About perfume reviews: talking about fragrance

I love reading perfume reviews. Some of them take me on an amazing trip, while others explain things about the scent (or perfumer or house or time period or... you get the idea!). Others contain fascinating stories that give a snapshot into the lives and minds of the writer. And many (MANY!) of them leave me wanting to sniff that juice.
So, as an admitted perfume newbie, how on earth am I supposed to review perfumes?! What do I know and how can I "compete" with these professional perfumers and reviewers and/or established bloggers?* I'm going to tell you how things are going to be done around here** so you know the method behind my madness. I'll also tell you what I've learned about perfume reviews by other people.
Ready? Let's go!

*I'll let you in on a little secret: I am not trying to compete! I know there is plenty of room in the world for some more opinions. Dontcha think?
**Doesn't the phrase "how things are going to be done around here" sound so imperious and firm? I feel like I'm about to ground someone. "No sniffs for you, young lady!" ;)

Perfume Reviews. The whole thing sounds simple, right?

Go to a website that reviews cameras or other products and you'll see a description of the product (compact, lightweight), an explanation of its features (zoom lens and macro), a description of how it works (the flash is unpredictable, buttons are sticky), and probably an opinion or "rating" (Excellent for everyday use, but upgrade if you're a professional. B+). Services are also critiqued (We had to wait for 20 minutes and then the person who helped us was surly).

Easy! Anyone can do it!

So how hard can a perfume review be? You just write what it smells like and maybe even venture a verdict. Possibly give it a grade (A+, F) or rate it Zagat-style with stars (1 is awful, 5 is amazing). What's the big deal? Just jump in and do it.

In the imaginary soundtrack to my life (What? You don't have one?) we'd cue the record scratch that signifies a surprising stop. Now rewind...

"Write what it smells like" and "venture a verdict". Um... Not as easy as they sound!

describing a scent

Say I tell you to imagine the scent of a rose. (Do it now!) Now describe it. I'll wait right here.

Salvador Dali: The Meditative Rose

Not easy, right? Maybe your thought process go a little like this: "Um... Red? Er... Well, it... Uh... Rose-esque!" When you're talking to a rose afficianado, though, you'll hear: spicy, sweet, citrusy, warm, cool, musky, musty, fresh, deep, dark, honeyed...

There are a couple of major problems that I have discovered about this whole "describe a scent" thing.
A) there are not a lot of words for how things smell.
B) those words can have different meanings for different people!

A lot of us link the sense of smell to the sense of taste.When we talk about how something tastes, we do have some language to use: salty, bitter, sour, and so forth. Wine (and beer) afficionados go further: "It's full-bodied and round, with a peppery undercurrent. It's a bit oaky. Do I detect a shimmering spring berry nuance?"

Fragrance descriptions remind me of wine tasting to an extent. In fact, I was advised by a friend that learning about wines would help me train my nose. The thing is: I really don't give a damn about wines, so I'll pass. For both hobbies though, one must be pretentious be able to separate subtle nuances and put together descriptive words that describe something.

Norman Rockwell, Art Critic via
I'd go so far as to compare art criticism (something with which I am slightly familiar) with perfume criticism. Both take a subject born of passion and created from disparate ingredients, and try to break that subject down, describe it, and measure it's worth. We try to figure out and judge the artist's/perfumer's goals, motives, theme and thoughts... to interpret them through our own perspective and experiences.

Some terms from art have been borrowed by perfumistos, too: contrast, depth, dark and light, brightness. Fragrances are also often given a color association (green, amber, brown, and so forth).

Let's go back to the rose for a minute. When we talk about roses, we aren't all on the same page. The same holds true for describing all scents. I can say that a perfume smells like the rose on my grandmother's porch, but unless you were there you just can't identify with that reference. Each species of rose smells different, and I would imagine that environment, soil, air, plant health and food can all impact the scent.

It gets even harder to relate to a fragrance review when it speaks of odors you've never even encountered! Certain flowers have never crossed my path, and others have - but with no scent  (hybridization has robbed many flowers of their perfume). Some spices live on the other side of the world, not in my spice rack. Don't get me started on those fantasy accords listed in some perfume descriptions. "The breath of a fallen angel and the bloom of kittens' feet"? "A whisper from the sea, laced with a hint of chocolate & nirvana"? C'mon now.

the bloom of kittens' feet?

