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Olfactory Dissonance, Between Discourse and Reality

Published January 22, 2023
Published January 22, 2023
Wikimedia: Redemption, Julius L. Stewart, 1905, huile sur toile, La Piscine, musée d’art et d’industrie, Roubaix

Endless fields of Grasse roses, eco-responsible patchouli and a few drops of the loveliest organic lavender: it appears that mainstream brands fill their bottles exclusively with extracts that are ever more sustainable, ethical and mindful. All the while making sure their precious perfumes will be the year’s bestsellers, available in several dozen versions since there’s the small matter of profitability. What if mainstream perfumery tried a different approach to talking about its creations?

Last spring, the national and regional specialist and general-interest press as well as, of course, the full panoply of social media seemed to be drowning in a tsunami of roses: a major brand inaugurated a sumptuous estate in Grasse, dedicated to growing the queen of flowers, and invited a host of journalists and influencers on a press trip to discover this new “ecological site” whose acquisition was presented as “a vertical integration strategy for perfume plant cultivation to promote sustainable and responsible innovation based on its core ingredient.” 

Avalanche of Roses

Of course, it is perfectly commendable that a company belonging to a large group supports the cultivation of perfume plants and wants to protect certain endangered plant species, and it is perfectly reasonable that it wants to talk about it. But the feeling that came over me when faced with this avalanche of roses invading our screens was that it was almost tempting to end up believing that perfumery was just that: flowers in the fields of Grasse and petals in hessian bags. Let’s not forget the subtle appearance of a hundredth flanker of the aforementioned brand’s worldwide bestseller for women, an extract incorporating in its formula a quantity – which is of course never specified – of “organic centifolia roses harvested in Grasse” teamed with “precious orris flowers [sic]” as well as “bergamot, pink pepper, a green herbal accord, jasmine, patchouli, a gourmand accord and woody ambers.”

There we have it. Today, when we talk about a perfume (especially, to be clear, one that has to sell in large numbers), it’s all about clichéd images of estates sitting in the middle of the fields. But to sell the bottles, it’s all about gourmand accords and woody ambers. What we have is cognitive and olfactory dissonance: with a few rare exceptions, everyone is led to believe – as a result of widespread misinformation on the part of the brands and a sad lack of olfactory culture – that perfume bottles contain nature and nature alone, in its cleanest and most sustainable form. Nevertheless, brands still ensure maximum enjoyment during the sniff test thanks to synthesis which, although rarely highlighted, has become essential to creating these oh-so-profitable blockbusters. The gourmand accord that sends the results of consumer tests soaring and the powerful woody ambers base notes that ensure “my perfume lasts and the sillage is awesome” depend on that self-same synthesis. Even though it is often absent from brand messaging, synthesis undoubtedly contributes more to sustainable and clean perfumery than the obscene amounts of money spent on showcasing a Grasse estate dedicated to the rose – but that’s another discussion, albeit a far from trivial one.

By putting the spotlight on an exceedingly minor part of perfumery (yes, rose growing in Grasse is marginal compared to global rose production, and even more so compared to everything on the market that smells like roses), we completely hide a very different reality: an ultra-calibrated perfumery, full of synthetic captives, sugary notes and woody ambers.

I’m obviously not talking about the more exclusive brands. By choosing to inject more resources into their formulas rather than their communications and freeing themselves from the obligation of success, they can use natural materials in a more intelligent and perceptible way. Fortunately such brands exist, but unfortunately, they are still few and far between.

Over and Over Again

Most of the press kits sent to journalists today talk about one thing only: naturalness, the most noble and precious materials, often citing the same ones over and over again in an attempt at conveying novelty, in an endless litany that fails to actually describe the perfume. You are often still hungry after reading these lists of ingredients, however appetizing they seem, when you discover that they have usually been diluted to the nth degree in enticing accords that do not really pay tribute to nature. Imagine the rarest of white truffles sprinkled over a new recipe for fast-food fries, soaked in oil and drowning in salt?

Take, for example, an Italian brand that is “rewriting” its great classic men’s fragrance by promising to shake up “outdated archetypes of masculinity”, “highlight self-expression and the importance of authentic relationships”, while assuring us, of course, of “its commitment to sustainable development”, all this obviously with the help of the “loveliest” ingredients that are also “precious” and “fine”. Also featuring are the inevitable bergamot from Calabria, clary sage from Provence, resinoid orris from Morocco, cedarwood from Virginia and tonka bean from Brazil for a perfume that is as striking as it is refined (everything is, of course, capitalized, as if that gave it an extra touch of nobility, and the carbon impact of all these exotic ingredients is, of course, never mentioned). Ask any seasoned perfumer what a blend of these ingredients alone would smell like, regardless of the proportions: at best, it would produce a nice soothing aromatherapy spray.

One congenitally anosmic woman (who has never been able to smell anything in her life) recently noted that when she read an olfactory pyramid, she had no idea what the fragrance would smell like. The information totally lacks any association with other senses or sensations, despite the fact that, thanks to synaesthesia, such a connection would make it easier to work out what a smell is like (and not only for anosmics!) than a list of plants.

