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Smelly Masterpieces (Sanchez/Turin Review)

dopey

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Smelly masterpieces
Why is great perfume not taken more seriously?

From the Times Literary Supplement
plucked from the middle
. . . One reason why truly great smells are so often undervalued is that they are today made and distributed under the not particularly watchful gaze of a few large corporations. The cynical bean-counters in Paris and Zurich do not hesitate to tamper with old formulas, insisting on the substitution of cheap chemical compounds that approximately resemble rarer, better ingredients in an effort to reduce the dizzying cost and increase profits. They do not tell their customers when or how they do this, indeed they presume we won't notice the difference, so fine perfume is now hopelessly entangled with the international cosmetic dollar, and ill-served by marketing and public relations. It is also manacled to crude presumptions about what is acceptably feminine or credibly masculine.

Just as the world is awash with terrible art, the fragrance counters are unhappily cluttered with rubbish. How do we tell the difference between something as pitiful as Heiress by Paris Hilton ("cheap shampoo and canned peaches"), or any number of shallow, bubble-gummy imitations of something that is really good, and the genuine article, much less a work of genius? Fortunately in this case we have the forthright opinions of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez to assist us. Sanchez is a journalist and perfume collector. Turin is a biophysicist, who believes that there is a general misunderstanding as to how molecules suspended in the air act on the receptors which stimulate the nerve endings in our noses, in other words how we smell what we do. It is a controversial theory that calls into question the long-standing idea that it is essentially the shape of those molecules that enables the brain to form and recognize the concepts of fishy, musty, peppery or orange-blossomy. His claim, based on the fact that certain molecules of identical shape evidently produce quite different smell sensations, is that our noses are equipped with the ability to register the frequency of their molecular vibrations instead. Whether you agree with him or not, it is profoundly reassuring that, like a good conservator of paintings, Turin's judgements of taste are informed by scientific knowledge. . .
 

Thomas

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Dopey,

There are a number of reasons why perfume's not taken seriously as an artform, but the most compelling one (and was distinguishes it from haute cuisine) - is the willingness of a perfume house (see: Caron) to paint moustaches on their Mona Lisa. Over and over and over again.

Caron in particular has gutted a number of perfumes and continued to market them under the same names (Tabac Blond, Yatagan, En Avion, etc) which dis-respects their own work and makes it strictly commercial product.

True story - a friend of mine found a vintage bottle of Je Reviens in a Paris flea market and it quickly became her favorite perfume. She had no idea it was ever that good. You can buy Je Reviens today, but the formula has been cheapened and watered down to the point of being unrecognizable compared to the '50's version - so what's the point?
 

Baron

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^^^ I don't think it's that simple. The same is true of film/television and the culture at large has no problem recognizing the artists in those fields. I think Turin is on to something when he repeatedly points to misconceptions in the way we smell things. There is the larger sense that smell is completely subjective - as if we all smelled things differently. That's not true, of course, or one wouldn't be able to create a perfume that appealled to more than one nose, but the perception has kept people from more seriously addressing the subject. I think Turin's writing has gone a long way toward changing those ideas. There's a recent TED Talks video here of Turin discussing his ideas about smell. It's short and worth a watch.
 

