The State of Perfume Criticism 2018

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It has been a few weeks since the new edition of Perfumes: The Guide by Tania Sanchez and Luca Turin was published. Within the perfume community the book was received with the same amount of glee and teeth gnashing the original volume got ten years ago. Once the debate on the actual rating of specific perfumes died down another conversation appeared. One which focused on where perfume criticism exists today.

One of the often-repeated phrases I heard was that there is so little frank negative perfume writing that the sharpest barbs sunk even deeper. Ms. Sanchez and Mr. Turin can slice a perfume to shreds in, seemingly, less than 280 characters. When I agree, there is a sense of validation. When I disagree, there is a curiosity about why I perceive the same fragrance so differently. One of the things about The Guide which has happened on both publications is the perfumes at the extremes 1-star or 5-star were what I re-examined.

Which leads to the current landscape of perfume blogs and vlogs. In 2018 we now have a perfume way of communicating for every taste. I have spent some time randomly sampling some of the wider vlog reviewers beyond the handful I watch regularly. There was a wider ranging style than I suspected. There are nearly all perspectives being covered by a vlog or two. The one thing I didn’t find was anyone who had an actively negative component. I could see all the videos going back for over a year when I searched up a particular vlogger and I looked for a title which indicated content which was less than positive. Even those were not that hard on the specific perfume being discussed.

Blogs are almost no different; including me. There are a few more blogs where the writer has a more critical eye and expresses that opinion freely. They are some of the more popular blogs which means it connects with readers who want this kind of discussion about perfume.

I’m not interested in actively joining their ranks. I’ve mentioned this previously. I do not see myself as a perfume expert. I see myself as an experienced enthusiast. The more I learn the more questions I have. Writing about fragrance comes from a place of joy within. I’ve never enjoyed tearing something down. Which is why there are few pieces which carry a negative critical perspective. If you read between the lines you can find my opinion of some perfumes I don’t care for, but it isn’t given its own review for me to expound upon.

Where does that leave us as it applies to The Guide and those of us communicating about perfume on YouTube and WordPress? I would answer that all of us are inviting a reader/subscriber to come along with us as we take our trip through the perfumed world. That journey is informed with the intentionality of the author. I don’t think it has to be negative to have value. I don’t think it has to be positive to have value. I think it must come from a genuine desire to communicate about perfume. After a few weeks of actively looking I think that is exactly where we find perfume criticism in 2018

Mark Behnke

Is It the Same?

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I’m not always sure what causes certain e-mails to arrive close together. Over the first part of this year I have been receiving at least one a week inquiring if this perfume inspired by another more expensive perfume is the same. It reminded me of these aluminum cannisters I saw in the local drugstore as a child. They had on their label, “if you like Aramis you’ll love Artemis” with a $5.99 price tag. I think the idea of making a more affordable version of an expensive popular perfume has been around for decades. It has maybe gained more traction lately because of the popularity of some ultra-luxe priced perfumes.

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1889)

For most of the year my answer to the e-mails was, “I haven’t tried any of them. You will have to trust your nose.” I still think that is the best response. Yet I admit because of the persistence of these e-mails I was curious. I perused the sites of some of the brands which do this. There are a small set of perfumes which I feel I am intimately familiar with. In searching I found imitation versions of some of these. I ordered four of them and have spent some time over the last few weeks doing some intense comparison. I still believe you should trust your nose but if you want to trust mine I am going to speak in some generalities I found.

Starry Night by Marjan Ugljevarevic

The first generality is all of the four that I tried are a bit like looking at a carnival fun house mirror. The ones which make a part of your body look slightly thinner or wider. All of these perfumes carry the same progression of accords from top to bottom except there was always one phase which didn’t track exactly. It was heavier in effect or maybe slightly sharper but there was always a section that was slightly off. It depends on if this particular part of the development is what attracts you to the original perfume these are imitating. As an example, if you love the creamy sandalwood base of a perfume in these duplicates there are more synthetic sandalwood used which has a bit of a different scent profile. That might be enough for you to think it is not the same.

Starry Night Pixelated

Which leads to the second generality the reason for the higher prices is the use of larger percentages of the natural source of the ingredients. If the duplicates used the natural sources too their prices would not be as modest. Which means they are made up of synthetic substitutes. Now there is a trick used by many perfumers which is to add a small percentage of an expensive natural ingredient to a much larger percentage of the synthetic analog. This works particularly well for the floral synthetics. I found the one which I purchased which was a floral was the one I thought was closest to the original.

