Over the past few months I’ve been having a lot of conversations about where the perfume industry goes after this current pandemic is resolved. Thankfully, I had a place to look for some answers. It has been said, “History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The book Perfume Legends II by Michael Edwards gives me some clues from the past to think about the future.
Michael Edwards (Photo by Gary Heery)
Perfume Legends II is ostensibly a book about the greatest French feminine perfumes. It covers the story of modern perfumery from 1882’s Fougere Royale through to 2010’s Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle Portrait of a Lady. One of the unique aspects of the book is how author Mr. Edwards presents each entry through the words of the creators. Over the past 30 years he has interviewed the creators, perfumers and designers behind each legend. When those responsible for creation are no longer living, his research uncovered their words from interviews and press statements. Each chapter covers the creative process behind the perfume and the bottle. There is plenty to enjoy if you just focus on the juice and the flacon. What struck me as I have read through the book is how it is also a societal history of the beauty industry. I looked toward the book to reveal what happened the last time the world was affected by a pandemic.
That was in 1918 with the onset of the Spanish Flu. It was at its peak during the fall of that year. When I turn to the subsequent years in Perfume Legends II, I find two of the most iconic perfumes of all time; Guerlain Mitsouko and Chanel No. 5.
Mitsouko was released in 1919. Jacques Guerlain had been working on the Guerlain version of a chypre for seven years. In these early days of modern perfumery women wore mostly floral based perfumes. Mitsouko was going to provide them with an alternative. In this chapter it chronicles one of the first changes in the social status of women. 1918 also saw the end of World War I. Women had been stepping into traditionally masculine roles. This was why they weren’t looking for flowers anymore. They wanted a perfume with the same confidence they had found in themselves. Mitsouko was waiting for them.
It is too early to know what changes are happening with social roles in the current situation. Mitsouko tells us there is likely a perfume waiting to embrace that change.
One of the women who embraced the change back then was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The longest chapter in Perfume Legends II tells the story of the woman, her fashion sense, and her perfume. The book tells how in the summer of 1920 while summering in Cannes with her friends Misia and Josep Maria Sert she got the idea for a perfume. Mr. Edwards has revealed this story for the first time. It displays the forward thinking of Coco for which she is lauded.
The perfumer behind No. 5, Ernest Beaux, was also a man recovering his life. He had made perfume prior to the war and the pandemic. Afterward he would pick up the pieces of what remained. There is a popular myth that the creation of No. 5 was a mistake born out of pique. Anyone who reads the section on his process will realize something quite different. No. 5 is one of the great pieces of perfume architecture with each piece meticulously placed. Mr. Edwards lays out each step of the process. M. Beaux left nothing to chance.
By the time he was ready to show it to Mlle. Chanel she immediately knew what she had. She also realized that the perfume was the star and asked for a simple bottle to contain it. Throughout the book the stories of the bottles contain some of the most interesting views on the times they were created. Coco wanted No. 5 to stand on its own in the now iconic bottle known the world over.
No. 5 would be the beginning of one of the great perfume collections of our time. It is not hard to think there is a creative mind out there now considering their first move into the fragrance world. It is not hard to believe there is a perfumer out there with some new ideas. Once this pandemic comes to an end maybe they will find each other and create something which rhymes with the past.
Perfume Legends II is full of the rhythms of the history of modern perfumery.
Disclosure: I was compensated by the publisher for this.