The Triumphant (?) Return of Luca the Great !

Apparently, Luca Turin has decided to get back into the scent reviewing game, and as far as I’m concerned, “the more the merrier” (one can always simply refrain from reading something, for whatever reason). You can read a bit more about it over at the FromPyrgos blog, but here I want to focus on a passage from a post about this development there:

“Part of the reason I felt like I had to, you know, get away from it for a while was the tremendously depressing impression that perfumery was a field of ruins . . . It just so happened that when we wrote that guide, it was the end of an era.”

I understand Turin’s point of view here. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. After all, I’ve been arguing for a year with someone who also believes that great perfumery has been systematically ruined, largely by reformulations. To not see that viewpoint is absurd, but I simply disagree with it. That goes hand in hand with my disagreement with another of Turin’s contentions: that masculine perfumery is mostly inferior to feminine perfumery. Ironically enough, the person I’ve been arguing with about the first point would likely agree with me on this one. Masculine perfumery is, in my opinion, just as great as feminine perfumery, and in some cases better.

The first part, in quotes, is by Turin, while the rest is by the author of the blog, Bryan Ross. I think this is a good opportunity to clarify some of my positions, since I am anonymously mentioned, but most importantly, I want to emphasize one point I consider crucial. A slight detour, however, is in order here. I know very little about the “foodie” phenomenon, and in fact have been interested in odd combinations of food since I was a teenager. Rich foods never appealed to me, and strong, bitter ones were overwhelming, but I found that mixing several “plain” items together was quite enjoyable. Years later, I read about people who are considered “super tasters,” and realized I must be one such person (these are people with more taste buds than normal). I did the dye self-test and if I did it correctly it confirmed by notion.

I think the same kind of thing is true for scents. That is, some of us are much more sensitive to at least certain notes or chemicals than others. As Mr. Ross pointed out, Turin seems to have a preference for floral notes (otherwise, what would explain his opinion about the superiority of “feminine” ones?). Floral notes can add “body” to a scent without doing anything else. Tuberose might be the best example (when it’s strong, of course). To someone who may be much more sensitive than the majority of the population, by contrast. this may generate an unpleasant sensation. On the other hand, some people are “non-tasters” (very few taste buds) and enjoy food I would consider intolerably awful; perhaps Turin is a kind olfactory non-taster. I certainly think that if this analogy is accurate, Mr. Ross is one such person !

Those I’ll call “non-smellers” I’ve called “top notes people” in the past, or something along those lines. Recently a person at Basenotes.net claimed that the apparent second formulation of Tsar was ‘crap” but that the liquid in the next bottle design was excellent. I have these two bottles as well as the original one. The second one seems to have a strong drydown that the original, but otherwise seems just a bit cruder. The third, however, has nicer top notes but there seems to be something “off” about the drydown (I’m guessing lower quality ingredients). Once again, I think this is just a case of different sensitivities, such as asking a non-taster to enjoy eating really “plain” cookies that are bursting with flavor to someone like myself.

And this brings me to my biggest complaint about reviewers of various phenomena (movies are an obvious example), which is that review criteria is rarely disclosed to readers. Of course, over time one may learn new things about oneself, and so disclosures may occur over time. However, if the reviewer was honest and “transparent” at first, the “growth” of his or her understanding would be clear to readers, and it would make the experience of reading the persons reviewers more rewarding. For example, I had no idea what would happen when I first began this “hobby,” yet within about a year I began to recognize that some scents were making me feel ill. An example is Sung Homme. Interestingly, a reviewer over at Fragrantica.com, jht4060, seems to have had a similar experience (I’m guessing he too is a “super smeller”:

I traded for this without having tried a sample. Perhaps it is something about the bottle I got or my olfactory receptors, but man did I regret it.

