French perfumes: back to the source

Overlooking lush forested hills and clusters of red tile roofs, the sun-drenched town of Grasse reigns as the world center of the perfume industry.

Eleven miles north of Cannes on the Cote D'Azur, Grasse is comfortably nestled between the mountains and the sea. This setting produces a favorable climate for growing the myriad of flowers necessary to produce such famous fragrances as Chanel No. 5, Arpege, Ma Griffe, Blue Grass, L'Air du Temps, and Rive Gauche.

According to Patrick Fuchs, president of the Parfumerie Fragonard, the fragrance industry is experiencing increased demand from a large, totally unexpected market - industrial perfumes. These fragrances include the scents for dishwasher powders and other household products, shoe polish, candles, and other commercial offerings that require a scent for market appeal or as an aromatic camouflage for chemicals.

Although the industrial sector is a big moneymaker, the most glamorous part of this French industry is still perfume and other related products. The process is twofold. Creating the fragrance is one step; the finished product is another.

Rather than actually producing finished perfumes, the parfumeries in Grasse serve primarily as the creative sources of new fragrances that are purchased by commercial clients, such as cosmetic companies and couturiers. In addition to creating new scents, the parfumeries supply their clients with the ''essence'' - perfume in its most concentrated state - which the client firms use to manufacture the various products in their lines.

A cosmetics firm or couturier that is ready to introduce a new fragrance to the public will approach one or several of the perfume factories with an idea of the type of scent they want, price requirements, and a profile of potential customers, including age and income brackets.

''Since (the firms) have already established a certain style, they know what they want, but don't want to become involved in the creation of it,'' Mr. Fuchs says.

This is where the ''nose'' comes in. Each fragrance house employs one, two, or at most three specialists known in the trade as ''perfumers'' who are responsible for creating new fragrances. A ''nose'' must work with three or four thousand products and scents, including natural substances and some new synthetics, to create a new perfume. The type of flowers and synthetics used determines the price of the perfume.

Once the fragrance house has developed several samples to choose from, most large client companies conduct a panel test to select from the options. Elizabeth Arden, as an exception, relied solely on her own taste. Now, however, the Elizabeth Arden firm uses a panel to make its selection.

After a fragrance is chosen, a test run is made to determine public response. The Parfumerie Fragonard is unique among fragrance houses in that it sells finished perfumes directly to the public through its two factories and a shop in Paris, as well as creating fragrances for outside clients. Fragonard uses this built-in marketing test to try out new fragrances and see what people like.

''We can see immediately if there is appeal,'' says Mr. Fuchs.

Once a new fragrance has tested out favorably, its success depends essentially on promotion. The danger for fragrance houses, Mr. Fuchs says, is that they may produce large amounts of one particular fragrance for a client firm. If the product line is discontinued, the fragrance house is left with a lot of expensive essence on its hands.

Some fragrance houses specialize in one particular type of scent, and work extensively in that direction. Each parfumerie is aware of what the others are doing, and sometimes they buy fragrances from each other.

According to Mr. Fuchs, the current trend is toward heavier perfumes with an Oriental influence, but he foresees a switch back to lighter fragrances.

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