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November 1, 2004

"The end of civilisation as we know it" By Luca Turin

"The end of civilisation as we know it" By Luca Turin

A terrible rumour had been circulating among perfumers for the last six months or so. Apparently, Guerlain had decided to modify all its classic fragrances (14 of them) from to bring them into conformity with IFRA guidelines. IFRA is an industry body that keeps track of any health problems arising from fragrance use, i.e. allergies, etc. Its decisions are not law, merely recommendations. When IFRA says some raw material has been found to cause allergies in a small number of people, you can either remove it or put a small label that says what it does. The accepted practice in the industry is that only new fragrances need to be totally IFRA compliant. The old ones can stay as they are, much in the way that you can still drive your 1949 Armstrong Siddeley on public roads though it has no airbags. Given that a) Guerlain’s greats have been around a long time, and b) you seldom hear, at a funeral, a friend of the deceased saying "what do you expect, she wore L’Heure Bleue", no one is asking Guerlain to do this. Well ahead of any actual regulation that would force them to do so, they are now pressing ahead with this act of vandalism rather than simply putting the little label on the bottle

Three raw materials in particular are going to be removed altogether: coumarin, oak moss and birch tar. That alone means the end of Mitsouko and Shalimar, which will henceforth smell of Eau du Soir and Vanilla Fields respectively. Finding replacements for these materials is non-trivial. There is no good coumarin substitute. Putting together a decent synthetic oakmoss has been the perfumery equivalent of proving the Riemann Conjecture in mathematics. The greatest minds have tried. One master perfumer, Arcadi Boix Camps, claims to have succeeded. You would think that Guerlain would enlist talent of that caliber to tackle this awesome task. Not a bit: they have just published an ad on the web looking for a "technical perfumer" between 25 and 28 years of age to do the job. Touchingly, they want the candidate to be good at computers and fluent in English, as if that was going to help. This is like asking the guy who tiled your bathroom to restore the Ravenna mosaics. Guerlain cannot even claim to be consistent: while plotting to destroy the fragrances everyone can buy, they are bringing back a dozen great classics (original formulae, allergies and all) to be sold only on the first floor of their store at no. 68, Champs Elysées. If you feel about this the way I do, e-mail Guerlain’s customer relations officer, isabelle Rousseau,

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