Why does “small house” niche smell different?

If you have read quite a few fragrance reviews, even on major blogs, this question is not even raised, let alone addressed.  That is, they usually talk in generalizations and often there is some appeal to emotions.  As I mentioned a while back, there was a member of Basenotes.net some years ago who wrote more than a few reviews.  In all or nearly all of them, the scent was described as “so fresh and warm,” even in cases where I thought this was not at all the case.  My guess is that he was thinking with his heart, so to speak.  In fact, the only scent I can imaging being “fresh” and “warm” at the same time would be one involving chili pepper, and that note makes me feel ill for some reason.

One thing I was thinking, by contrast, as I tried a few Andy Tauer scents and a couple of Kerosene ones recently, is that there seems to a major difference between these and ones released by the “big guys.”  These tend to be heavy, simple/crude, straightforward, etc., whereas those by major perfumers often don’t.  If we compare Kerosene’s Copper Skies or Tauer’s Lonestat Memories or Incense Extreme (which I’ve sampled recently) to something like Olivier Durbano’s Black Tourmaline, for example, the difference is striking, as BT has a transparent quality and I kind of fluidity missing in those others.  It also has a kind of shifting dynamism, whereas those others feel leaden to me.  I have also felt this leaden quality with other “smaller” niche companies such as Eva Luxe, though I have enjoyed her scents a bit more, especially Kretek.  And while reading BN reviews of Elixir by Penhaligon, I encountered this one, which is along the lines I have been thinking in some cases:

Light oriental. Those two words aren’t mentioned that often when talking about mens’ frags. Contrary to some of the negative reviews here, I find this lightness very bearable and even refreshing. In fact, I think that Giacobetti did an excellent job to meld the spices, florals and sweet notes into a very interesting fragrance. Could Lutens or Malle ever put something like this out? I think not!

I was starting to ask myself, why have so few have suggested that there seems to be an “amateurish” quality to certain niche “housese.”  And let me make clear that I don’t think this is necessarily bad (I have a Kretek decant and wouldn’t mind have more, for example), but I think the difference should be discussed more on the major fragrance sites.  It would save more than a few people a lot of money, for example, if they wanted to avoid the “amateur” type of compositions.  Then I was thinking about why this was the case.  Of course, some do not have the extensive perfumery school training, but I was thinking that there was likely “more to the story,” so I asked the fragrance chemist I interviewed several months ago what he thought, and this was his response:

You’re right to have picked out the less smooth compositions of indie/niche fomulae vs. larger outfits, which is due to something we call fixatives or blenders. These aren’t the main accords used, but rather, are added after the bulk of the work is done to smooth out the edges of a parfum and add technical properties.

Most big companies have a catalog of blender formulae that you can pick and choose from depending on the end result you’re looking for (an eau de cologne will have a different blender than an oriental, etc.) and these tend to be pretty standard amongst the larger outfits. Because of the ubiquity of the blender ingredients, you often see them printed on the back of the retail packaging as a faux attempt at transparency (as you otherwise only get to hear about the “notes” which are very much open to interpretation.)

That said, little companies can buy these from the big guys ready made, but they are not cheap and have to be purchased in huge quantities, which doesn’t always work for independent perfumers, which is to say that these folks tend to have to work a lot harder to make an idea come together, because you kind of have to use the brute force method to figure out if something is going to work, rather than slapping something together, adding a blender and then tweaking accordingly.

This also might explain why some of us, including myself, tend to prefer “cheapos” made by “big companies” to many scents I’ll call amateur niche.  However, I’ll be the first person to admit that I like more than a few of these amateur niche scents, such as some by Smell Bent.  And I certainly dislike quite a few professional niche ones, such as those that seem to contain a lot of iso e super.  Speaking of which, the SJP scent, Stash, is one such scent.  Yes it seems “professional,” but I don’t enjoy anything about it.

I posed a similar question on the Basenotes DIY Forum and these were a couple of the the responses (apparently by those who create their own fragrances):

Access to captives, lab assistants, large databases, evaluators, formal training.

… and time, experience (from the formal training), deeper knowledge of the materials, a vending and promoting structure around them, and maybe even a set of family heritage accords. Still they use a lot of Hedione, Iso E Super and Galaxolide.

http://www.basenotes.net/threads/432482-What-do-the-quot-big-guys-quot-have-that-you-don-t?p=4023091#post4023091

Note that this doesn’t mean the “pros” put more effort into a new creation; if anything it seems as though the opposite may be the case!  However, it might help to understand this apparent distinction not just for “blind buys” but also to get a sense of how the scent was composed, which is certainly of interest to some aficionados.  And for all I know Lutens and Malle might be seeking a certain “heavy” quality for stylistic reasons rather than practical ones – the scents I’ve tried from these “houses” seem more “pro” than “amateur” to me.

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