So giving words to scent isn't easy, to put it simply. Now... How does one rate a perfume?

giving a verdict
I'm just going to put it right out there: critiquing is subjective. It is opinion. Even when the critic states tons of facts and "backs-up" the verdict well, it's still opinion, colored by personal associations, experiences and beliefs. The most technically perfect painting in the world can leave me unmoved. An award-winning chef can present me his specialty, but if it has textures or tastes I loathe I'm just not gonna dig it. Classical music, even the best pieces, doesn't float my boat at all but I love some of that musical theater you can't stand!

Critiques are done by three different types of people, as far as I can tell:
  1. Professionals
  2. Non-professionals
  3. People who are paid to have an opinion
    As far as this blog goes, I fall firmly in Category Two. I am no pro, I think we've established that! And no one pays me* (or ever will) to share my opinion or thoughts here.

    *Should a movie deal come out of this, though, I will gladly grab the fistsful of money and head straight to Bergdorf Goodman. Also, I would like Angelina Jolie to play me (duh).

    While there may only be 3 types of reviewers, there are many more types of reviews. And many are a combination of these types:

    • Descriptive
      These reviews step you through the development of the perfume. Example: "It opened with a splash of citrus. Mostly bergamot. I got a bit of incense before rich, spicy roses bloomed. That stage lasted about twenty minutes. Etc..." We already discussed the trouble with words, but regardless, this is the type of review I find most helpful, and I will try to add this style into my own impressions.
    • Comparative
      For these reviews, a note, facet or phase of development may be held up against another perfume (sometimes positively, sometimes not). "It opens with aldehydes like those of Chanel No. 5" is a phrase I see often.  Other comparisons may be along the lines of "the drydown is soft like Perfume X, but drier" or "the patchouli is rich and mellow, like the patchouli in Perfume Y". I am sure that the seasoned perfumista finds these helpful, but the beginner may chafe a bit due to a lack of experience with the referenced scents. Note: it gets better! Try familiarizing yourself with these perfumes if you want to "get" the references.
    • Informative
      I think people who are born teachers or researchers are most likely to write this style of review. Smattered with odd, semi-related tidbits, detailed explanations, and historical references, these reviews educate. I really enjoy this style a lot. To the best of my ability, I'll do some of this. I'm one of those born teacher types. 
    • via
    • Technical
      These gets more in depth than an informative review. Octavian uses this style a lot, and does it quite well. These reviews may mention specific techniques used to create a perfume, the exact ingredients used (with chemical names!), and all sorts of other details that make my eyes cross! I enjoy these reviews, actually... when I understand them. 
    • Poetic
      Literally referencing poetry at times, these are the stuff of artistic souls. These reviews may refer to a passage in a book, a scene in a movie, a work of art, a quote or a song. Whatever media is chosen, it's clear that the scent has triggered a deep connection that bridges to some other reference. I love these reviews, but expect them only rarely here. My brain doesn't work that way!
    • Scene-Setting
      I couldn't decide what to call this, but here it is anyway. I quite like this style, actually, which is maybe why marketing people love me! These reviews build a mini-scene that puts the scent in an easily digestible setting. For example: "Imagine a woman in the 1940's, bending down to fasten the strap of a new leather shoe. She's sitting at her dressing table, where her expensive face powder sits beneath a vase of wildflowers." See how that puts together an image you can work with? Maybe I will refer to those as "Nose Pictures".

    Jackson Pollock via
    A few thoughts:
    I think the only people who can and should give a rating to a scent are those who understand how to make a perfume, how to break it apart, and how to evaluate it technically. Then again, as far as I know there are few agreed-upon qualities on which to base a rating. I'll get into that more in another article, but "technically" perfumes are evaluated for contrast, creativity and a few other things.

    Just as a Monet may epitomize the Impressionistic style of painting and a Pollock the Abstract Impressionistic style, a perfume may be "technically perfect". This means very little to me. A perfect example may move me to tears (Pollock!)  but is just as likely to not be my style (I'm lookin' at you, Monet!). It's filed, for me, under Nice to Know, but holds no real weight.

    In my opinion, reviews are 100% opinion. All should be taken with a grain of salt (mine too!). Another person's review is not going to completely match my experience; some will come close, but others will be miles away.

