Sunday, November 22, 2009

bittersweet musings under the boxtree

Here I am wearing an artefact, drops from one of those few forlorn bottles of the shipwrecked fragrance enterprise (un)known by the name Gobin Daudé. It's the first new - to me - fragrance in quite some time that has triggered reflections rather than just a mental shrug of the shoulders. I tried a few By Kilians this afternoon - it might have just as well been any other line - and found them just another permutation spit out randomly by the great niche perfume generator with its basic algorithms of absinth this and incense that plus iso-e and a tad of exotic gourmand. Uh yeah, me self-critically thinks, you're just a jaded fop with too many bottles of Dukes of Shmukes in your cupboard, but then I smell Sous le Buis, a real act, a quantum leap, of creativity, something refusing to conform to standard parameters, a natural perfume that no one could ever push into the aromatherapy corner, because it does those old names proud, those Guerlains, Carons, Chanels and sweeps the floor with all this ennervatingly conformist Vegas variety show playing 365 days a year, the Buxton-Duchaufour-Ellena Can Can. Yeah, you're geniuses, but I'm telling you the act, from where I'm sitting, is wearing pretty thin and who cares whether the manager made you do it. Call me a betamax bumpkin for praising a venture that failed, what's the point of making great perfumes that not enough people want to buy? Hell, ask the starving Schuberts, the impoverished Van Goghs. Victoire Gobin Daudé, wherever you are, you are a goddess, you have the power to breathe life into an assortment of oils, to grow a true French Rococo garden from molecules. You really do what a perfumer is supposed to do, to - apologies for borrowing Star Trek imagery rather than quoting Apollinaire - create a holodeck in a bottle. Here's a perfect rendition of a sculpted boxtree on a wistful, lusty spring day and as if that weren't enough you manage to remind me of the days when Nino Cerruti was a grand green masterpiece and show Jean-Claude what Eau de Campagne really should have smelled like. All this genius, all this beauty lost to a business plan that would not compute. Why? I don't know, don't even care, all I know is, I'm so tired, I'm so sick and tired (ah, my beloved Morrissey) of the mundane being sold as the sublime, at a premium. I've rarely played this game (no full retail for me, there are mouths to feed), but even just watching it is getting too much. But I'm no spoilsport, not that anyone would give a hoot for what I think, so this is for the eyes of hardened veterans, not to crush the enthusiasm of the young-nosed newbie. A salute to the few, who do no bow to the market, and as to the perfume industry per se, well, to quote the Mozzer once more, the world is full of crashing bores.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Craft and Modernity

Shockingly, my most satisfying acqusition in 2009 has not been a perfume - though it is perhaps not entirely unrelated to fragrance. Bear with me and find out whether you agree.
It was on that I stumbled upon the tea service pictured above. I had to have it and to my surprise managed to snatch it for a ridiculously low price (as in: "$500 for a bottle of the original 1882 Fougère Royale is a ridiculously low price"). You may not find the design overly impressive - functionalist ArtDeco, a typical 1940s bauhaus-inspired design - until I tell you that this set is actually older than Fougère Royale - pre 1872 to be exact. It is attributed (by Harry Lyons, Christopher Dresser: The People's Designer, p.205) to Christopher Dresser (1834-1904) perhaps the most radical and pioneering British designer of all times. A botanist by profession, Dresser promoted the adaptation of stuctural principles found in nature in design, as evident in his textile designs, while his boldly geometrical metalwork was also inspired by travels to Japan. Dresser wished to combine aesthetics, functionality and serial production, as well as being one of the first designers to sign his work, making himself a brand. He anticipated many bauhaus ideas by half a century. It's not surprising that Alessi still offers Dresser designs - you can purchase his radical teapot for a mere 4,000 Euros, the toastrack is a bit cheaper.
Now you understand why I had to have this (Art Nouveau, Art Deco and 'bauhaus' are my favorite design styles), but where in Jacques Guerlain's name is the perfume connection? Well, bingo. The blend of traditional craft and industrial modernity Dresser embodies immediately reminded me of the birth of modern perfumery pretty much coterminous with my wonderful tea set and embodied in the names of Coty and Guerlain. Coty reinvented perfume by embracing the products of new distillation technologies - super-pure power-absolutes previously unthinkable as well as synthetics such as coumarin and ionones. Coty and Guerlain also represented a new era of, by previous standards, mass production and professional marketing aimed at the new affluent middle class equipped with leisure and money and prone to consume the new wonder world of products, many of which had previously been reserved for the upper crust. Jicky is known to us as perhaps the living monument of the new modernism in perfume, both technically, aesthetically and sociologically and many of the principles and innovations it embodies are precisely those that define the work of Christopher Dresser. Thus, nothing could be more consonant than to pour myself a cup of Hajua Assam from my avant-garde teapot while wearing a fine old Guerlain (I personally prefer Mouchoir de Monsieur - 1904 - over Jicky) on my handkerchief. And dream of the glory days of (perfume) design.

