1/21/17

How Not To Debate A Chemist



It was with great pleasure that I read the recent exchange on Bigsly's blog between Bibi Maizoon, who holds a B.S. in Organic Chemistry from Stanford University, and the blog's author, who simply peddles a lot of B.S.

As I read Bibi's comment to his recent "Fake Facts" post, I realized that one of my faithful readers really "gets it," and understands what I've been writing for years. Fragrance enjoyment is entirely subjective; there are no rights or wrongs in how you perceive perfume. There is no such thing as a "chemical" fragrance, for all perfumes are chemical compositions. And there is no shame in finding pleasure in popular mass-market designer fragrances like Dior's Sauvage. What you like is entirely yours to enjoy. If the only fragrance you've ever smelled is Chanel No 5, and you absolutely love the stuff, more power to you. It's one of the biggest sellers of all time, and you have settled on something that will always be available to you.

Likewise, if you enjoy oddball cheapies like Jovan's Intense Oud, that's great too, but as Bibi pointed out, understanding that it's not a high quality oud allows you to enjoy it with a deeper knowledge of what you're wearing, and hopefully within a meaningful context. She simply pointed out that if you're a Westerner wearing JIO in the Middle East, you shouldn't be too surprised if your fragrance isn't well received, given the preponderance of more sophisticated oud perfumes in that part of the world. In America you'll be regarded as someone with unique (and probably quite interesting) tastes, but that's because we're not well versed in oud.

Bibi also pointed out that there's nothing "wrong" with Sauvage, a fragrance Bigsly habitually denigrates. It is well received by her wealthier acquaintances, and it continues to be a strong seller for Dior. I would hazard to guess that Sauvage is to Dior what Bleu de Chanel has been - a cash cow! I live in a metropolitan part of the USA, and still haven't encountered anyone wearing Bleu or Sauvage, so I can't say they're overwhelmingly popular. But sales stats would probably prove me wrong. Whenever I wear Bleu, I receive compliments on it. Sauvage probably rates the same for those who wear it.

One of the key points Bibi made is that the term "chemical" means nothing when applied in a general way to how a perfume smells. Her understanding of perfumery seems well aligned with mine: perfumery is the art of creating entirely new (inherently enjoyable) smells that are not found in nature. A truly great perfume is its own one of a kind smell, using mostly synthetic chemicals. One example that I happen to frequently wear and enjoy is Versace's The Dreamer. I wear The Dreamer knowing that it doesn't smell like real lavender, or real tobacco, or real vanilla. It contains lavender, tobacco, and vanilla notes, and I can clearly discern them, but they work together to form an entirely unique accord. I'm not concerned with whether this accord is "natural" or "synthetic." That is not the point of The Dreamer. The point is that nothing else smells like The Dreamer, and it's a very good smell.

Bigsly clearly doesn't understand this. In his retort to Bibi, he wrote:

"The 'trick' of modern perfumery is to use such large amounts of synthetics and yet make most people think it smells 'natural.'"

The problem with his statement is that if this were the "trick," then chemists would never have bothered with synthetics in the first place. Oakmoss and birch tar are great natural fixatives, and chemists would just build on them with other natural essences of floral extracts and musks to compose perfumes, making the entire concept of perfume one of naturalism (and very high retail prices).

But perfumers don't do this. They use synthetics precisely because they enable us to experience smells not found in nature. Bigsly's definition of perfumery suggests that perfumers must "reinvent the wheel" when they enter the lab by laboriously tinkering with vats of chemicals to replicate scents found in nature.

But where in nature can one find the apple note in Cool Water? The violet note in Green Irish Tweed? The citrus melange in Acqua di Gio? These scents are megahits because they smell fake, in a good way.

Bibi's comment implies a criticism of Bigsly's "fragrance chemist," one which is well formed, given the dubious nature of his interview with this anonymous person. What surprises me a little is that he opened himself up to this obvious criticism. He spent years criticizing my blog for lacking "citations," "sources," and "evidence." Eventually I was able to interview an identified veteran of the fragrance industry who supported my positions and refuted his, and Bigsly considered my source "invalid" for reasons that were never specified.

All of that is fine of course - if you dislike me and Jeffrey Dame, then that is your right - but if you argue that Mr. Dame's opinions are invalid, the burden of proof is on you to support your argument, and that is something Bigsly never did. He simply used his personal opinions to counter Mr. Dame's 35 years of professional knowledge. Because Mr. Dame has decades of experience in things Bigsly has no professional understanding of, one can see the obvious problem with Bigsly's attitude toward him. Bigsly is just an anonymous amateur enthusiast. His complaints are akin to a child whining about rules dealt to him by an adult.

