Should top notes be avoided and are fragrances “art” ?

I recently realized that these two questions are related, at least in some significant ways. However, like just about everything else in perfumery, it’s not always clear what is meant by top notes. Because of this, I began using the terms opening. For me, the opening lasts at least approximately half an hour. We are really talking about molecules here (as well as how many of those molecules are involved). Some molecules persist a long time, even though you can smell them right away. Are these top notes? To me, top notes only last several minutes. Beyond that is the opening, and then comes the base, which might include quite a bit of the opening. Some fragrances are linear beyond the top notes, so one can just call that a linear fragrance. Others have a distinct opening, followed by a distinct middle, and then a distinct base, but they are less common these days (I’m not sure if they were ever common).

For at least a couple years now, I’ve been pointing out in my reviews that I try to avoid top notes as much as is reasonably possible. My technique is to spray once or twice while I’m holding my breath and then blowing on the area I sprayed to get it dry quickly. I usually leave the room I sprayed it in so that there aren’t any lingering top notes to breathe in. This began with problems I was having with Jacomo Rouge. I enjoyed the top notes but the had difficulty smelling much of anything else. So, for reasons I don’t remember, I tried this technique. It did “work,” but then the fragrance smelled very different to me. I wasn’t going to wear it any more either way, because beyond the top notes there was too much sweetness. I’d rather wear a fragrance I can appreciate for hours rather than one that is only pleasant for a few minutes. You may think differently, and that’s perfectly fine.

The “problem,” it seems, is that some people seem to think that if you adopt this technique you are someone insulting the gods of perfumery. Or you are some sort of anti-aesthete, if not an outright slob.(or however they conceptualize such a person). Just to be clear, I’ve been involved in fine art and have had gallery showings of my work. Perhaps this is why I may have a higher standard for “fine art” than others. Now I can certainly understand how someone’s emotions are aroused by particular fragrances, but for me it would be like saying that sexual acts are artistic, which again many might agree with. In other words, fragrances are about pleasure to me, so if you want to call me a hedonist in this regard, I can accept that assessment. And in the future, you can read my reviews, if you like, with that in mind.

What I do find somewhat odd, at least, is criticism that comes from someone who views fragrances with fine art in mind yet then points out the problems that exist with breathing in much of the top notes. For example, a blogger who recently mocked my reviews because I try to avoid most of top notes (and because I called aldehydes “nasty”) had this to say (on 8/27/2012):

“When I first smelled it, my eyes screwed up, my nose closed, my throat tightened, and I felt like I’d encountered a Vietnam-era chemical weapon, cleverly disguised as perfume. The sting of alcohol and aldehydes was pretty Kilgorian.”

Now leaving aside health concerns from such a physical assault on the body (some may not agree that this could have long-term health consequences if done every day, presumably, though I can’t imagine many thinking this is just fine for the body), why would anyone want to subject themselves to such an experience? Furthermore, would you expect a self-professed olfactory hedonist to subject himself to this? This blogger wrote up a review for 360° White for Men by Perry Ellis:

“If you like Le Male by Gaultier, you’ll like this, although not in initial application. This is a strange cologne ‘clone’ of Le Male – it smells cheap and very strange at first, then in five or ten minutes dries down to an almost perfect imitation of the famous $80 sailor suit…”

Again, why would anyone not try to avoid the top notes of such a fragrance? And there are also times when you just might not like the top notes, due to personal preference. Do you need to inhale deeply because someone else doesn’t think you will get the full, “fine art” experience if you do not? Clearly, if you went to see a colorful Matisse painting in a museum and put on glasses that converted everything to “black and white” (shades of gray), that would be silly, though still worth doing as long as you also look at it normally, IMO (to get a better idea about how it was “constructed”). This is my argument against viewing fragrances as fine art, at least the overwhelming majority of them, and the reason has to do with intellectual “pleasures” as opposed to sensory ones, I think. Others can “do their own thing,” but it’s inappropriate to tell people how they should conceptualize or enjoy such things, at least with these kinds of “non-essential” experiences.

Moreover, because fragrance perception can vary so much from one wearing to another (in my experience), there is no way to even know if you are smelling what the perfumer intended. For example, there was a time when I was very sensitive to lavender, and even if the lavender note in a fragrance was weak, it would just “pop out” and dominate the scent. Others have mentioned that they have had similar experiences. This simply doesn’t happen with a painting or sculpture. You may “see” something you didn’t on your second viewing, for example, but if “applied” to fragrances, it would be like a Rembrandt portrait having two heads the second time you saw it. In other words, with fragrances, what may be a pin hole to one person can be a canyon to another. That’s just reality, though some may not understand or accept it. Our sense of smell does not seem to be something that can be thought of in the same way as our sense of sight or hearing, which is another reason why I don’t view perfumery as art.

