dimanche 25 juillet 2010

Edmond Roudnitska said it all...

You thought the subordination of creativity to marketing, the tyranny of focus groups, the bid for a quick buck rather than the painstaking development of a beautiful product go back to, say, the post-Opium 80s?

After reading Une Vie au Service du Parfum ("A Life in the Service of Perfume"), a compilation of articles and conferences by Edmond Roudnitska (Thérèse Vian Éditions, 1991), you'll know that it all started back in the late 50s. The great visionary perfumer was already denouncing what's still wrong today with the industry, at a time we think of as part of the Golden Age of perfumery.

But think back to the 60s and early 70s: which perfumes were truly groundbreaking, which created new forms, introduced new notes, rather than expressing variations on forms conceived in the 1920s? The social and sexual revolution never truly translated in bottles... Eau Sauvage, of course. Chamade, a beautiful expression of the hyacinth-galbanum-cassis bud green accord that expressed youthfulness in perfumery. Rive Gauche, though it was Calandre that introduce the odd, metallic rose oxyde. N°19 and Cristalle. Then Roudnitska again with Diorella.

Mr. Roudnitska was already right... It's a shame he wasn't heard.

The translations are mine.

A flood of mediocre perfumes… in 1959

“The failures of the past twenty years, if they haven’t served the Houses that suffered them, have finally turned against beautiful perfumes, which we will soon be unable to appreciate. The public, harassed by so many brands, deceived by a flood of questionable products which skew its judgment and taste, is getting used to mediocre or trivial productions. Thus, the consumer ends up losing the respect he once felt for beautiful perfume, which was considered a jewel up to then.”

The Ascent of the Money Men… in 1965

“If composers continue to compose, they no longer have the power to decide of the choice and launch of a perfume. The great creators of the past were the sole masters of their business; they created and they were the ones who decided, they told their sales departments: sell this. Today, sales departments, misled by gratuitous analogies with the successes garnered in other economic sectors, impose their views (…) and say: do this for us.”

“The great perfumers of the past knew how to wait for a new perfume to find its place and impose itself. But once in place, it was there to stay. Today, if those in charge are reticent when confronted with new notes and if they stick to fashionable notes, isn’t it because, more or less consciously, they want to make money right away, without thinking of the future?”

The Industrialization of Perfumery… in 1969

“Basing themselves on industrial marketing and imagining (…) they know the needs of the market, they try to influence composers to make them produce what they believe to be the taste of the public. Most composers, weak, tired or helpless, do what they’re asked instead of freely expressing their own vision. Then promoters take over the perfume, apply the treatment conceived for industrial marketing and transforming it, quite simply, into an industrial product. And so little by little, beautiful perfume is killed and replace not by “commercial” perfume (…) but by industrial perfumes, prepared by disenchanted composers. (…) These products can deceive as long as, in the mind of the public who is misled for a time, the brand image prevails on the image of the product.”

Muzzled talents… in 1971

“In 1971, a dozen perfumes* were launched in France; most agree few of them are worthy of our reputation. So how is it that everyone agrees to say that a perfume isn’t good after its launch, and that there wasn’t one person in the House that launched it to notice it before? It is the current system of choice, because it is a system, that is defective. It is even appalling.

When I see the choice of a new composition subordinated to the opinion (o so superficial) expressed by one hundred, two hundred or even five hundred women, when it must please millions of women in the world if it aims to be a great perfume, I wonder if I’m dreaming. It is truly the triumph and glorification of irresponsibility, but it is also the negation of art and the stifling of talents.

For talents exist, I am convinced of it, who not only are afraid to express themselves but are forbidden to do so. How can we blame them for their lack of daring with all the pressures they are subjected to, after the veto opposed by incompetents who have the power to decide?”

Perfumes launched in 1971: Bigarade (Nina Ricci), Chicanes (Jacomo), Empreintes (Courrèges), Ho Hang (Balenciaga), N°19 (Chanel), Rive Gauche (Yves Saint Laurent), Sikkim (Lancôme), Via Lanvin (Lanvin), Vivre (Molyneux), Weil (Weil), Yves Saint Laurent pour Homme (Yves Saint Laurent).

Portrait of Edmond Roudnitska giving a conference in 1952.

Quotes reproduced with the gracious authorization of Michel Roudnitska.

26 commentaires:

  1. "The negation of art..." and the "stifling of talents," these are the most disturbing and prescient of his comments. And what would he think of 800-1,000 releases per year?? It boggles the mind. It boggles my mind, specifically. I have utopian visions of small perfumery schools, with teachers from among the best composers out there today, housed in places far from IFRA, LVMH, and P&G, sponsored by wealthy patrons as the painters of the Renaissance once were.... Well, that's enough romancing for one day.

