The (Blind) Smell Test at WWD

As promised, today I’ll give you a brief update on The Smell Test series from Women’s Wear Daily. The goal is to blind test recent launches and offer anonymous opinions. All ten judges, myself included, receive fragrances in plain lab bottles, marked only by number, smell at their leisure and offer a rating from 1 to 10. WWD is one of the leading and most influential fashion and beauty publications, and it’s commendable that the magazine offers such a feature.

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You can see the results and read our short comments in the links below. I will only make a few observations: First, all statements claiming that perfume is somehow too subjective to be described or reviewed critically don’t stand the test. The exercise blew this tired argument out of the water again and again.  Yes, everyone has his or her own sensitivities and preferences, but by and large, the consistency of responses has been impressive.

Second, there has been much positive response to the feature. (If any houses have been upset by their product receiving a low score, they’ve kept quiet.) Since WWD is primarily geared toward the beauty industry and its movers, all of this is a good sign. The industry also feels that things can’t continue in the same “let’s drown them in launches” (or “let’s do another Angel/Light Blue/another best seller”) mode, and as s result the attitudes towards criticism are changing.

Third, blind smelling makes you realize that nothing matters besides the scent. Nice bottles, clever stories, and venerable brand names are only trappings. Find the scent that speaks to you and craft your own story around it.

Aerin Rose de Grasse

Serge Lutens La Religieuse

Acqua di Parma Acqua Nobile Rosa

Hermès Le Jardin de Monsieur Li

Burberry Brit Rhythm Floral for Women (it’s available to subscribers only; wait a couple of weeks for free access)

As I discovered after the results were published, Burberry’s was my favorite perfume out of all we’ve smelled so far. It has an interesting green fruity note and a beautiful floral accord. It doesn’t quite sustain the same excitement in the drydown, but overall, it’s charming and technically polished.

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80 Comments

  • Austenfan: Thanks for the links Victoria, and have a great weekend. August 7, 2015 at 7:15am Reply

    • Victoria: Enjoy your weekend! Is it as warm in your parts as it is in Brussels? August 7, 2015 at 10:00am Reply

      • Austenfan: Yes, although probably slightly less so, but I’m only 80 km’s or so north of Brussels, a bit closer to the sea though. August 7, 2015 at 12:20pm Reply

        • Victoria: I can’t wait for it to cool down again. The moment we get a mild heat wave, I get a cold. August 7, 2015 at 4:15pm Reply

          • Austenfan: My allergies start playing up, although I do feel rather old and cranky when I complain about the weather 🙂 August 7, 2015 at 4:18pm Reply

            • Victoria: It seems to be a national sport here to complain about the weather. 🙂 I actually like overcast, grey days, as long as they don’t come in a month long sequence. August 7, 2015 at 4:34pm Reply

              • Austenfan: Well you see, the weather is so variable which means there will always be a group of people who don’t enjoy it!
                I don’t mind cooler weather or even rain that much. I do mind our dark winters, but to be honest: I only find it really dark for about 3 months or so. August 8, 2015 at 3:37am Reply

                • Victoria: My husband was just mentioning how much he prefers the weather here to what we had on the East coast, especially in the summer. August 9, 2015 at 10:56am Reply

                  • Austenfan: This is not such a bad part of the world! August 9, 2015 at 11:52am Reply

  • Annikky: I’m so glad that this is happening, I think it’s a great, very healthy initiative.

    Btw, I’m just curious – do the experts tend to recognize the fragrances when smelling them blind? Or does it happen so much in advance that they have not yet had a chance to get to know the fragrances beforehand? August 7, 2015 at 7:51am Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t speak for others, of course, but I haven’t recognized anything. It’s done enough in advance, as soon as new releases are in stores. For instance, I smelled Misia before, but when I had to judge blindly a sample that later turned out to be Misia, I didn’t recognize it. That also proved to me that while a good fragrance, it’s not that distinctive. August 7, 2015 at 9:59am Reply

  • limegreen: Thank you for sharing these, Victoria, they are really interesting! August 7, 2015 at 10:01am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s fun to read commentaries, so I’m always waiting impatiently for the results. August 7, 2015 at 10:19am Reply

      • limegreen: It’s sort of fun to compare the results with my own impressions of the ones I’ve tried, such as Acqua di Parma Rosa Nobile and Hermes Monsieur Li. August 7, 2015 at 2:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: How did they score for you? August 7, 2015 at 4:26pm Reply

