10/8/16

False Narratives



I frequently receive emails and comments from readers asking me questions that are based on falsehoods. After a few years of this, I realized these falsehoods are propagated in fragrance forums by men who should end their morning fragrance ablutions with a splash of Sea Breeze and leave perfume connoisseurship to those who can actually smell things. The cultural damage caused by their misconceptions and misinformation is difficult to quantify, but I'd wager it's enough to sway future generations of fragheads away from the sorely needed truth.

Here's a rundown on the egregious falsehoods that have plagued by experiences since the inception of my blog:

"Indian Old Spice is like vintage Shulton Old Spice."

Really? I don't remember my early eighties vintage Old Spice having bright unmistakeable notes of pink pepper and black pepper. To my nose Indian Old Spice smells very much like its own thing entirely.

"Vintage fragrances smell richer and more natural."

Yes, and they also often smell unbalanced, weak, and flat.

"Fragrances don't spoil."

Wrong. They do. A few years ago when I got into a debate about this with an ideological opponent, I did the one thing he couldn't do and produced an industry insider who corroborated my argument. What happened afterward was intriguing. First, Jeffrey Dame's words were carefully interpreted here on this blog. The main takeaway was that most fragrances do spoil, at least technically speaking. They are often still "good enough," and usually still quite wearable, but a considerable number of them will blatantly go "off," and anyone whose nose is sensitive enough (and astute enough) to interpret these changes will probably be nonplussed by them. Dame also pointed out that the most durable and "preservable" family of scent is the classical oriental, whose resinous spice accords are least likely to suffer the ravages of time.

But then my opponent and a few of his readers attempted to discredit Mr. Dame by calling him a hack. This showed me that the "other side" is comprised of cherry-picking, fact-averse people. You can't have an intelligent dialogue with them, and holding their arguments to your higher standards is pointless.

Still, my points are crucial to anyone seeking to understand the realities of buying and owning vintage perfumes. The chatter in the forums is usually very "pro vintage," and it's tempting to buy into it. But the reasons these enthusiasts cite for their support are the reasons you should doubt what they say.

"Vintage perfumes used more natural ingredients."

This is simply untrue. But the untruth is more nuanced than you think. No, vintage perfumes did not contain more natural materials than current perfumes. But current perfumes don't use fewer naturals, either.

Ever notice how the argument about "naturals" evaporates faster than a lemon top note as soon as you start discussing popular contemporary niche perfumes? When was the last time anyone complained that Atelier wasn't using enough "natural" materials? Whenever I read people's thoughts about Slumberhouse, I try to find the comments lamenting their over-reliance on synthetics. So far I haven't had any luck. Perfumes don't go from being loaded with beautiful naturals to being bogged down by crappy synthetics. All perfumes contain some degree of "naturally derived" materials, things like linalool, geraniol, eugenol, limonene, etc. Where they differ is in the quality of synthetics. Atelier and Slumberhouse are using very good synthetics. Coty and L'Oreal are using mediocre synthetics. If you want to steer clear of the false narrative about the "quality" in perfumes, avoid talking about naturals and start discussing synthetics, and how they're being used and misused.

"Reformulations exist to cheapen perfumes and increase profits."

Christ, I hate this argument. Luca Turin recently wrote on his blog that a perfume's smell represents a whopping 10% of its budget. If I bought a bottle of Coty's Lagerfeld Classic a few years ago and started complaining that the original Lagerfeld Cologne smelled better, I'd be implying that Classic was a cheapening of the formula. But why cheapen an already cheap formula? My lamentation of the current formula of Cool Water is not that they cheapened the formula, but that they changed it altogether. They went from the EDT (still quite bold) to the deodorant (not nearly as bold), but they don't change fragrances like Lagerfeld and Cool Water because they want to save money. They change these frags because their sales are slipping, and they're not ready to discontinue them yet. Sales slip when trends change and buyers shift their interest to newer, more exciting things.

Right now, "newer" and "more exciting" means "lighter," "fresher," and "cleaner." The deodorant industry is booming, and brands are now tailoring perfumes to deodorants, a complete reversal from 20 years ago. Lagerfeld and Cool Water have been made lighter and fresher to stay relevant, not to save a buck on their formulas.

