Hype and Compliments - What are They Worth?

I've been receiving more compliments lately than I can remember ever getting before. Yesterday I was working very strenuously in close quarters with a young woman who waited a mere forty-five seconds before informing me that I smelled "really good." I was wearing Francesco Smalto PH. A week ago I received several more compliments from female coworkers on Tea Rose and Tea Rose Jasmin. And not long prior to that, I received compliments on other fragrances, with Bleu de Chanel and Grey Flannel coming to mind.

If you were to ask me what difference the compliments make, I couldn't tell you, at least not in concrete terms. But I'm willing to speculate, and then extrapolate my experience to those of millions of other guys who are into fragrances. Without a compliment, a perfume seems relegated to the "maybe" area of the brain. "Maybe" it's a good one. "Maybe" it's worth repurchasing. "Maybe" people think I smell nice. "Maybe" I'll get a compliment on this someday.

Of course, the "Maybes" come with negative connotations as well. "Maybe" I'm wearing too much. "Maybe" people think I smell bad. "Maybe" I'm annoying everyone in the room. "Maybe" I'm kidding myself. "Maybe" I should think twice about repurchasing. Getting a compliment on a fragrance inevitably erases most of these, replacing them with newfound confidence and respect for the fragrance, but the question remains: why?

One idea is that a compliment is a simple affirmation of a preexisting suspicion. If I suspect Bleu de Chanel smells really good, and two women compliment me on it within a four or five week time span, I no longer suspect Bleu de Chanel smells good - now I truly know that it does. Whether or not others feel the same way is immaterial. Someone other than myself has enjoyed it enough to actually tell me so. Naturally this can give way to some hubris on the part of the fragrance wearer. The day after a compliment is received, he may apply too much. He may choose to wear that fragrance repeatedly for weeks. He may decide that it goes with any season and any situation, simply because his skin chemistry makes it wonderful.

Examining these possibilities reveals just how powerful a casual compliment can be. But is a compliment really worth anything? If I wear Green Irish Tweed and never receive a word about it, does that mean the fragrance is not as good as I thought it was? Or does it mean perhaps that GIT is simply overrated, overhyped, not exactly the magic elixir it's been made out to be? These questions lead to the question of why I'm even wearing GIT in the first place, when Cool Water is 95% the same, and 95% cheaper. The answer here is more obvious, though. I'm wearing it because it's been hyped up. People claim it's a masterpiece, better than Cool Water.

GIT is a good example of this, but there have been comments on basenotes lately about certain fragrances being "overhyped," and they make me think about this particular facet of the fragrance collecting experience. We've all read about fragrances that are supposedly "amazing," and "masterpieces." Yet when we wear them, we don't feel the Earth shake. We don't get the "vibe" from it that others claim to be getting. It amounts to a strange feeling of ennui that somehow doesn't seem correlated to the propaganda, yet is.

Consider Rive Gauche PH. For years, basenoters and some Fragranticans considered this fragrance to be one of the best ever made. Luca Turin backed up these sentiments. I believed the hype, and expected it to smell incredible. So I bought the tin can version for about forty bucks on Amazon, and wore it for a while. Guess what? No compliments. I personally felt it smelled really good, but it wasn't something to shout from the rooftops about. Its staidness, coupled with the fact that nobody seemed to notice it, demoted RGPH from being a "masterpiece" to just being a "good wetshaver scent" in my book. If and when I run out, I seriously wonder if I'll bother repurchasing it.

Why do I wonder, though? If I think it smells really good, and consider it a nice traditional fern for the sort of guy who is into wetshaving, isn't that something worth repurchasing? Shouldn't I ignore what other people think, even if they don't think anything about Rive Gauche, and simply go with how I think?

The problem is that the hype doesn't remain normal, everyday hype. It evolves. It metastasizes into something far more dangerous than rave reviews. Instead of hype, a mythology develops. Rive Gauche is an older fragrance. It has seen some packaging changes, and some adjustments to the formula under its new licensing by L'Oreal. This fragrance, though still in production, is actually "discontinued." If you can find the version in the tin can, you're buying a "discontinued" fragrance. Discontinued fragrances automatically smell better than contemporary products, for reasons that are eternally unclear to me.