    I take no issue with people who rate scents when clearly stating that it's opinion. We all have favorites! But I don't trust the lay person's definition of "perfectly executed" any more than I trust my mechanic to do my taxes. (That is to say: somewhat. It may or not work out, but I'm not going to blindly trust!)

    What are your thoughts about reviewing scent?

    Red Rose Red Rose
    Which is a sweet scent to the nose
    So soft and smooth
    It makes my heart move
    Red Rose Red Rose
    Which makes a good pose
    That I like to hold
    Red Rose Red Rose
    Which the wind blows
    As each day goes
    Red Rose Red Rose
    Which grows and grows
    It's my favorite kind
    That it sooths the mind
    Red Rose Red Rose
    That it helps sooth my soul

    Eve Anderson

    Let's talk about sex, baby.

    Sometimes, a man meets a fragrance. He sniffs. They spend a little time together. A little more. He falls in love... They begin to build a life together. They are happy.
    One day, though, he takes a look - a close look. He notices things he's never noticed before. This fragrance, this dear love of his is... is... FOR WOMEN!
    He sits down, in shock. It is quiet; he's not sure what to say. Everything has changed.
    After a time, he can't resist: he sniffs. Again. Slowly he shrugs and takes another spritz. Nothing has changed. Their love is strong. They are happy.

    Sit down, my friend. It's time we had The Talk. This might be a little awkward, but it's time you knew the truth:
    Fragrance is essentially gender-neutral.

    I can tell by your expression that this is making you feel uncomfortable, but let me assure you: this has been going on for years. Your great grandparents did it, their parents did it. It's time you do it, too. It's time to stop thinking "his vs. hers" when it comes to fragrance. Anyone should feel welcome to try any scent, not just the ones on his or her side of the aisle.

    It's simply that we've been in a cycle (or trend) for many years that says "perfume is for women, cologne for the men." Notes like rose and lilac and lily of the valley are "feminine" and we leave woods and spices and vetiver for boys. It hasn't always been this way. Long ago, scents simply were, and they were unisex.

    And by "we've been in a cycle" I mean the so-called Western World. Arab men regularly enjoy rose attars and perfumes. And events I've attended with Indian friends and clients have proved to my nose that scents seem pretty interchangeable in that culture.

    Remember the old English spelling rule "I before E, except after C"? Well, the way I was taught it it was "I before E, excpet after C, with a hundred and one exceptions." Much more accurate, wouldn't you agree? Well, from what I see, the trend in using that mnemonic is on its way out of vogue, which is great because it's pretty useless. Almost as useless is gendered fragrance labeling. They're both silly. They're both confusing!

    I know what you're thinking...
    "Well, that's fine for Them, but it won't work for People Like Me." Nonsense! All you're doing with that mentality is limiting your exposure to a multitude of scents and possibly missing out on The One.

    Listen, I'm not asking the boys to wear mascara and the girls to start playing tackle football...unless they want to do one of these things, of course, in which case have at it! I don't think men need to explore high heels (unless that's yer thang) and women certainly don't need to start slapping each other on the ass at a job well done. But ladies, we started wearing dungarees and trousers ages ago (we can even vote now!). Gentlemen, you've metrosexualized yourselves, borrowing moisturizer and appropriating sunscreen, without turning into a chick. What's the harm in to opening your mind and using the nose and skin chemistry as a guide? Or would you rather be prey to whatever is concocted in a marketing office and "follow the rules"?

    While we're talking about "concocting", I want to show you a little chart I created for this article. It's a helpful Venn Diagram that shows how fragrances are broken down by gender and ingredients. Take a look...

    To make this fragrance "team switching" easier, here are a few suggestions:

    Guys, try a spicy oriental. The flowers won't bite! Lassies, I'm in love with vetiver and leather and strongly suggest recommend exploring those notes. Here's a little secret: flowers are already used in men's scents and woods and roots and musks are in most women's scents. You're already wearing The Forbidden Notes, so just get over it!

