I recently made my most expensive perfume purchase, a scent I have always wanted to wear and in its most expensive version: Aromatics Elixir Perfumer’s Reserve. At 4 euro per ml it has without a doubt broken a glass ceiling that I have never dared reach before. And with breaking this invisible, self-imposed barrier I started having all these thoughts about how we value perfume in the most literal of all senses. Serendipitously I read two posts published almost simultaneously and addressing the same questioning from quite different perspectives. The Scentrist words some thoughts that we have all had at some point: how can I justify myself spending all that money for a perfume when up until a few months ago I was happy smelling my favourite cheap(-er) cologne. It approaches the subject rationalising it and defending one’s right to quality simply because one can afford it and because they deserve it. From Pyrgos on the other side asks the simple question: is price correlative with quality? Because if it is, there we have the justification of spending a lot on perfume! I will let you discover for yourself how this argument ends in that post but bear with me and my meandering thoughts.
Blame it on my scientific background, but I love definitions. Trying to define a concept somehow gives me a very clear perspective of it. So what is quality in general and especially in relationship to perfume? As per the dictionary it has mostly two meanings. The philosophical one, where quality is an attribute, a trait, and the business term, the non-inferiority or superiority of something. Already we see two very different directions the word can take. The philosophical term needs an attribute to define quality. On its own the word means nothing but has to be explained as in “this perfume has interesting qualities, interesting characteristics”. The business oriented definition however is more self-sufficient: “this perfume is of exquisite quality” and that says it all or at least this is the way we have come to accept the charisma of superior quality or the damnation of inferior quality. However the business use of the term needs further defining because (and I quote) ” it is also defined as fitness for purpose. Quality is a perceptual, conditional and somewhat subjective attribute and may be understood differently by different people”. So how we define and understand quality in perfumes? Is there a common ground for all perfumistas?
The obvious starting point would be of course the quality of ingredients. This presented me with two problems. Firstly I cannot detect quality of ingredients with my nose and I wonder if anyone who is not an officially trained perfumer can. What I can detect is a softness in the way I perceive some perfumes which I instinctively classify as being “better” than others, mostly readily available scents. But I cannot claim this to be enough of a measure of quality because it is so radically subjective. I have to admit that natural ingredients being an amalgamation of molecules, often poorly defined, are a lot more interesting than artificial ingredients who appear monochromatic and unidimensional. But my second qualm when it comes to identifying quality of perfume with quality of ingredients is the exact disproportion of natural perfumes that make it to my top list or to the historical Hall of Fame of Perfume. All natural perfumes usually seem to be less textured and more familiar than the ones who contain chemical ingredients and I believe the reason for this is because our taste has been trained to seek oddity and texture, surprise. Artificial ingredients provide a texture we are all now accustomed to and it is hard to give up simply because it adds another dimension to fragrance. Most reviewers who base a favourable review on the premises that said perfume contains “natural ingredients” never review 100% natural perfumes because they find them boring. So if all-natural perfumes are not up to par with mixed formula compositions how the use of natural ingredients can be the basis of superior quality in perfume? When it comes to chemical ingredients things get a lot more complicated though. I have never heard of anyone accusing Chanel No5 for its use of aldehydes but the same people who rave about it are quick to dismiss a scent that has a mere suspicion of Iso E Super. It seems that some chemicals are of higher quality than others. Iso E Super appears to be the scapegoat for all synthetic ingredients, probably because the name is easier to remember. Form the hundreds or thousands of synthetics this one’s name is dropped 99% of the time a reviewer needs to show he knows his ingredients.
Quality is often defined in terms of quantitative properties. A good car is a car that doesn’t break down and performs the same way over time. In perfume the obvious analogy would be longevity and sillage. If these are the touchstone of quality in perfume then why Jean Claude Elena’s frail compositions are unanimously accepted to be of higher quality than other cheaper, stronger, more resilient perfumes? Most Elena’s creations are not only fleeting and discreet but they also make an excellent use of artificial ingredients to create a three-dimensional microsomos that envelops the wearer. The bubble bursts fairly quickly but while it lasts it is very effective. Yet we are all convinced that Hermes perfumes are top quality products (notice the linearity the word “quality” manages to impose in the evaluation of perfume?). I think it is safe to dismiss technical properties like sillage and longevity as the identifiers of quality in perfume.
