‘People don’t just buy smells; they buy stories.’
There is a legend about Marie Antoinette’s attempt to evade the guillotine. In the first part of the story, the Queen leaves the Tuileries Palace under cover of darkness. She is dressed in the plain black clothes of a governess, her bodyguard at her heels. They get a little lost in the narrow streets around the palace, but finally rendezvous with the rest of the royal family – the King, the Dauphin, his sister, assorted servants – in the rue de l’Echelle. There, a small carriage whisks them to the outskirts of Paris, where they transfer to a larger, custom-built travelling coach – a berline – which rattles off into the night, bound for a Royalist stronghold on the north-eastern frontier.
If the plan works, they will have escaped the wrath of the Jacobin revolutionaries and what amounts to house arrest under the watch of Lafayette’s national guard. If not, they will have only a few months to live.
In most versions of the tale, the royal family are spotted in the small town of Sainte-Menehould by an observant postmaster, who thinks he recognizes the King’s profile from a banknote. He gallops on ahead to organize the arrest of the fleeing royals further down the road.
The escape bid ends at Varennes, where the suspect coach is halted by a mob of local citizens. When Marie Antoinette emerges, there can be no doubt as to her identity. Although anxiety has turned her hair white, radically altering her appearance, her perfume gives her away. Only a queen, it is argued, could afford such an exquisite fragrance.
Along with her family, Marie Antoinette is escorted back to Paris and the looming scaffold. The symbolism is perfect, and perfectly Parisian. The King is recognizable from his noble profile – but the Queen is betrayed by her scent.
In his fascinating (2006) book The Secret of Scent, the perfumer Luca Turin reveals that the traitorous fragrance was likely to have been supplied by the Paris perfume house Houbigant, founded in 1775 by Jean-François Houbigant of Grasse.
Houbigant’s boutique at 19, rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré was called A la Corbeille des Fleurs (The Flower Basket). In the words of the sign outside, it sold ‘gloves, Powders, Pomades and Perfumes; also the genuine vegetable Rouge which he has perfected to the highest degree’. Unlike Marie Antoinette, Houbigant survived the revolution – Napoleon is said to have carried a selection of the house’s fragrances in his campaign chest as his army rampaged across Europe. Houbigant had been wise to locate his boutique on the most fashionable street in Paris, and he did not hesitate to profit from an early form of celebrity endorsement.
It is significant that Houbigant came from Grasse. With its benevolent climate and abundant supplies of jasmine – introduced to southern France by the Moors in the 16th century – this Provencal town surrounded by lush countryside became the capital of the French perfume industry. Originally the area had been famous for its tanneries, but a fashion for perfumed gloves, begun by Catherine de Medici and her sister Marie, prompted the leather merchants to begin cultivating aromatic plants. Today Grasse supplies more than two-thirds of France’s fragrances and is home to many of its most prominent perfumers.
Of course, perfume is far older than the 18th century. To find its origins we must revisit the Egyptians, those beauty pioneers, whose religious rites were accompanied by wafts of scented smoke. (The word ‘perfume’ derives from the Latin per fumum – ‘through smoke’ – and for many of us, even today, the odour of incense is the smell of church.) Perfume was also applied to statues of the gods – and the dead were perfumed for their voyage through the afterlife. The Egyptians built veritable laboratories where they could extract essence of lotus, iris or lily by pressing the flowers or macerating them in hot oils.
However, Houbigant is an important name in the history of scent because the house created the first perfume containing a synthetic ingredient. Perfumer Paul Parquet composed the fragrance in 1882. It was called Fougère Royale, or ‘Royal Fern’. As Luca Turin observes, this was a step towards the marketing-driven modern perfume business because ‘ferns… have no smell, and there is nothing royal about them’.
