Using words to describe scents/fragrances: mission impossible?

I’ve addressed this before on more than one BaseNotes thread, so I guess it makes sense to write up a post here, so that I can then just copy and paste a link when it comes up again, as it certainly will at some point.  Mostly, this comes up in the form of a question like, what is a fougere, but similar questions have been asked about orientals and chypres.  Then there are complex fragrances (which I call hybrids, though I’m not the fist to use this term) that often lead to questions like, is fragrance X a gourmand?  No matter what the response, it seems, there will always be some people who just don’t understand what you are trying to convey.  This became clear to me when I read a criticism of my Fragrantica review of Tsar.  The specific statement was that I wrote “that Tsar pales as a fougère against Lomani Pour Homme.”

What did I actually write?  Here it is:

“…Nor does this impress me as much of a fougere. It definitely does not possess the searing fougere accords in Lomani or Montana Parfum d’Homme, for example… The overall impression is a kind of outdoorsy, ‘masculine’ elegance. Projection (‘sillage’) is moderate but longevity is quite good. This is about as ‘transparent’ a fragrance I would want to wear, and it’s totally natural smelling to me. There is enough dynamism and its smoothness is incredible, considering the notes involved. This is what I was hoping Geir Ness would like, actually.”

So, what I actually said is that Lomani has a searing fougere accord.  How does that make it a better fragrance than any fragrance, let alone Tsar?  I have said many times that I prefer balanced fragrances, so any searing accord is going to be something I dislike.  Apparently, this blogger does not underatand the difference between a fragrance that contains a fougere accord (among others that are also about or at least as strong) and a fragrance that possesses a fougere accord as its only strong accord (or note).  Certainly, one can call Tsar a fougere, but I don’t see the point. It has a fougere accord but it’s a mild one. To be clear, I consider Lomani to be a clearly inferior fragrance, but it has a very strong fougere accord.

I don’t know what this blogger considers a “fougere,” because he has not defined his terms, to my knowledge, but that is very common.  Most people use these terms as if eveyone thinks the same.  Or they think they are “right” and that anyone who disagrees must be “wrong,” no matter how ambiguous the language may be.  To me, for example, a fragrance that has a mild fougere accord is not a fougere fragrance. And if you disagree with this, keep in mind that perhaps more than half the men’s fragrances released since 1980 would then have to be called fougeres, and as most people realize, when you use language this way it loses its effectiveness. I only consider a fragrance a fougere if it has a very strong fougere accord. If you disagree with me that’s fine, but you can’t criticize my reviews because I define my terms and then use them in an accurate way. That is not a credible way to assess the opinions of others, especially if you have never defined your terms.

Why do we need these terms anyway (fougere, oriental, chypre, gourmand, sport, aquatic, etc.)?  They do provide a very general idea, at least if the fragrance is somewhat “pure” (in other words, clearly not a hybrid).  Part of the “problem” with conceptualizing Tsar is that it doesn’t fit into any category that existed up to that time.  Let’s take a look at the listed notes (from Fragrantica.com):

“Top notes are artemisia, coriander, lavender, green notes, neroli and bergamot; middle notes are carnation, juniper berries, tarragon, orris root, jasmine, caraway, lily-of-the-valley and rose; base notes are leather, sandalwood, tonka bean, amber, patchouli, musk, coconut, oakmoss and cedar.”

I wrote a blog post about the “baroque fougere,” and some of those fragrances have similar notes listed for them.  The difference is that baroque fougeres have a strong fougere accord.  I would be the first to say that there are people who are highly sensitive to the fougere accord (as I was a few year back), and that it may come across as strong.  This is why it’s so difficult to describe a fragrance in words in a way that will be helpful to everyone else.  Let’s take a different example.  Suppose I say that a fragrance is an oriental with strong orange up front as well as a strong animalic quality (that’s my take on Maharanih by Parfums de Nicolai).  Is that good enough?  I don’t know !

So, what is my solution?  I don’t know if it will work for you, but I keep trying new fragrances and thinking about how they compare to each other.  While I do think there is some “objectivity” behind the concept of the fougere or chypre accord, as I’ve explained above, classifying a fragrance as such can be highly problematic.  For example, suppose a fragrance contains such a mild chypre accord that only half the people who know what a chypre accords smells like can actually smell it?  Of course, there are those who prefer “poetic” reviews anyway.  Then there are nostalgic reviews.  I can sympathize with the desire not to become too “analytical” about fragrances, but what I’ve found is that trying to be as “objective” as possible has helped me to overcome most if not all of the various associations I had at one time (such as “grandpa cologne,” “bug spray fragrance, or “old lady perfume”).

After all is said and done, I suggest you determine what your “milestone” fragrances are.  I think it’s best that they be complex and at least somewhat popular (within the last thirty years or so).  And you should have at least one of each major category, such as the ones mentioned above.  However, if you like fragrances with a strong leather note, my advice would be to get samples of a few of them and then take your time forming an opinion.  Wear them at least twice “normally” separated by at least two weeks (my “two by two” rule).  Generally, I sample first on the ankle or lower leg, so that if I hate the fragrance it won’t nauseate me or give me a headache.  Also, it allows you to wear another fragrance normally on that day.  When I do this I can smell the fragrance up close on the skin and get an idea what the strongest, longest lasting notes or accords in it are.

If I spray once or twice to the chest, which is how I wear fragrances normally, I can’t do this.  Being able to smell up close on the skin provides some indication of the ingredient quality.  I use my hands to waft the fragrance up to my nose when I do an ankle sampling, which helps me gauge the strength of the fragrance if worn normally.  Once you determine what your milestone fragrances are (and studied them a bit), you can then read online reviews and decide which reviewers seem to be saying things that are consistent with your perceptions. If you choose obscure fragrances as your milestones, there may not be enough reviews to cross reference with others.  Let others argue about what this or that means, and just focus on what makes the most sense under the conditions that now exist.  And sometimes you just can’t tell from reviews and listed notes.  For example, this is the note listing for Cactus Shot by Everlast:

“…orange blossom, sandalwood, fig leaf, vetiver, neroli, petit grain, bergamot, angelica and tangerine.”  There were two reviews of it at Fragrantica.com when I decided to purchase a bottle.  One said that it was “woman-like” and the other said that it smelled like weeds.  Someone at Basenotes.net said it smelled “ozonic.”  What is one to make of this?  I decided to buy because it was 100 ml for less than $20 total and I already tried Everlast Original 1910 and view it as a “quality” fragrance.  Cactus Shot has notes that seemed unique, so I thought it was worth the gamble.  It turns out that while the fig is dominant for me (not a sharp, green one), overall it does have a cactus juice kind of feel, if only imaginary (such as the notion that lavender and coumarin smell like ferns, which actually have no odor).  However, if buying such a fragrance and then not liking it is really going to irritate you, just don’t do it.  Know thyself !

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