Of Fragrance, Personal History, and The Burgeoning Amateur Critic

How scent and fragrance affects us, how a scent can transport us back in time, and the critiquing of fragrance all seem to share some commonality. I feel it explains in some part our possessive, protective, and personal approach to fragrance.

For nearly 15 years I did not buy or use perfume/cologne and, in fact, had very little experience with it other than the stuff that other people wore. Or, occasionally, whiffs of some horrible chemical concoction pasted between the pages of some magazine.

But in the past few months, I’ve made up for lost time: bottles and samples with descriptions that sound appealing. And, for the most part, they are. Some blind buys, some sampled, some on recommendations and reviews.

But a whiff from a good many of them immediately transport me to sometime in the 70s or 80s, to some vague memory and location where I smelled the frag before. In other words, in 15 years of perfume/cologne development, there’s not lot that's really new under the sun. There have been a number of times, when sampling a scent that's new to me, that I think something along the lines of, “Wow, that smells just like some frag that I recall smelling on someone at Cinderella Center in Denver in the early 80s. But what was it?” The name of the original scent always escapes me but it’s undoubtedly something like Halston, Giorgio, Pierre Cardin, Paco Rabanne, Jordache, Carrington, or some other pop favorite of that time.

Time travel with frags isn’t all general “reminds me of Perfume X”. Sometimes it’s a more visceral experience, rooted in real life. The geranium note in Terre d’Hermes immediately, forcefully brought my Aunt Pauline’s face to my eyes. A woman I have not seen in over 20 years and a woman I knew but wasn’t particularly close to. I could see her face, hair, blouse, and seated on the white sofa in the apartment in which she lived for a short time in the 70s. Fou d’Absinthe immediately takes me to my grandmother’s basement on wash day.

How, you might be asking, does any of this tie into my criticism or critiquing of fragrances?

Well, often, scent is very personal for people and we all have different life experiences. It’s also fairly common that people want to be accepted and to be validated. The events that make up a person’s life, plus a need (however small) to be validated are both very strong and unique to each of us.

When someone criticizes a scent we love or besmirches it’s good name, it’s natural to feel somewhat personally criticized. Not that the critic was being at all personal, but that feeling and response happens.

For example, reading a criticism of Fou d’Absinthe, I can immediately feel (even if irrational) something that kind of translates as: “How dare you criticize my grandmother! She was a saint. She helped make me the man I am today!” Or “My grandmother deserves five or ten or a hundred stars!” But it’s not me, my taste, nor my grandmother that’s being criticized. The critic is simply setting forth her or his reaction to the scent.

The critic is approaching scent very similarly: partially shaped by life, experience, and individual body chemistry that affects both how a scent develops and how it's perceived. Even after years of professional training and experience, it’s not possible to completely filter out these variables. As both a new fragronista and a burgeoning critic, they play a larger role now than they will later. Hopefully!

All of which is to say that whatever I, you, or anyone else likes is absolutely fine. We don’t all have to like the same thing, we won’t all perceive a scent the same way, and a criticism is, at heart, just another opinion.

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