An interesting example is Dolce & Gabbana Pour Homme, the original version (1994), which has a strong tobacco note. I really like the smell itself, with features strong herbal, citrus, and tobacco elements. However, over time I find that it starts to bother me. Instead of generating a relaxing quality, which is what I’m seeking, it begins to feel harsh. I don’t see how anyone can call this scent a work of fine art, but it does smell very nice – for a period of time. Others hate it, while still others think it’s great and have no issues with it. And to me, the thing to do is to just describe what you detect in the fragrance and how it comes across over time. Some will agree and some won’t. Fine art is more of an “intellectual exercise,” regardless of whether most people regard it as a “pretty picture” or not. My paintings, for example, are creative explorations, some of which look “nice” while others don’t. While creating them, there was no thought about how others would view them..

And this, finally, brings me to a statement from a recent interview with top perfumer Calice Becker, in which she makes it clear that there is a personal aspect to fragrances that has no parallel with paintings or sculptures (you can read the whole interview at: http://www.fragrantica.com/news/Interview-with-Calice-Becker-3459.html):

“The most unusual brief was something that I refused to work with. It was just a little empty jar with nothing inside that I have to open and smell and do the fragrance out of that. And it had a smell of body odor so offensive that I refused to work with it. Are you kidding me or what?”

Indeed, Calice, !

UPDATE: After creating a thread at basenotes.net on this subject and reading/responding, I realized that I should update this post because I did not consider the following while writing it:

1. Those who claim that covering the top third of a painting is equivalent to avoiding top notes are not being fair because one can’t totally avoid top notes, and in fact not everyone is going to breathe in the same amount even if they want the full top note experience (moreover, there are individual sensitivities to specific molecules, as I already mentioned).

2. The better analogy, IMO, would be stopping the flickering of a Dan Flavin light work (not sure if any of his works flicker but we’ll assume that if that’s not the case another artist has created just such a work) because the owner of the work gets “flicker migraines” easily. However, what if the owner decided to dim down a light work that didn’t flicker because it bothered his/her eyes? Here is where the difference between sight and smell is significant, because the light from such a work is not likely to be blindingly bright, yet that is the kind of experience many of us have with top notes.

3. Vintage fragrances no longer produced today often have suffered a significant loss of top notes. According the the fragrance as art advocate, these fragrances should no longer be worn or even smelled on a smelling strip, presumably.

4. As with the national flag, the bottle of an old, “degraded” perfume should be disposed of with dignity (and in an “environmental friendly” way), presumably (according to the fragrance as art advocates). How many of these people, who claim to appreciate fragrances as art, would throw away a bottle of vintage Chypre or Iris Gris no matter what the condition of the scent?

5. The overall nature of the fragrance industry, characterized so much by a crass, profit-making, style above substance attitude, is not one to take seriously on “fine art” grounds. And these days, fragrances are often loaded up with strong (though not necessarily all that pleasant) top notes in order to mask generic or weak middle/base notes, apparently. To me, this is truly an anti-artistic thing to do in this context.

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3 Comments

Filed under Criticizing the critics.

3 responses to “Should top notes be avoided and are fragrances “art” ?

  1. birdboy48

    There are certainly things where I enjoy their top notes, but like yourself, I generally feel like they are simply brief teasers to grab our attention, prior to the later evolution of what the frag is really about. And as you said, those first one or two minutes as the alcohol dries away can indeed provide an unwanted distraction, particularly when testing something for the first time. Once we become familiar with something, I think it’s fine to enjoy every aspect of it, but when trying to assess something new, the initial and semi-bullying “you only have one chance to make a first impression” aspect of the top notes can get in the way.

    • I guess the thing for me is that I developed a technique that works for me. I usually spray once or twice to the chest, then blow on that area, while trying not to breathe in much. In that way I only get a small amount of the top notes, so that they aren’t an issue as they used to be (olfactory fatigue). I’m beginning to think that it may be because some people want the full top not experience that they have difficulty being able to tell the difference between original formulations and inferior reformulations. In my basenotes post, I said that my brain might be “wired” differently than that bloggers, but it’s also possible that for everyone (or almost everyone) you just can’t have your cake (top notes) and eat it too (the drydown, which can include some of the more persistent top notes). I can only relay my experiences, and one thing is for sure, which is that I have really tried to study fragrances as if it was my primary occupation (since late 2007).

  2. EDP

    I totally agree with you with regard to ‘opening notes’. They’re there to grab your attention, whereas in most cases they basically repel . . .

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