Thursday, November 04, 2010

My Confusing Encounter with the Houbigant Guy

I think we can all agree that in the current moment, with all the books and websites related to perfume exploding, that we should expect those who want to sell us perfume to know more about their product (and expect more from their consumers) than in times past. Am I wrong?

So when someone who works for a perfume house starts spouting nonsense, I get a li'l peeved. This happened to me at Bergdorf Goodman this week.

It began when I passed the display for the new Halston fragrance, which I believe is called Amber, but since I can't verify that in one second by looking at the Halston page, we'll just say it's their men's Amber. (Don't get me started on amber, by the way, since it was the source of another very irritating back-and-forth. Basically someone wrote an article on amber but didn't mention any ambergris synths. One of the things I find most confusing when I read odor organoleptics [hope I used the word right] is the term amber--does it refer to the sweet, resiny amber of, say, Ambre Sultan or the ambergris-type odor (ambroxan, Cetalox, Grisalva...) of Cool Water? I would think one would want to address the fact that the term is used for both, but I'm not getting into THAT again...) The bottle handler asked if I wanted to smell it; I smelled it on his skin--it had dried down, because it basically smelled like ambroxan--then I got a sample. I must have kept yakking, because soonenly I was talking with the person from Houbigant. I think I was asking whether Z-14 had been reformulated because of impending(?) restricutions on oakmoss. And then we got into a discussion of coumarin.

This is where it gets confusing. And if it's confusing for you, well, it was confusing for me.

Basically he starts talking about how Parquet took a "natural extract" from the tonka bean and put it in Fougere Royal. We agreed that this extract was coumarin, but I'm pretty sure it was synthesized. Then he started talking about how it was an extract of the smell of coumarin but was not carcinogenic (the carcinogenicity of coumarin in humans by cutaneous absorption is debatable, I would say, but I'm not a doctor or chemist, so don't take anything I say as license to sprinkle coumarin all over yourself every day).

OK, now wait. Is it the odor principle of tonka or the odor principle of coumarin? Because coumarin is the dominant odor principle of tonka. So Houbigant tells me that it was the odor principle of coumarin, because it wasn't carcinogenic. But it was a natural extract. ...How is this possible? Coumarin is a single molecule. You can't take an extract from a molecule. Or, rather, you might could, but you would be modifying the molecule into a different one (and not an extract, per se, because you can't predict how a molecule will smell from its shape; unless, of course, you can. But you'd have to ask Luca Turin about that.)--by definition that new molecule would be synthetic. This seemed to be the point the guy was making--that in the 1800s someone extracted a coumarinic smell from coumarin that lacked its putative hazards.

If I'm not mistaken, coumarin was one of the first perfumery materials to be synthesized. So come one--it's preposterous that someone could have very specifically modified a molecule back then. It's even more preposterous that you could call any modification a "natural extract." (I don't think anyone's calling Coumane or Bicylcononalactone natural extracts; but they're variations on the molecule; the former cyclopropyl coumarin, the latter octahydrocoumarin.) (And could you really credibly say that ambroxan is a natural extract of clary sage, which would be pushing it?) Basically, the whole thing was preposterous and impossible to follow.

The point here is that in our knowledge-rich world, fragrance companies ought to step it up and start treating their customers as if they had brains (although most of them don't, in the sense of using them to actually think about perfume, so alas......).

As for the Amber scent---eh. It seems to start with a nice clean cedar note, then maybe go into some metallic ambergreasy end. Nothing offensive; nothing particularly interesting.

One last mention of Bergdorf Goodman: Tom Ford people, I love your products, but you really ought to know that cistus labdanum is NOT rarer than oud wood, which you implied the other day. The day after I bought some labdanum absolute at Enfleurage. And it cost far, far, far less than their agarwood. Or their carnation absolute for that matter.

And that's me rant for now.

(The picture at the top of the entry is, yes, coumarin. Again, I'm not a chemist, but I suppose by taking away a ring here and adding an atom or two there you could come up with, say, benzaldehyde. Which would not qualify as a natural extract. Not of coumarin. Maybe of almond. )

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