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Reverence for ‘Noses’ : In France, Perfume Is a Work of Art

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Times Staff Writer

Perfume is a $3-billion industry in France, but it is also, for the French, a mystique, a cultural heritage, a work of art, a hallmark of national elegance and taste, an expression of sexual fashion, a reminder of past power and an echo of great romantic literature of the 19th Century.

Nowhere else in the world is perfume taken so seriously and treated with so much reverence. Inventors of perfumes--known in France as “noses"--are regarded in the same light as composers of music. To make the association clear, Chanel, the couturier and perfume house, even hands out publicity pictures that show Jacques Polge, the creator of its “Coco” perfume, standing in front of a music stand.

In his standard, encyclopedic work on perfume in France, Edmond Roudnitska, creator of the Rochas perfume “Femme,” invokes the thinking of French philosopher Henri Bergson and the methods of French composer Pierre Boulez to explain the art of making a perfume.

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‘Like a Symphony’

“A perfume,” Roudnitska writes, “can be a work of art like a symphony or a master’s painting and therefore deserves the same respect. . . .”

The French study perfume from every side. Historian Alain Corbin produced an unusual study a few years ago of French attitudes toward odor, both foul and fragrant, for the last two centuries. The National Museum of Natural History in Paris is now presenting a major exhibition on the use of flowers in perfume throughout history throughout the world. The museum pumps perfume into the air of each exhibit room.

The Paris Metro, or subway system, recently decided to perfume its stations. Subway riders, asked to sample several fragrances, selected two, “Legende” and “Horizon,” as the perfumes they would most like to smell underground. Workers then infused them into the soaps used for cleaning the stations. Unfortunately, according to a Metro spokesman, “you can only really smell them just after a station has been cleaned.”

A Best Seller in France

In 1985, Patrick Suskind, a German writer who had studied in the same university as Polge in southern France, wrote the novel “Perfume” about an 18th-Century “nose” who murders beautiful young women in the town of Grasse to capture their scents for the creation of a magnificent new perfume. The book was dismissed by the New York Review of Books as “verbose claptrap,” but the historical accuracy of Suskind’s descriptions of perfume making in the 18th Century astounded everyone in the French perfume industry, and the French translation was a best seller in France.

The French still celebrate Grasse, just north of Cannes on the French Riviera, as perfume capital of the world. Students in Grasse try to learn to distinguish at least 3,000 different scents so that they can become “noses” some day. Workers in Grasse pick jasmine by hand, separating the flowers petal by petal for processing and then shipment to perfume houses in Paris.

Admirers of French literature still quote the great 19th-Century poet Charles Baudelaire who dwelt on the sense of smell in his “Les Fleurs du Mal"--"The Flowers of Evil.” The book brims with lines such as: “There rises from her tensile, heavy hair, a living sachet, censer of the bed, a perfume savage, turbulent and rude. . . .”

All the mystery and mystique is sometimes obscured these days by marketing. Far more is spent on promoting a perfume in modern France than on creating one. It cost Christian Dior $11 million in 1985 just to launch the perfume “Poison” on the European market.

Perfume Maker’s Lament

This kind of hoopla is deplored by some traditional leaders of the French industry like 82-year-old Robert Ricci, the president of Nina Ricci perfumes. “Perfume,” he lamented at a recent industry conference, “is changing from a universe of charm into a universe of shock.”

Yet even with aggressive marketing and advertising hype, a good deal of antique romance still hangs on in the perfume industry in France. This is reflected clearly in all the homage paid to the artistry of “noses” in the industry.

To understand a “nose,” an outsider must have a clear idea of what a perfume really is. A perfume is an alcoholic compound that generates a scent pleasing to the human sense of smell. The compound is made up of any or all of three primary materials: fragrant vegetable materials such as the petals of jasmine; animal scents such as musk from the male musk deer of the Himalayas, and chemical synthetics that reproduce fragrances such as violet and vanilla that are hard to capture naturally.

A “nose,” who often carries an official title such as director of laboratories, is the creator and monitor of a perfume. A “nose” seeks new combinations that will seduce the market and tests the quality of primary materials to make sure that the fragrances of old, popular perfumes are maintained.

Fan-Like Contraption

A visitor finds on the desk of every “nose” a metal, fan-like contraption that holds several fingers of paper. Droplets of scents are put on each paper. A “nose” sniffs one and then another in his continual quest for new and old fragrance. A “nose” must learn to sniff with the times, trying to assess, for example, whether a more sexually overt era allows more powerful animal scents in a perfume or whether it demands, for contrast, more diffident and subtle smells.

There are supposed to be 15 great “noses” in the world with another 100 of near-star quality. Almost all are French, and most come from Grasse, where, in a bygone age, “noses” claimed that they could distinguish the scent of one type of jasmine from another at a distance of several miles.

One of the best-known modern creators, Polge, the 44-year-old “nose” of Chanel, grew up in Grasse and returned home to train in the art of distinguishing scents after studying English literature at university.

In an age of computers and dazzling advances in chemistry, an outsider may wonder if all the veneration of a “nose” is no more than hocus-pocus dreamed up by publicity agents trying to infuse the business with even more mystique than it already has. Couldn’t a chemist with a computer do the job as well as a “nose” sniffing from fingers of paper?

Chemical Formula ‘Worthless’

“I have no training as a chemist,” replied Polge in a recent interview in Paris. “A formula for a perfume is not a chemical formula. A formula is worthless unless you know your primary materials. The formula lists the primary materials and the proportions used of each. But there may be at least 20 varieties of each material. You must know them.

“We keep the formula for ‘Chanel No. 5’ in a safe under lock and key. But, if you stole it, you would not know what to do with it.”

