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!


  1. Andy Tauer is his own boss. I suppose he is lucky, or ... he has considerable marketing talent (writing a blog and constantly traveling and exhibiting new scents) ... that he does not have to produce according to the whims of a brief which places the actual scent last. This must be a real dilemma even for an established in-house perfumer. Money first - art last. Nevertheless, even with these restrictions, some great current scents have been issued ... but that is not the topic of your article here. It has been nice reading, as usual, I feel enriched when I read your essays, Sherapop.

    1. Thank you, Ursula. Yes, there are degrees of freedom, with independent perfumers such as Andy Tauer serving as their very own business managers, so to speak. Maybe the market is a sort of "manager" in that case?

      You mention that "even with these restrictions, some great current scents have been issued..."

      This is an interesting observation because it may be that the "great" scents are great as wearable perfumes, not necessarily as acts of creation. Perhaps if perfumers had no market constraints on what they do, then they would produce wildly creative but ultimately unwearable juice?

      Anyway, my point is that the market may shape the output to conform to contemporary tastes. It's really a back-and-forth process, it seems to me, as is especially evident in the tsunami of oud launches... Everyone starts jumping on the latest bandwagon, and then consumers wear what is available, and their tastes are slowly modified so that what they were persuaded to wear eventually becomes their taste--what they want to wear and feel that they need.

      I foresee a future in which abstract juice takes over the perfume world because that's what most young consumers are being trained to believe is good perfume today, and it is in fact cheaper to produce, so business managers have no reason to return to the good old days. The IFRA restrictions on the use of natural materials are naturally hastening this journey...

      Our only refuge in the near future may be the all-natural, small independent perfumers who continue to hold the twentieth century torch high. Eventually, much further on down the line, people's concept of perfume will no longer include natural essences... Everyone will walk around smelling like the scent of shampoo and hair conditioner or home cleaning scents. Oh well, we'll be dead by then. ;-)

  2. Dear Sherapop, seeing that you are a Bach and Gould lover, I value your opinion... Not sure I can join in the debate you wanted to initiate, but after reading the quote: "No rose, no jasmine, only cheap synthetics,' I was thinking that this is exActly what is bothering me about the few small samples I collected since I started venturing into the world of perfume a couple of months ago. Where are the real oils and essences in the list of ingredients on the packaging? Or am I naive and overly romantic to expect them? It seems that what happened in to music, becoming an industry instead of an art form, is happening to perfumery to. Sadly....

    I have two questions:

    1. Do you think a perfume that contains only synthetic components is by any means inferior? (Wouldn't that rule out most perfumes?)

    2. Which perfumes do contain natural ingredients that are recommendable? Or is the list too long to post here? (I hope!)

    I've been searching online for lists of ingredients, but they seem to be difficult to find.

    1. Dear Standlpertjie,

      Welcome to the salon de parfum, and thank you for your comments. The ingredients list of perfumes does not list "essential oil" and that sort of thing unless the house is all-natural or organic, in which case they want to make sure that you know which essential oils have been used.

      In all other perfumes, the key ingredient is "parfum" or "fragrance", which contains all of whatever it is that was used to produce the scent. New labeling requirements have led to much lengthier ingredient lists, as specific chemical components (many of which are "ingredients" of essential oils) must be explicitly named.

      The only way to find out whether natural essences (real plant juice and other extracts) are being used is to read the house's mission statement. I believe that the vast majority of fragrances today use both synthetic and natural components. However, the vat-produced chemical soup which is typically used for mass-market celebrity juice and many other designer perfumes today is probably completely synthetic. Maybe there will be a token natural ingredient, but it just doesn't make sense from a business perspective to use natural essences when many consumers are perfectly happy to wear the outcomes of synthetic organic chemistry laboratory experiments.

      I was just getting ready to review Cartier Eau de Cartier Goutte de Rose, which is a perfect example. I've worn it several times now, and my take is that it literally contains a "drop" of rose. The rest is really run-of-the-mill "pink juice". It's better than some of the pink juice out there, but it really is not a rose perfume to my nose.

      After my bath last night, I donned Creed Fleurs de Bulgarie, which is a million times better. Why? I believe because it is a traditionally made perfume, featuring a large proportion of natural essences.

      How can you know what to use? Try before you buy! I have learned through trial and error that certain houses appeal to me much more than others, and it turns out that they tend to use a lot of natural essences. Two examples are Keiko Mecheri and Miller Harris, but there are many others, including some of the older family-owned French houses such as Molinard, Fragonard and Berdoues. On the other hand, many of the highly hyped and popular niche houses do not appeal so much to me, and my impression is that they use a lot more synthetic "stuff" despite their high price tags.

