A long aside and a brief overview of Montauk (perfumer Laurent le Guernec) and I Love New York For All (perfumer not cited by Bond.).
A list of notes is generated by the perfume producer to describe a perfume to the buyer. Because this list is a part of the standard marketing package of any commercial perfume, notes are uniformly positive and elegant. You’ll find the expected allusions to botanicals such as tuberose, raspberry, labdanum and oud. Also descriptive and categorical bits: green, solar, woody, candied, masculine, animalic, musky, etc.. You generally won’t find notes of scrambled egg, soybean or ass.
Notes are a common currency, but a quick peek under the surface reveals more confusion than clarity. While the algebra of perfumery states that ‘jasmine’ might come from hedione, jasmine lactone, benzyl acetate, cis-Jasmone or jasmine concrete, marketing tells you that ‘jasmine’ comes from the garden of Roja Dove’s family country home. The expression ‘intent to deceive’ comes to mind.
A note has to be believable enough to follow the ‘smells like’ rule, and here is where the most blatant commercial perfumes have a degree of truthfulness lacking in many niche perfumes. Britney Spears Fantasy’s heartnote of cupcake and Victoria’s Secret Appletini’s note of, well, appletini, are lucid and honest compared to some of the more pretentious niche spinnings.
(One of niche perfumery’s gifts to the debate is authentickier notes. Mixed in with the standard list, many niche perfumes throw in a few aromachemicals from the body of common knowledge as a wink to the perfume cognoscenti. It’s a way of saying, ‘We know you’re not the average Sephora shopper. Bravo, you.’ Notes of cashmeran, ambroxan, galaxolide and iso-E Super further conflate materials with notes and a false sense of objectivity becomes the basis for discussion. I don’t strictly blame the perfume producers. We fumies eat this stuff up.)
Notes are a dicey notion for perfume wearers not simply for their imprecision. The greater problem is that notes are the story that the perfume producer tells and perfume buyers often accept as a matter of faith. Favoring ideology over demonstrable data in factual matters is how creationism came to be taught as science. There is a similar tendency in the discussion of perfume. Short of an effective common language of scent and olfactory art we cite notes to lend a sense of control and authority.
Many perfume fans and writers have delved into materials and accords and offer an informed perspective on the analysis of a composition. I have neither the aptitude nor the nose for that sort of work and I admire these writers’ skill. My concern is the context in which perfume writing takes place. A vocabulary of notes and a review-based format place the perfume writer in the position of the would-be evaluator. It limits the discussion to judgements on the success or failure of a perfume based on very limited criteria. The situation arises from the format. I don’t mean this as a swipe at perfume writers—I am one. It’s we who suffer the most from this scenario.
Bond no 9 seem to look for direct and easily recognized references in their perfumes. A discussion of Montauk and I Love New York For All comes around quickly to notes.
Montauk seems built on a number of very specific fragrance references: berry, culinary herbs, wood, water… The ‘notes’ smell as if they were placed together in the hope that some sort of synergy might arise but they don’t appear to have any other affinity. Without a connection between the various elements of the perfume, the notes stick out as truncated and skeletal. Combined, they make for a jarring perfume that doesn’t so much grow quieter over time as more distant. Even as a receeds it still feels as if it is shouting.
The more enjoyable perfumes, even linear ones, offer a sort of dialogue as you wear them. Montauk reads like a recorded message repeated endlessly. It reminds me of those signals broadcast into outer space to anyone who might receive them. The message is a plea: We are here. Notice us.
I Love New York for All is meant to conjure specific food references and leans more heavily on the ‘smells like’ premise of notes. The complication of aiming for a specific gourmand olfactory reference is that if it doesn’t fit the wearer’s impression of the food, it can trigger the fight/flight reaction one has to the scent of spoiled food.
Online reviews include raves from the majority. People find ILNYFA a cozy brunch of a perfume. The sweetness of the creamy coffee and the salty bakery quality form a complete meal. I include my opinion because it points to the risk of polarization a gourmand perfume takes. I find ILNYFA revolting. My food associations are of someone having vomited after eating burnt spoiled sausage, old coffee and fake maple syrup. I had to photograph the bottle I tested to check it against the Bond website to make certain I hadn’t smelled the wrong bottle.
ILNYFA captures the fundamental problem of a gourmand fragrance that aims for anything beyond the common denominator of the simple dessert. It’s not just the ‘subjective’ argument–that we each have different preferences. It’s that missing the mark when aiming for a food reference can evoke a visceral reaction. Though it’s not a gourmand perfume, Etat Libre d’Orange knew they were screwing the sympathetic nervous system with Sécrétions Magnifiques and composed the perfume specifically in light of it.
With a name like I Love New York For All and with a Swarovski bauble on the bottle I doubt Bond were playing the agents provocateurs. If they were, I’m impressed. Le Parfum est nauséabond. Vive le parfum!