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 Groom—could anyone—ever 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 volume, which explicitly restricts itself to women's perfume, and spans fewer than 200 pages. The fragrances of each house discussed are indicated as well:
- Amouage: Amouage
- Antonia's Flowers: Anotonia's Flowers
- Elizabeth Arden: Blue Grass, Red Door, 5th Avenue
- Armani: Giò
- L'Artisan Parfumeur: Premier Figuier
- Baccarat: Une Nuit Etoilée au Bengale
- Parfums Balenciaga: Le Dix, Rumba
- Parfums Balmain: Vent Vert, Ivoire
- Bijan: DNA
- Boucheron: Boucheron
- Bourjois: Soir de Paris
- Bvlgari Parfums: Bvlgari pour Femme
- Parfums Cacharel: Anaïs Anaïs, Loulou
- Parfums Caron: Fleur[s] de Rocaille (1933)--nb: this is an error! Fleur de Rocaille (1993) is pictured, not Fleurs de Rocaille (1933)!
- Cartier: Must de Cartier, Panthère, So Pretty
- Carven Parfums: Ma Griffe, Eau Vive
- Parfums Cerruti: Cerruti 1881
- Chanel: No 5, No 19, Allure
- Mary Chess: Mary Chess
- Parfums Chloé: Chloé, Narcisse
- Chopard: Wish
- Clarins: Eau Dynamisante
- The House of Coty: L'Aimant, Vanilla Fields, Monsoon
- The House of Creed: Royal Water
- Crown Perfumery: Marechal, Crown Bouquet
- Parfums Salvador Dali: Le Parfum, Le Roy Soleil
- Davidoff: Cool Water Woman
- Desprez: Bal à Versailles
- Parfums Chrisian Dior: Miss Dior, Dune, Dolce Vita
- Dolce & Gabbana Parfums: Dolce & Gabbana
- Parfums d'Orsay: Etiquette Bleue
- Escada: Escada, Sunny Frutti
- Parfums Fendi: Theorema
- Ferregamo: Salvatore Ferregamo pour Femme
- Floris: Stephanotis, Gardenia
- Jean-Paul Gaultier: Jean-Paul Gaultier
- Romeo Gigli: Romeo
- Giorgio Beverly Hills: Giorgio, Wings, Ocean Dream
- Parfums Givenchy: Amarige, Organza, Extravigance
- Annick Goutal: Grand Amour, Heure Exquise
- Parfums Grès: Cabochard, Folie Douce
- Parfums Gucci: Envy
- Guerlain: L'Heure Bleue, Samsara, Champs Elysées
- Gale Hayman, Inc.: Delicious
- Hermès Parfums: Calèche; 24, Faubourg
- Carolina Herrera Perfumes: Flore, 212
- Houbigant: Quelques Fleurs, Raffinée
- Iceberg: Iceberg Twice Ice
- Perfumes Isabell: Mandarin
- Parfums Joop!: All About Eve
- Joseph: Parfum de Jour
- Donna Karan Beauty: Donna Karan New York
- Parfums Kenzo: Parfum d'Eté
- Calvin Klein: Obsession, Contradiction
- Parfums Karl Lagerfeld: Sun, Moon, Stars
- Lalique: Parfum Lalique, Nilang
- Lancôme: Trésor, Poême
- Parfums Lanvin: Arpège
- Estée Lauder: Knowing, Pleasures, Dazzling Gold, Dazzling Silver
- Ralph Lauren: Safari, Polo Sport Woman
- Parfums Lelong: Indiscret
- Parfums Lolita Lempicka: Lolita Lempicka
- Parfums Loewe: Air Loewe
- Jo Malone: Lime, Basil & Mandarin
- Nicole MIller: Nicole Miller
- Issey Miyake: L'Eau d'Issey
- Molinard: Habanita, Molinard de Molinard
- Parfums Montana: Parfum de Peau
- Popy Moreni: Popy Moreni
- Thierry Mugler: Angel
- Parfums de Nicolaï: Sacrebleu
- Rifat Ozbek: Ozbek
- Jean Patou: Joy
- Penhaligon's: Victorian Posy
- La Perla: La Perla
- Parfums Paloma Picasso: Mon Parfum, Tentations
- Parfums Robert Piguet: Fracas
- Parfums Paco Rabanne: XS pour Elle
- Oscar de la Renta: Oscar, So de la Renta
- Nina Ricci: L'Air du Temps, Nina, Deci Dela
- Parfums Rochas: Femme, Madame Rochas, Alchimie
- Royal Doulton: Doulton
- Parfums Yves Saint Laurent: Paris, Opium, Yvresse
- Jil Sander: Jil
- Schiaparelli: Shocking, Zut
- Shiseido: Feminité du Bois, Vocalise
- Alfred Sung: Sung Forever
- Elizabeth Taylor: White Diamonds
- Tiffany & Co.: Tiffany
- Parfums Trussardi: Trussardi Light Her
- Parfums Ungaro: Diva
- Parfums Valentino: Very Valentino
- Van Cleef & Arpels: Van Cleef
- Versace Profumi: V'E, Blonde
- Madeleine Vionnet: Madeleine Vionnet
- Vivian Westwood: Boudoir
- 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 perfumes—and 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!