A while back I wrote about some of the elephants that chronically lounge around in the perfume community’s living room and occasionally go on a rampage, stomping around the blogosphere. I don’t think this particular one’s been active lately, but I started thinking about it last Sunday morning when I was taking pictures of my newly upgraded work area, thinking that I’d post them here. I probably will, but in the meantime I got distracted with the philosophical question of how much perfumers should reveal about who they are, where they work, the ways they work, and what they put in the bottles that consumers buy.
Judging by traditional perfume advertising campaigns, consumers want to believe that perfumers are glamorous beings who don’t engage in any of the mundane things normal people do, but instead live an unimaginably glamorous life in splendid palaces when they’re not flitting around the globe on their yacht in search of exotic new scents like angel breath, thousand year old oud trees, fresh morning dew on jet-black orchid petals, and odorless male pheromones that will hypnotize women (or men). These are the minority of consumers who are actually aware that perfumes are created by perfumers, although they may well confuse the “creative director” whose name is on the perfume with the actual perfumers who are employed by that person to make the fragrances. I suppose the majority of consumers want to believe that perfumes are actually made by their favorite celebrity or somehow spontaneously generated in the hands of a perfect, glowingly photoshopped model, who spends all her (or his) time faking self-induced orgasms with a perfume bottle. Often she's in pink or red, he's in blue or black. Keep reading. You'll see his picture, too. It just didn't fit the space here.
Real perfumers eat, sleep, go grocery shopping, and do all of the same things that consumers do. Instead of flitting around the globe, we flit around the internet trying to find the best Boswellia carteri essential oil (aka frankincense) or fossilized hyraceum excrement (aka Africa stone) at the most economical price. We weigh and measure chemicals, filter solutions, and some of us even wash our own glassware. Do consumers really want to know this? Should we talk about such things in the blogs that we use to document our thoughts and our lives?
Traditional perfume advertising completely ignores the fact that perfumes have to be created in a lab atmosphere. The ads and the hype would have us believe that if perfumes are created at all, it happens in elegant, spacious showrooms complete with plush carpets, chandeliers, vases of flowers, relaxing music, and sparkling crystal shelves, or in a magic, fairy-tale kingdom from a children's story. Each precious bottle of perfume is prepared specially for each consumer by other-worldly blonde fairies in spotless, flowing, designer lab coats, who generate sparkling, rainbow-colored bubbles whenever they mix the magical ingredients together.
Do consumers really want to know that we indies wear ratty sweats while we work in dark, cramped spaces with messy-looking shelves of unmatched bottles and geeky equipment that looks like it belongs in a molecular biology lab? Or at the other end, do consumers want to know that the magic potion they pin their fantasies on came out of a dark, ugly, scary-looking factory, maybe a sweatshop in a third-world country, or a sterile, mechanized factory that produces thousands or millions of identical bottles, untouched by human hands, let alone pretty fairies? Probably not.
Maybe the biggest issue has to do with the contents of the bottle. Traditionally, perfume formulas are proprietary secrets, like a chef’s recipe, which makes sense given that they can’t be copyrighted. Advertising traditionally lists fantasy notes that may or may not have a lot to do with how the fragrance smells. People’s olfactory systems are so suggestible that they can usually find a note if they’re told it’s in the perfume. It doesn’t actually have to be there. They’ll perceive the promised angel skin, fresh morning dew, black orchid nectar, odorless pheromones, star dust, or rubber car tires simply because they expected to. Ads promise sex appeal, self-confidence, happiness, and the lifestyle of the rich and famous, all in a bottle. Should we, as perfumers, burst those ephemeral bubbles of harmless deception by talking about what we actually do?
For me as a perfumer and a blogger, it’s always a dilemma how much to reveal. With any art form there arises the question of whether knowledge about its creation process interferes with instinctive, gut-level appreciation of the art. Does detailed knowledge of music theory or technique make you less appreciative of the emotional effects of music? As a consumer, does knowing the technical details of how perfume is made render you less appreciative of its emotional effects and less likely to enjoy the imagery and fantasies that fragrance evokes?
For me, knowing the details may make me more critical of technically mediocre work, but when I hear a moving piece of music or smell an evocative perfume, the effect is just as strong as if I had no knowledge of the technical details. In fact, maybe it’s stronger because I’m aware of the imagination and skill that went into the creation of the art. It’s even more surprising when something that seems like technically mediocre work has a strong emotional effect or a technical masterpiece leaves me cold.
I know the answers to these questions are going to be different for each person, but it would be interesting to hear readers’ thoughts on whether knowing the details of how perfumes are made interferes with, or even ruins, the illusions and fantasies that perfume creates. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing for a 5-ml parfum spray of the Olympic Orchids fragrance of your choice.
[Revelation painting from Bamberg, 11th century. Perfume ads were all taken from various internet sources. I assume that no one minds given that negative or dubious attention is better than none at all.]