How to explain reformulations to the uninformed.

Perfumes for the last ten years have been made for people who don’t like perfumes… ten, fifteen years.

– Luca Turin (from his lecture at the University of Alaska Southeast on 8/24/06).

The idea that fragrances made from 1994 onward are inferior to their predecessors is a puzzling one to me.

– Bryan Ross (from his 3/17/14 FromPyrgos blog post, entitled “A Comment On The ‘Great Age’ Of Masculines”).

While there are clearly are some people “out there” who claim that nearly all reformulations are basically identical to if not clearly better than the originals (and a subset of these people don’t seem to realize that you can’t believe both about the same reformulation!), one can read countless reviews that bemoan the “lost” original (the graphic for this post is meant to be facetious, for those who may not know). One point I like to make for those who have little experience in these matters is that there seems to have been a “great age” of perfumery, which began in the 1970s and lasted until the early to mid 1990s. What was great about so many designer scents of this era is that there seems to have been a kind of perfect balance between naturals and synthetics, so that the smell seemed to be transcend “ordinary reality.” Whatever the case may be, there was great balance, beyond the top notes, and the bases had excellent depth (generally-speaking, obviously).

A visual analogy for this is what we experience when we use a microscope to explore the tiny worlds we can’t see with the “naked eye.” However, with scents we can still go about our day doing the usual things, and the olfactory “buzz” often lasts for more than four or five hours! Going to see a movie in “3D” is yet another way of thinking about what great scents can do, but if we could put on “3d glasses” and walk around seeing everything as we see the movie, I think that would be the best equivalent to what these scent concoctions can accomplish. Once you experience this, you have moved beyond the “oh, that smells nice” crowd and probably won’t wear recent designer scents very often any longer.

In short, if you are speaking to someone who has not experienced what you have, it may not be easy to communicate these qualities, other than to use such analogies as the ones above. Until someone’s brain is “wired” to detect notes and synthetics, they are likely just experiencing a kind of olfactory blur. Moreover, some of them may not even believe you! In this case, I suggest you refer them to what nutritional scientist Paul Stitt experienced working for major food companies:

…most of Quaker’s research efforts are aimed not at finding new products or improving the old ones, but in cutting the cost of production. In corporate lingo, it’s called “product differentiation” and in advertisements they call the product “new and improved.” The result is a cheaper, less nutritious product that costs the consumer more.

Every employee in the building was expected to participate in this differentiation process by taking part in taste tests that would take place several times a day. Each employee would be called by name to the testing laboratory several times a week and asked to sample product “A” and compare it to product “B.” The first product would be, for instance, a bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal; the second would be Cap’n Crunch made by a new process that would cut the cost of production by a tenth of a cent per pound. The object was to tell if we could notice any difference between the old product and the cheaper version. If the researchers, executives, secretaries couldn’t tell the difference, as was usually the case, the company assumed the public would be fooled as well, and Cap’n Crunch would henceforth be made the cheaper way. In several months, when the researchers had found an even cheaper way to make the cereal, another taste test would be performed, and if the results showed “no discernible difference,” a few tenths of a cent more were cut from production costs. This went on and on, with almost every product being altered once or several times a year. Of course, even though the harried testers couldn’t notice the difference between “A” and “B,” there was always a slight difference; and after the end of several years and many changes, the taste and nutritional value of the new product bore little resemblance to the taste of the original stuff.

http://www.whale.to/v/stitt2.html

Yes, the reformulations do smell similar, you can tell those who make this claim, but not everyone wants something superficially similar. Some of us want the original, and if we can’t get it we’d rather move on to another scent. So, you can tell people that just as they can buy a cheap pizza from some local place, there are many people who seek a certain level of quality, and would rather eat all kinds of other things than cheap pizza, including perhaps a tuna fish sandwich, if it is on “quality” bread. You may have a different view, deciding that any pizza is good enough when you are in the mood for pizza, but if you tell others than they should eat cheap pizza because it is almost identical to all other pizzas (assuming it is made correctly, of course), you can’t expect everyone to agree with you.