Then in 2016 he claimed to interview a fragrance chemist, without disclosing the chemist's identity. I pointed out the obvious problem with this, and Bibi brought it directly to Bigsly. He responded to her by saying:

"If you think I should not have published my interview with this person, despite the background check I did and having an 'expert' review it first to see if there appeared to be any 'red flags,' then you can just state that, but making up 'false facts' (or lies, as I prefer to say) is unacceptable . . . "

This is a smoke and mirrors comment, and the only thing unacceptable here is an unidentified amateur calling a highly educated chemist a liar.

Bigsly is attempting to discredit Bibi's honesty by calling what she says "lies." However, he reveals (perhaps unintentionally) that even he did not know who he was talking to when he interviewed his "chemist." He mentions that he had to background check the person's claims, and have them "reviewed" by a third party. He's basically telling his readers, "I want you to trust this person, even though I do not." If the interview was with a real fragrance chemist with a real place of employment, wouldn't a simple call to his employer suffice? Or was that also anonymous? If so, I would think this level of unnecessary anonymity would be its own "red flag."

That Bigsly doesn't seem to pick up on this makes him seem a little dim, to be honest. I think I can speak for Bibi when I say that neither of us believe he interviewed a real fragrance chemist (she has said as much in comments here anyway). I will concede that it's possible his interview is legitimate, but with no way to verify it, I choose to remain unconvinced, and will withhold further judgement for the day (if it ever comes) when he is allowed to tell the world who he spoke to.

However, Bibi has an advanced degree in organic chemistry, and it seems she sees little factual content in Bigsly's post. And as for his "background check" and his "expert" (who is supposedly the most "well known" fragrance writer in the English language, which implies Luca Turin), these are meaningless assertions without specifics. Bigsly can't even tell us who reviewed the anonymous chemist's claims! That's three degrees of anonymity, including Bigsly himself.

One can only infer that he is unable to verify any of what he wrote, and since the interview suspiciously supports many of his long-held contentions about fragrance, the logical conclusion for any intelligent reader to reach is that the entire thing is fictitious. Add to that a dissenting opinion from an Organic Chemist (who I'm sure would be more than happy to prove herself to anyone who challenges her), and well, Bigsly has a problem.

He published that stuff. It's on him to prove that it's legitimate. To the general public, he has no credibility. Unlike me, he's an anonymous blogger. He could be anybody. For all anyone knows, he could be a professor with a PhD in astrophysics, or he could be a compulsive liar who is just smart enough to not give specific details about himself, or anything he lies about. Without his help, there's no way to know the truth. However, given the glaring holes in his arguments, I feel confident in choosing to believe he isn't a PhD in anything.

When you choose to be completely anonymous on the Internet, you have to convey your message with factual specifics if you wish to be taken seriously. Not wanting to disclose the name of a fragrance chemist you claim to interview is bad enough, but not even wanting to disclose the identity of a supposed "expert" you claim reviewed the interview is even worse.

Add to this the bad pattern of arguing with industry insiders (and people with access to them), and we see how not to debate. I think Bigsly should give up on his ill-advised sparring with experienced insiders, and resume picking on little old me. I don't have a degree in chemistry, nor do I have three decades of industry work under my belt. Call me a "deceiver" all you want, but at least you know my real name, what kind of house I live in, and even what kind of car I drive. Sorry to be so deceptive, I guess I'll have to work on that!




1/16/17

In My Opinion, This Is "Fake News"


A synthetic diamond. Even its flaws are fake.


In a recent post, our friend at Wordpress has penned another screed about Dior's Sauvage, this time slanting it against what he perceives to be "fake facts" about such frags. He writes with great condescension:

"And to be clear, yet again, I don’t hold anything against a person who enjoys Sauvage (or who has a social use for it), but it’s time to stop talking about it being great or special or unique or a breakthrough or a masterpiece."

So apparently we are no longer allowed to bestow high praise upon Sauvage, as for the thousandth time, the author has made clear that these "fake" tributes are intellectually and stylistically inappropriate. On what authority he rests his claims is not clear, but what is particularly interesting is that these admonishments were preceded by the following thought, without any hint of irony:

"The fragrance chemist I spoke to didn’t believe much thought went into Sauvage, and you don’t need to be a fragrance chemist to notice how 'chemical' it is (as the reviewer himself does)."

