mercredi 11 juin 2008

Who's your favourite perfumer?

The question left me quite speechless. I had just met an exquisite young woman at a literary festival in Saumur (France), Ingrid Astier whose La Cuisine Inspirée had been nominated for an award given out by Guerlain. Ingrid, who is an expert in flavours and odours, is, of course, very interested by fragrances. We’d been having the kind of rambling, rhapsodic conversation two perfumistas launch into when they meet, comparing tastes and areas of knowledge, throwing names around. Then Ingrid asked me the question: “Who’s your favourite living perfumer?”
Silence ensued.

I ended up naming the Serge Lutens-Christopher Sheldrake duo, for whom, if you’ve been reading my posts, you’ve guessed I have a soft spot. But they’re not “a” perfumer: there are two of them, and not much is known about the dynamics of their teamwork – though some ideas, treated in a very different style, seem to have drifted in Christopher Sheldrake’s wake in Chanel’s Exclusives.

Among the departed, I could quote a few names, starting with Germaine Cellier: Fracas, Bandit, Vent Vert, Jolie Madame, Fleeting Moment and Coeur Joie are all in my collection. Unlike Edmond Roudnitska who seems to have always reworked, refined and switched around the same accords from Femme to Dior-Dior, Cellier went in several different directions, but her style, her balls, her way of putting perfumes together in a seemingly slapdash fashion, of daring the overdose (of tuberose in Fracas, isobutylquinoline in Bandit, galbanum in Vent Vert) are easily identifiable.
I could also quote François Coty and his Fauvist daring in the use of synthetics, or Jacques Guerlain and his sensuous, smooth, sometimes melancholy blends: both worked for their own houses and could allow themselves the luxury of pursuing their own distinctive style. Ernest Beaux might not have developed his signature aldehydes if it hadn’t been for his fruitful collaboration with Gabrielle Chanel – but then again, he was already working on them, as his Rallet N°1, the template of Chanel N°5, confirms.

Nevertheless, as a perfumer who lived the golden age of couture perfumery while working for the Roure laboratories once told me, there was more freedom then. Couturiers usually worked with the same lab, often with the same nose: they launched what they liked, guided by the head of their perfumery department, without consulting marketing (there was none) or consumer panels. Perfumers could thus develop a more consistent, more personal style – even though I’m sure that some were told “I want something in the style of N°5 or Arpège”…

As for active perfumers, those whose compositions I admire are almost too many to be named, but there aren’t many whose style I can discern clearly enough to say: “That’s it, that’s my favourite”. We all know by now that they are reined in by several constraints – time, money, marketing briefs aimed at pleasing the greatest possible number of consumers. None of which favours trailblazing. That said, the innovators were probably are rare yesterday as they are today: time has sorted out the classics, out of the myriad launches of the 20th century. In these pages, I hope to be able to pinpoint a few fragrances that are distinctive enough to become tomorrow’s classics.

Image: courtesy of

6 commentaires:

  1. Hats off to you as you take up this endeavor! You, Elena and Octavian are filling a serious, vital gap in a perfume/cosmetics blogosphere much much given to novelties.

    I will soon be posting on Fracas and its "style of composition," also the challenges faced by Aurelien Guichard in reconstructing it for Robert Piguet.

  2. I'll be very interesting in reading it. I've been sampling the vintage Piguets (unfortunately, I've just smashed my vintage Fracas while kitten-proofing my collection) and comparing them with the current ones. Visa is an entirely different animal! And I *do* mean animal.

  3. Greetings! I have been lurking for a bit and thought it was time to say hello. I look forward to your future unveiling of classics, and I agree completey with your choice or Serge Lutens-Christopher Sheldrake as a force to be reckoned with.

    In terms of favorites, I happen to also adore the work of Marc Buxton, Christopher Brosius and Jean Claude and Celine Elena. I am also lookig forward to the work of Geza Schoen.

    Thanks for your wonderfully illuminating blog. I look forward to future posts.

  4. I'm glad you de-lurked! I'm unfamiliar with the work of Christopher Brosius: as far as I know, it's not available in Paris, and there's already so much to explore here that I tend not to order samples. I need to familiarize myself a bit more with the work of Mark Buxton and Geza Schoen -- these past months I've been smelling lots of vintage to perfect my culture. Need to remedy this!

  5. Cc, good question! Among living perfumers I think I would have to say Camille Goutal and Isabelle Doyon, who also work as a team. There's not much they've made that I don't like. I'm also gaining an appreciation of JC Ellena, perhaps more from a conceptual point of view than for the scents themselves. I'd like to know who beside Robert Ricci created the original Nina. That would be my favourite perfumer!

  6. Hi J.
    You know, I've been thinking about the Goutals: like you, there's not much about the line I don't find lovely, but somehow I never get round to buying any full bottles. Can't figure out why.
    Ellena I "get" intellectually -- he's certainly made every possible effort for us to understand his work -- but not often emotionally.
    I hadn't thought of picking out a favorite perfumer based on just one perfume, though. What a daunting prospect!