rach2jlc

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Originally Posted by Baron
^^^ I don't think it's that simple. The same is true of film/television and the culture at large has no problem recognizing the artists in those fields. I think Turin is on to something when he repeatedly points to misconceptions in the way we smell things. There is the larger sense that smell is completely subjective - as if we all smelled things differently. That's not true, of course, or one wouldn't be able to create a perfume that appealled to more than one nose, but the perception has kept people from more seriously addressing the subject. I think Turin's writing has gone a long way toward changing those ideas. There's a recent TED Talks video here of Turin discussing his ideas about smell. It's short and worth a watch.
Good post and I agree. Smell is, perhaps, the most "complicated" sense and difficult to discuss/elaborate because while it isn't really completely "subjective" (as you mention), instead the way in which it is relayed/discussed/"felt" is tied into so many other senses and especially with memory/background that it really changes what otherwise our nose "knows." Further, it is so ephemeral that it is almost impossible to discuss; you can say what something "looks" like given a set of comparable references... but smells tend to be relational in description... it "reminds me" of or "is like" some other smell that, in itself, is ephemeral and not completely agreed upon. Prejudices and ephemeral bias play such a part in smell, even more than sound or sight or anything else (I think). How a scent "reminds" you of a situation, good or bad, plays into how much you seem to "enjoy" a scent, even if it really doesn't. Likewise, your images/ideas/memories of a scent company or its background do as well. The attempt to get a similar set of "identifiers" with scent is a great contribution of Turin; hitherto it's all been so "touchy feely" for the vast majority that seeing a more scientific approach or a more rigorous approach to the discussion of scent is a very good step in the right direction. BUT, again as I discussed on another thread, I've not read Turin's work in a long time or as closely as I should. I intend to remedy that over the Christmas Holiday.
 

Thomas

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Originally Posted by Baron
^^^
I don't think it's that simple. The same is true of film/television and the culture at large has no problem recognizing the artists in those fields.

I think Turin is on to something when he repeatedly points to misconceptions in the way we smell things. There is the larger sense that smell is completely subjective - as if we all smelled things differently. That's not true, of course, or one wouldn't be able to create a perfume that appealled to more than one nose, but the perception has kept people from more seriously addressing the subject. I think Turin's writing has gone a long way toward changing those ideas.

There's a recent TED Talks video here of Turin discussing his ideas about smell. It's short and worth a watch.


Baron,

If your point relates to the evolution of art and how yesterday's Orson Welles is now today's Wes Anderson, I agree with you wholeheartedly. We take what's available and from those we say: These are good, those are not.

But at the same time, the classic works have remained the classic works - No one's chopped out the character development of Citizen Kane and then started shipping out the revised DVDs with no notice at all. But that is what happens all the time with the classic scents, and soon enough the classic masterpiece is not to be had at any price but here's the watered down one - almost as good (Or in Guerlain's Vetiver - "Same formula as always", which anyone with one working eye could confidently dispute).

BTW - love the Turin talk.
 

RJmanbearpig

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When there are bespoke perfume services charging up to 60,000 euros (at Cartier) to invent a perfume for you, it appears someone is taking them seriously.

I thought this title alluded to something a poster created this morning...
 

rach2jlc

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Originally Posted by RJmanbearpig
When there are bespoke perfume services charging up to 60,000 euros (at Cartier) to invent a perfume for you, it appears someone is taking them seriously. I thought this title alluded to something a poster created this morning...
Yeah, all the "big houses" do bespoke services... I can't remember and I'm sure the prices have gone way up in the past few years, but I think Creed and Guerlain were/are in the $30K bracket? Montale does one, too, IIRC, including giving you higher concentrations of various oils on request at his boutique in Paris for the regular line ones (especially the Aouds). I never understood Cartier's bespoke perfume service... they're a jeweler with a perfume wing... why would somebody want to go to them for perfume? Guerlain, sure. Creed, sure. But, I mean, hell, you might as well go to Gucci or Prada for bespoke perfume, haha. Cartier seemed to me the most egregious example of "conspicuous parfum consumption for brand whores." Pecksniffs and Villoresi offer more reasonable bespoke services; each one does a one-day sort of meeting/mixture for less than $1000, IIRC. But, again, when I was glancing at that was several years ago and no doubt the prices have probably gone way up. I'm sure that they could also do more "exclusive" long-term projects that would take them weeks/months to create. Nevertheless, I find the whole bespoke parfume option to be a total cop-out for lazy billionaires with nothing better to do. Unless you hold exclusive rights to a particular note, it's almost guaranteed your "custom fragrance" is going to smell like something else out there available at 1/10000 the price. Further, it took hundreds of tries and years for some of the best fragrances to come about by "noses" struggling over the right concentrations/mixtures. Like the blend they put together in a week is going to match their "classics." Still, though, if I were insanely wealthy, I'd love to have them mix me something up. I think pure civet, rose blossoms, Agarwood, and some neroli on the top would be great. Like shit wrapped in a Sultan's turban and squeezed with oranges.
 