"Vintage prices on eBay reflect supply and demand."

This is getting truer as the years pass, but when I started this blog it was entirely untrue. Within the last four years there has been a major market "correction" to the pricing of vintage perfume in general. You can now go on eBay and get the long-discontinued Ungaro Pour L'Homme II for under $100. But the first Ungaro is still incredibly expensive. The first feminine Fendi is still more expensive than a Creed frag. And D&G By Man's prices are completely insane.

Notice the pattern? These fragrances are all discontinued. If there was high demand for them, they'd still be in production. And the "fan base" argument doesn't work either. If the "fans" were so ardently willing to snap up these remaining bottles, they'd disappear from eBay. But they don't; the Ungaros, the Fendis, the By Mans are always there, and the prices are always high. Time to call a spade a spade: eBay is a poorly regulated merchant site full of greedy amateur sellers who repeatedly slap the wrong prices on discontinued perfumes. They erroneously believe that just because they're no longer readily available, these perfumes are worth a fortune. And they have very little to lose by repeatedly gambling a few dollars every month that someone might be stupid enough to drop $475 on their bottle.

"Perfumes don't change."

Sure they do, and the changes are very noticeable. But think about it - if it's untrue that perfumes forever remain the same as the day they were bottled, the suggestion that vintages smell better than reformulations veers into a ditch. What if the changes that perfumes undergo exist in an "arc" rather than a straight line? What if they start out smelling thinner, weaker, more chemical, then macerate and improve after a few years, and finally weaken and disassemble? One could then argue that if true, such changes might make new batches of fragrance worth "waiting out," while very old batches might be "past their prime." You could compare new and vintage to each other and wonder if the vintage used to smell like the new, and if the new will eventually smell like the vintage.

"Everything is called a fougere nowadays."

Fougeres rely on the interplay of lavender and coumarin. Some are blatant about it (Drakkar Noir), others aren't (Moustache). To my knowledge the last blatant fougere on the mainstream designer market was Rive Gauche Pour Homme by YSL. Some folks are now suggesting that Dior Sauvage is a fougere. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but the best way to sidestep the false notion that everything is a fougere is to just read. Most newbies have no idea what a fougere is, or that it even exists, and veterans know better. So it's tough trying to find where all the uncontrolled labeling is taking place. If you read the forums daily like I do, you'll find that fougeres and discussions about them are pretty infrequently raised.

Enjoy your Colombus Day weekend everyone!



13 comments:

  1. This trend of light, deodorant type of fragrances has gotten old before it even became a trend. I'm not the biggest fan of aquatics, but I don't mind wearing them. They smell like something. But this new trend of minimalist, watery fragrances just takes it to a new level of bland and boring (like the new Versace, Burberry, and Prada fragrances). Hell, that new CK fragrance lists a rock as a note or accord.
    Minimalist architecture? I love Mies van der Rohe. Minimalist watches? Makes an inexpensive Skagen look elegant. Minimalist fragrances? Might as well just start bottling water, call it L'eau Rain Eau, sell it for a dollar+ per ml, and just take this trend to its natural conclusion already.

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    1. Calvin Klein really goaded this one on in many ways. Truth for Men, CK Eternity Aqua, Even the original Escape for Men, all were easy templates for a movement. Unfortunately we're left with scores of equally boring fragrances that we've actually grown accustomed to. Twenty years ago I think Sauvage would have surprised people. Bleu de Chanel would have probably raised eyebrows, too. But not anymore. "Fresh" and "clean" are the new normal.

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    2. Whatever didn't sell last Xmas in the US usually ends up in Delhi's International Airport Duty Free shops the following Fall.
      Just last week when I flew through Delhi there was an entire wall of the watery & wan stuff that apparently did not sell- the entire Flora by Gucci Garden Collection, the new Versaces (like Bright Crystal), the Burberry crap, the highly touted & $$$'s but faint Hermes' Jardin collection. (Geez, the Italian design houses used to be good for at least a bit of bombast.) By this I'm guessing they didn't sell in the US- Indians aren't buying them either.
      I tried Stella McCartney's new fragrance geared towards Millennials -"Pop" - it barely smells like anything too. For kicks I tried the Victoria's Secret line of perfumes and some new tropical themed line out at Bath & Body Works in Miami- all watery coconut with a tinge of nondescript florals that you could barely smell.
      These new fragrances aren't even "fresh & clean" or a minimalistic 2-3 notes- they barely smell like anything at all.