The final generality is the performance on my skin was quite different. Because of the reliance on synthetics which linger on the skin longer the overall effect was elongated. That’s good if you want it to last longer no matter what. It wasn’t good for me because it felt like someone was singing a song and holding notes for too long here and there. It was this which I found the most distracting in my evaluation.

My answer to “is it the same?” is no. If you asked me if they are close, I’d say yes with this caveat. If you like a perfume or any piece of art would you like it the same if some of the colors were shifted? If cerulean blue was changed to sky blue? They’re both blue but there is a discernable difference. Which is what it comes down to; can you tell the difference if you’ve worn the original. I can, but you might like the change. Which returns me to my original response, “trust your nose”.

Mark Behnke

Up In The Air

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There is an increase in stories in the news about people who wear perfume in the same way people talk or play music too loud; as if the world wants to share in their magnificent taste. The latest story comes from a poll on the travel site Expedia. In their annual Airplane and Hotel Etiquette Survey here were the top five annoying travel behaviors:

The Seat Kicker- 51%

The Aromatic Passenger- 43%

The Inattentive Parent- 39%

Personal Space Violators- 34%

Audio Insensitive- 29%

I winced when I saw the number two response.

Image via Quora.com

One of the reasons I was dismayed is because it is exactly this kind of insensitivity to others by perfume wearers which allows for office-space bans. In any enclosed space if you’re going to wear perfume you should be considering the same thing you do when you fire up your music player or take a phone call in a shared space.

I love perfume, but I do not wear it while traveling because I don’t know if the person sitting next to me will be as enthralled with the effervescent citrus woody perfume I am wearing. What I do is choose something from my group of smaller travel sizes or samples of perfumes I own. Put them in a zip-lock bag. Keep them in my carry-on. When I hit the restroom at my final destination then I give a single spray to the base of my throat. I have never found the occasion where wearing perfume onboard a plane is a necessity. I’ve actually found when flying overnight flights my single spray can be a bit of a tonic after the long flight.

I think this is not done in a conscious way by many whom this critique is named for. I think they apply what they normally apply without thinking they are going to be in a plane for a few hours with others. This dovetails with the correlation between strong sillage equals quality to a lot of fragrance consumers.

I’m asking all of us who wear perfume to think about whether wearing it while traveling is a necessity. So many flights are only a few hours it isn’t that much of a sacrifice. I am hoping that the 43% number can be reduced over time because I know I don’t want to be an “Aromatic Passenger” up in the air.

Mark Behnke

Roll, Baby, Roll

I rarely comment on the cost of perfume. Mainly because I’m more interested in whether it is good than economical. As I’ve received more access to the mass-market brands I have come to appreciate one specific thing about their marketing; the 10ml rollerball.

The  cynic says they are the equivalent of candy in the grocery checkout line. Small enough and cheap enough to encourage an impulse purchase. Certainly at the mall stores this is the practice. The perfume lover in me thinks it great that I can buy half a dozen new fragrances for the price of a bottle. Which is a great way to try new things.

One of the reasons I think this is so positive is it is a low-risk way of buying blind. If you’ve never heard of a brand like Bastide you are more likely to give it a try at 10ml than invest at 100ml. I have no way of being sure but I suspect that 10ml eventually turns into 100ml for more than just a few.

Most of the time I mention when niche sensibility crosses over to mass-market. Outside of a very few examples this is something which might cross over in the reverse direction.

This is especially true for niche brands with slightly odd aesthetics. There might be a perfume to be found within a quirky collection but finding it via full bottle blind buys is no way to go about it. A recent example of allowing for individual exploration of a brand like this came from Areej Le Dore. With the latest four releases owner-perfumer Russian Adam offered a sample set of all four plus a bonus sample of an attar version of one. It was a fraction of the price of any single bottle.

What it allows for is someone who is interested to see if there is something which appeals to them in a brand which is not made to please the masses. I would aver that it might be more important in these cases. Trying five new choices versus one blind seems obvious.

Except in the place which needs the most opportunity to connect with a consumer it is made difficult because of no smaller options. I especially think sample sets of new collections really make sense. Trudon offered buyers the same sample set they sent me for review which I think is a great way to introduce a new perfume brand.

I am hoping that I see as many rollerballs in niche outlets in the future as I see at the mall.

