"Cut and Paste" By Luca Turin
Some years ago, when internet translation tools first appeared, I used to play a little game by taking a piece of text and having Babelfish translate it back and forth from, say, French to English twenty or thirty times. I was interested to see whether it would converge to a stable text, slowly drift like chinese whispers or explode into experimental literature. It mostly converged, usually to a text that had the slight, giddy slack in the steering that you encounter in user manuals for Lithuanian lasers and Chinese aircraft: factually accurate, even pedantic, but still undefinably odd. A similar thing seems to be happening in fragrance. When they arrive at work and put their coat on the stand, perfumers these days find a stack of gas chromatography printouts on their desk, typically molecule-by molecule analyses of successful fragrances annotated by people whose job it is to figure which exact mixture of synthetics and naturals went into the original thing. It is then a fairly simple matter for the perfumer to cut and paste any accord into a new composition, and to create a new hybrid, not from first principles but from ready-made building blocks: the head of Jennifer Lopez, the shoulders of Sarah Jessica Parker and the tennis legs of Britney Spears. These permutations become perfumes that are themselves analyzed, cut and pasted, released and so iterated ad infinitum.
Is the process converging ? I believe so: synthetic fragrances are getting more complex because everybody benefits from the tricks invented by everybody else. The botanical vocabulary of, say, white florals is now converging towards a truly abstract bouquet made entirely from non-existent flower species. The transvestite descendants of Angel, which initially smelled like a guy morphing into a woman now smell like a crowd out on the town. Masculines are converging towards a photofit of the ideal culprit, the sort of guy his own mother wouldn’t recognize in a lineup. What force keeps perfumes from becoming completely identical within a genre ? My perfumer friend Calice Becker explained to me recently that within each of the five large firms that dominate the industry, perfumers have no access to their colleagues’ compositions, much less of course to GC traces. The bigger the firm, the bigger its perfumers’ blind spot and the more creative they have to be. This suggests that the cure for the lack of originality in this business would be the consolidation of the Big Five into one or two huge firms employing thousands of perfumers all kept ignorant of each other. Mergers and Acquisitions will save perfumery.