This brings us to what I think are "fake facts." This interview is entirely fact free, simply because it comes from an unidentified source. Because it lacks even the most basic citations, nothing there can be confirmed as factual. Yet it is packaged as an "interview" with a "fragrance chemist," a claim my own readers have easily debunked. There isn't a single sentence in the entire article that relates truth and technical accuracy to readers, and the supposed chemist's identity is not even given.

So it's fine for the author to convey his own ideas through this mysterious third party (who may not even exist), but when people give their honest subjective opinions about a fragrance like Sauvage, they're peddling fake facts?

Another sad case was the Monsieur Guerlain debacle from last year. Without any substantive information to support their opinion, people in the fragrance community were up in arms over the unsubstantiated narrative that evil corporate LVMH had destroyed Monsieur Guerlain's blog for containing some minor legal slip-up.

If you frequented basenotes, you were to believe that because some stranger on the internet (who only a handful on basenotes ever met in person) lost his blog, basenoters were tossing out their Guerlains. One moron even went so far as to post a picture of his top-tier Guerlain parfum extrait boxes sitting out in the snow, like discarded trash, to send the company a "message." Aside from conveying that he was intent on getting rid of empty boxes, this person's "message" was tied to a false narrative, a verifiable "fake news" story: that MG had been "closed down." Meanwhile, his blog lives on.

These are, in my opinion, examples of "fake news" in the fragrance world. Falsehoods, dubious facts, and unsubstantiated claims are not what plague the myriad of subjective amateur reviews on basenotes and fragrantica. We go into those sites knowing the majority of their reviewers are amateurs and enthusiasts who have little professional knowledge of that which they write about.

We automatically assume that someone who says Sauvage contains "high quality materials" is speaking subjectively, and no thinking person, no sentient reader, would ever ascribe more to such an opinion than whatever comparable opinion of his own would warrant.

The real "fake news" stories in our community take the form of half-baked interviews, contrived outrage at stories that aren't even partially fleshed out with any substance, and narratives that overarch the general public's perception coming into the community. Stuff like, "Vintages are more natural," and "Perfumes never spoil." These are falsehoods that have been proven false on this site by professionals in the industry, both through interviews and reader commentary.

If we're going to opine on "Fake Facts" and "Fake News," then we ought to be truthful about those terms, and how they apply. Subjective opinions with hosting site disclaimers, such as reviews on fragrantica, are not the problem. Those who "criticize the critics" are far more responsible for what comes out of their blog posts.



1/7/17

Pacino For Men (Cindy Chahed)


Good luck finding a 100 ml bottle.

Linear fragrances are perhaps the most difficult kind for perfumers to pull off. Done wrong, and they smell functional, like furniture polish, or Febreeze. With skill and a little luck, a limited palette can actually work beautifully, like fire engine red, or Yves Klein blue. When I first encountered Pacino for Men, my initial thought was that it would be another rich tapestry of old-school masculine hues, from the deep umber of smoked tobacco, to the burled browns of rosewood, with wisps of artemisia and pine to round off the edges. Boy, was I wrong! The house of Cindy Chahed surprised me.

The only information I can glean about it comes from this site, which I think is an impartial but unusually informative retail outlet. According to the (somewhat contradictory) information found there, the brand was founded in October of 1996, and closed soon after, almost three years exactly, in August of 1999. I guess they weren't moving units fast enough. Apparently Cindy never made anything more than minis, which may have contributed to her demise, although I think a brand exclusively dedicated to minis is an interesting idea, retailing solely from airports to frequent flyers. Pacino was apparently released in 1996, but I have no corroboration on that.

Pacino smells like an apple orgasm. Come to Connecticut in October and visit Lyman Orchards. Tread its rows upon rows of trees in bloom, and inhale the dry, sweet, woody kiss of the autumn air. Stop to grab one of thousands of wine-like dessert fruits, steal a bite, and savor the fresh flavor in your cheeks as it mingles with the crisp air in your lungs. That's the opening of Pacino. It's basically a medley of apples with a touch of pink grapefruit, and a drop of French lavender for extra dimensionality. I fully expected it to darken and get all pre-A*Men oriental on me, but instead it simply mellowed out, becoming warmer and a little sweeter. The apples have been picked and barreled, and their fruitiness radiates from pillows of cedarwood and hay.

