The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘lists’

What’s in a list?

I’m not a great cook, but even I know that a list of ingredients isn’t much use on its own. I mean, if I was to tell you I was going to make something with butter, sugar, flour and eggs, you wouldn’t really be much wiser, would you? We might all know what butter, sugar, eggs and flour taste like individually, but combine them in one way and you get pancakes; mix them together in another and you get brioche or a Victoria sponge.

Perfume is no different, which is why I get so cross every time I flick through a magazine or click through a website and read a new fragrance described almost entirely by way of its ingredients. Here’s a fairly typical example. ‘XXX blends a wild rose accord with the traditional and mysterious notes of cistus labdanum, amber and benzoin. White pepper, freesia and South American maté leaves add a contemporary touch of clarity…’

It all sounds very nice, and I can imagine what some of those ingredients might smell like on their own, but I really haven’t the faintest idea what they might smell like together – not least because we’re not told which ingredients are used in which proportion. Trying to reconstruct it in your mind’s eye (never mind in reality) would be like have a recipe that listed the ingredients but didn’t give any weights or quantities.

Another problem with listing ingredients is that, in the hands of different perfumers, two perfumes with the same ingredients can end up smelling completely different. I’ve smelled a few myself, where one is great and the other is revolting – and it’s worth bearing in mind the famous story about Ernest Beaux, the creator of Chanel No. 5, who said of Aimé Guerlain, ‘When I use vanilla, I get crème anglaise; when Guerlain uses it he gets Shalimar…’ – one of the greatest perfumes ever made.

It’s tempting to blame time-pressed journalists (of whom there are plenty), rehashing churned-out press releases from the various brands’ marketing departments (some of which are better than others), but actually I think it’s the magazine and newspaper editors who should take most of the blame, with the rest of it going to the perfume industry.

For there are too many new perfumes coming out to cover any of them in much depth (something I’m trying to counteract here at The Sniff Box). And it’s vanishingly rare for a magazine to give their writers enough room to describe a perfume properly, even if they were keen to do so.

The result? And endless gush of virtually meaningless lists, which tell readers almost nothing and do little to help people learn more about perfume or how to describe it. Is it any wonder that perfume is so often dismissed as being frivolous and expensive, when editors – who are supposed to be informing and educating their readers, after all – don’t take it seriously themselves?

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