With this in mind, the issue becomes a bit narrower. Instead of just wondering if I should repurchase Rive Gauche, I now have to wonder if it's worth paying extra for the tin can version, or paying extra for the "new" imposter Rive Gauche by L'Oreal, which comes in a new box and bottle. In either case, the repurchase isn't the same as the initial purchase, and I'm coming out on the bottom, because I have to pay more, and/or work harder to find the version I've been told I should have.

But none of this should matter if I like the tin can version, right? I should just spend time and energy hunting for it. I should pay more for it, because I like it.

Except it's not the only "very good" fragrance of its type. There are plenty of other fragrances still being made that smell just as good, if not better. Azzaro Pour Homme and Tuscany per Uomo are two examples. Krizia Uomo and Jovan Sex Appeal are two more. I can buy a few ounces of Pinaud Clubman for seven bucks and achieve a high quality wetshaver smell that certainly rivals Rive Gauche. With all these competitors, why bother with YSL's scent?

Some would argue that the uniqueness of Rive Gauche makes it worth seeking out. Yet it isn't unique at all. The formula of Barbasol shaving cream that was on the market prior to the current formula smelled about 90% the same as Rive Gauche. I once had a guy walk into my immediate vicinity while I was wearing Azzaro PH and exclaim, "It smells like a barber shop in here." Green Generation for Him has a very similar lavender and anise accord as well. This type of scent is actually quite common.

And all of these are reasons why I probably won't repurchase Rive Gauche.

So with all of these clear contradictions to the common claims about "vintage" Rive Gauche, one final question persists - if I get a compliment on it, will I change my mind? Will I now consider that I've received a kind word about this scent, and not about the others? Will that elevate its status from a "Maybe" to a "Definitely?"

Unfortunately, compliments are not worth much of anything in my view. They certainly affirm a suspicion I may have about something, and they award a scent with enough merit to make me think about it in its context. In the case of Rive Gauche, that context is traditional wetshaver ferns with notable traces of lavender and anise. (What about the patchouli? Frankly, I don't give a damn about patchouli.)

They do not, however, promote a fragrance enough to alter the course I'm taking with it. Other things factor in. If it were readily available in its tin can version at reasonable prices, I'd certainly repurchase it. But because it is discontinued in that packaging, and now more expensive in both its old and new packaging, I'm not inclined to bother paying more for it. Not when a compliment on Azzaro, or Tuscany, or Krizia, or even Clubman is just as likely to come my way.

The true answers to the questions of what hype and compliments are worth lie with you and you alone, making them something very subjective indeed. This subjectivity is what keeps the fragrance world alive and well, and is why we should never assume anything about a perfume, or its wearer.


Alain Delon, "AD Classic" (Art & Fragrance)

Alain Delon's signature scent for men is another in a long list of examples of how people get all screwed up over minor changes in product packaging. Back in the early eighties, when this fragrance was still new, the box and bottle simply read "Alain Delon." Then, twenty-five years and a dozen fragrances later, they added the word "classic" in small print.

What follows is typical. A division of camps occurs, with invisible lines drawn in the sand: the "original" fragrance, WITHOUT the word "classic," is the best, while the newly-packaged version is a pale imitation that doesn't bear further attention from connoisseurs. How does this happen in the connoisseur's mind? Easy. He believes that instead of just adding "classic" to the product to remind older buyers (and inform newcomers) that this was indeed Delon's first foray into the world of perfume, the manufacturers opted to spend thousands of additional dollars in overhauling the formula, so that they could also make their assertion to customers a blatant lie. This is the sort of cynicism that reigns supreme in the world of fragrance enthusiasts, it seems. Very sad.

I'm here to tell you that a good friend of mine has had this perfume for the better part of two decades, and it says "classic" on the bottle. The reviews on Fragrantica date back no further than five years, yet many of them claim the version with "classic" is crap compared to the "non-classic" version. Hop on Ebay, and you'll find that the original packaging isn't available, yet the "classic" version is being billed by merchants as "rare," and worth three figures. (As an aside, I'd say it's only worth twenty bucks an ounce, tops.) What's the truth here? I think the version with "classic" printed on it is the same fragrance as the older stuff, but if it was released in the last few years, it may smell a bit softer than the vintage stuff. Times have changed, after all. Heady wormwood fougères from thirty years ago aren't the rage anymore.

