This month I have had intensive thoughts about the notion and practise of reviewing fragrances.
I want to begin writing monthly musings because whilst I like writing in an academic style (serious, serious, and serious!) – there is always so much that goes beyond and behind a finalised blog post. I am wearing and testing a whole range of perfumes, considering many fragrant related questions, and preparing a considerable amount of things too.
It is a pleasure to share this with my audience, but also always aim towards transparency – I want you to be able to tap into my mind as I offer you a commentary on my practices and my thoughts.
This July, I held two public lectures on the topic of perfume. In the first one, an impressive crowd of around 200 individuals was present – all students, who had never considered fragrance beyond anything other than just a thing. It was my duty, all clad in tweed and brown tones, to convince the audience that fragrance can be elevated into a worthy realm. I had to do this in a considerably short amount of time, around 45 minutes – which really isn’t enough time at all.
The philosophy major in me shone through, and my attempts to enlighten the audience was driven by a discussion of me (the reviewer) and my position in using established, justified-true ideas in fragrance criticism. To do that, I had to borrow from ideas namely from art, and a hint of science in the mix. Within that discussion I alluded to an idea of objective standards in fragrance criticism, however, I didn’t quite elucidate what that meant. Truth is, I struggled to give it adequate definition … and I still do.
Ormond College. The Site of the First Lecture.
That has been on my mind for weeks now, three weeks exactly, and despite me writing several drafts on this matter (which I had hoped to be some sort of treatise on the role of the fragrance reviewer) and the desire to publish this to my blogging audience, I still don’t feel satisfied with it. I had shown it to a few individuals but that was met with hesitation.
It seems perfectly plain to me that some qualities in perfume are a given. My main example were aldehydes. To me, they provide guaranteed white luminescence and space within a composition. This is something that should be considered as a definite in perfumery – these effects some notes contain.
Here are a series of excerpts from the latest draft:
Each categorical genre of perfume, say, the ones defined by Michael Edwards (See: The Fragrance Wheel) all find themselves adhering to a paragon / structural basis of their respective family. The Oriental is defined by a structure – vanilla, opulence, resins, and sometimes smoky. When fragrances adequately and perfectly tie with their genre (i.e. Shalimar, Oriental; Habit Rouge, Oriental; Eau de Néroli Doré, Citrus) they are exalted and praised objectively in perfume reviews. When fragrances fail to adequately meet this genre expectation, they are criticised. It seems fair to say that a haphazardly constructed perfume, disregarding luck, will not rate well.
Consider aldehydes (as an accord, not specifically): they add sparkle, clarity, intensity, and luminescence to perfume: like extending the capacity of something with set volume. They give space and a feeling of acceleration.
What then emerges are new variations on the leather theme: the buttery suede leather: Daim Blond (Serge Lutens, 2004), the leather chypre: Antaeus (Chanel, 1981) or the pastel eau chaude: Cuir d’Angé (Hermès, 2014). As variant themes emerge, new paragons establish themselves.
I had addressed this issue to a fragrance forum, asking them if they believed objective standards existed in perfumery; definites. I appreciated the discussion this generated, yet all I was met with were guarantees that this is purely a subjective hobby. My idea is that within the subjective there must be some objectivity. I used the example of the Chypre perfume – there is a defined structure to a chypre, and even when fragrances move beyond that, they capture a guaranteed effect that indeed makes the Chypre a Chypre. If there were no standards in perfume, then how can one classify scent?
Perspective: newfound or alternative?
What prompted a lot of this discussion beyond my lecture was Chanel’s newly released Boy. There is a lot of pressure for a company to claim they have created a new take on the Fougere, and to me, Chanel has left me cold. It is no secret I adore Guerlain’s Jicky, and only a few hours ago I had read a review about Jicky’s feature of tension that makes it so venerable. I often described this as a contrast within a work: the cool and hot, dirty and clean factors that make perfume exciting and dance on the skin. The Fougere family captures this best, with its play on balancing notes and harmonising – merging multiple categories into a coherent construction.
