I recently received my copy of Frederic Malle’s book, On Perfume Making and all week I have been alternating between the different Frederic Malle creations I have collected with a newfound appreciation. At the end of last year I skimmed through some of the reviews provided by media and perfume enthusiasts who were privileged to receive an advance copy and this had me eagerly awaiting the book’s release on Amazon.com. A number of reviewers commented on the book’s apparent lack of depth, given the title, many expected a complete manifesto of Malle’s perfume secrets. I too felt a small sense of disappointment when I first opened the book realising I was going to find myself on the last page within a matter of hours. The book is deceptively large measuring 30cm x 40cm but so is the print. I replied to my partner who commented over my shoulder on the unnecessary size of the book that I was now ordering large print books from Amazon after my optometrist increased my optical script in January. But after reaching halfway I began to realise how concise Malle’s words were and like his perfumes, there was little need for unnecessary content when the pages he had provided conveyed his full intent. As I came to the final page I felt a renewed sense of reverence for Frederic Malle perfumes, especially the ones that I have collected since a friend introduced me to the brand in 2004. Now when I smell them, not only do they revive memories of significant events that have taken place when I have worn them in the past, I now connect them to the stories Malle shares in his book about their creation.
The book cleverly starts with a behind the scenes look at modern perfume practices; it also highlights their shortcomings. This allows the reader to clearly understand Malle’s initial intention for the brand and his opinion that traditional perfumery was at risk of extinction when he first set out. This may sound dramatic, yet when you cast your mind back to perfumery in 1999, it was a very different landscape. There is no question that over the past decade, niche perfume brands such as Frederic Malle, Serge Lutens and Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier have maintained an artisanal quality that commercial perfumery has significantly marginalised. Frederic Malle shares his own story of how he approached a small number of perfumers who he thought would be interested in his proposal, to create a series of perfumes that were highly original and creativity was of paramount importance. Cost of raw materials and industry politics were not considerations. Malle says some of his noses took to this unusual way of working very well. Others not accustomed to so much freedom, needed his guidance and encouragement. A point that resonated with me is that the brand is established in a very different way compared to other perfume houses. Most houses require the commissioned perfumer to align with the style of the house. With Frederic Malle, one of his objectives is to put forward the signature of the perfumer, which is why the collection can seem a little disparate. I find this interesting because although I do like the fact I can go to Guerlain, Hermes or Chanel and know more or less what I am going to get from the cohesive collections they offer, Frederic Malle is a different machine, you need to sample each creation as they are all so different and this is an interesting point of difference.
Creation of a new perfume generally happens in three phases:
– The perfumer discusses with Malle what type of perfume they would like to build.
– Initial trials are performed to decide whether the concept has legs. Malle says that his role at this point is to stimulate the imaginations of his perfumers.
– The final stage is to finish the formula. Malle says that although the concept is live, the perfume may not necessarily perform well. This final stage involves numerous trials, tests and feedback sessions to ensure the perfume smells great and performs at every stage of its evaporation.
The book then dedicates pages to each perfumer, giving a short biography and story of how Malle came to work with them. At this stage I was concerned that I was going to be re-feed the biographies that are printed on each perfume box and are available from the brand’s website. There is some duplication but there are still a number of facts that you will not find elsewhere.
One of the key points that is raised in almost every chapter are the innovations that continue to develop with natural raw materials, innovations that are the responsibility of Monique Remy Laboratories (LMR) to be more precise. In niche perfumery, costly naturals such as rose, tuberose absolutes or orris concretes often set smaller niche houses apart from the larger competitors who could not produce fragrances using such materials because of cost or supply. Frederic Malle goes a step further taking these already costly ingredients and he adds the complexity of science to them. Companies such as LMR (now a subsidiary of IFF) and Robertet SA have combined over a century of savoir-faire with modern science. After perfecting the art of horticulture, distillation and extraction in Grasse, the birthplace of French perfumery, they now add science to their repertoire of skills. Chemists take the precious extractions and work them further, removing problematic or unwanted molecules to create an even more refined natural product.
For Malle the results were a new custom-made bitter orange essence that perfumer Jean-Claude Ellena used for Cologne Bigarade. Thanks to Mane Laboratories, a new Turkish rose essence was made available for Edouard Flechier’s creation Une Rose. And for Veitver Extraordinaire, LMR provided a molecular distilled Haitian vetiver essence to perfumer Dominique Ropion.
In discussing Vetiver Extraordinaire, my favourite Frederic Malle perfume, Malle shares his opinion on bespoke perfumes. He says they have never made sense to him. “They didn’t exist between the two world wars, which was a time of infinitely greater extravagance and luxury than now. I see perfume as a matter for professionals, if not artists. The language barrier and the fact that few people are capable of conceptualising a scent, and even fewer of knowing when to stop, have been obstacles to putting my ideas into practice. Such hurdles probably explain why the greatest perfumers do not produce custom designs”. I find this statement to be a remarkable viewpoint, which could be debated either way. The book if filled with small pockets of thought that comes from Malle’s extensive experience in the industry and sheer intelligence.
The book is a wonderful and easy read. I am sure I will take even more from it when I read it for the second time. Beautifully illustrated by artist Konstantin Kakanias and a brief foreword by Catherine Deneuve, Frederic Malle is now on my list of men I would most like to have at my dinner table.
ISBN 10: 3943287017, ISBN-13: 978-3943287011
English, 112 pages, 2012