          • limegreen: It’s hard to put a number on things I feel are qualitative but I would say that AdP Rosa was about where I “score” it but I would have scored M. Li lower.
            I also felt that Rosa was a fizzy rose that didn’t last and loved the commentary that described it like a sip of champagne where the bubbles didn’t last.
            I wanted to love M. Li, maybe that was my problem, be curious if I tested it blind. I felt that I was “straining” to smell it on my skin and in the end it was too much work for something (fragrances) I love for the very reason that it is not work!
            Had a similar response to the new Jour d’Hermes Gardenia — too eager (ever since I read about its release) and wanted it to be a “love” but so far the sample is not speaking to me and I often forget that I have it. 🙁
            Have you tested the JdH Gardenia? August 7, 2015 at 7:31pm Reply

            • Victoria: Not yet, but I will do. Except that I’m afraid that it won’t live up to my expectations. Gardenia is a tricky accord to render well in perfume, and I like mine mossy and mushroomy. I betcha, it’s not how Jean-Claude Ellena takes his.

              By the way, have you ever tried Chinese tea scented with gardenia? August 9, 2015 at 10:49am Reply

              • limegreen: JdH Gardenia has no bleu cheese or mushrooms, you are right!

                I didn’t know Chinese tea and gardenia existed! What’s it like? August 9, 2015 at 12:16pm Reply

                • Victoria: Ah, I just realized that it’s not gardenia, but magnolia. Characters 玉蘭 were translated incorrectly as gardenia in my book. Anyway, this sounds even more interesting, magnolia scented tea! August 9, 2015 at 12:38pm Reply

                  • limegreen: “jade orchid” tea — so beautiful!
                    Will have to seek this out, thank you for mentioning this, Victoria. Can’t wait to try it! 🙂
                    (coincidentally, I’m wearing Eau de Magnolia today, a lazy hot Sunday felt just right for this cologne like fragrance, but lasts longer than a cologne!) August 9, 2015 at 3:52pm Reply

                    • Karen: You’ve inspired me to get out my Eau de Magnolia – for some reason I associate it with spring time as that’s when our (new) magnolias bloomed. But now I’m curious to see how it works in the hot weather. August 10, 2015 at 6:17am

                    • Victoria: Sounds perfect! I used up my sample, and I’m missing it. August 10, 2015 at 9:05am

  • Michaela: I appreciate WWD a lot for this daring initiative.
    Excellent observations! First, a perfume can be judged like any piece of art. Second, the effects of such objective criticism can only be good for us, the unaware consumers. The third I like the best: again and again, I learn only the scent which tells me a story matters to me. August 7, 2015 at 10:23am Reply

    • Victoria: If perfume is judged like wine, it would already be a move in the right direction. After all, some critical discourse is a very good idea. August 7, 2015 at 4:08pm Reply

  • Hamamelis: Thank you for this revealing and honest post, great to read. It is so interesting how sight influences our smell. A friend had dinner in Amsterdam, in a restaurant that is completely dark, you can’t see what you eat (he is doing lots of volunteering for visually impaired people). He thought of himself he had excellent taste discernment, and I would agree. He hardly recognised anything! Especially the vegetables (carrots, asparagus) were unrecognizable…
    So more blind buys I suppose, but not nose blind.
    Looking forward to new blind reviews. August 7, 2015 at 10:41am Reply

    • limegreen: Hamamelis — What a weird restaurant concept! (wondering if people bump into things when they get up) Presumably your friend could still smell the food when it came though? So much of my enjoyment of food at a restaurant is the smell of the food, and if the visual presentation is enticing, it is very pleasurable but not mandatory.
      The closest thing I can think of are movie theaters where you can order from a full menu before the movie starts and the food comes when the theater is dark, except for the light from the screen. But of course there’s the distraction of the movie since one is not there is just eat! August 7, 2015 at 1:00pm Reply

      • limegreen: I just realized — is this a restaurant for the visually impaired? August 7, 2015 at 1:03pm Reply

        • Hamamelis: Limegreen, the restaurant was started to create jobs for visually impaired people, there are working 11 people now. It is really pitch dark, and you will be escorted to your table by a blind waiter. The menu is always a surprise! I think it is a wonderful idea, and hope to go there once myself. August 7, 2015 at 3:04pm Reply

