Trying to make sense of “expert” reviews.

Luca Turin has received his share of both praise and criticism for his fragrance reviews over the last decade or so. And let’s not forget the obvious, which is that nobody is perfect. Moreover, what I’ve learned over the last several years is that what seems “crystal clear” one day can seem very murky the next, or completely wrong! As I’ve said before, my overall sensitivity to these olfactory concoctions can vary significantly, as has my sensitivity to various notes, accords, and aroma chemicals. This seems to be mostly what determines what I find enjoyable. While some may find this frustrating if not infuriating, to me it means that I don’t step into the same sillage twice in this hobby, as I’d guess Heraclitus would say.

This brings me to a recent review by Luca Turin:

When I first smelled it, the intense marine and woody-amber notes in the first couple of minutes of Opus VIII made me worry that Amouage had succumbed to a cut-rate macho style. Unexpectedly in view of the fact that those are drydown notes, the fragrance soon straightened up on my skin and flew right thereafter. In size and shape, it was reminiscent of Gucci Envy for men, but without the big ginger note, replaced by a complex resinous chord. When smelling it again after a few weeks, however, something unusual happened: out of the darkness now came a soft floral accord reminiscent of honeysuckle, lighting up the stark woody structure. This suggests to me that the sample sent had not completed proper maceration. The balance is now more interesting and the structure richer than when first opened. I assume by the time this reaches the shops the chemistry will have worked its magic. Neither particularly original nor particularly memorable, but a solid, compact, dusky unisex.

http://arabia.style.com/beauty/beauty-guide/message-in-a-bottle-luca-turin-reviews-opus-viii-amouage-and-florabotanica-balenciaga-summer-fragrances-2014/

I’m not interested in agreeing with or criticizing this assessment. Rather, it just doesn’t make sense to me. As I said in a Basenotes.net thread on this subject:

In the Opus Vlll review, it sounds like LT was “thrown off” by the ” intense marine and woody-amber note,” because I don’t see how he could have missed something that smelled like honeysuckle! However, I’ve never experienced intense marine and woody-amber as top notes, nor can I imagine that such chemicals would dissipate fairly quickly. Something seems very wrong here!

In situations like this, Turin has sometimes mentioned the aroma chemicals he thinks are responsible for certain effects. Others, however, have opined on this possibility:

My first spritz of this was intriguing – and completely counterintuitive to the actual notes (stick with me – you’ll see what I mean). I got a whiff of calone and a touch of aquatic …okay…that made sense to me…but then I got a big ol’ whallop of carnation (CARNATION?) I would’ve gone to the mat thinking there was carnation allllll up in this one.

Ha! no.

Instead, what I was smelling was a lot of jasmine sambac, front-loaded to the hilt. The combination of jasmine and orange flower combined to create a shiny little cousin to Dia…but that is quickly dispensed with by the introduction of the …not heavier, per se…let’s call them …deeper, more resinous..elements. Yes, resinous. Because halfway through the spritz the frankincense, benjoin and saffron start gently pulsing through the floral opening…

http://perfumeposse.com/2014/03/04/library-lover-amouage-opus-viii/

After reading a few reviews of Opus VIII, my thought is that this may be an example of perfumers who have plenty of “freedom” as well as the resources but who are running out of good ideas, and perhaps hope that oddness is enough:

It’s extremely difficult for me to know where to begin in discussing how Opus VIII manifests itself on my skin. The simple reason is the prismatic nature of the scent that I referenced up above. I’ve tested the fragrance about 5 times by now, using different quantities, and no two tests are completely alike. Opus VIII is a shape-shifter, throwing out different notes each time. The most noticeable thing is just how critical quantity seems to be. Depending on how much you apply, the notes manifest themselves quite differently in terms of prominence, potency, and order. Sometimes, you get entirely new elements, or things that are not even included on the list. As a whole, Opus VIII is a bit like entering into a house of mirrors, where you never know what is going to reflect back at you…

At the start of the 3rd hour, Opus VIII wears close to the skin, hovering just an inch above it in an increasingly sheer, weightless blend of jasmine and ylang-ylang with woody notes and an aromachemical dryness. It remains that way for quite a while, largely unchanged except for the prismatic reflections of the secondary and tertiary elements that pop up once in a while.

http://www.kafkaesqueblog.com/2014/03/16/amouage-opus-viii-optical-illusions/

Even if the price of Amouage scents mean nothing to you, do you really want this kind of strange opening, and then experience a somewhat generic base? Perhaps you do, though for me the retail price is a “deal breaker.” In any case, Turin seems to have been correct, at least in the abstract, about this scent. I’m now at a point where I say things to myself like, “I already have a scent with an animalic, leathery/incense-oriented base, so why should I even bother to sample something that has a note in it that I have found unpleasant?” In this case, I have yet to encounter a scent with guaiac wood listed that I enjoy, though it would be great if I lost my sensitivity to it. If I could tolerate it in Opus VIII, I doubt the scent would be of much interest anyway, though if I could get a bottle at the local dollar store (and that’s all it would ever be worth), I probably wouldn’t mind wearing it once a year or so. And isn’t that what we want our “experts” to tell us above all else, that is, when they encounter a scent that is truly special? If the scent is unique, then there is the hope that one can learn to enjoy it, whereas if the drydown is generic, I just don’t want another bottle to have to cram in one of my storage boxes! Here’s the note pyramid for Opus VIII:

