Perfume in the Time of Coronavirus

I am a generally happy person. The current coronavirus pandemic has worn away at that. I like to be informed but this time the more I learned the bluer I felt. Over the last few days I’ve unplugged from the news streams except for watching the local and national news for an hour. It has helped. The other thing that has helped is my love for perfume.

To fill up the time I’ve been working in the perfume vault. I am surprised at how much beauty there is to be found. I shouldn’t be, I write about it every day. On those shelves are history lessons, trips to faraway places, exceptional artistic visions; all of which are fascinating. I’ve been allowing myself the luxury of letting scent take me away.

I have spent some of my time getting lost in my favorite perfume house, Patou. The Art Deco bottles seem appropriate as we enter this century’s own 20’s. The great Joy was created in 1925. I was struck by the way that perfume seems timeless. It is what a floral perfume should be at any time.

I turned to the Japanese inspired perfumes by Dawn Spencer Hurwitz for serenity. My favorite perfume by one of my favorite perfumers is her Bancha. I usually demur when asked to name a single perfume when asked what is the one I like best. Bancha is one which is unequivocal in my affection. I always wear Bancha on the first day of spring. The same sense of tranquility and hope descended upon me with each breath I took as it does every year. It is especially appropriate now.

Alessandro Brun, Me, Riccardo Tedeschi (l. to r.)

I hadn’t thought about what a great collection the Masque Milano perfumes have become until I spent an afternoon with them covering different patches of skin. It is such a varied collection that I smelled like a pile-up on the perfume interstate. Yet there is a real sense of vision now that there are several perfumes to examine. Alessandro Brun and Riccardo Tedeschi are in the midst of creating perfume which will stand the test of time. To spend this time with them has been illuminating.

I decided to go around the world while sitting at my desk. Perfumes took me to every continent all while never leaving the house.

I’ve never had the best answer when asked why I have so much perfume. Maybe I was just waiting for a time when all that I enjoy can be there as emotional support. I think those days have arrived. Perfume in the time of coronavirus will be what gets me through.

Mark Behnke

The Decline of Les Grandes Maisons de Parfum

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I received an e-mail from a reader after the end of year “Best of” lists. I had asserted that 2019 was the best year for independent perfumery ever. The condensed reader’s response was that the great perfume brands no longer care about being good. My instinctual response was to think, “Nonsense!” Then I tried to reply without using one word. It was then I realized without having explicitly thought about it; I agreed with the reader. It has been circulating in my thoughts for the last month. I thought it was time to put it out there.

When I first started reading the perfume groups and blogs, around 2002, I was introduced to the great perfume brands. This was paired with the beginnings of a vital independent perfume community forming. Because I was in that rapid learning and acquisition phase I was getting bottles from what were the perfume brands which helped found modern perfumery. They have been called Les Grandes Maisons de Parfum; The Great Perfume Houses. Chanel, Guerlain, Dior, Yves St. Laurent, and Creed were the old guard. Hermes, Gucci, Prada, and Acqua di Parma were the second-generation. The early independent upstarts were building their own modern architecture as Tom Ford, Serge Lutens, Comme des Garcons, and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle added some new blood. These were the crème de la crème of perfume brands throughout the first decade of the 2000’s.

There are thirteen brands in that last paragraph. Only Chanel of the old guard seems to still care about being innovative. Olivier Polge has taken the brand into the current day without losing that Chanel-ness. Dior has become a running joke as focus groups rule the day. Guerlain has become a massive machine pumping out overwhelming amounts of mediocrity. They released 25 perfumes in 2019. Embruns D’Ylang was a perfume worthy of the heritage. The rest? Flankers and functional fragrance packaged in beautiful bee bottles. YSL has been in decline for years. They’ve tried with Le Vestiaire des Parfums most recently, but they mostly remind me of what they used to be. Creed has seemingly been swept away with trying to replicate the success of Aventus; releasing two flankers and another attempt to capture the same popularity with Viking.

The second-generation brands fare only a little better. Hermes is doing well under Christine Nagel. Gucci is showing signs of life under creative director Alessandro Michele. Prada and Acqua di Parma seem to have become content to circle in endless holding patterns recycling the ideas of the past.

