Father of the ‘perfume bible’ Michael Edwards gives us notes on fragrances
With decades of experience, the historian and author of the reference book ‘Fragrances of the World’ takes us into the fascinating world of categorising scents
What is your earliest and most impactful memory of scent?
When I first met my wife (we’ve been married for 51 years). I met her in 1972 and she was wearing a lovely fragrance. I said, 'That’s lovely, what is it?' She said, 'Why?' and I said, 'Seriously, what is it?' She said again, 'Why?' “'Well,' I said, 'I just like the smell of it!' It turned out to be Yves Saint Laurent’s Y, which was not a masculine fragrance at that time. It was a beautiful green, woody fragrance.
What inspired you to become a fragrance historian?
I knew nothing about perfume until 1975, when I got invited to a fragrance workshop where, for the first time, I learnt about the fragrance families. They had a guide called the Bouquet de la Perfumerie, and it divided fragrances into families and then grouped them into accords. I didn’t understand more than 5% of it, but I would take my guide into stores — I was in France at that stage — and would smell and compare.
When I started working for Halston in the late 1970s, I became wrapped up in fragrance development. At the same time, I was rolling out Halston [perfume] into the international market. I needed to train many of the consultants, so my knowledge expanded by leaps and bounds — and that was the start of it.
I’d always been fascinated by the history of fragrance. What intrigued me was that there were so many stories about the same fragrance — they couldn’t all be true. In the 1990s, perfumers were invisible — today, they’re stars, but back then nobody acknowledged them. I would work with the perfumers to double-check my classifications and talk to them about their work and creations. Then I had the idea to produce a little brochure on some of the stories behind some of the iconic perfumes.
How did the Fragrances of the World guides come about?
In fragrance, it’s difficult, because the reality is that we don’t have a common language. You talk to me about fragrance and the words you use are emotional and I would probably attach a different emphasis to them. At the same time, brands don’t help because they all describe their fragrances differently.
If you’re looking for advice or want to find out what fragrances people might like, you’ve got a problem. I was based in Paris looking at the rollout of Halston fragrances into the international market. I spent a lot of time with the affiliates, talking to them about training. I would always ask people what their favourite perfumes were. I tried to get three or four names so that I could understand what they liked and I noticed that if they gave me three or four perfumes, at least two would fall into the same fragrance family.
It suddenly hit me that everybody’s probably got a favourite fragrance family and I thought, 'Wouldn’t it be easier if all we had to do was to ask people what fragrances they do wear?' If we had a guide, we would be able to look them up and know what family they belong to. Once we know that family, we could then turn to the guide and say, 'Well, if you like this, why don’t you try this or that?' But the problem was that there was no guide. I had been downsized from a job in the 1980s and wanted to start my own practice.
My first guide was a tatty little book, spiral-bound — but it worked. They started to use it in stores. Not just department stores but also product managers, buyers and journalists. From the start, I didn’t charge for listing or classifying new perfumes. I didn’t accept advertising or sponsorship and that remains our philosophy. Today, we’ve matched 50,000 fragrances scent by scent, family by family, note by note. All the major brands use my database because what started as a guide has turned into a digital database.
The Wiki Parfum platform is amazing. How does it differ from the book experience?
We no longer publish The Fragrances of the World guides. I did 38 annual publications. The last one that we did [was in 2021], there’s just too many fragrances. Last year, we had over 3,000 and couldn’t fit them into a book. Apart from that, people prefer digital. They can get access through my database, Fragrances of the World, but there’s a hefty subscription. That’s the business model. We don’t charge for listing, but we do charge heavily for the creation of fragrance finders and for the subscription service. I’ve long thought about an online encyclopedia. Wiki Parfum started in France in May 2020 just as Covid-19 hit — [which meant] we could fine-tune and nobody noticed what we were doing.
How do you keep your fragrance classifications impartial, universal and as true as possible?
My classification is classical. I started with the French Perfumers Society classification: floral, amber and woody. I then added fresh [to my fragrance wheel]. Why? Because perfumers were ignoring citrus notes, they weren’t important to them. Citrus notes were eau de cologne and eau de colognes are so light and transitory [that they weren’t regarded as] real perfume.