The magic ingredient was a synthetic version of coumarin, which is generally described as smelling like freshly mown hay. In its natural form it is heavily present in tonka beans. So why recreate it chemically? Writes Turin: ‘The main justification for using man-made material, then as now, is that you can get it cheaper than by extracting it from the real thing.’ Today, he adds, synthetic ingredients are more popular with perfumers than natural materials, which are extracted from plants picked ‘mostly in Russia and former Yugoslavia’. These get ‘heaped on to trucks, carted to the nearest extraction plant and stirred with some hot solvent. The good stuff is extracted from the plant and later steam-distilled from the mixture.’
Turin argues that natural materials are ‘fragile, variable and often… damaged’. They are also highly complex. While single chemicals are notes, natural materials are fully formed compositions, which makes the perfumer’s task far more difficult when he or she sits down to write the symphony of a fragrance.
An Italian family acquired the rights to the Houbigant name in 2005 and began relaunching its most famous fragrances, including Fougère Royale and the 1912 Quelques Fleurs. It’s doubtful that these scents bear more than a passing resemblance to the originals – but in a world full of designer fragrances, vintage is fashionable. Gian Luca Perris, Houbigant’s executive vice-president, told Forbes magazine: ‘After the recent crisis, there is a cry for authenticity, real quality, not just putting things together in a certain way, putting a nice label on it and selling it for a very expensive price’ (‘Names you need to know: Houbigant’, 7 December 2010).
Should you buy into this idea, your search for a retro fragrance may lead you to Jovoy, a perfumery on the rue Danielle Casanova in Paris. There you may be lucky enough to meet the voluble, enthusiastic François Hénin, the proprietor of the business. Hénin got embroiled in the perfume industry by chance, as a trader of raw materials in Vietnam. He became intrigued by the quest for elusive odours and, with a cousin, resurrected Jovoy, a brand originally launched in 1923. Hénin speaks of its founder, Blanche Arvoy, with some affection.
‘She was very ground-breaking, very ahead of her time,’ he says. ‘She was the first to use a vaporizer, for example. Her perfumes were firmly aimed at the sort of young women who could be seen strolling les grands boulevards on the arms of their rich “uncles”. By today’s standards, her fragrances were not subtle. They were opulent, aggressive. They were designed to turn heads.’
Hénin relaunched several of Jovoy’s scents, including Oriental, Terra Incognita and the flirtatiously named Quand? (When?).
But the boutique is something different again. As Hénin made his way around the industry, attending trade shows and conferences, he bumped into others who were running vintage or niche perfume brands. The boutique brings his favourites together under one small but stylish roof. Alongside the fragrances of Jovoy you’ll find scents from LT Piver (1774), Dorin (1780) and Rancé (1795). The latter, says Hénin, made Napoleon’s favourite cologne: ‘He used to drink it.’
An Italian barber, Gian Paolo Feminis, created the first eau de Cologne in the city of that name in 1709. It was a blend of grape spirits, neroli oil, bergamot, lavender and rosemary. It was sold not only to disguise body odour, but also to cure stomach aches, disinfect the gums and ‘clean the blood’.
Hénin loves such details and admits that most people don’t just buy smells; ‘they buy stories’.
But at his boutique, customers do not sample the perfumes directly from their exquisite flacons. The fragrances are contained in rows of anonymous brown bottles. ‘We encourage customers to try the fragrances, to immerse themselves in them, to locate the scent that suits their personality, before being seduced by the bottle and the packaging. In that respect, we’re turning the modern perfume business on its head, putting the fragrance first and the image after. You’ll find no images of famous actresses here. We’re offering an antidote to the ‘celebrity mania’ that has infected the industry.’
There was a precise moment when the coquettish world of perfume that François Hénin loves began to cower before the rapacious marketing machine that the fragrance industry became. It was when Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel pointed at a vial in a line-up of 10 sample fragrances and said: ‘Number five.’
Coco and ‘le monstre’
By 1921, when No. 5 was launched, Coco Chanel was already a successful fashion designer who had parlayed her streamlined vision of women’s clothing into riches and celebrity. The death in a car crash of her playboy lover Boy Capel had left her at first heartbroken, and then inhabited by a steely, bitter determination. (Rather like the Eiffel Tower, Chanel is best appreciated from a distance, snobbery and anti-Semitism being only two of her less lovable qualities.)