Comme des Garcons and Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle have shown the way on how to consistently re-invent yourself. Tom Ford and Serge Lutens are starting to fall into parodies of themselves. Tom Ford used to provoke with the perfume now it is the name which seemingly captures all the creativity; in a juvenile way. Serge Lutens lost the plot when they began pumping out the ridiculous Eaus. Now they are so bereft of new ideas they just cannibalize the past making Frankenstein-like perfumes made up of pieces of the earlier great perfumes.

Is independent perfumery having its moment because the original innovators have given up? Once I was forced to think about it the answer seems to be “Yes!”

Mark Behnke

How To Trust Your Perfume Reviewer

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I feel fortunate that I have been writing about perfume long enough that I don’t think my motives are suspect to others. I have been concerned about some of the tough criticism that many of the young video reviewers have been receiving lately. There seem to be some common themes which recur. Many of them boil down to, “How can I trust this person?” I’d like to address the biggest thing people seem to be annoyed/worried about. Hopefully it will help.

That issue is the receipt of free perfume. If you work hard at giving yourself a presence eventually you will form a relationship with perfume brands. There is a difference between an independent perfumer who is working for themselves versus the large beauty companies. One is by nature more personal while the other is just publicity. With an independent brand you can find the fragrance creators out in the community. With the large brands you must keep knocking on the door until they let you in. It means that most of the reviewers in their early days spend their own money on the large brands while they might receive a free sample from an independent brand because they can make a more personal introduction. The biggest drive of commenting on perfume is content, having enough to make a video or blog post on. The more you do it the more you will start seeing brands reach out to you. This leads to the most important thing you must do; reveal the source of the perfume you are reviewing.

I believe this simple effort is the most important piece of building trust between reviewer and audience. Each person will decide on the style of their content. The fantastic thing is there is a reviewer out there who closely reflects a viewer’s perspective on perfume. I’ve seen a lot of people comment, “the reviewer got it for free they are just a shill.” I can see why that kind of comment makes people shy away from mentioning where the perfume they are talking about came from. It shouldn’t. First rule of doing anything; you can’t please everyone. Second rule; you shouldn’t tie yourself up in knots trying to.

The best reviewers come to it from a deep love of fragrance. That quality is obvious the more time you do it. Once you believe that, it shouldn’t matter where the perfume came from. As long as you share the source with them. That piece of information allows the audience to make up their own mind about whether you are influenced by something given to you for free. If you are genuine the audience will respond by sticking around. It takes a lot of hard work. Nobody builds an audience overnight.

Everyone who makes that first step should know it will get better the more you do it. If you feel like you have something to say about perfume you will be happy to find there are others out there who want to hear you. To build the trust you will need; be passionate, be honest, and have fun. If the reviewer you are watching is doing that. I think you can trust them.

Mark Behnke

Remembrance of Gaia Fishler The Non-Blonde

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I always smile when people can’t believe there are readers for a blog about perfume. I know I was one of them for a long time. Then in 2006 there was a group of online pioneers who started writing about perfume. I’ve always called them “The Original Five”. These blogs were the entry point for so many of us who love perfume. A week ago we lost one of those women who had the drive to start writing about perfume, and make-up, in a public way; Gaia Fishler of The Non-Blonde.

I ran into Gaia at different New York City functions for a few years. We would exchange words once I began writing for Fragrantica and CaFleureBon. In those early short exchanges she answered my questions graciously. She confirmed my belief that 400-500 smartly chosen words was better than two or three times that.

It wasn’t until a party in 2013 that we became friends. It started with perfume. We started talking about unicorns; those perfumes that are discontinued but are incredible. She was the only reviewer who had written about a brand called Gobin Daude. They were only in production a short time. She was the only person I could have a deep conversation about those with. What was amazing was her depth of knowledge as she compared them back to other perfumes. I kind of felt like a student in a private master class. Which was one of the great things about Gaia; in a room full of people she could make it seem like you were the only conversation that mattered.

We would meet again a few months later and she would hand me a vial. This was the other perfume we talked about that night; Tauer Orris. That I don’t own and only had a precious few drops. She changed that giving me a sample that has lasted me until today. When she gave it to me, I experienced something she freely bestowed on most who crossed her path; a smile. This is not just teeth and upturned lips. Gaia’s smile was a benediction. She was glad to see you; even happier to give you something that gave you pleasure.

