So what does make a good perfume critic?

The other day I read a great interview with Francis Kurkdjian on the excellent Persoliase blog. It’s a fascinating insight into the mind of a true artist but it’s proved somewhat controversial too because of some of the comments Mr K made about how fragrance is reviewed.

One paragraph in particular has attracted some attention – and understandably so. Asked what he thinks about perfume critics, the master perfumier says: “They’re so boring. And the reason why they’re so boring is that, to prove their legitimacy, they try to drop ingredient names, chemical names, just to prove to their readers that they have the know-how…people are trying to critique perfumes without knowing what it is to critique a perfume. They don’t have the knowledge.”

Understandably, these comments have stimulated quite a debate on Persolaise’s blog about what exactly ithe right way to critique a perfume and who amongst us has ‘legitimacy’.  I commented there briefly myself but wanted to expand here with my take on the matter.

To be honest, I hate the idea that you have to be knowledgeable before you can critique something. When artists in any field believe this it’s a sure sign they’ve not only caught sight of the ivory tower but have booked the removal van so they can take up residence on the top floor.

Yes, expertise brings depth and an added dimension and it most certanly has its place but it’s not the be-all and end-all. This is especially true, I think, when reviewing products. Sure, I known what parabens are and what nano-technology is and I’m more acquainted with a tonka bean than any man should be. But hey, so what? The questions on most reader’s lips when it comes to a new product are: is it any good? Does it work? Will I like it? Is it worth the money?

The whole issue of expertise has come up before. I remember one Beauty Editor having a pop at beauty bloggers several years ago because she didn’t consider them expert enough to comment properly (the very same person now has their own blog of course but is an industry expert so that’s okay). This attitude riles me beyond belief, partly because many experts (especially those on magazines) conveniently conceal the fact their recommendations are influenced by advertising. I’m a journalist. I’ve been there so I know the score.

To me, the opinion of a beauty blogger who smells a fragrance in a department store is just as valid as that of someone who’s been writing about fragrance all their lives and gets sent one for free by a PR. In fact, I sometimes think more so because the blogger takes time, effort and often spends their own money to explore what’s out there.

Personally, though, I don’t care whether someone wants to write a 2,000 word forensic ‘expert’ review, simply list the notes (and on that matter ingredient names are also dropped on the official FK site to give customers a steer I notice) or just wants to say ‘to me this smells like creosote mixed with roses and custard powder.’ What’s important, surely, is that people remain passionate enough to write about fragrance in the first place?

The fact is, reviewing a fragrance is as much a nebulous, imperfect and subjective art as creating one is. To me, having critics approach the subject from all different angles, with different spins, expertise and opinions is the only true way to build up a rounded picture of something. If a new fragrance hits the shelves I want to hear what the beauty editor of Vogue thinks about it but I also want to know what my favourite bloggers think about it, what the readers of think about it, what my mum thinks about it and what the woman who sells it in Debenhams thinks too. Fragrance is deliciously multi-faceted – that’s why it’s so enthralling right? So why should fragrance criticism be any different?

To read the interview that sparked this post on Persoliase click here.

11 thoughts on “So what does make a good perfume critic?

  1. A superb post which echoes my view pretty much 100%. I review scents on my own blog,, from time to time. No I won’t recognise patchouli or sandalwood every time but yes, I can tell you when something’s a bit sweet, or heavy, or light, or in my opinion better suited to a younger market. Of course people can disagree and they can even offer scientific evidence to prove me “wrong” – but my opinion is still valid and would certainly affect my buying patterns. But they probably can’t explain why I can’t stand the very popular A*Men, for example – it’s entirely subjective.

    What I look for in a blog (yours is an example) is something clearly written which will give me an idea of what I’m going to be getting if I buy a particular scent – and then as much of the writer’s opinion, qualified or otherwise, written in as lively a manner as he or she can manage. Beyond which I don’t see any need to take it all that seriously.

  2. Pretty much the bottom line with fragrance is whether the consumer likes the smell or not. Economically that’s what counts and artisans can be artisanal all they like but unfortunately if nobody likes their fragrance it’s going to be a short-lived career. I’ve always maintained that writing about fragrance is a skill; to make a smell live and breathe through words is a very difficult thing to do; I’m rubbish at it, and if all Captain Kurk can do is moan about reviews then he is being massively ungracious and rather stupid. The minute people stop writing about his scents is the minute he’s looking for another job.

  3. Liam

    I agree with most sentiments, it doesn’t matter if you’re an “industry expert” or “just a blogger,” we’re all adding to a discourse, a like/dislike for a field of work/art that interests us – in whatever shape, form or pattern that is. Some of us have precise, meticulous things to say, others have grand sweeping gestures – positively or negatively.

    Everything is an opinion at the end of the day, the perfumer, the evaluator, the client, the critic. No voice is definite and no voice is incorrect either, it just is the way it is!

  4. pstjm

    More power to your elbow (or nose), GG. And good comments, too. I would only add that although choosing a fragrance is all about what it smells like on my skin, I also find it helpful to know a little about its make-up; whether it uses synthetic ingredients, or comments about how long it lasts on the skin. And it always helps if there’s an entertaining read thrown in!

  5. Great post….

    I work in the industry and still wouldn’t call myself an expert (although I do have access to hundreds of perfumes!)

    I too get confused when just presented with a list of notes – as I generally don’t know what most flowers smell of off the top of my head, and never mind what part of a sperm-whales intestine smells of (although I do know enough to realise that ambergris is now banned)!

    What I love is when people really describe a perfume using creative descriptives e.g. like a warm summer day by the sea, or even with colours e.g. it’s a purple scent. To me that paints a much better picture than just reeling off a list of ingredients.

    Your “creosote mixed with roses and custard powder” example does just that. It’s not intelligent, or researched – but I can really ‘smell’ it. (Not sure I’d buy it though!)

  6. This is something I’ve thought about a lot lately. I must admit I love reading blogs such as Persoliase… I find them quite enchanting, but I get that not everyone would. One of my favourites is the Candy Perfume Boy, as its entertaining and accessible as well as knowledgeable.

    I’m completely passionate about perfume, yet have held back from reviewing it as much as I’d like, partly because I feel under qualified.

    At the same time, I’m pretty sure there are many perfume lovers who might feel intimidated by a ‘proper’ perfumista’s blog but are still interested in reading about ‘ordinary’ people’s views on various fragrances. Like you say, everyone’s opinion counts and I think this is an area that can be a bit elitist or snobbish at times, a bit like in the way that wine tasting can.

    Brilliant post – lots of food for thought!

    Nic x

  7. I think it’s really important to be honest and say what you think. We can get bogged down with too many ingredients and processes when all you want to say is “It smells like Red Bull”. It’s a bit like wine tasting or Catchphrase, never be afraid to say what you first think.
    We need real descriptions that people will understand easily, be are able to mentally visualise and be inclusive. Whether blogger or ‘expert’, it’s all about connection and communication.

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