometimes I ended up changing the image, tweaking it so as to be able to conform to the rules. Perhaps a more honest phenomenological study would need to be completely free form, with no restrictions or requirements whatsoever.

  1. It can be said without hyperbole, I think, that these wax samples served more as Rorschach tests than anything else, because the images evoked were deeply embedded in my mind, or created by combinations of other images deeply embedded in my mind. Once again, Christos of Memory of Scent has been vindicated: perfume, no matter the medium in which it is delivered, above all is this:

“a mixture of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives, 
and solvents used to create, modify and recall memories”

  1. I do not have static memories. My memories are dynamically connected so that I'll think of one object and then another object and then another. When I attempted to conjure up a single image, I generally failed. Even when I came up with a scene, it was usually more like a film than a snapshot.

  1. Throughout the thirty-two trials of this project, I felt a sense of liberation in knowing that I had never promised to be delivering reviews, so no one could really take issue with what I ended up conjuring in my mind and transforming into a concise text. In some cases, each line was a different image; in others, the lines were parts of a bigger image. Sometimes I felt that I was just making something up, but then I wondered to myself: how is making something up different from finding an image in my mind?

  1. I have to admit that the haiku structure requirement made me feel a bit less free, but it also made this more fun than simply penning a free-form review. Despite the structural constraint, I still found haiku somewhat less stifling than the tugging sense of obligation to “capture” the scent for readers looking to find out “the objective truth” about a perfume. By this I do not mean to suggest that I agonize over my perfume reviews, but it seems that I do feel some sense of obligation to say something useful, which in my more reflective moments I regret, as I do not believe that reviews are ever objective, so the most that anyone can do is honestly to report their idiosyncratic experience and ideas. The “requirement” is really just this: explain how it is possible for a person to experience this perfume in certain very precise circumstances and at a certain time and under particular weather conditions and while in a certain mood. In other words, perfume testing is not really open to “scientific confirmation” at all, since it is impossible to isolate the variables or to reproduce the same experimental setting twice!

  1. Lots of smells overlap, especially perfume smells. On several occasions I found myself erroneously guessing what the identity of the perfume was—usually either Fleurs d'Oranger or Arabie. Ironically enough, neither of those perfumes, which I had tested and reviewed earlier in liquid form, was included among the wax sample folios! Part of the reason why I kept thinking of those two perfumes was that so many of the Serge Lutens perfumes are either thick and powerfully floral (Fleurs d'Oranger) or spicy and heavy, with an emphasis on culinary scents (Arabie). Each time when I guessed that I must be smelling Arabie, in fact, it was something else entirely, albeit also something with heavy spices and dried fruits—at least to my nose at that time. It seems not unfair to say that a lot of curry and cumin is circulating about chez Serge, and it is clearly an acquired taste whether in cuisine or in perfume. On one occasion, I literally expressed gratitude outloud (and HRH Emperor Oliver can back me up on this) that I had been spared the curry and cumin that night through the benevolent intervention of the scent gods—or reasonable facsimile.

  1. My impression from several tests of the liquid perfumes of this house remains that many of these creations are event scents, good for experiencing but not necessarily all that pleasant to wear, and probably not something which I wish to smell like to others. Some of the wax samples conjured negative and even ugly images. I did not like the way they smelled and would not want to smell like them nor to  smell other people who smelled like those perfumes.

  1. Negative images were elicited by some of the wax samples during my initial wearing, as I devised my haiku, but a few of them ended up smelling much nicer later on down the line. Others, however, did not. As a result of my desire to finish all thirty-two wax samples during the month of July (with one running over to August 1), I was forced to modify my bathing schedule from summers past, when I often bathed in the morning. (Occasionally, on super-hot days, I have been known to take two baths, as my humble abode is air conditioning-free.) I found this year that I needed to take a bath at night, after my wax sample haiku session, for fear that the unpleasant or simply strong scent would induce nightmares in me. My concern on this front was caused by my knowledge that whenever I eat spicy food late at night, I have dreams about murder and mayhem. No, I am not joking, and I could not take that chance, as I had other things to do this month aside from the wax sample haiku.