You will be aware by now that fashion designers do not create fragrances. That is the job of perfumers – sometimes referred to as ‘noses’. These days, most of them work for giant companies like Firmenich, Givaudan, International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF) and Symrise. They create not only beautiful perfumes, but also the everyday aromas of bathroom products, detergent and snacks.
Chanel’s ‘nose’ was Ernest Beaux, who had previously worked at the perfumer A Rallet & Company. One might assume that Beaux jumped at the chance when Chanel asked him to create her first fragrance, but according to Tilar J Mazzeo, author of The Secret of Chanel No. 5 (2010), he had misgivings. ‘Creating a scent for a couturière, after all, was still largely uncharted territory. That summer, Coco Chanel would be only the third designer in history to venture into the field.’
Eventually she persuaded him and, after listening to what would now be called a ‘brief’, he set to work designing her dream fragrance. One of its key ingredients was jasmine from Grasse – lots of it. ‘She wanted the most extravagant perfume in the world,’ writes Mazzeo.
Extravagant, yes – but also severe. Like many of the heroines of this tale, Gabrielle Chanel came from a lowly background. Her mother had died of tuberculosis when she was 12, forcing her father, ‘an itinerant peddler’, to abandon Gabrielle and her two sisters at a convent called Aubazine, in the Corrèze region of south central France. Something of the austerity of this place, with its whitewashed walls and scrubbed stone floors, lingered in Chanel’s soul. Later, she scratched a dubious living as a singer in provincial cabarets: she earned her nickname with a saucy rendition of a song called Qui qu’a vu Coco.
So that was Chanel No. 5: the nun meets the showgirl.
The severity was provided by synthetic substances called aldehydes, which come in many forms but are often described as the smell of cold and cleanness. The fifth vial in the series that Beaux prepared for Chanel contained a surplus of these. It touched the designer’s emotional core and became Chanel No. 5, an unapologetically synthetic fragrance for the machine age. The designer placed it in a stark Art Deco flacon. Square-shouldered, it was inspired by one of Boy Capel’s whisky flasks.
A bottle of Chanel No. 5 is sold every 30 seconds. In a world where fragrances stay no longer on the market than they do on the skin, the 90-year-old brand is still packing a punch. No mere fragrance, it is a legend, a rite of passage, a monument. Chandler Burr, the perfume critic of the New York Times, refers to it as ‘le monstre’.
Back in 1921, it did not explode on to the marketplace on the back of an aggressive advertising campaign. It was introduced stealthily.
Chanel launched Chanel No. 5 by wearing it to a dinner party in Cannes. As she had predicted, people asked her what it was. Next, she gave bottles to her favourite clients as Christmas gifts. They came to her boutique asking for more – and so did their friends.
Chanel No. 5 was well on its way to becoming the olfactory recognition code of the Parisian elite when the designer did an extraordinary thing: she sold the rights to the brand.
Today, the fashionable rich meet at gallery openings and charity dinners, at runway shows by star designers, at red carpet events in Cannes and Hollywood and behind the velvet ropes of exclusive clubs and restaurants. In 1923 they met at the racetrack in Deauville, which is where Chanel was introduced to Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, owners of the perfume company Bourjois.
The firm had its roots in the theatre, having been created in 1863 by an actor who invented easy-to-apply stage make-up that he began selling to the public. Alexandre-Napoléon Bourjois acquired the business four years later, finding himself with a hit on his hands in the form of ‘Rice Powder from Java’, which ‘softened and whitened’ the skin. His successor, Emile Orosdi, expanded the offering, adding nail varnish, lip colour and heady perfumes designed to be sprinkled on to handkerchiefs. Pierre and Paul’s father, Ernest Wertheimer, a former tie salesman, bought half of the business in 1898. When his sons got involved, they took Bourjois to the United States and prosperity.
Coco Chanel handed them almost total control of her perfume business, settling for just 10 per cent of the profits. The move seems insane in retrospect – and Chanel was to bitterly regret her decision – but at the time it made perfect sense. Chanel was a fashion designer; she knew nothing of the perfume industry. Without the Wertheimers, Chanel No. 5 might have remained the signature scent of a tiny clique in Paris. With them, it conquered the world.
