On the evening of April 8th, the Pavillon Ledoyen, just off the Champs Elysées, could boast the highest concentration of elite noses anywhere in the world – thank God there wasn’t a flu epidemic going round – as it hosted the 18th edition of the Fragrance Foundation France’s Grand Prix du Parfum Marie-Claire (formerly the Fifis). And quite a crush it was, as the perfume industry is pretty much based between Paris and New York. Identifying a perfumer isn’t necessarily an easy task when you only have a couple of online pictures to go on, but casing the crowd as I queued to check my coat and followed the rush-hour flow into the room, I could spot the slight, dark, intense Francis Kurkdjian, the cherub-faced Aurélien Guichard, the dapper Alberto Morillas and… oh! There was Jean-Claude Ellena, standing alone.
I went up to him to say hi – we’ve met once and have exchanged a number of emails – and was the happy recipient of a crinkle-eyed smile that could turn a woman’s knees to orris butter. The man is a charmer, and effortlessly so.
I was there because the trio of fabulous ladies who head the Fragrance Foundation France, President Catherine Disdet along with Nathalie Pichard and Hélène Rouleau, had invited me to sit on the jury of the brand-new Specialists’ Award, given out to niche perfumes by a panel of journalists, evaluators and bloggers (Juliette from Poivre Bleu, Sixtine from Ambre Gris and Méchant Loup from Olfactorum). I’d shortlisted both La Treizième Heure and L’Heure Mystérieuse by Mathilde Laurent for Cartier, Havana Vanille by Bertrand Duchaufour for L’Artisan Parfumeur, Géranium pour Monsieur by Dominique Ropion for Frédéric Malle and Un Matin d’Orage by Isabelle Doyen for Annick Goutal. Most of those had made it to the common shortlist; La Treizième Heure ended up competing with Géranium pour Monsieur and Comme des Garçons Dover Street Market. I’d gone in determined to fight for La Treizième Heure, but didn’t have to fight much… little did I know that the morning’s panel of perfumers had also picked it out of a hundred contenders!
The hardest part was not telling Mathilde Laurent for two weeks (we had other reasons to exchange emails and calls), not even dropping a hint! As she arrived after me, I could only wave to her from afar in the crowd and so I wasn’t tempted to spill the beans: besides, I wanted to see her face when she heard!
And a gratifying moment it was, as she stepped onstage, especially since in her short acceptance speech, she praised perfume blogs and stressed the importance of criticism, “the only way perfumery can go forward”. I must admit I was so excited I didn’t take notes – I was too busy watching her, jabbing fellow blogger Méchant Loup in the ribs, and taking in the faces of the players in the industry as she made a case for the importance of independent, non-marketing thinking… Not everybody was amused.
I did, however, note the words of Jean-Claude Ellena, the recipient of an award for Eau de Gentiane Blanche given out by the journalists of Marie-Claire France, a partner of the Grand Prix du Parfum. He spoke to the young perfumers in the room:
“I am not a model. I am not an example. The market is not an example. Be yourselves. Be free. That’s tomorrow’s perfumery. Trust the perfumers.”
Getting out of that crowded room to make our way to the tables was quite a challenge, and it was a while before I could rush over to Mathilde to congratulate her with hugs and kisses, but I’m glad I did, since Dominique Ropion came over to congratulate her as well. Which gave me the chance to introduce myself and tell him that I considered Une Fleur de Cassie to be one of the best perfumes of the past 20 years and, along with Carnal Flower, one of the fragrances I could never do without. Perfumers who work for labs don’t often get the chance to meet the public, and in a way, though I’m gaining a foothold in the industry, I’m still very much a fangirl… Thank God Mathilde rushed in to introduce me more properly. I hope to see more of Mr. Ropion, which he agreed to (couldn’t very well say “Madame, I think not”, could he though?).
On my way to my table, I had a chat with Jean-Michel Duriez from Patou/Rochas, who let on that the house of Rochas would be a lot more dynamic by the end of the year, had a few more words with Jean-Claude Ellena (and got another dose of that smile and irresistibly raspy voice) then settled down at the Guerlain table. I was seated on the left of Thierry Wasser, who had my friend, the writer Ingrid Astier, to his right. Why such a privilege? Both Ingrid and I write about perfume, of course (she is the author of a series of lovely anthologies including Le Goût du Parfum and of a thriller featuring a perfumer, Quai des Enfers), but we also happen to have both won literary awards in 2008 at a festival co-sponsored by Guerlain, the “Journées du Livre et du Vin de Saumur”: my acquaintance with the house pre-dates my blog and my award wasn’t sponsored by Guerlain (just saying).
