Understanding Fragrance (2) {The Readers Talk Back}

jasmine-garland.jpg© Panpote, Licensed to TSS

So, I wanted to prune a bit the trees of ideas first by bringing to the front what had already been said on the blog about the question of what it is to understand fragrance and the limits of this movement as I had expressed ideas with readers in a thread but felt it was not the best place for them to be showcased. For the first installment, see Understanding Fragrance (1).

I concluded a post on Are Perfumistas Spoilt Brats? by raising the aesthetic, moral and practical issue of "opening up to fragrance." It seems to me a necessary first step which is the attitude of the cultivated instead of the response of the instinctive person: everyone can continue to use their olfactory sense to reject - bad, foreign, different, strange, hard-to-place, and what not scents. It's what it was made for...

We don't want to do that if we are to appreciate fragrance in ways other than through the closed circuit of stilted autobiography, narrow self-referentiality and possibly neuroses. If there is something that perfume can do for you is open up your world and broaden your horizons, not just bring you back to the past and to the affective in you. So, I try to be careful personally not to shut myself up in an ivory tower with a library full of perfumes meant to represent my taste. I consider my taste to be as neutral as possible and welcoming. Maybe I have no taste. I try to be unprejudiced but there are certainly fragrance that are more difficult for me to appreciate in a harmonious fashion. I could probably at this point come up with a top ten of my hard-to-crack fragrances because there are not too many of them.

I said in the past that there is an unsuspected reservoir of freedom of thought in perfume because it is mostly outside the general curriculum of a national education so that you can be a happy savage, a Candide discovering scents in a first-hand manner. It is an opportunity we can embrace. 

How to smell well can truly constitute an art - like a tea ceremony is, albeit ideally for me it would be a less coded and ritualized activity.

It is one of the most delicate and taxing activities I know of. It is not always easy to reach a fine balance between aesthetic contemplation and detachment and appreciation.

A perfumer, Jacques Polge of Chanel, says that you need to be happy to smell perfume (well). I am afraid that it this might be an all too judicious comment. But because we can suspect this, we can still, hopefully, raise ourselves above the monotonous, monochord rant-and-rave level of mood criticism (critique d'humeur.)

Next, the readers and I exchange.

From the archives:

Diana WR:

"When I first started writing reviews, I wrote a few truly harsh ones. But the more I sniffed, the more I realized that (a) my attitudes about a scent could change b/c of season/temperature/body chemistry shifts/etc., and (b) even if it wasn't for me, someone else probably loved it. I write very few complete pans now (though I still write a few) because I just can't bring myself to be hateful about something that might be really beautiful on or for someone else. Plus, after I tried one scent that smelled so much like my grandfather (long since passed) that I broke down in tears, I realized that other scents would do that for other people and I could be a little gentler with my poison pen. So yes, I agree. A foreign bathroom test is a good one."


"Interesting Diana, for me it's the reverse. I tended to be more understanding when I started writing reviews but overtime, the industry's knack for releasing copycats got on my nerves. That's when I let out a few times some less-than-understanding reviews. But then, I also realize it's not fair to the person who is not interested in a systematic overview of the perfume world. So keeping in mind the person who enters a boutique and wants to pick a good perfume and trying to be in her or his shoes helps me temper my biases as a perfume writer.

But you raise a core issue for people who are interested in that: is perfume criticism possible? I've been thinking about that lately. The short of it for me is I think yes as a genre of literary writing. Does it have any relationship of truth to perfume, that's more complicated. What I remain convinced of however when perfume writing is intellectually honest and not political or plain sloppy, is that it can reflect a sincere attempt to elucidate the perfume(s) you are writing about. But maybe that's ultimately an illusion."


"Hi Marie-Helene! Great post! I was thinking about this myself the other day - wondering if becoming more and more critical has actually damaged my ability to appreciate a fragrance for what it is. A sort of snobbism starts to emerge without even realizing it...especially with reformulations that just don't live up to former iterations. It's maddening, really. Why don't they just discontinue a fragrance if they don't have the budget or materials to do it right? Why mangle it?

OK, that was sort of a segway, but the more we perfumistas "smell" the more we're able to identify cheap, offensive-smelling ingredients. Does that taint and damage our appreciation? Somewhat. We're educated in the area, and won't settle for hype. I'm personally proud to be in this category, because I really enjoy the adventure of sniffing new fragrances and looking for stellar formulations. It's fun! At the same time, though, it can be a bit burdensome!

Thank you for hitting the reset button and reminding us that's it's all an art form - even the cheap drugstore scents can be appreciated for what they are. I love everything about perfume, and don't want to forget that. I really do wish, though, that the market would take their chunks of $ and focus more on developing a minimal number of quality scents made with quality ingredients instead of saturating the market with release after release of thinner scents with cheaper ingredients, thinking that change and "new" is where it's at..."


"Hi Karen,

Glad you liked the post. You evoke many interesting points. One I would like to answer right away here because I have some data about it and it's kind of a shocker is that I realized while doing some research about it that some mass-marketed perfumes cost the same price per liter as the Chanel Les Exclusifs!!! So, drugstore does not necessarily mean bad quality.

I just wanted to go back to the innocence of an approach where you discover a perfume outside of schools of aesthetics, issues with "borrowings", edginess etc and then just between you and the perfume something positive happens. It would be the difference between eating a good bread and a bread that shows research. It's already hard to make an all-around good bread, honestly (there are hoards of ok breads)."

Stay tuned for more on what it is to understand, appreciate and critique fragrance.

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2 Comments | Leave a comment

  1. Hi Marie,

    This article series is helpful for someone, like me, that after a long experience in trying and understanding scents decided to write a blog about perfume criticism. And these days, when I was considering starting this hobbie (since it`ll not be something as deep as yours, I consider more like a hobbie) is the differences about what we feel on a scent on a strip, on your skin and in someone else. It seems really hard to harsh or to be bad about a fragrance, exactly because even a copycat one can, for strange reasons, be incredible on someone`s skin. I`m trying to capture what the scent says to me after trying it, but without judging too much, since a perception of a fragrance is really like a filter that functions according your skin, the notes that you understand better, the previous scents that you`ve tried, your fondness for that specific brand. I see that what difficult most this task is the fact that you cannot hardly split the fragrance perception of the emotions that it cause.
    Congratulations, since you`ve been doing a great and deep job and your blog is a special and instructive reading because of this.

    Henrique B.

    • Henrique,

      This is perhaps why the blog medium is particularly appropriate for capturing the essences and nuances of perfume: it constantly moves, changes, shifts, follows the course of life, the hours in a day. The supple blog medium allows you to reflect those nuances which are so inherent to perfume.

      Chant Wagner

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