Mark Behnke

Keeping the Flame Burning

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By mid-January 2014 I was busy planning the first 90 days of Colognoisseur. I felt like I had to start with the first 90 articles lined up if I was going to get into a rhythm that would allow me to post a new article every day. As I put that schedule together I was excited to be able to write about all the things I ever wanted to write about. I ran across my 90-day plan just after the New Year. I was pleased to find that the original concept has largely survived through today.

I then began to think about whether I realistically thought I’d still be as excited as I neared the end of my fourth year of Colognoisseur. I had some reader number targets but those were all for the end of 2016. I thought thinking beyond that date was of the wishful variety. Yet, I find myself just as excited as I was four years ago.

I don’t plan things out for 90-days anymore, but I do keep a rolling 21-day schedule. That it is currently full of perfume I am happy to write about is also great. I think it is easy to become jaded about anything after doing it for over ten years. I started considering why I had escaped that pitfall.

The answer came via the mail both electronic and traditional. In my physical mailbox I received a package from a new independent perfumer. Inside was an amazing debut, something different to my nose. It is something only an instinctual artist could create. It is why every package like this is a new discovery.

In my e-mail box I got another testimonial on my “How to Buy Perfume as a Gift”. A man went to the mall and put together my little basket of samples along with a gift card. After giving it to his girlfriend they eventually settled on a perfume which at that time was their special perfume. They just got married on New Year’s Eve and the bride wore “their” perfume.

It is both the opportunity to give some exposure to the new perfumer while sharing a way to make perfume a part of someone’s life which are more than enough to keep my internal flame burning bright.

Mark Behnke

What Has Happened to Clive Christian?

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There have been several acquisitions of some of the founding brands of niche perfumery. For the successful brands which have been acquired by the experienced cosmetics companies it has turned out to see expansion of availability and greater visibility. Of the brands acquired over the last few years; Le Labo, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, Atelier Cologne, By Kilian among them it has been a positive. I can say I had worries about the brands losing what made them stand out enough to warrant being acquired. So far, the creative teams have remained in place and the biggest change has been finding new points of sale. Three years on from the first of these I would say any concern has been misplaced because they all have continued to be niche while part of a conglomerate.

In hindsight I can say the experience in marketing and distribution a big beauty brand brings to the partnership makes sense. If you want to see what happens when those who know nothing about the beauty sector decide there is money to be made you just have to look at the acquisition of Clive Christian by a consortium of investment houses led by EME Investments. One big difference is that the brand had fallen into debt and needed an infusion of capital to stay afloat. This is when EME came along with three other investors and bought the brand.

Prior to the acquisition Clive Christian was one of the first ultra-luxe perfume brands. Starting in 2001 they positioned themselves at exclusive stores around the world touting the quality of their ingredients as part of the reason they were so highly priced. For many years they had that part of the new niche sector all to themselves. As the years went by there was more competition for what had to be a limited consumer base.

From 2001 until 2014 they released six pairs of perfumes one each for men or women. Overall, they were a collection which stood for a specific aesthetic centered on luxury and exclusivity which made the modest release schedule part of the larger strategy. Within those twelve releases over thirteen years; one of them, C for Men, is one of my all-time favorites.

Now with the new owners Clive Christian has released 26 (!) new releases since June of 2016. I’ll do the math 26 releases over 15 months. At the same ultra-luxe prices for the most part. There is no reputable perfume brand which would ever take that level of release rate if there was an experienced beauty company behind it. I cannot imagine there is more support for an additional 26 Clive Christian perfumes than there was for the prior twelve.

Worse the whole enterprise cheapens the brand. We can argue about the merits of the perfumes but the way they cultivated their exclusivity and quality matched their aspirations. What does 26 new perfumes communicate? Avon released 25 new perfumes over the same time frame for a tenth of the price…or less. It certainly isn’t exclusivity or quality.

There have been several financial people who have convinced themselves that there are profits to be found in the niche sector. They seemingly misunderstand how much part of the brand reputation plays into the desire to own it. You can’t just say, “look luxury and lots of it” the truth must be in the bottle. In the current collection of 26 these are as cynical a group of perfumes as you can imagine. There is not a single one of them I would want on my skin for any extended period of time.

The answer to “what happened to Clive Christian?” is the moneychangers entered the temple armed with spray paint and covered it with graffiti.

