Perfume: The Series

In case you missed this brilliant documentary done by BBC 4, it can now be seen on Youtube.

The series is really everything a documentary should be – highly informative,  very engaging, and, not least of all, beautifully photographed.   It shares much of the high style cinematography of Top Gear (UK version, not US, and my personal guilty pleasure),  the sort of thing you would sit and watch even with the sound turned off.

To turn off the sound, however,  would be a pity.  ‘Perfume’ contains interviews with Jean Paul Guerlain, shortly before his disastrous television appearance, and Thierry Wasser while he was developing Shalimar Initial, and Jean Claude Ellena during his work on Un Jardin sur le Toit.

The film also features Christopher Brosius during a wonderful, understatedly funny segment in which he  attempts to develop a pre-WWII English smelling scent for a New York client who is a passionate anglophile.  The film makers trailed Brosius around London seeking a distinctive British scent.

Only he’s repeatedly stymied.  London cabs, into which Brosius dives searching for their signature perfume, now feature vinyl seats which smell of nothing, as opposed to leather ones which smelled of thousands of itinerant backsides, or scarlet call boxes which Brosius opens to inhale, only to discover that they have traded the smell of damp telephone books for stale urine.

Even the kippered pubs of recent decades are now smoke free zones, healthier no doubt, but lacking the grimy redolence of dead cigarette smoke. Only a London bookshop, featuring an early edition of Dickens gives him a scent he is looking for.  That one inhalation apart, Brosius is left at a kind of de facto olfactory séance, trying to raise the ghost of a long past Britain.

This is opposed to segments on Jean Claude Ellena who is less inspired by reality and more by reverie. In his elegant modern laboratory in the hills above Grasse, he searches for the scents of dreams. These perfume fantasies will translate into thousands of euros, yuan, and dollars for a world wide Hermes clientele. To put it another way, for Ellena and his employers the dream is reality, at least economic reality, and for Brosius reality is the dream, perhaps not always an economic dream.

Finally, the film makers take a look at the future of fragrance by following both its luxury and mass segments. Mass market is represented by a new Axe scent being tested in Brazil. U.S. fragrance industry expert Ann Gottlieb supervises its market testing among men aged sixteen and up in the fast growing Brazilian economy.

The new high end market is examined through the introduction of the relaunched Grossmith line to the luxury oriented Middle East. (The Grossmith story is one of those charming ones that crop up from time to time in commerce.  Chartered Accountant Simon Brooke discovered that his great grandfather was a perfumer who had founded a successful business, tracked down the original family recipes, and revived the company.  Queen Victoria wore Grossmith – how British is that? )

The point here, is that new markets like these will dominate fragrance sales and probably also fragrance tastes and trends, well into this century. The Grossmith line which was made by the fragrance firm Robertet, contains very high end materials and these play well in the Gulf region where only strong perfumes made of topnotch materials can compete with the local highly sophisticated scent traditions. In the future scent sales will be local.  Westerners may worry about smelling like “old ladies”, but high end Arab buyers don’t share this concern, and their superior buying power will insure that their tastes (and possibly Russian preferences also) will dictate the future of expensive scent.

The big market, the market worth billions of dollars, will be in South America, where it is common to wash twice a day and to reapply fragrance after each (scented) trip under the shower head. In the film, Brazil represents the growth of mass perfumery, with its new middle class eager to use products that fragrance their laundry, their deodorant, their shampoo, and even their car show rooms.  It’s a paradise for industrial perfumers, and every scent introduced is even more finely tuned to Brazilian sensibilities.

See the documentary if you love perfume, and even if you don’t. It’s a pleasure for the eyes about the world of pleasures for the nose.

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2 thoughts on “Perfume: The Series

  1. Hi, Bess — I commented with thanks before, but apparently it didn’t show up? I’m really looking forward to watching this show and learning your language of aromatics! I see that just as in wine writing, there are two schools of perfume commentary, the airy-fairy subjective one (“this smells like Donovan sounds”), and the one that at least endeavors to use terms that everyone agrees on, like “top note” and “floral.”

    • Hi Angie i didn’t see this and yes there are definite languages for this sort of thing. Which is odd as nothing could be more amorphous than smell, but wine writing does come close!

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