Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Aesthetic Principle

When you use a synthetic raw material,” said [Thierry] Wasser, [perfumer at Guerlain] “if you know what you're doing you never, but absolutely never use it as a 'substitute' for some natural product. The synthetic is there to be itself—which by the way is something no natural material can be. People need to understand that we design our scents to be specific works.” […]“A work of scent is utterly unnatural,” said Wasser. “Samsara has nothing to do with ‘natural.’ Nature never would or could put it together, but it’s difficult for those people obsessed with ‘natural’—whatever that means—to understand that these synthetics smell like these synthetics and that we use them because they smell like these synthetics."

Vanitas series by Guido Mocafico, 2007 via parenthetically blog

The above comes (brought to my attention by Smedley, an online friend) from a snippet author Chandler Burr included in his reveal of the S02E05 Untitled Series, a project that asks people to smell perfume "blind", i.e. shed of any extraneous marketing or preconceived notions.

The problem is that the movement for "green" living specifically in regard to perfume, championing "less chemicals in our products", relies by its own nature (pun intended) on panic, herd mentality and pseudoscience. A similar streak runs through the anti-vaccination zealots or in people who believe rice crackers and an apple are more nutrient-rich & healthier than a plate of eggs & bacon. Just because something has been vilified in the press or "everyone says so" isn't enough proof to stand scientific scrutiny. But there you go: The hysterics on "green", "vegan", "organic" and "healthier" rely on the gullibility of people who aren't scientists and typically get intensely bored by scientific data or who are convinced Big Pharma is hiding beyond everything. No wonder few among them end up scrutinizing the facts, thus allowing "green marketing"* to get conflated with pseudo-science perpetuating inaccuracies online and in the press.

[*I had a discussion over cocktails with the president of local L'Oreal branch a few years back. He told me "Green is big now, so we promote green". It's L'Oreal, folks!]

It's tempting and easy on the ear to romanticize about "the aromatherapeutic effects of lavender" in your fabric softener and have watchdogs decide whether that should be so or not. In reality, the product you add in your machine's rinse cycle already doesn't contain one drop of real lavender oil. The mere name is a misnomer: lavender "this" and lavender "that" is usually no lavender at all, but a blend of vanilla and musks. That's because this is what people respond well to, according to an old study, its findings based on focus groups, conducted by a huge household cleaning products company. Even Guerlain's iconic Jicky is smart to buttress its own lavender with musk and civet.

Natural (a term that is incredibly difficult to define, since everything is man-treated in some form or other if to be used) is considered better because grown among urbanites sick & tired by the emptiness of a sterilized  existence it implies a "holier than thou" stance of being both informed (wrong, as we have proved) and considerate (wrong again, because relying on faulty proof and twisted medical terms). This desire "to avoid unnecessary chemicals" has greatly harmed the artistic merit and the solid reputation of the all naturals movement.

Perfumers dabbling in all naturals have been quick to sense that and you won't catch the indie & artisanal crowd that I frequently feature on my pages making bogus claims that their wares are better because they're "healthier" or "safer". Instead they propound their artistic integrity operating on a cottage industry level and their independence relying on no one's external funding and not answering to any board of directors. (To bring an analogy: now that Le Labo has been bought off by the Estee Lauder Group how much of their personal touch can survive? Little, judging by the Jo  Malone fragrance brand). More importantly they make their stance that they appreciate natural essences (and natural isolates in some cases, a very welcome addition in my personal opinion) as an aesthetic choice and a bond with perfume's history. 

Neither are niche or luxury perfumes necessarily better (the inherent snobbism of which justifies the high prices asked, making niche & luxury the only sector to show growth in the industry) because they use "better" materials or "more naturals" in their formula.

Don't try to guess via the price. Price is a marketing choice, it's positioning that doesn't directly reflect the formula's cost.

Don't try to guess via the color of the juice either. Fragrances are invariably dyed and the dark, grapes-worthy purple color of your Serge Lutens perfume (Sarrasins?) might not come due to the ingredients, much like the lilac in Vera Wang Princess doesn't either.

