Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pre-Y2K Perfumery: The Way We Were

Review of 

Perfume: The Ultimate Guide to the World's FInest Fragrances 

by Nigel Groom 

This guide to perfume was published in 1999. To some, this may be a real turnoff. A text about perfume from fourteen years ago? Could anything in it still be true? Valid questions, yes. But also precisely why I cherish this little volume, the first perfume book I ever read, and still one of my favorites. Consider this charming little remark:
The economics of the industry are changing. More fragrances are coming out on the international market than ever before—some two or three hundred a year. Some will be successful, but many will fail and disappear.

Could Nigel Groomcould anyoneever have predicted that in 2013, there would be 2,451 perfume launches (according to the Parfumo.net database)? In my previous post, I poked fun at the perfumistas who pronounced the best ten or so perfumes from 2013, pointing out that they could not possibly have tested even a small fraction of the perfumes produced in that year. I'm afraid that we lost some of the few links to the illustrious salon de parfum in the process, but it was a small price to pay for speaking the truth about an industry and subculture grounded intrinsically in hype.

Back in the twentieth century, it would have been possible to have sniffed all of the perfumes released in a single year. A "Guide" to perfume made sense back in 1992, when Turin first penned one in French. Today? Not so much. Today any "guide" can only serve as a marketing tool, encouraging consumers to pursue what they have not already been lured into buying as a result of mass market advertising campaigns.

In reflecting on this 1999 book and why I like it so much, I have come to the conclusion that the Michael Edwards Fragrances of the World volume best suited for me could not possibly be anything published later than 2006, when, in my considered opinion, all hell broke loose in the world of perfumery.

Why are older perfume books generally better, and why is Nigel Groom's 1999 volume one of the best? Because it captures the reality of pre-Y2K perfumery as it was when it was what it was, which it no longer is. The perfume world has undergone massive, radical, and seemingly irrevocable transformations over the course of the past decade. Let us review a few of them:

  • corporate conglomeratization: nearly every single once-independent design house is now owned by one of the huge parent companies: LVMH, Procter & Gamble, Coty Prestige, L'oréal, Puig, Eurocosmesi, Elizabeth Arden, Estée Lauder, Parlux, et al.
  • homogenization: the convergence of style of perfumes being produced by ostensibly distinct houses but under the same helm—say, Coty Prestige—is perhaps a natural consequence of the fact that those who call the shots do so for not just one house, but for a cluster of them simultaneously. 
  • massive explosion of perfume launches: flankers and limited editions have become the rule, not the exception these days, with perfumes composed and released quickly and then followed up by namesakes cynically intended primarily to exploit all of the previous marketing campaigns leading up to the latest launch—touted invariably as the best new thing since Shalimar!
  • massive proliferation of perfume houses: everyone and his mother, brother, father, uncle, aunt, cousin, second cousin, niece and nephew has suddenly awoken in the middle of the night to discover that, lo, they are "perfumers"!!!! From a few rugged individualists who set out to teach themselves perfumery, and in some cases were quite assiduous and serious about doing so, in addition to being olfactorily gifted, we have arrived at a time where people appear to be flipping coins: "heads, real estate; tails, niche perfumery!"
  • massive expansion of celebrity launches: every two-bit reality show slut now has a perfume on the market--or ten! Having a perfume now appears to be a part of the aspiring singer's and actor's marketing platform—right up there with other forms of social media: Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, you name it! What next? Oh, right: a perfume!
  • Orwellian IFRA restrictions against the use of natural materials have been imposed  in the name of consumer health, with the surrogate materials being newfangled synthetics which have not stood the test of time (as the materials used in perfumery for millennia certainly have!). As a result of the willingness of perfumers to accede to tyrannical, corporate-generated demands, perfume is becoming more and more abstract, streamlined, and "clean" as a result. 

My fragrant friends, the above developments, all in the twenty-first century, have transmogrified the perfumery scene so fundamentally that some (many?) of us who fell in love with perfume in the twentieth century are having a difficult time navigating the terrain and even wondering in our less sanguine moments: Why bother?

