Shared from the 9/25/2019 Wentworth Courier eEdition

Scents and sensibility

Few perfume houses would risk launching a new product without first running it under the nose of fragrance expert Michael Edwards


Above: Michael Edwards has been dubbed “the perfume expert’s expert” by Evelyn Lauder. Picture: Chris Pavlich

Left: Edwards’ latest book,

Perfume Legends II, French Feminine Fragrances


Michael Edwards and Leo Schofield talking scents at Centennial Homestead.

Consider the nose. What a marvellous instrument it is. It is the most distinctive of all facial features and the most essential. Human breath is drawn through it. It enables us to smell the roses, early morning coffee, fresh bread and the myriad distinctive aromas, pleasant and unpleasant, which we encounter daily.

Think, too, of famous noses, Cyrano de Bergerac’s romance-inhibiting proboscis, Pinocchio’s slender wooden one that grew embarrassingly longer whenever he told a porky, a phenomenon that resonates in contemporary cartoonists’ frequent portrayal of Donald Trump as a latter day reincarnation, and Hollywood’s most famous nose, that belonging to Jimmy Durante, so exuberant that it earned him the nickname “the Schnoz”.

A different kind of nose, much smaller and more sensitive, belongs to Michael Edwards, and has earned him another kind of fame, that of world authority on feminine fragrance.

He is the pasha of perfume, the sultan of scent. Few perfume houses would risk launching a new product without first running it under his nose, so to speak.

Just as the professional oenologist is able to pinpoint, identify and describe, often in exotic language, the complex elements of a great wine, so Edwards, with a single whiff, can tell you the high, low and dominant notes of any perfume and probably tell you its name, the year of its introduction, describe the bottle and distinguish in nanoseconds the difference between Shalimar and Shocking, Arpege and Aliage.

Born in Nyasaland, now Malawi, Edwards studied in South Africa and in the UK where he joined the marketing team at Beecham pharmaceuticals, working in the toiletries division before relocating to Paris, as international marketing director for a new perfume from American fashion designer Halston who, as most designers did and still do, had launched a complementary fragrance bearing his name. In 1983 he was dispatched to launch the Halston brand in Australia.

Although he maintains an apartment in Paris on the Rue de l’Hirondelle and a pad in New York, he sees himself as Australian, for he married an Australian, a former ballroom dancer.

They have a house in Glebe where he is holed up on this, one of his regular visits here, to spread the message contained in his latest book, a hefty, herniacourting tome entitled Perfume Legends II, French Feminine Fragrances.

Its predecessor has been called “the perfume bible” and together they constitute a kind of holy writ on the subject of scent from the early 1880s when Paul Parquet created Fougere Royale for the firm of Houbigant and, a few years later, Aime Guerlain launched Jicky, to Frederic Malle, star of the current crop of French master perfumers.

His books are seen as tablets of stone handed down from on high, and there is, about Edwards an air of evangelism, of quiet authority as he delivers his wellturned sermon on a subject on which he is the supreme authority.

During his latest visit, an elegant crowd gathered at the Potts Point Bookshop for a champagne launch organised by famed florist Saskia Havekes who consulted him when devising her Grandiflora line of floral fragrances. Subsequently, we meet for lunch in the sun-filled cafe nestling in the heart of Centennial Park.

In his finely tailored dark navy blue suit, white shirt and pale blue tie, Edwards stands out like a distinguished elder among the casual open-necked male brigade and the local ladies who lunch here routinely. He speaks softly but authoritatively, never missing a beat. His French pronunciation is impeccable and his story fascinating.

Soon after dispatch from Paris and settling in Sydney, he fell victim to a corporate takeover. Halston as a brand was flogged off and virtually disappeared. He was out of a job. “I was high and dry in Sydney in 1983. What to do? I’d just turned 40. I was determined never, ever to work for a big corporation again.”

He noted parallels between the fragrance business and the burgeoning wine industry.

“I watched the emergence of wines from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and the United States and contrasted their marketing approaches. Instead of the complicated European terroir system, the New World categorised wines more simply. You have red, white, sparkling and, fortified. If you like white I could offer you chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, riesling.

He is the pasha of perfume, the sultan of scent

“In perfume, you have similar groups, florals, orientals, woody and fresh and if I subdivide these into families I can offer you a true oriental like Shalimar by Guerlain, a softer oriental or a floral oriental dominated by orange flowers — think of L’heure Bleu, or a wood oriental where notes of patchouli or sandalwood are evident.” It sounds complicated and probably is.

So how does the customer choose? “If you ask any of the women here,” he replies, an outstretched arm describing a magisterial inclusive arc that embraces every female in the restaurant, “or even the men, what their favourites are, you can guarantee that three or four of them will fall into the same family group. If they give you five names it’s an indication that they’re either indecisive or have tried a lot in the hunt for a signature scent. This fascinated me. When I was working for Halston putting together workshops for retailers and decided to do more exploration.”

Exploration, concentration and dedication have led to world eminence.

He is now a walking encyclopaedia on his chosen subject. “Did you know?”-type facts abound in his conversation.

“Did you know Je Reviens means ‘I will return?’”. I did, but I didn’t know that although it was created in 1932, it rocketed to fame and record sales during World War II when hundreds of thousands of GIs sent it home to their wives as a kind of coded message. Is this where General Douglas Macarthur found his inspiring ‘I shall return’?

“Did you know JOY was created by Jean Patou as a response to the 1929 stockmarket crash to cheer up his American clients whose husbands had lost the lot?

“Did you know Opium was the blockbuster of 1977, the equivalent of Jaws in the movie industry?”

Edwards knows it all. And more. Every perfume has a backstory. As does every bottle, the design of which is critical to the success of a brand. Bottles, some designed by great names such as Rene Lalique, loom large in Edwards’ potted histories of hundreds of brands.

In addition to eye and nose appeal, does longevity influence choice?

“Women have changed since Jicky in 1889,” he says, stating a fact that might seem self-evident. “They want a perfume that, when you first wear it, the smell is so soft, like a cashmere shawl of the finest quality, but it must last. Most perfumes don’t last as long as people would like. It’s almost unfair. Women put it on in the morning and expect it will last until late in the evening but the reality is that you wear it for you own pleasure, although you like it if someone compliments you on it. That’s what modern perfume is about.

“When those great perfumers like Guerlain were around at the beginning of the 20th century there was relatively little competition. Today perfume is everywhere from room sprays to carpet cleaners.

“Perfume is now a $50 billion dollar a year industry.”

For many a woman the perfume she sprays on pulse points is a serious choice. It’s handwriting. It can also mark a social divide.

Mention of Guerlain throughout our lunch prompted me to tell of an elegant older Parisienne of my acquaintance who never wore anything but that legendry perfumer’s fragrances. She despised those created by “dressmakers” and lesser brands.

Edwards told me that Paris perfume snobs agreed. An industry manifestation of olfactory snobbism was the familiar comment that “Guerlain is for ladies, Caron is for tarts”.

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