          • Hamamelis: So it is run by visually impaired people, but everyone can have dinner there. August 7, 2015 at 3:05pm Reply

          • limegreen: Thanks for explaining, how wonderful! Sorry about my misunderstanding, I was under the impression initially that it was an avant-garde experiment in dining. 🙂 August 7, 2015 at 3:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: I had a similar dining experience in NYC, but where it really was an avant-garde thing, with blindfolds and “sensory stimulation” (ie someone gave you a massage time to time.) I was with my work colleagues, and we thought that it was hilarious and we just couldn’t get into the spirit of things. Your friend’s experience and its underlying idea sound much more interesting and special. August 7, 2015 at 4:11pm Reply

      • limegreen: How was the food?! (A massage is a wonderful idea, helps with digestion? 🙂 ) August 7, 2015 at 7:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t remember, because we were having such a riot. 🙂 Oh, someone also came by and tried to tickle my neck with a feather. And then they played a flute. It was kind of bizarre. August 9, 2015 at 10:48am Reply

          • limegreen: (giggling) 🙂 August 9, 2015 at 12:18pm Reply

          • Karen: It sounds like a restaurant designed to monitor people’s reactions! August 10, 2015 at 6:19am Reply

      • Austenfan: It can be a bit awkward not to be able to get into something. A similar thing once happened to me and a friend while watching a movie. The whole movie theater was in tears and we were in hysterics. We did try and keep our laughter down as much as we could though, as people seemed to be genuinely upset.

        I now want to visit New York just to go to that restaurant 😉 August 8, 2015 at 6:25pm Reply

        • Victoria: The underlying idea was very good, but they tried to do too much with it. Just a dinner in the dark would be have fine, without feathers, massages and flutes. August 9, 2015 at 11:00am Reply

          • Austenfan: Same goes for the film. Not a bad idea, but hardly understated, which I think I tend to prefer. ( except in perfume!) August 9, 2015 at 11:52am Reply

    • Karen: Really incredible idea, and must have been quite an experience. August 7, 2015 at 7:07pm Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, I completely agree with your post and the comments. I think it would be great fun to blind test perfumes. Enjoy! August 7, 2015 at 10:42am Reply

    • Victoria: I try it time to time asking my husband to put on a fragrance out of my sample box (and then I try to describe the scent) or to relabel samples in code. Results are always so interesting. August 7, 2015 at 4:12pm Reply

  • silverdust: So glad to see the industry is recognizing that the “launch-a-day” strategy is a loser. Now if they’d only address the watered-down, overpriced, non-lasting, reformulations nature of the perfume business!

    The ’80s and even the ’90s were glorious days for ‘fumers. For the most part, it seems the giants of those days are gone.

    For example, I just discovered EL’s Aliage is exactly what I’ve been looking for — only to discover that it has been “reformulated” and lasted all of five minutes even after a generous spritz. The SA insisted that none of the formulations changed even though the bottles of the entire EL flagship line went generic.

    Meanwhile, I found a bottle of the original Aliage (tester) behind a counter display, tried it and could STILL smell traces of it 24 hours later!

    BTW, the SA asked her boss and said they weren’t allowed to sell the old tester! August 7, 2015 at 1:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: One of the things I like the least about the industry is this lying about reformulations. People are not idiots, and they can tell that their perfume no longer smells the same. This is something that aggravates me very much. August 7, 2015 at 4:17pm Reply

      • limegreen: Speaking off-topic but about reformulation — have you tried the new Hiris in the clear bottle, which was “adapted” by Ellena? I recently tried Hiris for the first time (clear bottle, the shop called it the “boutique version”) and thought it was very pretty.
        I reread your review of Hiris but that was the in the cobalt bottle and would love to know how it compares to the original. August 7, 2015 at 10:10pm Reply

        • rainboweyes: To me it smelled pretty much the same but I only had a spritz on my wrist. I finished my last cobalt bottle (the ninth, I think?) in the spring. When I buy a new one I will test them both parallelly. It’s a shame they changed the design, the old bottle was so much more distinctive… August 8, 2015 at 6:21am Reply

