The Best of Luca Turin’s Latest Fragrance Reviews for Style Arabia

Luca-Turin HeadshotLuca Turin is undoubtedly one of the most influential fragrance reviewers right now. A biophysicist by training, he has spent the more than two decades writing about fragrance and doing serious research in the field of smell (read about his Vibration Theory of Olfaction in The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr).

Luca Turin is a multiple-time winner of the  Prix Jasmin award – the highest recognition for perfume writing in France and the Jasmine Prize in the UK.

Currently, among other things, Luca Turin writes a column for Style Arabia where he reviews various fragrances that come his way. True to his style, he is brutally honest, bold and hugely entertaining.

Here are some of my favourite parts from the latest edition of his column Message in a Bottle, dated March 7, 2016.

On Aqua Alegoria Pera Granita by Guerlain

Aqua-Alegoria-Pera-Granita-GuerlainAqua-Alegoria-Pera-Granita-Guerlain

This Pera Granita is the sort of thing a 15-year old would wear to school, or an old-timer like myself would wear on a balcony overlooking the sea after a day at the beach: friendly, fizzy, fleeting, and altogether as inconsequential and cheerful as a fruit cocktail with an umbrella stuck in it.

 

On Immortelle Tribal by L’Atelier de Givenchy

Immortelle-Tribal-Givenchy

Note: in this review Luca explains that sotolone is a synthetic molecule (the finest achievement of evolution as he calls it), which smell like curry. It is rarely used in fragrances because of its bold and shocking character.

Very few things are more powerful than sotolone. Spill a spoonful of the stuff in a fragrance lab and the company may have to relocate.

On La Vie est Belle EDP Intense by Lancome

La-Vie-est-Belle-Lancome

Sixty-four unmemorable fragrances later (Poême was an exception, being memorably vile) we now reach La Vie est Belle, the fragrance equivalent of those female faces obtained by averaging hundreds of pretty mugshots until all distinctive features are gone. … Is she beautiful? Only in the sense of not being ugly.

On Ambre Eternel by Guerlain

Ambre-Eternel-Guerlain

…the dry, gray topnote that rises before you like a tall, ghostly apparition coming up through a stage trapdoor.

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Read the full reviews of these fragrances at Style Arabia: Message in a Bottle: Luca Turing Reviews Guerlain, L’Atelier de Givenchy, and More.

If you like Luca’s style, check out his book Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, which he co-wrote with Tania Sanchez.

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Objectivity of Fragrance Reviews

Google your favourite fragrance.  Chances are that most of the top hits you will get will feature reviews.  Whether you go to Sephora, Nordstrom or any specialized fragrance site, you will find tons of opinions on any given fragrance ranging from the laconic “this stinks” to elaborate discussions of notes and tonality.  If you steep yourself into the fragrance community online, you will find that fragrance reviews are its heart and soul.  Heavyweights like Basenotes exist exclusively as a platform for fragrance enthusiasts to share their opinions.

Even though fragrance reviews are the heart of the online fragrance community and I tremendously enjoy reading and writing them, I’ve come to realize their limitations.  Fragrance reviews have a limited ability to communicate what a fragrance smells like.  They are plagued to varying degrees by the reviewer’s biases, experience, technical ability to smell and ability to verbally communicate what they smell.  Therefore, when reading fragrance reviews, it is important to keep in mind that a review is nothing more than a description of how the reviewer experiences a fragrance at a particular time.

Reviewer’s Biases

Generally speaking, anyone who gives an opinion about a fragrance (and possibly anything else) suffers, to a certain degree, from the following three biases:

1. Past Experience Bias

How we experience the present is greatly determined by how we’ve experienced the past.  Who we are today and how we see the world is subconsciously determined by events and experiences in our past.

The smell of coconut, sun screen and sea make me really happy because they remind me of my childhood summers growing up by the beach.  Therefore, I’m more prone to like scents with marine notes in them (e.g. Sel Marin, Sel de Vetiver).  I read an article about Giorgio Armani and the creation of Bois d’Encens and that the smell of incense is special to him because it reminds him of the time when he used to go mass with his grandmother.

…the sense of smell triggers memory and feelings more effectively than any other sense.

Numerous studies have shown that the sense of smell triggers memory and feelings more effectively than any other sense.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that you may not like violet-based perfumes because they remind you of your Grade 9 teacher who used to wear La Violette by Annick Goutal.

The past experience bias goes beyond certain notes – it shapes our opinion whether a fragrance smells dated, promiscuous or sensual.  Since the past experience bias often works at a subconscious level, it may not always be evident why we feel a certain way about a fragrance.  Being a aware of the possibility of such a bias, however, makes it more likely for us to dissect and seek an explanation why we perceive a particular fragrance the way we do.

