Saturday, March 21, 2009

what it takes to make a perfume

I recently interviewed Johann Maria Farina, the managing director of the world's oldest fragrance house, Farina Gegenüber [I shall be mentioning this frequently :-) ]. The original Johann Maria (1685-1766) was the inventor of Eau de Cologne. His descendant pointed out to me that an essential precondition for Farina to be able to create his citrus-based fragrance was the cultivation of bergamot, which had begun only about twenty years earlier. This story prefigures what happened about 160 years later, when the advances made in organic chemistry had the side effect of initiating modern perfumery which required the newly available semi- or full synthetics to build complex, lasting, innovative and affordable fragrances. That, of course, is just one of several technical aspects (among others was the necessity to advance distillation to a point where 70% and higher alcohols could be created to serve as a solution for herb or essential oils). These are necessary but not sufficient preconditions to explain the rise of Eau de Cologne or modern perfumery. We know that the ancient Greeks had the theoretical and practical know-how to launch an industrial revolution - physics, hydraulics, steam power etc. But there are numerous socio-cultural and economic reasons it did not happen - e.g. the availability of slave labor and the low regard in which manual labor, including applied sciences, was held. Eau de Cologne became a success because it corresponded to Enlightenment concepts of hygiene, health, civility and deportment - heavy musks were associated with artifice, depravity, and addiction, while the light citrus floral represented naturalness, vitality and hygiene. Likewise, industrial perfumery required a new white collar middle class as the backbone of a consumer society which would redefine bodies, female in particular, as spaces of commodified representation through dieting, fashion, and, of course, perfume.
Perfume, thus, is one little node within the vast and unfathomable network of causes and effects that is human history and agency and which binds us all together in ways we can rarely truly explain, much less anticipate. Next time you spritz your favorite, take a deep sniff of history and feel your connection with the cosmos.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

laudatio temporis actae

As I have been sniffing the reformulations of British house Czech & Speake's Rose, Dark Rose and Frankincense & Myrrh against the "vintage" versions I could not help wondering to what extent our judgment of new and old is determined by the eternal conservative-progressive dichotomy in human nature, individuals and generations. It seems like the first Cro-Magnons must have already complained about "that new fangled cave art" while the younger generation was probably bitching about "grandpa style bear skins." Burkean clinging to established tradition versus Jacobin belief that change means improvement, back-to-nature hippies against sci-fi utopians, the celebration of perfume technology's advances (so many new molecules a year, CO2 extraction) versus the hyperinflation of mundane fragrance clones and the dominance of profit-obsessed corporations destroying the art of perfumery.
Perfume reformulations, of course, are a special case. Most people don't mind the improvement of a product, like a car or a phone - though there is a healthy suspicion that it may involve some cheapening. Companies like manufactum are built on the premise that the product improvements of the last decades have had devastating effects on quality and are really just cost-efficient, profit-increasing planned obsolesence schemes or at best results of a misguided technological Whiggism. But when it comes to perfumes as aesthetic artisanry or even art, reformulation would seem to amount to desecration. Who would dare reformulate the Mona Lisa (except Duchamp) or paint over the Sistine Chapel? True, there are cases in which reformulations, often the result of a change in content regulations, seem to have been ultimately successful, as in the case of Mitsouko. But in the vast majority of cases, reformulations seem to be careless affairs determined by profit or market optimization and after a string of such experiences it is hard not to fall into a gloomy Spenglerian mood of 'decline and fall' (Turin and Sanchez' Perfume: The Guide is littered with such stories)

So how about Czech&Speake? This company, though started in 1979 rather than 1878, places itself in an English tradition of craft and quality with its massive bathroom fittings, as well as its aromatics line. They are on top of the British fragrance game and C&S No. 88, their flagship fragrance, is one of the finest creations ever in that tradition, rivaling its inspiration, monikerwise, Floris No. 89, for the title of quintessential English scent.

There are some issues about who exactly created these fragrances, but British nose John Stephen of Cotswold Perfumery played a major role. Ironically the fragrances were made by an Italian firm, Forester Milano for a number of years until production was moved (once again?) to England a few years ago. It was at this point that the fragrances changed. Foresters floral bases, for one, have a distinctive style and high quality, which one can also smell in Washington Tremlett's Black Tie . It gave No. 88 a deep, complex liquorous floral heart that made it stunningly neo-gothic or pre-raffaelite. While the new 88 is still an excellent perfume, that dimension has disappeared from the scent, which I perceive as a great loss. This made me anticipate the other reformulations with Spenglerian, or perhaps more fittingly Gibbonesque, trepidations of Decline and Fall...

And yes, while Rome, or London, still stand, change has not been for the better (sorry, Barack).
The perfumes have become lighter, more accomodating, the seem to have lost something of their eccentric personality, even if we are not dealing with the kind of lobotomy that Luca Turin accuses the house of Caron of. Thus Frankincense & Myrrh, one of the finest (and one of the few Iso-E-super free) incense fragrances has turned into a rather demure citrus-(cedar)wood standard with the incense moving into the ranks. Dark Rose, C&S' rose & oud challenge to Montale (and a very succesful one) suffers, like No. 88, from a loss of depth in the rose note, as well as turning to a lighter oud, making this quite similar to the daintier Montales such as Damascus. The end result may be just a little to full of English restraint. The same applies, more gravely so, to Rose, the most purely floral of the rose trio probably preferred by women more than by men. The old Rose was as treacherously innocuous as a Victorian novel. All sweetness and gentility, damast and civility - but between the lines there lurked and abrasive edginess (sharp citrus), immoral depth (superior rose oils), razor thorns. In this respect an utterly brilliant creation.

The new rose requires a direct comparison with the painfully mundane Amouage Lyric Men (no offense to fans) to appear at all interesting. It's the surface without those extra dimensions that made the original more than another decent smelling rose fragrance. Is it bad? No, perhaps not even mediocre. Just nothing I truly need with rose fragrances such as Rose Poivrée, Fleurs de Bulgarie, Hammam Bouquet, Black Tie etc. and C&S's own Dark Rose and 88 available.

Decline and Fall? No, but muddling along.

Illustration: Norman Rockwell, Abstract and Concrete (1962)