The storm that’s broken over the online perfume community after Luca Turin’s NZZ Folio column on the death of perfumery has left me somewhat discombobulated. I have neither the scientific, nor the technical expertise to weigh in on which fragrances are headed for the tumbrel – Octavian, who does, is doing a good job on spelling out the death list. I don’t have enough time to investigate on the makings of the current perfume-icide and its consequences for the future. And I don’t have enough money to stock up as much as I should – the LVMH ban on reselling their products on eBay in France has made it practically impossible for me to even access most foreign-sold fragrances on that market, so my collecting has drawn to a halt.
But it adds up, doesn’t it? We’re already feeling so powerless about the fact that the world is plunged in a recession not of our doing or that large swathes of the planet are going to become inhabitable within our lifetime… And now a small refuge of beauty is getting smaller still, thanks to bureaucrats bent on protecting us from ourselves, luxury groups who make their money on new launches and don’t care what becomes of their classics as long as they can avoid any risk of lawsuits, aromachemical industries who’d much rather patent molecules that go through the involved process of sourcing un-patentable (and unreliable) natural products for their blends.
So what’s that next to people losing their jobs, homes, pensions and health insurance? To the struggling populations who’ll take the first brunt of climate change? Not much, really, is it? Not much more than a rash, anyway.
But what’s a world without Joy?
I don’t even wear Joy. Nor Chanel N°5, for that matter. But they are both classics who have withstood the test of time and come to us in the closest possible form to their original formulas. I may not have been there when they were born, but I wasn’t there either for the première of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the first presentation of Manet’s Olympia or the Ulysses book launch party, and that doesn’t prevent me from being deeply moved by them – that’s kind of the point of beauty: it transcends time and context, though a bit of culture helps, and it’s hard to see the Cnidian Aphrodite through the forest of soulless Victorian nude godesses…
When that little bit of beauty goes, which it will (ok, so everything must go some day – but why the hell should I smile when it happens?), a tiny bit of the beauty of the world goes with it. And N°5 or Joy are not going alone, because a great many of the materials that make up classic, or classically-styled fragrances, will face ever more stringent restrictions or outright bans. It’s already been happening left and right – but the fact that it is a fait accompli, that we’ll be seeing more and more of it, that even tweaked but still beautiful fragrances will be maimed beyond recognition, doesn’t make me wax philosophical and sigh c’est la vie. It makes me mad.
Sure, perfumers are saying they’ll go on working. Some have never worked with those materials because they’re too young, so they won’t miss them. All make their living from composing fragrances, so they’re not likely to say they’re taking up pottery instead, are they? But jasmine, people. The Flower. The greatest building block of perfumery, reduced to piddling drops. It’s like saying to painters: you can’t put red in your paintings anymore, because we’ve found out it makes people more aggressive. And, oh, by the way, we’re repainting everything in the museums in pink, so there you go, now there’s a good fellow.
Of course, there are, and there’ll still be great new fragrances – but to say the new restrictions will increase perfumers’ creativity is like saying that banning certain subjects, or certain words, would make for better books. Artists have always, historically, worked their way around bans and taboos – and art, historically, has progressed by breaking through them, not accepting them meekly. But perfume is an industry, isn’t it? So meek is the mot du jour.
A few indies may go rogue, and continue to work with larger-than-authorized amounts of restricted materials, thereby giving up the right to be imported in the EU and the USA, among other parts of the world, and solely distributing to individual customers through the internet – that is, if they can find materials that will no longer be profitable to produce. But though for many perfumery is a labor of love, these people do have to make a living. And past a certain production volume, they do have to go through plants who comply with regulations.
I would dearly love to see perfume houses offer unadulterated versions of their classics for sale, even at a higher price, with a restricted distribution circuit, issued with the proper label warnings, but I somehow doubt that’ll happen, though I’m fully prepared to lobby them for it.
In the meantime, I’ll go and tell my 97-year-old neighbor, who’s been wearing Chanel N°5 since she was a mere girl, that her days are numbered if she goes on dabbing the dreaded jasmine-laden extrait. I’m sure she’ll be tickled to switch to Pink Sugar.
To quote the immortal Monty Python: “Aw, you’re no fun anymore.”
Image: Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Tirumph of Death (detail)