The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘Iso E Super’

Nothing succeeds like… nothing

Like many perfume lovers in London I spend a lot of time in Liberty, which has one of the best selections of perfume in the metropolis, covering everything from legendary classics to the latest obscure niche brand. Their staff are pretty good too: friendly and helpful, and generally more knowledgeable than your average department-store sales staff.

But it seems that even they aren’t entirely immune from the corrosive effect of marketing bollocks. According to Liberty’s beauty buyer Sarah Coonan, the store’s best-selling beauty product at the moment is Molecule 01, from cult company Escentric Molecules (yes, it’s meant to be spelled that way). Its gimmick is that it is, allegedly, entirely composed of a single chemical, called ISO E Super, which is normally used as an ingredient in other perfumes – Terre d’Hermès is a good example.

So far so boring. But what takes a gimmick into the realm of comedy is the marketing. On more than one occasion recently I’ve been minding my own nose in Liberty when a fellow customer has asked a sales assistant whether they stocked ‘that perfume that doesn’t smell of anything’. I’ve also, equally amusingly, heard a member of staff tell a customer something along the lines of ‘now this one is really special: it has no smell’.

OK, so you want to spend £30 on 30ml of a perfume that smells of nothing? That would be idiotic, wouldn’t it? But that’s what at least some people seem to want to believe, and what Liberty seem to be happy for people to go on believing.

As sales pitches go it’s one of the daftest on offer, but what I don’t like about it is that it’s not actually true. For Molecule 01 doesn’t smell of nothing at all. It might not smell of very much, and what it does smell of might not appeal to everyone (to me it smells mainly of photocopier fluid), but to tell credulous customers that it smells of nothing is surely just wrong.

As it happens, not even Escentric Molecules claim that Molecule 01 is odourless, though their sales shtick could hardly be described as hard sell. ‘Molecule 01,’ it reads, ‘is created solely from the aroma-chemical Iso E Super, which works as more of an effect than a fragrance. The scent has a subtle, velvety, woody note which will meld with your natural pheromones, vanish, then re-surface aftersome time, making it totally individual and personalised to the wearer. You will rarely smell this on yourself, Molecule 01 is more about the effect it has on others.’

Nonsense about pheromones aside, why anyone would want to spend good money on an, ahem, ‘effect’ that you can’t actually smell on yourself is slightly beyond me, though in fact there’s nothing unusual in a perfume that you can’t, after a while, smell on yourself. In fact that’s true of most perfumes, and if it wasn’t they’d probably drive you nuts.

So what, in the end, is special about Molecule 01? It’s a rather faint perfume that – like most perfumes – smells a bit different on different people, and that you can’t necessarily smell on yourself all the time. It’s not exactly the perfume equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes, but it appears that a lot of people would like it to be. If nothing else it demonstrates the way that marketing and design can convince us of almost anything. Most intriguing.


Christian Dior

Dior Homme

rsz_guerlainWe all have blind spots, and Dior Homme has definitely been one of mine. I was, very kindly, given a bottle some time ago, and I admired its clear glass-and-lucite design, but as for the perfume inside – I just didn’t get it. It had excellent reviews, and it obviously sells well, so I thought I’d better give it another try.

Still no luck, I’m afraid. It’s not horrible (which is a rarer attribute than you might expect), but neither does it make me go ‘WOW!’, which is the response I’m always hoping for. There’s a hint of something in it that I really don’t like, which it shares with a lot of other men’s fragrances today – a slightly metallic, chemical smell, which might come from dihydromyrcenol or perhaps from ISO E Super, both (ab)used with gay abandon by contemporary perfumers.

So why the brilliant reviews? Am I just completely missing something? Actually, I suspect not. Although it was only launched in 2005, it seems that the original scent might well have been tinkered with and reformulated (quite possibly more than once), meaning that the bottle I have probably smells very little like the much-admired original. Which is a shame, as it did sound very appealing, not least because it was created by the talented Olivier Polge, son of Chanel’s legendary in-house perfumer Jacques Polge.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the version I have and the original do seem to share at least one interesting quality. I’ve pointed out before that in itself perfume is genderless – how can a liquid be ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’? But there are definitely some ingredients and effects that, at least historically, have been more closely associated with women or men. Vetiver, for example, is considered a classic ‘male’ smell, while iris is widely regarded as and ‘feminine’ and ‘floral’ (even though the scent is extracted not from iris flowers but from its roots).

As its name far from subtly suggests, Dior Homme is aimed squarely at men, yet its main smell, even in my rather synthetic-smelling version, derives from iris; compare it with Chanel’s superlative 1932 and you’ll see what I mean. Either this shows that contemporary men are more sophisticated than some might say, or they’re dumb enough to believe anything they’re sold. I like to think the former, but maybe I’m deluding myself; what do you think?


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