Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mystery of Musk: Skin Impressions

It’s been a hot, miserable, steamy week here in New Jersey and testing perfumes on sweaty skin is pointless. The weather finally eased up enough to let me evaluate all eleven submissions—two per forearm. Sorry this took so long.

I’m always astonished at how different a scent can smell on blotter versus on skin—my skin at least. I have what French perfumers bluntly call “bad skin”; it doesn’t reflect back what they regards as the formula’s true impression.

Tough beans. It’s what I’ve got so I’m going with it. Here are my on-skin impressions arranged in the same batting order as the blotter impressions:

Adam Gottschalk – Lord’s Jester / Dionysus

Fresh: Initially chocolaty
Drydown: A vinyl-like note sticks out

Alexandra Balahoutis – Strange Invisible Perfumes / Temple of Musk

Fresh: Burst of grapefruit which vanishes quickly
Drydown: Residual is a soft santal note.

Ambrosia Jones – Perfume by Nature / Craving

Fresh: Sweet & fruity; like a dessert wine
Drydown: Candy-like

Anya McCoy – Anya’s Garden Perfumes / Kewdra

Fresh: Musky, white chocolate.
Drydown: Powdery, sweet.

Charna Ethier – Providence Perfumes / Musk Nouveau

Fresh: Warm, patchouli-incense.
Drydown: Similar; good staying power.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz – DSH Perfumes / Musk eau natural

Fresh: Briefly green
Drydown: Brown spices; clove-like.

Elise Pearlstine – Belly Flower Perfumes / Verdigris

Fresh: Sweet, honey-like.
Drydown: Similar.

Jane Cate – A Wing and a Prayer Perfumes / Tallulah B.

Fresh: Warm, spicy.
Drydown: Faint.

JoAnne Bassett – JoAnne Bassett Perfumes / Sensual Embrace

Fresh: Very green
Drydown: Green gives way to a pleasant balsamic impression

Lisa Fong – Artemisia Perfume / Drifting Sparks

Fresh: Singular soapy impression; reminiscent of Cashmere Bouquet
Drydown: Same; good staying power; linear.

Nicholas Jennings – Sharini Parfums Naturels / Graines de Paradis

Fresh: Softly herbal; indistinct.
Drydown: Soft

Skin vs Blotter: Some submissions gave consistent impressions on blotter and skin. Charna Ethier’s Musk Nouveau was warm and incense-like in both tests. It was also relatively linear, i.e., it kept the same impression from fresh to drydown.

Other submissions remained true to their blotter impressions, but with a twist. For example, Adam’s Gottschalk’s Dionysus retained a chocolate-like fresh impression in both, but on my skin developed an odd note that dominated the drydown. In Alexandra Balahoutis’ Temple of Musk, what smelled like distinct vine-like green and lemon notes on blotter produced a nice grapefruit impression on skin. (Now I get it!)

The unusual fresh blotter impression of JoAnne Bassett’s Sensual Embrace (“sharp, effervescent Play-Doh”) was replaced on skin by a green note. Skin and blotter both dried down to a warm, balsamic impression. The lovely sweet floral note of Lisa Fong’s Drifting Sparks on the fresh blotter were lost on my skin; it went straight to a soapy impression that dominated the drydown as well. Likewise, the spicy astringency of Nicholas Jennings’ Graines de Paradis so evident on blotter was swallowed up entirely on my skin. (Of course your mileage may vary . . .)

Differences between skin and blotter are not unique to the all-natural ingredients of this design competition; they are a constant issue in commercial, synthetic-included perfumery as well. Perfumes are composed on blotter and tested on skin; sometimes the differing outcomes are not easily explained. It’s why we do a lot of consumer testing before submitting something to a client.

Musk as a Design Theme: I’ve already admitted that I’m not the best judge of musk. (I can’t smell truffles, so I never pay for them!) With a couple of exceptions, most of the submissions stayed within plausible distance of a musk theme. For the Guild’s next competition, I’d suggest going with a wearer-relevant theme: “something light for summer” or “a sensual winter’s night.”

