Monday 8 April 2013


From the occasional reviews files: Jean-Claude Ellena's Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent


My perfume collection recently expanded, in a single heady evening, to thirteen bottles. My collection of perfume books expands more slowly - they are more unpredictable beasts than their subjects.

When I impulse-bought Perfume: The Alchemy of Scent on Amazon, I think I thought that it would be one of those artsy-sciencey floaty bits and bobs, in which Jean-Claude Ellena - one of the highest profile noses in the business, perfumer for Hermes, and also the maker of a number of highly regarded L'Artisan Parfumeur fragrances - would dispense words of wisdom, hints of magic, and insider gossip with his history. I was vaguely prepped for this by Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent which contrasts the creation of Ellena's 'Le Jardin Sur le Nil' against the creation of Sarah Jessica Parker's second scent, 'Covet'.

In the event, Perfume is nothing like that. Rather, it's like a highly personalised training manual. The overall tone is of lecture notes, with the odd slip into freestyling philosophy:
Every day that I work with perfumes I am in search of beauty, yet I still don't know where it is to be found. What I know os that in order to enchant you, to charm you, to tempt you, to influence you, to fascinate you, in a word, to win you over, ['Perfume' is translated from the French - occasionally a little clumsily or carelessly, but I love this slip, intentional or otherwise], I have to manipulate and make a show of what I know, to make the perfume desirable. Desirable - the adjective that for the classical philosophers marks the limitations of art. However, the fact that perfume evaporates and disappears is proof that it cannot be possessed - desire remains desire. 
So it is through the use of memory, through the remembrance of shared fragrances, that I create the seductiveness of perfumes.
Passages like this are rare though, and if you want reminiscences about Ellena's favourite childhood smells or the scent of the crook of his first girlfriend's elbow, you're going to need to look elsewhere. 'Perfume' has chapters dedicated to 'Learning the trade' [I. Odor Classifications II. Memorizing the Collection III. Type of Olfactory Field], 'Bringing the perfume to market' [I. The manufacture of perfume concentrate II. Perfume manufacture and production III. Safety regulations IV. The products V. Concentrations] and 'Protection of perfumes' [I. Protecting names, containers and packaging II. Protection of fragrances]. It has an awesome little chart that shows how Fructone plus Benzyl acetate equals 'apple' when blotters are impregnated with the molecules then waved below the nose, while Fructone plus Ethyl maltol equals "strawberry". It details the five corporations who between them hold 60% of the international flavours and fragrances market, with their 2007 earnings and how they were split across their different product lines. It shows L'Oreal dominates the cosmetic market, and runs or owns the licences to well over a dozen brands that you would think of as "independent", from Stella McCartney to Viktor and Rolf.

Some of the technical sections I found to be sincerely gripping. Perfume interests me because it is so finely balanced between art, science and commerce. The section on obtaining materials, for example. Ellena traces the development over time of different ways of obtaining the ingredients for perfumes. Distillation was one of the earliest - the extraction of essential oils from secretory cells by heating them and then capturing the fragrant substances with water vapor. Yield depends on the plant: 5 tons of magnolia blossom and 20kg of lavender blossoms both render 1kg of essential oil. Expression is used just for citrus fruits. Extraction with volatile solvents was demonstrated at the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873. The process has all sorts of great phrases like "nonmiscible vegetable waxes" and "macerate in a volatile solvent". It renders a concentrate that is closer to the original scent than distillation, but yield also varies dramatically. 'Supercritical CO2 Extraction' is my favourite though, because holy impressive sounding science. This little section concludes with a commentary on Cost:
The selling price of a kilogram of essential magnolia flower oil is $935 at 2011 prices, as compared with $115 for essential oil of lavender, although more than 250 times as many magnolia flowers were required to produce it. This comparison shows that, with mechanical harvesting of lavender and a higher yield of essential oil, the price of an essential oil does not depend on labor costs, but essentially on demand.
This section is followed by one of the evolution of synthetic materials, beginning with Benzyl acetate in 1855, the aldehydes (the fizz of Chanel No. 5) in 1903, Hydroxycitronellal in 1908 (everything) etc etc. By the end of the 1930s, Ellena observes, all the major synthetics in use today had been discovered. Costs of synthetics are partly linked to their natural counterparts, but also reflect the labor force required to produce them and the steps to make them. Contrast the $925 for magnolia above, for example, to $4,675 for a kg of synthetic irone (iris scent).

