Back at the birth of modern perfumery (which is generally accepted to be the 19th century when materials such as vanillin, coumarin and aldehydes became available) it was easy to mesmerise people with exotic names and fantastical stories about perfumes. The world of perfumery was alchemical, secretive, competitive – and any information released to the public domain was likely to contain deliberate red herrings. Analysing the competition depended on early chemical testing techniques, gossip and the nose.
Since it is not possible to patent a smell (although people have tried), perfume success relied on a good name and a unique product – until someone managed to corner the market by creating an improved variation of your theme. And of course this is healthy and no different from what has happened in art and music over centuries; copy, twist, mix, renew, and regurgitate the popular themes of the day ad nauseaum until the perfect mix of brave risk-taking and talent creates a new trend. So the oriental category was born of Western imagination of what “the Orient” smelled like and the fougere category from a theme created around an artist’s impression of fern. Cultural and political themes have influenced trends but the availability of new raw materials has had just as much (if not more) influence on where our noses have been led and what each decade has smelled of.
Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry; the “oven”-technique that can analyse forensic evidence or, if correctly calibrated, the chemical signature of perfumes, changed the game. Perfumers had to throw their red herrings into the juice and hope that competitors wouldn’t be able to pinpoint exacly how they had put the scent together. Nevertheless, the ability to see the perfumes in their underwear allowed the chemists and perfumers in other manufacturing facilities to easily estimate what they would look like naked.
It became possible to colour in the photocopy of a photocopy, steal a bit from here, a bit from there – and maybe add a slight twist or a dollop of a new synthetic material, and fast perfume is now just as real as fast fashion – fleeting, copied, cheaply made under enormous pressure to keep generating something new, new, NEW. The economic pressures from shareholders of big corporations and increasingly strangulating safety regulations are making it really difficult for the mainstream perfumers to do anything but a passable Elvis impersonation. Maybe with a different pair of plastic sunglasses.
Taking a calculated risk and trying to set a new trend used to be more common in perfumery. An over-dose of a new material, or a totally new, bold accord – but now it seems that the indie perfumers and niche brands are the only ones brave enough to experiment. I find it frustrating that the “industry” often reacts with cool detachment at best, or sneering contempt at worst, towards the success of some classically untrained perfumers but then doesn’t manage to support genuine risk-taking and innovation within its own domain. If the classically trained perfumers aren’t allowed to experiment and aren’t given the time or the budget to create a totally new trend (unless they run off and start their own brand) then what will happen to mainstream perfumery? Will it keep going increasingly towards fast fragrance, novelty value and functional fragrances or is a bit of a renaissance long overdue?