I’d also suggest a smaller competition. Eleven perfumes is a lot of territory to cover blogging-wise (pant, pant); and it’s probably asking a lot of readers to follow all eleven on ten different blogs.


carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

I've noticed much more of a discrepancy between blotter and skin with this series than I ever do with perfumes that include synthetic materials, and that are composed by perfumers with a more "academic" training. I suspect it's not just a matter of natural materials, but also of approach to formulation.

I was also struck by the fact that a lot of these had very dense, unflattering top notes in the first minutes (blotter) or seconds (skin), but I'm not sure whether it's due to the musk theme as I'm not very familiar with 100% natural perfumery.

I agree that 11 scents is a lot to take on for a reviewer. I haven't been able to handle it within the one-week time limit (I wanted to get them all in before starting, like you), especially since I set out writing full reviews of each...
Pant-pant indeed.

~x~ said...

1) i'm sticking with your blog for mine

2) did you read about the "life force of natural perfume as demonstrated through kirlian photography" thing on lord's jester site?

3) what do you think about that, if at all?

never change.

Avery Gilbert said...

Carmencanada /Grain de Musc:

I'm relieved to learn I'm not the only one sensing an especially large gap in skin vs blotter. Was beginning to wonder whether the heat had gone to my head. Materials vs formulation is a question worth focusing on going forward.

The dense top notes don't surprise me. Commercial perfumes are engineered to have a "hook"; they jump out of the bottle and grab you by the nose. Artisan perfumers don't face the same market expectations.

You've set yourself an impressively high bar--full reviews of each submission. I found brief "tasting notes" were tough enough. Of course, the in-house evaluation process is much more brusque, if not brutal: a few sniffs and the day's losers are brushed to the side of the table without a second thought or any written commentary at all.

carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

Avery, I pretty much know how evaluators work and have discussed our respective approaches with some of them. With the type of product that I mostly write about I'm more interested in the notion of authorship, which is neither here nor there in a big lab, unless we're talking about people like Sophia Grosjman, for instance.

In this case, I considered I was dealing with what the perfumers had decided were finished, marketable products. I do wish there was a bit more of a work on "hooks", because "tough it out until it gets nice" is a little... tough.
But it can't just be a matter of sticking in some bergamot or whatever, is it? It's hard to get any sort of structure with naturals if you're going for a classic-type fragrance.
As for doing full reviews, I'm planning to publish the three I've written, and probably be more succinct after that, which is, I guess, a selection process...

Avery Gilbert said...

carmencanada /Grain de Musc:

You remind me of another “process” difference between artisan perfumers and their commercial cousins. I imagine the former work alone while the latter most definitely do not. Big-house perfumers work closely with an evaluator who is the arbiter of which submissions best fit the client’s brief. The commercial creative process is interactive and iterative: repeated tweaks based on feedback. (I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.)

So perhaps the solo artisans don’t have someone to tell them “hey, you need to open up the top a little, give it something attention-grabbing and easy to like.”

The alternative possibility is that an aesthetic consensus has emerged among the natural folks and their customers: that’s just the way they like it.

You offer a bleaker alternative: perhaps grabby “hooks” and certain classic structures are simply not achievable within the natural ingredient space.

I don’t know enough to venture a guess among these.

Miami Mark said...

Avery & Carmencanada/Grain de Musc,

The artisanal perfumers usually have a few hand-picked people who they use as testers. I have done this for a couple of them and a friend of mine has done it for many more than two.

I think the difference here is for the big perfumers they are trying to perfect a commercial product which has to appeal to a broad cross-section of people. The artisanal perfumers can take a much narrower view and aren't going to have multi-million dollar ad campaigns behind them so they can.
The cost of one PR campaign for name your release from any of the Big Boys is more than any artisanal perfumer probably spends in their lifetime.
As a result they can go for an audience that is much more narrow and don't really need "hooks". I think of the difference between pop music and indie music. Pop Music has commercial criteria it must satisfy to be successful. Indie Music can be just for their fans as long as their fans buy enough CD's to allow them to survive.

This isn't to say you shouldn't apply the criteria you want to follow to either side of this. If you want to apply a commercial/classic criteria then that is fine and the artisanal perfumers should be held to that.
Just because something is Commercial doesn't mutually exclude it from being good. Just as when something is Independent it doesn't by design make it good.

carmencanada /Grain de Musc said...

