Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Colors of Perfume

The other day I was reading some discussion on Perfume Posse about attributing colors to fragrances. One commenter decided that Mitsouko, for example, would be a bronzy-greenish gold. This inspired me to think some more about fragrance and imaginary links to color.

I’m studying abstract painting at the moment, and working somewhat reluctantly in acrylic, which is essentially pigment suspended in plastic. All kinds of issues come into play when painters talk about acrylic vs. oil. No one can look down their nose at acrylic like an oil painter, and yet there’s no question that acrylic is the medium of our age -- it’s fast, bright, relatively cheap, dries in minutes, and can be used with hundreds of substances, sold separately of course, to tart it up. But it doesn’t have that seductive linseed oil smell. It’s texture is, well, rather unpleasant; sticky, truth be told. It doesn’t dry with that gorgeous depth (which has something to do with the refractive properties of the oil medium.) But it’s fast. You can dash off a painting in the morning, frame it at lunch and sell it by dinner. Now, if that’s not modern I don’t know what is.

However, I digress.

If your perfumes had a color and -- oh, let’s add one more attribute -- if they were rendered in a paint medium, what would that be? I ran down a mental list of some of my favorites.

Shalimar: “Midnight” blue (Prussian blue) in oil
Bal a Versailles: Coral pink, in oil
Miss Balmain: a rosy amber/copper, in acrylic
Odalisque: Celadon, in watercolor
Amouage Lyric for Women: A deep, copper-tinged rose, in oil
Barbara Bui Le Parfum: A creamy white, in acrylic
Tom Ford Tobacco Vanille: dark brown (what else) in oil
Eau Parfumee au Te Vert: a soft, clear blue green, in watercolor
Rosine Poussiere de Rose: a cool blue-rose, in watercolor
Coty L’Aimant Eau de Toilette: a pinky rose, in oil
Chypre de Coty: dark foresty green, in oil
Chanel Coromandel: deep browny maroon, in oil
L’Air du Desert Marocain: bright golden amber, in oil

Color theory is far from simple; there are numerous color “systems” (roughly one for every painter who writes a how-to-understand-color-book). And pigments, like fragrances, tend to be based on synthetics today, with many of the same issues that fragrances have: the difficult sourcing of natural ingredients, and (not this again!) the fact that some of them can be, well, not exactly safe, like the cadmiums and cobalts. However, unlike the fragrance industry, the art supply industry hasn’t enlisted the help of a watchdog organization to do its nannying. Artists often like the natural pigments because of their working properties; opacity, transparency, tinting strength and so on. The synthetics tend to stomp all over everything else on the palette, so, if you’re using a natural like an umber, you have to use just a tiny bit of most of the synthetics in your mixes; otherwise, you won’t even be able to detect the natural pigment’s influence. So, like a perfumer, a painter not only has to understand the materials, but also the proportions at which they influence each other in varying ways.

What “color” are some of your favorite fragrances?

Image of the Munsell Color System-based color wheel from Wikimedia.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

In Random Fashion

"What makes you think I'm not interested in fashion?" -- Andy Sachs in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Aging is hell, especially as regards the body. But you knew that. If you don’t already, you will.

Bought the new Vogue (and looked at the new Elle while at the dentist).

Both mags are full of encapsulated scent strips from the big companies, the scents ranging roughly from 1)awful to 2)godawful.

Why is everything so diabetes-inducing, instant-tooth-decay SWEET?
Maybe to offset the still-ever-so au courant multiple tattoos and piercings?

And how about those thigh-high hooker boots in “Vogue?” Like the vinyl ones Julia Roberts wore in “Pretty Woman” only a hundred times more expensive?

Less said the better.

Here’s what fashion mags do for me. They tell me which “vintage” (as in old) clothes that have been buried in my closet, or jewelry tangled in the bottom of the box for twenty years, are coming back again. And I kinda like the layouts.

I saw something on a chefporn show, at a too-hip NY restaurant, where the chef lights dried oak leaves, places the stems in whatever the food is, blows the flames out and delivers the dish with the leaves still smoldering to the diner.

(Better not be any oakmoss on those leaves though.)

Black is the new black: Black Afgano by Nasomatto and Back to Black by Kilian. Former is interesting in that almost-revolting way of the super-niche; the latter, on me, is marzipan-and-powder sweet, a lot like some vintage Habanita I have, but without that one's bitter edge.

Here’s the thing though: that Black Afgano smells more like, um, the oil form than the...well, never mind. Sticky umber tar, iron wood, camel dung and kif, don’t-think-about-what’s-in-it nostalgia time; hello 1972!

I have a handful of Shalimar samples, from many vintages and in many formulations, and one of these days I’m actually going to get around to comparing them.

A kindly swapper in Latvia sent me a decant of “Explosive” by Etienne Aigner. Man. Rich, deep rose and dark and dirty base; I am so there. Notes include the usual suspects (patchouli, amber, moss.) One of those “Get out of my way!” 80’s fragrances. Discontinued, of course. Here we go again.

