Tonight in The Scented Salon we talking with a French Assistant Professor, Eugénie Briot. I have enjoyed reading her papers on Perfume and thought that you may like to read them too. Let’s spend some time getting to know this Perfume Personality with a PhD on the History of Perfumery Technology.
Welcome Eugénie. Will you tell us, what was your first fragrance?
My first fragrance was Diorissimo. I had previously worn Anais Anais, which I liked very much, (and I still do ! It is pervaded with wonderful memories of graceful youth), but it was meant to be a teenager’s perfume, however it was more an introduction to perfumery life, a delightful passage, than a real choice.
Diorissimo is a one-life perfume love. It is a perfume made to blossom in the crisp cold of a winter night, like an unexpected miracle. I often think of Edmond Roudnitska with warm gratitude, for having offered this old world the grace of this little dreamlike valley covered with mossy lily. I don’t know if you have ever heard of French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s Le Dormeur du Val sonnet? It is both of the utmost cheerfulness and of the utmost gravity. Diorissimo is poetry bottled. Or was, should I say, since Diorissimo has now tragically been reformulated and has vanished in foam bath smell, which I feel is a sincere loss.
What did you wear in the ’80s and ’90s?
At the beginning of the ’80s mostly Mustela Bébé!
Do you buy for yourself?
Yes I do. I don’t buy many perfumes, I really need to smell them dozens of times, in dozens of occasions, to feel sure I will like them forever.
Does your partner buy for you?
He does, however risky it may sound! And he succeeds in making the right choices, which is not easy.
What are your perfume preferences or notes that you like?
I am a great admirer of white flowers perfumes (Diorissimo, Un Lys, Fleur d’oranger), iris (Hiris, Bois farine), wooden notes (Féminité du Bois), and ambery ones (Chergui, Parfum sacré, Myrrhe ardente).
What is your career? You have published many papers on Fragrance – please tell us about this research.
I started my research about perfume in literature. More precisely, I worked with odours and perfumes in French and British literature from the late XIXth century. I then realized that the representations of perfumers from that time had changed a lot.
Early 19th Century
At the beginning of the century, César Birotteau (a character of Honoré de Balzac) is a perfume retailer, mostly worried about marketing his products rather that being an artist.
Late 19th Century
At the end of the century, Jean des Esseintes, a character imagined by Huÿsmans (in a novel called A Rebours), is an aesthete who composes fragrant works of art.
I wanted to understand why this evolution had occurred, and I realised that the reason for this phenomenon was a technical one; the art of perfumery emerged at the end of the XIXth century because at that time the number of odours a perfumer could compose with became far more numerous than at the beginning of the century. New raw materials emerged, especially synthetic compounds.
I then decided to dedicate my PhD thesis to the history of perfumery technology in the XIXth century, a time when perfumery becomes a luxury product, in the contemporary sense of the term.
My research is at the meeting point of history and marketing. I am now an Assistant Professor at Université Paris-Est – Marne-la-Vallée, where I teach both the business history of the luxury sector and the marketing of luxury products and brands. I am extremely lucky: it is a custom-made post!
Do you have a fragrant experience you would like to tell us about?
When I was a very little girl, probably two, I can remember often asking my Mum, at bedtime, to leave on my pillow a cotton ball soaked with my baby lotion, a smell I really loved, so that I could sleep well and have sweet dreams. She always did. And it was maybe this that decided on the rest of my whole life!
What suits you for work?
As an Assistant Professor, I usually move about in quite large places and can indulge myself with rather opulent perfumes, without feeling obtrusive. However at work I prefer wearing quite light perfumes, whereas I am very pleased to wear richer ones when I work at home.
A love angle? If you care to share? What is Love?
What are your personal interests?
Literature. As Marcel Proust wrote,
Real life, life at last laid bare and illuminated – the only life in consequence which can be said to be really lived – is literature.
I like the meeting of real and imaginary life, when a book makes you shiver and your heart beats for literary heroes. And when real life writes itself in a beautiful, surprising or funny way as the most perfect novel would do.
Where and how did you gain knowledge?
I was lucky enough to have always loved learning, and to have been able to choose to work on a subject that I love. I started being interested in perfumes at the age of eleven or twelve, I read everything I could find on the subject, and listened with passion the TV programs dedicated to it. My mother was wonderful. I lived in a little village, where there was no big book store nor library, and she would have driven me anywhere for me to find the books I wanted to read.
Then I studied in hypokhâgne and khâgne at Lycée Henri IV in Paris (preparatory course to the competitive exam for Ecole Normale Supérieure). I failed the competitive exam but graduated from Paris IV – Sorbonne the same year. To complete my Master’s Degree, I had to choose the subject I would dedicate my dissertation to, and I chose perfume. That is how my research began, and it was first grounded in literature.
Do you think perfumery is art, artisanal, design and manufacturing, molecular architecture or something else?
Perfume can be both molecular architecture, which I consider to be art, and an industry in the most commercial way. There is no clear limit between these two expressions of the same phenomenon. Niche perfume can be disappointing, and a commercial perfume can reveal an unexpected creativity. That is what makes this art so interesting.
What is the purpose of perfume?
Perfume is made to convey an emotion, just like music, colours, smiles… It is a human creation that sublimates nature, like Ikebana in Japan, or the French art of formal gardens. Because of its fleetingness, perfume is also an art of turning the decay of time into sheer beauty. For all these reasons, a beautiful perfume is the repeated promise for elusive happiness.
Pick a person you admire in Perfumeland and tell us about this person.
Alain Corbin and Annick Le Guérer are by far the two gods of my perfume Pantheon! They opened the way to academic research in perfumery and I owe them both a lot. They certainly determined my passion for perfume and their examples encouraged me much in my choice to dedicate my own academic work to this subject.
As far as the perfume industry is concerned, Catherine Bru (IFF) and Judith Gross (IFF), with whom I was lucky enough to work during one year when I started my professional life at IFF, remain women whose energy, involvement and passion for perfume still inspire and motivate me, more than ten years later.
Big Thanks for your time Eugénie. We loved having you here and look forward to some more writings from you.
French and English versions of Rimbaud’s sonnet Le Dormeur du Val
From Industry to Luxury : French perfume in the nineteenth century
Business History Review, 2011, Vol. 85, issue 4, 273-294
Fashion Sprayed To Displayed – The Market For Perfumery in Nineteeth-Century Paris
Presented to the Economic History Society Annual Conference 2007 – University of Exeter
Further reading in French:
Le parfumeur millionnaire, notable et industriel parisien du XIXe siècle
Revue d’Histoire du XIXe siècle, 2007, n° 34, 129-145
De l’Eau Impériale aux Violettes du Czar : Le jeu social des élégances olfactives dans le Paris du XIXe siècle
Revue d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine, 2008, n° 55-1,28-49.
“Vendre en quantité” ou “Vendre cher” ? : la parfumerie parisienne au XIXe siècle, fabrique d’une industrie de luxe
Pensée et pratique du management en France : inventaire et perspectives XIXe-XXIe siècles, 2012.