Tilar J Mazzeo is highly critical of the Wertheimers’ initial marketing approach, especially their decision to ‘bury’ Chanel No. 5 amidst a range of similarly named products – Chanel No. 1, Chanel No. 2, Chanel No. 11, Chanel No. 14, Chanel No. 20, Chanel No. 21, Chanel No. 22 and Chanel No. 27, to be precise – but the catalogue they sent to US retailers showed a firm grasp of the flowery tautologies of luxury speak: ‘The Chanel perfumes, created exclusively for connoisseurs, occupy a unique and unparalleled place in the history of perfume… Mademoiselle Chanel is proud to present simple bottles adorned only by their whiteness, precious teardrops of perfume of incomparable quality, unique in composition, revealing the artistic personality of their creator.’
And so on. In fact, the disproportional success of Chanel No. 5 despite their cock-eyed marketing strategy finally persuaded the Wertheimers to pile their advertising cash behind it in the 1930s.
The fragrance also managed to fend off competition from a rival with a suspiciously similar formula. L’Aimant (The Magnet) was put out by a company owned by an old acquaintance of Chanel’s, François Coty. Corsican by birth, François Spoturno had adopted a tweaked version of his mother’s maiden name, Coti, and trained as a perfumer in Grasse. In 1904 he’d launched a perfume based on concentrated flower oils, La Rose Jacqueminot, which proved wildly successful. Coty combined a love of scent with a talent for packaging: he worked with René Lalique to design sculptural Art Nouveau bottles that would have sold even without their contents. By the time Chanel created No. 5, Coty was running an empire. (His fragrance business funded a noxious political career: in 1922 he acquired the newspaper Le Figaro and turned it into a journal of the far right; later he funded Fascist organizations.)
In 1926 he acquired a company called Chiris, which itself owned A Rallet & Company, where Chanel’s perfumer Ernest Beaux had learned his trade. With this purchase, Coty obtained the formula for Rallet No. 1, an earlier creation by Beaux. In fact, as Coty suspected, Beaux had based the formula for Chanel No. 5 quite closely on it. When Coty released L’Aimant, a slightly adapted version of Rallet No. 1, he was essentially launching Chanel No. 5 by any other name.
It was too late. Writes Mazzeo: ‘Chanel No. 5 was the most famous fragrance in the world. It had soared during the economic bubble of the 1920s and, in an era dedicated to the pursuit of incomparable luxuries, it had become one of the most coveted.’
It was around this time that Coco realized her error and began considering ways of wresting back control of the brand – something she never managed. As she watched from the sidelines, Chanel No. 5 continued to sell throughout the economically turbulent 1930s. The Wertheimers had scaled back production of the other numbered fragrances and focused on their best-seller. As their advertising suggested, it was ‘worn by more smart women than any other perfume’.
The fragrance secured its iconic status during the Second World War, when the Wertheimers took the risky decision to distribute it through retail stores on US military bases (the commissary post exchanges, or ‘PXs’). Selling the brand tax-free in such an environment could have leached out its luxury status, but, as Mazzeo observes, ‘no one expected to find opulent boutiques and glitzy showrooms in a war zone’.
Chanel No. 5 became the fragrance of freedom, ‘part of a world before the war, a world of glamour and beauty that somehow had survived’. This allowed the brand to enter the 1950s under a halo of erotic nostalgia – every guy who’d been overseas had bought a bottle for that special person, or maybe for two or three of them.
True to form, Coco had spent the war shacked up in the Ritz with a Nazi officer. Even as the perfume she barely owned continued to fly off shelves, she was forced to hide out in Switzerland, her reputation in tatters. When she finally returned to Paris to resurrect her fashion line in 1954, she was obliged to turn to the Wertheimers for support. They responded by taking full control of the Chanel brand. They had long owned her perfume – now they owned her too. The resentment festered until the day she died, aged 87, on 10 January 1971.