Gaia was also the final push out of the safety zone I had created for myself to start Colognoisseur. I had been thinking about it and she asked me why I hadn’t done it. I had a lot of reasons, but it was mainly I thought it would be too hard being on my own. She looked at me intently and said, “Do it.” I’ve always likened taking a big step to standing at the edge of the high dive and convincing yourself to jump. Gaia was standing at the side of the pool telling me to step off the platform. She was there to support me as she put my blog at the top of her blogroll with “New” next to it. For the first year and a half I got most of my new readers from that. You might be one of them.

I can hear Gaia telling me, in my head, “over 500 words wrap it up.” I smell the drop of Orris on my wrist, I can see her smile. Goodbye Gaia.

Mark Behnke

Do You Want To Build A Perfume?

There have been several recent perfume vloggers moving from talking about perfume to making perfume. It is an interesting thing to watch as people so love perfume they want to participate beyond commentary. I think all the recent efforts have done things properly. Acting as creative director and not perfumer. They’ve all hired professional perfumers to collaborate with.

It is also a rewarding effort when your fragrance ideas connect with an audience. I know that Barbara Herman went from writing about vintage perfume on her blog to producing a fabulous collection which represents much of what she wrote about. Arielle Weinberg has also moved from her blog to shop owner to creative director. Her perfumes are recognizably extensions of her writing and experience behind the cash register. There are other success stories which point out that it isn’t a ridiculous idea.

While I look on in admiration for those who make this leap; I don’t want to do it. I feel a bit like Elsa in “Frozen” with people asking outside my closed door, “Do You Want to Build A Perfume?” It is an easy answer to say no.

The first reason is I don’t have a fantastic idea for a perfume. There isn’t something lacking in the fragrance world which I believe I have some unique perspective on. It is something I think is common to those who do take this step. They have something they want to express through fragrance based on their experience as a consumer/commentator. I once told a dear friend when asked about creating something, “I think I just want to sit and sniff.”

That’s the other big reason. I think if I tried to make a perfume, I would lose some of my enthusiasm for writing about it. Sitting at my computer sharing what I think I know about perfume gives me a great deal of joy; even after ten years of doing it. I always go to sleep at night with a sense of satisfaction that I have written a new post. I still find that every new perfume I receive adds more to my experience. I would hate to start looking at other perfumes as competition for my creations.

Which means when the world sings to me, “Do You Want To Build A Perfume?” I sit contentedly at my keyboard and reply, “No.”

Mark Behnke

What Comes Next at Amouage?

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For those of us who love perfume there was a significant bit of news earlier this month; Christopher Chong was leaving his post as Creative Director at Amouage. Over this past decade of top tier perfumery Amouage was right at the top of the list because of the artistic direction of Mr. Chong. His vision also helped to establish the ultra-luxe perfume sector. Amouage was worth the extra expense because there was extra effort going into making the perfumes. I’ve always thought Amouage was perfume made for those who really want to find artistry within smelling good. I will have more to say about Mr. Chong when I review his last (?) duo of perfumes for Amouage next week. What this column is about is what comes next at Amouage.

As of the end of June 2019 there has been no official announcement of a replacement for Mr. Chong at Amouage. We talk about the difficulty of replacing in-house perfumers but there are only a few brands where the vision was so strongly communicated from the creative director as at Amouage. Whomever would be asked to step into this post would find it very challenging to follow the decade of perfume Mr. Chong oversaw. Which means we might not see a replacement at all. Maybe Amouage stays with the collection they have and continue on. I think that would be fine.

My concern comes from another well-known ultra-luxe brand which went the cynical route; Clive Christian. For those who don’t know Clive Christian was purchased by EME Investments in 2016. They then proceeded to flood the market with new Clive Christian releases at the same price point. They dumped a torrent of mediocre to poor product with tenuous connections to the previous perfumes under the old regime. It killed everything Clive Christian represented as a brand. It would be a crime if the same thing happened to Amouage. If we had inflicted upon us Jubilation XXV Intense or Opus V Legere. It would do what happened to Clive Christian and destroy what Amouage stands for.