Jasmine Sambac, Ylang Ylang, Orange Flower

Frankincense, Saffron, Ginger, Vetiver, Guaiac Wood

Balsam, Benzoin, Jamaican Bay

Several days after reading about this Amouage scent, however, a review of Emblem by Montblanc (written by Turin) appeared on arabaia.style.com. In terms of how this scent actually smells, LT only has this to say:

…the violet-leaf note in Emblem is both intense and durable…

Here is the description of Emblem, as it appears on Fragrantica.com:

…Emblem begins with a splash of aromatic clary sage and cardamom mixed with sparkling grapefruit, which, right from the start, give the impression of a strong and charismatic fragrance full of contrasts. Fresh, green and frozen violet leaves are wrapped in cinnamon to provide elegance to the composition. The base features intense woods and tonka bean.

From what I understand, LT is being paid to write these reviews, and yet this is the most he can provide readers? By contrast, a couple of Fragrantica.com reviews are much more helpful:

Emblem is another one semi-sweet, semi-fresh leathery fragrance that has been created to substitute for the popular Carolina Herrera CH Men. There is already a plenty of less thoughtful clones of CH Men: Pal Zileri Uomo, S. T. Dupont 58 Avenue Montaigne, Trussardi My Land. Did we need another one? From the list above Emblem is closer to My Land. Strongly watered down, with 1-Million-y vibe that makes the scent smell cheap…

…very disappointing. Has that same synthetic, aquatic colone molecule thing which comes on strong in the opening and settles to a creamy Tonka affair…not good. Similar to many recent releases Invictus, Eros, and Burberry Brit rhythm. Surely there is more interesting olfactory songs to sing? Lazy stuff designed purposefully to have mass appeal…

The key point here is that after reading the two Fragrantica reviews, I don’t have any interest in sampling Emblem. After reading LT’s review, I don’t know where to begin to think about this scent. If his intent is to create riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas, I’m not sure anyone could ever be his equal! However, if you really want to help people understand these concoctions, you need to think about where they are at on their “journey.” For example, on that same BN thread about Emblem, I pointed out that LT doesn’t emphasize (if he has ever acknowledged) how our perceptions or sensitivities can change, which is important, because you don’t want to dismiss a scent too quickly if you take this hobby at all seriously. By contrast, LT seems to think he can disregard many scents within a few minutes, with little or no explanation –  how does this help his readers? Are they to simply obey him blindly?  Someone criticized this point, and I responded with:

Not denying something doesn’t even mean the person is aware of it! If you write a book called “Perfumes: The Guide,” and don’t explicitly state that sensitivities/perceptions can vary, you clearly are not placing much importance on it. LOL.

Moreover, LT has acknowledged that with some scents he reviewed there wasn’t what one would call a great deal of study, let alone a second wearing. And while it may be the case that LT is one of the few people who has a more or less entirely consistent perception of these complex concoctions, that isn’t likely to be helpful to most of his readers, I’d guess. I don’t mind if people disagree, but I would like them to weigh in so that we know where they stand, and some rationale for their positions would be nice as well.

In the early days of personal computers, I had access to a PC Junior, and was fiddling around with BASIC. I created a program called “The Guru.” You would ask it questions and it would flash colors and make some beeping noises for several seconds, then provide one of perhaps forty different responses, randomly chosen. These responses were along the lines of, “time will answer your question if you live an earnest life.” My point here is that while it may be acceptable to tell readers that you find some scents beneath contempt, if you explain why, of course, if you don’t give many if not most scents a “fair chance” aren’t you doing something similar? You don’t know what the reader is seeking, what his or her budget is, etc. It’s fine to “challenge” your readers to some degree, but if you are being paid to write reviews, shouldn’t you at least talk about your assessment of a scent in quite a bit of detail (or provide some sort of criteria that you use)? In my experience, it seems that some “experts” think they have “paid their dues” and so readers will have to try and understand their cryptic or esoteric ruminations as best they can. I doubt the ones who have this attitude are thinking this way consciously, but the best I can do is to point out my notion and hope it generates more self-awareness!

Of course, there’s a bit difference between someone being paid to write such reviews and someone with a free blog. If I suddenly became rich and decided to publish a fragrance magazine, for example, I would require the reviewers I hired to describe the scent in question in detail. If they were not willing to do that, they would not work for me for very long, that’s for sure. Perhaps there is a kind of “insider” element involved here, that is, certain kinds of reviews (in certain venues) are for well-to-do people who don’t really know much about scents but want to think that they do, and LT’s reviews might provide these people with the kind of linguistical patterns that reinforce their sense of specialness, without requiring them to actually study scents in detail. And this reminds me of a recent documentary/mockumentary called “Kumare.” I found it quite fascinating, and as I watched it, I was thinking that many people might seek this same kind of guru in the realm of “fine perfumery.”

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1 Comment

Filed under Criticizing the critics.

One response to “Trying to make sense of “expert” reviews.

  1. EDP

    ‘I don’t step into the same sillage twice in this hobby, as I’d guess Heraclitus would say.’ I could not agree more.

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