Reviewing the Reviewer
In my past week with no laptop I've done the unthinkable: I've read Perfumes: The Guide. The much anticipated book by the man who invented perfume reviewing and a few molecules and writer and blogger Tania Sanchez has one large-print statement on the back: "THE FIRST BOOK OF ITS KIND: A DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO THE WORLD OF PERFUME".
Now, that's ambitious.
If anything, it's definitely "definitive".
If it is a "guide" it is not exactly first of its kind though: there is Susan Irvine's The Perfume Guide, Jan Moran's Fabulous Fragrances for both Women and Men (in two separate volumes),
and Nigel Groom's Ultimate Guide to the World's Finest Fragrances, several books that are quite handy and informative by John Oakes, not to mention Michael Edward's Fragrances of the World 2001 (by now hardly current with over 600 yearly new releases of fragrances) and several online fragrance databases that are far more current and inclusive than any book could ever be.
Reading the book as I have made me question the concept of "perfume reviewing". When I joined several online fragrance communities in 2003 the whole notion of calling my perfume-evolution descriptions "reviews" was very foreign to me to say the least. But I learned how to live with that. And as an aside: contrary to common belief, joining these communities happened 2 years after I pursued my career in perfumery and opened my business and preceded my online “perfume addict” and “perfumista” days. I leverage my obsession with perfume and use it as a tool to study and better understand perfume and become a better perfumer. I sincerely believe that creating perfumes without passionately caring about wearing fragrances is a form of hypocrisy, that can be likened to being a criminal lawyer and never believing your client could win a case.
I learned so much through my interactions with perfume lovers around the world, the most important thing of all was realizing that when it comes to perfume - I can write and feel completely comfortable and confident about it, especially in my not-native language, English. And as I became aware of the concept of "perfume reviewing" and being a perfumer and a perfume user (or addict...) that likes to discuss perfume, I learned that this is a very dangerous thing to do: I walk a fine line between making and selling perfumes, while at the same time also being "one of the addicts", writing about perfume and "reviewing them". Probably the most undesired placement for a journalist. But I am not a journalist. I'm a perfumer who writes about perfumes, perfumery and what it all means to me as an individual. And when I write a review, I pick my words carefully. Sometimes I'm even surprised when I write something that to me seems kind of negative yet it comes across as a positive "review" of the perfume.
Now, what I do attempt to do in my so-called "reviews" is to describe the scent, its evolution, the notes and what I feel that it means to me. Sometimes I do it better than in others but I do try to be "subjectively objective" in the sense that I'm trying to describe something very personal (my own experience wearing a fragrance) and at the same time give you objective information, hopefully sufficient for you to be able to "smell it in your imagination" if you don't have it right under your nose.
I pick my words carefully and I also pick my perfumes carefully. I rarely write about a fragrance I really dislike or think is mediocre and boring. There are plenty other places online (and now also offline) where you can read about them. A fragrance either needs to be of personal importance to me in the way I've experienced it or the notes within it; or I think it has some kind of a meaning to the history, trends (oh, the horrors of pink chypres!) or culture of perfume (for example: 3121 by Prince is not a very interesting fragrance on it's own but I couldn't ignore it just because Prince was such a huge influence on my teenage years and I still love his music).
Since the innocent forum days of the early 200o's, lots of things have changed: there are now too many perfume blogs to even start counting, and even a few perfume-reviewing columns in a handful of magazines rating them like movies, supposedly contributing to the status of perfumery as an art (or food, or wine... whichever way you think is most flattering). Now, I was never fond of the idea of art reviewing. After all, the art reviewer is always that person that went to art school, and can appreciate and understand art just enough to come to the realization that they could never produce a masterpiece. So instead of making art they talk and write about it. And nothing could possibly insult an artist more than having someone trash their work to which they poured their heart and soul into, just because they are frustrated, unrealized artists.
