Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I can tell the real from the fake: Reformulation vs. Retirement in Perfumery

A while back Mother's Cookies, a famous and long lived brand of cookies here in the United States, filed for bankruptcy. Many people were saddened by this news, for Mother's made a lot of fine cookies, notable among them the Circus Cookie, a frosted and sprinkled white and/or pink animal cookie. I have always loved these cookies, and felt very sad to see them pass into the great consumer beyond.

Then -- reprieve! Another company (Kellogg) bought the recipes from Mothers as part of the bankruptcy resolution. Iced Oatmeal Cookies and Circus Animals would live again. I remember being really excited the first time I saw them in the grocery store again. I immediately bought a bag and did a happy little jig all the way home. I poured myself a big glass of milk, yanked open the bag, and like the Circus Animal lover that I am, shoved a couple of cookies into my gaping maw.

I expected slightly greasy sugary shortbread deliciousness. Instead, the cookies tasted like unsalted butter covering a cookie made of sand.

This experience is what I think of every time someone starts talking about reformulated perfumes. It is what I thought of when I saw Octavia's sad post over at 1000 Fragrances about Miss Dior and Miss Dior Cherie last week. My Circus Animals, the ones I grew up on and loved? They're gone. Gone forever. They are not coming back. Same goes for the soon-to-be lost to history Twinkie and other beloved Hostess snack cakes. Just because you get close to making something like it was (or don't even bother trying, which is worse) and you call it by that name, don't think for a second you have actually recreated the thing. You haven't. As my daddy used to say, "Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades." FN1. Even if you're close, you haven't actually recreated the original, and to claim you have is to mislead and disappoint.

I saw a message from slumberhouse last week saying that they were discontinuing their scent Ore. This made me sad. I enjoy Ore and own a small bottle. The statement from the slumberhouse blog read as follows:
Ore will no longer be made. I have so many clients who love this scent and I know reading this is going to seem surreal but I really had no choice in the matter. Over the last year a growing number of ingredients for this particular fragrance have become unavailable to me. The good thing about being a perfumer is you can always find loopholes, ways to recreate accords, similar compounds, etc — however, these little tricks only work to a certain extent — eventually I realized the integrity of the scent had been lost. An untrained nose may not notice these subtle differences, but mine does. My goal above all else has always been to maintain an emphasis on quality and I simply cannot consider Ore, now that so many critical components are so difficult to find, to be of the same quality as the original formula.
"The integrity of the scent had been lost. An untrained nose may not notice these subtle differences, but mine does." That was the line that hit me the hardest, because it was so honest. Even if you, consumer, don't know the difference, I do, and I won't sell you something you didn't intend to buy.

Why is this so hard for large perfume houses to understand? Are we sad when scents we love are discontinued? Sure. FN2. But we shed a little tear, horde old bottles off Ebay, and move on. Frankly, I don't want the sand and wax version of my Circus Animal floating around out there, doing harm and disservice to the memory of the cookie I loved in the past. I'd rather there be no cookie than one that makes people think my delicious cookie was never good at all because it masquerades under the same name.

I've been trying to think of a way to communicate this to the worst offenders since I saw Octavia's post, and the only way is to refuse to buy from them, at least not anything that is speculated to be reformulated for no reason other than craven profit. FN3.  No one would sell a 1000 piece puzzle of van Gogh's Starry Night for the same price as the original work, because no one would buy it.  So I think this is an other case where those of us with purchasing power and knowledge need to be vigilant and communicative.  I thank Octavia for her thoughts on the subject, and I'd love to hear yours.

So here's my salute to the Circus Cookie and slumberhouse Ore.  The cookie is gone, of course, but as luck would have it, I got a message from Meredith Smith of Sweet Anthem, who wanted to me to tell all you lucky PNWers out there that not only does she have a few bottles of Ore left in stock, but she is having a fabulous Valentine's Tea Party event this weekend at their brick and mortar store in Seattle.
Shop local for valentines at a tea party hosted by Sweet Anthem Handmade Perfumes on February 11. From 12-4 PM, find flowers, perfume, and sweets for the sweet by local designers. Enjoy fine teas and gifts with purchase throughout the afternoon. 
Sweet Anthem Handmade Perfumes is pleased to introduce their 1st Annual Valentine’s Day Tea Party featuring three local designers in addition to the shop’s lines of unique handmade fragrances. This exclusive event offers a shoppers a chance to meet the designer and buy local for this Valentine’s Day.
In store appearances include designers Nikki Sherritt – candlemaker and perfumer from Gabriel’s Aunt and Rebel & Mercury; Anne Dowell – gardener and truffle maker from Garden Bon Bons; Lydia Love – chocolatier behind the artisan line Chakralat; and Meredith Smith – perfumer from Sweet Anthem Handmade Perfumes.
If you are local to Seattle or are free this weekend, I recommend considering attending.  You can even RSVP for the event on Facebook.

