Wednesday, 14 May 2014

The Business of Perfume - Sally Blake

Forty odd years after the Ballet Russes hit Paris, Estée Lauder provided the next milestone in the story of commercial scent with her Youth Dew

Tombstone might be rather more appropriate, as it signalled the end of perfumery as an art.

“It’s cheap, it’s vulgar, it smells awful...” said Harry Doyle of Revson Inc, adding: “- and I wish I had a piece of it!”

Wise words, for that scent - the recipe for which had been given to Lauder by an admirer who admired her tenacity, hard work and refusal to admit defeat, and who felt she could do with a helping hand - went on to establish Lauder world-wide, and ensure her future $multi-million empire. An empire kept firmly in the family, all attempts at persuasion to “go public” resisted. To this day [1991], the Lauder family hold control of both image and finance. No shareholder ever told this lady what she should do.

Youth Dew (Estee Lauder). First created 1953.
A further 30 years brought the influence of the Middle East on world markets, and the almost indecent haste of the West to cater exclusively to them.

The sad fact is that [perfume] prices are determined by US standards of cost versus quality. When someone replies “Giorgio!” when asked what perfume they are wearing, they are really saying: “$150 an ounce”.

Right now it seems that the average perfume buying woman would wear Jeyes Fluid if it cost enough. It no longer seems to matter what a perfume smells like, only how much it costs, and more importantly, that the rest of the world should know how much it costs.

This lunatic logic and perverted sense of priority has led to master perfumers having to equal the price asked for what amount to chemical fly-sprays for fear of appearing cheap and losing face. If Jeanne Lanvin’s Scandale was still available, which sadly, it is not, and sold for £50 an ounce, modern woman would favour “L’Esprit de la Derrière” if it retailed at £300 – what is even more lamentable, they would make it seem desirable.

Patou’s Joy was for many years [marketed as] “The Most Expensive Perfume in the World” for the simple reason that the jasmine absolute it contained was the most expensive ingredient in the entire perfume cannon. When Elsa Maxwell and Jean Patou chose it, the chemist warned that it was not viable because it would prove to be prohibitively expensive.

“Great!” Said Maxwell, “ - that’ll be our sales pitch!”
Patou's Joy. Created 1929, and marketed as "the costliest perfume in the world"

Now JOY is advertised not as “the most expensive perfume in the world, but “the costliest”, having been outstripped time and again by everything from Niki de St. Phalle to Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion, to Estée Lauder’s Beautiful and Knowing. A comparatively unknown American scent called Pherenome retails at an incredible $300 an ounce.

At a time when Chanel were offering No5 at £46 an ounce, and Guerlain their entire range at £54, Giorgio asked (and got) £53 for a quarter of an ounce. Estée Lauder and Calvin Klein asked (and got) £150 an ounce.
Fred & Gale Hayman's "Giorgio" which overtook "Joy" in terms of how much it cost. At least to buy. Created 1981.

Worse was to come. Elizabeth Taylor demanded £200 [an ounce] for Passion, and not to be out-done, Miss Lauder demanded the same for Knowing.

Guerlain and Chanel upped their prices in self-defence, virtually doubling them overnight.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: over 70 years ago, Guerlain were asking $200 an ounce for some of their perfumes, and at that time, for some people, that would have been the equivalent of 2 years wages.


One of the myths that perfume companies like to perpetuate is the ludicrous assertion that “fashions change”, which is how they excuse copying each other so slavishly that all their products end up smelling vaguely the same.

“It’s what the public wants!” They protest.

What absolute rubbish.

It is the perfume companies who create these “moods” and “fashions”, and their motive is simple avarice.

They are no longer artists, they have become cash ‘n’ carry market traders, and as long as they continue to embrace American big business standards, they will never be anything else. It does not seem to occur to them that American tourists flock to Europe because they want to escape from their own culture, not simply find a diluted version of it. Those souls who backpack, fly, or sail to Europe seek another, less frenetic more leisured culture, where time lingers longer and traditions of style and elegance, craftsmanship and pride in it are taken for granted.

