Ask Chandler Burr – the author of The Perfect Scent anwers your questions

At the end of last year, we asked you to send in your questions for Chandler Burr. Burr is the NYT’s scent critic and the author of two fragrance books: The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent (both from Henry Holt). Here are Chandler’s responses… Barry W asks: Before you wrote The Emperor of Scent, did you have any interest or knowledge of the perfume industry?Chandler Burr: Well, I usually say “absolutely none,” but that’s not quite true. Between the ages of 14-17, during Christmas vacations at home in Washington, D.C., I used to work in Georgetown at the French perfumery of a friend of my parents, whose name was, I think, TĂ©ri Raud. She’d been raised in post-war France, where they’d made her dress in black and whisper and never talk to boys and everyone was poor and anxious and very Catholic, and so she’d left the Church and spoke loudly and laughed all the time and never wore a single thing that wasn’t bright, bright white. I knew nothing of the perfumes, and I didn’t think to learn anything about them. I just remember what they smelled like. Vivre I loved, and sold a lot of Chanel, I sold the Diors and Rive Gauche (this was the late 70s), which when I smelled it years later I remembered viscerally. The one perfume I’m trying to find is Quartz by Molyneux. I used to buy a bottle (at a discount TĂ©ri gave me) for my mom for Christmas, and I love that perfume so much, and you just can’t find it. I assume I could get some on eBay, but damnit, I want to get it in a store, unopened. Anyway, I was very used to perfume. But I was never trained in any way in it. I learned from scratch.S Page asks: When critiquing a fragrance, are additional factors such as the marketing, image, and packaging taken into consideration, or is it All About the Juice?CB: It’s All About the Juice. I’ve actually been trying to figure out whether there’s a way the house’s can send me the scents in unmarked clear vials, and I’m thinking of trying to do this. It shouldn’t be too hard: I just have to have them come from IFF and Givaudan etc. rather than Lauder and LVMH. One more thing to arrange. I really do everything I can to force myself not to be influenced by the physical componentry.M Evans asks: What is your take on the zeal with which some regulatory bodies are restricting access to many perfumery ingredients, some of which have been traditionally used for many decades, due to fears of allergy in a few individuals? How is the commercial perfumery industry responding, or are they just accepting and learning to adapt?CB: Honestly, I’m not competent to respond. I’m not a chemist, and I don’t know. I am a reporter, and I can tell you that I’ve asked people who do know, and I’ve gotten enough conflicting reactions, sometimes from the same person, that my attitude is: I’m glad they’re serious about regulating this stuff, and I feel like the Brussels regulators are going a tiny bit overboard, but I’m not competent to judge, so there we are. Even limonene. Hell, I don’t know. I really don’t. As for the industry, IFRA is fighting it—which means the industry is fighting it through IFRA—but they’re pretty much resigned to losing the war, I think, and the battles now are not making it too onerous or limiting. I speak pretty regularly with Jean-Pierre Houri, and he and colleagues of his have presented me with data, and it’s true that prices are going to start going up as the safety data starts costing the scent makers more and more money, but I’m not sure that in the long run this is a terrible thing. And again I finish by saying: I’m not competent to judge.G Bunnik asks: Do you think that, in the future, the industry will become so obsessed with profits and mass-marketing that hardly any room is left for inventiveness or creativity?CB: I’m more optimistic than that. I think that quality houses like Frederic Malle and l’Artisan and Le Labo and Parfumerie Generale and Ormonde Jayne and 06130 and Parfums DelRae will continue to be created and to rise, and there will be quality that trickles up, although my reason for saying this is in part cynical: It’s not just that informed consumers want things that are good, the creatives and executives also want some good stuff to steal. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with stealing artistic ideas—it’s how art functions, and I include writing; I’m constantly absorbing great writing I can recast, reformulate, stuff to fuel me. And it’s not only the niche guys who are doing the good stuff. There’s definitely niche crap. And I think Tom Ford’s Black Orchid is absolutely huge, as edgy, as daring, as off-the-rails (more, actually) as anything produced by any niche house. It’s a landmark. Roucel’s Missoni is superb. Etat Libre d’Orange’s Rossy de Palma scent is outrageously good, but Fresh (which is now LVMH-owned) has something just as great with Cannabis Rose. So good stuff can come from anywhere. That said—and this is not snobbery; I have no time for that—it comes disproportionately from the niches because they can afford to take the greater risks.M Perez asks: Did you find it impossible to wear your own personal fragrances when you work around perfumers (for fear they’ll be offended you aren’t wearing one of their fragrances, for instance)?CB: No perfumer I’ve ever met would be offended by anyone’s wearing a perfume that isn’t theirs. I know one whose ego is a bit out of control who’d definitely prefer you wore theirs, but they’re the exception. Usually perfumers are intensely interested: “What are you wearing? [they smell you] Ah! It smells [they describe it] on you! Fascinating. Do you like it? When