One Thousand Scents

Friday, October 26, 2007

De Luxe

They say travel broadens your horizons, and that certainly is true in my case. Here are three things I learned--really got--from my recent trip to the UK.

1) I finally understand why the British are so attached to their monarchy. Canadians experience the monarchy at one remove: occasionally a royal comes over to grace us with their magnificent presence, and most people just yawn and go about their business. I think most Canadians would just as soon have the institution done away with. Those under sixty, anyway. But in England, you're surrounded by history--there are lots of buildings still standing that are older than my entire country--and a lot of them bear the unmistakable stamp of royalty, such as the Tower Bridge. Even if you become inured to it, it's all there, a constant reminder of the history of the country, which is inextricably tied up with the monarchy. They don't get rid of the monarchy (or at least they haven't yet) because it's visibly, perpetually a sign of who they are and where they came from; it represents continuity.

2) I finally get the Full English Breakfast, which seems on the surface of it excessive even by North American standards. You sit down to an enormous platter containing most or all of the traditional breakfast fare: toast, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, baked beans, sausage, eggs, ham, fried potatoes, and of course tea or coffee, plus possibly more besides (black pudding, for example, or cheese). There's just so much of it! But we spent most of every day in the UK walking around, and after eating one of these breakfasts, we'd be good for hours. Around noon, the usual time for lunch, we'd look at each other and say, "You hungry"? "Nope" was the invariable reply: the breakfast kept us going until three o'clock, easy, and often later. Despite eating such a massive load for breakfast, we both lost weight on the trip. So the Full English Breakfast is real fuel for a day's exertions; it does its job with remarkable efficiency (and deliciousness). It's probably not very good for you in the long run, but a bowl of bran cereal and yogurt is not going to keep you running for most of a day.

3) This doesn't have anything to do with the trip, exactly, but it happened on the trip, so here it is. I finally understand why skin-care products have scents in them. I hate anything that contains a scent that I didn't specifically ask to be put there: a shower gel that smells like Tsar or Egoiste is fine if that's what I want to smell like for the day, but a sunscreen that smells of cheap florals is something I very much want to avoid. (My skin-care routine, if you can even call it that, consists of washing in the shower with whatever shower gel or shampoo I have at hand, and then putting on some unscented sunscreen after I've dried off, every day, without fail.) It's hard to find "unscented" or "fragrance-free" sunscreens that really are scentless, and it pisses me off that I have to waste time doing so.

When I bought my bottle of Midnight Poison at Debenhams, the saleswoman was very nice and very apologetic that she didn't have any samples of scents for me. (I asked, because I always ask, and I thought that maybe she'd pop over to another counter or two to rustle some up, but perhaps she wasn't allowed to.) Not wanting me to leave empty-handed, she loaded a bunch of Dior skin-cream samples into my shopping bag instead, and they aren't the sorts of things I'd ever use, but all the little tubes and tiny pump vials in their shiny boxes were so beguiling that I tried a couple of them. Once. They didn't make my skin magically radiant or perfected (maybe I need to keep using them for that to happen), but by god were they ever scented! They had a potent rosy floral scent to them that swirled around your face as you applied the products; the scent was inescapable, and surprisingly appealing. It was like applying an expensive scent that just happened to be a skin cream. Most of the drugstore lines, of course, are also scented, and it's the same thing, I think: women in general clearly don't just want to put on a cream and be done with it--they want a reminder that they're using a product. The unstated message must be that that if they can smell it, it must be effective because they know it's there.

So finally, I know why these potions and unguents are so highly perfumed, and why the expensive lines clearly put a huge amount of time and effort into concocting a particularly good scent for their products. They want consumers to feel that they're getting something more than just an emulsion in a bottle, and without a doubt they succeed. The Dior creams may not work any better than cheaper lines, if they work at all beyond helping keep your skin from drying out, but they give the almost subliminal sense that they're expensive, and worth the expense. They smell like luxury.

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But what is luxury, really?

Is it a fifty-thousand-dollar handbag? Is that handbag really five hundred times better, more desirable, than a hundred-dollar purse?

Is it a $245 scent in an unattractive bottle which goes by the name "Luxe"? It is a $2350 perfume in a lead-crystal bottle set with a diamond, one that unabashedly announces itself "The most expensive perfume in the world"?

Someone has written an entire book on the subject, which I haven't read. Doesn't mean I don't have some thoughts on the topic, though.