My conversation with the witty and charming Thierry Wasser was strictly off-the-record, but it did help me get a better sense of his passion for the Guerlain heritage and of the way in which he is trying to defend it – he was one of the very few to speak up publicly against European regulations and IFRA, in Le Monde, the French newspaper of reference. We also discussed how hard it was to capture the smell of wisteria and lime blossom in perfumery, and as we talked, I once more felt the sense of wonder I get every time a perfumer opens up the doors to the secret realm of scent. While I probably would have made a very different selection for the laureates, most of which were picked by popular vote, the Grand Prix du Parfum was yet another opportunity for me to tell perfumers directly how much I admire them... And I hope I never lose that sense of wonder.
The Grand Prix du Parfum Laureates
The seven following awards were given out by the public who voted online:
Best Feminine Fragrance: Ricci Ricci, by Aurélien Guichard and Jacques Huclier for Nina Ricci
I’m afraid I haven’t tried this one out. In the mainstream my vote would have gone to Narciso Rodriguez Essence, but the more cheerful and girlier Ricci Ricci clearly captured more imaginations…
Kudos to voters for picking a niche-brand outsider against heavy hitters like Yves Saint Laurent La Nuit de l’homme and Dior Fahrenheit Absolu. Pierre Aulas told me later that he wouldn’t have made it without the blogs – and that he thought people may have voted for Jamais le Dimanche because they thought that otherwise, it wouldn’t have gotten any!
Best design for a feminine fragrance: Ricci Ricci.
Admittedly a technical feat with that lovely curvy metallic bow. Again, my vote would’ve gone out to Essence but I can’t begrudge the Ricci team: that bottle is damn purty.
Best design for a masculine fragrance: Diesel Only the Brave
Ok. Why not. Fun fist-shaped bottle.
Best media campaign: Dior’s Miss Dior Chérie l’Eau directed by Sofia Coppola.
In his acceptance speech, Dior in-house perfumer François Demachy said that the ad’s upbeat mood was just what was needed in these dreary times – can’t argue with that, and we do love our Sofia…
Best fragrance Direct Sell: So Elixir by Olivier Cresp, Marie Salamagne and Jacques Cavallier for Yves Rocher.
Yves Rocher has often turned out products of outstanding quality for their price point, and Olivier Cresp underlined that So Elixir contained a good amount of high-quality naturals.
Marie-Claire readers’ choice: Idylle by Thierry Wasser for Guerlain.
This award was given out by the readers of Marie-Claire who voted online – apparently the magazine’s readership scores highest in perfume purchase in the French population. And Guerlain remains their house of reference.
Marie-Claire editors’ choice: Eau de Gentiane Blanche by Jean-Claude Ellena for Hermès.
The personable Mr. Ellena is, understandably, a darling of beauty editors, and one can’t fault their choice of this original, citrus-less eau de cologne.
The Specialists’ Award: XIII – La Treizième Heure by Mathilde Laurent for Cartier “Les Heures de Parfum”.
A brand-new award dedicated to niche and exclusive lines, which gave journalists, bloggers and evaluators the opportunity to promote more creative and experimental offerings. Interestingly, evaluators were surprised that bloggers based their judgment not only on the quality of the fragrances but on their authors: this is apparently never the case when fragrances are evaluated in labs, and understandably so, since mainstream perfumes are the result of teamwork rather than the brainchild of a single author. Which makes it all the more important to reward truly original compositions and give them better public visibility.
The Perfumers’ Award: XIII – La Treizième Heure by Mathilde Laurent for Cartier “Les Heures de Parfum”.
Amazingly, out of the hundred fragrances pre-selected for the perfumers’ panel, XIII was also the winner. This is also a brand-new award, and like the Specialists’ Award, only given out in France.
Photo: From left to right, Mathilde Laurent, in-house perfumer of Cartier, S Hélène Rouleau of the Fragrance Foundation, abine Chabbert, editor of Beyond Beauty and Nathalie Pichard of the Fragrance Foundation.