Floral perfumes and complications of abstraction. (Initially just a review of Estée Lauder Dazzling Silver)

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dazzling silver

Estee Lauder’s Dazzling Silver and Chanel’s No 5 share a similar compositional approach. They both play with the notion of an abstract bouquet by using aromachemicals known for their specific nose-tones or qualities, not for any specific floral traits. No 5’s famous aldehydes, Dazzling Silver’s helional. In each perfume, flowers are the start, but not necessarily the goal, and the use of aromachemicals that have no intrinsic floral facets allows for greater abstraction.

This brings me to a nagging point. Is it simply my bias, or is abstraction superior to representation in floral perfumery? Is the olfactory artistry of allusion better than that of mimicry? My own likes and dislikes tell me yes, abstract floral perfumes are better.

But here of course is another nagging point, likely a larger problem with our current discussion of perfumery. Opinion vs. thoughfulness. Who the fuck cares what I think? Terms like better and worse obviously carry more judgement than consideration, and I use them as placeholders until I can concoct something more effective, but I am looking at the efficacy of forms. Is abstraction in perfumery more successful than depiction? I try to keep a degree of disinterest as a check on the fact that I prefer a high degree of abstraction almost universally in art.

Again, my bias, but abstraction seems necessarily to include the audience as a co-creator of work, a collaborator in the creation of meaning in the work. The object of art (perfume, dialogue, movement, painting) is actively considered, modified, discarded, modified by the recipient. Representation alone seems more like a transaction, an attempt to sidestep the complications. Routine theatrical constructions such as the big Las Vegas shows aren’t intended to provoke or to complicate, they are for us to consume and gather as identifiable reference points. Audience members years apart want to be able to discuss a show with the expectation that they effectively saw the same thing. Interestingly even these Las Vegas shows, through strict repetition and adherence to set choreography, have taken a fairly abstract form such as acrobatics and turned it into performed hard data. The show is executed and the audience is witness. It is performed correctly or incorrectly (a fall, a missed cue, a stumbled entrance.) The meaning created by audience members is that of a tourist who has seen a site discussing the experience with someone who saw the same site a few months later.

So what does this mean for perfumery?

I’ll leave that question out there for now, throwing in just one last bit to be my own devil’s advocate. Fracas, held out as a definitive soliflor, is both beautiful and thought-provoking. It is also a categorical example of representation in perfumery. Beyond Paradise shows a mind-shaking degree of targeted abstraction in its construction, yet requires as little thought on the part of the wearer as a Glade plug-in.

The complication of these two perfumes is that, as far as perfume criticism goes, form is easy. The real motherfucker is intention. How can we distinguish intent, as a product of the mind of the perfumer, from function, which arises from the creation of a commercial product?Germaine Cellier gave us Fracas, a supposed flower, yet it remains a puzzle to perfumers and wearers 65 years later. Beyond Paradise purports to be an ode to beauty with flowers as muses, yet given its use of abstraction in design, is ultimately little different than the scenting of laundry soap.


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  1. clamato says:

    Very interesting point about the audience as co-creator when the work is abstract. This isn’t because abstract is open-ended and more available for interpretation, but because successful abstraction communicates perceptible sentiment which resides outside the context of language. This sentiment is transmitted from the creator to the viewer in an uncluttered, explanation-free form which enables the viewer to receive it actively instead of after the fact.

    I think the most successful visual art is that which succeeds on principles of abstraction, whether or not the work was ultimately intended to be considered abstract. If the artist allows his work to act as an acceptance of the inherent abstraction in form instead of struggling against it, there’s more freedom.

    I think the same is true of perfume. Whether or not the perfume works as representational is less important than whether it also succeeds as abstraction.

    To respond to your attempt at playing devil’s advocate, I think it’s necessary to ask whether Fracas, despite it’s obvious representational character, succeeds on an abstract axis, and whether Beyond Paradise is art, or just abstract.

    If Fracas doesn’t succeed on abstract principles, it may be a very successful perfume, or a prime example of the art of perfumery, but it’s not successful as art itself.

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