The "Goodness" Of Good Scents

The quote pictured above is ironic and daft to me. Rand was wrong in her assertion, or at least she was not thorough enough; she fell shy of the truth. I agree instead with a philosophical view which Elizabeth Warren recently put forth. She contended that we all step into the world as people who have benefitted from the labor of our neighbors, with their combined efforts making our forward trajectory not only possible, but also bound to the dual responsibilities of upholding their work while paving new roads for future generations. Men and women are armed with more than their own visions; they carry the advantages bestowed upon them by their communities, and are also armed with the self-aware acculturations from which their visions can be enacted.

Rand suggested that some men are genuinely "self made," and that they alone were the pavers of their own "new roads," but this is a fiction. She re-crafted a bit of a mythology, one that has always been very popular with right-wingers (and extreme right-wingers). As with all things political, such thought processes punctuate the mindsets of different people with different interests, and the fragrance world is no exception. There has recently been a bit of "Randian" thinking on basenotes.net, in which a couple of members suggested that "perception" of a scent is the only thing that matters in moving forward with personal preferences - which I find to be, like Rand's quote, an example of incomplete thinking and faulty logic.

One member posited the following sentiment, which is entirely true:

"Now some may say, 'But i have a pre-reformulation bottle, and it smells nothing like the new one.' Fair enough, but one thing that can and does happen many times is a scent will degrade over time. Slowly. Slow enough that changes may not register as they are so gradual. The bottle you buy today will not smell identical in ten years. There are so many factors at play."

I smiled while reading this. I thought: Yes! People are finally getting it! The real world context of vintage and discontinued classics is being thoroughly weighed by noses with brains - and this one is a newbie!

The quoted sentiment was received with a statement that was entirely subjective and perhaps honest, but also intellectually limited:

"It's important not to bring in another issue which serves to obfuscate the discussion in favor of the 'pro reformulation' side of things. That is, I'd be the first to mention that I used to wear vintage more often, and that some vintage I don't like as much as I used to, whereas others I like more. This, however, has nothing to do with my perception of the 'quality' of the scent. Now sometimes I don't feel the need to wear a quality scent, and I often reach for a 'super cheapo,' but if I'm in the mood for vintage Zino, for example, that's what I want. I have no interest in wearing what I believe to be reformulated Zino, ever. Others can't detect any difference, or claim it is negligible . . . so the best you can do is read the relevant information online and try to make the right decision (but it will only be the right decision for you, not necessarily for anyone else).

First, I have to say as an aside that I wonder if this basenotes member frequently uses Zino as an example in these discussions precisely because its reformulation is indiscernible from a well-preserved vintage? It’s like he’s counter-intuitively using a perfume that blatantly contradicts his argument as a distraction, with which he can claim that there’s some special “quality” in the original formulation that correlates with a “cheapness” in the new stuff - an assertion that nobody can convincingly corroborate for obvious reasons. This would then seem to fortify his position that only “perceptive” noses - an implicitly rare kind of human, according to him - can detect the discrepancy, when in fact no such discrepancy exists. Unfortunately, I can only commit to my own opinions on the general issue of reformulations, and the more specific case of Zino.

On the surface, this seems to be the whole thrust of his comment, and I take issue with it. It suggests that if someone points out the deleterious effects of time on perfume, they are "obfuscating" the issue for a "pro-reformulation side of things," which is completely absurd. It's absurd because the smells of most perfumes will absolutely change over time, beyond a doubt, with the exception of a small percentage of extremely synthetic compositions. It's also absurd because whenever anyone points this out, they're merely acknowledging the existence of time's effect on matter, which in the case of perfume is usually not very positive.* To mention this is to clarify, not obfuscate. It may be an inconvenient truth for the "pro-vintage" crowd, and they might want people to believe it is an obfuscation, but cherry-picking facts is never a good way to respond in these kinds of discussions. Here it just re-crafts another mythology.

If you're coming to this as a newbie, you might wonder why it matters. So a perfume changes, but still smells good - so what? The "what" here is how a perfume smells within the years of its peak shelf life, otherwise known as "what the perfumer intends for you to smell." Some perfumers labor for months on formulas, but all of their work is an effort to discover where designs function best, and preserve them for as long as possible, before the inexorable march of days alters their compositions into liquids that are no longer pristine specimens of talent.

Perfumers know that the creation of their perfume, after weeks and weeks of toiling in a lab, happens in but a moment, that priceless instant when they sniff the strip and realize the synchronization of their assembled parts has quite suddenly been perfected. This moment is then temporarily frozen for us to enjoy. It's what perfumers want you to experience, and therefore is, quite paradoxically, the nexus and event horizon of a perfume. No perfume lasts forever, but forever truly resides in perfume.

Now, getting back to that comment I dislike so much - I wrote, "On the surface, this seems . . . " because later in the thread, the same author wrote the following:

"Those who can't smell the difference [between vintage and new] appear to get irritated that such threads exist, which makes no sense to me."

This revealed to me, reader and reluctant non-participant, the real message: "You can't smell it, BUT I CAN! Nah, nah, nah-nah naaaah!" (Raspberry noises.) How this person could possibly know what people can smell is a mystery. It would take a certain level of paranormal ability to develop such knowledge. Mind reading, perhaps? I'll let you decide.

