Thursday, December 27, 2012

It must be my perfume

I've been studying perfume for several years now.  Much of my perfume journey has been documented on this blog, but to really start at the beginning, we must go back to the first 30 or so years of my life when I was clueless about perfume.  I thought they all smelled the same (and icky) and that perfumery was simply a marketing gimmick by a celebrity or fashion house.

In my late 20s I bought a couple of Yves Rocher fragrances because it seemed like a grownup thing to do.  I tried to like them, but they never grew on me.

Then around the age of 30, I smelled Tova on a co-worker.  I followed her around.  Had to be in the same room with her.  Begged to know what it was.  The next day, on my desk I found a gift of Tova.  My very own.  I wore it daily, and it invoked the same reaction in others.  Strangers would follow me around.  Beg to know what the fragrance was.  It happened every day.  I found online reviews of Tova where all the loyal wearers reported the same thing.  It was such an incredible fragrance.  And then it was gone.

Not gone exactly, but it had been reformulated.  This is the story you may recall from several years ago when I first reported it on this blog.  I could not understand why Tova would do such a thing.  I now understand that reformulations are usually the result of the scarcity of an ingredient.  Perfumes still contain natural ingredients, and when those ingredients become scarce due to climate or regulations, it pretty much forces a reformulation.  There are other cases of reformulations that have been done for marketing purposes or greedy economic purposes, but generally it's simply due to the loss of access to a particular ingredient.

Whatever the reason, Tova was gone.  And a lightbulb turned on in my head.  I wanted to know why Tova smelled so good, why it had such an effect on people.  I read every book I could find about perfume.  I started with old books that described how perfume is made, the different types of fragrances (there aren't that many, which is why it is easy to think all perfumes smell the same), and how perfume develops when the scent is released.  I read about the perfume industry and how it works from the inside out.  I read biology books about how the nose works.  I read marketing books about fragrance (not perfume marketing, but all other stuff ranging from laundry detergent to smell-o-vision).  I read chemistry books about synthetic fragrance.  I read travel books about all the places where the natural ingredients are grown.  And then I read every perfume review I could find.

I learned that perfume designers are called noses, and perfume is the juice.  People like me are called perfumistas.  There are over 200 thousand perfumistas registered on  Two hundred thousand people who know how to use words like noses and juice and can throw around perfume-celebrity names like Chandler Burr and Luca Turin and Annick Goutal and Victoria, and everyone else knows who they are, except it's ok to refer to Luca Turin as LT, since that's how he refers to himself, and if you were a perfumista you would know that too.

Along the way I started sampling new fragrances.  I know now that it is sheer dumb luck that the next fragrance I tried after Tova was Fracas.  Fracas, for you non-perfumistas, is a masterpiece, and is known to be a masterpiece, and worshiped as a masterpiece even by those who say they don't like it.  It was first launched in 1948.  I bought a sample without knowing a thing about, never having previously smelled it or read any marketing or seen the bottle.  I had found the name in a list of fragrances in a magazine, and having nothing else to go on it was blind buy.  I tried it on at my kitchen table, and it was Oh. Wow.  This is not Tova, but this is amazing.  And Mike liked it too.  So, just like that, it was my signature fragrance for the next couple of years.

I bought a couple of full bottles of Hermes fragrances by nose Jean-Claude Ellena, but that was it for a while for my sampling.  I was still studying, and limiting my sampling to magazine inserts.  (This led to my conclusion that fragrances advertised in magazines are not worth buying.)  When I got pregnant for the first time I stopped wearing fragrance and that continued until Mae was almost one year old.  That is because I did not trust my nose while I was pregnant, and also did not want to make myself sick, and after the babies were born I did not wear fragrance because I wanted them to know my skin scent and not get confused (how very "emperor penguin" of you, my friend Jerry said of my decision).

So by the time Mae was nearly a year old, I had put together quite a long list of fragrances that I wanted to try.  The list was developed based on either the perfume's reputation, or on its notes (sort of like ingredients, but not really) that either I was curious about or thought I might like.

I ordered sample sizes from eBay.  For the most part I have not yet made a habit of ordering samples directly from the perfume house.  You can get 1mL samples, or decants, of many scents on eBay for a few dollars each.  For the previous several years I had sampled things periodically, sometimes by mail, but mostly in Sephora.  Once I had made the decision to start sampling in earnest, my mailbox was full of decants in a matter of a few days.  I wanted to build my perfume library, to experience the reference fragrances that everyone else was talking about, to learn by doing.

