The Anatomy of a Stinker

The world of perfume is so focused on trying to assimilate and analyze the sea of new releases that are poured into it every day, that we forget just how often perfume isn’t really perfume at all, but merely air pollution.

Not being in the reviewing business myself, I don’t tend to hang the moniker of “stinker” on perfumes; I just don’t mention them. Draw the veil of charity across them, or something of that sort.  Nevertheless, there is lots of bad perfume out there and you smell it all too often on people.

Over the years, I have developed a set of criteria for what constitutes a bad perfume.  In the interests of consumer protection, I offer them to my readers now.

1)      Can You Smell It?

This is perfectly self explanatory, but I have found in recent years that all sorts of perfumes selling at major mark ups have no discernible smell!  What is going on? Well, it could be catering to the Asian market, which does not take kindly to intrusive perfumes, but my money is on two other culprits: dilution and under dosing.  The first involves an expensive formula that no one wanted to change overtly so perfume has become EDP, and EDT has become cologne, and so on down the perfume strength line.

I have heard of the aftermath of perfume company buyouts in which all the perfumes of major designers were immediately diluted.  But no one should be surprised, because a diluted perfume has a higher concentration of profit. “Yay for us!” Though not yay for you. The other phenomenon is merely a matter of having such a thin little bit of essential oil in a bottle that you can’t smell it anyway. Sometimes you can be anosmic to an ingredient, but if you can’t smell an entire formula, then this particular Emperor is strictly au buffo.  

2)      Does It Smell Rough?

This is exactly the same principle you run into with wine.  A good red wine should not scrape your tongue raw with tannins, it should not suck all the saliva out of your mouth. It should have flavor and depth and a bouquet, for Pete’s sake.  So should a perfume. If, to quote Lenny Henry in “Chef!”, it “smells like the interior of a Datsun mini-cab,” if it “doesn’t promise, it threatens,” you’re not smelling quality.

Roughness is not complexity, not an “accord”, not a new aroma-chemical. It’s a mistake, and you should never smell it. And smelling overtly chemical is a mistake in my book, too.  If you smell like paint stripper, or detergent, you are wearing bad perfume. Period.

3)      Is It Chemically Stable?

Again, this is not rocket science. We’ve all come across fragrances that have one note which protrudes from the formula at odd moments and throws the whole balance of the perfume off. Perfumes may change over time and that is fine, but formulas which disappear and re-appear, or those with sections that smell like burnt rice or window cleaner or bitter tea are mistakes.  Someone did not take the time to test and re-test the product or to let the perfume age sufficiently.  It is a blunder.

By the way, the more perfumes change on different skins, the more you should suspect that the formula is not stable. A well made perfume should smell very recognizable on different skins, if it doesn’t, bingo! You are wearing bad perfume.

4)      Does It Smell Beautiful at All Times?

After all, when everything is said and done, perfume has no practical purpose except to be lovely, if it isn’t lovely then it has no point. So strictly speaking I expect all perfume to be beautiful at all times.  It can’t start off harsh, nor can it end badly.

My greatest bugaboo is a clumsy or chemically bungled dry-down. Any perfume house selling to me must forgo the now customary front loading.  It always results in no sale.  I will tolerate a perfume that dies away with no warning faster than one that limps out on a chrome hedione walker, or zooms out on an ambroxan skateboard.  Either way, I know the name of this game, and it’s bait and switch.  There are too many fish in this over stocked sea, and luxury products should actually be luxurious, otherwise, I’ve always got another use for my money.

(And by the way, if you have your own criteria, please share them).

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8 thoughts on “The Anatomy of a Stinker

  1. Amen on all four! I couldn’t express it better. It is puzzling that so many fragrances smell like nothing. Why wear perfume then? Are companies trying to make a buck off people who hate perfume, but think it’s something they “should” wear? I’m also impatient with those ‘fumes that disappear from my skin within half an hour (Serge Lutens, I’m looking at you), or that have one note so loud and strident that you want to chew your wrist off.

    And as for #4, that again begs the question “why wear perfume” if it is not beautiful? Ari at Scents of Self did a hilarious review of Le Labo Oud 27, the opening of which she called the worst thing she ever smelled. I had a decant at home that I hadn’t tried, and had to test it after that. I got the Band-Aid/iodine accord, certainly not pleasant, and had to wonder who would wear this stuff, and why they would want to smell like that?

    • I don’t get it either. If you hate perfume-don’t wear any! Problem solved.

      What I really don’t understand is the awful perfumes. Ari is right, some of those oud numbers are so bad it does boggle the mind. How does anyone get to the point of producing something so awful? Who wears them? Maybe it’s a good way to clear a room, but wouldn’t bagpipes do that better?

  2. Don’t you wish that some of the higher priced perfume houses agreed too? Then we wouldn’t have pricy bottles for, well, lets just say I came across one recently north of $500 that you could hardly sniff to begin with, and couldn’t smell after 1/2 hour at all! It was a Creed LE.

      • THe SAs at Neimans swear blind that the Creeds sell consistently, and they certainly have a huge display of them right in the middle of the main perfume counter, and none of them retail for much under $250, though the concentrations are weak even for colognes. Don’t get it.

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