I also dislike that the initial response is naked speculation, cloaked in intricately-woven airs of fact, and made semi-acceptable to some functioning minds by its appealingly subjective form. The writer uses "I" and "My" throughout, which is very attractive, winning, and wise, but also dangerously misleading. The scent that he mentions is a curious one. I happen to own vintage eighties "script font" Zino, and brand-new "block font" Zino. I am also acutely aware of how exhaustively this fragrance has been discussed on basenotes and fragrantica. There are several people out there who agree with me that it's not even clear if Zino was reformulated. In fact, I have read respectable people write that they doubt there was ever a reformulation at all. If ever there is a perfume not to hold up in an honest argument for vintage, it's Zino.

I personally believe Zino was reformulated, but I strongly feel, based on all the note comparisons that I can possibly make for myself, that the reformulation is just as great as the original formula. I am speculating, and I am honest about it, but my guess is educated, based on background information I dug up on Michel Almairac's career trajectory, and how it coincided with some remarkable advances in chemistry. I learned that he went to the Roure School in the early 1970s, and that he began making a name for himself when Givaudan (which was associated with Roure) invented "Sandalore." This synthetically-made molecule was patented to cut costs on natural sandalwood oil, without sacrificing the sensations of real sandalwood's texture and richness. For cheap scents like Zino, its implementation makes as much sense then as it does now.

In making the formula comparisons, there was something I had to overcome: the degradation of the vintage. And by "degradation," I don't just mean the loss of top notes. Ninety-nine percent of my vintage experiences have revealed problems with all stages of development. The loss of top notes is the least of it. With vintage Zino, the fragrance is intact and legible, and each note is basically where it belongs. Yet it suffers from potency issues, balance issues, and the typical "fuzz-out" effect that seems to occur frequently with woody classics. In short, the potency seems attenuated, down three or four hours compared to the recent stuff; the zesty bergamot and lavender head notes smell like they've separated from each other, where once they were blended (both notes are a little too strident); the precious wood notes in the base "fuzz" into a gentle, sandalwood-like blob that fails to yield individual tones (the bergamot goes on, amazingly).

At stake here is not the perception of "quality" in the vintage fragrance. I can smell that the composition is comprised of "quality" materials. For the record, I can't recall anyone ever announcing that they couldn't smell the "goodness" of something that smelled good to them. Therefore, the suggestion that those wary of vintage can't detect their "quality" rests on the fallacious idea that the perception a wearer has of a fragrance can parallel, and even diverge from the recognition of its effect on his mood. What is more likely to occur in the minds of anyone studying fragrances in-depth is the surprising realization that the durability of a beautiful perfume is just as important as its beauty.

To make sense of this, I had to "read" my two Zinos carefully. This means that I took note of what I smelled in vintage Zino, and then had to readjust my impression afterward against what I know about degradation, and the smell of current Zino. Industry veteran Jeffrey Dame made it clear to me and my readers that the shelf-life of most fragrances, with the exception of orientals, is to be taken seriously; with Zino, I had to acknowledge that what I smelled matched his assessment of the time/quality factor, and then set the information he gave me aside to better judge whether the olfactory impressions of vintage Zino's somewhat degraded accords correlated with the current juice.

In other words, I had to ask myself, "Is what I'm smelling in the old stuff the same as what I'm smelling in the new stuff, only degraded?" There's something a bit archeological about doing this. You have to dust off what exists, and use what you know to imagine what used to exist. Except here you must use your nose, not your eyes. And the "dusting off" process is really just accepting the irreversible and quirky nature of aged perfume.

I'm telling you this because it requires a sensitive nose to figure these things out. Having a feeble nose will do you no good if you're really interested in determining whether vintages are for you. Those who survey the field of classics and make a focused effort to familiarize themselves with specific olfactory structures, such as the aromatic fern, the ambery oriental, the mossy chypre, and specific notes, such as bergamot, lavender, labdanum, vanilla, sandalwood, oakmoss, musk, are bound to develop better noses. Once developed, they can use their heightened sense to pick apart the true quality differences that abound between the worlds of "vintage" perfume and "new" perfume.

But those differences in quality will have to be weighed against degradation. In most cases, I'd say the degradation will be relatively minor. In other cases, however, it will certainly be overwhelming. Recognizing how notes and accords degrade is a skill which takes that of simple note identification quite a bit further.

I've long suspected that the person who made the Zino comment quoted above actually has tremendous difficulty with this level of recognition. I believe this to be true because this person has stated on more than one occasion that he has never encountered a vintage fragrance that smelled like it had gone bad, or gone off. I won't call this person a liar. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that this is representative of what might be a true deficit in his olfactory abilities. I suspect that instead of acknowledging and admitting this shortcoming, he and others like him pretend the exact opposite: that they possess remarkable abilities of incredible "quality" discernment.

If your nose is good, you'll have no problem admitting that many vintage perfumes don't smell quite right - in fact, most will seem a bit "off." It's important to recognize that this doesn't mean the perfumes will smell bad, or unwearable, or offensive in any way. There's often a good chance that they'll smell appealing. But the key is to determine if what you're smelling is an accurate representation of itself, as it was intended to smell. Only then can you really decide whether or not this matters to you. With some perfumes, the accuracy of what you smell might matter; with others it might not. You must ask yourself, "How has this changed?" And once that is answered, you must follow up with, "Has anyone fucked with the formula?"

These are very different questions. Don't get them confused.

* This refers to time in the long term, beyond what may be construed as in-bottle maceration, or any other maceration process that gradually allows the volatilities of naturals to synchronize.