Over on Now Smell This there was a rousing discussion of the idea of luxury as it applied to fragrances; many of the writers felt that the idea of luxury as it applies to commercial fragrance is a dead one, and I am more or less forced to agree. There are many very expensive scents on the market nowadays, but are they truly, meaningfully luxurious? I am beginning to have my doubts.

For something to be truly luxurious, I think, it has has to have three qualities:

1) It must be hard to come by. This can be a result of organic scarcity, as with caviar, or it can be because the item is difficult and/or time-consuming to produce, as is a Mercedes-Benz.
2) It must be significantly more expensive than a comparable item: a disposable ball-point pen is not luxurious, but a Montblanc pen (or, as they prefer, a "writing instrument") is. Can a pen be worth $1600? If it gives you pleasure every time you use it, or if it increases your status, or if you have more money than brains, then perhaps it can.
3) It must in some way justify that increased expense. A mink coat--whatever your feelings about the animal-skin trade--is a luxury because it is extremely time-consuming and difficult to create.

That third thing is crucial: the luxury item must seem to be worth whatever it takes to own it. And this, it seems, is where the notion of luxury is disintegrating in the world of fragrance.

Part of the problem is the flood of perfumes. A generation ago, there were maybe a thousand fragrances on the market. Even then you had an embarrassment of choices. Now, there are seven to eight hundred new fragrances launched every year--two or three a day, every day, day in, day out. Even at the high end of the market there's a glut: Tom Ford launches a collection of twelve all at once; Chanel, a series of ten which they call Les Exclusifs. The established perfume houses each churn out dozens of scents a year, and celebrities attach their names to anything in a bottle as a way of increasing their brand equity. It is not possible to keep up: you couldn't try them all and form intelligent opinions about them, any more than you could read and review seven or eight hundred books a year.

Books, in fact, are a good parallel to the world of fragrance. They're churned out in ever-increasing numbers, and you can't meaningfully experience more than a fraction of them. They're just another aspect of the blitz of media that dominates our lives. Where they used to be an art form, they're just another commodity.

This commodification isn't destroying perfumery, but it certainly is diluting it, and it's eroding the sense of luxury that only fifty years ago dominated the scented world. Estee Lauder had to market her Youth-Dew as a bath oil, because women wouldn't buy a perfume for themselves--it was too luxurious and therefore frivolous--but they would buy a prosaic bath product. Nowadays, every product has a smell, everybody can afford some sort of fragrance, and perfume as a category is no more luxurious than hamburger or plastic shoes.

Merely charging a huge amount of money for something doesn't make it a luxury, because, according to my rule #3 above, the scent has to seem to be worth the extra money. I don't think an $885 bottle of Clive Christian #1 for Men is luxurious: I think it's ridiculous. Even if I loved it (for the record, I haven't tried it, though I could have), I wouldn't think of paying that much for a scent. I have a threshold--I expect everyone does--beyond with a scent couldn't possibly be worth the cost. If you'll pay two thousand dollars for a diamond-inset bottle of perfume (most of the price is for the bottle, obviously), will you pay three? Or five? Or thirty thousand for a bottle inset with pavé diamonds? Five million for perfume in a tiny bottle carved from an entire diamond? Where does it stop? And at what point does it become meaningless--not about perfume, but about insane extravagance?

Having said that, though, the fact is that more expensive fragrances often are better. As any regular reader will note, I will sample any scent, and I don't disdain cheap ones: I think Tabu and Old Spice are wonderful, and on the right skin, Coty's Emeraude is lovely. But though more expensive scents may not be true luxuries, they tend to be better thought out, more artistically constructed, and made with better ingredients; they can be worth the higher price. Within reason.

Back when I was just getting properly obsessed with scent, I obtained a bottle of Comptoir Sud Pacifique Vanille Amande in a swap, and I treasured it, because I had never seen it for sale anywhere: I couldn't easily get it, which gave it that sense of scarcity that luxury requires. When the line became available in a local drugstore, I bought a bunch of CSP scents, and while I love them, they no longer feel luxurious, because they're too easily available. Familiarity really does breed contempt!

When I look at my collection, I see that the ones I treasure the most, the ones I'd save from a fire, are in fact the most expensive. Not only that--they're ones it was most difficult for me to get, the ones I yearned for the longest. I desperately desired Ambre Précieux after trying a sample of it, and I still love it madly, partly, I'm sure, because I still remember that desire; it colours my experience of the scent. The same is true of the L'Artisan Épices trio (I waited years to own it) and of Coup de Fouet (I had to leave the continent to get it).

Perhaps, then, that is the soul of luxury: the sense of yearning for something rare and difficult to obtain, eventually brought to fruition by possession.

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