Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Commercial Artisan

These days I'm pondering deeply some questions that have been silently bothering me for quite some time, but finally found the courage to voice them to others but my artists and designer friends. This has to do with the position of the independent perfumer as an artist in a market that is not only competitive, but also very dismissive towards the creators of the products that it is trying to sell.

Just a few days ago I was at Shoppers Drug Mart, and saw a line of no less than 4 different "Twilight" glitter perfumes, elegantly bottled in thin plastic spray bottles (my special spray for clearning my computer screen comes in a fancier and more durable packaging) and displayed on the clearance shelf. 4 days later, before I even got a chance to find out what their price was, the entire shelf was gone (but I can assure you it was no more than $19.99, because that's what this shelf is known for).

The current economic climate (in North America, anyway) has some grave implications on artisans and artists that just a couple of years ago were beginning to get recognized, and begin to be able to support themselves through their art. And independent perfumers are no different. The recession has nurtured a culture era of cheapness that is so much worse than ever. If in similar scenarios in the past (i.e.: The Great Depression, WWII...), small luxuries were still valued and appreciated at whatever cost (lipstick, silk stalkings, cigars, perfume...), nowadays, consumers are so cheap-savvy that unless there is a groupon or some steep price reduction, they won't even consider reaching for their wallet. But boy, do they spend on all the above-mentioned cheap "thrills" - which are really not all that thrilling, if you think a little deeper at who's actually paying for these bargains. A product's true price tag does not equal the amount missing from our wallets (or that appear on our credit card statements). We borrow our little pleasures of bargain hunting either by exploiting the environment, workers in other countries, and by paying extremely low wages to local artisans, who have to cover the cost of production (materials included) out of their own pockets just so they can stay afloat.

There is very little known about perfumery, and even though hardly anything can shock me, I've been taken aback on more than one occasion, when even people who should know better (including fellow artisans that make their own stuff - perhaps from other materials, but still, they should know that there is a lot that goes into producing anything - much more than meets the layperson's eye!). People often don't realize, that each drop of essential oil is the essence of so many plants, and there was so much work involved in the process of producing it (without even beginning to talk about the perfumer's research and creative process): the plant had to be planted, attended to carefully, harvested with more care than the average produce requires, and then distilled and extracted to produce only a fraction of the plant's original weight in its fragrant essence - 400kg of roses yield only up 600gr of rose absolute, and this is not the most expensive example... Some other essences are worth more than their weight in gold!

Somehow, the beauty and the value of what perfumers do becomes under-appreciated, even inside their own industry. And although as an independent perfumer I'm at liberty to create what I want, how I want and when I want it - the kind of treatment perfumers get in the industry, such as lack of recognition for their own creations (even in the FiFi awards, from what I hear), perfumers are still to a great extent "ghosts" creating "vaporous" products that are now seen as frivolous and necessary (except for, ahum, the fact that so many products are selected by consumers entirely on the basis of their scent, but no one remembers that when they're counting their cash...).

I would like to end my rant here before it gets out of hand, with this fascinating story from a perfumer who knows far better than I about what perfumers are facing in the corporate world:

"I remember one day, after having worked a combination of honeysuckle, musks and sweet balsamic notes for a long time, a combination that I judged as beautiful, full of harmony, warmth and creativity, I was met by one of the heads of the marketing department who, after smelling my work for about one or two minutes, told me that it was “not bad,” but I was missing 0.1% of aldehyde C.12 MNA to finalize my creation. Knowing my weakness in front of him, I agreed, showing him after half an hour the “modification” that was found to be perfect. I had not placed the aldehyde as suggested. I showed him the exact same product, and it became a big hit in the market"
- Arcadi Boix Camps,
Perfumery: Techniques in Evolution

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At July 29, 2011 5:53 AM, Blogger JoanElaine said...

A very interesting post!

What makes me shake me head is this (and I have been guilty of this myself): A consumer buys a cheaply made product at a low price. Because it is a "cheap" product,it may not provide any real satisfaction beyond the gratification of making the purchase. This might lead the consumer to seek out another product. And another. And another.

All that money spent on a number of cheap products is money one could spend on a quality product. But quantity over quality usually wins, especially when one only has a bit of extra money at a time.

Delayed gratification is not easy - I struggle with it - but it can be very satisfying.

Thank you for bring my attention to Arcadi Boix Camps. While I do not have any ambitions to be a perfumer, I enjoy reading about perfumer's techniques, natural materials and chemistry.
His wikipedia page refers to "Violet flowers" and Lily of the Valley" absolutes - do these actually exist? They must cost a fortune!


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