The Fougère Project, part 2

(Feb 11, 2014) Christos MemoryOfScent said:

Perfume taxonomy has always baffled me. It's my fault but I just don't get it. I have a very selective way of smelling and what I smell is not always the entire spectrum of the composition. Lavender for instance tends to pass by my nose unnoticed. It is not that I do not smell it, I just can't focus on it. Some people's minds are hard-wired like Micheal Edwards. Mine is works a bit more like the mind of late Alec Lawless. He had devised a way of analysing and describing scents that classifies notes in three conceptual groups, heart, nuance and intrigue. Heart being the centre element of the composition, nuance the surrounding notes and intrigue the contradicting note used to make things more interesting. Still oversimplifying when it comes to scents but makes more sense to me.

This doesn't mean of course that I have given up on understanding classical perfume classification, on the contrary. According to my understanding of fougeres, I can see Cool Water and Jazz belonging to this group but I cannot understand what they have in common with Mouchoir de Monsieur or even Kouros. Such animalic scents seem to devour the idea of fougere in my mind. I know the theory behind the ingredients that make a fougere but I cannot see any similarities in the end result.

From Pyrgos has an excellent post on why lavender is the core of fougere and he also elaborates by presenting lavender extract as the quintessential fougere as it contains all the ingredients that are necessary. Very interesting. I will keep an eye here to see how things progress in your project and if I manage to find the key to unlock the understanding of classical classification.

(Feb 12, 2014) jtd said:

Hi, Christos! Thanks for commenting. If you’re baffled by taxonomy, then you’re likely looking at it properly. However many categories, modifiers and hybrids we might create, the Wheel, or any other means of grouping perfumes for that matter, is a loose framework. Attempts to fit a perfume that doesn’t have an implicit place on the Wheel into the diagram reveals the limits of the model.

If I could modify the diagram itself, I’d like to lay a loose rope-like line over the wheel, so that the outline would look like a bell-curve. The bell-curve and the Wheel share a great bias toward the comfortable center (normalcy) and aren’t able to capture the value of the ‘extremes’. By the same token, the Wheel doesn’t do justice to the fragrances that actively bridge genres. An in-between on the wheel can appear to be a blur, not an intentional choice, and the ‘geography’ of the wheel only supposes a possible mixing of genres next to each other, hence the hybrid. I find this last fact odd when you consider that the fougère, long at the center of the wheel, exists only by the nature of its contrasting elements! Coumarin and lavender actively oppose each other, and create a new form. This is the opposite of the ‘floriental’ sort of hybrid.

I think you’re on the right track when you understand the method of categorizing, but let your nose decide, as you mention with perfumes such as Mouchoir de Monsieur and Cool Water. I’m with you! I ‘get’ that Jicky and le Monsieur are fougères, but I don’t smell them as a part of that genre. If anything, they seem like oriental fragrances to me, and even based on ingredient list, could be considered as such.

And here we’re at the point of notes versus ingredients again. We are supposing an inherent truthfulness either of fact or intention between a list of notes and the actual fragrant compounds used to make the perfume. Maybe this is part of our difficulty in the first place.

2/12/14 A few more fragrances to consider.

The line between the chypre and the fougère is an interesting one, and opinions vary on how each genre is defined. Equipage (above) I threw in the mix because to some it's a fougère and to some it's a chypre. Two more that ride that same line are:

Rochas Globe

Lancome Sagamore

In fact, if you care, take a look at the whole genre of the masculine chypre. You might find that like Rochas Moustache, there are fragrances that you would call a fougère and I'd call a chypre. Tomato, tomato?

2/13/14 The Limits of the Model

For visual diagrams, we have traditionally relied on two dimensional forms. Diagrams aren't direct visual translations, but representations, devices. They are models, and however rudimentary, they are intellectual constructs. They have rules and, like all description, they seek to reduce an object or restrict a concept to a set of identifiers. Diagrams can’t quite be said to have an intention, but by the nature of their rules, they have implicit goals.


Much of the trouble with the wheel, and the genres of fragrance that we discuss, is that they are based on the premise that 'notes' are a mirror reflection of components or ingredients. The implication is that a rose note signifies scent of a rose. Rose is the principal value, the constant and the other materials refer to it. Damascenones and ionones are chemically similar members of a family of aromachemicals but don’t strictly smell alike. Where the chemical system of classification groups them together, the wheel would not. Is only one accurate? If you and I sniff a perfume together and you say that it has a rose note and I say otherwise, is either of us correct? Geranium, palmarosa, rose oxides and damascones all smell rosy. So where does the note lie?

In addition we tend to consider notes to be objects rather than experiences. Objectifying a note traps it and limits the possibilities. Take five notes, imagine them as five stones placed on a table. You can place them in many different configurations. You could even place them on different tables so as to suggest another three dimensions. But you're never merging the stones, or putting two or three together to make an entirely new object.

Replace the three stones with three aromatic substances: bergamot, oakmoss, labdanum. On the table in separate containers, they adhere to the ‘stone-model’, remaining apart like objects. Combine the three into one bottle, and all bets are off. The chypre isn't three things. It isn’t even simply three things together. The “chypre” is the effect created when three specific things interact. You've reached a limit of the 'object' model. It doesn't allow for the interaction of mixing and therefore excludes the outcome of synergy.

The conceit of the fragrance wheel, and its limiting factor, is that it posits that aromas are experienced like colors in the spectrum of light. The 'geography' of the wheel limits combinations to blending of notes that sit beside each other, i.e.. a chypre-floral (green-yellow) or a floral-oriental (yellow-orange). It ignores combinations others than objects/notes that might not ‘naturally’ sit next to each other. The wheel is based on a 19th century supposition of nature. It supposes a perfumery of mimicry that was sufficient for perfumes that used ethyl-vanillin in lieu of vanilla bean essence and synthesized coumarin by chemical process rather than harvesting it from fermented tonka beans. These chemical were still tethered, albeit tentatively, to a supposition of an essential, irrefutable "nature" as found in botanical and animal-derived materials. The cracks in this 'natural world' view of perfumery were apparent by the time Fougère Royale and Jicky were made, but the fallacy of perfumery recreating nature has been recycled over and over again in perfumery, its most current iteration today in the less sophisticated iterations of natural and artisinal niche perfumery. (This is not to say that botanically-based perfumery is either naive or mistaken. There are many artistically deliberate and/or ethical-based perfumers who do sophisticated and well-concidered work.)

An important point is that this diagram was created by the industry, for the industry. I question its accuracy for perfume producers, but it is their model. Its aim, its implicit goal is to identify scents and pin them down by establishing groups (families) that link them. I imagine there is research that provides evidence of its effectiveness for what it does. In fact, it could be argued that it is a viable attempt to help communicate our interactive experience of the olfactory. Still it doesn't offer the perfume consumer much help in the discussion and fosters a tedious marketing strategy notes and fiction, from '' and floral 'rose' to 'sea-glass' and 'serenity'. My experience of perfume has never been found inside a one-size-fits-all diagram and Michael Edwards’s Wheel doesn't do much to square the circle.

So what do we do with these models? I don't have an answer for how we use them to communicate, but I do have a working model for myself. I employ them when they're effective, I disregard them when they're not, and I look closely to see why they don’t work. Then I try to learn from what I find. I guess my approach is simply not to hold too tightly to them.

I swear to god, this post will soon discuss the fougère more directly.

Blog Comments

No comments yet.

Add your Comments

Latest News