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    3. I would imagine the punishing heat in India would render anything as light as what you've mentioned near useless anyway. It might seem counterintuitive to an American, but it's not entirely absurd to suppose that compositions with significant "heft," i.e. orientals, would work better, no?

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    4. "Orientals" as we Westerners have vaguely termed them work very well in dry, desert heat. The Islamic rulers of India (the Mughals) were the first to distill rosewater on the planet and were the first to adore oudh. Arabs may claim oudh is their culture but it was brought to them from the Turkic Mughal rulers of India. Most of the traditional perfumes from India are quite simple in composition, ie rose anchored with a bit of sandalwood. The emphasis is on quality of ingredients rather than elaborate compositions. Ajmal Ali, the founder of the Ajmal perfume house was from Assam (north eastern India) where some of the best quality oudh is produced. The company didn't move to Dubai until 1976.
      Be prepared to be assaulted with the stench of cheap ittars of kewra or rose mixed with synthetic sandalwood when in proximity of elderly female of male Indians no matter what the season. For some reason young Indian males prefer to spray their clothing (rather than their armpits or groin) copiously with Axe, Fogg, or the gawdawful Gatsby.

      Indians really aren't into expensive perfume like the Arabs are. The Delhi airport's new (since 2012) duty free selection has dwindled from decadently Dubai-like to the dregs of last years' Xmas leftovers from the US & Europe. Indians would rather purchase an expensive designer pair of sunglasses, scarf, handbag or briefcase to show off.

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  2. I appreciate this article, but one point I do have a question about, in relation to the cost of raw materials. I've also read that remark by Luca Turin regarding the low percentage of a fragrance's overall budget being devoted to materials...much of the rest going to advertising & promotion. But I've also read (and this was Turin again, though it seems logical enough) that the budgets for new fragrance briefs is, in adjusted dollars, considerably less than what it once was. That is to say that if you set out to create Antaeus or Eau Sauvage today, you might not be able to do so with the budget allowed. Does this mean, I wonder, that companies do what they can to lower the materials costs of such fragrances to bring them within current industry norms, or is the higher materials budget offset by the following a 'classic' enjoys, and (in the case of something like Eau Sauvage, Pour Monsieur, Habit Rouge, or Pour un Homme, for instance) a central role in perpetuating an overall legacy of brand identity? Just wondering...Materials-wise, am I really getting a more expensive bottle of eau de toilette when I buy 100 mls of Eau Sauvage or Antaeus than when I buy Sauvage or Bleu de Chanel?

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    1. Since I'm not a fragrance chemist, I can't answer your question with any accuracy. You could go to Bigsly's Wordpress blog and take a look, but bear in mind that his interview is most likely with himself, and not a real chemist, so although he has some interesting ideas, they don't really comport with the possibilities outlined in your question. However, I'll take a guess for you and see where it goes.

      I have a 2011 bottle of Anteaus, and a 2008 bottle of Chanel Allure Homme. One is a department store brand from the late nineties, and the other is a legacy brand from the early eighties. Both smell like they're made of materials from the same organ. Antaeus does not smell better or worse than Allure, and vice versa.

      Bigsly promotes the notion that recent synthetics are sometimes more expensive than past naturals. In terms of budgetary constraints, he may be right. The new verimoss semi-synthesized oakmoss replacement is supposedly a bit pricier than many other synthetics. It was used in the current EDP of Mitsouko (not sure about the pure parfum or EDT). Is using verimoss a good call? Obviously. Was it outrageously more expensive than using actual oakmoss? No, because vintage Mitsouko probably used not just oakmoss, but the BEST oakmoss Guerlain could find. And I believe that would have been a bit more expensive than the stuff they're padding into Clubman Aftershave Lotion at Rite Aid.