I sprayed tentatively, since I know that I tend NOT to like most fragrances, and I didn't want to spray too much if it turned out to be a scrubber.  ("A scrubber is..." I was rattling off to Mike one day, teaching him perfume lingo, when he interrupted me: "I can figure that one out for myself.")  With rare exceptions, I'd only try one per day.  Other perfumistas will report testing fragrances with one on each wrist, inside each elbow, on the back of each hand, on each shoulder.  I'd get confused and be worried about getting stuck with multiple scrubbers besides. 

I tried the fragrances that everyone was talking about. I tried every perfume I could find that contained a rare ingredient, like saffron. I bought a sample containing genuine ambergris because I wanted to know why this stuff is spoken of in whispers as if it were mythological. (And yes, I know what ambergris is…do you??) Then I bought a sample of the pure molecule Ambroxen, which is faux ambergris, and tested the real deal on one wrist and the Ambroxen on the other (they are nothing alike). I learned about other synthetic perfume molecules such as Hedione (jasmine) and Calone (water) and learned to recognize them. I have not smelled faux civet, but have actually gotten my hands on a vintage sample that contained the real deal. (OMG, more on that later.)  I tried expensive fragrances and cheap fragrances.  I tried small niche houses and celebrity fragrances.  I had fragrances shipped from New York, France, Bermuda, India, and Russia.  I had the unfortunate experience of trying a perfume that made me physically ill, a not-uncommon phenomenon I had previously only read about.

Weeks of sampling later, Mike and I were stepping off a train out of Portland, and as I walked past dozens of people I could smell their individual scents and was dismayed to realize that even though I knew their fragrances were familiar, I could not name one of them. My nose isn’t that well trained yet. Everyone has had such an experience where you smell (or taste) something blindly, and it’s so familiar, but you just can’t name it…you know that’s how our nose-brain connection is…and mine is still rusty. I would have lost perfumista bingo that day. So I complained to Mike about this, after all the testing I have done and I’m not a real perfumista! Ok, he said, but do you know what you like?

Yes! I do, actually. I’ve learned what I like, as well as what I don’t like.

Although I can not properly explain aldehydes, chypres, or oriental fragrances, I know I do not like them. This means that I just don’t “get” Chanel No 5, though I’ve tried a few times.

I’ve learned that, heretically, I have not yet smelled anything from Guerlain that I like.

I’ve learned that civet is just as disgusting as it sounds.
Let’s talk about civet for a minute. It is one of the oldest perfume ingredients, and it comes from an animal called a civet, which produces this oil from its rear end area when it is provoked. It smells like it came from an animal’s rear end. I’m afraid I just can’t conceive of anyone making the leap from smelling this stuff, to deciding that it belongs in perfume. But somebody thought of it and someone believed it. It is said that a tiny bit of civet creates a wonderful base for perfume, and combined with the right ingredients, it doesn’t smell disgusting. And I’m still waiting for that lightbulb moment when I “get it”, but for now, the sample that had opened with a blast of fecal material, that is civet. Genuine civet musk is no longer used, because it does hurt the animal to retrieve it. A synthetic molecule has taken its place. Fragrances that use this molecule are called “animalic”. Perfumistas will describe animalic perfumes as to their level of “skank”. Though skank is often used with negative connotation, for some perfumistas, it’s considered a compliment. There is actually quite a large market for dirty, sweaty, skanky fragrances.

Which helps me segue to another hot topic among perfumistas. Where some argue that skank is a good thing, they often continue the argument by saying that “clean” fragrances are a bad thing. The ones that smell like soap.  The argument goes that clean fragrances are specifically marketed to Americans, because Americans are afraid of B.O., even though they secretly deep down like B.O.

I like clean fragrances and I don’t like skanky ones.  Which made me stop to think.  Am I a victim of marketing?   Have I been tricked into thinking I like clean fragrances?  After some consideration I decided that I had not been tricked.  I actually like clean fragrances and I actually do NOT like the smell of B.O. and I am not secretly turned on by skank.

So let’s talk about marketing for a minute. Another hot topic among perfumistas. Actually there are a couple of hot topics here.

The first is that we are so influenced by marketing, as well as other people’s opinions, that it is very very difficult to simply like or dislike a perfume on its own merit. Knowing the brand name, the nose, the color, the shape of the bottle, the name of the fragrance, the notes, the price, the reputation, and having read perfume reviews or seen the marketing photographs all influence our opinion of the juice. I am definitely in agreement with this, and am training myself to be aware of it.  For example, if I’m testing something that I know is expensive, I tend to be more forgiving, or maybe try to read more “genius” into the juice than it deserves.