Eureka! I have found my floral. It’s “Odalisque,” from Parfums de Nicolai. Tropical. Not too sweet. Jasmine and iris and an edgy dark green note. Lasts, too. OK, so it’s not The Latest Thing. Neither am I.

So: What makes you think I’m not interested in fashion?

photo of Anne Hathaway in "The Devil Wears Prada" from

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Have you ever changed your ISP? Then you know that there are around 15,000 of your outposts on the web which require sudden and meticulous attention. So please forgive me for not writing anything until, oh, probably around the end of this week. Detail occludes my creative process, so to speak.

p.s. Bye-bye Comcast!

photo copyright Ray22, used under license from

Monday, September 7, 2009

Market Driven

Wondering why more and more mainstream fragrances keep getting worse and worse?

In this article, Chandler Burr discusses the not-so-new technology and sales survey methods that have been tailored to the fragrance industry in recent years.

Hmmmm. I have a hunch. (A “hunch” by my definition is a mysterious process by which a human mind -- one human, ideally -- will put together a vague, amorphous idea or decision, based on knowledge gleaned from different disciplines, along with specialized experience and a little time to think.) “Hunches,” aka “creativity,” are where the good stuff comes from -- or did, once.

I worked in the late, lamented music business, leaving it as it abandoned its own lifeblood: the discovery of new, the cultural catalyst, by way of the hunch. It’s now the realm of marketeers, focus groups, lawyers and bean-counters. I can’t help but see many parallels between that now-moribund business and the modern fragrance industry.

The first clang of music’s funeral bell was “Soundscan,” a Neilsen-owned ratings system whereby actual sales figures could be transmitted to subscribers from cash registers, instead of depending on verbal or written reports from stores. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s all just product, right?

Not necessarily. The reporting process bought time. It was essential to what was called “artist development,” which gave the artists some room to, well, develop; to get better, in other words. Groundbreaking talent was given time by way of a certain amount of industry hyping. Clerks had time to talk up good music and play it in the store. The ground was laid at the niche outlets, and only then was it taken to mainstream. All of this gave authentic word-of-mouth time to spread, which could take years. Now, it’s all about how many units sold last week.

Madonna is one example. Her first record was in the process of failing spectacularly, because only “urban” (read: black) radio would play it -- she sounded black on that album -- but, when they discovered she wasn’t, they backed off. “Pop” (read: white) radio wouldn’t play her because they thought she sounded too black. It was a social, and commercial, Catch-22.

The president of Madonna’s label wasn’t willing to give up on her that easily. He’d had a hunch about this snotty girl. He instructed everyone: keep trying. Don’t take “no.” Call in your favors. Buy some time while we figure out what to do. And during that time -- a few months -- the “Lucky Star” video appeared, and the nascent MTV began playing it. Within a year, Madonna was the biggest star in the world.

What would happen now?

That first record would have died. No one would know it had ever existed. It would slip into the not-urban not-pop chasm without a sound. Without impressive Soundscan figures, the corporate Suits would have forbidden any more spending. No more videos, no tour, no appearances. At the next marketing meeting -- four weeks later -- the record would have been declared a “stiff.” Next!

This dragon-swallowing-its-own-tail strategy of selling only what has already sold has been responsible, imho, for the rise of so much shoddy, market-driven music.

(If Madonna isn’t your favorite example of success based on a hunch, consider Bruce Springsteen: both of his first two records stiffed and the overheated p.r. for the third -- “Born to Run” -- caused a consumer backlash that took years to fade. Still, Springsteen’s label stuck with him, because the man who found him had time to keep the Suits at bay. Today, Bruce would be driving a truck.)

The Burr article says also that this polling research -- which includes exit polling on why-did-you-buy -- is expensive, so much so that only the big boys can afford it. The retailers, of course, want to minimize their risk; they want those sales figures and will only deal with manufacturers who can supply them. This neatly cuts out the innovative, the niche, the indie, the hunch.

Furthermore, once there is a chart, everybody wants to be on it; this company, NPD, has established a “Top 100” (sound familiar)? To get on this Top 100 list, companies will do whatever it takes, including more trade and consumer advertising, more point-of-purchase, celebrity shills, whatever; the money has to come from somewhere. Where does it come from? The cost of production, of course! The quality of the ingredients that can be used, in other words, to make the fragrance itself. Expensive, hard-to-source ingredients are doomed. Well, they were anyway; as of the reformulation deadline, January 2010, the bean-counters will have had their way, all in the name of It’s pretty impressive, when you think about it.

Market-driven: right into the ground.

It’s not just fragrance, or music, or movies. It’s everything.

Why did we become so afraid to take a chance?

*you may have to register with the New York Times to access the article. It’s free, and if you don’t like giving them your demographic info, hey...just make the stuff up.

Photo composite by Olfacta; all rights reserved.