Should the phrase, “niche quality,” be used when reviewing scents ?

I recently noticed a video on Youtube by “FragranceBros” that featured a discussion between two guys on this subject (the video featured other topics as well). Neither man liked this phrase, and clearly it is not ideal. Often, however, the language simply hasn’t been invented yet that addresses the phenomena in question. Never before in human history have so many people been able to discuss scents so freely and to their opinions heard by so many others. There is no central agency that dictates what terms or phrases are acceptable, and so we “pioneers” have to figure it out “as we go along” to a large degree, it seems. If you are interested in the video in question, it can be found at (for the “niche quality” discussion, begin the video around the 4:45 mark):

One idea in this context that seems new, which may or may not have been mine originally, is to call the first hour or so of a scent “the opening.” Of course, even if I were the first, people said things like, “this perfume opens with…” long before I said “the opening.” My notion is that most scents these days open powerfully for a while and then change and become more subtle. The change may not be that significant, other than the strength, but it’s usually noticeable, even by “newbies.” Of course some may not like this idea, and they are free to disagree, but it seems like today the decisions will be at least somewhat “democratic,” in that a lot of people will either begin to use the phraseology or they will not, and if not, it will more or less “go extinct” in the way that many words or phrases do. Isn’t that groovy, man?

So, why is “niche quality,” in my opinion of course (and contrary to the opinion of the FragranceBros guys), a very good phrase to use (assuming you know how to use it), at this point in history? One reason is that most who review scents are not perfumers (myself included), and so we are not going to talk about many specific ingredients used (in some cases they are the names of molecules). Thus, we can only generalize. If we have smelled many niche, designer, and vintage (probably “drug store dreck” as well), we begin to develop a sense of what to expect. If those expectations are not met, positively or negatively, we try to discover a way to describe what is unusual in ways that others might understand; that’s true of all kinds of things, not just scents (for example, politics is full of new sloganeering in an attempt to make at least some people fear members of another political party).

Another reason is that it informs those who usually don’t buy designer because of ingredient quality that a scent may be worth sampling. Otherwise, they might read the reviews and think, “it sounds good but I can’t handle the usual poor-quality ingredients.” Yet another reason is that it provokes thought about how to categorize scents in the most optimal way. What I think the “FragranceBros” guys aren’t taking into account is that in history it is often the case that there is a transitional period required to get to the next level, so to speak. If in fact “niche quality” is too problematic, someone will likely come along with a better idea and it will eventually get adopted by a large number of reviewers on the major sites, but the “seeds need to be planted” before that may be possible!

For me, “niche quality” is quite specific, in terms of my experience. It described a kind of dense richness that when attempted in today’s designer scents usually results in a kind of “syrup made of chemicals” quality, along with a fume-like muskiness. The Fragrantica scent, “Enchanted Forest: The Vagabond Prince,” for instance, possesses this niche quality. By contrast, “John Varvatos” seems like a similar quality was attempted but that the ingredients used were substandard. And I found Zegna Forte to be even worse. That one became outright nauseating to me after half an hour or so. Not that long ago I enjoyed the Varvatos, but the last time it was not pleasant at all. And it’s not like I could isolate any note or accord that was problematic, but rather it had that sticky, murky, “chemical” quality that I find unpleasant. The smell isn’t “bad,” but the key question is, how long can I be exposed to it before it becomes irritating?

This doesn’t happen with niche or vintage. In those cases, it seems to always be the composition that I dislike, not any overall quality that I’m perceiving as “chemical,” “synthetic,” “metallic,” etc. In fact, I would go so far as to say a phrase like “vintage quality” would be helpful, because with those scents there seems to often be a lot more “space” between notes or accords, and a kind of particulate quality is achieved, which I’ve found allows me to enjoy the scent for many hours. Now if this makes little sense to you, as it would have to me four years ago or thereabouts, there’s no reason to despair, just keep sampling. However, I’m not suggesting that everyone will agree with me if they just sample enough, and if you perceive things differently then that’s fine. The only thing I would caution you against is thinking that your olfactory perceptions will never change.

Of course some niche and vintage may have been composed with quite a few synthetics, and so this is all generalization (there are always exceptions in the world of fragrances). An example of just such a vintage exception is Eau Sauvage. Apparently, this one has too much hedione for me. Though in small amounts hedione doesn’t seem to bother me, there appears to be too much in ES for my sensibilities, and it comes across as unbalanced and not entirely natural. By contrast, some of today’s designer scents don’t come across this way, but almost all seem to lack depth (an exception is the latest formulation of Dior Homme, though this one isn’t especially deep, it’s just not lacking). Overall, if a person has written up quite a few reviews and uses the phrase “niche quality,” I usually feel I understand what is being conveyed. Clearly, even under the best circumstances, you can never be sure you will like a scent until you actually try it out for yourself.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Should the phrase, “niche quality,” be used when reviewing scents ?

  1. Your analysis makes a lot of sense to me and definitely coheres with my own experience. There *is* a difference between that sticky “stuff” which forms the basis of many celebrity and mainstream perfumes and what is being used by houses such as Keiko Mecheri and L’Artisan Parfumeur. I choose those houses as examples because some people find their wares on the boring side, but the quality cannot be denied, at least by my nose.

    I was wearing Keiko Mecheri Mogador last night and wondered to myself why I ever wear anything but perfumes from this house and others like it. They are exquisitely made, and definitely exhibit the “niche quality” to which you refer. Compare that to Madonna Truth & Dare, which I recently tested and reviewed. The composition did not seem horrible, but there was something about the caramel base which just dragged the whole thing down to a lower level. That difference, as intangible as it may seem, is real to me.

    • Right, but after I wrote it up I did a sampling of Obsession Night for Men (two different formulations) and realized that I should have talked about designer scents that have decent quality ingredients, but the ingredients always seem to be considerably weaker than niche ones. I am working on a “Part 2” to this post, which I hope to finish by late tomorrow if not sooner. Seems like vetiver and patchouli can be done reasonably well, at least if they are not too strong, but even if that is accurate I’m not sure how many aficionados would want to wear scents with that base (along with some vanilla, usually) very often!

      • My understanding is that patchouli is always natural–that there is no synthetic substitute. Is that right? If so, that would explain why it will smell pretty good whether it appears in niche or designer perfumes. My issue with most designer fragrances is that they seem to use shared bases which have salient and not always entirely pleasant qualities. Some of the Elizabeth Arden Company (not the house, which is another story…) perfumes exhibit this phenomenon: Juicy Couture, Badgley Mischka, Britney Spears… They all seem to have the same sort of stickiness in the base which binds them together despite their evident differences. I find the same phenomenon among Coty Prestige perfumes, but, again, maybe the ones with a patchouli note will be better than average.

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