The Specialists

Ever notice that some perfume firms simply are better at certain kinds of fragrance?  I’m thinking of the fact that if you want a wonderful oriental, Guerlain still is pretty hard to beat (Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue), or that gourmand scents are the strong point of Parfumerie Generale (Aomassai, Cadjmere), or that even though Dior makes periodic sorties into enemy held territories, like the oriental, they are usually only partially successful, e.g. Dioressence, or that… but I expect by now you’ve got  the picture.

Fact is, all of this is counter-intuitive when you consider the business model on which most fragrance companies are built. The perfume industry has been out-sourcing for decades, and the homogeneity of what each house produces has more to do with in-house art direction than with anything else.

Still, this peculiar observation holds true for big companies and small ones alike, whether or not they employ an in house perfumer.  Chanel excels at chypres and aldehydic florals.  Straight florals they’ve had less success with, e.g. Gardenia, and Une Fleur de Chanel.

Similarly, Estee Lauder is wonderful at florals and chypres, but seldom does well with orientals, to whit, the controversial Spellbound and Cinnabar which never quite emerges from the shade cast by that perfume megalith Opium.  Go figure.

There are even firms which sort themselves along what should be outdated gender lines.   Creed, for instance, does masculines rather well, and does feminines rather less so.  Parfums de Nicolai is another such firm.  The female de Nicolais are conflicted creatures, usually either too sweet or too harsh, e.g. Balkis or Sacrebleu (as opposed to Weekend a Deauville or Rose Pivoine), but they each include some deliberate contradiction or gaucherie which makes them awkward rather than fascinating. The masculines by contrast, are clever and urbane.  None of them are bad.  Even unoriginal perfumes such as Carre d’As are suave and polished and easy to wear.

Some firms are even more precise at demarcating their territories of expertise.  CB I Hate Perfume does the evocative perfume wonderfully well: Cumming the Fragrance or Memory of Kindness, but avoids the huge orchestrated abstract floral.  Mind you, Christopher Brosius can turn his hand to such tasks – smell Cradle of Light if you want to experience him out-Patouing Jean Patou.

It pays, I think, to acknowledge these details; it saves you time and disappointment.  It saves you searching hopelessly for an oriental at the Jo Malone counter, as I once did, sounding shriller and shriller as the process went on.  Not their fault.  Totally mine. I was being unreasonable. The Malone’s are light scents meant to be layered, and if you don’t like it, well, you’re at the wrong counter. You create your own complexity.

But I’ll never learn.  I keep thinking one firm or another will one day  break character and surprise the living daylights out of me.

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7 Responses to The Specialists

  1. Sujaan says:

    Such a great article, thank you! This is so true and it’s really hard for newbie perfumistas to know what to look for in each line. I too had a rather frustrating experience at Jo Malone. Now I understand what they’re all about. I now do my home work before visiting say, the Chanel counter or popping into Aedes. I not only don’t want to ask for what they don’t have, I want to spend my time sniffing what they do best.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Hi Sujaan, Yes it helps to do a little bit of research, and thankfully that’s getting to be pretty easy. Unfortunately, it’s the same thing with perfume as shoes, some places for flats, some for heels, and then you go somewhere else again for the running shoes. One stop shopping might be convenient, but I think a little romance might go out of the process then. Thanks for reading.

  2. Mals says:

    An interesting take. The fact that I love aldehydic florals and do much, much less well with green chypres and orientals might explain my preference for Chanel over Guerlain and Estee Lauder.

    However, I’d protest that two of Parfums de Nicolai’s feminine are on my Must Have On Hand At All Times list: Vanille Tonka and Le Temps d’une Fete. However, come to think of it, neither is not particularly girly by my lights, and I’ve dismissed most of the rest of the line, excepting Odalisque and Juste un Reve, as “too masculine for me.”

    • Mals says:

      (“However” twice in one paragraph? Sheesh.)

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Well, I love de Nicolais and wore them nearly exclusively for about three years, but I think the IFRA regulations hit the house hard. I ran to Juste Un Reve, Vanille Tonka, Cologne Sologne and Haute Provence. What I found was that they were fabulous in summer, a bit less so in our cold winters, and changed by the new EU requirements so that I sometimes couldn’t recognize my old friends when I bought them in new bottles. The masculines seem less reformulated to me, although their great take on Caron’s Troisieme Homme, Nicolai Pour Homme is now discontinued! WHY?!?!

      IFRA, of course.

      So don’t think I don’t have sympathy with this House, I just wish, wish, wish, that the EU would worry less about allergens.

      • Mals says:

        Sudden panic: is my darling Le Temps d’une Fete the same? I just killed a 30ml bottle and have started on another, purchased ca. 2009… and my 10ml decant of Vanille Tonka – the first niche thing I ever, every purchased, and one I still love – is nearly empty.

        OH NO.

        • Blacknall Allen says:

          Don’t you hate it when that happens? But I’ll bet the Temps is OK because it’s more recent and probably a law abiding perfume. If there’s a worry, it’ll be about the Vanille Tonka. The last time I bought VT was, let me see…’07? I haven’t tried it since. I know Odalisque, Juste Un Reve and Number One smelled different to me when I tried them again in ’09-’10. I think the company used a lot of naturals and had to reformulate when those rules came down from IFRA. Ask around, somebody’s got to know if the recent Temps and VT are the same. Does anybody know?? Bueller? Bueller?

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