IN the realm of perfume, one man’s pudding is the next man’s tar.
That the reaction to a fragrance can be visceral, and personal, is not news to Luca Turin,
who over the years has inhaled and critiqued hundreds of scents. In assessing them, Mr. Turin, a scientist and fragrance expert, makes no attempt to hide his partisanship.
He describes Attrape-Coeurs, an amber violet perfume from Guerlain, as “an intense radiant Wurlitzer organ blast of rose violet and iris notes,” but paints a bleaker picture of Creed’s Love in White: “If this were a shampoo offered with your first shower after sleeping rough for two months in Nouakchott, you’d opt to keep the lice.”
Readers react to such colorful snippets from his new book, “Perfumes: The Guide” (Viking), written with his wife, Tania Sanchez, with varying degrees of admiration and respect. Mr. Turin is, after all, a dominant voice in a chorus of critics airing their views in books and magazines and, increasingly, on the Web.
In the last half-dozen years, their opinionated chatter has become catnip to consumers, some of whom stay up until the wee hours, reading about new scents on sites like makeupalley.com, which Mr. Turin characterized as “a 24-hour pajama party.”
That chatter, however, is also the bane of the fragrance industry,
which, when it comes to romancing products, has traditionally claimed the last word.
“Perfume is the only art in which there’s never been a true word spoken,” Mr. Turin said in an interview, with a directness that has made him a thorn in the side of the industry. In his book, he recalled that as little as a year ago, Le Labo, a small New York perfumer, refused to send him samples, its makers sneering that “writing about perfume is like dancing about architecture.”
Today reviewers on Web sites and blogs like aromascope.com, scentzilla.com, boisdejasmin.com and perfumeposse.com have rendered that argument moot. Increasingly, critics like Robin Krug of Now Smell This, who said she has around 10,000 hits a day, and Chandler Burr, who reviews fragrance for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, cultivate a following by speaking directly to consumers, many of whom are aspiring connoisseurs themselves.
Today reviewers on Web sites and blogs like aromascope.com, scentzilla.com, boisdejasmin.com and perfumeposse.com are fierce, responding to certain fragrances with rapture or, as often, with venomous contempt.
Often those shoppers collect, amassing as many as 200 bottles and vials in their homes. And many have learned to distinguish among olfactory families like fougère (fern) and gourmand (edible smells), and even to pronounce chypre (SHEE-pr, roughly), a classification based on citrus and woody notes.
As critics, they are fierce, responding to certain fragrances with rapture or, as often, with venomous contempt. A perfume like Poison, from Dior, is especially polarizing to bloggers, many of whom are stay-at-home moms or professionals in other fields.
An enthusiast on Now Smell This described Poison as “a warm, luxurious velvet blanket draped across a satin settee. On the same site, the perfume was assailed as “a railroad spike through the brain.”
Black Orchid from Tom Ford was praised as “melting cupcakes on hot skin.” But a detractor called it “aged Romano in a carnivorous orchid hothouse.”
When they wish to be especially withering, bloggers designate a scent as a “scrubber,” the kind of smell you can’t wash off fast enough.
Their enthusiasm, though, can be infectious. Online scent aficionados have become a force to be reckoned with in the $2.9 billion high-end fragrance industry, which has had a slight decline in sales since 2007. Their interest in mostly unadvertised, limited-distribution brands has helped drive niche sales in 2007 to $253 million, a rise of 19 percent, said Karen Grant, the senior beauty analyst of the market research firm NPD. Niche brands have doubled in volume since 2005, accounting for 9 percent of sales, Ms. Grant said.
Not surprisingly, these critics’ uncensored comments have been anathema to the Estée Lauders and Cotys of the world, industry giants that have relied almost exclusively on advertising and glowing magazine commentary to spread their message and spur sales.
“No question, the industry people are unnerved,” said Rochelle R. Bloom, the president of the Fragrance Foundation, a trade group. “I often get calls from executives pleading, ‘Can’t you do something about all this chatter.’ ”
Yet traditional marketing does not address consumer desire to learn about the dizzying number of annual fragrance introductions — up from 300 ten years ago to more than 1,000 last year, according to NPD.
“In their marketing, mainstream perfumers have lost control, and that puts a lot of pressure on them,” said Allan Mottus, the editor of The Informationist, a cosmetics and fragrance trade magazine. He added that mass and high-end brands, as well as fragrance producers and suppliers like Givaudan and Symrise, are “just waking up to the news that they can’t own the customer.”
The explicit advertising for Tom Ford’s new men’s fragrance, which shows an amber-colored bottle wedged between a woman’s naked thighs, will likely have no impact on Richard Saja, an artist and embroiderer who stood inhaling fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman on Saturday morning. “I don’t care about perfume advertising or the bottle it comes in,” Mr. Saja said. “For me perfume is a visceral experience,” one that is deepened, he added, by scanning sites like sniffapalooza.com, an organizer, with several New York retailers, of a weekend of sniffing and sampling.
“Three years ago, this was a world I hadn’t explored,” he said. “But now the Web has demystified so much of the world of fragrances for me.”
Mr. Saja was among some 200 customers swarming the Bergdorf fragrance floor that day. Shoppers from London, Berlin and Piscataway, N.J., poked their noses into bottles, sniffed scent strips and inhaled deep draughts from decanters. Some parted with as much as $200 for a flacon of Sycomore, a new offering from Chanel.
Enthusiasts included Christine Jelley, the chief executive of a surge-protection gear maker. Swayed by blogs, she was intent on exploring new violet-scented offerings from Serge Lutens and Annick Goutal. “When someone becomes rhapsodic about a scent,” she said, “I want to see what they’re seeing in it.”
Kevin Saunders, an art therapist circling the Lutens and Jo Malone counter, is an occasional reader of basenotes.net and Now Smell This. Mr. Saunders carries with him on an iPod a list of scents he has read about, some to be sampled, others to buy. “At the least,” he said, “those blogs may prompt me into trying something.”
And there are signs that the industry is responding to Mr. Saunders and his online cohort. “Today you see more bloggers being invited to traditional press events, and a greater awareness among executives of emerging forms of media,” Jenny B. Fine, the editor of the trade journal WWD Beauty Biz, noted.
Marianne Diorio, a spokeswoman for Estée Lauder, acknowledged as much: “In the beginning we were nervous about the blogs. As with any new media, there were mixed emotions.” Pointedly, she added, “Now we could never think of launching a fragrance without contacting the bloggers.” The company engages in dialogues with critics, she said, and advertises some of its fragrances on sites like Now Smell This.
Firmenich, a producer and supplier of fragrances, operates osMoz.com, which made its debut in 2001 and claims 300,000 members. In recent months, the company has encouraged readers to share information and to rate fragrances, its own and others, Julien Levy, the site’s marketing director, said.
Commentators on coty.com prompted Coty, which makes fragrances by David Beckham and Jennifer Lopez, among others, to think of reissuing its greatest hits, scents like Emeraude and L’Origan, said Stephen C. Mormoris, a senior vice president of global marketing.
Such developments cannot come soon enough for Tania Sanchez. In “Perfumes: The Guide,” she chided that the perfume industry “hasn’t yet figured out the benefits or relaxing control.” She told of a prominent blogger threatened with a lawsuit by a perfume company because she had deemed its product only “O.K.,” and “a little disappointing.”
“When a sleek luxury goods company unleashes its lawyers on a suburban mom for not liking their new fragrance,” Ms. Sanchez wrote, “we know the world is changing.”