Ore is also still limitedly available at Indiescents.

So what say you, dear reader?  Is it better to have loved and lost our precious scents? Or should we be kind to those who try to recreate that which we love, even if they do it imperfectly?  

Inquiring minds want to hear from you.

"You can say what you want to say.
What we have you can't take.
From the truth you can't escape:
I can tell the real from the fake.

When will you get the picture?
You're the past; I'm the future.
Get away. It's my time to shine,
and if you didn't know the boy is mine..."
~ Brandy & Monica, "The Boy Is Mine"
FN1. This analogy always made sense to me because I remember the adults in my family playing horseshoes and washers from time immemorial. It was a thing you did in my family. You raised a pole or dug a hole, then you stood around with a beer throwing things at it and the closest person won. You could pass hours like this in my family, and we did.

FN2. Or, in the case of L'Artisan Vanilia, I am bitter, bitter, bitter because it wasn't so much discontinued as replaced.

FN3. Reformulation due to increasing regulation of materials, particularly in the EU, is a whole other conversation.  I still don't want it to happen.  I'd rather the scent be retired and something new take it's place.


ChickenFreak said...

I could excuse the reformulations if they were _disclosed_ as reformulations, perhaps with flanker names, so that people don't have that nightmarish feeling of meeting strangers wearing old friends' faces. I realize that this isn't going to happen, and therefore my simpler answer would be "let the scent die".

You've also made me realize that Ding Dongs are going away. I don't know what to do, I really don't.

Doc Elly said...

I really sympathize with Slumberhouse and the struggle to obtain materials. I have been having the same issues ever since I started making perfume. I don't know how many times I've used something in a formula only to find that it's become unavailable or next to impossible to find.

Fortunately I've managed to track down sources for almost all of the hard to find materials that are on the brink of disappearing, and, to the extent I can, have been buying certain things in bulk and hoarding so that I can keep making my perfumes in their intact form as long as possible. If I can't, I'll retire them and make something totally different.

But I'm puzzled. If Kellogs got the recipe for the circus animal cookies, why can't they make them right? How hard is it, even for a corporation, to follow a recipe?

Diana said...

That's my problem, too. The reformulations out there pretending to be something they're not. It's a bigger disappointment that simply not having it at all.

Re: Ding Dongs -- I KNOW! Ding Dongs. Ho-hos. Zingers. So strange. Thank god there are still TastyKakes and Little Debbies, or we would all surely perish.


Diana said...

Doc Elly--

I think sometimes it has to do, not with the ingredients, but also the manufacturing/production. Even when two people make the same cake, if they don't follow the exact same steps with the same tools, it won't come out the same.

My guess is that Kellogg already had its own manufacturing processes and simply adapted the recipe to fit those machines/practices. Each change was probably very small, and yet, in the end, resulted in a truly tragic facsimile of the cookies I used to love. It's like how I can never make my family stuffing the same as my Dad did, even though I have the same recipe. Somehow, it's just different.

I appreciate your dedication to making consistently good perfumes. It's nice to know that as long as you are making your lovely scents, I can recommend them with confidence! :)


Doc Elly said...

Diana, You're absolutely right that the procedure can change the outcome of a recipe, and so can the quality of the materials.

Perfume is the same way. For example, just because my formula says "cistus oil", it's important that it be THE ONE that smells right. Substituting a different cistus oil will make the perfume smell wrong. That's a further complication in perfume-making- when the material is still generally available, but the particular version I use disappears.

Let's hear it for Little Debbies! May they live long and prosper and not go the way of circus animal cookies and Ding Dongs.

Le Critique de Parfum said...

I for one prefer a reformulation than a burying.

Reformulations have always existed, classics from the most prestigious houses were reformulated in the 40s, the 50s, or the 60s.

Perfumes are fragile, that's part of their beauty I guess.

Diana said...

Le Critique de Parfum--

Excellent counterpoint. Would we care and covet so much if fragrance were less fleeting? Perhaps not. And yet, the love and memory of scent is so visceral, it's hard to let a thing you love go, and harder still to, as ChickenFreak so eloquently said, run into "strangers wearing old friends' faces."