Links to the original articles on "NZZ Folio" are included in each post. Source: NZZ Folio.

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September 1, 2004

"Diminishing returns" By Luca Turin

"Diminishing returns" By Luca Turin

It is hard to escape the impression that each Art mines a finite seam of beauty. In that sense calling an artist inventor, i.e. finder, is probably more accurate than creator. Being first to dig is a great good fortune. Early photographers, no matter how trivial their subject, scooped up big chunks of the precious stuff at every click of the shutter. The first passenger jets, the first windsurfer have the unmistakable grace that only ample elbow room can give. In perfumery this once-only privilege belongs to François Coty. Self-taught, he started by helping a pharmacist friend put together harmless eaux de cologne, he sufficiently impressed the great Antoine Chiris, pioneer of steam distillation, to get a job with his firm before branching out on his own.

Most successful firms are built on the talents of two people, one for ideas and one for business, the latter often hidden from view. Coty was both, and built a huge empire with factories all over the world. His early creations stake out vast territories: L’Origan, Emeraude, Ambre Antique, La Rose Jacqueminot, L’Aimant spawned a dynasty each. But his greatest invention, the perfumery equivalent of the three-movement concerto, was Chypre (1917). He discovered that bergamot, oakmoss and labdanum, though interestingly different, had a common resinous side that made them stick together as an abstract idea, at once straightforward and unfathomable.

The Chypre concept tuned out to be a great structure on which to hang hundreds of variations. The fruity (Mitsouko) and floral (Miss Dior) Chypres are still with us. Though wonderful, they are in a sense compromises, like asking Athena to take off her helmet, put on a little cheek blush and smile for the family portrait. The true heirs of Chypre, in my opinion, are the somber variations: the smoky, carnation and leather Chypres like Bandit (Piguet) and Jolie Madame (Balmain) , the bitter green ones like Futur (Piguet) and the soon-to-be reissued Sous le Vent (Guerlain), the animalic Chypres like the first Boucheron and the reckless La Nuit (Rabanne). We seem to prefer women tame and affable: most of these fragrances are extinct, and were never big sellers anyway. Coty would have loved them. Like many rich men, he overreached. He got into politics, bought newspapers and ended his life a fanatical right-wing recluse. The Coty name changed hands several times and is now owned by the German firm Benckiser. Coty perfumes today ? Stetson, Céline Dion and Adidas.