Avery, I think this type of structure is feasible in natural perfumery but that it's much harder to achieve. It's not a field I know very well but I can name Ayala Moriel, for instance, as someone who manages it brilliantly.

Mark, as you well know, there's quite a gradient between the commercial perfumes with huge campaigns riding on them and the indies, natural or not: niche perfumers (at least in the non-derivative houses) also focus on a narrower clientele, and can afford to stray outside notes with very wide appeal.

Of course the type of feedback formally trained, lab-formatted evaluators give is very different from what a cultured perfume lover will come up with. In some of the things I've sampled from this operation, a little more technical advice may have been welcome, but as Avery says, this may be as natural perfumers and their clients like it.

Avery Gilbert said...

Miami Mark:

You raise some good points. Interesting to learn that some artisanal perfumers trial their work on other people. I'm curious--do they use them simply as "skin" or for feedback on design? I ask because fragrance evaluators can become part of the creative process, in the same way editors work with writers.

Good points about differences in market strategy. A niche fragrance can succeed with a narrow fan base; the trick is finding it. A depressing aspect of working in a big house is seeing truly unique and beautiful submissions rejected--or worse, modified--in order to please the averaged tastes of consumer panel and corporate committee. Often mass market economics demands such re-engineering (you think pop vs Indie music, I think Hollywood vs Indie movies).

Perhaps natural perfumers trade ingredient-based limits for market-based freedom?

Lisa Fong said...

I was a part of this process and I must point out that we were given less than two months to complete this project. Natural perfume required a long time to marry. So I would blend and let it sit for a week or two, alter and let it sit, ect. ect. I had only a week for topnotes! I will not release anything until it sits for at least3-4 months, because it changes so much with time, kind of like wine. My blend is much altered since I sent it out, wish I had more time. In natural perfumery, the ingredients are complex blends of molecules which can interact in strange and unexpected ways. It is a very difficult process.

Avery Gilbert said...

Lisa Fong:

Fair points. I wondered more than once whether two months was long enough for such a difficult brief (an all-natural, strictly botanical musk). And as you point out, perfume is like wine in the bottle--not all of the chemically active molecules play nicely together. I remember all the discussions I sat in on about chilling & filtering and maceration times (perfumers want more, client wants less)? When you're working under the gun this gives stable synthetics a certain appeal . . .

EdC said...

No one else has asked, so I will:

What is an all natural 'mystery of musk' supposed to smell like? I thought all real (natural?) musk is illegal. And many people can't smell one or more of the new, synthetic musks.

If there are standards, then a reviewer might say, "This is closer to beaver musk than deer, but it also has some cinnamon in the base, jasmine in the middle and grapefruit in the top."

If there are no standards, then the 'contest' might be, "send me whatever you're working on and I'll tell you if I like it."

I assume this contest is somewhere in the middle. But where?

Lisa Fong said...

There are many natural essences that have musk-like qualities, such as ambrette seed, angelica root, ect. We were to compose a musk blend using these substances to replicate the animal musk essence. Musk doesn't always mean musk deer, it is more of a concept.
These "Mystery of Musk" fragrances are an interpretation of this concept.

EdC said...

Thanks for the information Lisa. Is there a pure substance or standard perfume that might represent a musk 'target' that you try to match or to play off?

Lisa Fong said...

I have some tincture of tonquin musk that I used as a model for the base notes. It doesn't smell like the musks used today, it is more animal and yet subtle.

Ambrosia said...

For me as one of the participating perfumers, one of the interesting parts of the challenge "was" the fact that we had so little time.
It made it all much harder of course, and as Lisa pointed out, also meant the the perfumes were all somewhat "unfinished" as the maturation process takes at least a few months....
I found it quite fascinating how different the perfumes all was more a kind of artistic project with a common theme as inpiration...
I got a lot out of it...from the artistic point of view of creating a perfume to such a theme, getting to sample my collegues creations, and getting feedback from a wide variety of perfume critics....
And very importantly, it showcased perfume creation, in particular Natural Perfumery, as an artform, as opposed to the commercial money making thing that mainstream perfume has become.