Monday, June 22, 2009

making history III: the usable pasts of creed and farina

After a long hiatus we now conclude our look at history and perfume with two extremely juxtaposed approaches of perfume houses to their past: call it source-based history versus history as myth. According to Family Business Magazine the Perfume Houses Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichsplatz and Creed are among the oldest family-owned businesses, tracing their beginnings to 1709 and 1760, respectively. Not surprisingly, their age and history plays a key part in both company’s image and marketing. Roughly 30,000 visitors annually tour the old Farina premises in the heart of Cologne known as the birthplace of Eau de Cologne, which house a store, museum and the current managing director Johann Maria Farina’s offices. The company stresses its 300-year dedication to quality, a glorious past as the leading perfume manufacturer for a 200-year period, and a wealth of illustrious clients. Similarly, Creed’s reputation is built around its role as purveyor to the rich and the beautiful, from the royal courts of yesterday to today’s Hollywood elite, as well as references to old artisanal traditions passed down from generation to generation. Both these firms do indeed have a genuine history, as opposed to the many brands who borrow past names but are really newly formed ventures. And yet, the way they deal with their histories could not be more distinct. Succinctly put, one could say that Farina Gegenüber has almost obsessively displayed its history to the public from the necessity of defending its position and reputation against innumerable plagiarizers and forgeries, boasting a series of 2000 court cases which has not yet ceased. Creed, on the other hand, has always felt a need to both obscure and rewrite its history from the desire of wishing to appear as a 250-year old fragrance house, rather than as a respected tailor’s who happened to dabble in fragrance and only became a perfume house proper in the late 1960s or beyond (there is little evidence even for this late period). The purpose here is not to judge these approaches, but to illustrate how two comparatively small perfume houses with no major PR budget use and have used history under differing circumstances to position themselves in a competitive market up into the present, where their businesses create status illusions and confirmations and emotional fantasies for high end consumers in the niche market. Such fantasies, as one should never forget, are the basic product perfume houses sell, for which their fragrances are simply carrier substances, like alcohol for essential oils.
Creed: A Royal Fantasy
The Creed entry in Family Business Magazine reads:
“In 1760 King George III appointed James Creed to make fragrances. In 1854 the company moved its operations from London to Paris. Both Prince Charles and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, commissioned the company to make scents for them. Today, owner Oliver Creed produces 238 fragrances.“
The problem is that such testimonials tend to be unsubstantiated and, more importantly, that there is no available evidence for the historical relevance, or even the existence, of Creed perfumes prior to the late 20th century. The oldest flacon I have ever seen an image of seems to hark from the late 1960s or early 1970s and bears the name of Olivier Creed. Major visibility seems to have arrived in the 1980s with Green Irish Tweed.
No documents, novels, advertisements, letters of the 19th or 20th century mention Creed perfumes, while the family frequently appears in the context of tailoring. Fashion dictionaries and museums feature works by Creeds, but every perfume history I have read is silent. One of the rare statements from within the family is a ghost-written autobiography by one of its “black sheep” Charles Creed (1909-1966), the uncle of Olivier Creed. Primarily an account of his own exploits at tailoring and womanizing it does make references to the family history and its meteoric rise to fame after 1850, when Henry Creed opened a Paris office and collected Royal Warrants from the French Court and Queen Victoria for clothes and riding habits. While it may be that Creed furnished fragrances as well, as did Guerlain, Farina and other renowned names of the day in perfumery, there is simply no available evidence. The internet spews out frequently conflicting dates and wearers of older Creed perfumes, which in their present form cannot possibly have existed prior to the advent of modern natural-cum-synthetic based perfumery in the 1880s. The beautiful Vintage Tabarôme was thus supposedly made in 1876 for George IV (b. *1762, c.1820, d.1830), Green Irish Tweed for Cary Grant (1904-1986) – it is now undisputed that Pierre Bourdon collaborated on GIT, perhaps in the mid-1980s, and would rework some of its key ideas in Davidoff’s Cool Water. GIT just may have been Archie’s deathbed wish, but the facts do not actually compute.
Olivier Creed, then, has chosen to rewrite the complicated history of a fashion house’s 19th century rise and post-WWII fall into a brand story for his own fragrance enterprise and it has been an unconditionally successful strategy that enables his company to charge a premium for its products in retail contexts. The pomp and circumstance surrounding Creed, from the imitation Prince of Wales ostrich plumes suggesting a Royal Warrant that does not exist, to the monotonous incantation of stock phrases and name dropping by Creed representatives and in PR pieces is also cause for derision, e.g. by Luca Turin, but admittedly, it is a spiel that most everyone in the business plays in one way or another.