Certain luxurious niche perfumes do not contain one iota of frankincense or myrrh, even though they are indeed labeled as "incense", or they don't include even one drop of real rose absolute despite the marketing or the name. This does not diminish them, they are what they are, they connote rather than denote, and perfumery is indeed a game of connotation, of semiotics, of illusion via allusion. "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth", in the words of Pablo Picasso.

Things do not necessarily have to prove themselves in a politically charged or a strictly eco-conscious context when it comes to fragrance in order to capture our attention and ultimately our hearts. They merely ask to be considered on their own aesthetic merits; to be judged by the aesthetic principle. Which is another way to say "the pleasure principle", or jouissance, to use a Lacanian term. And sadly, this is what has been depreciated in our contemporary culture.


  1. This was beautiful to read. And yes, I agree but what I think is the most interesting part of it all is that it reminds us, perfume lovers, of the thing-in-itself: a synthetic insofar synthetic; a raw, natural element insofar as raw natural element, and the creative freedom to make use of either in order to achieve an excess to nature. Yes. Thank you. Isn't that what scent is ultimately, an excess? I think this is what makes perfumes, to me, to be so erotic; their surplus character.

  2. flowergirlbee!04:59

    i do believe, in my smelling experience, that price has a correlation to quality of ingredients but i have smelt plenty of expensive perfumes that smell cheap and nasty.i am also interested in the synthetic being able to achieve the same aromatherapy benefits as the naturals.does the synthetically created lavender sooth the person wearing the jumper washed in the laundry detergent the same way as a essential oil would.i think that if it is well made it possibly does..

  3. Well put arguments and I share your general stance as well as specific view on perfumery. This is especially clear and concise formulation: "they connote rather than denote, and perfumery is indeed a game of connotation, of semiotics, of illusion via allusion".

  4. Oh hell Helg .... since having my stroke I am living on lots of drugs and chemicals .... whats a bit more when I spray my dear old Guerlain perfumes on me!
    Mmmm .... they could be helping me survive too! LOL

  5. WFTG,

    glad you enjoyed!

    Perfume is an excess that does not distress! :-D
    I love your line about "their surplus character". It's a ritualisation and as such very important to our modern lives (because those are so very lacking in ritual).

  6. FGB,

    thanks for your comment, which is thought-provoking.

    It's interesting that "cheap and nasty" is a definition that holds some subjectivity (as so many things in the perception, if not the chemical makeup, of perfume). What is it that makes anything smell "cheap and nasty"? Several synthetics can be very expensive. They can also be beautiful. Several synthetics can also smell trite (usually due to overuse) and do not cost too much.

    Also: what you say about reaping the effect of relaxation from the fragrance of "lavender" via a product that doesn't actually use lavender. This is extremely interesting. It happens! And it happens most when you outright say it, so is it a psychological effect? Is it the pleasure principle kicking in? :-)

    Very intriguing arguments, thank you!

  7. Idomeneus,

    thank you for your kind words.

    Indeed I find that the separation between denoting (what is actually in the formula) and connoting (what impression it gives) is one of crucial importance. One would be fooled to follow a list of notes as guidance to what is actually in there, same as perception of "notes" is even different between individuals (different lists of notes on different sites or at different intervals produce different reviews, for instance!)
    Really, pleasure and the amount and manner of pleasure one derives is what counts. ;-)

  8. M,

    I'm utterly convinced that your Guerlains help you live. Hell, I haven't had a stroke (yet) and they help me live. Everything that colors our lives is important and necessary. Enjoy and keep your spirits up, as always! (I look up to you as a role model on that regard, you know)

  9. Anonymous14:32

    Very good article.

    "to understand that these synthetics smell like these synthetics and that we use them because they smell like these synthetics."

    Yes true but you will almost never see a description on a bottle or in ads touting the synthetic chemical components. The notes are described as natural scents that people can identify with and accept more readily. I am sure Mr Wasser does too.