Thomas

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Originally Posted by RJmanbearpig
When there are bespoke perfume services charging up to 60,000 euros (at Cartier) to invent a perfume for you, it appears someone is taking them seriously.

I thought this title alluded to something a poster created this morning...


Mathilde Laurent has made a few masterpieces (SHE should be running Guerlain BTW, but I digress) but I don't see how anyone serious about perfume would consider paying 60k Euro for their own formula. Although one could easily drop 60K in Paris on scents - between Guerlain, Chanel, Patou, Serge Lutens, JAR, yeah. Easily.
 

A Y

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Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent has a good lay explanation of Turin's smell theory, and is a good read, too. The book is pretty revealing of how political games are played in academia and the scientific community, too. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was how most smell researchers actually use their own sense of smell (I won't spoil the surprise here).

Rach mentions the subjectivity of smell making it difficult to be serious about smell. Like other senses, it's conceptually straightforward to place our sensory responses in a quantitative, predictable framework. What you're essentially looking for is stimulating the same kind of response from the subject: it doesn't matter if you think of a different thing than I do when we smell Chanel No. 5. What's important is finding the right stimulus (ie. the smell) that consistently brings up that memory for you.

What's conceptually simple can be difficult in practice as you have to ensure that the only thing influencing your response is the smell itself. Things like your mood, the weather, etc. can be pretty big influencing factors. Another huge factor is the training of the subject --- someone whose nose is as well-trained as Turin's would obviously be much more valuable in experiments like this than a random person off the street.

As for perfume being art, I think that begs the same kinds of question as music or any other form of art. Is there an innate response to certain forms or compositions? Or is it a learned response? Not related to smell, but a fascinating book that tries to answer some of these questions for music is Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music.

--Andre
 

RJmanbearpig

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Originally Posted by A Y
Chandler Burr's The Emperor of Scent has a good lay explanation of Turin's smell theory, and is a good read, too. The book is pretty revealing of how political games are played in academia and the scientific community, too. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was how most smell researchers actually use their own sense of smell (I won't spoil the surprise here).

Rach mentions the subjectivity of smell making it difficult to be serious about smell. Like other senses, it's conceptually straightforward to place our sensory responses in a quantitative, predictable framework. What you're essentially looking for is stimulating the same kind of response from the subject: it doesn't matter if you think of a different thing than I do when we smell Chanel No. 5. What's important is finding the right stimulus (ie. the smell) that consistently brings up that memory for you.

What's conceptually simple can be difficult in practice as you have to ensure that the only thing influencing your response is the smell itself. Things like your mood, the weather, etc. can be pretty big influencing factors. Another huge factor is the training of the subject --- someone whose nose is as well-trained as Turin's would obviously be much more valuable in experiments like this than a random person off the street.

As for perfume being art, I think that begs the same kinds of question as music or any other form of art. Is there an innate response to certain forms or compositions? Or is it a learned response? Not related to smell, but a fascinating book that tries to answer some of these questions for music is Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain On Music.

--Andre

Can you recommend the best olfactophile sensor cable?
 

Thomas

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Originally Posted by rach2jlc

Still, though, if I were insanely wealthy, I'd love to have them mix me something up. I think pure civet, rose blossoms, Agarwood, and some neroli on the top would be great. Like shit wrapped in a Sultan's turban and squeezed with oranges.


Hell, you and I know a couple of guys who'd probably try their hand at it, just for giggles.

