Why, oh why, does the word similar inspire such animosity ?

Over at Fragrantica.com, I wrote this review of Laguna (“women’s”) quite a while ago:

The summer version of Egoiste by Chanel, IMO. It’s a little sweeter and not as heavy, but if you don’t find Egoiste at all “feminine” you may want to try this in the summer (if you’re a guy). It’s not “synthetic,” though top quality ingredients may have made this one smell incredible, and it’s quite well balanced. Of course my bottle may be vintage, so reformulations might smell different. It has a sort of fizzy quality that Egoiste doesn’t but is otherwise that kind of scent. Note that if you don’t like rosewood notes (some think they smell like hairspray) you should sample before buying a bottle.

And I just saw someone’s review of it that contains the following (note that I’m not suggesting any animosity is present in it):

In many quarters Laguna is called an oriental. One person here even likened it to Chanel’s Egoïste. I agree that the structure follows a traditional oriental style, with citrus, florals, vanilla-amber and precious wood notes. I definitely don’t smell any similarity to Egoïste…

Why is it so difficult for some people to recognize that I am pointing out similarities. These similarities can be “structural”/compositional or in terms of strong notes or accords that are shared. In this case, the composition is similar, and I could see a similar formulation being marketed as Egoiste Summer Fizz, for example (perhaps with slightly stronger wood notes to make sure it is “masculine” enough). The theme for both is fruity/powdery/woody, with Egoiste being a bit spicy while Laguna goes in a kind of fizzy direction; rosewood really ties the two together, so to speak. Otherwise they would smell a lot more like other scents with this theme. So, while plenty of scents list rosewood as a note, it seems to play a defining role in a scent with this kind of primary accord or theme. And while there certainly are more than a few “smell-alikes” or “clones” of many popular scents, this does not mean that a scent must be a “clone” in order to have something significant in common with the “original.” In this case, I never even used the word similar!

Another example involves Eau Sauvage and Acqua di Gio. Both are warm weather scents with prominent citrus, hedione, jasmine, and wood. Both contain mild spice notes. ES goes for vetiver whereas rosemary seems to have a similar role in AdG. Neither are sweet and both are at least a bit dry. This is another great example of a similar compositional idea where some similar as well as dissimilar notes were used. One clear difference is that ES went with herbal “freshness” whereas AdG possesses a marine accord instead. ES is clearly muskier in the drydown as well. Was this by accident? My guess is that this is how Alberto Morillas thought ES could be “modernized” (30 years later) when he composed AdG, and it was obviously incredibly successful.

An interesting question is why were these two scents so successful? Is the composition so good, at least in a particular cultural context, or would nearly all humans find it pleasant in some way (not necessarily “masculine” in other cultures, obviously). Whatever the case may be, it certainly seems that over the course of generations Guerlain understood that creating scents possessing something significant in common but that can be presented as “different” is a successful plan:

Guerlain never starts with a blank sheet of paper, but with a blurred filigree of everything they ever built,” observes perfume critic Luca Turin. “Then they stretch it this way and that, removing old and adding new features as taste evolves, before bringing it all into soft focus.” The Guerlain perfumers are very much aware of this “Guerlain DNA”, passed on from decade to decade but continuously open to slight mutations. The DNA has been termed the Guerlinade, and explains why perfume aficionados can become absolute Guerlain loyalists.

Taken from: http://monsieurguerlain2.blogspot.com/2008/06/guerlinade.html

So, while it is certainly true that some notes or accords may “spike out” on one occasion but not on another, one also needs to consider the structure of the composition, which is much more resistant to variation in perception (in my experience). However, from what I’ve read many people become sort of trapped by the top notes into thinking they are smelling something unique, and are “clueless” about structure/composition. Note that some have pointed out that other companies have created a common base and used it in many of their scents as well (Avon and L’Occitane spring to mind here). I will conclude this blog post by discussing a recent post of mine at Basenotes.net, which was on the subject of Burberry’s 2006 London for Men (the original post involved the point that many said this scent is “Christmas in a bottle,” but he did not agree). Someone else criticized one of my posts on that thread, saying that my suggestion of Michael for Men (Kors) was not an adequate replacement for London. My response was:

No, I don’t think it’s a “replacement” either; rather, I outright dislike London’s composition and the Kors’ scent is the closest that I really do like. Wild Spice is closer but simpler. Another idea is Trussardi L’Uomo, but again I would not call it “similar.” Since I don’t like London’s composition, I don’t need to replace it with anything, but I thought others might find these other scents to be at least “serviceable” in some Londonesque context. Obviously, right now Wild Spice wins in the price department, for example.

The structure/composition of London involves strong lavender, quite a bit of sweetness, and a syrupy quality that contains spice and at least mild woodiness. In this case there are notes of port wine, tobacco, and leather as well, though none are very strong. The earliest scent I encountered with this structure is Ignis by Omar Sharif (1994). The notes for that one (taken from Fragrantica.com) are:

Iop notes are lavender, bergamot and cinnamon; middle notes are mimose and leather; base notes are opoponax, tobacco leaf, guaiac wood and oakmoss.

I have no idea how popular Ignis was back then but it certainly hasn’t been in a quite a while if it ever was. Ignis is a bit muskier and has no port wine note but overall I’d choose Ignis because it doesn’t come across as “synthetic” as London does to me (which I’m guess reflects the quality of ingredients used). I didn’t mention Ignis in that BN post because it is so difficult to find these days, but the point here is that many seem to think that the London is unique and exemplifies the origination of this idea, when it fact it was quite old by 2006. However, it’s always possible that something different will “spike out” for a person and make him or her think these two scents are “not similar.” I’ve found that it’s important to sample a scent at least a few times (with at least a week between wearings) in order to get a general grasp of it. However, this may not be the case for those who haven’t done much sampling, obviously.

Note: The quotes by Turin are taken from the “Perfumes: The Guide” book, page 158.

UPDATE: After I wrote the above I wore Vermeil and the original Davidoff scent (1984). The note pyramid for Davidoff at Fragrantica.com seems to be incomplete. There aren’t as many notes as one would expect and there’s clearly quite a bit of castoreum, which is not even listed. The two scents have some things in common, especially animalic qualities with an emphasis on castoreum (though also with similar floral support). The compositions are rather different, however, with Vermeil being very “in your face,” particularly for the first half hour or thereabouts. Davidoff is about smoothness within a castoreum-dominant context, and it’s a bit “green.” Vermeil begins with a citrus/animalic blast, but over time a clear tobacco note moves in, along with the florals and some other supporting notes. I can see why a person would compare the two, and I think it’s a good idea to do, but calling them “similar” only makes sense if one explains how the two perform over time, and this is why I’ve criticized reviews by Luca Turin, for example. Of course, if a newbie calls these two similar with little explanation, that’s understandable, but it’s up to others to expand upon that claim if a more useful assessment is to be arrived at.

UPDATE on the UPDATE: Vermeil has been reformulated significantly, IMO, so keep in mind I am referring to the original Vermeil above. I’ll write about this reformulation after I’ve had a chance to study it in detail.

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Filed under Criticizing the critics.

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