Nigel Groom's book offers a glimpse into the world of perfumery as it once was, as it was when I, for one, developed an interest in the topic. Yes, there were parent companies; no, they were not behemoth omnivores. Yes, there were trends, but, no, there was no oud machine! Yes, there were unique bottles, but they were made of Lalique and Baccharat crystal, not covered with plastic diddily-doos! Yes, there were a few celebrity perfumes, thanks to Elizabeth Taylor. No, there certainly was not an entire celebrity perfume industry. Yes, there were innovations in the history of twentieth-century perfumery, such as the creative use of aldehydes in Chanel no 5. No, no one, not even the crassest, most jaded perfume executive in the twentieth century ever dared strip perfume of every single natural essence in the name of "health" guidelines drafted by people concerned to improve the bottom lines of the companies for which they work!

I love this little book because it offers a window into a world which no longer exists. But the perfume profiles featured describe and offer historical tidbits about the perfumes which I knew and loved: back when Samsara was still Samsara and Dolce Vita was Dolce Vita!

Here is a list of the houses covered in this slim volumewhich explicitly restricts itself to women's perfume, and spans fewer than 200 pages. The fragrances of each house discussed are indicated as well:

  1. Amouage: Amouage
  2. Antonia's Flowers: Anotonia's Flowers
  3. Elizabeth Arden: Blue Grass, Red Door, 5th Avenue
  4. Armani: G
  5. L'Artisan Parfumeur: Premier Figuier
  6. Baccarat: Une Nuit Etoilée au Bengale
  7. Parfums Balenciaga: Le Dix, Rumba
  8. Parfums Balmain: Vent Vert, Ivoire
  9. Bijan: DNA
  10. Boucheron: Boucheron
  11. Bourjois: Soir de Paris
  12. Bvlgari Parfums: Bvlgari pour Femme
  13. Parfums Cacharel: Anaïs Anaïs, Loulou
  14. Parfums Caron: Fleur[s] de Rocaille (1933)--nb: this is an error! Fleur de Rocaille (1993) is pictured, not Fleurs de Rocaille (1933)!
  15. Cartier: Must de Cartier, Panthère, So Pretty
  16. Carven Parfums: Ma Griffe, Eau Vive
  17. Parfums Cerruti: Cerruti 1881
  18. Chanel: No 5, No 19, Allure
  19. Mary Chess: Mary Chess
  20. Parfums Chloé: Chloé, Narcisse
  21. Chopard: Wish
  22. Clarins: Eau Dynamisante
  23. The House of Coty: L'Aimant, Vanilla Fields, Monsoon
  24. The House of Creed: Royal Water
  25. Crown Perfumery: Marechal, Crown Bouquet
  26. Parfums Salvador Dali: Le Parfum, Le Roy Soleil
  27. Davidoff: Cool Water Woman
  28. Desprez: Bal à Versailles
  29. Parfums Chrisian Dior: Miss Dior, Dune, Dolce Vita
  30. Dolce & Gabbana Parfums: Dolce & Gabbana
  31. Parfums d'Orsay: Etiquette Bleue
  32. Escada: Escada, Sunny Frutti
  33. Parfums Fendi: Theorema
  34. Ferregamo: Salvatore Ferregamo pour Femme
  35. Floris: Stephanotis, Gardenia
  36. Jean-Paul Gaultier: Jean-Paul Gaultier
  37. Romeo Gigli: Romeo 
  38. Giorgio Beverly Hills: Giorgio, Wings, Ocean Dream
  39. Parfums Givenchy: Amarige, Organza, Extravigance
  40. Annick Goutal: Grand Amour, Heure Exquise
  41. Parfums Grès: Cabochard, Folie Douce
  42. Parfums Gucci: Envy
  43. Guerlain: L'Heure Bleue, Samsara, Champs Elysées
  44. Gale Hayman, Inc.: Delicious
  45. Hermès Parfums: Calèche; 24, Faubourg
  46. Carolina Herrera Perfumes: Flore, 212
  47. Houbigant: Quelques Fleurs, Raffinée
  48. Iceberg: Iceberg Twice Ice
  49. Perfumes Isabell: Mandarin
  50. Parfums Joop!: All About Eve
  51. Joseph: Parfum de Jour
  52. Donna Karan Beauty: Donna Karan New York
  53. Parfums Kenzo: Parfum d'Eté
  54. Calvin Klein: Obsession, Contradiction
  55. Parfums Karl Lagerfeld: Sun, Moon, Stars
  56. Lalique: Parfum Lalique, Nilang
  57. Lancôme: Trésor, Poême
  58. Parfums Lanvin: Arpège
  59. Estée Lauder: Knowing, Pleasures, Dazzling Gold, Dazzling Silver
  60. Ralph Lauren: Safari, Polo Sport Woman
  61. Parfums Lelong: Indiscret
  62. Parfums Lolita Lempicka: Lolita Lempicka
  63. Parfums Loewe: Air Loewe
  64. Jo Malone: Lime, Basil & Mandarin
  65. Nicole MIller: Nicole Miller
  66. Issey Miyake: L'Eau d'Issey
  67. Molinard: Habanita, Molinard de Molinard
  68. Parfums Montana: Parfum de Peau
  69. Popy Moreni: Popy Moreni
  70. Thierry Mugler: Angel
  71. Parfums de Nicolaï: Sacrebleu
  72. Rifat Ozbek: Ozbek
  73. Jean Patou: Joy
  74. Penhaligon's: Victorian Posy
  75. La Perla: La Perla
  76. Parfums Paloma Picasso: Mon Parfum, Tentations
  77. Parfums Robert Piguet: Fracas
  78. Parfums Paco Rabanne: XS pour Elle
  79. Oscar de la Renta: Oscar, So de la Renta
  80. Nina Ricci: L'Air du Temps, Nina, Deci Dela
  81. Parfums Rochas: Femme, Madame Rochas, Alchimie
  82. Royal Doulton: Doulton
  83. Parfums Yves Saint Laurent: Paris, Opium, Yvresse
  84. Jil Sander: Jil
  85. Schiaparelli: Shocking, Zut
  86. Shiseido: Feminité du Bois, Vocalise
  87. Alfred Sung: Sung Forever
  88. Elizabeth Taylor: White Diamonds
  89. Tiffany & Co.: Tiffany
  90. Parfums Trussardi: Trussardi Light Her
  91. Parfums Ungaro: Diva
  92. Parfums Valentino: Very Valentino
  93. Van Cleef & Arpels: Van Cleef
  94. Versace Profumi: V'E, Blonde
  95. Madeleine Vionnet: Madeleine Vionnet
  96. Vivian Westwood: Boudoir
  97. Les Parfums Worth: Je Reviens