did you apply it?”K Ember asks: Out of all the discontinued fragrances you have had the opportunity to personally smell or read fragrance descriptions of, regardless of price or era of manufacture, which 5 would you pick to be re-introduced to into today’s market (with original formula intact) and why?CB: The only reason I can answer this (I’m very poorly versed in disappeared classics) is that I just finished a piece for The Times that’s going to run in the Feb 24 T: Style magazine on l’Osmoteque, the Paris perfume museum. I don’t have five. I have four. I loved the real L’Origan—it’s wonderful, creamy, and surprising. I thought the 1947 Iris Gris was profoundly beautiful. Guerlain’s original 1904 Champs ElysĂ©es is wonderful, slightly peppery floral with heft and a voice and a refreshingly clear presence. And then my own nomination, Le Feu because it’s genius, although it makes 1/3 of people violent.D Oliver-Velez asks: As a cultural anthropologist I read your piece (Color-Coded) on ethnicity, culture and its impact on both perfume preferences and marketing decisions with great interest. I am not sure I agree with the conclusions reached by the industry; Jlo’s Glow probably had more success because she is currently the only major marketable Latina young Hispanic girls want to emulate, rather than the actual perfume elements having touched some cultural chord; but overall it is a subject I would be interested in doing more in depth ethnographic research on, and to refine what could be viewed as overly broad ethnic generalizations.This leads me to my question(s). Though Americans seem to avoid discussions of social class (the majority defining themselves in some amorphous fuzzy middle) what role do you think one’s station in life plays in both perfume preferences and the marketing of perfume to those who aspire towards some scented symbol of upward mobility? Does this vary in the States, as opposed to Western Europe? Is the rejection of classic Guerlain’s in the States along with Caron’s and Patou’s, a taste defined by social milieu rather than by ethnicity or nationality? Is there a preferred scent of the proletariat in Europe, and is the predilection for celebrity fragrances in the States simply a matter of petite bourgeois status seeking?CB: I was just in a supermarket on 3rd Avenue near where I live in Manhattan, and a lower-class New Yorican (Puerto Rican raised in NY) girl was telling me eagerly that she was going to buy BeyoncĂ©’s perfume. I’m not even sure BeyoncĂ© has a perfume (Lauder’s marketers put her together in True Star with Tommy Hilfiger, which as Iunderstand it didn’t sell, and I assume she was thinking of that), but the point is that the girl was absolutely determined to “get herself a piece of BeyoncĂ©.” I thought: I see no difference whatsoever between her and the rich Jewish Upper East Side woman I’d just been talking to who was going to get herself a piece of recently-issued Chanel. I think you may absolutely be right about young Hispanic girls wanting to emulate JLo more than that perfume’s having triggered olfactory cultural references for them (I imagine both play a role), but this is only because JLo means more to them than Olivia Giacobetti; when you and I hurry to smell Olivia’s latest, I don’t think we’re doing anything semiotically different. It strikes me that it’s all aspirational, in every continent and culture, and the aspiration simply changes according to the aspired-to names available to each socio-economic caste. By the way, I don’t think the petite bourgeoisie is seeking Paris Hilton; I think it’s your proletariat—American in this case (I don’t believe in that word in its Marxist sense, but let’s use it in an updated way)—on its way home from high school, and their sisters and brothers in Hamburg are doing the exact same thing. But those who live on Sloane Square are doing the same thing at Harvey Nicks. The act is the same, simply in a higher register.Having said this, I am not a relativist. Olivia’s stuff is better than the stuff put out under BeyoncĂ© name. Those who buy BeyoncĂ© don’t merely have access to crasser objects of desire; they are also less educated and have lesser means to qualitatively assess scents. K Acedo asks: What impact do you think websites like Basenotes have had on the fragrance industry? Similarly, how do you think the industry has changed as a result of the plethora scent-focused blogs?CB: Fascinating question, and I don’t know the answer, but I actually am interested in trying to get some sort of journalistic evaluation of this. I absolutely think the industry—and in this case I’m talking mostly about the brands but to a degree also about the Big Boys, the scent makers—has not made one one-hundredth the intelligent use of basenotes and the websites and blogs that it could: getting creative guidance, understanding new ways to approach perfume, figuring out why debacles happen and why hits happen as well, sourcing new ideas. I virtually never hear executives talking about the blogs, and I think the reason is that they think in terms of millions of consumers walking into and out of malls and shopping in the old way: spray something on, buy the one you like, that’s it till next year. An astounding waste of an amazing resource that’s right before their eyes.* * * We would like to thank Chandler Burr for answering these questions, and thank also all of the Basenoters who sent in questions. We’re sorry that we could only answer a handful. Chandler Burr’s book, The Perfect Scent is available now. Click here to order from Amazon.com Read exclusive extracts that didn’t make the book – only on Basenotes

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