In the 1960s the business was managed by Pierre’s son, Jacques, but he appears to have been more interested in the Wertheimers’ horse racing and breeding activities than in running a fashion house. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of Chanel No. 5 was in danger of rendering it passé. In the United States it was very much your mother’s perfume – if not your grandmother’s. When Jacques’s 24-year-old son Alain took the reins in 1974, he swiftly set about remedying the situation, re-establishing the scent’s elite positioning by taking it out of drugstores and slashing the number of retail outlets from 18,000 to 12,000.
The enduring popularity of Chanel No. 5 can be attributed to the advertising work of Jacques Helleu, the brand’s artistic director, who joined the house in 1956 at the age of 18 and worked there until his death in 2007 at 69. His father, Jean, had held the post before him. With the exception of Chanel herself, nobody had a better understanding of the brand’s DNA.
In 1968, Helleu recruited Catherine Deneuve as the face of Chanel No. 5. Coco Chanel might have approved: glacial yet sultry, the blonde actress captured the tension that lay at the heart of the fragrance. The previous year, in the film Belle de Jour, she had played a beautiful, bourgeois woman who staved off ennui by trying her hand at prostitution.
The Chanel campaign cemented Deneuve’s international stardom and underlined the perfume’s iconic status. The print ads are deceptively simple – there is Deneuve’s flawless face, shot by Richard Avedon, next to the unmistakable flacon. Helleu recognized that the boldly minimalist bottle was nothing less than a glass logo. All his subsequent ads would feature it strongly. One of them simply showed the bottle, above the words ‘Share the fantasy’ (the ‘bottle as logo’ approach has also been used by vodka brand Absolut and, to an extent, by Coca-Cola).
TV executions shot for the US market made full use of Deneuve’s French accent and faintly husky delivery. When she talked of placing a drop of Chanel No. 5 ‘in a special place – behind the knee’, she made that hollow of skin sound like the ultimate erogenous zone. ‘You don’t have to ask for it,’ she purred, as the bottle came into shot. ‘He knows what you want.’
Helleu repeated this trick again and again, teaming the bottle with beautiful actresses under the lenses of famous photographers and directors. TV and cinema advertisements became increasingly extravagant, reaching their zenith with Nicole Kidman’s 2004 romp through a blockbuster ad directed by Baz Luhrmann, who had shot the actress in the film Moulin Rouge three years earlier. (Kidman played the kind of showgirl-courtesan that Coco Chanel would have recognized.) The ad is either wincingly camp or unashamedly romantic, depending on your taste. Either way, Kidman was not complaining: she reportedly pocketed US$12 million for the threeminute commercial.
Advertising perfume is a notoriously tricky business. Obviously it’s impossible to demonstrate the main product benefit, so you’re left with vague notions of sex and romance, wrapped around imagery that expresses the atmosphere the scent is formulated to evoke. The results are often pretentious and entirely lacking in warmth or humour, not to mention any kind of narrative. Chanel’s are better than most, but by no means better than award-winning ads for products in other categories.
When Helleu died, Vogue paid homage to him. ‘[He] was the driving force behind the house’s iconic ad campaigns, which have… established Chanel as a key brand name in the modern consumer market’ (‘Jacques Helleu remembered’, 1 October 2007). Chanel’s global CEO, Maureen Chiquet, said in a statement: ‘His larger-than-life personality, immense talents and unique vision have defined Chanel as the ultimate house of luxury, with an unparalleled global presence… He succeeded in bringing Chanel into the 21st century as a leader in the world of exclusivity.’
This might have somewhat wounded Karl Lagerfeld, designer of the brand’s fashion collections. But as Coco discovered when she emerged from her Swiss redoubt, the fashion industry is fuelled by fragrances. It’s no coincidence that, during the brand’s fall/winter 2009 haute couture show, the models stalking the runway were overshadowed by towering replicas of the Chanel No. 5 bottle.