That's it! The author apologizes for the abridged list and explains that selection was necessary, but what I find interesting is that I have tested and reviewed most of these perfumesand even own a fair number of them in vintage form! For me, this book is a keepsake text about how the world of perfumery once was, back when a perfume launch was an event, not a tweet. 

It would be possible to select a "Best of" from this entirely manageable group of perfumes, or even among all of the launches available at that time. In 2013? Good luck sniffing your way through the other 2000+ perfumes! And why bother, when it is obvious that the multi-mega-launchers are mostly doing Lego composition these days, lacking inspiration, insight, and often skill as well?

I read a dismissive review of Nigel Groom's 1999 book at Amazon. The angry reviewer denounced the work as "worthless". It is true that this is no longer a guide to perfume today. That point should be obvious from two words alone: Miss Dior

Back in 1999, Nigel Groom no doubt believed that he had produced a perfume guide. Instead, what we have here is an archaeological find!


  1. Isn't the same true for any form of art? (even though I'm not sure I consider perfume an art) Books. Movies. Music. What not?
    We came the cycle from individual to cooperative production through industrialization and back to individual production. Two centuries ago there were several chemists/perfumers in each big(ger) city who produced their potions for a hundred customers living around. Two centuries later we're back to having almost private perfumers.

    1. Hi Undina, and thanks for your comment.

      I'm not sure that I understand what you are saying. Isn't vat-produced chemical soup (as pumped out by Coty Prestige, Parlux, et al.) industrialized production? Don't those companies account for the giant's share of the volume of perfume purchased today?

      Please clarify, and I'll go have some coffee... ;-)

    2. I'll try :) Just don't read it as real numbers - I'm trying to illustrate the idea.

      Let's take a medium size city. 200 years ago 95% of its population smelled of sweat and other bodily fluids, didn't use any perfumes; 5% of its population used perfumed water and other types of scented products produced by individual chemists (or brought by them "from Paris", "from London" - or whatever other place was considered prestigious at the time in that city.

      30 years ago 40% smelled of industrially produced deodorant and 59% smelled of one of the handful perfumes produced by a big company and 1% wore bespoke or niche perfumes.

      Today 95% are back to stinking (sorry, wearing mass-market perfumes produced by one of the conglomerates) and 5% are wearing actual perfumes produced by "chemists" - with the only difference that now they do not live in the same city.

      Something like that.

