The fruity floral takes a lot of heat, and it should. It’s not the most sophisticated genre and the more egregious examples are pretty grim. The genre isn’t inherently faulty, but it does have some intrinsic pitfalls. Making a first-class fruity floral requires both abstraction and representation, two contradictory tactics. If abstraction is considering an idea or thing separate from expected associations or concrete characteristics then it is for most purposes the opposite of representation. The two approaches negate each other.
Perfumery has historically relied heavily on abstraction both as a tool and as a goal. Despite the suggestive names “fern” and “Cyprus” the goal of the fougère and the chypre was neither reproducing a botanical scent nor storytelling. The combinations of coumarin/lavender in the fougère and bergamot/oakmoss/amber in the chypre were found to express a broad range of olfactory ideas. The inherent goal of both the fougère and the chypre was simply to create compelling perfumes based on these two fundamental accords.
Fruity florals have a different objective. They strive to smell like fruit or recreate fruity qualities. Ditto with flowers. This is nothing new in perfumery. Reproduction of botanical and animalic notes is fundamental to perfumery and verisimilitude is the yardstick. The risk of trying to smell like something is doing it badly, making a cheap version of the scent you’re trying to emulate. It reads like bad impersonation—or if you’re lucky, as parody or burlesque. But done well, it can measurably enhance a perfume’s profile. Balancing appropriate degrees of abstraction and depiction has always been an inherent contradiction in perfumery and no perfume is 100% the result of either approach. The fruity floral, with its twofold mission of dishing up both fruits and flowers, brings this conflict of methodologies into focus. How the conflict is resolved is one of the better measures of the expertise of a perfumer.
A superior fruity floral can stand toe-to-toe with any other sophisticated perfume. Hermès Rose Amazone rehabilitates, hell, raises from the dead, a dowager from Hermès excessively refined crypts. Bond no. 9 Chinatown juxtaposes prune/orange blossom/incense and creates a whole new olfactory shape. Robert Piguet Petit Fracas flips the bird at moderation and manages to devise a smart, innovative flanker. It’s also worth considering that the classic fruity chypres (Mitsouko, Femme, Calyx, Yvresse) are fruity florals with oakmoss and that Germain Cellier’s seminal peachy tuberose Fracas is effectively the greatest fruity floral in history.
Despite the above illustrations, the contemporary fruity floral tends to be fairly tawdry. It runs into trouble exactly where every other genre of perfume runs into trouble: when standards drop. When formulating fruity florals, perfumers seem to set their sights low, at about the altitude of the Sour Patch Kid and the Skittle, and meet their goals. Barely. Perfumers create specific olfactory images: apple, raspberry, jasmine, peony, but what they want to achieve with their images is important. Creating a subtle, background berry note or a complex one that conveys ripeness, acidity and rosy overtones is one thing. Eliciting, “Wow! Fruity!!” from a test-panel is something else.
The problem of the fruity floral stems from the people who make them not thinking highly enough of those who buy them. It’s problematic that an industry that produces a creative product doesn’t foster an appreciation of the very aesthetics that it employs. Rube Goldberg marketing campaigns and fairytale lists of notes are no replacement for aspiring to make great perfumes.