It remains this way for the life of the scent, a full five hours, before fading to a skin essence more suggestive of dusty wood than pomaceous fruits. All told, this is a very good fragrance. Its sweetness never smells like candy; its freshness retains definition and clarity without becoming cold and grey. It's like someone took an X-Acto knife to Creed's Spice and Wood, excised its apple top note, threw in a few other cultivars, a little extra woodiness, and named it after a famous American actor. It's crisp, nearly edible, fairly natural (although not extraordinarily so), quite simple, and pleasant to wear. If you're an apple lover, a fan of scents like Boss Bottled, Cool Water, Nicole Miller for Men, and you happen across this stuff, I highly recommend it.


1/1/17

Why You Can't Trust Internet Reviews When Judging The Quality Of A Reformulation


Only the bottle has remained the same.


My main message in this post is short and sweet: Don't trust what I say.

It seems counterintuitive for me, a perfume blogger, to say this, but when you plug it into my larger message, I hope it makes more sense. That is, don't trust what I say alone, not without smelling things for yourself first. Use me as a rough guide, a vague starting point, the nexus of all your concern and enthusiasm for a certain fragrance. But do not consider me the authority, the voice of infallible knowledge. My sense of smell, my tastes, and my understanding of the fragrance world do not necessarily comport with your sensibilities. I am here to guide you, to inform you when possible, and to provide educated insights into the basic mechanics of how certain scents work (or don't work).

Perfume bloggers are tools. In my case, my personality conveys this explicitly. But as useful tools for gaining knowledge, we're small cogs in a big machine. Halston Z14 is an example of why this is true for all internet fragrance reviewers, including supposedly erudite noses like Luca Turin and Chandler Burr.

Z14 gets a bum rap. It turns 42 this year. That's a long time for a fragrance to be in production, and still widely available across the world. Roy Halston's original formula was released courtesy of Michael Edwards, who helped to engineer its place not just on store shelves, but in the pantheon of famous masculines, a realm where compositions endure the test of time. Yet Z14 has fallen on harder times in the noses of fragrance enthusiasts, many of whom consider it a mere shadow of its former self.

The narrative is that vintage Z14 is far superior to current Z14. I recently purchased my fifth bottle of Z14, a formula that dates to at least 2011, judging from its gift set packaging. I paid twelve dollars for eight ounces, cologne and aftershave. I would have passed on it, but my other 2011 aftershave actually spoiled. One day I went to use it and found that its oils had begun separating out of the alcohol. The liquid resembled olive oil vinegarette salad dressing. It was probably still ok to use, but I opted to toss the remaining ounce and just keep my eyes peeled for a replacement.

I also have a more recent formula, what some consider the "Big Red" formula. This version cropped up in 2014, and it continues to generate complaints. It supposedly has a massive, unbalanced cinnamon note, but to my nose the cinnamon is pretty much identical to all prior formulas I've tried. My perception is in stark contrast to some others, though. And that's the point of this post: to show you that the disparity in perceptions makes trusting any one reviewer on the internet silly.

Consider this review from Fragrantica of two "vintage" Z14s, and one "current" Z. Note how this person's opinions vary:

wesleyhclark: "My first take is that the [French issue] vintage stuff smells like serious perfumery. There's a note that I don't think I've encountered in that form yet. It's deep and strong. A dirty leathery smell, perhaps? It's bolder. Compared to it the current stuff dries in a less complicated, somewhat more modern fashion - cinnamon and cypress . . . But here's the weird thing! I tried some vintage Z-14 in Richmond, VA and it's different yet. It's certainly not current and it isn't this French mix, either. It has an initial oakmoss blast that is absent from both."

He uses the descriptors "dirty," "leathery," "cinnamon and cypress." He also notes excessive oakmoss in one of the vintages, which is apparently not as prominent in the other two versions.

Now look at how different the tone is for this person's perceptions of old and new Z:

Bigsly: "Reformulated version (recent with a lot of cinnamon up front): Well, if you hate cinnamon forget this. There's something else with it, which reminds me of what I've encountered in scents listing tree moss as a note or ingredient. Whatever it is (tree moss, leather, a touch of galbanum), it sort of hardens up the cinnamon and gives it a bit of a dry and chalky/powdery quality. This dominates for an hour or so, and then the earlier version of Z-14 begins to shine through, with more lavender than I prefer. However, here the lavender never gets too strong. After a couple more hours the lavender recedes and blends into the mix. At this point it is at its best, unless of course you really enjoy the initial strong cinnamon."