    Helpful info..
    • "Niche" and smaller, independent houses seem to more readily abandon the "his and hers" labels. I would blindly follow the right man in Calamity J (Juliette Has a Gun).
    • Some of the more expensive lines in certain brands (Les Exclusifs de Chanel, La Collection Christian Dior) have done away with "homme" and "femme".
    • In my reading, it seems like Black Orchid (Tom Ford) has been a gateway drug for many a man. See also: Shalimar (Guerlain)  and Jicky (Guerlain), Aromatics Elixir (Clinique), and even Angel (Thierry Mugler).
    • Ladies should also try Jicky (Guerlain) and may find, like I did, that it launches them headlong into a love affair with "skank". The same goes for Bandit (Robert Piguet) and it's skank and leather (both of which can be found in many a "men's" scent).
    • Women may also find a springboard in Habit Rouge (Guerlain) (a bottle is in my near future!), Obsession for Men (Calvin Klein), and even Bvlgari Black (Bvlgari).

    doing the deed:

    There's no real need to feel insecure or weird shopping both sides of the scented aisle. If you do feel awkward, just pretend you're shopping for a gift for a spouse, parent, sibling or friend... but you really don't have to explain yourself at all.

    And should you pick and wear a gender-bender, make no apologies! If you simply must, be vague; a good-old "I forget. It's some sample I picked up somewhere" will suffice. But remember: bravery and confession is good for the soul (and will get us closer to a gender-free market!).

    Sniff and spritz with an open mind... You'll probably be pleasantly surprised and may even fall in love! Now, boys, let's talk a little bit about that mascara...

    Have you worn scent marketed to the opposite gender? Would you? If you have, which are your favorites?

    Related reading from fragrant friends:
    Cafleurebon: Gender Bender Fragrances- Sex Behind the Counter
    Sorcery of Scent: Perfume- Transcending the Gender Barrier
    Scented Pages: Perfume: Culture, History and Techniques
    Now Smell This: Guerlain Mivsouko (Pour Homme) Fragrance Review

    Wearing fragrance: A how-to of sorts

    I was spinning my wheels over the holidays. I have been playing with samples, reading reviews... I even picked up the new book about Chanel No. 5 and was given two books by NY Times Scent Critic Chandler Burr. I'm immersed in perfume, almost literally!

    I said I'd start reviewing scents, but I suppose I lied. Sorry! I think there are a few more things to talk about first. For example, how does one test a fragrance? And what is the best way to wear scent? Are you expected to make decisions off of a scented strip of paper in a magazine, from a blotter in a store or from a whiff of the bottle at a counter? Is there such thing as sampling protocol? How about protocol for wearing fragrances? The mind boggles...

    I think I'll start with wearing scent, then cover sampling. Sound good? As always, this is a learning process for me, so discussion is welcome and encouraged!

    how to apply fragrance
    Sounds kind of silly, doesn't it? One simply puts it on, right? Well, sure, but there are always different ways to do things and some work better than others!

    Pulse points
    Probably most of us have been told to wear our fragrances on our pulse points. Why is that? And what the hell are pulse points, anyway?! The answer to the second question can be answered by watching tv dramas. Think of that body awkwardly lying in the corner of the room on your favorite crime show. When our hero rushes in, what does she do? After clearing the room and looking meaningfully at the camera, she rushes to the body and checks the victim's wrist or throat for that flicker -or lack thereof - that let's her know if the victim is dead.

    Pulse points.

    Those I just mentioned are the most commonly scented, the throat and wrist, but there are others. Essentially, pulse points are areas where the skin in thin enough to be able to feel the rhythm of the blood as it whishes through the arteries. These areas tend to be a bit warm. That warmth is why we dab perfume there- the heat helps the oils in the scent "open up and bloom" (that's perfumista talk for "get smelly").

    There are pulse points in the groin (where the legs attach to the torso) (this does not mean your genitalia, which is a bad place for perfumes due to the fact that you could get all itchy and gross). There are also pulse points on the backs of the knees and in the inner elbow, and in the armpit (but please don't check my pulse there 'cause ew!). Oh, apparently there are also pulse points on the insides of the ankles, too.