A fantasy in a bottle
Yves Saint Laurent knew all about the importance of fragrances to the fashion industry. The designer’s blockbuster ‘oriental’ scent Opium transformed the fortunes of his house; by its 30th anniversary in 1992 the company was earning more than 80 per cent of its income from fragrances and cosmetics. This is why, when giant luxury conglomerates like LVMH and PPR sign up young designer labels, almost the first thing they do is encourage the newcomer to launch a perfume.
In her (2002) biography of Saint Laurent, French journalist Laurence Benaïm describes the launch of Opium as ‘a superb communications lesson’. Saint Laurent had already set the scene with his ‘Chinese’ collection: 36 pieces veined with gold and fringed with fur, a hallucinogenic blend of Shanghai Express and a Tintin adventure. ‘Less than a year after the death of Mao, Saint Laurent celebrated the excesses of Imperial China,’ writes Benaïm.
Opium was launched in Paris on 12 October 1977. ‘Opium is the femme fatale, the pagodas, the lamps!’ gushed Saint Laurent in the presentation brochure. His intention, he wrote, was to bottle ‘the moment a man and a woman look at one another for the first time’. The red flacon was based on the samurai’s inro (China and Japan apparently being somewhat confused in the designer’s dreamscape), a lacquered carrying case for coins, seals, inks and medicine. Saint Laurent created the flacon with the designer Pierre Dinand, who was able to suggest the enigmatic gloss of lacquer in nylon. To this he added, threaded through the stopper, a fine black cord ending in a tassel, as well as a delicate golden chain around the bottle’s neck.
The advertising image featured Jerry Hall shot by Helmut Newton. She reclined in an embroidered oriental blouse, lips parted, eyelids lowered, lost in languorous ecstasy. The picture was taken at Saint Laurent’s own apartment; he styled the shot and dressed the model, right down to her rings. The slogan? ‘Pour celles qui s’adonnent à Yves Saint Laurent’ (For those who abandon themselves to Yves Saint Laurent).
European sales hit US$30 million in one year. When Opium was launched in the United States, on 25 September 1978, Saint Laurent took over a 1911 sailing ship called the Peking, moored at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York, garlanding it with flowers and lanterns, adorning it with pagodas and a giant Buddha. A glut of celebrities and 32 TV crews turned up for the launch party; fireworks spelled out YSL in the starlit Manhattan sky.
Inevitably Opium provoked a scandal – the Coalition against Drug Abuse wanted to know how YSL could name a fragrance after a drug that had killed millions? – whipping up a media typhoon and playing right into the hands of its creators. By the end of the year, Opium was the most notorious fragrance since Chanel No. 5. Women understood that the scent was an invitation to escape, a fantasy in a bottle.
The designer Thierry Mugler may have had Opium in mind when he used Jerry Hall as the face of his own fragrance, Angel, in 1992. But this new scent was very different. Tooth-achingly sweet, with notes of patchouli, praline, caramel and vanilla, it kicked off a trend for ‘gourmand’ perfumes. Mugler said it should make you ‘almost feel like eating up the person you love’. To add to its weirdness, it was pale blue and came in a flacon shaped like a star.
Perfume critics did not like Angel, but its candyfloss odour appealed to women across many age and income groups. Plus, it was different. Thierry Mugler was a relatively small brand, so the company could afford to take a risk: there were not as many marketing dollars at stake as there were when Dior or Gucci launched a perfume. Mugler was having fun – and that playfulness was evident in the result. Finally, there was the time factor. Fragrances come and go with alarming speed, but Angel’s sales built steadily over several years. Perfume has a viral quality – the ‘What are you wearing?’ effect – that does not take hold overnight. Thierry Mugler’s star as a designer may have been falling, but the blue perfume in the star-shaped flacon became a best-seller.
The business of scent is not built on designer names alone. Many celebrities have lent their identities to fragrances. The phenomenon is often held to have started with Glow, by Jennifer Lopez, launched with Coty in 2002. It was a huge hit and prompted the singer and actress to launch a handful of spin-off scents. But it was by no means the first of its kind: Sophia Loren launched Sophia back in 1981; Cher’s Uninhibited appeared in 1987; Elizabeth Taylor gave us White Diamonds in 1991.
