The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York

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9780312425777: The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York

From the New York Times perfume critic, a stylish, fascinating, unprecedented insider's view of the global perfume industry, told through two creators working on two very different scents.

No journalist has ever been allowed into the ultrasecretive, highly pressured process of originating a perfume. But Chandler Burr, the New York Times perfume critic, spent a year behind the scenes observing the creation of two major fragrances. Now, writing with wit and elegance, he juxtaposes the stories of the perfumes -- one created by a Frenchman in Paris for an exclusive luxury-goods house, the other made in New York by actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Coty, Inc., a giant international corporation.

We follow Coty's mating of star power to the marketing of perfume, watching Sex and the City's Parker heading a hugely expensive campaign to launch a scent into the overcrowded celebrity market. Will she match the success of Jennifer Lopez? Does she have the international fan base to drive worldwide sales?

In Paris at the elegant Hermès, we see Jean Claude Ellena, his company's new head perfumer, given a challenge: he must create a scent to resuscitate Hermès's perfume business and challenge le monstre of the industry, bestselling Chanel No. 5. Will his pilgrimage to a garden on the Nile supply the inspiration he needs?

The Perfect Scent is the story of two daring creators, two very different scents, and a billion-dollar industry that runs on the invisible magic of perfume.

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About the Author:

Chandler Burr is the scent critic for the New York Times Style Magazine and the author of The Emperor of Scent: A Story of Perfume, Obsession, and the Last Mystery of the Senses. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
On June 9, 2004, just before 5:00 p.m., Jean-Claude Ellena was being driven to a meeting at the offices of Parfums Hermès in Pantin, just outside the périphérique to the northeast of Paris. Ellena was a famous ghost, a member of an elite group of perfumers who create fragrances sold under the names of designers and luxury houses while keeping assiduously to the shadows. But he was just at the point of becoming particularly, and rather extraordinarily, visible to the world. He was on his way to Hermès to submit his first essais, his olfactory sketches, for an important scent he was creating.
Paris was enjoying a spell of Los Angeles–like weather. You could look from the top of rue Ménilmontant down over the Centre Georges Pompidou’s industrial modernism all the way to the Eutelsat balloon floating over the Parc André Citroën. In the deep-cobalt summer sky, the cloud of aerosolized filth from the Paris traffic hovered in the blue air. The sun shone brightly. The Parisians walked around wearing black, smoking cigarettes, exhaling ashen fumes into the air, and throwing the butts and packets onto streets where Africans in cotton bleus de travail uniforms swept them into sewers.
From his car, Ellena looked out at the bus stops. It seemed as if every single one featured an ad for Chanel’s latest feminine perfume, Chance. It was a bit startling. The car crossed an avenue, stopped at a light: Chance. It turned right: Chance. Ellena looked left; from every vantage the publicity image of a wispy blond girl floated spectrally over the round metallic glass Chance bottle. This display represented a breathtaking marketing outlay. If you were in the perfume industry, if you were the competition—say, another immaculate luxury house like Hermès—you might not show any reaction. You might smile, eyes focused just beyond the ads. But you would register them as they slid by your car, this show of Chanel’s stunning power, a silken reminder of the might of this billion-dollar titanium luxury machine. The bus ads were not a campaign. They were a statement. “We are here.” Their ubiquitousness was profoundly intimidating. This was the intention.
Hermès had, in fact, two responses. The first was the three small vials in Ellena’s pocket, each containing a pale golden-colored scent. The second was Ellena himself.
.
Across the Atlantic not many months later, at 1:00 p.m. on October 29, 2004, the actress Sarah Jessica Parker arrived at the offices of her agent, Peter Hess, at Creative Artists Agency at 162 Fifth Avenue in New York City. She was there to meet representatives from Coty, Inc., the international perfume licensing corporation, whose headquarters were just up the street. Parker and her representatives would be discussing the final details of a contract for the creation of a perfume that would bear her name.
They met in one of the white CAA conference rooms. Along with Hess, Parker’s rep Ina Treciokas from the public relations agency IDPR was present. The Coty contingent numbered four, all perfume industry executives and “creatives” (as those in charge of developing a perfume are called in the industry). There was excellent sushi and a big bowl of popcorn, a neat line of drinks, and bowls of ice. Parker was dressed in relaxed style—jeans and a T-shirt—but she was quite alert to the significance of the meeting and to the variables at play.