          • limegreen: Thanks, rainboweyes! Good to hear such a confirmation from someone who knows it really well (9 bottles?!!).
            The cobalt bottle is beautiful, and nice to have the dark glass to somewhat protect it from light. August 8, 2015 at 12:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: I also didn’t find it that much different, but I don’t like the bottle. Hiris had one of the best bottles, and the contrast between Hermes signature orange, blue of the bottle and purple paper was splendid. Now, it doesn’t look that exceptional. August 9, 2015 at 10:53am Reply

  • AndreaR: What a wonderful idea! I’m curious. What’s the highest rating a blind test perfume can get? August 7, 2015 at 1:25pm Reply

    • AndreaR: Oops. Wasn’t reading carefully 🙂 August 7, 2015 at 2:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: 10 is the highest, 1 is the lowest. August 7, 2015 at 4:18pm Reply

  • Jackie: Love this post, Victoria. In particular, your three analytical comments! Especially the first, debunking the ole’ “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Of course, you hear that in every art genre (visual art, music, film, etc) but probably never so much as in the art of scent! I suppose this is because it seems such an intimate and somehow even more “primal” sense, we tend to think of it as primarily subjective. Of course, anyone who follows your blog or has found another entree into the perfume journey knows this: we begin to “appreciate” certain fragrances objectively even if we might not “like” them or want to wear them. Also, previously loved perfumes can lose their appeal as your nose becomes trained and more experienced. The same thing happens when you take a film class or a music-appreciation class, etc etc. Or a wine-tasting class!

    As a lit prof, I do tire of people say that learning to read critically or watch films critically “spoils” the experience. Nay! They later discover how deeply it enriches it! 🙂 August 7, 2015 at 1:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also don’t ascribe to that notion. Thinking about my pleasures only enhances them. So, yes, I completely agree with you. Learning only enriches our experiences. August 7, 2015 at 4:20pm Reply

  • spe: These WWD reviews are such fun to read. I’m happy you are involved! August 7, 2015 at 2:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s a great learning experience. August 7, 2015 at 4:24pm Reply

  • Aurora: This concept is so refreshing, I have grown so tired of reading the interchangeable stuff written about perfumes these days and I’m so glad you found something to really like among the scents tested so far. I think I will follow this inspiring example and randomly pick a sample and try to analyse it from time to time, it sounds like such a great exercise. August 7, 2015 at 2:34pm Reply

    • Aurora: I’m referring to most lifestyle magazines, your articles excepted, as you are always so incredibly dedicated, always give the back story with wonderful details. August 7, 2015 at 2:38pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much! 🙂 August 7, 2015 at 4:29pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much!

      I pretty much gave up subscribing to magazines, since most articles are available online, and the beauty pages are thinly veiled advertising anyway and don’t compare to the detailed beauty reviews in the Japanese or Korean magazines. One doesn’t even need to read the language to pick up makeup tips and recommendations. August 7, 2015 at 4:28pm Reply

  • orsetta: thank you, Victoria – as interesting as your first post about these WWD blind tests a couple of months ago, where Misia was the subject
    (and it’s again interesting to see that Misia had a much higher score from all the judges 😉 August 7, 2015 at 3:44pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it did much better, but out of all that we’ve smelled it was the most interesting and most technically polished so far. August 7, 2015 at 4:31pm Reply

  • Sapphire: looks very interesting. Hoping to read these later. Was wondering (hopefully) about the winner of the Chergui drawing. August 7, 2015 at 4:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: I already announced the winner in the post itself. 🙂 August 7, 2015 at 4:32pm Reply

      • Karen: Just want to give a shout out to the generosity of the BdJ community. Thank you Victoria for fostering an atmosphere of caring and thoughtfulness. August 7, 2015 at 7:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: Thank you very much, Karen and everyone. It’s thanks to all of you. August 9, 2015 at 10:48am Reply

  • annemarie: I re-read the Misia results and agree that it is a fragrance that does not linger in the memory. I have a decant but between wearings, tend to forget I own it. Of course if I’d plonked down the money for one of those aquarium-sized bottles I would certainly remember I own it!

    And that’s the interesting thing about decants – they make the perfumes all look the same, so invariably you tend to concentrated more on the scent than the packaging and the story. They are a great leveller. Nothing matters beside the scent, as you say! August 7, 2015 at 7:57pm Reply

    • girasole: What an interesting point about decants, annemarie! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but my choices do seem to be more ‘merit-based’ when I’m spritzing from sample vials than from larger bottles. Perhaps this is why… August 8, 2015 at 4:07pm Reply

      • annemarie: It’s a side benefit for those of us who often can’t afford FBs! And that’s most of us at some stage or other. August 8, 2015 at 7:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Ha! Yes. It happened to me and Beige, and I actually fell in love with it. Not the most original perfume, but it’s so beautiful and it wears really well.