Glow was merely ‘the modern incarnation of the celebrity perfume’, as Chandler Burr puts it in his (2007) book The Perfect Scent. By racking up millions of sales in a short space of time, it launched a trend that drew many other celebrities to the market. It’s fair to say that Coty dominates the celebrity scent category, with potions from Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwen Stefani, Beyoncé Knowles, Celine Dion, David and Victoria Beckham, Faith Hill, Halle Berry, Kate Moss, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga, among others. This is escapism at its most basic: the comforting unreality of screen or glossy magazine distilled and bottled.
The company founded by the marketing-savvy Corsican – Gabrielle Chanel’s best ‘frenemy’ François Coty – is now the world’s largest fragrance concern, with annual sales of US$4 billion. Owned by Benckiser and firmly based in the United States, it has interests in cosmetics, toiletries and skincare, but 65 per cent of its income derives from fragrances.
As we’ve established, companies like Coty do not create perfumes. They are licensing, marketing and distribution operations. The perfumers are elsewhere, using their extraordinary olfactory skills to compose a scent from a client’s brief.
Céline Ellena is a third-generation perfumer from Grasse. Her father, Jean- Claude Ellena, is the in-house ‘nose’ at Hermès. This is a very unusual position: alongside Hermès, only Chanel and Guerlain have exclusive perfumers (Jacques Polge and Thierry Wasser respectively). Céline is currently independent, but she has worked at Symrise and a Grasse-based company called Charabot.
Like many perfumers, Céline learned her trade at the Institut Supérieur International du Parfum de la Cosmétique et de l’Aromatique alimentaire (ISIPCA), the perfume school in Versailles. You’ll need a chemistry degree and the backing of a perfume company before being considered for admission. After that, the school accepts just 15 students a year, based on a written test and a presentation to a professional jury. ‘That’s when you begin to realize’, says Céline, ‘that perfume is a tough business.’
Let’s say you’re lucky enough to be employed by one of the big perfume companies – what happens then? What is your day like?
Once upon a time, a perfumer sat before a rack of glass vials called an ‘organ’. Each of the vials, of course, contained a smell, either synthetic or natural. By combining them in different quantities, the perfumer would arrive at a new fragrance.
Now the perfumer sits in an office before a computer. Having considered the smells that she might need to create the fragrance currently swirling around in her head, she turns to the database of raw materials on the computer. Each material has a price, so the perfumer can add and subtract elements to find out how much the formula she has in mind might cost. The smells are kept in labs staffed by technicians, who use high-precision scales to blend tiny drops of liquid according to her instructions. The resulting concentrate is added to alcohol to form a sample, which is taken to the perfumer’s office.
There is pressure on the perfumer to keep the cost per kilo of a fragrance as low as possible. ‘Ten years ago,’ writes Luca Turin in The Secret of Scent, ‘a fine fragrance used to cost $200–300 per kilo. These days $100 is considered expensive… The cheapness of the formula is the reason why most “fine” perfumes are total crap.’
There is also pressure on the perfumer to create a hit, which is why many fragrances are slightly adjusted versions of those that have gone before. Perfumers are constantly sniffing samples of recently launched fragrances to keep themselves up to date.
‘To save time, perfumers have been known to mix the formulae of existing fragrances,’ says Céline. ‘So you might hear them say, “It’s 80 per cent J’Adore and 20 per cent Nina by Nina Ricci.” In the trade we call that a “twist”.’
One of the great skills of a perfumer is the ability to reverse-engineer a fragrance by smell. Perfumers keep an enormous library of aromas in their heads – something that can seem akin to a superpower to those of us who are not in the business.
‘Actually, building an olfactory memory is not the hardest part,’ says Céline. ‘You learn the smells by heart. The real skill lies in knowing what the different elements will give you when they’re combined. Because in perfume, one plus one equals three. If I combine a synthetic called ionone, which smells a little like irises, with aldehyde C14, which resembles peach, I get apricot.’