Wine producing countries have learned the value of patience, for fine wine cannot be rushed. To new business, whose proudest boast is: “I can get it for you yesterday!” The laid-back European is, or at least was, an enigma; incompatible, infuriating, incomprehensible and inefficient.

Sadly, a newer generation of Europeans, eager to compete on a global level, and impatient with the old ways, has grown up to embrace what are, to a large extent, New York business techniques, and in the mad scramble to follow their lead, has not noticed that like Pinocchio following the Cat and the Fox to Pleasure Island, they are growing donkey’s ears.

And there is nothing anyone can do. No customer has thus far stormed into Selfridges, or Macy’s or Harrods, banged on the counter and yelled: “Enough of this patchouli – I want vanilla!” Or, “you can keep your jasmine, give me tuberose!”

No, they simply become sadly aware one day that their favourite scent is no longer available, because something more “fashionable” has taken its place.
L'Occitane's "Eau de Quatre Reines". A former masterpiece that blended Bulgarian roses with a sexy musky base. The recipe has now been altered beyond all recognition to appeal to a 'younger' market (EWB - 2014).


A survey taken in Paris in the latter half of the 1970’s revealed that modern woman is not as loyal to a particular perfume as she once was – preferring to experiment with several different fragrances and often buying perfume simply because she has been attracted by the bottle.

“It is a sad woman who buys her own perfume” can no longer be said with any justification, if indeed it ever could. Women buy their own scent. If left to men, the perfume industry would be in a parlous state, far from the boom it is experiencing at present. Many’s the man who trails hopelessly around the department stores searching for the scent he gave his wife 20 years before, and finds to his chagrin it has been discontinued.

“And no wonder” the assistants snap, “if this is how often you buy it!”

But if modern woman is no longer loyal to a particular perfume, it is hardly surprising because the perfumers, by and large, have not been loyal to her. Old favourites have been discontinued without warning with what amounts to cavalier disregard for sentiment and feelings, to be replaced with new creations seemingly every few months.

It takes a long time for a woman to find a perfume she thinks is right for her; something that expresses her personality and individuality, and with which she feels comfortable. Any old smell will not do, any more than any old dress will do. To go about one’s daily life wearing a perfume that feels “wrong” is the equivalent of walking down the street in a clown’s costume or fishnet tights and a g-string.

It matters not that she is wearing a neat classic suit or jeans and a t-shirt, she feels as conspicuous as if she were wearing nothing at all.
Poster for Habanita - c.1940s

Molinard’s Habanita is a vanilla, and so is Guerlain’s Shalimar; but the difference between them is Villiers Street to Cadogan Square.

You might happen to like Villiers Street, but if you don’t, you will scrub your skin until every vestige is gone, and then you will still smell it. 

Coty’s Emeraude was also a vanilla, so was Styx (another Coty), many people still miss them, but not as much as they miss L’Origanthe face-powder smell of all time. Hardly surprising Coty scented all their face-powder with it for years.

Thankfully, certain scents are above fashion: Chanel No5 has remained the world’s best selling fragrance for over 60 years. Charlie briefly gave it a few uneasy moments, but that’s probably because they are both warm florals (Charlie Revson, the greatest marketer of all time, wasn’t daft). [Guerlain’s] Shalimar, second only to No5, is basically vanilla and bergamot, and JOY, most womens’ dream, is a full-blooded jasmine.

Nevertheless, because of “fashion”, so far we have lost:

Carven: Robe d’un Soir, Vert et Blanc, and Chasse Gardée
Piguet: Visa
Dior: Diorama
Lanvin: Pretexte
Raphael: Réplique
Nina Ricci: Fille d’Eve
Corday: Toujours Moi
Revillon: Latitude 50
Guerlain: Ode, Sous le Vent
Coty: L’Origan, Chypre, Paris
and the one that started it all – Jacqueminot Rose

Sally Blake
(unfinished) August, 1991