Based on the reviews, when it arrived I sprayed with abandon on my wrist (I like my scents strong) anticipating some variant on the 80s aromatic herbal bombshell. Within minutes I regretted my vigor as some weird combination of aldehydes and alien flowers assaulted my delicate sensibilities. Being an optimist, I decided to go for the ride – surely this was the top note that would mellow to enrich some underlying accord; no other reason to include such a nauseating top occurred to me.

As time passed and my neurons continued to die by the dozens, the alien flower top did gradually change, unfortunately by adding a cloying note that I normally associate with cheap rose perfume. Finally realizing that this was not a scent for me, I first rinsed my wrist, then scrubbed, then scrubbed again, then sprayed over my now raw skin with some dark vetiver-oud thing. Some progress, but close to the skin there was still that cloying alien flower. How could it overcome my favorite rooty woody notes? Was I forever going to associate my beloved vetiver with this ghastly purple fug? Were the molecules replicating in my skin?

When I was a biology graduate student, I did a lot of work with culture media, including adding various specific amino acids to media. I decided if I were going to feed them to yeast, I should have the courtesy to taste the pure amino acids myself. After all, meat is mostly polymers of these things and one of them I knew to be rather tasty (MSG, glutamate). I got through a few of them, whose taste I don’t recall before I hit one that tasted intensely metallic. (I think it was tyrosine but don’t hold me to it.) I quickly washed my mouth with water, then milk, then anything I could think of. The metallic taste grew and grew until it was all I could think of, rather like a bad headache that just can’t be ignored. It took days for the taste to leave me, whether due to a few very persistent molecules or due to some psychological quirk I will never know…

Thus, with no disrespect, I have to say that I look forward to reading what new things Turin has to say, but I doubt those statements will be meaningful in terms of which scents I wear or even just to sample. It may be like a foodie telling me how great Steak Tartar is. Or like me telling that person about how great some very “plain” food concoction of mine is. However, there is at least one crucial difference; I can smell the scents I find overwhelming (I just can’t wear them). The top notes person or non-smeller detects little if anything upon drydown, even with plenty of sprays. On the other hand, with just one spray an olfactory wonderland is usually present for me for hours. This is often only the case with vintage formulations, but my guess is that a top notes person really can’t detect any significant difference even if I detect at major one.

Years ago, a business acquaintance of mine used the word “floof.” He was referring to the kind of person who seemed to think he or she was better than others, but was also aloof on some level. This kind of person likes to “make an entrance,” say a few words (usually including a witticism), then quickly depart the scene, off to yet another “appearance.” Too many of Mr. Turin’s reviews come across to me like this, and I just find them a waste of my time at this point. However, I will likely go ahead and read them, hoping that there is some nugget of wisdom in at least a few. Some may find this quite irritating, but to me if it’s the reality of the situation then I just decide if it’s worth the effort. Everyone should have the right to be a “floof” if he or she wants; the rest of us then get to decide if we want to pay attention to that person, and if so, how much.

Perhaps what I’ve found most helpful in Turin’s writings about scents is his concept of “structure.” In some of my latest blog posts, I tried to articulate exactly what I meant, which is not easy with something as subjective as this topic, that’s for sure! I prefer the term composition, but I think “construction” is also good. The problem with “structure” is that it could mean a “hard” note, such as a wood, which serves to prevent the composition from becoming cloying (if it’s quite sweet and syrupy, for example). Turin uses the example of Nuit de Noel as one such scent that could use some structure, though I’d argue that would then make it something else, perhaps too similar to other scents, thereby negating its uniqueness. How many “men’s” scents begin with a similar kind of fougere accord but then go in clearly different directions, for example? It certainly may be the case that composition can be perceived differently, due to certain notes “spiking out” for different people, but I think it can be useful when one reviews scents. For example, if someone reads my review of Laguna by Dali (“women’s” version) and notes the claim about compositional similarity to Egoiste, that person could decide whether I perceive scents in a way that makes sense to him or her (especially if the person has read many of my reviews), and then decide how to use my impressions.

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Filed under Criticizing the critics.

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