Perfumery is weird that way. Up until recently (and even still), the perfumers are unknown to the public who enjoys their art. In fact, for the most part who gets the credit for the perfume is the brand that sells it. The general population doesn't love Roudniska, Beaux or Roucel. They love "Chanel" or "Dior" or "French Perfumes" (such as Paris, created by Russian-born perfumer Sophia Grojsman) or "Italian Perfumes" (like Bvlgari Femme, also by Grojsman) or whatever they think of as high status and good taste or that is trendy at the moment.
As noted in "Perfumes: The Guide" (p.8), unlike art, perfumes are sold as products and are mass produced (except for the 9% or so of the international perfume industry that niche brands account for - though keep in mind many are not really independent perfumeries - they hire their noses from either one of the 5 big firms that rule over the perfume market worldwide (Takasago, Givaudon, Firmenich, IFF and Symrise).
Finding information about perfume now is easy if you have internet. Opinions about fragrances are discussed and posted as I write these lines. Some are excellent writers. Some have blogs long enough and so full of content they may as well consider turning it into a book too. But is there a point to that?
The Guide is not the first book about perfume and by the same author(s) to originate in a blog. The first one, The Secret of Scent (written by Luca Turin and edited by Tania Sanchez) practically recycled entire blog posts and comments from Luca Turin's now defunct blog Perfume Notes (you can still download the archives as a pdf document). The recent book fortunately contains a few reviews I fondly remember from reading Perfume Notes
and brings them to print (Borneo 1834 - p. 104, Narciso Rodriguez - p. 254-255 and several others). Aside from a few of Turin's famously steel-like and oddly nostalgic prose, which is his trademark I believe - many of the reviews seem like an endless thread on a discussion forum - with two members only participating - and who got caught up in a little rap-competition-like on a perfume theme (organized in alphabetical order, thankfully). Overall, despite being very easy to read (but what book about your favourite topic in the world isn't?) - I found myself disappointed at the content. There are many one-liners, some more descriptive and helpful than others (i.e.: "Competent chemical fruity floral with a citrus top note" - p. 273; or "Polite, dull little soapy woody floral" - p. 289 ) and some are just plain mean (i.e.: "faceless drone-clone juice" - p. 305; or " Light Blue, but with the light off" - p. 350; or "hideously screechy" - p.106 or "dreadful little thing" - p. 113). Why waste all the ink, not to mention paper?! Or in other words - if you can't say something nice, say nothing at all. Which also reminds me of another observation: while many badly-reviewed mainstream fragrances did not include any mention of the nose behind them (which on its own seems graciously opinionated – as if putting the blame of a bad fragrance on the corporate world who forces some talented noses to compromise their olfactory and artistic judgment); however, there are some reviews of perfumes from small houses where the nose seems to be almost personally attacked for not being able to satisfy the writer’s taste in perfume. More than saying anything about those small niche houses and their products, this exemplifies the notion of the reviewer being a frustrated wannabe artist, one that is a sayer rather than a doer and while being able to appreciate the art cannot create it, but can only produce criticism of it, which could never, ever be subjective and sooner or later is bound to show the reviewer's true colours - their fear, ambition, frustration, unrealized creativity and so on.
And than there are a few gems where the authors' writing (especially Turin's) truly shine with wit, accuracy, creativity and expressive power – and not at the expense of anyone else involved. Long poetic reviews studded with bits of perfume history and chemistry storytelling that is admittedly fascinating even when you don’t agree with the writers’ taste (to list a few of the highlights: Bulgari Black, p. 96; Calyx, p. 111); Chamade, p. 115; Chintown, p. 119; Thiery Mugler's Cologne, p. 126; Fracas, p. 179; Osmanthe Yunnan, p. 274; Tommy Girl, p. 339; Sacrableu, p. 312; Vetiver Extraordinaire, p. 352). I could only wish that there were more of these and none of the other kind of reviews. Since the editing in this book is lacking in this regard, readers may want to take matters into their own hands and skip all the 1 & 2 star reviews, one-liner reviews and simply enjoy the rest.
The word on "Perfumes: The Guide" is divided as can be seen on the consumer reviews pages on Amazon. Other opinions can be found here:
The New Yorker