Sniffing the good, the bad and the glandular with the fragrance critic of the New York Times


04th December, 2008

I never thought I’d be sniffing essence of armpit with Chandler Burr, the first and only fragrance critic for the New York Times (NYT). I expected to be listening to him talking behind a podium in syncopation with his PowerPoint slides. This is what usually happens at break-out sessions at tradeshows.

Instead, Burr, 45, strides into the windowless room in the bowels of the Jacob Javits Center in New York and instructs us to move our chairs to the front of the room and form a circle.

“Like Romper Room,” he says, referring to the once popular American children’s TV show. “We’re going to smell lots of things, talk to each other, and have fun.”

I am the outsider and come to his session prepared to take notes, not take part in a sniff-off with 20 perfumers or noses, and marketers from the giants of the flavours and fragrance industry: Givaudan, Symrise, IFF, Quest, and the NPD Group, the global market research firm.

Burr is an outsider too. This is the first time that he’s spoken at the HBA Global Expo & Conference, the annual tradeshow for the suppliers to the cosmetic, personal care and fragrance industry. But he is not at a loss for words.

“I’m not a fragrance freak,” he tells us, with a shake of his head. “I’m a journalist. My subject happens to be fragrance.”
While Burr’s darkly handsome assistant carefully lines up an assortment of bottles, removes the caps, and unwraps a box of paper strips used to test scents, Burr describes how he became a fragrance critic.

A chance meeting of Luca Turin, a “biophysicist and perfume genius,” at a Paris train station  pulled the Washington, DC native away from international economics and into Turin’s esoteric world of scents. He wrote a book about Turin (“The Emperor of Scent”) which led him to the NYT where he writes a weekly column. His adventures with Sarah Jessica Parker (Lovely, Covet) and Jean-Claude Ellena, Hermes’ in-house perfumer, were published this year in "The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris & New York."

Burr’s fragrance reviews in his “Scent Notes” column are based on a 5-star rating system.

His criteria are:

  • Persistence – How long does the fragrance stay on the skin?
  • Diffusion – Does the perfume lift off the skin?
  • Structure – How well do the materials mesh together?
  • Do I like it? – Do I judge it to be innovative, lovely, beautiful, surprising?

And I’d add two more: “Would I buy it?” “Can I afford it?”

“A Beautiful Lie”

Burr passes around strips sprayed with the first fragrance. A word on protocol. Wait for everyone to get a strip before sniffing. It’s best to hold the paper paddle an inch or two from your nose and don’t inhale too deeply. We’ve got many bottles to try, and after four or five, it’s olfactory overload.
I don’t recognize this perfume immediately, but many do and smile. “Chanel No. 5,” purrs a well-accessorized blonde nose with a French accent. Yes! Now I remember. The woman at the accounting firm who had partner envy. Chanel No. 5 is a landmark perfume because of its use of aldehydes, Burr explains, the synthetic molecules that took perfume in 1921 “from an old art to a new place.”

He warms to the subject of synthetics and the fear they invoke in marketing and PR departments. “Art is artifice. It’s not meant to be real,” Burr says, jabbing the air, like an attorney giving closing arguments. “Jean-Claude Ellena told me that perfume is a beautiful lie. All art is. There is truly nothing like nature.”

The fragrance industry should talk openly about synthetics and the perfumers in laboratories who manipulate them as a way to help sluggish sales, Burr contends. He points to the cosmetic industry as an example of attracting customers with technical product information. Most marketing executives remain unconvinced, but Burr holds his ground. He won’t review a perfume unless the PR people let him talk to the perfumer, not the designer whose name is on the bottle (“designers don’t know anything about perfume”).

He exposes another marketing conceit—that fragrances split along gender lines. From a technical and historic perspective, there is no such thing as a "masculine" or "feminine" fragrance. So wear whatever you like, he urges us. “Masculines are only to make heterosexual males feel that it’s OK to wear fragrance.”

The next strip comes to life as a heavy, lush embrace. It’s Shalimar, created in 1925 by Guerlain. The key synthetic is 3-methoxy-4hydroxy-benzaldehyde. For me, the key is a New Year’s Eve party at which I am lying under a mound of fur coats.

The Scent that Dare Not Speak Its Name

A quick whiff is all that’s needed for the next scent. A bathroom in coach on a crowded trans-Atlantic flight to Frankfurt comes to mind. The name is Secretions Magnifique – magnificent secretions. It is the smell of body fluids. Mucus, semen and blood to be precise. It is not meant to be worn or really even purchased. It is a cultural statement by art house Etat Libre d’Orange. This clearly pleases Mr. B. and for its chutzpah, he awards three stars; Good juice.