  1. I learned that whatever I attend to in the moment seems essential, but it's really just a selection, and had my focus been on something else, then that thing would have been essential, at that moment, to my mind. This confirms, again, my long-standing belief that perfume review experiences probably should not be stable, at least not for any perfume with a fair amount of complexity. Because I can only focus on one thing at a time, my take on a perfume will be a function of how much time I spend thinking about it. If I apply a perfume and then go do something else, I'm bound to miss many of its facets.

  1. This selective attention problem helps to explain the sometimes radical divergence in opinion about a given perfume at fragrance community websites. Some people really focus in a dedicated way on a perfume over several hours; others take a whiff of the top notes and call it a day. These two approaches are bound to produce very different reviews, even by people who have had similar experiences in the past. Of course, none of this is new, but it seems to confirm some concerns expressed eloquently by Bigsly at Bigslyfragrance on a number of occasions. He is fond of reminding readers that he ignores top notes, but it seems clear from many reviews, that perfume wearers often have neither the time nor the patience to “wait it out”, so to speak.

All in all, this was a valuable learning experience, the most important lesson of which to my mind was that perfumes are really smells. As trivial as that may seem, I somehow find it profound. Perfumes evoke memories of groups of things because those or similar things have been smelled before in reality by the perceiver. In many cases, the smells are associated with other perfumes, but they are still things in reality which have been smelled before as distinct and isolable entities which can be found again and again, as someone somewhere decided to group a certain set of scents together and capture them in a small volume of space (again, usually inside a bottle).

These findings help to explain why laymen (by which I really mean nonperfumistas!) believe that perfumes are not works of art but scents, similar to the way in which the chirping of a bird is a sound, not a work of music. Phenomenologically speaking, that is precisely what they are, and although we may wish to lay an elaborate theoretical lattice upon our experience, in the end, comparisons to non-perfume scented things occurring either in nature or in man-made reality are no less valid, and probably more, in some ways. 

As I think about all of these matters, I continue to reflect upon the elizabethW magnolia candle which sits on a bookshelf close to the computer in my living room. I notice it only about once every several days—sometimes less often than that—but each time that I do, I find myself delighted by the scent and amazed that I had not the slightest perception of it for the several preceding days, during which it ceased to exist, for all intents and purposes, to my mind.


  1. The other four readers and I were delighted to read your haiuku series. Not only because I have a special connection with the house of Serge Lutens - those scents can easily be translated into stories in my mind - but also because in a way I could follow you around your daily life, picking a sample, applying it, analysing it and eventually bathing it off. I know this sounds a bit scary but we have to accept that what makes blogs interesting is this "look through the keywhole" aspect, the fragments of life. Your month long obsession with the wax samples created a trail which we, five readers, have been happy to follow.

    I could not agree with you more on your remarks and lessons learned. My model for scent perception comes from a childhood memory: waking up in the middle of the night in a room lit only by a night-light and, with my mind half-awake, catching the outline of a stack of cushions. What I saw during the first few minutes was never a stack of cushions, after all I had a very vivid imagination. Sometimes it was an elephant, others it was a stranger sitting in my room. Sometimes I was buffled, others I was scared. It took a lot of time to actually separate what my retinas captured from what my brain was seeing but the emotion was real.

    This is how I believe we all perceive perfume. The angle at which we look the stack of cushions/ amalgamation of notes is defined by our emotional state at the time and the attention we can offer (your points 12 and 13). The outline that we capture is largely defined by this aspect. But what that outline translates into has more to do what is in our minds at the time. The human brain can never "see" something for the very first time unless it is given time to acknowledge all its aspects and the fact that this is something seen for the very first time. In all other instances, be it a dimly lit room or a smell never before experienced, a new experience will always be translated into something that already exists in our vault of memories. The more complex the outline, the more difficult it is to capture its shape and the more necessary to correlate it with something we already know, no matter how absurd this could be, like an elephant taking its time in the room were I slept. Somehow a simple irrational memory is more believale than a complex, perfectly rational first impression.

    One can spend hours analyzing whether a leather scent contains this or that aromachemical, giving it an aspect of raw hide or expensive leather bag. The truth is that this is irrelevant for most of us. What is relevant is the attention we pay to each scent and what memories this triggers. This is why most "objective" reviews end up reading like a press releases and any attempt to report perfume objectively finally negates the reason of existance of both perfume and review. After all in our day and age the vast majority of fragrances are available in samples and decants, either officially or through the network of perfumistas. The truth is in the eyes of the child waking up in the dimly lit room.