One example of the kind of scent to which I’m referring is vintage Xeryus Rouge. I first tried it at least four years ago and it was too strong for me at the time. Now I use a half spritz low on the chest and that is quite strong. This is not the kind of scent I would smell up close on the skin, that’s for sure. I’ve never tried any of the reformulations, but from the reviews I’ve read it sounds like a “classic case” of tinkering with a very delicate balance. Vintage XR takes things as far as they can go, in terms of the use of synthetics, it seems. Even if it is entirely synthetic, the point is that it comes across as a kind of “hyper-real” version of the olfactory world in which we are used to living. “Cheapening it up” seems to have resulted in something that, by contrast, just smells like a “soup” of chemicals (if the reviews claiming this are accurate, and I’ve found this to be the case over 90% of the time!).

To be sure, there are days when I would not consider wearing XR; I know I’d get a headache within the hour. However, on days that I’m in the mood for it, XR takes me to kind of “alternate universe.” With scents released in recent years, however, I find myself often thinking things like, “wow, they used an awful lot of iso e super in this scent.” And of course, instead of iso e super, I might think that too much “laundry musks” or dihydromyrcenol or calone or some other synthetics were used. In other words, the balance is almost always off, in the direction of one or another synthetic. Historically, aldehydes seem to have been the first “synthetic” to achieve the same result, decades ago. Scents with strong aldehydes were never popular on the “men’s” side of the aisle, and while I own more than a few “women’s” scents with strong aldehydes, I really have to be in the mood to “fight my way through” the aldehydic haze with which these scents open.

Now, however, the “designers” are releasing mostly “chemical soup” scents that you can’t fight through, because you can never get to anything that possess enough depth or smells natural enough to be worth the wait. These kinds of scents remind me of boxed breakfast cereal, in that there is a huge profit margin and the product is very easy to make. However, at least with some breakfast cereals you can add milk and get something that is reasonably nutritious (I will refrain from citing papers/studies on this subject here). With awful designer scents, by contrast, all I can think to do is to try and get someone to buy my bottles or take them in a swap. Of course, a few are wearable; these have that balance I’m seeking. Lately, I’ve thought about telling non-aficionados something like: “if you put the time in, I think you will feel rewarded greatly, but if you don’t then it’s like we live in two different olfactory worlds,” and then I’d mention how physicists explain that we live in a four-dimensional universe, citing the example of how a “two-dimensional person” would not be able to understand our three-dimensional perception:

Consider a two-dimensional world resembling a sheet of paper. How would you appear to the inhabitants of such a world if you tried to interact with with them? The 2-D creatures would only see cross-sections of you as you intersected their universe. Your finger would look like a flat disc that grew in size as you pushed it through their world. Your five fingers might looked like five separate circles. They would just see irregular shapes with skin boundaries as you entered their world. Similarly, a hyperbeing who lived in the fourth dimension would have a cross-section in our space that looked liked a bunch of skin blobs.

http://sprott.physics.wisc.edu/pickover/fourth.html

There was a recent thread on Basenotes.net, which was a poll, asking readers if they preferred the 1973-1992 period for “masculine” scents or the 1993 to present one. Mr. Ross of the FromPyrgos blog felt the need to write up a post about this, something along the lines that the “greats” of both periods are about equal. First of all, the person who created the BN post chose an arbitrary period, as Joint for Men is from 1993 and clearly should be in the earlier category (I thought it was from 1992 when I wrote up a post to that thread). We tend to forget that people think of past events when making choices, generally-speaking, other than for a few “visionaries,” who are usually wrong (a major newspaper published an article about how in 10 to 15 years “modern medicine” would be totally different by now, and if we were alive and in good health, we would likely live to be well over 100, IIRC; however, since then not much has changed in that context). The point is that there were some “stragglers,” such as Xeryus Rouge, as well as a small number that were “ahead of their time” (not necessarily in a “good way”), which is where I’d place Cool Water for Men.

