“Everything in world can be represented in numbers and patterns”
(Quote from the movie PI)
It’s true – today’s world is more “real” than ever. The internet has accelerated the cognitive evolution of mankind to the point where information is not a question of knowledge anymore – reconnaissance is always available with the click of a mouse. Every question can be answered on scientific level in a few seconds. We are living in a fantastic age of education – the fathers of enlightenment would be very proud of our achievements. But every step forward comes with some side effect, and how to judge those is a subject for another day. The abundance of always-available answers means the end of question marks and this is indeed a thing of wonder. Why are our kids living in such a marvelous world? It’s not really clear to us at the moment – and there is still so much to ponder…
Yes, yes, I know – you are probably raising your eyebrows right now, wondering what the heck all of this has to do with fragrance. Please bear with me for a few more moments and you will see the connection.
When I was around 19 years old, I was at a electronic music festival and got to know a guy who was a sound engineer by profession. I was amazed by the music and had so much fun, whilst he just stood there, not sad or anything, but just not amazed as most of the other festival-goers. So I asked him what the matter was and he replied that, as a sound engineer, he had lost the simple joy of listening to music. For when he heard the opening bars of any piece of music, he could not hear its totality but rather a series of bars on his sequencer programmes, the rates of compression, the mix down and all the other technical things only a sound engineer can see.
This translates to how we experience our passion for fragrance too. Nowadays, we all have access to the same bank of expert knowledge about perfume, how it is made, how it is marketed and so on – and the extent to which we absorb this knowledge just depends on how interested we (as individuals) are in knowing all the details.
OK, I know you really want me to get to the point, but I really do love a good detour. Sometimes the scenic route is best, believe me! In fairy tales, the ordinary exists right beside the magical – and when the two connect, it leads to insight. Magic is simply a tool to convey a total picture of a message or a moral, sometimes a very simple one but sometimes very complex or subtle. Even the most castigatory or serious of literary characters such as Faust, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary exist only because an author wanted to convey some message to his readers about his beliefs on how we should live – those characters are merely tools, no matter how flesh and blood they may seem in our imagination. The books in which they appear are not mere stories but rather a book of revelations for those of us who choose to hear the revelation the author is trying to convey. Fantasy elevates the simple facts. Therein lies the magic of the written word.
“Give the ordinary things a higher sense and the known things the majesty of the unknown.”
(Freely translated quote by Novalis)
Knowing less sometimes gives one the needed room for romantic interpretation, for your own thoughts, and even more vestigial, your own feelings. We live in a age of global progress that is occurring at a relentless pace. Living in a world like this seems to be much more fair, much more fact-orientated than before – and perhaps even more comfortable for us all. But it also seems that this is no place for dreamers, because progress as technological as ours does not allow much room for fantasy.
“Everything in world can be represented in numbers and patterns” and so too can fragrances be represented like this. Finally we are getting to the core of this piece! Surf the waves of social media and you will find – no matter what the topic – “experts” for almost everything. Sure, no problem when it comes to finding car mechanic experts who will help each other and you to find out what’s wrong with your car, even on a Facebook group – but what how about sensual experiences, that rely on very personal, subjective tastes and thought associations, such as perfume? Do we need a rational, modern, technologically-attuned approach to such a sensual, fluid, shape-shifting subject?
Facebook groups like “Scent and Chemistry” have many fans, and I can see the attraction of deconstructing a fragrance, especially for chemists and other scientifically-minded people. And of course everyone likes to have a bit of an edge on other perfume lovers, so if they successfully decode a fragrance, as in the screenshot below, it gets much attention. The thing is, though, if we understand perfume as an art, it should matter what the original artist himself thinks. Alessandro Gualtieri didn’t want perfume geeks to pick apart the notes to Bergamask, rather he felt it important that Bergamask (and his other fragrances) were experienced in their entirety, as a total set of impressions.
My personal assumption is that the majority of fragrance lovers want to actually break free of the note pyramids and simply be free to interpret the scent through their own filter of experiences, memories, and subjective evaluation. In fact we don’t need the marketing departments to tell us what to feel and how to feel with this fragrance or the other – we already know. When I spray myself with PG – Entre Ciel et Mar on an office day, I feel instantly transported to a far away vacation spot – and that’s despite the mountains of paperwork, phone calls and other stuff. Perfume can be a trigger to project us into another world – and we are consciously taking that leap of the imagination, even with that modern mindset of ours which seeks to put things back into their own boxes (or maybe that’s just me, because I am German after all). Even so, the temptation to impose a sort of scientific, or rational superstructure onto a wholly subjective experience (perfume) is strong. How do we do that? We try to break a composition down into their notes, look at its structure from every angle, consider the aromachemicals used and calculate their effect, and above all, we rate, rate, rate.
“A 5/10 perfume, composition is good, but sucks in terms of longevity and silage. ”
(Quote by The Internet Community)
But some perfumes are not meant to stick around for 24 hours. Some, like eaux de cologne, are intended to be brief, mid-morning refreshers (of the spirit and the body) – and some just can’t last longer due to the volatile nature of their ingredients (like most citrus oils). Does this say something about these perfumes’ artisanal approach or their intended purpose (like the classic cologne by Farina 1709, which was intended to refresh its wearer). Let’s consider Ramon Monegal’s Entre Naranjos – it is wonderfully juicy – you close your eyes and with one inhalation be beamed into a field of succulent, sun-drenched oranges – a masterful perfume in the fruity category. Rated mediocre due to its “longevity issues”.
Soft stimuli are triggering, mediocre stimuli are developing, strong stimuli clog, overly strong stimuli destroy.
(Quote by Hugo Kükelhaus)
Some perfumers don’t give out the notes for a reason – they don’t want to their work perceived as overly intellectualized, they want it to be taken as a total experience. With every perfume we put on, we are given the chance to dream a little, perchance to re-romanticize our world a bit, give it back the sparkle and the drama and the magic that we’ve eliminated from this world, along with all scientific doubt or uncertainty. A fact-based existence is necessary, yes, but we also need a little room for fantasy, imagination, wonder and awe. Perfumes can spread magic in our lives, but only if we stop dissecting them so thoroughly, analyzing and rating them to the bone. Sure, it is easier to talk about the “hard determinants” on the web – it allows us to seem like experts and shows we know a thing or two about perfumes – but it detracts so much from the pleasure. How about talking about the pictures we see in our mind’s eye when we wear a certain perfume, describing the memories or associations it evokes for us, and thus making the sharing of our “SOTD” a much more personal thing?
In the end, there is even a matching lesson in Zen (where else?): Shoshin – the attitude of a beginner’s mind, which says there are many possibilities in a beginner’s mind – but only a very few in a expert’s mind.
Give ample scope, give ample scope – this is the secret
(Freely translated quote by Hugo Kükelhaus)