French Perfume: The scent of a woman by a woman
10 Wednesday Feb 2010
A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.
That is what Chanel is supposed to have said. And Chanel certainly knew how to sell perfume. Chanel No. 5 was created in 1920, and 90 years later, it is still the world’s best-selling perfume. But Chanel herself did not develop the formula, she simply gave instructions to a parfumier called Ernest Beaux, who came up with the actual scent.
Just as women are a minority in haute couture, so women are a minority in the perfume trade. Yet one French parfumière stands out—Annick Goutal (1945–1999). The picture shows the boutique where her perfumes are sold at 14, rue de Castiglione in Paris, near the Place Vendôme.
Annick Goutal, parfumière
Annick Goutal was born in Aix-en-Provence, one of eight children of a chocolatier. She was gifted in music and trained as a classical pianist, winning first prize in piano performance from the Paris Conservatoire in 1961, at the age of 16. But the life of a concert pianist didn’t appeal to her. She went to London, opened up a secondhand boutique, and began to experiment with creating her own face creams and lotions.
She became more and more interested in perfumes, and went to Grasse in the 1970s to learn the art of the parfumier in the laboratories of the fragrance company Robertet. Grasse is in the south of France, near Cannes, a sunny town where flowers grow in profusion and where the laboratories of some of France’s greatest perfume creators are located.
During her lifetime, which was cut short by breast cancer when she was 53, Annick Goutal created 25 perfumes. Eau d’Hadrien is one of her best-known, launched in 1981 and inspired by the novel Memoires d’ Hadrien by Marguerite Yourcenar. It evokes the scent of Roman gardens and lemon groves. Nearly 30 years later, this citrusy creation is considered a classic. Barbara says it makes her think of the music of Erik Satie, and indeed, for Goutal, perfume was a form of liquid music.
(Barbara discovered Eau d’Hadrien on a visit to a friend’s house in New England about 10 years ago. There were perfume samples in the bathroom, and she tried them all. This was her favourite. When she told her daughter about it, however, her daughter laughed and said, “But mother, didn’t you know? Everyone I know wears this perfume.”)
Another perfume was inspired by Camille, Annick’s daughter by her first marriage. According to an interview published in Vogue Australiain 1998, “When my daughter Camille was seven, she was up on the terrace feeling the ivy and saying: ‘Maman, I want a fragrance like this.’ So she was the inspiration for Eau de Camille—honeysuckle and privet tree mingle with freshly cut grass.”
Annick’s second marriage, to cellist Alain Meunier, led her to create a male fragrance called Sables, inspired by the smell of the beaches on the Ile de Ré where she and her husband owned a house. She created Eau de Charlotte for her stepdaughter. Her last creation was Ce Soir ou Jamais (This Evening or Never), completed shortly before her death in 1999.
In December 2009, Meunier, now 67, gave a concert in her honour at the Cathédrale Saint-Louis des Invalides, playing three of the Bach cello suites as well as a piece called Etoile filante by the composer Georges Sosnovski, who has written music in memory of Annick Goutal.
Scent and perfume
Visiting Paris is a wonderful opportunity to experiment with scent and perfume, and determine the kind that works best for you. The French have a word for the effect of a perfume, sillage, meaning the “wake” left by a perfume wearer. Perfumers design for sillage—how far it can reach and how long it will last. They also design perfumes to suit the season—lighter in summer, heavier in winter—and many French women have a seasonal “wardrobe” of different perfumes.
Although perfume boutiques use strips of thick paper called touches to allow customers to smell different perfumes, you really have to try them on your skin to know if they are right for you. The best approach is to spray your wrists with a small amount of something you like (don’t rub them together—just let them air dry), and then go for a walk for 20 or 30 minutes. If the perfume still smells good, it might be the right one for you. Never rush a purchase of this sort. Take your time. That is what a Parisienne would do.
Parfumier/parfumière is the word for someone who creates perfumes from a mixture of natural and synthetic scents. Annick Goutal’s father was a chocolatier—that is, someone who creates chocolates. Sables means sands. Une étoile filante is a shooting star. Sillage is the “wake” left by a wearer of perfume, and touches are the paper strips perfume shops use to allow customers to sample perfume.
BOOKS RECOMMENDED BY A WOMAN’S PARIS
The Diary of a Nose: A Year in the Life of a Parfumeur, Jean-Claude Ellena
The Perfume Lover: A Personal History of Scent, Denyse Beaulieu
VOCABULARY: French to English translations
Chocolatier: Someone who makes confectionery from chocolate.
Maman: Mama, slang for mother.
Eau de parfum: A perfume with 12 to 20 percent of concentrate.
Eau de toilette: A perfume with 7 to 12 percent of concentrate.
Parfum: Perfume. Mixture of fragrant essential oils and aroma compounds, fixatives, and solvents used to give the human body, animals, objects and living spaces a pleasant smell.
Parfumier/parfumière: (M/F) An expert on creating perfume compositions.
Parisienne: Female native or resident of Paris.
Sillage: “Wake” left by a wearer of perfume, how far it can reach and how long it will last.
Touches: Paper strips used to allow customers to smell different perfumes.
Une étoile filante: Shooting star.
Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.
She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, “Fatale: How French Women Do It” – Perfume that rocks the room, peeks at the mysterious ways Frenchwomen manage to appear sexy, smart and recklessly chic from the book Fatale: How French Women Do It by Edith Kunz (used by permission). Includes are tips for applying fragrance and a list of 18 key pulse points to consider.
Perfume: discovering the perfect luxury experience, by Andrea Johnson who shares tips on finding the right fragrance, which is not always easy. A biochemist and former fragrance sales associate, Andrea writes about choosing a fragrance that reflects your personality and drawing people in with a scent.
French Indulgence: A perfume of one’s own, by Barbara Redmond who writes about her experience in the atelier (workshop) of Master Perfumer Isabelle Burdel, Salon Privé, Cannes, France. Isabelle, a “nose,” creates a marvelous alchemy of perfumes of rare and natural essences made-to-measure for each customer. How did Isabelle guess Barbara’s choice from the selection of Paris macarons offered (as a test, no doubt), when she arrived at the atelier? Pistache. Powdery-dry and musty smells of the Greek islands’ arid winds and briny taste of the sea…
Beauty Confessions from a Globe-trotting Parisienne. Parisienne Bénédicte Mahé shares a French woman’s approach to beauty and makeup; and how the relationship Americans have with beauty is very different from that of the French. Including her list of Beauty Resources in Paris and a vocabulary of French to English translations. (French)
French soap – savon de Marseille, by writer Lauren Ernt who stumbled upon La Licorne, a storefront soap factory in the heart of Marseille and one of the last authentic manufacturers of the famous “savon de Marseille.” Lauren writes about her visit and love of this renowned soap for its purity and restorative properties.
French Impressions: Isabelle Burdel on the very complex and marvelous alchemy of perfumes. Isabelle Burdel, founder and master perfumer at Salon Privé, Canne, offers her rare expertise of making very complex perfumes available to private individuals. She also shares her inspirations that allow her to create such perfumes that infuse the emotions and uniqueness of a person into a single perfume.
Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.