Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Entry #25: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

tu quoque

I hardly ever use this expression in its Latin form, but in English? Oh yeah. My favorite translation: "I know you are, but what am I?" Another common translation: "Talk about the pot calling the kettle black." So basically tu quoque lies at the intersection of an insult, a fallacy, and snippy retort.

I was reminded of this expression while thinking about the perfume world and the place of perfumistas in it. I see a lot of "tu quoque" activity going on, to be perfectly frank. Perfumistas crying foul when perfumers reveal that they don't give a damn about them is an excellent example of behavior just crying out for a tu quoque charge. Why? Just go to Fragrantica and read all of the reviews of any famous perfume, and you'll find that the most scathing, nasty, back-stabbing, often hostile reviews are written by, not the untutored Joe and Jill fragrance lover who fall just as easily for the perfumes of Justin Bieber and Britney Spears as they do (or would, if they tried them) for Creed and Bond no 9.

No, the truth, my fragrant friends, is that perfumistas, unlike the unwashed and ignorant masses, are not marketing force multipliers for perfumers and their associated houses at all. On the contrary, a niche perfumer may travel to a fragrance community website looking for reviews and discover that, lo, the only person who has left an evaluation is some uppity "I'm an expert because I've made 800,000 posts to the forum at D-Notes" writer who insists that (1) the price is way too high; (2) the composition is redundant beyond belief; and (3) it may even be a crime against perfumery.

So, my fragrant friends, the next time a perfumer pipes up to reveal that perfumistas are nowhere close to being his muses, rather than throwing (another) temper tantrum, you might want to go take a look in the mirror.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Entry #24: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

ad infinitum

This expression means "infinitely" or "to infinity". It applies to the world of perfume in a way becoming more and more obvious with each passing day. The last time I looked at Parfumo's database there were about 30,000 perfumes listed. Today, there are 34,518. The upshot: it has become humanly impossible to review all of the perfumes in existence, or even all of the new launches.

Back when I began reviewing perfumes, in December 2009, I felt that it would be a wonderful thing to review all of the perfumes in existence. Little did I know at the time that the niche house and launch explosion had only just begun. Add to that the rapidly proliferating flankers and limited edition launches by the major design houses, and it becomes clear that not only is it impossible, it has become undesirable to review all of the perfumes currently being pumped out of factories. It's not even possible to get caught up. Take a day or two off from reviewing, and a hundred  or more new perfumes will be waiting for you!

The completion of the reviewing process is no longer within human reach because launches are happening faster than any person can sniff. As a result, it has become even less possible to competently craft a comprehensive guide than it was back when The Holey[sic] Book was published in 2008. Any such book published at this point in history can serve as little more than a marketing device for the houses lucky enough to garner positive reviews. Negative reviews could spell the demise of an enterprise barely staying afloat, and the houses entirely omitted are tacitly dismissed as "irrelevant" fly-by-nights. 

I'll keep reviewing, but I won't be seeking out big sample sets from any more of the new multilaunchers. It seems that I may finally have become a believer in induction...

Monday, October 21, 2013

Entry #23: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

reductio ad absurdum

One Latin expression leads to another... I was replying to a comment on the non sequitur lexicon entry post, and I used the expression reductio ad absurdum, so it occurred to me that I should define it. Basically the phrase means that the assumption of a certain idea leads to absurdity. The example in my comment had to do with perfume, so why not simply repeat it here? 

Some have claimed that it is artificiality which makes perfume art. Scents occur in nature, but perfumes are composed, bringing together combinations of scents in new ways which do not exist in that combination in nature untouched by human beings. By this definition, every scrap of clothing, every rag worn by any human being throughout the history of our desire not to run around naked, is a work of art.

My favorite reductio ad absurdum of that idea is the manmade, artificial creation known as "dryer sheets". Are dryer sheets works of art? Presumably not. So the assumption that what makes perfume art is its artificiality has been reduced to absurdity, since it would imply, too, that dryer sheets are art!

Perhaps some will play the devil's advocate and retort that dryer sheets and loin cloths and leaves worn to cover private parts really are works of art. In that case, the original assumption is simply reduced to vacuity. If everything is art, then nothing is art!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Entry #22: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

non sequitur

The Latin expression non sequitur gets thrown about a bit by me, and it might not be known to everyone. It simply means: does not follow. The expression refers to a conclusion or inference or implication which is somehow unconnected or independent from an assumption or premise mistakenly believed to be logically related to it.

A great example of a non sequitur running rampant in the perfume world is the notion that if perfume is not art, then this implies that it is somehow inferior, less valuable, less worthwhile, less noble, etc., than the products of the beaux arts (fine arts). This is a big, fat NON SEQUITUR!!!!!! 

There are many ways in which perfume is a lot more valuable than fine art, as Bryan Ross has persuasively argued over at From Pyrgos in a provocative piece, Perfume is Higher than Art. Perfume connects with each of us on a daily basis in intimate ways, in which most of modern art (often conceptual) does not.

