We have been successfully hornswoggled by the French. The fact that it is a very old and sophisticated form of hornswoggilification is no real excuse. They have put one over on us, that’s the fact, and one of the greatest parts of this deception is the notion that only French perfume is great, or indeed worth wearing at all. Not so.
Well, you knew that, of course. But what you may not know is that as long as four hundred years ago, it was the fixed policy of the French government to promote the luxury trades for export. This all began, or probably began, with M. Colbert (Jean-Baptist, not Stephen) the brilliant minister of Finances under Louis XIV.
Bored yet? Take a look at your credit card bill and while you are checking how much MasterCard or VISA say you’ve spent on cosmetics and fragrances this year, notice how often those fragrances are made by French companies. Impressive, no?
Well, that outsized ratio, and I’d submit it’s likely to be the case whether you are living in Asia or Australia or the US, and indeed anywhere. (Except, curiously Germany. German readers may notice that they have a thriving domestic perfume industry much older than Jil Sander and Joop, and still the local favorite). You may be observing the effect of modern corporate strategies, but you are also seeing, at a four hundred year remove, the effect of a policy decision taken way back in the 1680’s. Surprising isn’t it?
How French perfumery, as opposed to the perfumery of other parts of the world, gained so much prominence is difficult to say. Perfumery grew up around the business of leather tanning (see Smell the Glove) the original business in Grasse, and that was probably the origin of Spanish perfumery as well. Consider the reputation, still carried on today, for the excellence of Spanish leather. Well, they were not only tanning leather but making their products pleasant to smell.
The Spanish also had the considerable windfall of Moorish culture which had a much older and more sophisticated tradition of perfumery than that of any contemporary European culture, and yet, despite all that, French perfumes still outsell Puig. (This, even though Puig owns the license for the ostensibly French house of Nina Ricci. Can anyone say L’Air du Temps?)
Is French perfume that much better? I’m not sure that it is, or indeed, ever was. Consider the 19th Century reputations of Rallet. Ernest Beaux, who is now part of French perfume culture, was actually trained in this Russian concern, and had created a number of perfumes for Rallet before the Bolsheviks put him out of work and he ended up producing (or possibly reproducing) a great perfume for the couturière Coco Chanel, to whit: No. 5. What we don’t know is whether or not No.5 was an original or whether it was in fact a near replica of Beaux’s Russian success Rallet No 1*
All of which means, if true, that an- ahem- icon of French perfumery is not French at all- but Russian.
So if not No. 5, what exactly is French perfume then? My own suspicion is that French perfumery really was born out of the marriage of couture houses and perfumers. That’s an irony because it was the perfume focused houses of Guerlain and Caron that probably produced the most undilutedly French perfumes on the markets of the early 20th century, but for the reputation of French perfume, it’s likely that it was couturiers’ perfumes such as Chanel’s No.5, Worth’s Je Reviens, and Patou’s Joy, that actually sealed the deal between French perfume and the global consumer. And of course, this success played into the already existing export economy of France.
French perfume to my mind, is a stylistic term really but as to what that style actually comprises, that is going to be a matter of debate. You may consider some technique specifically French – the light use of aldehydes perhaps, or a tendency towards the gourmand, or maybe a delicate allusion to sex. But reasonable smellers can disagree. The question is, is it distinct enough or strong enough to support the reputation that French perfumery still maintains, in say, the age of IFRA? In the era of the corporate release, does it really matter if a perfumer is working at an office near Grasse, or in New York for IFF?
As to the future of this reputation, I think it needs some care. If, say, the monied world were to get downwind of serious high-end Middle Eastern perfume, would they still prefer French ones? The question of style may be pertinent, but does it override quality? If you noticed, that doyenne of French perfume houses, Guerlain, recently released three scents with Arabic and French names inscribed on the bottles, Les Deserts d’Orient, and a very limited release (in Europe only the flagship Paris store and Brussels). If you are going to compete with perfumers in such high end markets as Dubai, you may have to do things differently. Style is one thing, but top quality is essential in those very luxurious markets, and it pays to remember that.
What will happen to all this export scented fashion? Who can say? These days with the new government, it seems that all the French may be exporting is panicked rich people, but let’s hope that the perfume keeps its culottes on. It would be a shame to waste four hundred years of positive PR.
What does French perfume mean to you?
(Oh, and to all the revolutionaries – Happy Bastille Day!)
* I have read different numbers attached to the perfume Ernest Beaux may have composed for Rallet, but the most important fact here may be that the perfume had a numerical name like the Chanel perfume did later.