After that glandular stunt, Burr treats us to a sneak preview of his next day’s column. Like the smartest kid in class giving a book report, he stands in front of us and reads his review of Dior Addict by Dior, a perfume introduced in 2002. True to his own formula he tells us everything we need to know, including the name of the perfumer (Thierry Wasser), the key synthetic molecule (coumarin), how it persists and diffuses (very well and like clockwork), and for our listening pleasure, tosses in a reference to modern art and ice cream. Addict too earns three stars.

Sniff but Don’t Touch

The next fragrance reminds me of the cloying white frosting on grocery store sheet cakes.  Burr agrees. “It’s a piece of crap.” This celebrity fragrance was created to smell good on paper, not necessarily on skin. That’s because market research shows that most people accept or reject a fragrance in about 10 seconds after spraying it on a strip, not their forearm. So the directive went out to creative a fragrance that smells good on paper.You can imagine what that did for perfumers’ morale.  In private, they admit to Burr that most of the time they just do what they are told. Sales and profits are driving the formulas, not inspiration and creativity.

Splendor in the Grasse

Moving back in time, the next scent evokes a dusty, slightly soapy, sweet trifle. Is it a natural or synthetic? Most hands go up for synthetic. Wrong. It is rose, the raw, natural material from the fields of Grasse, France, for centuries the holy land of the perfume industry. Rose as a raw material is one of the most expensive ingredients in the world, US$50,000 per kilo (2.20 pounds). But we don’t like it. “What’s wrong with rose?” Burr asks. Focus groups say it reminds them of their grandmother. Rose’s image problem is nothing compared to jasmine’s. Smelling the natural jasmine from Grasse (also obscenely expensive) no way evokes fields of little, white flowers.

“It is armpit,” says Burr. “Dirty. Animal. And thus, it has huge power.” The essence of armpit is indoles, a compound produced by bacteria decomposing in the intestine. Combined with other materials, indoles literally draw us in like flies to dung. Calvin Klein Eternity contains molecules found in rotting corpses, a grinning Burr adds. I envision a collective brain freeze in marketing and PR departments all over Manhattan.

Now, for the final exam. We will sniff a series of strips sprayed with both raw and synthetic materials. The last strip will be a combination of all of them used to create a well-known perfume. “You’ll never guess it!” Burr challenges.
A spike of tension grips our circle. The first strip is grandma’s neck, so it must be rose. The armpit makes another appearance; jasmine. I draw a blank on the aldehydes. The last strips are sprayed with the famous perfume. I close my eyes, inhale and float.

“What is it?” Burr asks, confident that he’s stumped us. The circle is silent. Suddenly, I know this perfume without thinking.

Joy!” A nod of approval from the group.

Joy is my mother's name, and over the years she's received a few small bottles of Jean Patou’s 1930 classic, but she rarely wears it. So how did I easily recognize one of the world's most expensive perfumes?

Smell is the most mysterious of our senses. With Burr to guide me,  I fell back onto the mattress of memory and recalled bottles of amber liquid that formed a skyline on the dressers of my mother, grandmothers and aunts. Out of that visceral flyby, Joy emerged. And there’s nothing synthetic about that.

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Comments

    • AromiErotici | 5th December 2008 01:14

      Nice read man. I enjoyed his realistic approach to fragrance and lack of snobbery.

    • Natural_Juice | 6th December 2008 22:30

      Carole, first I have to say that you provided us with a great recount of the event. Sounds like you had fun, which is very important, armpit sniffing aside, LOL.

      But some parts made me wince:

      >“Art is artifice. It’s not meant to be real,” Burr says, jabbing the air, like an attorney giving closing arguments. “Jean-Claude Ellena told me that perfume is a beautiful lie. All art is. There is truly nothing like nature.”<

      Where the other attendees ears plugged with wax and their lips sealed shut that they could not hear this wonderment of posturing and challenge it? JCE proclaims something and Burr swallows it whole and regurgitates it, and that makes it real? The logic and reasoning behind such a statement and the "truly nothing like nature" bit - pure silliness. It's why I can't take Burr seriously, as much as I want to.

      >The fragrance industry should talk openly about synthetics and the perfumers in laboratories who manipulate them as a way to help sluggish sales, Burr contends. He points to the cosmetic industry as an example of attracting customers with technical product information. Most marketing executives remain unconvinced, but Burr holds his ground.<

      He's sooooo wrong. Worldwide demand for non-synthetic materials is at a historic high, and he thinks broadcasting the testtube origins of perfumes is OK? I vote with the marketing execs and giggle at the quicksand Burr is holding on to.