There is no doubt in my mind that Chanel achieves that with Boy and how it claims to be a Fougere, but I am still going to classify it as a prettified floral rather than a new-age Fougere. Despite that being subject to change with continued wear in the future, I find Boy to be a lavender smoothed of its roughness through heliotrope and white musks and intensive on the rose geranium. The grapefruit top note is wonderfully pleasing – for the very reason that it omits that cloying neon-light cologne-like note similar to a sugar rush, and also lacks a sense of bitterness. To me, Boy is a soft floral, with heliotrope acting as a softener (rather than orange blossom).
Boy, Chanel (2016)
However, my qualm with Boy (and this is where I disagree with others) is that it plainly isn’t exciting. It’s a perfume so perfect in satisfying the literal Fougere labelling (according to its note structure) that to me it doesn’t feel like one. The Fougere to me has a hint of roughness. Jicky and Mouchour de Monsieur had caressing spikes wrapped in fuzzy velvety fur. Fou d’Absinthe: delightful cool and hot contrasts. Sartorial has intense echoes of smoothness with great variance – aldehydes, metallic effects, a certain dryness, woods, lavender, and amber. Even Geranium Pour Monsieur: verdant fuzziness with a gradient from green to pure white.
Boy, on the other hand, is a completely spherical work – round, and almost a bit of a lavender homage. It may be a Fougere, but is it an Aromatic Fougere? Personally, if I want lavender done in a Chanel style, it’s an easy choice: Jersey. Wonderfully textural and chewy, it is a great take on lavender.
I have been visiting a lot of different fragrances this month. I am on the hunt for the perfect iris. I still think Iris Silver Mist is the one for me (although it is very much beyond my reach). I was alerted to 28 La Pausa from Chanel, but it turns into vinegar and dustiness on my skin. I have also considered No. 19 from Chanel, but I ultimately find it to be an unconvincing work on my skin. I own 31 Rue Cambon, and that is indeed fabulous, yet, it’s a buttery complex Chypre construction in which the iris isn’t exactly the focal subject – the immaculate structure and amalgam of notes are the focus, rather. I am looking for cool, earthy and rooty.
I have also been meaning to write about another Amouage fragrance, but I am unsure whether or not I want to write positively (Jubilation 25, Ubar…) or to write scornfully (Myths Man/Woman, Sunshine Man). I want to address the whole ‘East-meets-West’ idea again that Amouage used to do so well. To me, I think Amouage has lost its direction completely. This new narrative business of the brand has left me unconvinced.
I also had a refreshed interest in looking at vintage Caron female perfumes – and so I sourced generous decants from a very generous friend. I feel to look at perfume seriously one must have a grapple of the classics. I was also spurred on by Luca Turin’s story of how he was asked what the principle note of Bellodgia is (carnation).
I purchased a bottle of Serge Luten’s Sa Majeste La Rose – it is a wonderful take on the note, less poetic than La Fille de Berlin, and rather, covered in a lacy dressing. It is a truer representation of the flower – to me, after the rain.
I have been obsessed with La Mat from Mendittorosa, largely from Luca Turin’s excellent and highly approbative review. To me, Le Mat plays with the same theme from Etat’s glorious Eau de Protection, and makes an improvement on Atelier’s Rose Anonyme, which is lovely but safe. I am particularly enamoured with Turin’s description of chamomile:
“C[h]amomile has a heartfelt, hot-breath drama to it that, when mixed with the grandeur of rose, gives the impression of a combustible soul playing with matches.”
My most worn scent this month would have to be the original COMME des GARÇONS. I have the confidence in saying that it is a scent that will rotate as my signature. It’s everything I like in a perfume. You can read my review here.
A final thing on my mind: intellectualising fragrance. I think it can be done, in the same way that people say that there is a philosophy to anything and a science to everything. I think that’s another longwinded topic for another time.