The Great Reformulation Debate ?

Over at http://frompyrgos.blogspot.com there is a new post (entitled “More Thoughts On The “Vintage Vs.Current Formula” Debate”) in which the author continues to argue that new (re)formulations are just as good the originals. I’ve spoken to people in the industry who have told me how much less is spent on ingredients these days (than in the 1980s), but if I hadn’t smelled it for myself, I wouldn’t care, but more importantly, I too might think it is not true! It all seems to come down to this one person not being able to accept that since he can’t tell the difference (or thinks differences are “insignificant”), nobody else can either (I simply can’t think of another reasonable explanation). I don’t think I’d tell people that they are smelling something that isn’t there, though (as when I read about reformulations as a newbie who could not tell the difference), because I am always cognizant of the possibility that my awareness is limited (and these days I find that my sensitivity can vary quite a bit). If one concedes that there are differences, though (no matter how “small”), one can only claim that the differences do not matter to oneself. Anyway, without further ado, let’s look at a passage from the latest post in which I am mentioned specifically:

I received an email from a woman named Natasha asking me about this, so I referred her to Bigsly. She asked to try the older version, and Bigs sent her a sample of the vintage juice. She smelled it and compared it to the new version. Strong bergamot top notes? Hardly. Here’s what Natasha has to say on her wonderful (and very artistic) blog:

“The vintage GF opens with something sharp, chemical, and also extremely familiar, only not in a welcoming way. It’s almost like aerosol fixative, industrial adhesive, or something similar that I know but I just can’t put my finger on. It literally smells toxic in the opening, such that I could see someone trying to get high off of it.”

Now, I’m not one to believe in the existence of fragrance “experts” in the blogosphere (there are none), nor do I believe that there are fragrance “newbies” who don’t know what they’re experiencing when they smell something new. I believe that people know when something smells good, and when it doesn’t, period. They may not be able to identify notes early on in their interest, but note identification is only part of the game. Understanding the overall effect of a composition, or part of a composition, is a larger issue. Natasha clearly understands the new Grey Flannel quite well – she describes is brilliantly – but would it be fair to say she misunderstands the “vintage” Grey Flannel? Not at all. She has described that one quite well also, to the point where she has exonerated me from ever having to address Bigsly’s claims regarding this fragrance again. The older version has clearly degraded, its top notes are gone, and what remains smells rough.

What I sent Natasha were two samples of Grey Flannel, one made by French Fragrances of Miami and another by EA Fragrances. My guess is that the violet leaf note in the FF version was too strong for her (and is probably for me as well). I didn’t send her a 1980s formulation because I doubted that she could find it even if she really liked it. That one is made by Sanofi Beauty Products of New York. My guess is that the violet leaf note in that one has seriously degraded, and what I get is an interesting tea-like quality, which suggests the bergamot mostly, since that is listed as a note and is consistent with this quality. I never claimed that it had a “vibrant” bergamot, as I can only tell a person what it smells like to me and then look at the listed notes to see if there is a reasonable explanation (I have never dabbled in essential oils or anything along those lines).

The author didn’t mention other things that Natasha had to say, including:

The newest incarnation of Grey Flannel by EA Fragrances, is much more of a crowd pleaser than the vintage version. It is a citrusy, fresh and flowery, bright green aura opening right away with the juicy chopped green pepper. The new version dries down to something that could have been created by L’Occitane. It is masculine but flowery and citrusy enough to be unisex for anyone who loves green landscapes or light filtering through leaves.

So it seems like the author (of the blog post, not Natasha) has confused the French Fragrances version with the Sanofi Beauty Products one (if not, I want to make it clear so that everyone understands exactly what I think of these three versions), but the only thing that matters is what you want, not what I or anyone else wants. And my only “warning” to those who say they can’t smell the difference between ones that have obviously been reformulated to some degree is that if you buy a bunch of new ones and then the same thing that happened to me happens to you, I think you will be quite disappointed. It took more than a year into this “hobby” before it happened to me, but when it did it was like a light switch being turned on in pitch black room.

I can’t even say I remember how it happened, but it did occur quickly, and one day I was thinking how certain scents smelled metallic, chemical, synthetic, etc., relative to others, whereas a week or so before I would not have thought such a thing. One example involves three scents, Cuba Orange, Dunhill’s Desire for Man, and Rochas Lui. They all have a core in common, so to speak, and at one time I preferred Desire or Orange, for one reason or another. Now, I can’t deal with the unnatural qualities of those two, and while I’m not a fan of Rochas Lui, I can wear it if I’m looking for a change of pace (it’s a bit too simple for me). After I realized what was happening, I remembered posts on BaseNotes.net in which members talked about this aspect of scents, and then I no longer thought they were exaggerating, which is what I had assumed up to that point.