Edmond Roudnitska [French perfumer] made citrus perfumes into real perfumes with his creation of Dior Eau Sauvage in 1966. I added citrus and green fragrances. Perfumers classified green fragrance as a subgroup of florals. Now, that’s great with Pleasures, for example, which is a flowery fragrance wearing a green blouse. But a real green fragrance smells of fresh-cut grass. It’s aggressively green and people who liked florals, I found, didn’t like it. I added into the fresh notes, the greens and then water, when the water fragrances came out — it was logical to put them there.
How do I classify?
I try not to be technical. You’ll find many people say, 'Oh, I love this, in the top notes, I pick up this and in the heart notes...' and they get so wrapped up in the technicalities of what they’re smelling that they forget to smell.
I look for the big picture. I’m not interested in the details. When I classify with brands, they’ll show me a fragrance and I’ll smell it immediately and instinctively say, 'I think this is going to be a woody note with a fresher touch and I’m picking up maybe white flowers.' If they disagree, I can see it in their eyes and I’ll ask for more insight, but that’s my first assessment. It’s an instinctive judgment. I will then take that fragrance, respray it on a fresh perfume strip, put it on my desk and leave it for a day. After a day, all the bits and pieces have disappeared and what you’re coming up with is the core of the fragrance. Then I smell it and compare it to a standard, to ensure that we’re on track.
Do you feel great marketing can overshadow great perfumery, and how do you discern between the two?
Marketing has an impact. Think of Charlie in 1973 or Opium — it was an amazing campaign. Was the fragrance original? No, it was a twist on Youth Dew, but the marketing made it so incredible that the world fell in love with it. Think of Obsession in 1985 or CK One in 1994. What about La Vie Est Belle, the newest one from Lancôme? Marketing is great, but all that marketing does is make people willing to try the fragrance — then the fragrance takes over and word of mouth kicks in.
The most important thing is that you pick up a fragrance and say to a friend, 'I love this.' I think of Baccarat Rouge — it’s now among the top-rated fragrances in the US, but totally by word of mouth. At the end of the day, you create the legends, the perfumers don’t.
How will the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) affect the traditional approach to fragrance classification?
It’s an ongoing debate — are we willing to expand or not? The last fragrance family I added were the water and gourmand notes in the 1990s. So far, I’ve been able to fit every new fragrance into the existing categories. In the future, of course, new ingredients will come about, but I think your question is, 'Will perfumers use AI to create?' Now, this comes down to the heart of what art is. Perfume must stir the emotions.
At its best, perfume is art because of that. Can a machine create that emotion? AI is going to copy much of my work and you won’t believe what new developers are working on — to allow you to smell fragrance without actually smelling the fragrance but to smell it in your mind. There are two ways with AI — you can either roll over and die, or you say, 'Bugger it, I'm going to better you.' We are on the edge of an unbelievable quantum leap in our ability to do things.
How has the fragrance industry changed over the years and where do you see it heading?
Fragrances are the products of their times. The fragrances of the 1920s were the symptoms, symbols and expressions of their era. Until the 1940s, perfume was niche. The great names such as N°5, Joy, Miss Dior, all of these were made for a small audience of connoisseurs, wealthy men and women.
After the Second World War, fragrance opened up because soldiers, sailors and airmen would bring back fragrances from the war for the women in their lives. But the niche fragrances of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were too avant-garde.
That’s when you saw the development of easier fragrances. Then, in the 1970s, the US exploded and people were willing to try innovative scents, think of Halston or Oscar de la Renta, for example. By the 1980s — think of Red Door — each decade has its scent. The attitude of the 1980s is different from that of the 1990s. What I am certain of is that niche will be the foundation of the future.
What is the most iconic fragrance of all time?
Chanel N°5, it has to be. The owners have done the most marvellous job in fine-tuning it — the fragrance we smell today is not the fragrance that was originally launched. The fragrance that originally launched was a perfume and now you can try the eau de parfum or the eau de toilette. In terms of iconic, we have to bow down before N°5 and pay homage.
What is a fragrance you wish everyone could experience just once?
Féminité du Bois by Serge Lutens. It was created by Christopher Sheldrake [UK perfumer] for Serge Lutens. Originally it was a Shiseido fragrance and then it was twisted into four adaptations. It is the ultimate woody fragrance — it has cedarwood. I know it sounds feminine, but cedarwood is a sensual kind of note. It dries down and you get this fruity note coming through. It is a genius fragrance to have.
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