Perfume Criticism

Royal Bain de Caron fragranceWriter and wine critic Jay McInerney says that a wine critic should write as if he loved a wine with passion or hated it like poison. In his view, the critic should dispense with cold chemical analyses and instead show his love for wine. For the year-plus that I’ve been reading perfume blogs, I’ve read — and really enjoyed — hundreds of perfume reviews. Despite different approaches, none of the bloggers falls into the trap against which McInerney warns. The one attribute all the reviewers share is a real passion for perfume. But McInerney’s statement started me thinking about the elements of a good perfume review.

For me, a list of notes of a fragrance in a review is important. Hearing "tuberose and lilies of the valley" sets me up for a different experience than "patchouli and coriander". I also know, though, that a list of notes can be misleading. Plus, just as I can’t enjoy opera solely from reading the score, my nose isn’t sophisticated enough to conjure a scent just from a list of its notes. Think of how many perfumes have middle notes of rose, jasmine, and iris. Jillions. And yet they can smell very different. For another example, consider two fragrances Frank Voelkl created: Le Labo Iris 39 and Curated by Colette Three As Four. Both scents feature iris and are by the same hand, but they are as different as ginger beer and gin and tonic. Iris 39 is an earthy, raw silk fabric of perfume while Three As Four is crisp, chic, and airy.

Also, I like a perfume review to tell a story. I want to know the characters. When Luca Turin wrote that Patou Colony is for "those who like Royal Bain de Caron and want to continue to amuse themselves in evening dress" I can see it. I see a woman in a yellow evening gown, and she’s tossing back her head and laughing. The other women are stiff and pretty, laden with diamonds, but dull. Throw in that Colony is a pineapple-tinted chypre, and I’m on the horn tracking down a sample. Yes, perfume is about the actual juice, but it’s also about romance and aspiration.

Finally, I want to know a few practicalities, such as how long the scent lasts, what it costs, and where I can buy it. I want to know if the bottle is pretty, and if the perfume reminds the critic of another fragrance I might already have or know. From time to time I write a perfume review, and I’d love to learn what it is that you want to know about a perfume.

What kinds of reviews inspire you? (One caution: to save my tender ego — and the egos of other perfume bloggers who might be reading — please stay positive!)

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23 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Angela, veddy interesting. Glad to see our irises by Voelkl discussion come up; I'm looking forward to the Le Labo sample, and I swear I had a 3as4 sample somewhere… I will have to hunt it up. I'm afraid I often fail on the price and wear to buy info, which Robin is very good with.

    I remember Elwie Yost, a beloved TV movie night host here in Canada, saying he started as a critic and couldn't do it because he loved movies so much that he always focused on the positive. I have to be careful to dislike things now – the further I get into my obsession the more I like some aspect of everything.

  2. Anonymous says:

    When I first started reading perfume blogs, it was noticable how positive people were, and I thought, “Damn, don't they ever have any scrubbers?” Slowly I came to two huge understandings: First, today's scrubber can be next month's bliss. Perfumes become different as you do–over time and with experience.

    Second, I was shocked at how easily swayed I am. One person tells me they hate my perfume, and I begin to wonder if I chose the right one. That alone explains the trend toward the positive. Why wreck the experience if it may not be a universal experience? I still don't like Angel, but now I keep my mouth shut.

    Mostly, I want to learn (that means listing components as well as your interpretation of the effect–one person's iris is another person's disaster) and information where to find the fragrance or samples. I also want to know if it is being discontinued, or not available in the US.

    You do all that with great humor, great affection for perfume, and great enthusiasm. And it sure has me hooked. Best, –Q

  3. Anonymous says:

    So true! There are truckloads of fragrances I won't wear, but unless something brings on a migraine, it's hard for me to really hate it. Probably the hardest thing to do is to write a review about something that is just kind of blah.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Q, you are terrific! I can be almost completely swayed by a good story connected to a perfume. For instance, when I learned that Roudnitska created Parfum de Therese for his wife's private use, I liked it twice as much (even though, truth be told, Diorella works better on me).

    I also question my perfume taste when I hear that someone I respect isn't crazy about it. I love Le Labo Iris 39, for example, but two perfume critics I absolutely respect aren't crazy about it. Still, I know my skin and my “way” are probably different than theirs, and, in the end, it really is a matter of taste.

    Thanks for commenting!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Isn't it awful when your chemistry doesn't cooperate? Things that SHOULD smell just right from all the postings and all your experience with the individual notes suddenly blossoms into something you wouldn't wear to a rat fight. But do I learn? Nope. I just ordered, unsniffed, a full bottle of SL Chergui. Because of lovely reviews. Keep your fingers crossed. I cannot afford such a splurge even if it's wonderful! And I'm way too old not to know better. Sigh.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well, Chergui really IS wonderful. Good luck with it. I know how tempting those purchases can be–I've had my eye on a bottle of Fumerie Turque, and I haven't smelled it yet, either.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Chergui *is* gorgeous – I also bought my full bottle unsniffed, and just went through internet contortions to buy a second bottle now that mine is a little more than half empty. I was having premature separation anxiety.