  2. Marla, from your mouth to God's ears! Sadly, the teaching of perfumery isn't taking that direction. While Edmond Roudnitska stressed the importance for aspiring perfumers to cultivate their taste and culture, the program at ISIPCA is cutting down on culture and the history of perfumery to beef up the scientific curriculum. "Give them reading lists, and let them seek it out on their own", is their new motto.

  3. That's terribly sad. It's too bad ISIPCA is the only show in town when it comes to Western commercial perfumery, I can't really say classical French perfumery anymore....

  4. Marla, strictly speaking it's not the only show, since Givaudan has a school too, and there is a training program in Grasse. At least the students learn good technical skills, which are a lot harder to acquire for people who wing it alone. The problem is that ISIPCA filters out the more artistic candidates if they don't have the requisite scientific credits. There was a lot to be said for learning the traditional way by starting out at the bottom of the ladder in Grasse, as did people like Jean-Claude Ellena or Jacques Polge. Or Edmond Roudnitska, for that matter.

  5. Thanks very much indeed for these superb extracts.

    They reminded me of a lecture I attended on Thursday night conducted by a Senior Fragrance Evaluator at Procter & Gamble Prestige. "We're not in the business of making art," he said at one point, "we're in the business of making scented images." (Incidentally, Grant of Basenotes has told me he's going to publish my detailed write-up of the event on his site, so hopefully it'll be up in the next few days, if you'd like to read more.)

    Oh, and I burst out laughing at the thought of a DOZEN perfumes being launched in 1971. Just think how much easier reviewing would have been back then...

  6. Persolaise, what do you expect from P&G? Their whole worldview would collapse if they allowed the notion of art to infiltrate it. These are the people who own Rochas and Patou, by the way.
    As I said in the comments on the Summer Top 10, seen from outside, Jean-Michel Duriez's talents are sadly underused by P&G.
    And, yes, imagine complaining about 12 launches! Among them there were two great perfumes... there really aren't that many more that come out nowadays in the mainstream (niche is another question).

  7. Hear, hear.

    By the way, I'm guessing the two great ones to which you refer are Rive Gauche and No. 19... but I've also got a lot of time for YSL's Pour Homme, particularly in its Haute Concentration form, but then I guess that didn't come out in 71.

    And as for P&G, I suppose the main thing you can say in their defence is that at least they don't even pretend to try to create art.

  8. Persolaise, I do name N°19 and Rive Gauche in the introduction to this piece, and if you look at the footnote in italics, you'll see YSL pour Homme is named in the perfumes that came out in 1971. Mr. Roudnitska doesn't name the ones he thinks are good (or bad): he tended, and it's a pity, not to name names much in his conferences.

    As for P&G, when you own Rochas and Patou, I'd still say you'd need to know what to do with those brands and their great heritage. Apparently there will be a few launches on the Rochas side this fall.

  9. Oops! The dangers of answering the doorbell whilst in the middle of reading a blog post ;-)

    I've just looked up the release date for the Haute Concentration, and it's 1983... and I wouldn't call the original Pour Homme "great", so I guess the figure of 2 is spot on after all.

  10. Truly a lone voice in the desert even then. Part of me wishes he were alive now to stand against the rampant commercialisation of the art but another part is quite happy he doesn't have to suffer the pain and frustration. Thank you for your translations Denyse. I have copies of the articles but my French allowed only the most basic understanding of them. Nicola

  11. Persolaise, I don't have enough of a recollection
    of YSL pour Homme to pronounce myself. I mostly remember YSL himself nekkid in the ad!

  12. Nicola, I'm sure there are a few things that would him happy, but one thing I know is that the current state his perfumes are in wouldn't please him none.

  13. Visionary indeed.
    Not everyone has that prescience.

  14. Ida, it's daunting to think that he was already saying this half a century ago!

  15. “The failures of the past twenty years...have finally turned against beautiful perfumes, which we will soon be unable to appreciate. The public...is getting used to mediocre or trivial productions. Thus, the consumer ends up losing the respect he once felt for beautiful perfume, which was considered a jewel up to then.”

    To me, that is the real tragedy. The dumbing down; the dwindling ability to appreciate greatness.


  16. And THIs is why us indie perfumers are such a breath of fresh air, grin! Not bound by industry decisions, money mens doubts, tradition or anything else for that matter!
    Goddess bless the Internet!