    1. Thank you so much, Christos, for your kind words and this splendid account of your childhood experience, among other insights!

      Needless to say, I fully share your perspective on the inchoate experience of objects which present themselves to our minds as things in reality. I've been thinking about your amorphous object example and now I'm realizing that it is very similar to dream experience, except that there is no object in reality in the case of dreaming. Well, except that there is: again, all of our accumulated memories!

      You are right that we attempt to devise a little theory of sorts every time that we perceive something--or believe ourselves to perceive something--and that is precisely the point of phenomenology: the subjective experience is true to us in the moment, just as it is impossible to be wrong, phenomenologically speaking, about whether or not one is in pain, If you think that you are in pain, then you are. Whether there is an objective cause for that pain outside your body is entirely beside the point.

      Your sketch of reacting to an unknown amorphous shape reminds me a lot of my own experience of seeing a car off in a distance and believing that a person is sitting in it, but then getting closer and realizing that I am mistaking the car seat for a human body. I have lots of other examples of this sort of mistake as well. You are right that the emotions created by the rush to interpret in the moment are just as real as they would be were there an actual source corresponding veridically to the perception.

      I also agree with you about perfume reviews, and I occasionally vow to myself to abandon the orthodox review format and only to tell stories when I review a perfume (as in my personal essays here at the salon, about Blonde, Oscar, Arpège, Mitsouko...). In the end, I invariably wind up talking about whatever I happen to feel like talking about, which may or may not include a story. ;-)

      Judging by the balloon-popping behavior over at Fragrantica, some people appear to find annoying when I launch into social criticism in the middle of a perfume review, when in reality that is my authentic voice--I am a skeptic, after all! I am not a shill, and I don't do press releases, and while I like to find something positive, it does not always happen.

      The world of perfume reviewing is quite chaotic, it seems to me, because many people appear to labor under the misconception that there are objective truths about perfume (the 100 greatest perfumes of all time, and other nonsense along those lines, ahem), and they are looking primarily for confirmation or disconfirmation of marketing texts, along with shopping advice. But why should anyone heed the advice of a complete stranger, whose tastes may or may not bear any resemblance to their own? As for "notes": to me they are metaphors and marketing ploys, no more and no less.

      Your final phrase is simply beautiful, in addition to being profound, and I thank you again, Christos, for sharing your insights:

      "The truth is in the eyes of the child waking up in the dimly lit room."

    2. I think your dream analogy is excellent. This is indeed how smell perception works and although I implied it I didn't realise it until you worded it. And it is perfect not only because it maps the way experience is used to interpet smell but also because it can demonstrate the difference between objective and subjective reviews: the former is like trying to explain a dream based on a book, the latter is like explaining a dream through analysis. Obviously both ways have their fans but I, subscribing to phenomnology, believe that what one says trying to explain a perfume says a lot more about themselves than about the perfume itself and I like this approach.

      I read your review of Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier Fleur d'Iris and although I get a doughy iris throughout its development, that is usually confined in the top notes in most other perfumes that feature this note, you get a rose perfume. Obviously we look at this stack of cushions from a different angle. For some reason rose makes a stronger impression on you. For me citrus notes and lavender are notes that I often miss. They are obviously there but for some reason they do not register with me unless I make a deliberate effort to locate them. After this they are experienced like an asterisk popping up mentally but still they are never the notes I can focus on.

      Your reviews, even the ones in your blog dedicated to reviews, are never trying to showcase a perfume as it comes out of the bottle. They are always infused with your views so some tows are expected to be stepped on.

  2. Thank you for the long and elaborate description of your learning experience. Putting perfumes or wax samples to a test ought to be nothing new to you, Sherapop, as you have written countless reviews. I had to look up words in the internet wikipedia, like phenomenology and it was explained that it is the very personal (me, me, I, I) approach to experiencing anything. You then put the results into Haiku structure, and I giggled a few times, over the past days, and thought that you, Shera, from a very elaborate writer put the result into very bold and short words, just the bare facts, so to speak.
    Thinking about the "I, I, me, me" approach of experiencing the perfumes surrounding us, do you think that there is some value in saying that we want to smell skin smells ... from the nursing baby on forward? We abhor dangerous smells like something burnt. We reject throw-up or fecal smells, as they are smells of excretion, something that the body gets rid off.
    I love the way how you stretch my knowledge because I tend to be impatient and try to just "sum things up" for the sake of expediency and convenience. Thank you.
    One last small grammatical correction on your German headline would be to fix it this way:
    "Was ich gelernt habe."
    Because you surely are a perfectionist, please don't misunderstand this grammatical correction from another perfectionist ...
    Have a nice morning (as we continue sniffing).
    Ursula / Pipette