How does it smell? I've always felt that AD is an unnecessary fragrance in the canon of classic masculines. Its problem isn't one of quality or craftsmanship. Its ingredients smell fairly natural, and they comprise a balanced scent. There's a pleasant pop of lavender and carnation in the top accord, followed by artemisia, juniper, cinnamon, and precious woods, with a honeyed amber base. It smells ever manly and outdoorsy, with that "refined gentleman" feel you get with conservative fougères of yesteryear. Yet fragrances like Jazz, Tsar, Francesco Smalto PH, Yatagan, and Furyo are all more interesting examples of the genre. In fact, I'd even say that AD is superfluous, and unless you're a total newcomer to classic fragrances, there's literally no reason at all to bother with it.

There have been rumors that this fragrance is discontinued, and if they're true, I wouldn't be surprised if the dialogue about it becomes even more inane. In ten years I'll be reading about how great it is, and I'll probably be seeing it on Ebay for a hundred dollars an ounce. What a life.


Tea Rose Jasmin (The Perfumer's Workshop)

I've been receiving compliments lately, but not on any of my expensive YSLs, Creeds, or Chanels. I've been complimented on Tea Rose and its younger sister, Tea Rose Jasmin. I think the cost for both bottles was a grand total of ten dollars. That two terrific fragrances can cost so little is incredible, but what's more impressive is that they smell of natural floral essences and rich green notes, the sort of stuff I'd expect royalty to wear, bargain prices be damned. Fact: Perfumes by The Perfumer's Workshop are beautiful, masterfully made, and as good or better than most of the niche florals I've encountered. Tea Rose Jasmin is no exception.

This little fragrance has been criticized for being more tuberose than jasmine, but I think the jasmine is front and center here. Tuberose lingers as a supporting note, with hints of muguet and rose whispering alongside it while jasmine dominates, unfurling velvety wings to catch summer breezes. This is "suntan lotion jasmine," not the hyper-realistic book pressed flower, yet its directness and delicate complexity keep it smelling fresh and luminous. Think a greener, somewhat improved Vanilla Fields. It doesn't smell cheap. It doesn't smell kitschy. It just smells very rich and clean and real. At fifty cents an ounce, you'd expect it to smell of cleaning solvents, but somehow its anonymous nose took dirt cheap materials and roped their best qualities into a lovely composition.

To receive compliments on it is heartening, as most would consider the Tea Rose line strictly for ladies. One female coworker said, "I don't usually like smelling flowery things, but that's really nice. I like that." I often fantasize that the Twenties, now just five years away, will be a decade of even more decadence and debauchery than its twentieth century precursor, and gender stereotypes in perfume will finally bite the dust. Men will smell of sweet flowers, and women will emit wafts of bitter leather and oakmoss. Maybe flapper girls will make a comeback. Short haircuts, cigarette holders, and jazz will return with a vengeance. Hey, a guy can dream.


The "Vintages Are All Fine" Mentality

When I entered the world of fragrance, several unusual mentalities became apparent to me in regards to how enthusiasts (not "connoisseurs") viewed perfume. An example of this is the strange desire for people to refer to themselves as "connoisseurs" of perfume, instead of "enthusiasts." To label oneself a fragrance "connoisseur" suggests there is a subset of the fragrance collecting population that understands and enjoys a level of quality and exclusivity that the average population generally misses out on, which I believe is false, and a misuse of the label. Its falsehood resides in the fact that the supposed connoisseurship of perfumes is almost always associated with the necessity to own a large quantity of expensive, hard to find fragrances. Many self-proclaimed connoisseurs own hundreds of perfumes. In my opinion, these are the very people who are not perfume connoisseurs. They are enthusiastic about a wide range of scents, yet are deeply knowledgeable about few to none. The sheer scale of their collections renders them impartial to the idea of loving just one.

If you're a man who only owns and wears one bottle of perfume at a time, you are enjoying the fragrance and its functionality even more than the person who has that same perfume in a collection of several hundred others. The man with one perfume that he has worn for years also knows that perfume better, recognizes it faster, and appreciates its structure and movements with more clarity and understanding than the guy who gets around to it once every two or three months in a wide rotation. Thus, connoisseurship of perfume applies realistically to someone's appreciation of one specific fragrance, based on an affinity and somewhat obsessive allegiance to it. It makes little sense to consider connoisseurship of fragrance as an over-arching love for only the "best" fragrances. The overwhelming subjectivity of what constitutes the "best" nullifies the meaning of the word.