Farina Gegenüber: History as a Weapon
Like Creed, Farina Gegenüber is a firm with a rich heritage, a fact that nearly broke its neck when it failed to adapt to changing consumer patterns after WWII. After a long, slow decline, the family bought back all stock in the company from outside investors and began reconstituting the brand as an exclusive niche firm, recreating its historical flacon designs, stressing its unique selling point as the original Eau de Cologne, and restricting sales to selected outlets who may not sell the brand’s discount nemesis, 4711. As with Creed, this has proven a successful strategy that invests the product with a high prestige value. But contrary to Creed, the history of the Farina fragrance is unusually well documented, as it had become the subject of conflicting claims by competing Eau de Cologne firms inventing their own foundational narratives and frequently stealing the Farina brand name ever since the late 18th century. The Farina archive is one of the most complete company archives in the world, it has been used for a number of academic studies in economic history and it documents the history of Farina cologne extensively – Royal warrants, orders by the celebrities of the day (we are talking Goethe, not some American Idol runner-up), historical advertising. While this does not preclude different interpretations of Eau de Cologne history, a basic factual record from which to proceed is extant and available and has formed the basis for evidence in many of the court cases fought by Farina (and they did win them all). Does this mean that Farina Eau de Cologne is a more authentic or better perfume than, say, Creed’s Bois de Cedrat (a light citrus cologne supposedly formulated in 1875)? No. The Farina you buy today is also a reformulated product containing synthetics. It is meant to preserve and convey the spirit of the original while catering to the wishes of contemporary consumers, e.g. in terms of longevity. However, while Creed long emphasized its reliance on ancient infusion methods and avoided the mention of synthetics (there have been modest concessions in more recent PR blurbs, as would seem necessary considering the obvious high content of synthetics in most Creed releases since the mid-80s) Johann Maria Farina, who is a trained pharmacist and perfumer, openly embraces the ethos of modern (i.e. post 1880s) perfumery and its use of naturals with semi- and fully synthetic materials.
Creed and Farina have chosen very different paths to create “usable pasts” for their brand, which are themselves in many ways determined by the nature of those histories. They offer fascinating insights for the historian of smells into the depths and shoals of the past of perfumes as well as lessons on the fictions involved in fragrance branding for the student of perfume culture today. But for the simple lover of perfume truth lies only within the flacon and history - is bunk.

Friday, April 10, 2009

emperor's clothes

I have spent a delightful week in London, my favorite city, and despite the challenges and physical exhaustion that come with a 2.5 year old on an urban vacation, everybody had a good time. Daughter at Coram's Fields and the zoo , mom at the Tate and dad in Jermyn Street .
London is a great place for food and fragrance and like anywhere else in the world, there are renowned locations or products considered the epitome of quality and refinement. Sometimes these institutions are quite old and they have stuck to their principles and remain beacons of a past time. Others are merely facades behind which principles have been corrupted - or haven't kept up with new quality standards. This is all way too abstract, so let's make it practical: Fortnum&Mason is an inevitable address in every London tourist guide and I am not sure whether any native has been seen, on the ground floor at least, as a customer in the last twenty years - it's all full of Germans, Americans and Japanese eagerly buying tea, orange marmalade and other typically British fare at Francis Draconian prices. But just how good are these gold-plated foods? Well, to give you one example, F&M shortbread is not even pure butter, it contains cheap vegetable oils. Good old M&S , on the other hand, does pure butter shortbread (at a fraction of the price). They even have an organic version now and it's pretty tasty, if not quite Walker's.
The Fortnum approach is reminiscent of certain ultra-niche lines, which sell fragrant banalities in a fancy crystal bottle for astronomical prices to people who want to purchase prestige rather than smell good. Clive Christian is the F&M of English perfume - which one could care less about, if he hadn't bought and gutted the very fine Crown Perfumery for the purpose of using their bottle designs, while ending production of their truly well-made classic fragrances.
How refreshing, on the other hand, is the sobriety of Taylor of Old Bond Street, a classical men's grooming establishment that offers a range of simple and effective aftershaves and colognes with no other purpose but to equip the gentleman with the low key smell of the same - at an unpretentious 15 or17 quid a pop. I chose a bottle of Shaving Shop cologne as my souvenir - a fragrance which will remind every man of his father: aromatic citrus, with notable grapefruit and rosemary notes, and a mossy musky wood base - simple and yet strangely alluring, in other words, perfectly masculine.
Let me conclude by saying that we had some wonderful fish dinners at an unpretentious family run place, the North Sea Fish Restaurant in Leigh St., while the definite bummer of the trip was a disastrously bad & expensive meal at renowned eating institution St. John - I should have known that when Brits advertise "simple pared-down" cooking you don't get some kind of ingenious nouvelle cuisine a l'Anglaise, but ineptly boiled (i.e. half-raw) unseasoned cabbage.

Image: Our daughter's giraffe and a typical London view.

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)