    1. Vielen Dank, Ursula/Pipette!

      I actually realized my mistake in the German text while bathing last night, but I had already turned off my computer for the day (fyi: this happens to me in German a lot, since there are about a hundred ways to screw up any sentence!!!!). I'm very happy that you reminded me, because I might have forgotten to fix it! ;-)

      More to follow on your other comments, but let me rectify my crime against German grammar gerade jetzt!...Jetzt gerade? MAINTENANT! ;-)

    2. Hello, again, Ursula! I've been thinking about your question about whether we seek out skin scents and the like. It seems quite possible to me, though a Freudian might be able to provide more insight on this question. ;-)

  3. I'm amazed by the volume of work you undertook. I missed the initial post (until now) so, while reading your haiku, I had no idea those were blind impressions. Now I'm amazed even more.

    Out of these 32, which (or at least how many) did you like as perfumes, not just scents?

    1. Thank you, Undina! I have to admit that near the end it was starting to feel like a homework assignment. A couple of times I was about to take a bath and then I realized that I had not yet done my haiku for the day! ;-)

      Of these thirty-two perfumes, the one which made it to my wish list, based solely on the wax sample test, was Iris Silver MIst. I own a bottle of Bois de Violette, and a couple of others were on my wish list already (based on tests of liquid perfume), but Iris Silver Mist was brand new to me and really leapt out to my nose as worthy not only phenomenologically but also as a perfume to seek out... Knowing my luck, it's probably discontinued. ;-)

    2. No, it's not discontinued! But it's in the exclusive range so it's either super-expensive (~$300 + tax) from Lutens US site and Barney's or dealing with scent mules from France/EU where it's EUR140. If you decide to go for it, I know (not personally but from buying from her) a "mule" who brings it to the U.S. for $225. You can find the contact information here: (disregard those 10% - with SL's perfumes she has a special price because of the limitation on how many bottles she can bring in).

    3. You do realise that this is the only Serge Lutens that was not created by Sheldrake. I wonder what is your opinion on Sycomore, a Sheldrake creation for Chanel

    4. Undina: thanks so much for the enablement (ahem..)--you are truly connected, which makes sense since you're so good at connecting the dots! ;-)

    5. Christos: No! I had no idea. That is truly fascinating! Now, of course, I'm compelled. ;-)

    6. Okay, I'm back. I had to go read my review of Sycomore, because I reviewed it so long ago (in 2010). I recalled liking it, but the details were murky. Here's the link:

      Looks like it's on my wish list, too, but got lost in the testing shuffle. I should probably retest before purchasing, just in case of infelicitous reformulation...

  4. Thank you for the wonderfully thought-provoking haikus. Since I'm one of many people, like you, who find SL strange and unappealing, I feel not only vindicated in some odd way, but after reading the above exchange between you and Christos, I also feel enlightened.

    1. You are most welcome, Deb, and I am delighted that you found this adventure worthwhile!

  5. Dearest Sherapop
    What a lucid and apposite summary of this major undertaking.
    Having re-read the poems, I'm amazed that they were written in relation to a blind sampling of the scents for so many of the images are so acutely suited.
    I'm not sure if I might be a sixth reader (lapsed and now returned, but please do keep news of your endeavours coming.
    Yours ever
    The Perfumed Dandy

    1. Greetings, Perfumed Dandy! I am honored that you have spent a bit of your staycation here at the salon! ;-)

      I felt that blind testing was the only way to go for this little exercise, to see which images were directly elicited not by the name or the reputation or anything but the scent, so I selected each night's sample without reading the name. This was easy to do, as I am very nearsighted, so by removing my glasses before pulling a folio from the envelope, there was no way for my eyes to read the name before the test. It may be difficult to believe, but I really am that blind! ;-)

      I realize that it stretches credulity that the final sample was Muscs Koublai Khan, the very perfume which I was dreading to encounter throughout the entire duration of this trial, but it really happened that way!


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