Another variation of a classic from a major house is “a gorgeous essence of organically grown Italian mandarin,” and a “subtle marriage of rose essence and rose absolute” chosen by the perfumer, as though the presence of these lines in the formula would change everything.

Yes, naturals are wonderful, they bring an unequalled richness and thickness to a formula; far be it from me to say otherwise. And yes, we can’t stress it enough, composition houses are ramping up their efforts and resources to be able to offer their perfumers the very best qualities, produced in the most virtuous conditions possible. It is even possible to compose sublime perfumes with naturals alone when you know how to do it. But leading people to believe that their mere presence is enough to achieve a supposedly superior quality is nothing more than a sham. It needs saying over and over again: a superb perfume is undeniably the product of superb ingredients, but it is also and above all the fruit of the talent of one or more experienced and gifted perfumers, driven by an idea, a desire, a story, a vision. If, as they are unfortunately often expected to do, they limit their vision to winning the consumer test in the final of the core list, they never get very far. You go round in circles, between your little gourmand accord, your stimulating woody base, your lavender from Provence and a few ppm of the loveliest Grasse rose, you look like all the rest, and you produce a perfume with extremely limited appeal, except perhaps for those who are proud of its great sales numbers, and then, a little later, of the awards that will confirm its success. Is this why brands don’t want to educate their consumers, preferring to leave them bathing in ignorance so they’ll go for the impulse buy, with no time to think properly, pulled in by the first blotter that is put under their nose?

It’s as if perfumery were a kind of luxury cooking recipe: you just have to select the finest, most exotic and photogenic materials in the world, toss them together and there you go, you’ve got yourself a fragrance guaranteed to be “as striking as it is refined”. But even in gastronomy, it is less stereotypical: imagine if, to evoke the work of a leading pastry chef in an article, instead of addressing the creative, artistic and sensory dimensions of their work, we were only shown fields of wheat or beetroot and mountains of flour sacks! The reality of the creative process is so far removed from this simplistic vision that it would almost be funny if it hadn’t become the norm.

The Building Blocks of the Perfume

If you get the opportunity (far from easy) to examine a formula, see for example, the formula of Cartier’s L’Heure perdue in our article on its development (in French) you will notice that most of the ingredients indicated are totally unknown to you or do not seem to be detectable in olfactory terms, even for 100% natural compositions. This is because what we see are primarily the building blocks of the perfume, the components that give it its shape, its structure, and that, once combined, create the recognizable accords. Whereas the advertised ingredients are often present in remarkably small quantities, if at all. Formulas always surprise the non-perfumer, because they are the opposite of the olfactory pyramid, which is used for commercial purposes to simplify the main notes, the ones that are more or less perceptible but easy to understand.
Another analogy is if, when describing the materials that make up a house, we only talked about the marble of the fireplace, the oak of the floorboards and the pistachio paint in the child’s bedroom, totally neglecting to mention the bricks, breeze blocks, framework, electrical cables and piping that actually form the house. Without them, it would fall down. It simply wouldn’t exist.

Would disclosing fragrance formulas help make perfumery more ethical? Some niche brands (J.U.S, Éditions M.R., Homesick, Bastille) are trying it out, for the sake of transparency, but the practice remains marginal and sometimes a little convoluted.

Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel (whose interview will be published on November 2nd) recently called for the donation and publication of formulas, which are traditionally kept in the greatest secrecy by perfume houses to protect their creations from plagiarism. He argues that these formulas can be obtained for the most part via the results of GC (gas chromatography, a technique for analysing the contents of a bottle) and are now easily available for a fee. He feels that, since GCs are not the property of the composition houses, the public should have access to them to see how it all works and get a different story from brand statements. This would also indirectly serve to better promote farmers and chemists. The perfumer also actively advocates a legal obligation for brands to mention the dosage of natural raw materials they claim are part of their compositions. Certainly, some ingredients are very powerful and do not need to be used in high doses, but when you boast about ensuring a sufficient income for farmers, you have to use much more than a few ppm. And prove it.

Unique Beauty

Until all this hopefully takes shape one day, how can the industry manage to change the dissonance that takes us away from the essence of perfume and reveal what makes it truly beautiful?

How can we continue to highlight the real virtuous practices adopted upstream in the cultivation, production and transformation of perfume plants, but also in the immense progress made in synthesis, the innovations that allow for improved production, less pollution and better rewards for all the links in the chain, while celebrating the audacity, virtuosity and talent of a creator? By focusing more on their capacity to surprise us, to seduce us, to make us feel moved, sometimes to unsettle us, on the pleasure of wearing and smelling perfumes with a unique beauty, on ourselves or on others, by cherishing them in all their diversity and their different personalities, as they summon up memories and feelings from the distant past which nevertheless come flooding back as if by magic and which make us happy. Because that’s where a perfume’s beauty lies: in the emotion it can give us. Everything else is just padding when we have nothing else to say. Paradoxically, advertisements are constantly trying to showcase this emotion, but it is always reduced to a caricature of seduction and desire disconnected from the perfume itself. 

After the battle for a more sustainable and environmentally friendly perfumery, let’s bet that the next big challenge could be about improving communication, making it more transparent, fair and honest. A change that could only be beneficial for the industry.

This article first appeared on the Nez magazine website and was republished on BeautyMatter with the author’s permission.


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