I have no special insight to know anything about the decisions made at Amouage. Which means everything above is pure speculation. What has me worried most is when a true artist leaves without any mention of what comes next. That’s where we are right now. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will hear what Amouage plans to do.

Mark Behnke

Am I An Influencer?

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For all that I miss not attending Esxence this year for once I was okay with it. Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones took priority over perfume in the Colognoisseur home office. That didn’t mean I wasn’t aware of what was happening in Milan. When I am not able to be there, I have a lively conversation over the internet with those who are. The previous times this has happened the back and forth has been entirely about perfume. This year it changed. Based on some of the other reports and videos coming out a week later this was something which seemed to show up largely, for the first time, this year; “the influencer”.

For those unfamiliar with the term an influencer is a person who does videos and/or writes on a subject in such a way that their audience is energized to seek out the product being featured. In the larger worlds of fashion, video games, cooking, and motherhood there are acknowledged people who have an effect on their audiences. Which of course means brands seek these people out because they have proven themselves. It is where the term was coined as brands called them influencers. What has happened more recently is anyone who posts a video or writes a blog post calls themselves an “influencer”. They are probably not. This year at Esxence the behavior of some of the self-named “influencers” was horrendous bordering on unethical.

Because I Say So!

I heard of many of them only agreeing to meet with brands if they would give them a full bottle. This was the least of it. One brand had a price list shoved in their face over what they would get for what they were charged. As I was reading texts the whole exercise seemed like a giant scavenger hunt to see who could score the most free stuff. That impression has only been reinforced by early videos highlighting just how much perfume they came home with. I will note that in a couple of the videos there isn’t even a mention about the perfume just the glee at having scored a full bottle.

When the brands asked me what to do, I told them to make them prove their audience listened to them. Tell any of them as a start to ask their audience to e-mail the brand and they would receive a sample. If that showed the brand there was a level of support, they could discuss where to move from there. When the price list “influencer” was given this as a proposal they walked away. That is the crux of the problem very few of the self-named influencers know if they have any impact at all. They assume it but they have never measured it.

I have never measured any supposed influence I have because I don’t care. I write about perfume because it is fun. I have an audience of readers who share that with me. I have never asked a brand for a full bottle of anything. I only request samples because that is enough for my needs. I have received bottles because there are brands who are that generous. As a reader you know when that happens because everything I have ever written has a Disclosure line above my signature at the end where I mention the size and source of the perfume I am writing about.

This does not mean that there are not people in the perfume world who I don’t think are influencers. In general those aren’t the people who have to tell you they are. Those are the people who have proven over time through their actions that they are. The fragosphere is better for their participation. If you have to tell someone you’re an influencer you’re probably not.

I am on the flip side of that I am not an influencer and happy to be just a writer about perfume.

Mark Behnke

Experience not Expertise

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I’m not sure what has changed recently but since the first of the year I have been getting sent proposals to take on perfume jobs I don't feel qualified to do. The first line always has some variation in which they call me an “expert”. When it comes to that word there is only one area in which I consider myself an expert; the organic chemistry of drug discovery. I was trained to do it. I’ve spent my life doing it. I’ve been pretty good at it. Someone calls me an expert at that I thank them for the compliment. When I’m called that in relation to perfume, I try and correct the terminology. I have always considered myself an experienced enthusiast.

To my mind it means I have had no formal training. It means anything I think I know about perfume has come from personal experience. It means I am only as insightful as the extent of that.

I started writing about perfume as a member of the forums at Basenotes. Somewhere along the line I started writing a paragraph or two on my impressions on the Scent of the Day I was wearing. That started right around ten years ago give or take a few months. I enjoyed giving my opinion and expected I would stay there for years. Then as I became a writer for Fragrantica, followed by the managing editor at CaFleureBon, and then starting Colognoisseur; things changed slightly. The feeling of being an ambassador for the things I think are wonderful about fragrance is what makes me sit down and write every day.

You’ll notice nowhere in that timeline is I went to a perfume school. Nowhere in there is I attended a perfume class. I have received none of the training I believe to be an important part of being an expert.

What I have replaced it with is the amazing opportunities I have had to meet the people who make perfume. I have been given so many chances to ask questions. The answers lead me to new questions and different thoughts about perfume.

