Friday, November 19, 2010

Very subjective consideration on the modern perfumes & geography

When trying perfumes, I can't stop but putting them on a map. I started thinking more of perfumes and geography mainly as effect of too circumstances:
  • The lady who runs an exclusive perfumery shop in the town where I live told me that she is not going to sell Caron fragrances anymore because they are too French for the German ladies. So I was the one to buy their last Caron and my first Parfum Sacre. 
  • Tania Sanchez obsession with Estee Lauder and for her general excitement for clean and roses perfumes. She says somewhere (is it talking about MKK of Serge Lutens?) that it has probably to do with her east asian origins. I suspect the American heritage.
My small project here wouldn't have been possible without the help of wonderful databases of and NowSmellThis. I am grateful that they exist and took such a big effort to offer information on fragrances. And, of course, the enormous cultural references offered by The Guide of Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez.

So what's going on with perfumes in geographical terms? I don't talk about fragrances, smells, oils, they developed all over the world and there is already a lot of anthropological and historical work on it. I talk about the simple geography of today's perfume brands and how I see their existence.
Most of the brands and what we think of perfume in our modern world is about French perfumery. And you will read and hear a lot of ohlalala about what a French perfume means and how wonderful is. Some people say 'this is a French perfume' and that's all to be said. It could mean chic, glamorous, naughty, daring, elegant whatever all we put in relation with Paris via Grasse production and creativity. On the other hand some people would reject a smell only based exactly on the fact that is too French, see the adepts of pure bio oils or the old lady feeling.

The things became more complicated since the French perfumery had to address a biggest market than his own Paris and France. In fact for long the big money came from USA (have a look at what vintages from forties to seventies are sold on ebay from USA). Since few years ago big money come also from Asia and Middle East and it is hoped to come enormous from China.
So, French is not so much for French people since long and than what French means? That a lady from USA or China wants to smell like a French woman but at the same time appeal to the nose of the American or Chinese men?

But the geography shows that not only French perfumes are playing the big cards. What do we have?
Estee Lauder means the Queen of American perfumery. As much as I could find out, the first Estee Lauder perfumes where actually really produced by American noses. Josephine Catapano for Youth Dew, first EL perfume. Then was Sophia Grojsman (Belarus but living in USA). EL is not very open about the noses behind their first big perfumes and I think in a way it is ok. EL perfumes took the genius of Estee Lauder herself not a perfumer but a visionary. Estee Lauder could think as an American and offer to Americans the perfumes which suit them best, sexy but clean. They are so wonderful perfumes but so American. If Jacques Guerlain was an American he would have been Estee Lauder. Estee Lauder made America to smell proper American and that was the big hit in the industry of perfumes. Recently, though, the American spirit it's subdued. We have Calice Becker (France) for Beyond Paradise for example. Is this still a proper American?
I love the firsts Donna Karan: Donna Karan New York which I find most of sophisticated, Black Cashmere and Chaos. But that's history. Now we have perfumes to be sold any minute: Be Delicious series and Love from NY and Summer and Pure DKNY. Pity. To me it is similar to Viviene Westood, both great fashion creators but in the end they don't care about nose. On the other hand I understand DK lost a lot of money with the first perfumes.

Then we have Avon. And we have Elisabeth Taylor. Big in USA. These are also American smells, clean and invigorating. And not sophisticated.
On the other hand we have a handful of local creator, who go for bio smells and come directly from Woodstock spirit. Yoga and Buddhism and free love and pure essences. More successful Aftelier of Mandy Aftel. In Canada Ayala Moriel Perfumes.