  10. I enjoyed this. Well said.
    The issue of notes is a fascinating one. I didn't list them at all for a long time, then the people who sell mine in their shops asked me to help them by giving base, heart and top notes. It's something to talk about and identify with.
    The synthetics sometimes smell of familiar things, but often they have less of an identifiable scents, more of an effect. To list methyl di-hydro jasmonate in the notes would be pretty pointless, because it makes flowers smell more airy, lemons smell lighter and gives a general feeling of bright fresh air. It's in almost everything from the 80s onwwards.
    A really recognisable synthetic odorant is cis-3-hexanol, but when we use it, we call it a cut grass note. Cut grass really does smell of cis-3 hexanol (among other things), but you can't get it directly from grass, only from a lab. But it's accurate to describe it as the smell of cut grass.
    Thierry Wasser is one of my great heroes because he is prepared to talk openly about these things instead of looking you in the eyes and saying "all our scents are completely natural". So many customers are reassured by that lie that sales people just say it as a kind of symbolic code, a way to start the conversation. I've seen a customer storm away from a Frederic Malle salesman because he told her the truth. She declared she was off to buy her beloved Chanel No 5 because it was "all natural". Oh, the irony.

  11. Anon,

    thank you for the compliment.

    Here is the thing: increasingly, as the audience becomes more educated, thanks to the Internet, niche and artisanal companies start tentatively to use some technical terms to describe some of their scents. I find this encouraging.

    It's always better to be frank and then let the chips fall where they may than be disingenuous and hope no one catches you in an outright lie. This is of course my own personal opinion and ethos which I try to apply in what concerns me; but I'm not a big company, I'm a one woman machine, oiled and run by the merit of my personal insights and personal ambition.
    I'm sure Wasser cannot have the freedom to do as he pleases, much as he seems like a man of candor; he has to answer to LVMH. Even smaller, privately owned luxury firms, such as Chanel, cannot outright admit some of the truths that are out of the public eye, and so you have pics of Polge and Sheldrake holding jars of nutmegs and cinnamon sticks and spices and
    being photographed sniffing them
    as if their job involves those things on a regular basis; it doesn't.
    Obviously there is a whole lot more education the public should get before we can do away with this kind of publicity stunts.

  12. Sarah,

    first of all thank you so much for landing on this page and giving your fascinating insider side of the deal, so to speak. Welcome aboard!

    Secondly, thanks for the kind words regarding the article, much appreciated. :-)

    Thirdly, and more importantly, it is especially interesting what you say as it correlates to something I have noticed myself while browsing. When a niche brand such as Lutens for instance comes out and gives a cryptic message upon the launch of a new fragrance, even die hard fans demand ~and insist on demanding~ "the official notes". Sometimes it seems (to me) that they're even stumped to formulate a concrete criticism shorn of those "notes lists", I assume in fear of making some embarrassing mistake. If you have this knee-jerk reaction from the perfumistas, imagine how very alien it would sound to non perfumistas to hear about indeed hedione and triplal and helional and all the rest of them….

    The incident you describe at Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle is rather funny in a way and poses a big question mark as to who are luxury brands selling to, really. (A question which occupies a lot of my free time thinking lately). If the regular perfume lover is the only type to be (self) educated enough and pliable enough to be educated into the truth, then why do major luxury brands prefer to sell to the moneyed pockets of those who do not approach the level of the average perfumista?
    There's the conundrum. An interesting one and one which will -in my opinion- divide the winners from the losers in the marketing & sales business plan of the next 10 years.

  13. Thanks for this post. As a chemist, the current "green-washing" trend drives me nuts. Most of the beautiful, classic perfumes followed on the heels of the discovery of certain synthetics, and those molecules are what helped make mass production even possible. A time and place for everything.

  14. Miss Heliotrope05:39

    Another who is held up by medical chemicals - with a scented splash for good feeling.

    I think for many people, being told it's green is what they want to hear, but they dont want to change lifestyle anyhow: the woman who drives her SUV to the shops & gets out with reusable shopping bags, or my father, who cites his solar panels but has longer showers than the rest of us & eats meat almost every meal - they do the bit that suits them.

    I think we should be aware of what is in the various things we use, but properly, to know whether having natural arsenic or natural lavender is good or bad. But it takes a fair bit of that precious time, so even if we're not fully convinced, sometimes we just accept what we're told for peace.

    PS - on the silliness that is veganism (just bc I think you'll appreciated it):mum was at her educational session for people who have had heart attacks (we've had a busy year) & the big professor heart specialist was talking about diet - he said he used to see vegans & recognise they had about 3 years to love bc they weren't getting enough nutrients. Now there are those synthetic ones, but the diet is otherwise suicide...


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