      But is the verimoss heinously more expensive than two or three really cheap synthetics that could be used to "reconstruct" oakmoss in the composition for a 98% replication of the scent? Doubt it. Maybe a few cents more, but the difference is likely negligible. Now, the same oakmoss effect is in Antaeus. Does Antaeus use real oakmoss? No. It also uses Verimoss. I purchased by bottle of Antaeus for $70, a 100 ml. My Mitsouko cost $52, 75 ml. Allure Homme was $54, with no oakmoss note, and it it's only a $50 ml bottle. So with all synthetics and none replicating oakmoss, Allure is actually more expensive than the other two. And Allure was a major powerhouse brand for Chanel ten years ago. The briefs for these fragrances is based on whatever makes the fragrance commercially successful. Since they're all major brand labels, these frags are not constrained by concerns over whether the difference between a sythetic hybrid material is a few cents more than a 100% natural material.

      If they were to invent Anteaus today, they would not need to give it the same budget that they allowed in 1981. Back then people wanted rich, loud, woody compositions with 80 different notes and sillage stretching a mile. That took serious coin to pull off.

      Nowadays, like it or not, people want their fragrance to smell like their deodorant, or like some sort of vanilla/fruit concoction. They're interested in drugstore soap, not rich, woody powerhouses. Niche fragheads gravitate toward those types of things, but they're the minority, maybe 2% of the buying public. The remaining percentage wouldn't be interested in Anteaus on a 1981, but on a 2016 budget, which I imagine would be a third of what it was, it might do very well.

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    2. Oh Good Lord, I just read that "interview" on Bigsly's blog. Fake. Not only is it written in Bigsly's own boorish style, but what really gives it away it the claim by the supposed 'chemist' that there is a lot of secrecy in the industry.
      Nope. I know several Givaudan and Firmenich trained perfumers who have done work for all sorts of perfume houses from JAR to Avon. They are a very friendly & congenial bunch & not the least bit competitive. They often share formulas- why not? If another perfumer were to duplicate a fragrance it would be obvious and perceived as a lack of talent. Anyway, it would be simple & cheap enough to just run a gas chromatograph to determine what's really in a fragrance - so where's the secret?
      I thought Bigsly had perhaps a touch of Aspergers but lying to prove your point reeks of malignant narcissism. (Which we've seen enough of in the year's US presidential election.)

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    3. Right, and his claim that the chemist requested anonymity makes no sense. 99% of the mainstream perfumes released in the Western world have no signatures attached. So if "John Kryzinsky" the fragrance chemist gives an interview on a blog with low readership, but simply asks that his workplace be kept anonymous, that would be more than enough. Anyone who recognizes his name would already know where he works anyway, and if he's saying something that's so subversive he could simply request that those bits be left out of the article. But inventing Mr. Anonymous makes it much easier, doesn't it? And making up a name and withholding the workplace - or making up the name and disclosing the supposed workplace - leaves the blogger open to a lawsuit should the offended corporation discover the fabrication. The whole think reeks of "academic fraud," but then again, who knows? Maybe he did interview a fragrance chemist. Of what pedigree will always be my next question - is a chemist for the Axe body spray line?

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    4. You might be surprised who does fragrances for whom. Avon hires some darned good perfumers, so does Mary Kay and Elizabeth Arden. Axe isn't all that bad, it's nothing spectacular but it's usually not offensive even if over applied. Gatsby & Shirley Mae are HORRID.

      If Bigsly really knew what he was doing he would have at least told us where the perfumer he spoke with was trained - ie Givaudan? Firmenich?

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    5. When I attended Albertus Magnus as a grad student I was taught that you have to cite your sources when you do research. At this point I've all but lost interest in Bigsly. Can't take him seriously. I've decided to move on. BTW Bibi, I love your blog. Truly stunning material there, terrific photography.

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    6. Thank you Mr Ross!
      Maybe someday I'll even get a real camera and learn to use it.
      I would think that any "grad" student would also know it's important to submit at least a CV of a source to be taken seriously.
      These big perfumery firms like Givaudan & Firmenich have very small classes of students which are chosen through a very rigorous entry process. Everybody knows everybody, and like most artists they would not stoop to copying others' work and strive for their own distinct styles. it's not competitive nor secretive at all.

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    7. You know what? I'm almost starting to believe Bigsly went to grad school. He must have majored in creative writing. Anyway, for the truth about perfumes, spoilage, and how the industry works, see my interview with Jeffrey Dame - a real person, no less!

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