How difficult is it to write a good fragrance review?

And how difficult is it to determine if the review will be helpful to you, even if it is “good?”  This is a problem I encountered when I first started reading reviews online, back in late 2007.  At the time, I didn’t understand much about fragrances, so what I needed first was some sort of a “primer,” actually.  Unfortunately, it’s not easy to describe how one can go about developing his or her sense of smell, especially in the context of personal fragrance (“perfume”).  I read a few books, along with whatever I could find online that seemed relevant, yet it was only by taking my time with fragrances that I slowly came to understand what I was smelling.  I purchased several inexpensive and different fragrances, ones that got good reviews online, at sites such as  I also tried to find “note pyramids” for the fragrances, to see if I could smell what was listed.

This took time, and I kept reading about fragrances in the meantime.  I also continued to acquire fragrances, both bottles and samples.  If I remember correctly, it took at least a few months before I could identify more than a few notes.  If anyone was a “newbie,” it certainly was me!  I did have a bit of a background with using spices and herbs in cooking, but I found fragrances difficult because of the blending, even if the blending was not particularly severe.  Therefore, I guess that my advice, if you are also in this situation, is to just relax and take your time – enjoy the journey.  You will only be able to travel this road once, after all.

At some point, I plan on writing up a post about inexpensive fragrances for the “newbie.”  For now, however, I want to address the title of this post.  What I’ve found, for example, is that the first time you smell a fragrance, it can have a nearly intoxicating quality.  After a few wearings, however, one can find it mundane, uninspiring, or in some cases, irritating.  Moreover, I’ve found that sometimes I am just not in the mood for a particular fragrance.  Add to this the issue of “skin chemistry,” as well as climate, the amount of fragrance used, where it is sprayed, if it is sprayed on skin or fabric, whether the person dislikes a note or accord, etc., and there are just too many factors to permit an “objective” review.

When I read that a fragrance has a “sour note,” for example, I don’t know if this is due to skin chemistry, a “warped” perception (meaning different from mine, at least), or if it does have an “objectively” sour note, such as what magnesium citrate imparts to candy, with regard to the human sense of taste.  Drawing on my experience elsewhere, I think that “thick description” is certainly necessary (this phrase was coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz, I believe).  In this context, I think this would mean writing down everything you can about your experiences with the fragrance.  Another good idea is the reviewer to compare the fragrance being reviewed to as many other fragrances as possible, and of course some reviewers do this.  Any other information, such as price and availability, should be included as well, because the reader certainly might be interested to know about such things.

Lastly, I think that the more reviews the better, no matter who writes them.  It’s not just a “two heads are better than one” situation, but more of a Gestalt notion, at least to me.  One feature of having a lot of reviews to read is that different aspects of a fragrance experience become available to the reader. Also, with many reviewers there will likely be many models for future reviewers to consider, and here I’d like to present an example of one such type of review.  It concerns the fragrance by ST Dupont, Signature for men.  The major notes are known:

* Top Notes: Basil Leaf, Grapefruit, Pepper.
* Middle Notes: Birch, Cedarwood, Incense.
* Base Notes: Amber, Cistus, Benzoin.

I obtained a sample vial of it nearly two years ago.  At first, I thought it was a great fragrance, but I certainly a “newbie” back then.  Moreover, at some point within the first six month, I developed some sort of “chemical sensitivity syndrome” kind of problem, which lasted a few months, and rendered me unable to tolerate strong lavender notes.  Around that time, I had acquired a bottle of Carven Homme, and liked it better than Signature.  Because they are similar, I didn’t feel the need to also acquire a bottle of Signature.  After the issue with lavender, I found myself less and less interested in Carven Homme, which features a strong lavender note.  However, I still wore it once a month, or thereabouts.

Then, during one wearing, I detected a rubbery quality that I found to be very unpleasant.  Since I wore it as the second fragrance of the day (I usually apply one after breakfast then another after dinner), I thought it might have mixed with the first one, creating this unpleasant quality.  However, this happened twice again.  I’m still not sure exactly what occurred, but I now think it may have involved the combination of lavender, spice, wood, and amber notes (perhaps specific molecules shared by certain fragrance).  I had similar experiences with Gucci’s Envy for men and Versus Uomo by Versace, which also list similar notes.

In any case, because I had come to view Signature as similar to these other fragrances, I had not used my sample vial for a wearing in a very long time.  That’s when I received a swap offer, with one possibility being a bottle of Signature.  I dug out my sample of it, and decided to give it another try.  By this time, I knew that smelling a fragrance up close on the skin could cause problems, especially if there is a note you don’t like in it.  I also applied lower on the chest than usual, because some fragrances seem to be meant to mix with air more than others (and my guess was that this was one such fragrance).  To my surprise, I was once again intoxicated by it.  The amber wasn’t “rubbery” and there was no piercing quality (which I experienced with Envy and Versus), such as one reviewer said of Tam Dao: “My vintage… sample of Tam Dao goes right up my nose and starts pounding on my sinuses in a headache-inducing fashion.”


My tentative conclusion is that there is likely a combination of notes in some of these fragrances that irritate me greatly, but I’m not sure this will always be the case.  But, getting back to the major focus here, what can I say about Signature that would help you understand it (if you’ve never tried it), or understand it better if you sampled it at some point in the past?  One thing I’ve yet to mention is that I always try to avoid top notes to a large degree, so I can’t really tell you much about them.  I can say that I don’t find it especially woody, despite the listing of birch and cedar in the note pyramid.  Instead, there is strong incense, as well as the amber and benzoin drenched base.  The blending is superb, and there it smells quite “natural.”  In some fragrances, such as Adidas’ Victory League, there is a least a minor “synthetic” feel, and the base comes across as ‘syrupy” (vanilla and cedar are in the base of Victory League).  The “magic” of Signature, however, is in its dynamism.  That is, it feels “alive,” moving about in some sort of olfactory pattern of pleasure.  This is somewhat surprising to me, because most “heavy” fragrances, like Signature, tend to feel at least a bit constrained in their dynamism by this “weight.”

An important point here is that even if I told people that Signature is like those other fragrances, which in some “objective” sense it is, I may or may not be helping that person if he is contemplating a purchase of this fragrance, even if he has tried those other ones!  If you have read the reviews of some “experts,” such as Luca Turin or Chandler Burr, you know that they did not spend as much time with many (perhaps most) of the fragrances they have reviewed as I have with the fragrances mentioned above.  And this leads me to my last major idea about reviews, which is that it’s important to know how much time the reviewer spent trying to understand the fragrance in question.  Many seem to just spray a smelling strip, whiff once or twice, then move on to the next one.  While I’d still to know what the person thought about this kind of experience, I also want to know that is was so superficial.


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