What I want to know is - how can I get my hands on some old nitro musks and beeswax absolute. Add in a little labdanum and hay absolute as well. And some sage. This could get complicated, now that I think it through a bit.
 

A Y

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Originally Posted by RJmanbearpig
Can you recommend the best olfactophile sensor cable?

They're forged from the hapless souls of analog-loving audiophiles.

--Andre
 

dopey

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Originally Posted by Thomas
Dopey,

There are a number of reasons why perfume's not taken seriously as an artform, but the most compelling one (and was distinguishes it from haute cuisine) - is the willingness of a perfume house (see: Caron) to paint moustaches on their Mona Lisa. Over and over and over again.

Caron in particular has gutted a number of perfumes and continued to market them under the same names (Tabac Blond, Yatagan, En Avion, etc) which dis-respects their own work and makes it strictly commercial product.

True story - a friend of mine found a vintage bottle of Je Reviens in a Paris flea market and it quickly became her favorite perfume. She had no idea it was ever that good. You can buy Je Reviens today, but the formula has been cheapened and watered down to the point of being unrecognizable compared to the '50's version - so what's the point?


I think what you described is a travesty, but has nothing to do with the preventing the recognition of perfume as an art form. If anything, it is a symptom. As you point out, it is harder to deface a recognized artwork.
Nonetheless, commerce is a powerful force and it happens all the time in architecture - one need only walk down a street like Fifth Avenue to see how beautiful buildings have been kneecapped with ground level plate glass retail displays chopped out of a beautiful and irreplaceable facade.
 

dopey

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Originally Posted by RJmanbearpig
When there are bespoke perfume services charging up to 60,000 euros (at Cartier) to invent a perfume for you, it appears someone is taking them seriously.

I thought this title alluded to something a poster created this morning...


I think this is idiotic, for a number of reasons. The principal ones being that developing a balanced, timeless perfume takes a lot of work and the development costs for something really good are likely far in excess of even the ridiculous prices being charged.

A great service, though, would be a personal shopper for perfume. Someone who would interview you, show you lots of different things and help you sample, understand and choose from among the many great commercial offerings. The amount of scents from which to choose is staggering, even for someone with an interest in the subject. There is a lot of value in having someone who has a great mental and actual library (like Thomas, Rach2jlc and others), help you find what you like.
 

Thomas

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Originally Posted by dopey
I think what you described is a travesty, but has nothing to do with the preventing the recognition of perfume as an art form. If anything, it is a symptom. As you point out, it is harder to deface a recognized artwork.
Nonetheless, commerce is a powerful force and it happens all the time in architecture - one need only walk down a street like Fifth Avenue to see how beautiful buildings have been kneecapped with ground level plate glass retail displays chopped out of a beautiful and irreplaceable facade.


I hadn't considered the defacement of classic architecture, but even when a building gets updated/facelifted/vandlized - there are still photos to show the classic beauty of the original design. Pretty well all the art forms can be preserved in their classic state - photos, music, paintings, architecture, theater, cinema, books - and generally there's a copy to be found somewhere so that others can experience the beauty of bygone times.

If I want to hear Beethoven, or read Hemingway, or watch the Godfather - it's always there to be found (although re: Beethoven only interpretations exist which muddies the analogy somewhat). But, try finding Coty Chypre in its original 1917 form. Or pre-war Mitsouko. Today's versions are nothing like the originals, and there are no copies to be found - Unless the Osmotheque starts admitting visitors to their refrigerated vaults.

Probably the best comparison lies with wine and their vintages and limited access to old bottles, but even then...variations abouond between years and the vintners at least mark their bottles appropriately to account for that. Whether that adds to or detracts from the idea of perfume as art...I can't really say.

I like perfume and think that at it's best it is art - easily on an emotional/intellectual level (for me) as painting and music. But the public perception takes a major beating every time some secretary hoses herself down with Angel or Giorgio before heading to work.
 

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