  17. Carter, it's not just perfumes, is it? But of course, Mr. Roudnitska could not anticipate the whole online perfume culture, which is the start of that pedagogy he was calling for.

  18. Thank you for another very interesting, if a little depressing, read. I am wearing Diorella, vintage, in Roudnitska's honour.

    So many aspects of life are commercialised these days, not even just art. In my personal field of work ( medicine)it's happening on a large scale. As if health were a marketable commodity. It makes me very angry, but there is so little one can do.


  19. Berber, perfume was a commercial entreprise from the outset, but there's a difference between commercial and industrial in E.R.'s book. It shocks me more in matters of health - being the daughter of a man who works for a public regulatory organization I've seen what goes on. Still, it's all part of the same mentality.

  20. I wanted to remark that "it" is happening in all of the arts, and I didn't even think of Medicine, eek! E.R. was catching the wave of this in the 70's, seeing it happen to his art form, while it took a little longer to happen in fashion and fine art for instance. I suppose it's up to all of us to keep the flame for the arts that we love, like in Farenheit 911 ; ) Thanks for such a thoughtful Post!

  21. Wendy, not really an answer to what you're saying but if your French is up to it check out the comments section there... For once it's much more active than the English side...

  22. More and More and Even More…We are in the More Era. New perfumes just to say, bi annual launchings minimum just to let us talk, The APPEARANCE
    We are groggy. We are all at sea. We are hypnotized in both sides….
    Perfumers have to answer to ten or so perfume developments per week that require months, even years of work without knowing if their creation will be launched, will be chosen. If not, then the composition company would have worked for not a penny, for nothing, nada…Perfumers answer to awkward brands which take lot of liberties because they have the distribution and medias with them. Brands development madness cost a fortune to perfumers companies. If brands would have to pay all their whims, they would take time to reflect before asking for a perfume writing, a modification or a reformulation….and they would consider The perfume even more…..In such a context, most perfumers have to lie to manage. Time to innovate, to search, to research. Means, risks, open minds are too rarely offered to perfumers. In such a race, in such a crazy market, Perfumers are bound to take in the stock what is already launched. They are bound to mix like good commercial DJs to pay off the expenses we ask them to bear for example.
    The remuneration system of Perfumery (manufacturing of perfume concentrates, analysis, quality controls, handling, composition, raw materials, reformulation….) has been distorted since too many time. One day all will blow up !
    Aren’t mergers are the beginning of the proof ? What should be done to save Perfumery ? Mister Roudnistka gives several solutions in his writings. One of them is the acknowledgement of perfumers as authors. An acknowledgement that would allow them to be remunerated not according to the volume manufactured or sold but according to the value of the writing thoughts, the emotional impact and their fame. When a perfumer works for one gramme or one tonne, it is and it stays the same work…..(on one condition that the supplying of raw materials can follow!) Composition is one thing, manufacturing is an other and so on all along the chain…. The last straw would be that in the end IFRA would bailed perfumery out. Sometime Ifra can impose a reformulation rhythm more than annual for only one perfume. This excessive rhythm can’t be borrowed freely too long by composition companies. A situation that might urge them to ask for remuneration ! Slave, they are becoming. Perfumery and its Experts became Slaves of commercial brands whom decision-makers have too many time a too empty olfactory culture. This point of view also concerns some niche brands that are may be the worst in fact. Indeed, niche means small volumes. Therefore how the perfumer can be able to compensate financially if the volume isn’t there ? We have to say it : Whatever the future of an olfactory writing will become, when a perfumer takes up his pen to write for a brand (whatever the brand is) : it is free !
    Let’s speak like a financial decision-maker, a development or a marketing decision-maker…”instead of speaking about Perfumery Aesthetic, Perfumery in the Beaux Arts System, let’s come back on earth, let’s come back on the market. Let’s speak about cash a little bite”. The savoir faire requires respect, titivation and to be paid. Even more when all philosophical elements are there to consider Perfumery as an Art !

  23. Thank you Elise for what sounds like an insider's view, though it is disheartening: it confirms Mr. Roudnitska's worst fears, doesn't it? All the more reason to further the discourse on perfumery as an art form. But you're right in saying that to the money, the language of money must be spoken: it's the only one they understand and respect. Only then will perfumers get the breathing space they need to practice their art.

  24. As a scientist, I found many of M. Roudnitska's comments sadly applicable to the direction of my field as well. Thank you for making these available and for providing a forum for discussing his prescient critiques. It truly speaks to his vision and passion for his work.

  25. Daseined, as the daughter of a scientist, I am well aware of this... The more I (re)read Mr. Roudnitska, the more I am struck by his prescience indeed...