2. Crowd Opinion Bias

Most of the fragrances I buy or even smell are recommendations from friends in the fragrance community.  If the notes sound interesting and the reviews are generally positive, I would be more likely to try them and even buy them.

What bothered me more, though, was that I started to doubt my own tastes about fragrance.

The problem with researching the community based opinion before smelling a fragrance is that I approach it with already set expectations of what it should smell like.  Before I ever smelled Green Irish Tweed, for example, I read all reviews under the sun about it.  The truth is that none of them really prepared me for true experience of smelling it, so when I did, I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t what I had expected.  What bothered me more, though, was that I started to doubt my own tastes about fragrance.  Maybe I can’t appreciate the beauty or I just don’t have the nose and I don’t get it.  After all, if Luca Turin (The Expert) with the whole fragrance community in tow says that Green Irish Tweed is great, there must be something wrong with me not to like it.  The reality is that there is nothing wrong with my nose and that I simply don’t like Green Irish Tweed that much.  The reality is also that if I were to review it, I would be tempted to conform with the widespread expert opinion so that I’m not seen as “unenlightened”.  I have never given in to this temptation so far but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been there.

3. Personal Preference Bias

Regardless of our past experiences and the crowd opinion, sometimes we prefer certain types of fragrances over others.  Our preferences tend to change with time and they can also radically change our opinion about a fragrance.

Two years ago, I used to hate citrus fragrances – I used to find them generic, boring and uninspiring.  Since then, however, I’ve grown to like them.  I cannot attribute this change in my taste to any particular past event or a public opinion.  Regardless, this shift in preference would have had an impact on how I would have reviewed Eau D’Orange Verte two years ago and now.  The differences might have been striking but unsurprising considering how impactful personal preferences can be.

These three biases are not necessarily bad.

These three biases are not necessarily bad.  They are neutral in nature and impact any opinion we have about anything.  For example, you may prefer apples over oranges.  This doesn’t make you a bad person nor does it mean that apples are inherently better than oranges.  In fact, conventional wisdom tells us not to compare apples and oranges.  Similarly, you may not like vanilla based fragrances and therefore you may not be hyped up about Vaniglia del Madascar.

The important thing is not whether these biases are good or bad.  What’s important is to be aware of their existence and how they impact the objectivity of a fragrance review.

When the Nose Fails You

Some may argue we have some biases when it comes to reviewing a fragrance, however, we all have noses and they all function the same way and we smell pretty much the same thing.  We all agree that bacon smells like bacon and roses smell like roses and we rarely have a debate about this.  So, in the least a fragrance review gives us a pretty good idea what a fragrance smells like – jasmine, roses, lavender, etc.

This is true if we agree that either one of the following two things is true:

1. All fragrances are made up of a single one-dimensional note or

2. We don’t care about the nuances of a fragrance, only what the main smell is like.

In reality, both of these things are wrong: most fragrances are made up of many multi-dimensional notes and we do care about nuances of the fragrance.  That’s why we have debates about the degree to which the vetiver note in Sycomore  is crisp, earthy and smoky.

…we tend to smell slightly different nuances of the notes in any perfume.

Our noses are pretty good at picking up main smells and notes but are more inaccurate in detecting nuances or slight variations in smell.  With practice, one’s nose can become progressively better at picking out nuances and subtle scents. Since not all of us have developed a sense of smell to the same extent, we tend to smell slightly different nuances of the notes in any perfume.

I rarely detect all the notes in a fragrance.  If I pick out the main accords, that would be an achievement.  The fact that I do not detect all the notes, does not mean they are not there.  It just means that my nose fails to detect them.  It is either that or I do not have a strong reference smell for a particular note.  For example, a fragrance may have a freesia note it in, I am able to smell it but I don’t know that what I’m smelling is really freesia.  I just don’t have a strong mental reference what a freesia smells like.

The point of all this is that if I cannot smell certain notes (or nuances of notes) or I do not have a strong mental reference, then I’ll write a review based on what I can smell.  As a result, my interpretation of the fragrance may be completely off in the details from what someone else may smell.  This is why the failings of our nose and ability to smell further adds to the subjectivity of fragrance reviews.

When the Language Fails You

Let’s say you’ve overcome your biases and you have an exceptional nose, you still face the challenge of putting what you smell into words.  You sit in front of the computer and are not sure whether the heart note is bitter or acrid…or maybe sour but then it has some sweetness to it…or is it sweetness?

