Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Return to Signature in Fine Fragrance

The term “signature” applies to the memorable characteristics of a fragrance that reflect its unique personality. As the number of fragrances released on the market grows, fewer and fewer creations bear a distinct olfactive mark. Has the etymology of the word "signature" really changed or has the industry forgotten what the word “signature” really means?

We are living in the digital age and rarely see people’s handwriting. Communication arrives after being processed in ones and zeros and our eyes are better acquainted with fonts than the penmanship of friends and loved ones. As a culture we may be losing touch with the importance of handwriting—the very essence of self-expression. A closer look at the weight of signature in our culture sheds light on its absence in fine fragrance.

We often attempt our best penmanship when called to sign legal papers as our entire personhood is embodied in that script. The same is true for letters written to lovers as the desire to present the self in an authentic way is complemented by the element of touch that is attached to letter writing; pen touches paper, fingers fold the page, lips glide across the sealing edge of the envelope. A digital love letter may be read over and over again, but despite the expression of sentiments, the font has been seen by millions, the printing paper used to produce ordinary documents and the actual effort of writing eliminated by spell-check and the backspace key. Author Anne Fadiman says it best in the essay “Eternal Ink:”

“I am surprised by how much I like my computer, but I will never love it. I have used several; they seem indistinguishable. When you’ve seen one pixel you’ve seen them all. As a reader, I often feel that I can detect the spoor of word processing in books, particularly long ones. The writers—no longer slowed by having to change their typewriter ribbons, fill their fountain pens or sharpen their quills—tend to be prolix. I am especially suspicious of word-processed letters which smell of boilerplate. Word-processed addresses are even worse. What a pleasure it is to open one’s mailbox and find a letter from an old friend whose handwriting on the envelope is as instantly recognizable as a face!”
—From Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000, p 93.

I don’t know what boilerplate smells like, but Ms. Fadiman sounds like a classic fragrance woman to me. Her disdain for formulaic and stereotypical expression reflects the frustration of fragrance connoisseurs who encounter reiterated compositions when seeking fragrances with signature. Today’s perfumers have over 3000 natural and synthetic materials at their disposal, but their efforts to create new signatures are limited by quick turn-around times required by clients. It all comes down to the currency of time, the same time people cannot spend to write letters, the same time I take to write this post in hopes of reaching others who feel that the art of perfumery deserves to be returned to its rightful place.

Signature in fine fragrance is further challenged by reformulation of existing fragrances. Some companies manage to balance the integrity of existing fragrances despite regulations, but those that are simply substituting ingredients in lieu of examining the character of an existing body of olfactive work are destroying historical signatures. Guerlain’s Mitsouko is a tragic casualty of reformulation. A drydown that was once warm and sensual is now metallic, brackish and smells faintly of vomit. Guerlain’s compliance with IFRA’s safety recommendations for oakmoss has resulted in the removal of a key ingredient used in classic Chypre perfumes to support the fragrance category’s structure.

Science confirms there is no sense more powerful than smell when it comes to eliciting memory. When a fragrance no longer exists, memory loses an emotional compass worth grieving. Think of the small joy bestowed by the scent of a classic fragrance that reminds you of someone you loved who is no longer alive, temporarily lifting the veil between heaven and earth. If we can no longer smell the perfume of a departed loved one it is as if they’ve died a second time and taken eternity with them. The empty perfume bottle becomes a relic, a token of commercially foisted amnesia.

Who or what is responsible for the disappearance of signature in fine fragrance? What are researchers’ motivations in recommending the elimination of certain raw materials in perfumery beyond safety? It would be easy if we could blame greed, regulatory issues and risk aversion, but they are not the only culprits.

The pace of our lives has devalued meaning in our culture, replacing it with ignorance, fear and reduced personal contact. If consumers want to see a return to authenticity in fine fragrance creation they must become more authentic themselves. In addition, fragrance marketers must respect perfume’s history if they wish to embrace the heritage of their brands. True authenticity demands this and so do perfume lovers. When a company does not honor the integrity and signature of a fragrance, consumers cannot only smell it, they can fully express their dismay in the digital space. Perhaps the keystroke is mightier than the sword...


*IFRA is a self-regulating body of the fragrance industry that seeks to establish safety standards for its members. It enforces compliance through research conducted by its scientific arm, RIFM, who have no commercial ties to the fragrance industry.

Photo from The Beaverton City Library.