      I decant many of my favorites, especially the ones that come in splash bottles. I just make sure to label them. August 9, 2015 at 10:52am Reply

  • Adriana: Hey thats a wonderful initiative, hopefully fruitful! I too have enough of paying fortunes for down watered products…
    And yeah, am working for a “Dinner in the dark” in Vienna. Not that I can count how many people told me when out of it “o, really? Was there a tomato on my plate? Funny, I can’t stand them but couldn’t make out”. Goes without saying that so many of our taste related issues are playing deep down in our heads. 🙂 On the other hand, I meat my friends on regular basis every now and then but once same friends come to dine in the dark, they start remarking ” o wow, Your fragrance is nice”, or ” any idea what fragrance the lady at neighboring table is using, that smells cool”. 🙂 And yes, little from behind the stage, I sometime do “judge” my guests on what fragrances they wear, how much applied and so on. 🙂
    For me this is a nearby job because on the same olfactory direction, being a pure vegetarian I have difficulties smelling food with meat evening through. August 8, 2015 at 2:04am Reply

    • Victoria: What a fantastic idea! I think that done properly, without all of the unnecessary “stimulations” as in my NY experience, it’s great. It makes you taste and smell differently. August 9, 2015 at 10:54am Reply

  • Guin: Hi Victoria,

    What about reporting the error bar next to the average WWD rating? The error bar will probably be relatively small in most cases, but you may have a controversial fragrance once in a while. Maybe error bars are too nerdy? Perhaps the the range would be better?

    Guin August 8, 2015 at 10:20am Reply

    • Victoria: Maybe a tad, but I think that there might be an even better way of reporting. We’re thinking about it. August 9, 2015 at 10:57am Reply

  • Carla: Fantastic, love that you, Turin and Laudamiel are on the panel August 8, 2015 at 8:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: We’re a bunch of renegades, so it makes reading comments fun. August 9, 2015 at 11:01am Reply

  • Reg: This is a very interesting initiative and I hope it will gain momentum. Talking about marketing, when perfume houses self-indulgently describe their scents I’m often taken aback and in some cases it just plainly annoys me. On the other hand one has to appreciate authorship and ideas, and I like my perfumes to be nicely bottled (but more like Malle or the Chanel Exclusifs, simple, elegant, and uniform to a certain extent). I will never get myself to spend money on ugly bottles I would have to look at every day. Same with perfume names: I like them to be evocative, enough to spark my imagination and not to drown it in a brand’s “vision”. And if it’s an intriguing name with a bit of history such as “Bornéo 1834” for example, I’m also interested in a little bit of back story. August 9, 2015 at 10:59am Reply

    • Victoria: I agree with you. Also, I don’t like those names that scream “we didn’t find anything that wasn’t trademarked, so we’re going to use every single market approved word out there.” Which is how you end up with silly things along the lines of Cherry Blossom Sparkle Gorgeous Lovely Summer Edition Shimmer Flirty. August 9, 2015 at 11:03am Reply

      • Reg: Indeed, these are such a turn off 🙂 August 9, 2015 at 11:10am Reply

  • Adriana: Well, we don’t do any sort of stimulations God bless me, that sounds absolutely wierd and I doubt I’d go myself for such a thing. Naturally in the dark one becomes more sensible to body contact and we try avoiding that by all means, better for us and for customers. So many guests would tell me, “O I felt U around” or “ah yes, she is around, I smell her scent”, so touching is just not needed. And yes, one doesn’t have to be blind or visually challenged to be able to work on such a project, it is all about the other 4 senses, which automatically become more sharp when in the situation. We are oftenly asked out “how will I find my things?” well, left and right goes just well, main thing is to enjoy Your food without seing it and realize how much more intense the taste and smell get. Sorry but the idea of a massaging hand coming out of nowhere sounds absolutely rejecting to me at least. August 9, 2015 at 11:13am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, it’s kind of odd. Why would you want a massage while you’re eating anyway? August 9, 2015 at 12:39pm Reply

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