I've had people tell me, "Bryan, you can't have it both ways. If perfume is a luxury, as you always say it is, then there are those who can be classified as 'perfume connoisseurs.'" Wrong. Perfume is a luxury, yes, but luxury is defined more broadly than people realize. When one hears the word luxury, visions of expensive Beluga caviar and fine mink coats swirl about. But luxury is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as:
• a condition or situation of great comfort, ease, and wealth
• something that is expensive and not necessary
• something that is helpful or welcome and not usually or always available
That last bullet point applies to perfume. Perfume is not necessarily expensive and extravagant. However, it is not always available, like running water, for example. Travel to certain parts of South America, Africa, and Asia, and you will find that something as seemingly basic as running water is absent from the shortlist of contemporary amenities. You can, however, live without it, as long as some form of water is available and readily accessible. Jump in a river for a wash, and boil a vat of it to drink. If you spend a few weeks or months on the road in rural India, which is currently home for over one billion people, and then return to New York City, running water clearly becomes a luxury. It is something to be enjoyed and valued, but not taken for granted. Yet no one considers themselves connoisseurs of running water.

Likewise, perfume is fairly common in the developed world (even India lays a claim to fame for continuing to produce a Shulton-branded version of Old Spice), yet we do not need it to survive. The poor would sooner install running water in their abodes than bottles of Old Spice. True poverty, a condition in which billions of people live, would place the cheapest perfume at the rock bottom of a list of wants and needs. Those of us who can afford it without a second thought, even if only a few dollars are spent, are enjoying a luxury. The classification of luxury as such does not need adjustment; it is the classification of perfume that requires close inspection.

Another strange idea that swirls about among perfumistas is the notion that perfume never goes bad. For some, perfume is something mysteriously immune to the effects of time. They feel that if you take care of a bottle of fragrance by keeping it out of harsh temperatures and direct sunlight, it can remain fairly pristine for many decades, and possibly centuries. There have been articles about archeologists finding ancient perfume specimens, hundreds of years old, which supposedly smell surprisingly fresh after countless years at the bottom of the sea, or under the Earth. However, you have to take these accounts with a grain of salt, and apply the same attitude to those who claim they have never encountered a "bad" bottle of vintage perfume.

Two weeks ago it was reported that scientists discovered 170 year-old bottles of Champagne on the floor of the Baltic Sea. According to the report, the scientists tasted the Champagne and were "amazed by how well the wine had aged under the sea." They described its flavor as "grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery, together with fruity and floral notes." They also said that the Champagne had sugar in the amount of twenty ounces per gallon, an astounding quantity by any measure, about seven times the sugar content of a can of Coke. One can infer from this that the wine's flavor was also "sweet."

Predictably, the comments under the article were scathing. One person wrote:
"It sounds to me that this wine tastes like a 70 year old leather boot with foot sweat dragged through a flower field and then grilled. At least thats what came to my mind. And that doesn't sound very pleasant."
And another added:
"Six times the sugar of Coke? That sounds like a diabetic coma."
And yet another said:
"If that condition is 'close to perfect,' wine producers could just easily throw every bottle of wine they produce under the sea and let them age perfectly."
Which is not something any contemporary wineries are seriously attempting to do, with the exception of a few "experimental" vintages, as apparently some houses are fiddling around with the idea of salt water aging.

The Smithsonian reports that a leading scientist in this discovery tasted the stuff, and felt it was "incredible." He claimed he "had never tasted such a wine," and that its flavor - no, its "aroma" for fuck's sakes - lingered on his presumably refined palate for hours afterward. Further descriptions from this quarter include "cheese" and "wet hair," in case your mouth wasn't already watering enough. But based on this scientific report and the archeological aging of the caskets, these wines were touted as "collector's items," and several were auctioned off for up to 100,000 Euros. Others were tucked away for further investigation, to eventually become museum pieces.

One obvious problem with these reports is that they're referring to something that 99.999% of the world's population will never taste. How nice would it be if one of these scientists actually told the truth about what they were tasting? Instead of saying the brine-tainted swill is "incredible," say "this stuff tastes like clam shit," and discourage wealthy morons from wasting six figures on the rusted bottles. Not that I care if wealthy idiots blow their loads on liters of decayed garbage, but I'm frightened at the prospect of reading about the "market" for completely spoiled antique Champagne. I've heard enough about make-believe commercial markets to last me a lifetime, and do not need my attention brought to any new ones.