We do not have many other places to look for the definition of quality in perfume. It has to be down to creativity. So we enter the art zone. Regardless of whether one specific perfume manages to achieve artistic qualities, the creativity involved in the making of a perfume is certainly a form of artistic and artisanal expression. Can we talk about creativity and artistic expression in terms of high or poor quality? Can we define quality in art? The question seems immediately irrational. Art and creativity transcend linear classifications and I found this interesting conversation among artists on this subject that is too intriguing to try to summarize here. Most artists will say that the question of quality in art can only be discussed in terms of technical expertise but then technical expertise makes only for a small part of creativity. The innate subjectivity of defining quality makes using the concept in a n already subjective context utterly vicious. One comment though is quite enlightening: “Of course there’s no harm in speculating about the nature of quality, but it always comes down to the sensual experience of “tasting” the art” (Philip Koch). How appropriate to use the verb “to taste” for food, art and perfume! Because to taste is to eat, to digest, to make something foreign a part of one’s self. And food, art, perfume enter our bodies and our souls and become part of us in a unique way. Most of all there is this sensorial filter that defines the elusive quality of food, perfume, art. The senses have to be wooed and then the object becomes part of the subject and provides energy and emotion.
So is quality a sensorial attribute? I have to admit that I believe it is. What makes cashmere a yarn of higher quality than ordinary sheep wool? It is softer, lighter, warmer. It is more expensive as well but it is wrong to deduce that cashmere is of higher quality because it is more expensive when the truth is that it is more expensive because it is more pleasurable to the senses. The softness, lightness, warmth create vibrations to the wearer which ultimately stimulate the sense that stands above all, the sixth sense, the sense of the imperceptible. How would you know that a piece of furniture is of high quality? It has to be smoother, more compact, have moving parts that slide comfortably and without friction, it must smell of wood and polish, all attributes measured and calibrated by the senses. It must have a good design, something that is intuitively perceived as a union of function and form. In the end the verdict is: I like it!
Going back to the definitions of quality one would have to choose between the vague use of the word equivalent to attribute or the more structured commercial use that defines excellence. Even the latter needs further definition as it usually defines a production process which is stable and reliable. The mass production of a perfume can be of high quality if all batches produced are exactly the same and produce the same effect. Reformulations aside, the use of natural ingredients is in itself a guarantee of fluctuating quality. No two batches of an essential oil produced in the same land and by the same workers will be the same as no two bottles of the same wine produced in different years will ever be the same. But the creation of a perfume as a prototype can never be judged and measured on a linear scale. Each perfumer possesses different qualities, different attributes that are carried over to his creations in different extents. The effect of the perfume itself varies from wearer to wearer making quantification an irrational attempt and what is quality control without quantification? I have to quote Christopher Brosius who said during an interview that perfume is closely related with time. Not only because it takes time to create and it also takes time to breathe and be experienced. But also because it has the ability to transport us through time. It seems quite out of place to try to judge something so transcendental using business and manufacturing terms.
I bought the very expensive Aromatics Elixir Perfumer’s Reserve because I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t a rational decision, quite the opposite. The attempt to rationalize it by saying that I usually spend a lot less so I deserve to spend a little more or the excuse that this is a perfume of high quality and will go a long way so the extra cost is justified will not stand for me. The even more absurd excuse that I bought it because I deserve it sounds even degrading to my ears: I simply deserve a lot more than 4 euro per ml and even the most expensive object in the world is worth much less than me or any other person walking the face of the earth. I simply cannot put the two on a scale and come up with balance. In the end quality in perfume is nothing but the degree to which a certain perfume pleases us. And I am not talking only about the degree to which it pleases our smell but mostly the way it affects the sixth sense, the memories it brings back, the unsettling feeling of recalling memories never experienced, photographing sceneries never visited, creating a universe that never existed before but comes from within. This is quality in perfume and it has nothing to do with measurable attributes and value for money.
How do you define quality in perfume?
How comfortable are you with the idea of quality not being a part of the perfume equation?
Do you enjoy expensive perfumes more than cheap thrills?