The chapter that blew my mind though was about marketing. I mean, sure, we get perfume marketing. Hot young body, maybe some luscious landscape, some gauzy fabric, some dramatic eyebrows or sunny skies, and a discreet (or totally in your face) logo. But Ellena's aim with this chapter is "not to explain marketing as it applies to perfumery, but to situate the role of the composer of perfumes within different forms of marketing."

In the art world, we talk about curating in, and curating out. Curating in is when you start with the idea or theme, and pull art around it. Curating out is when you begin with the work, and build the show outwards. One is not better than the other; they're just different ways of working and it helps to understand which context you're operating in and assessing. The difference between commercial and niche perfumery is somewhat similar.

In the 1970s, marketing took hold in the perfume industry:
By widening the choice of product, by guaranteeing reliable quality, by offering worldwide distribution and a better return on investment, marketing contributed to the growth of perfume brands and to the transformation of a business into an internationally industry.
In Ellena's assessment, the marketing of demand equates to a kind of 'curating out'. The perfume begins with a marketing brief, customer profiling and segmentation, and the construction of perfumes using what he calls the 'cursor' method: effectively, making perfumes that tick off adjectives that we have come to have a common agreement on - feminine, light, elegant, flowery.
The objective was to sell perfume on a global scale. To achieve this, the marketing focus moved away from the selling of products, which were seen as too dependent on conviction and personal choice. To create a global market, the priority shifted to the marketing of demand. Demand marketing operates by continually assessing the needs, habits, and interests of consumers the way they judge products and the pleasure they draw from them. ... While this process can be described as innovative, it is not creative. ... This technique has distanced perfumers from the judgement of their own senses and curtailed creativity. It has provided a foundation for new olfactory conventions, a new conformity.
So far, so impassioned TED talk. But!
That being said, I find that the overall quality of perfumes has improved. Technically, they have radiance, diffusion, and persistence, and these qualities take months of work. They are good perfumes. 
The paradox of good is that it is identifiable; it doesn't generate surprise. Acceptance and assimilation are immediate. The good is almost always based on commonplaces, on the familiar, and on stereotypes.
Niche perfumes, on the other hand, spend little if anything on advertising (although they certainly publicise the hell out of their work, and the growing army of perfume bloggers and writers almost all describe their origin stories as aficionados as a movement from the commercial scents of their teens to an encounter with a semi-niche brand to a tumble into the blog world to a full-blown affair with the obscure - much like my own). This leaves them with the fragrance as the product. They are sold in small stores by highly trained staff, judged by professionals and colleagues rather than commercial figures, and require the perfumer and perfume house to closely observe the individual customer's taste rather than shape it in advance.
The fragrance has to speak for itself and express a strong identity, an olfactory individuality. Great care is taken with the name. The name is the first component in the communication process, and the aim is to generate curiosity, not consensus. ... For composers of perfumes, whether under commission or free agents, the approach is primarily olfactory - no preadjustment of products for customer segments, no market testing, none of the mythical imagery of marketing, the "plausible stories" Plato speaks of. They are simply unique fragrances, inventions of the mind, which appeal primarily to the olfactory sense.
And yet I only gave the book 3 stars. It is a feast of detail and insight, but it as an austere feast. This is not the book I would foist upon a perfume newbie. It is the book I would foist upon the person who doesn't care about fragrance, but loves understanding how worlds work. I may not read it again, but I'm a wee bit smarter for having read it the once.

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