Outrage(o) Us!

Here’s a little thought experiment for you. Say…you are a painter. You are a painter who makes thousands of colors glow on a canvas, colors that emphasize, colors that delineate form and depth and story, colors that glow in the dark. It is your use of color that distinguishes you as a painter, color that has established your reputation, color…that sells your canvases.

Or…you are a musician. For years, you have created beautiful, haunting melodies, glorious soaring choruses, the music of the galactic spheres, even – all contained within the eight black-and-white octaves on your piano keyboard.

Maybe, like me, you are a writer, conjuring up empires of the mind in that harrowing space between your fingers and the keyboard, pulling emotions out of your readers’ minds, messing with their heads as you sing your Scherezade tales.

Now, imagine…the painter being told that nothing but coal tar based paints will be available in future. Henceforward, there shall be no more lapis blue, no more malachite green, no more rose madder or carmine red. The replacement paints are all garish, rather over-loud and obvious, with none of the tonal qualities of those natural hues. There’s no choice in the matter, simply that if these artificial colors aren’t used, that painter will not be able to paint at all.

The composer has been told that instead of eight octaves produced by hammers striking the strings across a richly resonant box, he or she will be limited to, say, five octaves produced electronically, with a MIDI keyboard and sound module.

The writer, used to the full register of a very large vocabulary, will from now on only be allowed to use words less than four syllables long, words with Anglo-Saxon origins, words a fourth-grader can understand, even if the writer has never written for children, but for adults who appreciate the opulence of the English language.

Does this sound a bit Orwellian? Too many totalitarian overtones? Surely, it’s a joke, right?

No. Because this is what the IFRA wants to do to the perfumer’s art, has, in fact, already done. Say you have a classic favorite, Mitsouko, maybe, or Cabochard (one of mine), or in these dark November days, Magie Noire. All three of these timeless scents have been changed beyond recognition, and the sad thing is, the average consumer is none the wiser, because, so the official story goes, many of the natural essences and notes can be sensitizing to certain people, some of them are photo-sensitive, others can be allergenic.

That’s the IFRA’s story and they’re sticking to it. Of course, it’s not even a half-truth, because the truth is even more shocking. There are scores of self-regulating research companies who have a heavily vested interest in marketing their synthetic substances – which may or may not be ‘chemically’ identical to a ‘banned’ resin/absolute/essential oil – right into the pockets of the few international companies thaty create the vast majority of the world’s perfumes, down to and including bath products, dish soap and laundry detergents.
Have you strolled through a department store perfume department lately? Did you happen to notice just how similar everything smells? Sure, there are marketing trends and fashionable themes in perfumery. There was…the Year of the Iris, the Rose, the White Musk, the Wood…(one of this year’s main themes). But they’re all a bit of the same…bland uniformity, the same fruity/floral/woody/wimpy generic…fumes, most of them targeted to a demographic you, alas, are too old and too jaded to belong to.

Too old, because you remember those days when perfumes were glorious, gorgeous extensions of your presence, your New & Improved You But Better. When they had depth and complexity, nuance and color. Before they were killed off by the dreaded ‘reformulation’.

If the IFRA has its wily way, many of the substances – used in perfumes, incense and aromatherapy for thousands of years – on the list (see the full list under Pages and the heading ‘Outlawed and Dangerous?’) will be gone forever, many natural source suppliers will go out of business, and those chemical supply companies will be laughing all the way to the bank, trundling up any amount of dubious ‘proof’ that their formulas are ‘safer’ and ‘less allergenic’ – if they don’t just subscribe to the usual marketing ‘Because We Say So’ Humpty Dumpty school of logic.

Maybe, and maybe not. There will always be perfume sensitive people, and I do believe a certain degree of consideration is only polite. Having said that, they have the option to avoid scented products if they need to, just as I would like the option of deciding for myself whether or not I should brave, say, the Big Bad Oakmoss Wolf should I choose. Just put it on the label, and trust me to make my own decisions and take the responsibility for them.

But all hope is not lost – for now, we have…natural perfumes, made of natural substances, often solely from that ‘forbidden’ list, that fly in the face of those restrictions and reformulations and darn it, dare to create glorious, outlaw statements in rose absolute and neroli concrete, in oakmoss and labdanum, to name a few. All declaring their intentions and their contents right there, on packaging and on their websites, all of them made by hand and with love and very much care, all of these natural, artisanal perfumers very much aware of the outlaw potential in these perfumes – made as they used to be made, with the materials we all know and love, made as even today they still are.

Perfumistas and perfumolics, too, are getting behind them, reviewing them with all the care and attention we give to other perfumes with far larger marketing budgets – because we, too, don’t care to conform, because we care about perfume, because we care about a future that would infinitely diminished without the natural beauty in flowers and resins and plants that inspired perfume making – five thousand years ago, five minutes ago, and thanks to perfume outlaws such as these, five years from now.

The participating blogs in the Outlaw Perfume Project are:
Perfume Smelling Things
Waft By Carol
Fragrance in Portland by Donna Hathaway, Examiner.com
Fragrance Belles-Lettres
The Non-Blonde
Indie perfumes
Perfume Shrine

Photo: Jane Russell in Howard Hughes’ ‘The Outlaw’ (1943), looking several shades of trouble and very much outside the law!

2 thoughts on “Outrage(o) Us!

  1. This is a great and Important article. There is a lot of other intentions regarding the Ifra, I am sure. One day maybe we won't be able to see the sun, if they could they would force us to wear sunglasses all day long if not we should pay a fee. what about this? Allergies are a natural defense of the body to say this is not right for someone. it is sad that the original formula in certain perfumes is not the same. Shame.

  2. What I think is the greatest shame of all is that allergies – which are a very real issue for some people – are only the ostensible excuses for what is really a profit-margin consideration – synthetic essences and approximations are much, much cheaper to process and manufacture.

    But what infuriates me most of all to the point of tears, almost, is that neither you nor I nor any other perfume-loving consumer are given the opportunity to choose for ourselves. Oakmoss? Put it on the label. Labdanum? Geraniol? Whatever it is, just let me know it's there and let me decide if I want to wear it.

    Tear, because I can go to any perfume store and smell the current incarnations of, say, YSL Paris, Cabochard, 'Miss Dior' even – and they are all of them changed if not damaged nearly beyond repair and certainly beyond recognition. I believe that when I smelled YSL Paris (one of my great all-time loves), I actually did cry, it was so terrible!

    At least we have natural perfumers turning the tide and saying – Enough! They create their perfumes out of love, just as we choose them for precisely that reason – and they should be encouraged in their endeavors and supported where we can.

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