New fragrances rarely spring from nowhere. More often than not they draw their inspiration from what has gone before. Sadly, perfumery’s illustrious heritage is gradually disappearing. So many iconic fragrances have been tampered with, often beyond recognition. Behind every iconic perfume there is a fascinating story but how does a perfume go from being great to achieving legend status?
Perhaps the person most qualified to answer this question is Michael Edwards. He is the man whom the late Evelyn Lauder dubbed “the perfume experts’ expert”. In 2009 Michael was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the most prestigious award by The Fragrance Foundation Australia and he has received two FiFi Awards for his contribution to the fragrance industry.
Over the past three decades, Michael Edwards has worked tirelessly to record fragrance history. His Fragrances of the World database has recorded more than 30,000 fragrances and his Guidebook is often referred to in the industry as the ‘fragrance bible’.
Ask Michael what he considers to be his legacy and his answer might surprise you. During his presentation at this year’s Esxence exhibition in Milan he said it was not his guidebooks or his renowned Fragrance Wheel, it was his work on Perfume Legends. Published in 1996, this beautifully illustrated book tells the stories of forty-four of France’s most legendary perfumes for women. That edition is now out of print and second-hand copies have become literary gold, selling for small fortunes on sites like Amazon and eBay.
Perfumers now enjoy something approaching celebrity status and their contribution is fully acknowledged, but it wasn’t until Michael started interviewing them for the first Perfume Legends book that they began speaking openly about their work and inspirations.
Perfume Legends II
After being encouraged to reprint the book, Michael decided to go one step further. In September this year he will launch Perfume Legends II – French Feminine Fragrances.
As in the original publication, Perfume Legends II begins with Houbigant’s Fougère Royale in 1882. Now it finishes with Portrait of a Lady by Frédéric Malle from 2010. While some additions are recent Legends, some were around at the time of the original book’s publication. Fracas by Robert Piguet is one example. Michael always considered it to be a legend, but it had been reformulated when he wrote Perfume Legends. Following the perfume’s faithful restoration under new ownership, Fracas has found its rightful place in the new edition.
An excerpt from Perfume Legends II about Robert Piguet’s Fracas
In 1948, Robert Piguet released the fragrance that would become the masterpiece of his collection. Fracas was perfectly named, a true tumult in the world of perfumery.
Piguet entrusted the creation of its first fragrance to Germaine Cellier, a fascinating, imperious and complex perfumer. “Her independent spirit made her somewhat of an enfant terrible,” explained perfumer Guy Robert.
By the time she created Fracas, Cellier was working by herself in one of Roure’s Parisian annexes, far away from the main laboratories in Grasse. Jacques Polge, Chanel’s former perfumer who began his career at Roure, remembers Cellier’s occasional visits to Grasse. “She would come into our office, just shooting the breeze, smoking.”
“She would shake her smelling strips, splattering drops of oil across the lab,” says perfumer Patricia de Nicolaï. “Sometimes, she would mix materials in her hands, like a painter using his fingers instead of his brush. Cellier worked like a Fauvist, combining different shades and strengths of very strong contrast.”
“She saw harmonies that others couldn’t detect. And she was a stickler for quality. She used the best and nothing else. In the case of Fracas, I believe it was inspired by her fondness for natural tuberose – for the enfleurage extract and the concrete,” said perfumer Gérard Pelpel.
Fracas is dominated by tuberose, a white floral note that had a significant precedent at the time. Grenoville’s Byzance (1925) was among the first modern perfumes to prominently feature tuberose, followed by Forvil’s 5 Fleurs (1926), Le Galion’s Tubéreuse (1937) and Tuvaché’s Jungle Gardenia (1938). By the late 1940s, the overwhelming success of White Shoulders (1945) in America had proven the potential of tuberose fragrances.
Given her contrary nature, it is possible that the inherent difficulties of using tuberose attracted Cellier. “She liked products that other perfumers used timidly and almost ashamedly,” Robert explained, “like the leathery mosses she’d found at Carles’ lab, surprising iodine accords and aggravating notes like styralyl acetate, galbanum oil and methyl octine carbonate.”
As far as ingredients go, rose is easy, jasmine more difficult, and tuberose extremely hard, asserts Nicolaï. “Tuberose absolute doesn’t smell of the flower. Instead, it’s heady, waxy and invasive, and must be treated in solution in order to express the flower’s finesse. In Fracas, Cellier offset tuberose with other ingredients in order to make something very round, soft and settled. The balance is perfect, with zero excess. Her formulae were always very short – Monsieur Balmain (1964), for example, is made of only ten products.”
Cellier’s creation became legendary. “Whoever tries to create a tuberose perfume falls back on the Fracas formula,” says Frédéric Malle, the founder of Éditions de Parfums. “The accords are so evident, there’s no superfluous material. It’s solid and sexy like some irresistible girl, but it’s also a little ‘bad form’. Fracas makes no compromise …”
Perfume Legends II will be available from September 2019. To pre-order your copy, visit www.fragrancesoftheworld.com.