In this last period, mainly due to various controversies raised on the web, I thought a lot about the difference between a well composed perfume and a badly composed one. That is, what are the characteristics of a "good" perfume, and how it differs from a perfume done sketchily, incorrect or unbalanced?
And then: is a "bad" perfume always uncomfortable to wear?
And again: those who review perfumes on what basis should base their reviews? How important is personal taste and how the culture and the sense of smell?
Let's begin with the first question: How do you tell a good scent?
I think a perfume may show mistakes under several points of view:
1 an unbalanced pyramid
2 mistakes in the compositional structure
3 inadequate raw materials
4 unfit for the brand it's launched for
In terms of pyramid and its structure, the majority of scent fall into one of these three types: those telling a story through an olfactory journey, others remaining stable and linear throughout their lifetime, while others are like prisms reflecting notes and accords in alternation. The fragrances which born and die in the same way may feature some sort of fascinating, marble-beauty. But dynamism generally adds interest to a composition, so many good fragrance evolve over time: they show a beginning, a heart and a base. Although the fragrance always remains recognizable from start to finish, these three times lead it in three different directions, giving it three intentions and three "flavors". The composer chooses how to place each note or accord in the composition and how it will interact with other components of the formula in order to take the fragrance -from note to note, accord after accord- through the three top-heart-base movements. But there are exceptions: some scents are composed almost exclusively of top notes accords (the Cologne), and in different historical periods perfumes have featured the development of only part of the pyramid (for example in the '80s perfumes privileged huge heart accords), or favor the use of certain raw materials rather than others.
But there are scents that, out of context, show “gaps” or imbalances in the pyramid, for example, after a brilliant and attractive top accord, the heart is inexistent, and then the scent "reappears" with the base notes. Well, this is a mistake, because a fragrance should be stable, in his change, in all three phases, with no mismatches or gaps that make you lose interest even for five minutes.
Most perfumes are like a chorus of notes tied harmoniously together. You are unable to distinguish the single note because the choir forms a well-balanced ensemble, more beautiful than the sum of its parts. This is a very classic and elegant structure and makes up the majority of fragrances available. Other times there's a star note, a soloist, in this case the note is placed on a pedestal, while the others work as support, talking with it and pulling out of it impressions and facets.
Other times you have two soloists, and the scent is based on the harmonious dance of these two notes, with a very exciting result.
Sometimes rather than on the concepts of harmony and integration a fragrance can play on the juxtaposition of two different sensations, and the scent then presents a tension between two opposites, very interesting. Some scents rather feature, somewhere in the composition, a sort of imbalance, a clutch, which can be exciting and unique because it imposes a non-linear fashion to the perfume, creating a point of interest.
Whatever the structure of the fragrance, it should be clear that it is due to a choice by the creator: it's he/she who chooses what kind of harmony or friction, or opposition to insert, with which intensity and duration: in the case of a mistake of judgment, inexperience, or haste, the fragrance can feel flat, unbalanced, disharmonious, without direction, dialogue or light.
Other important parameters to evaluate the compositional structure are related to impact and duration, which often depend on the structure chosen by the composer. The scent is delicate or powerful, subtle or pervasive, lasting one hour, three or seven? All these variables are neither positive nor negative in themselves, since they are part of a stylistic choice, defined a priori. But mistakes can become clear when they feel out of context. L'Artisan Parfumeur, as an example, infuses their perfumes with delicate notes which fade within one-two hours, and it's something appropriate for this brand, which primarily expresses this way, while smelling an Amouage or Bond N9 scent, short duration and delicacy would be features to note and write about.
When a composer chooses the materials to work with -or when a company is giving the brief for a perfume and setting the price of the formula- a precise stylistic choice is being done. Some composers/brands choose almost only natural notes: perfect, precious, round. Others favors the balanced use of natural and synthetic. Others prefer the synthesis, and add naturals only for a functional development of the scent they've in mind. But the choice of the type of materials has not in any case a weight in determining the quality of a fragrance. Chanel N.5 isn't a huge composition because it contains beautiful naturals: today it contains half of those that contained decades ago, still remains an incomparable masterpiece for the way it's composed, for the skillful balance of the notes pairing synthetic and naturals in an amazing way. The same goes for the Eau Sauvage, Nombre Noir and many other fragrances, both vintage and modern. The use of beautiful natural materials is a plus, but only if they are functional to the discourse of the fragrance, in some cases their presence may even prove cumbersomely "too much", thus the composer/brand chooses otherwise. There's nothing wrong in using only synthetic, if they characterize the way the composer expresses him/herself: everyone expresses himself as he pleases. After all, nobody would affirm -seriously- that the vertical cuts on the canvas by Lucio Fontana are less "artistic" than a stylized portrait of Modigliani! The means of expression may differ, but if they both reach their goal, that is telling something, moving people, they are exactly on the same level.
Of course, it's a different story when synthetics are used exclusively for their low cost, passing the product off as a composition of refined naturals and giving it names of sumptuous bouquet of flowers that aren't there. This often happens with brands from which we would expect other outputs, and in this case, it's something to write about.
Sometimes a perfume is not that bad, but maybe it has nothing to do with the brand it comes out for. Think of Dolce & Gabbana leopard print dresses, lace, bustier provocative sensuality and sinful glamour, then smell their last perfumes, and well ... inside them there's nothing of the brand's imagery. Certain perfumes don't communicate anything of the brand's aesthetics, and though they come out as results of business strategies that certainly have their own money-tied logics, for a person studying perfume as a work of art, these are simply wrong.
Likewise, if a big name launches a patched or trivial scent, unconsistent with the brand's values, or it's an exciting fragrance opening a new discourse in perfumery, or it's simply a backwards step -that is, the scent is just speaking about money and is not up to the name it bears. And this, from my point of view, it's a mistake.
(to be continued here)
(to be continued here)