Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Perfume as a Personal Story: the Auteur Viewpoint

Lucien François, famous journalist and critic of the 1920s, used to say about perfumers that they are mirage creators, constructors of a unique world, of a piece of paradise. We, perfumephiles, can certainly read those lines and nod our heads sympathetically, even at the distance of a century between us.


Back then perfume makers, perfumers themselves as well as perfume company directors such as François Coty or Jean François Houbigant prior to him, were surrounded by a halo of celebrity, which—although abandoned for a great part of the 20th century—has recently been revived thanks to the resurgence of the perfumer-star or—more intellectually—auteur du parfum, a term which creates its own connotations.

Perfumery became tied to fashion design in the early 20th century,  losing its apothecary axis of individualised attention to the client, opting for a more uniform product. Practices changed with the advent of World War II and the pacing up of the industry, speeding its metamorphosis into a commercial vehicle, meant a disruption of the exclusive perfumer attached to a single firm. New constraints, such as the procurance of raw materials or cost studies shifted perfumery into a web of technical support which necessitated bigger firms with the necessary equipment, staff and know how instead of the "one-man show" of days of yore. Perfumery became an industry, heavy industry for some countries such as France and the USA, but it also lost something of that momentous revelation that was at the core of previous creations. From "directive" and cutting out a path for other fashions, perfumery assimilated the cultural milieu seeking to comply to the consumer instead, to heed to sociological needs, to anticipate its desires instead of creating them in the first place so as to ensure growth and sales. Marketing studies attended to the most minutiae variations in public's tastes.

Perfume sought to create a "look," a personality for the wearer, to reflect a specific mold, often amalgamating the one of the brand with the one of the wearer; designer brands especially continue to be very sensitive into having their perfumed products reflect their aesthetic principles first shown on the catwalk. This consolidated the notion of the "signature scent" for the masses, but it also guaranteed brand loyalty; there were the Chanel followers, the Dior acolytes, the Yves Saint Laurent fans...

In a relance that harkens back to the Cahiers du Cinema concept of "auteur," authentic perfume creators (be it perfumers themselves or art directors such as Serge Lutens or Frederic Malle) re-establish their role into directing the public instead of being directed by the market, and consolidate their authorship. Perfumers who have really thought out their craft and have exalted it into the level of art, such as Jean Claude Ellena displays in his book Diary of a Nose, approve of the term "auteur du parfum," as their journey is parallel to that of a writer. It also poses the same ethical issues: authorship means intellectual property rights.

A fragrance as an intellectual work means the return of creativity; the imperceptible twists in a generic, crowd-pleasing formula which could create a million similar, homogenized scents—like pasteurized milk in different cartons—is unacceptable by this standard. Houses are increasingly returning to engaging a single "nose" for their creations: Chanel already had a steady with Jacques Polge and Guerlain with Jean Paul Guerlain, but Patou perfumes managed to effortlessly pass from Jean Kerléo to Jean-Michel Duriez and Hermès to earn Jean Claude Ellena. L'Artisan Parfumeur has increasingly used Bertrand Duchaufour, Lutens has an almost unbreakable bond with Chris Sheldrake.

Modern creators offer a perfume for an occasion, a perfume for a specific mood, be it joyous (Le Temps d'une fête), innocent (La Chasse aux papillons), contemplative (Angéliques sous la pluie), mystical (Avignon) or wistful (Douce Amère), a scent for a man's or a woman's persona rather than personality, as in role-playing, and thus they re-connect with the momentous revelation that fragrance used to mean to the awe-receptive audiences of the late 19th and early 20th century.


  1. Wonderful article. So beautifully written and captures so well the direction of modern perfumery. Elena, you are a philosopher of perfume.

    1. You're exceedingly kind and generous. :)
      Thank you.


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