The cost of launching perfumes is so high that a “nose,” no matter how celebrated, cannot hope to be credited with a great many creations in a lifetime. Polge, for example, has established his reputation on five: “Coco,” “Antaeus” for men, “Diva,” “Senso” and “Eau de Parfum No. 5,” a less concentrated form of “Chanel No. 5.”

“I get 60 to 100 ideas a year,” said Polge. “Very few, of course, ever become a perfume that is marketed. Those are the limits of all composers of perfumes. But that does not hold me back.”

Perfumes are an ancient creation, dating back at least to Biblical times. The Old Testament tells how Queen Esther, for example, bathed “six months with oil of myrrh and six months with sweet odors and with other things for the purifying of the women” before her marriage to King Ahasuerus of Persia. Describing the elite of France just before the French Revolution, novelist Alexander Dumas wrote, “Aside from philosophers . . . everyone smelled nice.”

Over the centuries, the use and kinds of perfume have varied. In some eras, people perfumed themselves to mask body odors; in other eras, to excite or attract a partner; in still others, to drive away infections in the air. New ideas about hygiene, for example, lessened some of the need for strong animal scents in the 19th Century. People no longer had to have something strong to overpower their own body odor.

The modern concept of perfume, however, dates mainly to the 19th Century and France. The House of Guerlain, for example, was founded in Paris in 1828 and did not become established and powerful until much later in the century.

Historians attribute the development of the modern industry to three factors. The first was subtle. According to historian Corbin, a new modesty in women’s dress in high society, with less exposure of the body, fostered the need to seduce men in other, seemingly innocent ways. Perfume filled that need handily.

Second, 19th-Century French writers like Baudelaire extolled smell as one of the great human senses. Before Baudelaire, a sensitive soul would look upon a field of flowers and see the beauty of its myriad of colors; after Baudelaire, a sensitive soul would be expected to breathe in the beauty of its fragrance as well.

Hero’s Obsession

In his turn-of-the-century novel, “Against the Grain,” Joris-Karl Huysmans devoted an entire chapter to describe his hero’s obsession with mixing perfume in a quest to experience every possible human sensation. The novel was looked on as the masterwork of the then-fashionable movement of decadence in French literature. It helped make the sense of scent and the art of fragrance exciting.

Finally, and perhaps most important, new discoveries in chemistry made it possible to create a large number of floral scents that were impossible or nearly impossible to fashion from the flowers themselves. This opened an enormous variety of combinations to the perfume maker. It made the art of perfume composition possible.

A perfume like “Chanel No. 5,” composed by Ernest Beaux in 1921, could not have been made without synthetics. This is true of almost all modern perfumes.

France, in this era of first great perfumes, was regarded as one of the most powerful nations on Earth, a great military and colonial power and a civilization that set a pattern of taste for everyone else. It was natural for the art and use of perfume to take the form, in the eyes of the rest of the world, of a French cultural phenomenon. Perfume became as French as fashion and cuisine.

The costs of producing a perfume are high. Elizabeth Sirot of Guerlain pointed to a small canister of jasmine concentrate at the company’s plant outside Paris recently and said, “It takes 300,000 petals of jasmine to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of concentrate. That kilo costs us 450,000 francs ($80,000).” The company needs jasmine to produce “Shalimar,” the famous perfume created by Jacques Guerlain in 1925. Civet, another significant ingredient in “Shalimar,” comes from the secretions of a wild cat in Ethiopia, and Guerlain must pay heavily to get it.

Yet, whatever the costs, the luxury perfume industry, still dominated by France, is still an extremely profitable business. Chanel reportedly still sells more than $50 million worth of “No. 5” every year. It is regarded as the best-selling perfume of all time.

There is some concern in the industry that the decline in the value of the dollar has prompted some Americans to buy less French perfume. The fall in the price of oil has also diminished some lavish buying of perfume by Arabs.

“A few years ago,” said Guerlain’s Sirot, “a eunuch came into our store on the Champs Elysees to buy perfumes for the 40 women in a harem. And there was a sheik who bought ‘Shalimar’ to fill his pool. But those days are gone.” But, even while selling less, manufacturers have managed to increase their profits, at least in dollars, by raising prices.

Competition is intense. Manufacturers introduced 485 new women’s perfumes between 1975 and 1986. The pressure from this competition shows itself in different ways.

Three “noses” were arrested and charged with industrial espionage in Grasse recently for trying to take the secret formulas from the Mero perfume company and use it in a new company of their own. The pressure is far more commonly met, of course, by enormous expenditures on advertising. Perfume ads are the staples of luxury and beauty magazines throughout the world.

Concern Over Marketing

Some specialists see a danger in this. Roudnitska, the “nose” who invented “Femme,” says that French perfumery--"this beautiful perfumery founded on an aesthetic conception and on the creative sprit of beauty"--could slide downward into a mass industry based on marketing.

Ricci, who runs Nina Ricci, argues that much of the money spent on marketing may be wasted anyway.

“Ninety percent of women choose a perfume for its fragrance,” he said, “only 10% for its concept and marketing. I’m not against marketing, but the primordial thing is creating the fragrance.”

But even as celebrated a “nose” as Polge does not agree. He insists that the success or failure of a perfume depends on several factors: the perfume itself, its flask, its publicity image and the way it seems to fit in with the culture of the times.

“Which is the most important?” he said. “I know what you think I am going to say? As the creator, I should say that the perfume is the most important. But I prefer to put it this way: You must succeed in all these factors to have a success. If one fails, you will not have a successful perfume.”

Paris Bureau editorial assistant Sarah White contributed to this article.


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