What’s most important is the pattern or “MO.” With many “masculine” aquatics, for example, the pattern is the use of a great deal of synthetics, so that the balance is tipped in their favor, the scent having a “chemical soup” feel, without anything to counterbalance it. Fighting though the first hour gets you either next to nothing or more of the same! By contrast, with XR, there are clearly synthetics present, but it feels like a proper balance exists (and the drydown is quite intriguing, however natural it is or is not). This illusion gets shattered if you smell it up close on the skin, but I didn’t know that as a newbie. If you want to argue that some forgettable “minimalist” work of the 1970s is “just as good” as an Old Master painting, for instance, nobody can stop you, but you also can’t stop people from laughing at you! How many Americans even know who Frank Stella is? To some degree, the vast majority of designer scents were made to garner attention from others. Some were meant for the “office,” while others for the “evening,” and others for “casual” occasions. Some are clearly better in cold weather than hot, and vice versa. Fashions change and this helps these companies make profits, because these concoctions can last a very long time and can often be bought at a steep discount (if one wanted to “stock up”).

However, some of us enjoy the scent and don’t care about the social implications. We want the experience to last for hours, with a certain amount of “dynamism,” and this is where the argument about “equality” falls flat on its face, IMO, because after a while the heavy use of synthetics in the newer designer scents becomes quite irritating (and this is often true for reformulations of the older scents). Perhaps XR “proves” that one can use quite a bit of synthetics, if it is composed skillfully, and I’m not claiming that ingredient quality must trump the skill of the perfumer. In fact, I recently ordered a bottle of vintage Uomo? Moschino, because while I didn’t like the first bottle I purchased (a few years back), after reading some reviews I have a feeling it is quite good in an XR kind of way (I’ll write up a post about that scent after I can study it). In wine criticism, the pre-Robert Parker notion was that the land (“terre”) was what mattered, and though he largely burst that bubble, he was then in turn criticized for preferring certain kinds of wines to others.

By contrast, I have never made any attempt to hide my sense that top notes might need to be largely avoided and that the drydown is what is most important, for me (meaning my appreciation of the scent, not anyone standing or sitting nearby). I also seem to use a lot less of the liquid than most people, and this seems to have helped me detect subtle differences in the drydowns. Moreover, if anyone reads reviews at Fragrantica.com alone, one can see that many appear to agree with what I consider my main arguments (especially about reformulations into “drug store dreck”). There is clearly a group of scent aficionados who know exactly what they want and can usually find it if they have some patience (or via swapping), if not spending the “big money,” which is often not all that much when compared to what the new designer concoctions (most of which I wouldn’t even consider wearing) are selling for in major department stores!

The key for those of us who think along these lines is that the scents of the 70s through mid-90s (roughly) seem to be more natural smelling, more complex (without note clashes), and more dynamic than those of the last twenty years, approximately. We can understand why many are puzzled by our notions, because we were “newbies” at one point as well. Those who seem to be adopting an “aggressively ignorant” position, like the FromPyrgos author (IMO), may be akin to “two-dimensional people” who laugh at the notion that a third dimension exists, and may not be able to perceive (or willing to admit) that there is phenomena indicating that there must be such an extra dimension.

NOTE: I haven’t sampled nearly as much recent niche as some other bloggers, but from what I’ve read some of them appear to share my view, though perhaps they don’t want to state it as explicitly as I do. Consider the review of Imperial Tea (By Kilian) by Robin at NST:

To my (admittedly finicky) nose, it is too synthetically fresh in the top notes (the opening blast is uncomfortably close to an air freshening product) and too clean in the dry down…

Rather than having a “finicky” nose, perhaps Robin has come to a point where she values “quality” very highly, whether that is due to the ingredients, the skill of the perfumer, or some combination of the two (and of course it’s possible this varies from one “high quality” scent to another). What I’ve experienced in this “hobby,” among other things, is a loss of socio-cultural associations with scents, even beyond these mass consumer concoctions. When I smell something now that just about everyone considers “bad,” such as rotting food, for example, what “registers” for me is a lack of balance, as if my brain is sensing mostly one molecule. It seems the kind of olfactory experience I now seek can only occur when there are enough molecules of sufficient diversity (but not too much diversity) that persist for more than a few minutes (preferably hours). I can only wonder how many others have reached this point; perfumers seem to be able to detect notes/chemicals very well, but my guess is that most haven’t spent hours with complex ones, and so their minds get “wired” differently than someone like myself. Too bad there are no functional MRI studies that likely would tell us about different parts of the brain in “normals,” perfumers, and people like myself!

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