    I think it's a “grower” though, it takes time to get to know. The first time you try it, it will probably knock you backwards, because it is potent and doesn't smell like anything else I've tried.

  8. Anonymous says:

    It sure can come on a little heavy at first, but the drydown is wonderful.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hi Angela,

    My favorite perfume reviews are the ones that use lass adjectives, and more impressions. If I remember right, I think that's one reason Chandler Burr wrote in the Emperor of Scent that made Luca Turin's reviews so great to read, and so evocative. For example, I love his description of Angel as being a transvestite – “a gorgeous blonde with a five o'clock shadow and a wicked laugh”.

    I want to know the reviewer's impression of what it smelled like and how it made them feel – like your great recent reviews of the 2 Balenciaga fragrances, camparing and contrasting them as two types of people.

    I also like to have the basic meat-and-potatoes info included – the notes, background story if possible, where it's available etc. Interviews or thoughts from the perfumer are great too, but not easy to get in most cases I'm sure.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, this is all great information. I like Luca Turin's descriptions, too, because they explain the character of a fragrance as well as its components. If someone says a perfume smells mostly of “luscious rose”, that helps me less than if the rose is compared to, say, a Bond heroine or–completely different–an elderly aunt.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Oh God…is there anyplace to find exclusive Serge Lutens besides eBay? PLEASE let me know if you have any leads. I am dying to find someplace to buy them. I put a “Want It Now” post on eBay. I WISH they would just send fragrance to the US from their boutique.

    As an aside, why don't more people from the EU or France sell SL fragrances? They could make a killing buying bottles for 100 euros and then selling them for $200USD like most of the exclusives that I've seen on eBay.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I've seen ebay stores where you can get decants of the SL exclusives. For me, that's usually enough, since I have a hard time using more than 30 ml of any one fragrance. Maybe you should move to Europe and start your own SL resale business! Then you could be the one making the killing. You could be a remote “personal shopper”.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Oooh! That's a great reason to move!

    My problem is that I've already bought decants on eBay, and I'm dying for the full-size bottles. Guess I'll have to find some friends in the EU or France that I trust enough to let me buy the fragrance on the Serge Lutens site, ship it to their address, and then pay them to send the bottle to me in Alaska.

    That would have to be one trustworthy friend!

  14. Anonymous says:

    This month you can get Chergui, Fumerie Turque, Vetiver Oriental and Un Lys from Naz at the Perfume Shoppe in Vancouver, B.C. – limited supplies! I just got my Chergui from her yesterday, and am caving fast on FT.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Well, good luck! I can think of few things more terrific than opening a package with a bell jar of something Serge.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I thought you could get Chergui at Barney's, too. And maybe FT? I'm really, really trying not to buy any more unsniffed bottles, but the Fumerie Turque sure is tempting.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Actually, I just bought some SL Gris Clair from this place…http://www.aedes.com/ – pricey but oh so worth it. And they have a NYC-based store as well. Hopefully this well help.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Really interesting… thanks for posting this.

    I too have spent years reading perfume reviews and have come to the conclusion that while I like to see a list of notes somewhere, I do not like reviews that consist ONLY of lists of notes. I can get those in any description of the perfume. So it has jasmine — but what KIND of jasmine is it? What does it remind you of? Is it sharp, sweet, heady? Also, while I really like descriptions of what the perfume evokes for the reviewer, if they're too personal they're meaningless to the average reader: “Ah, it reminds me of the scent of my great grandmother's back porch in Vevey after the war.” Alrighty then…

    I guess my ideal review has a quick list of notes along with characterizations of those notes, plus some *accessible* description of the scents and experiences the perfume reminds the reviewer of — and to top it all off, some kind of holistic evaluation, like a flash impression. For example, the opening of Tubereuse Criminelle smells like fresh hot blacktop to me. To describe the opening notes as “mentholated” doesn't *really* get to that particular impression. I appreciate those kinds of holistic descriptions: the odder the better. :-)

  19. Anonymous says:

    Aedes is a great source for the export SLs.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Well, it sounds like we're in agreement, then! I like the description of “fresh, hot blacktop” because it not only captures the smell, but also nails its vaporous quality. To top that off, it has a “criminelle” sound, too, like gangsters peeling out as they flee the scene of the crime. Maybe you should think about writing reviews.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Try perfumeshoppe.com. They have some right now, including Chergui.

  22. Anonymous says:

    I will definitely check out Aedes, Barney's, or some of the other sites mentioned for Chergui. Unfortunately, I STILL have the dilemma about Borneo 1834. I'm going to see if I can find it. Wish I could just go to the salon in Paris and buy it. :(

  23. Anonymous says:

    Uh, I think that there description you just posted trumps anything I could compose. I'll keep leaving it to the experts, like you. :-)

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