Do you really know what you are seeking in a fragrance?

I was reading a book entitled, “What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell, and one chapter contained information that I think is relevant to the world of personal fragrances. Gladwell was arguing that some items that appeal to our sense of taste (which is mostly smell anyway) may have an ideal formulation, whereas others can vary. He discussed how people seem to be divided on the best mustard, but that Heinz ketchup is preferred by a wide margin to any other. Of course, it can be argued that this is dependent upon the “culture,” but whether or not that is a valid point, I think there is something to be said about Gladwell’s idea. Here are some passages from that chapter:

QUOTE: After breaking the ketchup down into its component parts, the testers assessed the critical dimension of “amplitude,” the word sensory experts use to describe the flavors that are well blended and balanced, and that “bloom” in the mouth… When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt.” UNQUOTE. Page 47.

So now we have a concept to consider, amplitude. And the question is whether it is applicable to the world of fragrances? Obviously, the “fougere accord” of lavender and coumarin (tonka bean) is an example of high amplitude, as is the “chypre accord.” This does not mean that everyone finds these accords to be pleasant, of course, just as not everyone likes ketchup (I can’t even tolerate the faintest smell of it, for instance). And with fragrances, just as with food, there are social concerns involved. Some fragrances are thought of too strong or “sexy” for business or school environments, for example, just as ketchup bottles are not to be found on tables at “fine dining” restaurants specializing in “haute cuisine.” But one can certainly say that history has demonstrated that these two accords have a great deal of appeal, in general.

My thought here is that personal fragrances cater to both mustard and ketchup types of tastes. In other words, there are the “old standards” (and some new ones, such as the aquatic fragrances), for those seeking a ketchup kind of fragrance experience, yet there are many fragrances that are available to those who want something that not only doesn’t have “high amplitude” but is outright offensive to most people. The most obvious example, I think, is Sécrétions Magnifiques, which seems to bring many to the point of vomiting!

Gladwell points out another example of “high amplitude:” QUOTE: “The thing about Coke and Pepsi is that they are absolutely gorgeous,” Judy Heylmun, a vice president of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., in Chatham, New Jersey, says. “The have beautiful notes – all flavors are in balance. It’s very hard to do that well. Usually, when you taste a store cola… all the notes are kind of spiky, and usually the citrus is the first thing to spike

In the world of fragrance, however, there are examples of very popular fragrances that are about as low in amplitude that I can imagine. Angel and A*Men by Thierry Mugler. Some fragrances, such as Chanel’s Allure Sensuelle, are meant to give off different “facets” over time, meaning that different note or accords seem to predominate at different times, though the fragrance may have high amplitude in all the facets. Many expensive “niche” fragrances have low amplitude, and it seems that some of these companies create low amplitude fragrances on purpose, apparently with the thought that they are “avant garde” or “edgy.”
A “cheap” fragrance, by contrast, is often one that is meant to get as close to high amplitude as is possible at a very low cost. Cost, however, trumps all other concerns, and these fragrances usually come across as crude when compared to more expensive fragrances that are otherwise similar.

What I’ve found is that on some days I seek high amplitude fragrances whereas on other days I’m looking for something more interesting. Even more importantly, on some days I don’t have the tolerance for a low amplitude fragrance experience. On those days I know that certain fragrances will generate an unpleasant experience. With food, though, I am not interested in low amplitude items, and it seems that this is true for most people. I’ve found that with fragrances there is a risk that I take when I wear a low amplitude fragrance, regardless of whether it is a cheap one or not, which is that I may find it such an unpleasant experience that I can’t wear a fragrance again like that for a long time.

The first time this happened to me it was with lavender, then anise/licorice and geranium, and now it is the case with cedar type wood notes. Fragrances with mild wood notes are find, but if the wood is strong I find it quite unpleasant. Just a few months ago, this was not the case and I enjoyed several fragrances with strong cedar notes. The reason I wrote up this post is to point out that being aware of these issues and concepts might help you avoid doing what a few people I know have done, that is, they find a fragrance that they think is head and shoulders above all others, but then within weeks or months, they have come to dislike it. The key point, I think, is that the sense of smell is often fickle. Yes, some people can wear a low amplitude fragrance for years or decades, but make sure that you are one of these people, unless you don’t mind spending quite a bit of money on fragrance bottles that get hardly any use.

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