We have been saying it among ourselves -and hearing it discussed in perfume circles- constantly recently: there are just too many launches. Enough!
So it came as a mild surprise upon reading Le Parfum by Jean Claude Ellena in French (on which more commentary later on) that it might have always been so, actually...
In the span of Les Années Folles (the 20s) and a little later, the surgence of couturiers/fashion designers gave rise to the marketability of perfume as a means to consolidate the image of the designer, the unique positioning of each house. And thus it might have inadvertedly inaugurated the modern commerce of fragrance as a commodity to indulge as a final step in creating a "look".
Paul Poiret was on the vanguard: a true "dandy" of the Belle Époque who realised that it was vital to imbue everything produced under the umbrella of his name with his unique spirit and image. His line Les Parfums de Rosine is celebrated for the quality, although he commited the romantic error of not signing with his own commercially established name but with his daughter's; which might have cost it in the marketability stakes.
Poiret was the first designer to hire a professional perfumer-chemist, Maurice Shaller. Between him and Henri Alméras, la maison Poiret produced 50 original perfumes between 1910 and 1925. It bears repeating: 50 different perfumes in 15 years. The number is impressive, to say the least! Surely not that different than what most major houses do these days: one launch for autumn-winter and another in the summer (often a flanker of the previous one) and perhaps a male counterpart to satisfy that portion of the market as well.
The Callot sisters, couturiers themselves, also imitated the move and decided to create a fragrance line of numerous offerings that would be circulated exclusively for their esteemed clients. The evocative names range from Mariage d'Amour (=marriage out of love) to La fille de roi (=the king's daughter) to Bel Oiseau Bleu (=beautiful blue bird) and we are led to believe they were catering to the ever expanding desires of the bourgeoisie who were frequenting their boutique.
During 1925-1950 French couturier Lucien Lelong was ever prolific, producing 40 fragrances in a short span of years, before retiring in 1952. The first ones bore the cryptic symbols-more-than-names A,B,C,J, and N.
The number of launches though is impressive: almost 1 new fragrance every 7-8 months! Think about it.
The Guerlain catalogue is also rich in numerous launches, often in the same year. Case in point the multiple fragrances created within 1828, 1834, 1873, 1890, 1895 and 1922, to name but a few ~although they do have the difference that they were commissioned by patrons. But still, this shows that fragrance houses were prolific even back then.
In light of the above it is perhaps not entirely correct to accuse houses of producing too many products. What is more accurate is to realise that there are simply astoundingly more perfume companies, designers, niche perfumers, celebrities and various entities today, all tangled up in the dubious world of perfumery. Perhaps they have cottoned up to the fact that perfume is "the most indispensible superficiality", to quote Colette, and therefore have been producing fragrance as a quick means to make a point, consolidate a brand or simply to make a quick buck. But they have had illustrious paradigms to the practice: who can blame them, really?
Pic by TonyM/flickr