Céline agrees that the generally low standard of perfumes is partly due to strict budgets, but she also blames tight deadlines. ‘At a big perfume company you don’t have time to think, to explore, to do your own research. You’re often working on several different briefs at once. Add to that a lack of willingness among the clients to take risks, and you end up with a pretty bland selection on the shelves.’
There is an important cultural factor at play too. Since the 1970s, consumers in the developed world have been surrounded by an extremely common aroma found in detergent. To almost all of us, this smell equals ‘clean’. When it is not present in a perfume – say, one that favours natural over synthetic aromas – we tend to find that fragrance a turn-off. Ergo, most perfumes smell largely of detergent. Our noses have been brainwashed.
The birth of a new perfume begins with a client – an LVMH, a L’Oréal or a Coty – deciding that it wants to launch a fragrance. It may need to replace a fading brand, or to follow a trend (‘orientals’ are in this season). The product manager contacts three or four of the big perfume companies, which dispatch their sales and marketing teams. Not their perfumers: that role is played by somebody called an ‘evaluator’, who combines perfumery and marketing skills. The evaluator and her colleagues pick up the brief, which is generally a written document: target demographic, olfactory family, which fragrance it should resemble (or not) and so on.
Céline says, ‘On a good day, the team from the perfume company is alone in a meeting room with the client. Occasionally, the brief is presented to a handful of competing perfume companies at the same time. The commercial team are expected to take notes and bring them back.’
I wonder aloud how much input a fashion designer has into the creation of the fragrance that bears his or her name.
Céline says: ‘If the designer’s contract with the parent company means that they have effectively signed their name away, then they are barely consulted. They might be brought in at the end for a quick sniff, but otherwise their opinion is irrelevant. Perfume is not their métier. Needless to say, the public are told that the designer was heavily involved in the creation of the fragrance. But that is marketing.’
I later pose the same question to Judith Gross, global director, fragrance and natural ingredient marketing at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF). ‘It depends,’ she says, citing Giorgio Armani as a particularly handson designer. ‘Deep implication in the process from A to Z is quite rare.’
The same goes for celebrities, naturally. Gross acknowledges that the perceived presence of a designer or a celebrity during the creation of a perfume can be an important part of the marketing strategy. ‘The perfumes that really work are those that tell a convincing story; they bring the consumer into their world.’
With approximately 400 perfume launches a year, you need a convincing story in order to stand out. Gross estimates that the ‘juice’ represents only 5 per cent of the price that the consumer pays for a bottle of perfume. The rest of your 70 dollars goes on packaging design, advertising – including the celebrity endorser’s fee – and distribution.
The perfumers are not involved in any of this. They don’t even see the flacon, which is the responsibility of specialist design agencies.
Once the commercial team returns from the client meeting, the brief is given to a group of perfumers, who compete internally to come up with the formula that the company will present to the client. This must be done within a time frame of 15 days to three weeks. The submissions deemed worthy by the evaluator and the sales team are then taken to the client. The result is that the client ends up with a choice of five or six fragrances from different perfume companies. Once the client decides on the fragrance it likes, the other companies are out of the picture – having earned not a single penny.
‘After that, the real job begins, because the client always wants modifications,’ says Céline. ‘Too floral, not floral enough…’
The fragrance is tested on focus groups to determine how it might perform on the market, followed by more modifications. The entire process, from brief to launch, can take between one and two years.
It sounds like a disheartening business – until I ask Céline to describe what it’s actually like to create a perfume.
‘For me, it starts with an image,’ she replies. ‘It might be a shape. I might, for instance, want to create something that smells round. Or it could be the memory of a journey. Once, I wanted to create a perfume that felt like plunging your hands into a pile of feathers. Another time, I was thinking of Marlon Brando’s T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire. After that, I write down the formula that might recreate the feeling I have in mind. It sounds strange, I know, but it’s possible to create smells that have textures: rough, smooth, metallic. You lift the bottle to your nose, and suddenly you’re experiencing a sensation.’
And that, despite the harsh realities of the perfume industry, is a kind of magic.