Asia – far Asia
I think we all like the idea of Japanese smells. It is about small tidy colourful gardens, tea ceremony, elegant kimonos, ikebana and haikus and many others. Minimalist but profound, spicy but clean and flowers and tea and woods. So no wonder that newly comers like Kenzo and Issey Miyake made their way very easy. But how Japanese are these smells? First Kenzo for her in 1988 is of Francoise Caron. First Issey Miyake in 1992, is of the very French Jacques Cavallier (L'eau d'Issey).
Anyway, both are based in France. But we relate the smells both of Kenzo and Issey Miyake with a certain Japanese spirit.
Comme de Garcons, on the other hand, with all its French name, is based in Tokyo but the owner is Japanese, Rei Kawakubo. For his first smell he chose an English perfumer, Mark Buxton, who later took over few of their perfumes to create some of the most intriguing smells in modern perfumery. And some say that's reallyJapanese smell, a combination between tradition (ink? flowers?) and the high-tech of today's Japan.

Middle East
Amouage 'His Highness Sayyid Hamad bin Hamoud al bu Said had a dream to restore the great Arabian art of perfumery to the region. Amouage is a luxury perfume house established in Oman in 1983 by the Sultan of Oman. Amouage uses traditional for the Middle East perfume ingredients such as agarwood, incense, musk, rose and spices, but the developers of the scents are perfumeurs from the major fragrances&flavor companies.
The first Amouage fragrance (Amouage was its previous name, now it is known as Amouage Gold) was created by French perfumeur Guy Robert in 1983. Guy Robert has created his masterpieces for Hermes, Dior, Rochas...'
In my university times there were many students coming from Middle East. All of them smelled strong of perfume and smelled gorgeous. I remember that the way they smelled didn't feel exotic to me. There were only great smells and I suppose there were oriental French perfumes. In same way, Amouage has too little for my nose to do with middle east culture. Serge Lutens is stronger on that to me. All Amouage smell classy French, expensive and luxurious, yes. If I close my eyes I can see rich Arabian women and men living in their luxurious Paris apartments and living a Parisian life. And wearing Amouage.
More middle east are the pure Attars that you can find quite easy, hard to say what is the quality. Those pure smells coming from Arabian nights which seduced Serge Lutens. There was and still is an attraction to these smells and they are mixed with the ones coming from more east Asia, like India mostly. They smell too much to me of psychedelic experiences from seventies, of these Indian shops where perfumed sticks are permanently burned, something at the border of authentic. Plus, the big challenge is to sort out the really good quality oils from cheap ones. It makes a big difference how these oils are distillate, produced, from what kind of products and harvests are made.

I would be curious to know how much space would cover the bottles of French perfumes produced in one year. May be few times France? How much the ones which exist at this moment all over the world?

I just feel that Italy makes a special case. You have on one hand the big names, clothing Gucci, Prada, Dolce Gabana, or jewellery Bvlgari with perfumes which go for classic scents in a French manner.
On the other hand there is a handful of brands which keep an Italian aura and they have a Italian public, kind of exclusivist and local style. Aqua di Parma is probably best known but they are on the edge. The old ones, Santa Maria Novella, or Acqua di Biella, Acqua di Genova, Corsari 1870 which smell like as exotic as Mediterranean, severe as monasteries and apothecary, a strange combination. I close my eyes and I can see these several hundreds old Pharmacies in Italy, they look for me like places of great alchemy. Anyway, all of them are obssesed with past, history. As much the new ones which sound old Carthusia, or Profumi del Forte, Bois 1920, Il profumo or Odori .
While new Corso Como, Eau d'Italie or Lorenzo Villoresi smell like modern niche perfumery but still giving an Italian chic taste.