When people find out I write about perfume they can’t imagine there is enough to write about. I always think there are too many things I want to write about. The whole reason I started adding a couple paragraphs to my Scent of the Day is I wanted to share my enthusiasm for the perfume I was wearing. That has evolved into what I try to do at Colognoisseur every day. Share with my readers the things I think are cool about cologne. Just don’t call me an expert.

Mark Behnke

Why I Don’t Layer

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There is a popular activity among perfume lovers I don’t participate in. There are whole perfume brands built around this activity. I ignore it. The activity I am writing about is layering. The name is self-evident. The concept is to combine a couple of favorite perfumes spraying one on top of the other. I know it is popular because I have received many queries on whether I have layered this perfume with that one. The first sentence tells you my response.

I don’t do it because I think it is some ridiculous idea. I can see the fun in finding a new experience through layering. The first I remember seeing it was when I was visiting the new Jo Malone section at Saks over a decade ago. They still sell layering kits where they combine three of their perfumes they think go together. Whenever I receive a press release for a new perfume there are layering suggestions in the last paragraph. On that day I was first asked to layer things by trying some different combinations suggested by the sales associates; I found it annoying. What all the different attempts on my forearms felt like to me was a layer of static over the perfume I really wanted to smell.

Image from Scent Compass

Like anything I kept trying for a few years after that to find a pair of perfumes which I enjoyed more together than apart. It always felt like one interfered with my enjoyment of the other. I generally scrubbed off the layers and then sprayed the one which I was enjoying more free of static.

It wasn’t true when I started my brief layering experiment; but the result provided a new perspective. My feeling over time has become more confidently assured about the thesis that the best perfume is an art form. The way that impacts my hesitancy to layer now is why should I try and alter the creative team’s vision. I enjoy wearing a perfumer’s efforts without interference. I rarely think while wearing a new release that there is another perfume on the shelf that will make it better.

Perfume is such a personal experience my aversion to layering shouldn’t impact anyone else’s enjoyment. I just wanted to give a fuller explanation to any future question on whether I’ve layered this with that. My answer will be shorter than the preceding paragraphs, “No.”

Mark Behnke

The Name Is The Same But The Perfume Is Not

William Shakespeare’s Juliet asks, “What’s in a name?” Large perfume companies seem to disagree with the remainder of her line, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That’s because they keep insisting on using the same name for a new perfume which has nothing to do with a perfume which has the same name from an earlier time.

If you need an example of what that does to consumers go read the comments on my review for the new Tiffany & Co. perfume. There is one after the other about how disappointed consumers are that this new perfume smells nothing like the previous Tiffany & Co. perfume. They are correct. In the review I pointed out that it was seemingly designed for a completely different perfume lover. The impassioned comments bear that out as the previous fans share their disappointment. Granted Tiffany is not a major perfume brand but the display of annoyance I think is one that goes underreported. What I worry about is the perfume consumer who only has a couple of perfumes on their table becomes a not consumer because of this.

I mentioned this again in the recent review of Givenchy L’Interdit where the choice was to do something completely different from the original perfume. The original was designed for Hubert de Givenchy’s muse, Audrey Hepburn. I couldn’t find a shred of Ms. Hepburn in this new version. I liked it, but it isn’t the L’Interdit I have a bottle of. The cynic inside tells me that the typical perfume consumer has no knowledge of historical perfumes. Which means only a tiny percentage of fragrance wonks like me care.

The biggest evidence of this is the use of the name Joy by Dior for their new mainstream release. They were able to do it because they bought the brand which previously used the name, Jean Patou. Seemingly solely so they could do this. The sad part is this is the case which compares a masterpiece of the past to something less so. Dior of course is the brand which in 2011 did one of the most inexplicable name changes as they changed the name of Miss Dior Cherie to just Miss Dior. The perfume named Miss Dior Original was the old Miss Dior. Miss Dior Cherie disappeared completely. Follow that? I continue to receive e-mail where I straighten this out for those who have finished a bottle of Miss Dior Cherie and can’t find it. I wonder if the sales associates know this? Or does a consumer walk away disappointed?

The bottom line is the large perfume companies have decided the name and brand loyalty mean little to them. They are more interested in providing new product even when wrapped in old names. Alas fair Juliet I don’t think these impersonal companies see perfume as poetry; just product.

Mark Behnke