Mark Behnke

The Expansion of the Perfumer’s Palette

Over the last year or so I have been fortunate to be given a bit of a crash course in new perfume ingredients. The chemist in me is fascinated with the structure of the molecules and the difference in effect moving bonds and atoms around has on a scent profile. Equally as fascinating is the way natural materials are extracted and then further separated via different physical techniques.

It is fun to meet a perfumer who is using a new raw material as they build a new perfume. There is a palpable enthusiasm at using something different. I wonder if the same kind of enthusiasm was present when new pigments expanded the options for the painters. I suspect any artist when given something new to consider they immediately begin to think of the places this could fit into their current imaginings.

I’ve also begun thinking about this because of the new wave of transparent minimal fragrances being released to appeal to the younger generation of perfume buyers. Since there is seemingly a market for minimalist constructions it provides an outlet for the different isolates of the cornerstones of perfumery to provide a different perspective.

What has been trending particularly this year is to use a particular isolate which is missing a characteristic part of the full-spectrum ingredient. For instance, the sandalwood used by perfumer Nicolas Beaulieu in Comme des Garcons Concrete is missing some of the austere woody character. The white flowers at the heart of Chanel Gabrielle can be dialed to a desired indole level by perfumer Olivier Polge. Daniela Andrier uses a specific less rooty version of iris in Tiffany & Co.

What is interesting is each perfumer adds in what is missing with a different ingredient providing an opaque abstraction of the keynote. M. Beaulieu uses rose oxide and its metallic nature to replace the desiccated wood. M. Polge uses a set of white musks to set off the small amount of indoles present. Mme Andrier lets patchouli provide a different earthiness.

This is what will drive this current generational shift in perfume styles. By having more options, the perfumers can more precisely find a desired effect. It is the definition of modern perfumery to take nature and interpret it through our sense of smell. With the cornucopia of new options, the expansion of the perfumer’s palette promises a creativity that fragrance has not seen before.

Mark Behnke

The Emotion of Perfume Buying

I am always happy to see data support a widely-held belief. The scientist is always skeptical of the anecdotal over the analytical. Which Is why I am always interested in the reports the consumer research company The NPD Group release on fragrance buying habits. The one from June 2017 was titled “Women are More Emotionally Connected to Fragrance than Men”.  The article takes data from their recent “Scentiments” program where they did a deep-dive on fragrance buying habits.

What they found was, “one-third of women see fragrance as a personal treat, or a pick-me-up to enhance their mood. They tend to choose a new scent based on how well it fits with their personality.” This translates to new purchases on the average of once a month from women. When it comes to men they buy, “typically for the purpose of replenishment” and 1-2 times a year.

These findings lead to some recommendations on how to sell fragrance to the genders. It posits women are more willing to try new things and grouping perfumes in categories based on their style offers opportunity for discovery of other brands. On the men’s counter the uber-focused replenishers just want to be able to find their brand therefore keep them grouped together in that way. A couple of other insights were smaller sizes and/or rollerballs have seen an upsurge in sales. Also, women are more likely to gravitate towards fragrance sellers who give out samples.

I have no doubt this applies to the general public. It reflects much of what I see when I take my weekend field trips to the local malls to make my own observation on buying habits. When it comes to the group of people who have become perfume lovers I think all the gender divisions are removed. We are better grouped by our passion for fragrance than our sex. Within this subset we are more like the women described in The NPD Group article.

How many of us, “see fragrance as a personal treat, or a pick-me-up to enhance their mood. They tend to choose a new scent based on how well it fits with their personality.” I would make a wager it is much higher than one-third. I know that sentence has described my personal experience.

Even now when I am buried under hundreds of new perfumes a year; when one connects it is my emotions which are engaged. I almost involuntarily smile. When it’s really good I make noise and roll my eyes upward. Love of perfume is entwined with emotion and I think that is genderless.

Shelves at Scent Bar/Luckyscent in Los Angeles

I also want to mention the suggestion about selling fragrance by grouping them in similar styles as opposed to collecting them into brands. There are two stores I know of which do this and I think it is a more useful way of guiding any consumer to find something new. It gives them the opportunity to find that emotional connection in a style which has had a similar effect previously.

There is probably a more general maxim that all buying is emotional but I believe fragrance is something which has a more primal connection to those who add it to their day. When it is great it makes your mood brighter which is why we keep going back.