So while the first reviewer notes the presence of cinnamon without emphasizing it, the second finds it especially noteworthy, and doesn't mention any "cypress" element at all. Reviewer one says "dirty," and reviewer two goes into some detail about lavender, which is usually never "dirty." Also, while the first considers the current stuff "modern," the second refrains from such a vague descriptor, instead opting to be vague about what he perceives to be a "trend" in scents with treemoss. Fine to read if you have plenty of experience with fragrances, but it's like wandering into a Black Forest of opinions for anyone new to fragrance reviews.

If I were new to Z14, and I read these two reviews, I'd be very confused. These are two guys who are reviewing multiple bottles of what is supposedly the same fragrance, from roughly the same time periods, and their reviews are quite different. Adding to the confusion is the suggestion by the first review that two bottles of vintage Z14 smelled different! If I were a total newbie, this would probably elude me. But if I were someone with at least a year or two of experience in reading reviews and trying classic fragrances, I might consider this to be a "clue" of sorts. I'll come back to this in a bit. Let's move on to reviewers three and four, both referring to "vintage":

ericrico: "The opening of citrus with integrated herbs and fresh-ground cinnamon takes me back to my youth."

kmarich: "I discovered a vintage splash for under $10. USDs . . . It has a smokey, hazy richness that made me feel warm.

So which is it? If I'm in the market for vintage, should I expect to smell like a Middle Eastern salad, or a campfire? These reviews seem to be for different scents. But if I connect them to the first reviewer's notes on two vintages (probably from different years), I begin to sense that maybe Z14 just smells different from bottle to bottle, regardless of what the manufacturer's "formula" was. Maybe this is an "unreliable performer." Maybe with Z14 there's no way to know exactly what it will smell like until you smell it yourself, simply because every bottle is a little different.

If I approach Z14 with this attitude, then I can comb through the reviews and find this last one to be consistent with my theory:

Aiona: "It smells like celery seed to me, even though I see no celery seed in the notes listed above. It's distinctive. Not a cool aquatic. Not really a gourmand, despite the celery seed. Just a nice greenish scent."

Very interesting. To her, Z14 is "Just a nice greenish scent." You could find a parallel in this description with the "oakmoss blast" description found earlier. But you have to know that oakmoss, while often "green" in nature, doesn't always smell "green" in fragrances. It can smell nondescript, bitter, powdery even. Vintage Canoe is loaded with it, but few consider Canoe "green."

But most notable in this last review is the description of celery seed, which is commonly attributed to Caron's Yatagan. This is a biting, extremely bitter, pithy, woody note. It does not exist in Z14, which is generally a smooth, ambery citrus and cypress blend. Yet this is what the reviewer describes, and if you don't know anything about the fragrance, you'll be left wondering who to believe here. Does it have lavender and oakmoss and cinnamon, or is it like Yatagan?

I chose Z14 for this exercise because of the divergence of opinions across the boards, and also because there's the added monkey wrench of Z14 being a very "batch specific," "bottle-variable" fragrance. As the years churn on, and my experience with this fragrance continues, I have to wonder if Z's formulation history crudely mimics Grey Flannel's. Perhaps when licensing changed hands, the standards of production varied inconsistently from year to year, or even from batch to batch.

Maybe this is a fragrance where nobody is really "wrong" in their perceptions.

I would argue, from a strictly personal standpoint, that this is not the case. Although the oldest bottle I've tried, which dated to 2007 or 2008 (possibly a year or two older) had a markedly different composition, and a noticeable vetiver note that I have not smelled in any subsequent bottle, the overall feel of the composition, all notes accounted for, conveyed the same basic smell as the more recent versions I've owned and worn.

Every other bottle was either subtly different - to the point of really splitting hairs - or identical. I could get into concentration issues here, but I'll skip it to save time. (Concentration isn't that much of an issue with Z anyway.)

But as I said, I am but one voice. There are 42 years of fragrance to comb through with Z14, and that's a lot of material for study. If you're not interested in getting overly technical and picky about which kind of moss is in your Halston, just going to the nearest drugstore and buying the latest of whatever is in stock will be good enough for you, especially if you have no prior experience with this scent.

But if you're a stickler for material quality, complexity, depth, longevity, naturalism, dynamism, and whatever moss philosophy you adhere to, then clearly you need to eschew Internet reviews and do your own legwork.

I would warn you though, especially if you are the latter type of person, to use caution in how you write about whatever "vintage" you choose. If you disregard any potential concern for spoilage in perfumes, and think that perfumes last forever, you might mention that as soon as possible. That way I will know to avoid taking your review seriously, as will those who agree with my view that perfumes past the twenty year mark are not reliable expressions of their namesakes.