    Many people also dab or spritz perfume elsewhere. Popular spots:
    • Behind the ears
      Some is bound to get on the hair, which brings us to...
    • In the hair
      Hair seems to hold scent really well, and adds a little boost to sillage (the scent trail that follows in your wake). It's also fun to toss long hair and get a woosh of scent! Since alcohol is the base of many perfumes, this may be a technique to avoid, as it could be too harsh (for example my color-treated hair needs coddling, not added stressors). The oils in hair could also change the way a scent smells, so beware. And last but not least, what if you're dealing with a scrubber?! If you need to get that stank off, a shampoo is a hassle that may not be convenient.
      Note: brands do make "hair perfumes". Cool.
      Another Note: I have been known to wear scent in my hair, 'cause I don't spritz on enough to damage anything.
    • On the clothes
      Please test in an inconspi inconspicul hidden place to make sure a) the scent doesn't fall flat or behave in an unbecoming manner or b) stain.
    • Breasts/chest
      I quite like this idea. One, the scent wafts up nicely towards the nose. Two, the clothes trap some of the scent in (like a Dutch Oven), which makes me think it will stick around longer (completely non-scientific theory). And C, it's warm there, usually, unless you dress like a 'ho (or pimp, for the gentlemen).
    • Backs of arms
      I'm not sure why, but I like this and it's my new preferred application location. Theories on why scent is so nice here are welcome!

    method of application
    How do you do it? Sometimes that's dictated by the packaging (spray or "splash").
    • Spray. One spritz or more, directly on the skin.
    • Spray. In the air, then walk through it.
    • Dab. Directly where you want it.
    • Layer. Use body oil, lotion, powder and perfume from the same line to really boost the scent's power (theoretically).

    Discussion of above: I prefer to spray or dab directly. Spraying into the air is supposed to prevent the fragrance from being "too strong" or to encourage "even coverage". Well, I want to be able to smell the stuff I spent boucoup bucks on and carefully chose as my scent for the occassion. Besides, call me a Control Freak, but I want to know where the scent is going (like, not on the floor or my back or my hair or the cat lounging nearby). I don't layer, either, because I wear different scents during the day sometimes. I like to switch to a cozy scent after dinner and let it help me unwind. Anyway, I don't always like the way scents present in body butter or bath oil form, since they may smell different from the edt/edp/etc.

    A note about "dabbing": some people believe that a scent is only experienced properly if sprayed. I don't know if that's true or not; I'm kind of experimenting. More on that at a later date, perhaps. There may be some truth to the theory that dabbing is less ideal, though, if one considers that the bottle top or rim could transfer dead skin and oils back into the jus (jus =perfume liquid, but the French word sounds prettier!). I don't worry about that too much, but many people do. I think if I sold my soul for a vintage scent, I might reconsider my nonchalance.

    Which ways do you apply your scents?

    reapplication: do or don't?
    I read somewhere (and lost my notes- if you have the source, please let me know!) that by reapplying a scent an hour or so after the initial application, you're messing with the progression of the scent. That made so much sense to me!

    A fragrance is usually meant to evolve from top notes to heart notes and then to base notes. The lighter or crisper or brighter initial moments give way to the stronger, bolder (maybe), broader middle. In turn, the heart gracefully backs away, giving the base notes a chance to deepen, settle, and broaden even further. If I reapply a scent too soon, I'm interrupting this cascade and disturb its flow. The result could be less waltz, more Elaine from Seinfeld.

    My theory: if I find myself wanting to keep reapplying frequently, I must consider whether or not the scent is for me. Do I really only enjoy the opening or some particular notes or facets? Do I really want a stronger version (maybe the edp instead of the edt)? Maybe this is a good time to consider layering, seeking a bit more oomph.

    As a personal note, sometimes I do reapply the same scent later in the day, but I wait until the first application is well into dry-down and is nearly faded. This seems to work well for me. What are your thoughts on reapplication?

    rubbing your wrists (ankles? whatever!) together
    Do you or don't you? Full confession: I do, lightly. Some people are against it. "It crushes the molecules!" I have no idea if I'm capable of crushing a molecule or not (somehow, I doubt it).

    There may be some truth in the advice to avoid rubbing or spreading, though, if doing so does something to breakdown or displace the balance of oils in a perfume. I don't rub at it like a genie's lamp, I lightly brush my forearms together to distribute the product a bit, partially because I don't want perfume trickling down my wrist onto my fingers but also because I like it further up my arm so it doesn't get washed off or doused in hand sanitizer.

    A thread I started on Basenotes brought up the possibility that spreading the puddle (for lack of a fancy word) will hurry the development and/or weaken certain stages. I'm going to try to break this habit and see if it changes anything.

    Your thoughts on this are encouraged!

    And that's basically how to wear fragrance.
    Except for any bits I've forgotten to mention. ;)  Please, please, please feel free (nay, encouraged) to contribute!


    Next up: how to test fragrance!