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 Amazon.fr.
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!