Mark Behnke

The Best of Times

In my circle of perfume friends there is a phrase I hear quite a bit, “Everything new is crap.” This could be more politely phrased as, “It is the worst of times.” It is a somewhat easy position to take because of the sheer amount of new perfume released. Most new fragrance is cynical focus group driven designs. Part of the reason I write about this ephemeral art is there is so much more than cynicism on display.

At this point in time we now are in a world where an independent perfumer can make a living. While there are still some pockets of less than forthright design in this area that is the minority. What is here are examples of single-minded aesthetic. If you need any evidence of that take a look at the twenty-two nominees for the 2017 Art and Olfaction Awards. These are fragrances which exemplify the vitality of the independent perfume sector. Underneath the list of finalists were over 200 submitted entries which show these are not the few they are the best of the many. If you were to spend the next few months wearing one of these each week you would see there is something happening here.

You might be thinking, “sure that’s independents of course that wasn’t what I meant”. Except some of the stalwarts of niche perfumery have stepped up with new releases that show the best of what these brands represent. Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle released a collaboration with designer Alber Elbaz and perfumer Dominique Ropion. Kilian Hennessy returned to some of the initial influences from the beginning of By Kilian with the new Black Phantom. Yann Vasnier produced the Bloomsbury collection for Jo Malone London. Geza Schoen’s fourth iteration of Molecule 04 and Escentric 04 continue a tradition which can simultaneously educate and thrill perfume lovers. All four of these are brands which defined the parameters of niche perfumery. They represent the longevity of this style of perfume as well as consumers’ acceptance of it.

So now you’re thinking “okay sure those are the experienced what I’m talking about are the new brands” Except there are new brands like Vilhelm Parfumerie and Nomenclature which refute this thought.

Now you’re thinking, “it’s the big brands the ones which only care about money over creativity” Except Hermes Eau des Merveilles Bleue and Cartier Baiser Fou aren’t support for that line of thinking.

I want to put up a thought which is different than what many like to propose, “This is the best of times”. On my desk, right now, I have an embarrassment of riches through all of these areas. I am having trouble remembering this many excellent new releases in front of me at the same time. I think across every area of fragrance there has been a slow refining of what each sector appeals to. Therefore I think the fragrance glass is more than half-full.

Mark Behnke

Is Perfume an Aspirational or Signature Purchase?

I read an interesting piece on The NPD Group website called “How the Aspirational Purchase Has Shifted”. The basic thesis of the article is in to the mid-2000’s there was a significant number of consumers who would shell out for a particular set of expensive items in the effort to give off the sense of wealth these brands would impart. The author now hypothesizes that over the last decade or so that has changed. Now it is about finding that great item at a thrift store. The rise of YouTube videos which extol just that shows it to be a particularly enjoyable effort of that Facebook Live group of consumers. The author also believes if you are going to spend you will do it for a “signature item”. These could include an artisanal made leather briefcase or a coat from an obscure designer made to order. They are the pieces which help define the person who has them. They also hope to have them be singular to their circle of friends and family.

As I read through this I could see perfume acting as part of both categories. I still think the popularity of the major design houses in the department store can be ascribed to the aspirational type of consumer. I suspect that the bottle of perfume with Chanel, Dior, Hermes, Cartier, Prada, or Armani on its label is often the only thing from the brand in most homes. It speaks to the power of fragrance to be able to impart the brand aesthetic through scent which the best of these manage to do successfully.

Created by Pressfoto – Freepik.com

I think the signature purchase has also always been there in those who buy perfume. How many words have been written about finding a “signature fragrance”? I also think it is part of what has driven the expansion of the niche perfume market over the same time the author of The NPD Group article describes as when signature began to win out over aspirational. It has allowed a perfume lover to find a perfume that is not going to be as widely available as those typically found at the mall.

The final thing I realized is there is also a fragrance group which combines both. Chanel Les Exclusifs, Dior La Collection Privee, Hermes Hermessences, Cartier Les Heures, Prada Olfactories, and Armani Prive live in both worlds. The perfumes are often sold in upscale department stores or exclusively in the designer boutiques with price tags multiples greater than the mass-market line.

This allows perfume to inhabit that sweet spot where the Venn diagram of aspirational and signature overlap. It also probably allows it to be that affordable luxury which even the younger generation sees as “worth it” to filling whatever aspect they are looking for from their fragrance purchase. It probably means that fragrance will continue to be a significant part of the beauty economy for years to come.

Mark Behnke