I have read blog posts that mention similar discoveries of supposedly well-preserved bottles of centuries-old perfume, with scientists making similar claims about their freshness. With perfume, people seemed more willing to believe the reports, despite the fact that hundreds of years ago perfumers used only natural materials, much the same as wine makers. So it is not a stretch to believe that reports of pristine perfumes dating back centuries are at best sensationalized exaggerations. Likewise, it is almost impossible and certainly unacceptable to believe at face value that 170 year-old Champagne with seven times the sugar content of contemporary soft drinks, and several times the salt content of contemporary Champagne, tastes "incredible." Last I checked, notes of "cheese" and "wet hair" were stomach-turners. No one has ever used them to describe a high vintage of Champagne. Ever.

But there's an obvious reason why the scientist in the Smithsonian report used those descriptors. One comment from a reader on Yahoo struck me as particularly prescient:
"Since we'll never taste it for ourselves, they can just lie and say it's the most amazing thing ever, and act all snooty towards us mere civilians who wouldn't be able to appreciate such fineries."
This seems to be the likely train of thought at play here. Acquire an extremely rare vintage of something extremely rare to begin with, shuttle it away to private labs, sip, sip, and render verdict: "Incredible!" Let that one word resound across the ranks of the elite few who can afford to spend almost limitless amounts on bottles of the stuff (imagine an entire market for something with only ten or fifteen dedicated buyers), and feel important for the rest of your life.

This is the mentality of many perfume enthusiasts who tout vintage fragrances as being largely undamaged by time and utterly worth whatever dollar amount you can throw into acquiring them. Find a very rare perfume, buy it, wear it, and write it up as being a truly beautiful fragrance. Then feel the boost to your ego as a sense of superiority courses through your veins. You've found something nobody else will find. You've smelled it, but you don't have any real presence in the community because you've been reviewing relatively popular perfumes, up until now. A glowing review of this super obscure thing will quickly lend your words some much-needed gravity. It will begin to make you seem important to newbies, to people without discernment.

This has happened to me as a reader. I encountered a review of Joint for Men, and considered the likelihood of its stated quality and value against the relevance of everything else its author had written. I suspected Joint was a good fragrance, but nowhere near as good as it was made out to be. Then I cross-referenced the glowing opinion against a few other opinions, which were sober in comparison.

A few years later I found Joint, bought it, and wore it. I suspect its reviewer believed I would never actually find the stuff. I wore it for a while. Unsurprisingly, the fragrance was merely "good." Its concept was excellent - a rowdy fern, full of musks and dusty woods, but its execution was lacking, with an oddly unbalanced drydown that revealed the use of cheap synthetics. Perhaps its civet note was natural, along with one or two other notes, but the rest of the construct was thinly grafted onto a basic white musk of little interest. Now, you could argue that my bottle was "off," but that would be conceding that this perfume is an example of an old fragrance gone bad. You might even argue that it wasn't taken care of, but it was boxed in ideal conditions when I bought it, so this is a difficult case to make, at least if you are trying to convince me. I think its quality was exaggerated, and I also think my bottle is a bit spoiled.

The Emperor's new clothes? Gone.

I've been accused of doing this myself, of course. My review of Nature Boy by Garner James was criticized as being overblown nonsense, because after all, how good can a perfume be? However, my critic, despite having an opportunity to try the scent by contacting the perfumer at Garner James, voluntarily passed up on the chance and basically said he wasn't interested in the scent anyway. Why one would choose to be ignorant of something they criticize is difficult to understand, but this person has never clarified their reasoning.

I'll conclude this lengthy post by saying that there's some of the conceited snob in all of us, and nobody is immune to the sin of exaggeration for the sake of self-aggrandizement. It's this very urge that creates the "perfume connoisseur" in the minds of those who would be such people. The oddballs who swooshed 170 year-old Champagne against their cheeks and called it "incredible" are the same. As someone said in a comment:
"It allows them to set themselves apart as special - the cognoscenti. If you have to acquire an artificial taste, for anything, what is the point? The point is that you can say that you, unlike most of us, can drink the most foul of anything, and smile as though you like it."
Well put. Substitute the word "smell" in place of "drink," and this defines the "vintages are all fine" mentality nicely.