Unfortunately, the confusion about this matter is constantly being fueled by the pseudo-righteous indignation which continues to be spewed out by some who have attempted to tether their future and fortune to the indefensible thesis that perfume is art, not design. I don't really expect to see this confusion cleared up during my lifetime, and the low calibre of what is being fobbed off as intelligent thought about perfume does not bode well for increasing interest in the topic among serious students of art and design theory. From a distance, the fervor with which the thesis is propounded without argument, in loud proclamations--as though the volume of a voice might obviate the need for reason--leads many to think that perfumistas are no better than drug addicts. And perhaps that is not untrue...  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Do Perfume Managers Matter?

One nice thing about having a blog is that you can do whatever you like there. Really. Long essays, short essays. Manifestos, haiku. Serious criticism, frivolous fiction. Film essays, satire, rants, confessions...--it's all open to the writer, and there is no annoying editor hovering above attempting to turn every occurrence of 'which' in your text to 'that' because some tyrannical American copyeditor at some point about fifty years ago decided to rewrite the rules of English grammar for this side of the pond.

A blog is not a job, and it is the most open forum for free expression in the twenty-first century, it seems to me (who else, after all?!). Many bloggers extend apologies for absences, dereliction of duty, and the like. I believe that I may have done that in the past once or twice. But I'm turning over a new leaf today. This is my blog. If personal reasons, or "other priorities", as former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney would say, prevent me from sharing the eruptions of my cortex for an entire month, well, you can be sure that those were pretty good reasons. Why? Because they were sufficient for me.

That said, I'd like to discuss a single sentence today from a lengthy book which I hope to review in the future, but I cannot yet, as I am still reading it. I often find that thick books written in French about perfume (yes, there are a few...) throw out all sorts of incredibly contentious ideas as though they were conventional wisdom. Maybe the French think differently about perfume than anglophones? I'm not so sure, but eventually I'll mow my way through and post complete reviews of all of these very interesting books, which I picked up during a buying spree at

For now, let us start with a single sentence packed with meaning and debate potential and open up the salon for a rousing discussion of what precisely it means and implies to other people as well as me. The sentence comes from one of the very few published books on the philosophy of olfaction, or the sense of smell. This book is much more about perfume than anything else, and focuses on aesthetics, the art question and the like, but the title is:

Philosophie de l'odorat (2010)
par Chantal Jaquet

A Philosophy of Olfaction
by Chantal Jaquet

The intriguing text, on page 245 of chapter 4, "L'art olfactif [Olfactory Art]," follows upon the author's discussion of the shocking disparity between the costs of marketing and packaging and management, and the actual amount of money spent in producing the liquid perfume itself. 

We have discussed this topic here at the salon de parfum before, but for anyone who missed the Daily Finance article "Behind the Spritz," the gist of it is that of the price of a $100 mainstream designer fragrance, only $2 goes for the actual juice.The rest... well, read the article, and you'll find out. In the text preceding the quote to which I'll turn shortly, Chantal Jaquet has been quoting Annick Le Guérier, who basically argues that if only 2% of the production cost is the perfume, then it's not possible to use expensive materials. (She may have been drawing on the very same article, since the figures are identical, or perhaps her discussion and the article had the same source.) I do not have a copy of Guérier's book, Le parfum des origines à nos jours [Perfume from its origins to the present day], but hopefully I'll find one at some point. Guérier writes (and is directly cited by Jaquet):

"Pas de rose, pas de jasmin, mais des produits de synthèse pas chers."

[No rose, no jasmine, only cheap synthetics.]

Well, we've all heard and smelled this abstract song and dance before. But Jaquet reasons from Guérier's observations about the proportion of production costs now being invested in the perfume itself (as opposed to everything else) that

"Dans ces conditions, il est clair que la qualité du parfum, 
s'en ressent et qu'il n'est guère question de création artistique."

[Under these conditions, it is obvious that the quality of the perfume will be affected 
and can hardly be a matter of artistic creation.]

First question: Isn't this a non sequitur? Does it follow from the fact that marketing and other costs absorb most of the price of a fragrance that it cannot be an artistic creation? I think not, but following Bryan Ross over at From Pyrgos, it seems clear that the problem for the "perfume is art" thesis is not the percentage of the production cost but the very fact that perfume is created to satisfy the caprices of other people, and therefore is not purely an expression of the perfumer's will. Given the "political economy," so to speak, of perfume production, it is properly regarded as a product of design--just like all other designed objects. It's not that the materials being used today are cheap, but that the entire process is dictated by business managers who make all of the big decisions. With only rare exceptions, perfumers, in effect, serve at the pleasure of their managers.

A propos, at last we arrive at the text which I really wanted to share with you. It's a citation by Jaquet of the words of Patrick Choël, president of perfumes and cosmetics at LVMH:

"Penser à l'élaboration d'un concept, d'une idée forte et simple, trouver ensuite un nom qui le reflète, puis imaginer un flacon et un packaging unique, développer une campagne de communication adéquate et, enfin, créer un jus. Je place volontairement la création de la fragrance en dernier."

[To come up with a concept, a strong and simple idea, to find a name to correspond to the idea, then to envision a bottle and unique packaging, develop a solid marketing campaign, and then to create a juice. I deliberately leave the fragrance for last.]

Whoa. My fragrant friends: I do believe that we have discovered the solution to the mystery of what happened to post-Y2K Guerlain. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Monsieur Choël has written the playbook for many a new niche venture as well. 

Your thoughts? Please, weigh in!