Interview With Perfume Expert Michael Edwards

📷 The London Observer described Michael Edwards as the world’s leading writer on the subject, and Vogue labelled him 'the authority.'

Fragrance aficionado Michael Edwards is regarded by many as the authority on all things that delight the nostrils. Steven Bond talks to the man with the million-dollar nose.

Perfume is ubiquitous; the accessory now represents a $30 billion-plus industry, with thousands of new fragrances debuting every year. The world of scent has a broad narrative and innumerable nuances – few people have as thorough an understanding as Michael Edwards, one of the world’s foremost fragrance experts. The London Observer described him as the world’s leading writer on the subject, and Vogue labelled him 'the authority.'

Such an accolade seems apt when you consider Edwards introduced the concept of the Fragrance Wheel (which outlines the different fragrance families), pioneered the use of perfume strips in magazines and has authored bestsellers on his formidable forte. The Australian has built a career on his olfactory senses, and this year marks the 30th edition of his most notable compendium, Fragrances of the World. The book and its online counterpart are oft referred to as The Fragrance Bible. We paid a visit to Edwards to receive a sermon on scent.

Describing fragrances can be confusing for the uninitiated. How do you distinguish between scents?

In many ways I use the analogy of wine. You have red wines, white wines, sparkling and fortified. I can offer you pinot, sauvignon blanc or a chardonnay, but each one has its own taste and character. With fragrances we have the same logic, with floral, oriental, woody and fresh scents. The fragrance families hold the key. A note is the scent of a specific ingredient, but a family is like a chardonnay of fragrance. If you ask people to name three or four perfumes they like, almost invariably two will fall into one family. We don’t know why.

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Fragrance has gone from luxury indulgence to a must-have accessory in a few decades — How did it happen?

I would identify three changes that were at the heart of the changes. In 1973, Charlie by Revlon broke the mould and persuaded women to buy perfume for themselves. Before Charlie, most perfume had been a gift from a man to woman, but the 1970s saw women moving from the home to the office, so they had money and started to buy perfume for themselves.

Then came Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium in ’77 — our first blockbuster. In many ways, perfume and movies are very similar: Jaws was the first blockbuster in the movies and Opium was ours. All of a sudden, fragrance presented big opportunities for multinationals and that’s when you saw all the little fragrance houses gobbled up by the big firms — in the space of about 10 years almost all of them disappeared.

Then there was Giorgio in ’81. In 1983 it went into Bloomingdale’s and, in the space of four years, it turned from a tiny brand to one that earned sales of US $100 million. If you went to New York in the ’80s you saw the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and then you went to Bloomingdale’s to experience Giorgio. This was the one that convinced retailers that perfume was not just an accessory, but a core product.

Ten years ago there were 400 new fragrances, but last year you listed 1,400. What has caused the increase?

I think you’ve got to go back to the people who use perfume. It’s a sociological phenomenon that follows the moods of the time. In the 1980s you saw the explosion of designer perfumes. Why? In America, brands like Pierre Cardin were successful, but the middle class had never really cottoned on to the idea of ‘designer’; they wouldn’t have even known that Chanel was a couturier. But suddenly, with the impact of fragrance, ‘designer’ status became one of the symbols of the 1980s and we saw the explosion of Versace, Oscar de la Renta, and so on.

Then CK One arrived in 1994 and that was crucial. In the ’80s, with its big hair, big women, big stores and big prices, the kids were turned off (from buying fragrances). But CK One brought them back with the idea of a shared fragrance — boys and girls wearing the same thing. Now over 40 percent of fragrances are aimed at a younger generation; kids start buying perfume from eight or nine, and by 15 they’re into bling. By 25 they probably find a fragrance that makes them feel great.

What about the luxury market? Do people want innovation or is there comfort in long-running perfumes?

It’s an emotional thing. When you get used to something, you’ll start to want something better. I sense we’re seeing the emergence of super premium and super luxury. The niche market has showed there’s a group of consumers, usually 30-plus, both women and men, who are not interested in mass market. They’re looking for a different experience and are willing to pay for it. We see bottles up to $250, so they’ ve demonstrated the appeal.

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Out of this, and it’s the great houses in particular, are coming super-premium niche concepts. The likes of Tom Ford, Hermes and Cartier — and now Bvlgari’s first collection of luxury fragrances — now have the confidence. They had been so used to testing and risk aversion but now they accept this is an experience that people want, which is why we’re seeing more super premium.

What will this decade be remembered for?

We’ ll look back to this decade and we’ ll realise it has eclipsed everything that happened in the ’80s, which we think of as the era of luxe. In many ways, the technological and commodity revolution has fuelled a rise of wealth beyond what we ever imagined. It harks back to the America of the 1900s to the 1920s when the great railroads were built and we saw the rubber barons and the oil magnates — the likes of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. Now, we see the money coming out of the emerging Chinese market.

Is demand for fragrances growing as fast as other products in China?

Not really yet, because there isn’t a culture of fragrance. I think it will emerge, but it’s small at the moment. For me, the Middle East is extraordinary because of the amount of usage. You have usage of multiple fragrances throughout the day, which we also see in Brazil. There we have an explosion of local labels, since the cost of importation is great. As a market it has surpassed the States, but with very few well-known labels.

Which other regions in the world are exciting you right now?

We’ re seeing fragrance interpretations specifically for the Middle East — just think of all the varieties of oud — and for the Japanese market we’re seeing light and fresh interpretations. Dior will come out with Miss Dior for the western market, but in Japan, they’ d come out with Blooming Bouquet, which is a lighter, fruitier kind of note. We’re seeing this trend more and more, where brands have a major fragrance, with regional variations.

Have you fine-tuned your sense of smell or have you always had the gift?

You have a gift, too, if you enjoy wine and food. All it takes is some practice. Obviously if one is smelling all the time, one knows immediately what is floral or oriental. As the old adage goes: use it or lose it. That’s why older people tend to have problems, because they no longer use their smell.  

You talk about the “Language of Fragrances” — Do we lack the words to describe nuances of smell?

It doesn’ t really matter if you describe a fragrance as heavy or horrible or lovely or light, just tell me the perfumes you like and that itself will tell me the kind of fragrance you like. There is, of course, an enduring battle for adjectives and brands do come out with the most marvellous words.

Source: Destinations of the World New

 

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