England it's an interesting story in today's perfume brands. What I love most is that is a very English story. We have on one hand old ones, Penhaligon's, Floris, Crown Perfumery which stay traditional and keep their names with that. On the other hand we have some new ones which go into a totally different direction, like Ormonde Jayne or Miller Harris. So either you have a noble blood and you can afford fine old china and funny old flowery wall papers and ridiculous hats or you don't and go for stylish post-modern furniture. And the noble guy and his simple fellow at the dinner table will find each other darling charming though none of them has an idea what the other wants to say.
Despite Luca Turin permanent disappointment with the old English perfume houses, I would say they indeed make sense. They address to a certain public. OK, what first comes into my mind is old ladies and old gents. But I also know young people which find very attractive the soapy quality of brands like Penhaligon's or Floris. I have also the feeling that all these people who are in love with Eau D'Hadrien of Annick Goutal they also favour these old English perfumes.
On another planet live new brands like Ormonde Jayne and Miller Harris. In a good English tradition they don't have to show anything so they dare everything. And I wouldn't be surprise if one day, by tradition, they will be receive their knighthood and will make it into the noble class.
My only question is how English are these new and really great brands. They feel to my nose rather as perfumes from a post-colonial globalise world. They don't speak only a British English.
One notable exception is Czech&Speake. Quite new, 1979, they managed to go along with an English spirit while being quite modern.
Crabtree & Evelyn. Known as very English, are in fact based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. I found them very well represented in a shopping magazine called The British Shop. Except the place were they are based, they are crazy about English tradition. And very successful with that.

A very good friend of mine is Lithuanian and I am happy to mention that on the Europe map exists also a brand who made it internationally coming from the east of the continent. Juozas Statkevicius released this special but wearable perfume, which in a way reminds of far east Europe, incense and woods.

4711 Echt Kölnisch Wasser 'On October 1792 a Carthusian monk gave the young entrepreneur Wilhelm Muelhens a unique wedding present: the secret formula for an 'acqua mirabilis', a miracle water for internal and external use.'
That's the most known German fragrance ever and still stays as top seller in Germany. It is in a way evocative for Germany. The smell of clean and fresh, not unnecessary chic and restrained. This if you really want to put Germans in a frame. We don't want but the truth is that there are not many other impact market names despite the fact there are a numbers of German perfumers who work internationally and create 'French' perfumes.
New are some kind of revolutionary german perfume houses, with experimental smells and strange names like Biehl – Parfumkunstwerke (who would want to smell like a perfume named like a heavy duty machine factory? That said I admire Biehl smells), Humiecki&Graf (their Geste is one of my favorite perfumes), Uli Schneider and Her von Eden and the more accessible name Linari. What is interesting, except the traditional Kolnischewasser, all the other are almost impossible to find in Germany.

In the end only few thoughts:
§ Why is France so big in perfumery? It requires probably tons of paper and research. May be it has to do with women making themselves beautiful. French women came better in terms in making themselves beautiful (see medieval remark as about Anne – second wife of Henry IV who brought with her French style at the English royal court). It is the same with other parts of world where fragrances as personal use may be related with the freedom of women to make themselves beautiful (India, middle east – between closed doors). While in areas with a severe approach about the vanity of making yourself beautiful the fragrances didn't develop so much or stayed dedicated to cleaning and freshness. From this point of view USA of our days is an interesting case, deeply fragmented between the repulse for fragrances (see the numerous sues against people who use perfume in public spaces like offices), obsession with cleaning and the need for glamorous and beauty a la Hollywood.
§ Globalization of perfume through the big players on the market. It's Gucci, Prada from Iatly, Donna Karan from US, Burberry from UK or Givenchy or even my beloved Guerlain from France they not only address to the international market, they are international players and they lost their roots and style or the roots and style don't make any difference anymore. It will be interesting to watch over the next decade what will happen with China. Who will win there. Will the actual big players take China, or China will take them and we will see China using the big perfumers for the needs of Chinese noses through Chinese brands?
§ At the beginning of my perfumista life, few years ago, it happened to sit in the airplane next to a lady who was working for a perfume company. I was excited. She was not. She was actually just packing perfumes and she hated perfumes. I can understand that. If you pack for years all these cheap, all the same perfumes, you don't want anymore.
§ I like mapping. And I like globalization, too. And as a citizen of the world I hope we shall be more and more able to access perfumes from another side of the world and feel at home with them.

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