Parker had for years been a star on stage and on screen, but she was as aware as anyone of the risks of attempting to transfer the mercurial, amorphous good of celebrity to other domains. In both a symbolic and a literal sense, she was funding this project with her public equity. But she had for years wanted to create a perfume—“dreamed of it,” as she expressed it eagerly to the Coty team that day. Peter Hess and CAA had been pursuing it for her, making the contacts, talking to the players in the perfume world—the luxury juggernauts like the Lauders and LVMHs, with their brands and labs and marketing armies—and Hess had found the process far from easy; the perfume industry is brutal, and the financial stakes increasingly high. Yet Coty was interested in Parker, and the lawyers—Coty’s and the star’s—had been working on the contract for many months. It had been a complicated negotiation.
Hess naturally shared Parker’s concerns. Were she to give Coty the license to her name and her public identity, the project would entail years of effort on her part and that of the Coty team that would develop the scent with her, millions of dollars put into the launch and a massive promotional campaign, and the risk of her image and reputation.
It would also require of Parker a special, and rather unusual, form of participation. During the development of the scent, she would assume the position known in the industry as artistic director. She would have to guide the perfumers who would build her scent. She would be responsible for directing them toward a precise olfactory representation of an idea of a perfume she already had in her head. Parker had never played the role before—it was the perfumers who understood mixing rose absolute with dihydrojasmonate, not she—and she didn’t, truth be told, know exactly what to expect.
.
Between 2004 and 2006, I reported these two stories, one for The New Yorker, the other for The New York Times. Both were intimate behind-the-scenes accounts of two very different people creating two very different perfumes. Ellena’s scent was built at and for Hermès, among the last family-owned exclusive luxury goods houses in France, based in an eighteenth-century shop on the rue du Faubourg. It was created in Paris and in Grasse, France’s traditional capital of scent. Parker’s fragrance was made under the corporate aegis of one of the largest commercial producers of perfume in the world, a company headquartered in a skyscraper in New York City.
The first perfume was Un Jardin sur le Nil. The other was Sarah Jessica Parker Lovely.
It happened that I fell into both of these stories—they found me, each one in its own particular way. Both of these scents were built to be launched on the $31-billion international perfume market, and in the course of reporting on their respective creation processes, I spent two years inside this industry, one of the most insular, glamorous, strange, paranoid, idiosyncratic, irrational, and lucrative of worlds.
I am the perfume critic for The New York Times, but I am not a visceral perfume obsessive. Some people want me to be, but I’m not. Fundamentally I’m a reporter and critic whose job is to write on perfume—the business, industry, and personalities, and of course the works of commercial art they produce, the perfumes. It’s a professional beat. At the same time, writing about perfume has held a real, and I will admit visceral, surprise, which is that I am now conscious of experiencing the world more deeply and vividly than I’d ever thought possible. Many people situate themselves by sight; they marvel at scenic vistas, take photos, draw pictures, recall images. In this job I find my brain recording time and place in scent. I remember places by smell.
In travel, smell is our best, most reliable landmark. Researchers have found that our ability to recall a specific scent surpasses even our ability to recall what we’ve seen. Show photos to people, then show them the photos months later; it’s estimated that visual recall is about 50 percent after four months. Trygg Engen, a professor of psychology at Brown University, found that people recall smells with 65 percent accuracy after a year. If you’ve been in Africa or Asia or Latin America for any significant period of time and then return home, open your suitcase and take out the clothes, and the aroma places you. You’re in Nairobi or the bush, Bangkok’s center, the beach in Rio. Photos can’t do that. Smell transports us, beautifully, strongly, insistently. The smell of my childhood was South Texas, but also the aroma of travel, of jet fuel, the synthetic carpets of airports, and the recycled air of planes. My grandmother, Marjorie Langston Stewart, lived in the Corpus Christi of the 1960s, two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico. While I remember her voice and face, she actually exists in my memory as a fragrance: of fresh citrus and the green leaves of the poisonous Texas oleander she warned my sister and me never to touch, the hot wet breezes of the Gulf of Mexico off fishing boats, the clean, rich Victorian smells of the England she grew up in that scented her house, and the scent of her immense, powerful, white 1958 Pontiac’s interior. The years I spent following these two stories were mapped in scent in just this way, and I recall its chapters by their smells.
The main actors in each story were utterly different—a French perfumer and an American movie star—and the companies and contexts in which they worked were dissimilar in a thousand ways, but both stories began with a problem.
.
At Hermès, the problem was simple to identify, tough to solve.
Hermès is as close to an immaculate brand as it is possible to get. In the business world, the name commands absolute respect. But while consumers from Paris to Osaka faithfully snapped up astoundingly expensive Hermès silks, clothes, and leather bags, the Hermès family was quietly aware of a weakness in the house: its perfumes.
Clients on Fifth Avenue and the Ginza, avenue Montaigne and Via Monte Napoleone were reaching for bottles of Chanel, Armani, Calvin Klein, and Dior well before they reached for an Hermès scent. For a luxury house, a perfume problem is not ...

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