      In the end, these are all matters of taste, so again, I encourage you to test widely to discover houses which work for you. Hope this helps!

    2. ps: sorry that I misspelled your name, Strandlopertjie, just making my way through my first cup of coffee of the day. ;-)

  3. Thanks a lot, Shera Pop, that gives me some perspective. I don't have enough experience yet, but I have already noticed that I don't like the highly synthetic stuff and can notice when there's a natural rose in there. My user name is Afrikaans: the name of a bird, literally meaning beach walker. Understandable that you left out a letter!

  4. It seems that those in charge seem to think that most of those who buy these concoctions are not smart enough to understand differences some of us perceive as obvious. For example, how many scents smell like Armani's Code? I'm sure there are plenty of other examples like this (Acqua di Gio, etc.). It seems to be more about following trends at the cheapest cost possible, with a rare exception being a "trend setting" scent that sits on shelves for years before becoming popular.

    As much as the apparently more natural scents appeal to me, synthetics made "modern perfumery" possible in the first place! Recently, I wore vintage Xeryus Rouge, for instance, which I hadn't done in years, and was surprised at how enjoyable it was (half a spritz to the chest). I think LT said this one is entirely synthetic, though I'd guess there is a bit of amber in there. In any case, it seems like in recent years some designer names can be expected to market "higher quality" scents (which may just be the amount of time tweaking the formula rather than the amount of naturals used).

    For me, the major problem is that today's designer scents seem to use so little naturals that most of their releases have hardly any depth. Because so much vintage designer has great depth, it's difficult for me to wear the new ones without thinking that I'd rather be wearing a vintage scent instead. Add to this the lack of complexity in most recent designer and it's a "slam dunk" decision on most days. Orientals haven't fared as badly, and of course gourmands are a fairly new idea, though I can't wear them often. Overall, I don't expect much from the "corporate world" and instead have kept myself busy with mostly "vintage hunting." Going to Sephora, Ulta, etc. these days has lost almost all its appeal, but I remain hopeful that a new release will actually be enjoyable on its own terms. That's one reason I continue to read blogs and reviews.

    1. Hello, Bigsly!

      You are right that using aldehydes in Chanel no 5 was what made it modern and unique. But who knew that it would eventually lead to the age of abstraction and chemical soup!

      I might write a post soon, "I've looked at vintage from both sides now," because I have...
      ;-) I definitely "get" what those in your camp are saying. I, too, have pretty much lost interest in the Sephora fare. I used to pick up my allotted three samples every time I went by one of those stores, but these days I'm more inclined to walk on by. Another place which used to be a great source for me but is no longer is TJMAXX. These days they seem mainly to peddle a lot of bad designer juice (soup) at prices quite a bit higher than those available online. This suggests to me that they are catering to a relatively ignorant sector of consumers these days... definitely not perfumistas. ;-)

      I suppose that what I said in my Charbydis and Scylla post still holds: I trust the small independents with a clear vision and a commitment to the use of high-quality natural ingredients. It's pretty clear that I prefer perfumes in the traditional sense. "Spare" and "abstract" juice just does not usually do much for me (and when it does, it is not positive...). The perfumes which I tend to favor are complex and definitely smell as though plant life was sacrificed in their production.

  5. Is "art" only "art" when it's done without any constraints, out of someone's own free will? Is the notion of artistic freedom the prerequisite of art as such? Could it not be considered an "art" to compose a perfume within the strict confinements of commerce? Et - bien-entendu - le flacon, lui-meme un objet 'art (sometimes!) and the entire "campaign" (often shot by famous directors, excecuted by celebrated actors) - is that not "ART"? We are back to the old discussion about the "artistic value" of a a perfume here. We know that the juice itself has little value (in terms of cost). Nevertheless even the cheapest and most synthetic fragrance can be pleasing to somebody's senses, could be someone's fancy. The fact that il n'y a "pas de rose, pas de jasmin, mais des produits de synthèse pas chers" is not in the least revolting. I simply hate the deceptive blurp about the finest essences and raw materials you get from almost all companies around the world. It's like inspecting the washing label inside the expensive dress you just bought: You paid 20x more than at Primark's and find out your dress was made in Bangladesh in the same sweat-shop as the stuff you wanted to avoid.
    By the way, I am reminded of all kinds of cheap aromachemicals when I smell the latest Guerlain fragrances (e.g. "La petite robe noire Edt") - but the salespeople insist it's made from "the best natural ingredients". Why is it that my shower-gel smells the same and costs a fraction of the Guerlain-scent?
    Sherapop, thanks for this great article, I really nejoyed reading it and just like always - you gave me food for thought (and pointed out a book I added to my reading list).


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