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


    1. In late January, without warning or explanation, I started writing on my Facebook status my scent of the day with a little blurb about it. I find that many of my blurbs are of the memory which was brought to the surface upon first sniff after application. One of my friends who is a wine buff, commented that some of my descriptions reminded her of what she would hear at a wine tasting.

    2. Alice, what a cool thing to post! Are you a wine person?


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