We are notoriously bad at verbalizing what we smell.

We are notoriously bad at verbalizing what we smell.  We’ve never been trained to accurately describe smells.  Since childhood, we’ve described smells as good, bad, strong and weak.  In our more literally progressive attempts, we may go beyond good, bad, strong and weak and describe a smell as pungent, sweet, sour or bitter.  If we have to describe what kind of sweet a smell is, we struggle.  It doesn’t come easy to explain whether a smell is sweet as fruity-sweet, vanilla-like sweet or pastry-sweet.

If you are still not convinced of our ineptitude in describing smells, here’s an exercise: think of five variations of the colour blue (e.g. baby blue, teal, aquamarine, etc.) and then think of five variations of the smell of rose. Please use up to 2-word descriptors as you would do when describing colours.  If you get past 3 variations, you should be calling Givaudan or Firmenich because they may have a job for you.

Our struggle describing smells leads to inaccuracies when we review a fragrance.  The language, however, fails not only on the reviewer’s end.  The reader can also misinterpret the message as a result of slightly different concept of a particular smell descriptor.  For example, if a review says that a fragrance has a sweet dry-down, to me it may mean that it smells like a vanilla, when in fact the reviewer may mean sweet as a tonka bean.

It gets more complicated if the reviewer uses terms to describe the fragrance the reader is not familiar with.  I remember reading reviews about fragrances having a calone note in them or a lactonic nuance before I even knew what these terms mean.  Most of the ingredients used in modern perfumes are unknown to the general public and most people do not have a mental reference of what they smell like.  Therefore, in a sense it is pointless to write on and on about civet, indoles and coumarin because, chances are, whoever reads the review will have no idea what these smell like.

Reviewing the Technical Aspects of Perfumes

If everything else about how we experience and write about perfume is subjective, then if we want to write an objective review, we should write about the technical aspects of the fragrance.  Measurable fragrance characteristics such as longevity, sillage and projection can be measured and are not a subject to interpretation.  If a fragrance lasts 6 hours, then it lasts 6 hours, not 5 or 4 or 3.

Indeed, the technical aspects of a fragrance are usually not a subject to interpretation and can be measurable.  There still may be variation, however, in how we measure a technical aspect of a fragrance and how a fragrance perform on someone else’s skin.  The reason for these variations is that fragrances interact with their environment.  Temperature of the environment, skin type and humidity would all make a fragrance perform slightly differently. In a hot weather a fragrance may project a lot more than in a cold weather; oilier skin retains a fragrance longer than dry skin.  The fragrance’s interaction with its environment contributes to its slight variations in performance and even which notes become more predominant.  I’ve read reviews about fragrances, which smell slightly differently in a hot vs. cold weather as some notes may fall in the background and others may become more noticeable.

Even though the technical aspects of a perfume can be measured fairly accurately, I’ve never seen anyone taking such measurements.  Most reviewers rate the technical aspects of a fragrance on a subjective scale.  The sillage of a fragrance is either strong, moderate or weak.  What is strong, moderate and weak is open to interpretation.

If you’ve read so far, you are my personal hero and I forgive you if you are wondering what is the purpose of this text.  The point I am trying to make is that fragrance reviews are not words to live by or die for. Fragrance reviews are subjective for all of the reasons above and then some.  Just because Luca Turin gives a fragrance a 2-star review, doesn’t mean that it stinks.  It means that for all of the reasons above, he things it’s a fair fragrance. I happen to love some of his 2-star perfumes (e.g. Millesime Imperial).

Despite all this, fragrance reviews are not pointless. They still give a great insight in how others experience a fragrance.  They are the next best thing of learning about a fragrance after actually smelling it.  If nothing else, fragrance reviews give an artistic expression of those admiring the art and at the same time give feedback to the artists of how their fans experience their creations.

5 Things That Impact Fragrance Longevity

GrapefruitCreed Millesime Imperial is like a workaholic girlfriend: you’ve barely spent 20 minutes together and she has to run.  Millesime Imperial and I had a great time together but it never lasted more than half an hour at a time.  The blog community warned me that’s how Millesime Imperial is – it smells great but it doesn’t last very long.  I thought, well, that’s them, maybe with me it will be different.  I fell hard for it – the fresh melon note, the salty calone, the mild iris, it was just perfect…for 20 minutes.

First, I got on this guilt trip.  Maybe it’s me.  I’m not good enough.  Maybe if I make my skin oilier, it will stick longer.  No such luck.  Okay, what if I put more of it and spray it on clothes.  I got a 10-minute improvement.  I figured, okay, then I guess I’ll have to reapply throughout the day and load up on it.  The problem with this was that Millesime Imperial wasn’t cheap: $300+ a pop could get me two or three other fragrances.