Professional perfumers and perfumistas (yes, the subculture is so great that there are several people who have made a lucrative profession out of talking about perfume) have responded to this knowledge as well.  New York perfumer JAR does not advertise, does not give samples, does not name his perfumes, and refuses to describe what they smell like.  The exclusivity may still impact your opinion of the juice, but you can’t say that much else will. 

New York based professional perfume critic Chandler Burr is now curator of a scent exhibit at New York’s Museum of Art and Design.  The exhibit opened in November and presents famous fragrances without names or images, encouraging the museum-goer to rely on sense of smell only.

Which leads to the 2nd hot topic related to marketing. Is perfume art? I find it so hard to believe that perfumistas can ask this question, but I have read this debate a couple of times. I say yes, without a doubt, perfume is art. Just as couture fashion is art.  You might consider it to be crassly commercial, but behind the marketing is (usually) a designer or nose who is truly interested in the concept of creating something wonderful or beautiful.

Oh sure, there are fragrances that make it really difficult to imagine that there's a whole lot of pure art behind the marketing.  Those are the celebrity fragrances.  The number one fragrance that comes to mind as being pretty much 99% marketing and only 1% art (I pity the nose behind it) is Lady Gaga's debut perfume.  Heavily hyped, and yet at times I wonder if Gaga herself has even smelled it, because that's how little interest she has shown in the actual way the juice smells.  The focus has almost entirely been on the perfume's presentation - the way it looks.  Yes, I suppose that too is art, but not something a perfumista really cares too much about.

No, celebrity fragrances tend to be pretty mainstream and unoffensive, in order to boost the celeb's appeal and the designer's income.  That's business.

Designer houses (Prada, Ralph Lauren, etc) also tend to play it safe.  They may take a few risks here and there for the sake of art, but in the end they still focus on the bottom line.

Niche perfumery is where the risks are taken.  Small business, rogue artists who couldn't find what they liked in the mainstream world and decided to create their own perfumes.  So, to continue answering Mike's question to me, I've learned that I prefer niche perfumes.  I like the ones that smell unusual, if not likeable.  I like a perfume that takes a big risk.  Strange is better than boring.

However, I also like citrus fragrances, which in the perfume world, are pretty common and not risky at all.  Not risky, because everyone likes citrus fragrances.  Jo Malone (niche house) Orange Blossom is a-ma-zing!  Decried by perfumistas for being expensive, but after sampling many citrus fragrances I believe there is nothing like Jo Malone Orange Blossom. There are many citruses, but they all smell different, depending on what the perfumer wanted to bring out.

Tova allegedly contained bergamot oil, a type of citrus fragrance that is very common.  Is that what made it smell so good?  What was behind Tova that led me on my search?  I'm afraid now, several years later, I still can not answer that question.  And I suppose that makes sense.  If it were easy to explain such magic, it would have been recreated by someone else and we would now have world peace.

But as I continue my education, I'll continue to be enchanted by finds both new and ancient, common and rare, natural and synthetic, learning emotionally and nonverbally because we have no vocabulary specific to smells.  I'll be spurred on by biology and chemistry and history lessons, philosophy and art and even marketing, and I'll continue to enjoy my neverending quest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Awesome post. It's hard to figure out what you like. When you strip away marketing and pricing, and just use your nose to see whether you like it... it's hard. It's subjective! I have a scent I like, and I buy it when it's available. Recently I found a gift package containing that scent on closeout at a local retailer and had to restrain myself to only buy a limited amount. I wanted to fill the cart with it and have years' worth of a supply handy because the manufacturer changes their packaging and presentation from time to time.

Never in my life have so many people commented on my deodorant stick. I've had customers, coworkers, and people on the street stop and turn and look at me to ask me what I was wearing. It was really amazing what an effect it had on people.

It turns out it's the only men's deodorant stick that Ulta carries and they charge quite a premium for it. I like it. I like the way it smells, and for whatever reason it agrees with my body chemistry such that people turn their heads when I walk by. It's almost a daily occurrence.

I still remember the day I stopped in a retailer and pulled the caps off one deodorant stick after another and smelled them one at a time. No. No. No. Maybe. No. No. Probably. No. No. YES!!! I stopped there and rolled with it. I definitely identify with being drawn to a scent just because I liked it. Not because it reminded me of some past event or because someone I liked smelled like that, just because I liked the way it smelled.

And no, I'm not going to say what it was.


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