Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Language of Perfume

I continue to ponder this thing, writing about perfume, so I thought I would share with you something I read that really got me thinking. Helg over at The Perfume Shrine was lucky enough to interview Chandler Burr (Part One and Part Two), and he was kind enough to respond to comments readers left regarding his interview. Simply, one commenter noted the difficulty of writing about perfumes without using words like "aldehydic." Mr. Burr responds (in part):

"Brands hate aldehydic only because people don’t know what it means; if the public was familiar with it, there’d be no problem, and they’re going to have to be, sooner or later. Perfume should be taught in classes just like painting and literature. As Luca points out, what’s lacking is simply the vocabulary."

Now, as many of you know, Chandler Burr is the perfume critic for The New York Times, as well of the author of two books about perfume, The Emporer of Scent about the master Luca Turin, and The Perfect Scent about the creation of two scents, Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely and Hermes's Un Jardin Sur Le Nil. And, as many of you know, I am...uh, me, amateur perfume fan and author of this blog. Clearly, if we met in a dark alley for a perfume-off, Chandler Burr would win.

And still, I'm going to do this. I'm going to disagree. Yes. I. Dare. And now I shall explain why.

*Cue sound of soapbox being dragged across the floor.*

Ahem. On the one hand, I agree completely that perfumery is an art and should be treated as such. How wonderful it would be to take classes in the history of perfume, or to take classes to learn how to compose a scent the way one takes a class to learn to compose music. Where I part ways with Mr. Burr--or really, I guess, with Mr. Turin (oh yes)--is in the area of vocabulary.

Perfume is about experience, not about language. Consider this line: "If the public was familiar with [aldehydes], there'd be no problem..." Okay. Aldehydes are specific types of organic compounds. Now you know what they are. According to Wikipedia, they contain a terminal carbonyl group. Oh, even better! But you have a definition now. You have a vocabulary.

Now talk to me about perfume. You can't.

But if I told you, "Chanel No. 5 is aldehydic," and you smelled Chanel No. 5, you might say "Ah!" And then if I let you smell Clinique Wrappings, you might have an even better understanding of aldehydic. The more you experience it, the more you understand it--not the more you talk about it. The problem is, of course, that to be able to talk about it, you have to say "aldehydic." You can't say, "a sort of metallic herbal or green quality." Or can you? Which has more meaning? I would argue for the "metallic green quality," but I realize that one cannot classify perfumes in such a manner. In this case, aldehydic enables us to classify, and we can say definitively, "Aldehydic perfumes contain aldehydes." That one is pretty clear cut.

Now take the term chypre, common to the perfume vernacular. A chypre is a perfume with citrus top notes and woody base notes. I've defined it for you, right? I could also say to you, "A chypre includes bergamot, oakmoss, and patchouli in its composition." The problem there, of course, is that lots of perfumes contain these notes, and they are not chypres.

All chypres are not created equal. Guerlain Mitsuoko, a chypre, is nothing like Chanel Chance, which is also a chypre. Of the accords that make up a chypre (remember, we have the definition), Mitsuoko has two, bergamot and oakmoss, and Chance has only one, patchouli. Mitsuoko is a fruity chypre, while Chance is a floral chypre. Each of these have little in common with Chypre de Coty, for which this family of perfumes is named. There are also green chypres, aromatic chypres, and leather chypres.

You know what a chypre is now, right? I've explained it to you, and you now have the language--the vocabulary--to describe it yourself.

Now, if I spray some perfume on your wrist, can you tell me definitively whether or not it's a chypre? My guess is no. My guess is, maybe if you've smelled hundreds, even thousands of perfumes, you could pick out what might be classified as a chypre. But that is experiential. If you read the notes, too, and saw that it had the possible composition of a chypre, you might pin it down. But unless chypre means following a specific formula--x amount of bergamot, y amount of oakmoss, and z amount of patchouli--every time, for every composition to which other ingredients are added, no one can say definitively what is and is not a chypre. In other words, there really is no meta-chypre, no ur chypre.

Which means, ultimately, that the term chypre has no meaning unless we somehow make it have meaning. We, the masses, don't get to make these things have meaning. So who does? Well, perfumers do. And critics do. And, I suppose, marketers, although maybe they have to check with the perfumers first. You and I, we know a chypre is a chypre because somebody tells us it is so. I suppose once we're told, we can discuss it. The problem is, though, that if it only comes down to a matter of vocabulary, then what we're saying is that all that matters is the discourse. If we know how to talk about perfume, how to write about perfume, then we know perfume.

And I suppose that's what it comes down to for me: the difference between the discourse about perfume and the experience of it. The discourse is easier. It's akin to reading literary or film criticism without reading the book or seeing the film, and then trying to have a serious discussion about said book or film. You might be convinced you're talking about the book, but really, you're talking about someone else talking about the book. (Remember Mr. Burr's comment about how perfume should be taught like art or literature? Hang around with a couple of graduate students in literature for a few days, and see if they discuss books, or criticism of books. Literary criticism gave them a vocabulary!) It seems a lot of the time the discussion is about what we think about perfume, not about how we experience perfume. Sure, we discuss the development of notes on our skin, but that's often akin to a plot synopsis. I certainly don't have the answer about how to get outside that loop, but I don't think a vocabulary is it.

All this is a roundabout way of saying, I think people need more experience with perfume, not more language. As much as I love writing about perfume, I encourage people not to take my word for it. Go on a smelling adventure, figure out what you like, and do not worry about the fact that you can't talk about it the way you think you should be able to. The language of perfume is as artificial a construct as one can imagine. Own your nose, and say anything you like.