    3. Oh, now I see: in your view, vat-produced chemical soup is not perfume at all!

      I'm afraid that the execs at Coty, P&G, Parlux, and their friends at the IFRA would beg to differ with you! But don't they get to define the terms? At least according to the Golden Rule:

      Whoever has the gold makes the rules...

  2. Heartily agree for the most part but what about the explosion in artisan/indie perfumes of the past few years, many of which are, as Undina points out, almost private perfumers. They are a reaction to all the evil transformation in perfume you point out. Saving the day.

    1. Thanks, Lucy.

      Yes, there certainly are some creative and talented people working as artisan perfumers, and I appreciate their efforts! I do think, however, that the category of "niche" has ballooned to include lots of folks who have no business pretending to be perfumers.

      It's not enough to like perfume. No one supposes that liking music is enough to be a musician. It's obviously not enough to like painting to be a painter. Why would liking perfume be the necessary and sufficient condition to being a perfumer? I find it odd, frankly. Perfumery is a serious profession, after all!

      Will the artisan perfumers save the day? Unclear. I fear that the big corporations are molding consumers' tastes so that after a while they'll find complex and natural perfumes unpleasant and unwearable. Everyone who selects perfumes from the wall at Sephora is being trained to wear abstract, synthetic, simple, clean scents. That will be their concept of perfume. This becomes clear upon reading some of the reviews of natural perfumes at the fragrance community websites.

      I love the perfumes of Sama, for example. They are all natural and mostly organic, but they have garnered rather low ratings from people not accustomed to that sort of perfume. Low ratings then deter potential customers from trying them. Eventually homogenization is bound to ensue because of the economic reality of what it takes to maintain a perfume business.

      But let's not worry about this now. We still have plenty of great perfume to get us through this lifetime! ;-)

    2. "No one supposes that liking music is enough to be a musician. It's obviously not enough to like painting to be a painter."

      Really?! Do we live in the same time and in the same society? :) I urge you to reconsider that statement (though I agree with the rest of it when it comes to perfumes)

    3. Hi Undina, I must have been thinking of classical musicians and renaissance painters! ;-)

      On reflection, I see that pop music bears many similarities to what is happening in perfumery these days! Are "performing artists" musicians? Not always, it seems to me. Compare someone who twerks to someone who plays the Goldberg Variations. Big difference in skill set...

      But of course twerking performers who make noise through their mouths are known in our culture as "singers". So your point is well taken! ;-)

      Thank you, Undina!

  3. It's easy to forget how different things were before the internet "really got going" (and how much time was wasted on things like driving one's car somewhere). Back in 99, I made frequent trips to the local library, for example, both for books and movies (on VHS or DVD), but I hardly ever go there now (once in a long while for the book sales, mostly). As to a "guide book," at this point I think the best approach is to give the reader some insights into what a person (like me) who has sampled hundreds of scents, studying many in detail, thinks, but "newbies" also generate some interesting comments as well, so I generally enjoy reading new reviews on the major sites. Perhaps the most important thing to be said, at least for me, is how much better I find this situation, and you won't hear me talk about the "good old days," that's for sure. Because of where the internet went, I was able to learn not just about scents in general, but about vintage ones in particular (including crucial information, such as how to tell the difference between new and old formulations). However, I don't buy recent releases, even at low prices (though on rare occasion I acquire one in a swap), so I can't speak to high prices, uninspired compositions, etc.

    1. Thank you, bigsly, for this interesting take on the pre-Y2K versus post-Y2K perfume world! I suppose that the internet is the cause of the tsunami of launches, but you are right that it also gives us lots of opinions at our fingertips!

      In some ways the democratization of opinion occasioned by the internet has also fundamentally transformed people's ideas about who can be perfumers. It used to be that most perfumers came from families of perfumers. Today, it's more like popular music: anything goes, and everyone is welcome.

      There are pluses and minuses to this state of affairs, it seems to me! Yes, we have access to countless reviews of countless perfumes, but how many of them are really good? It seems to me that the percentage of really excellent perfumes has plummeted in the internet age, in large part because composition is so quick and facile these days.

      In the past, a perfumer could spend years on a single creation. Today houses often put out several fragrances at a time, all in matching bottles with names pulled out of a hat. Unless, of course, they are flankers, in which case another part of speech is simply tacked on: My Insolence, and the like...

      Your point is well taken, though, about how much easier it is to find the remaining vintage scents still out there. In the past, they would have been lost in the void, accessible to nearly no one.

      Thanks for sharing your insights!


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