So, after thinking long and hard about it, I had to do what I had to do: I cut Millesime Imperial loose.  This whole experience got me thinking how to make better perfume choices in the future.  I figured there are several things to keep in mind when it comes to perfume longevity.  I am going to share them with you here, so you don’t fall in love with gorgeous fragrances, which don’t plan to stick around for the long run.

1. The oiliness of your skin

Generally speaking, perfumes don’t like staying around on dry skin.  Oilier skin tends to retain fragrances better.  I suspect this is because the natural oils of your skin form stronger bonds with the essential oils and synthetic molecules in the fragrance.

One way to improve longevity in the case of dry skin is to make it oilier.  I used to apply Vaseline to the spots where I would spray perfume.  I cannot say for sure this worked but you could try it and find out for yourself.  A word of caution: putting Vaseline on your neck or wrists may stain your clothes, so you have to be conscious of the extra greasy skin.

Vanilla

2. Nose Fatigue

We often determine the longevity of a perfume by how long we can smell it.  If we can’t detect the scent in three hours after applying it, then the longevity is three hours.

This way of determining the longevity of a fragrance has little to do with its chemical properties and a lot more to do with our ability to smell.  Sometime after our noses are exposed to a scent, our smell receptors stop registering it, so that they can pick up new, different smells.  The real purpose of our sense of smell is warn us of potential danger.  Once the nose has figured out that the violet note in your Green Irish Tweed does not pose a threat, it ignores it in order to stay alert for other potentially dangerous smells.

If the theory of nose fatigue is correct, perfumes that go through noticeably different development stages will be perceived as longer lasting than linear perfumes.  The marked change in smell will keep the nose alert.

The key word here is “detect”.  Just because we cannot smell a fragrance anymore, it doesn’t mean it is not there and noticeable to others.  In fact, this is one of the reasons why people overapply perfume – they are so used to it that they cannot detect it on themselves and feel like they have not put on enough.

A testament to this phenomenon is when people compliment the scent I’m wearing long after I’ve stopped noticing it.

Lemon

3. Molecule Sizes

In very simplified terms, the smell molecules fall into two categories: simple and complex.  The structure of the simple molecules is simple and therefore, when exposed to air they break up quickly and disappear.  Complex molecules, on the other hand, take longer to break down and therefore last a lot longer on the skin.

Take a look at the molecule drawings of Limonene, which smells of citrus, and Muscone, which smells of musk.

Limonene

Limonene

Muscone

Muscone

As you can see, the structure of Limonene is a lot simpler and has fewer bonds than the Muscone‘s structure.  Because Limonene‘s molecule is much simpler, it breaks quicker than the Muscone‘s.  Therefore, citrus notes tend to last no more than a couple of hours and musks can last several days.

Even though this is a very simplified description of the chemical nature of scent, it explains why Narcisso Rodrigues for Her lasts a whole day and CK Summer One barely lasts two hours.

Perfumers, of course, are well aware of these properties and therefore they often add fixatives to prolong the longevity of certain fragrances.  These fixatives are usually musks but they could be any other more complex molecule.

4. More Does Not Mean Longer

I used to believe that if you just spray more perfume, it would last longer.  Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.  What happens if you apply more perfume, you just smell stronger for the same period of time.  I tried this trick with Creed Himalaya – I reeked in the first two hours and couldn’t detect any scent after.  If you consider the theory about scent longevity and complexity of molecules, the idea of spraying more to ensure longevity, doesn’t make sense. Whether you spray two pumps or twenty, you are spraying the same molecules that break down at the same speed.  There is no reason to believe that more of a citrus molecules will break down any slower.

Perfume Spray

5. Spray on Your Clothes

I’ve heard this advice even from heavy-weight fragrance experts like Luca Turin.  Technically, Luca is right – spraying perfume on your clothes makes the scent last longer.  If you take this approach, beware of two downsides:

1. Perfume can stain clothes;

2. Some perfumes smell differently on clothes than on skin.

I tried this theory with Eau D’Orange Verte.  The result was a prolonged pungent oakmoss and sharp citrus.  The scent wasn’t very smooth at all.  Millesime Imperial, on the other hand, worked just fine when sprayed on clothes.  I guess the only way to know if to try and find out.

This list of things that impact longevity is not exhaustive. I do hope, however, it would take away some of your frustration with gorgeous scents that don’t last very long.  If you have any tips how to make your fragrance last longer, please share in the comments section.