Fortunately, I was able to swap off a bunch of the reformulations I had acquired but could no longer wear, though I still have some I keep in order to make up samples for people who want to try them, usually when the originals are very hard to find (such as for Yatagan). I have said that if you want the original Yatagan you are probably better off with Les Copains Homme, but as was the case for me, this seems like the kind of thing people just need to experience for themselves. And some, like Natasha, are seeking the smoother reformulations anyway. I have noticed this kind of reformulation with Cool Water as well, so I’d guess that Coty did some research and found a way to make these scents more salable, considering that tastes among the “masses” may have changed.

And again, that’s fine, but it’s not what I want. The reason is that many of the vintage greats not only had note separation, complexity, dynamism, and naturalness, but were also smooth! In some cases it’s true that the top notes/openings of some older ones were harsh or outright unpleasant, but the drydowns were incredible. And I don’t think that even the author would argue that many if not most recent releases are meant to smell “nice” when first sprayed. To me it’s a kind of olfactory “bait and switch,” but I’m guessing that it usually works because people have other things to do in their days and forget about the scent they sprayed on after several minutes. They get a pleasant, if somewhat synthetic or generic background smell wafting in and out at low intensity, and that works well for them.

And that brings me to perhaps the most important point, which is that at one time, early on, I was having problems with olfactory fatigue. I remember this specifically with Jacomo Rouge. I liked the top notes but then it seemed like the scent just disappeared completely. Then I tried something that worked to achieve exactly what I was seeking. I would spray once or twice to the middle of the chest after taking a deep breath and holding it. Then I would leave that room and exhale onto the area sprayed, trying to get it to dry as quickly as possible, I would continue to walk around, turning my head to breathe in and exhaling by blowing on the area sprayed. I certainly smelled some of the top notes, but not enough to cause olfactory fatigue. This seems to prevent poor quality ingredients from being masked by pleasant top notes.

How many reviews have you read where someone claims that it smells great but lasts a very short period of time? And this author states that he sprayed himself eight times at once with Kouros. That is certainly a way of wearing scents, but it differs from what I do significantly, and I believe that with my way one can appreciate high-quality middle or base notes much more easily, whereas the author seems to be more interested in maintaining the top note experience for as long as possible. Now if he wants to believe that those who disagree with him are a bunch of deluded old fools, that doesn’t diminish the pleasure I obtain from my vintage scents one bit, and in fact I welcome those views because some of the people who hold them have swapped me for the reformulations I bought and came to despise.

For me, the “bottom line” is that the vintage greats set a standard that is not easy to meet, especially when low-quality ingredients are used. However, I’m not arguing that I won’t wear new scents that are actually quite good, all things considered, but that the problem is that I tend to think that I’d rather wear something else. A good example is Queen of Hearts, which dries down to what I consider a rather unisex oriental scent. However, while it doesn’t smell “bad” in any way, there are other ones that dry down to something very similar but with more dimension or complexity. In this case vintage Jacomo de Jacomo or Witness are simply better, among others. However, if you already own Queen of Hearts and only want to wear an oriental once a month, this might work fine for you. If you are going to sit around most days studying scents (with a very large rotation), my guess is that it will not. Of course, you must decide for yourself !

NOTE: I forgot to mention that French Fragrances also produced an aftershave version of Grey Flannel, which is very good, possessing just enough sharp violet leaf. However, as you might expect, it does not last more than perhaps a couple of hours. On cloth it may be a lot better, but this is not a favorite scent of mine so I have yet to try various combinations, etc. (some have claimed that layering the newest version with an older one is very good, for example).

Also, the author of http://frompyrgos.blogspot.com felt the need to write up a new blog post telling his readers that the Coty version of Cool Water is superior and that some people are saying the Lancaster version has oakmoss whereas the Coty one does not (it wasn’t me and I don’t remember reading this claim). As I said, if you are “Joe Blow” you may very well prefer the Coty version, but it is a fuzzy, muddled, uninteresting scent, of little if any interest to the aficionado. I have written up a blog post here about the kind of scent aficionado I think I am. If anyone feels that my point of view has nothing to offer, by all means use your free time to do something more helpful. However, I will continue to explore the world of scents, with an open mind, and write up new posts here when I think I have something useful to tell at least a small number of people!

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1 Comment

Filed under Criticizing the critics.

One response to “The Great Reformulation Debate ?

  1. Mary P. Brown

    You hit the nail on the head about the difference between vintage and modern fragrances – smoothness. My experience is much less limited than yours but it’s a quality that was clearly apparent to me right off the bat. The first fragrance I compared this way was Emeraude. I found the vintage fragrance to have a distinct creaminess that the modern iteration was definitely missing. I also noticed a very strong medicinal element at the top of vintage L’Huere Bleue, but the dry down was, again, gloriously smooth and deep and rich and smoky…. amazing.

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