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December 1, 2006

"L’Artisan Parfumeur 30 years later" By Luca Turin

"L’Artisan Parfumeur 30 years later" By Luca Turin

The first “niche” perfumery, in a field by now synonymous with frantic novelty and six-day -wonders, is thirty years old and still going strong. In 1976 Jean Laporte had the idea of creating bold, transparent, highly colored, deceptively simple perfumes that did not belong in the French Mainstream and to sell them to the (by then solvent) 1968 generation. The packaging was as clever as the compositions: Laporte made liberal use of synthetic materials, yet his boutiques had a cozy, floral, natural-feeling potpourri look to them, miles away from luxury goods. Having discovered a new continent, this latter-day Coty populated it with odd creatures: his Vanilia was the first vanillic to use huge amounts of the candyfloss material ethyl maltol and is still the most euphoric perfume in existence. His first big hit was Mûres et Musc (1978), associating galaxolide, a powerful synthetic musk with red berry undertones, to yet more red berry heart notes in a formula that still works fine.

A series of successes, oddly unacknowledged by the industry, made L’Artisan millions. Laporte is a true fragrance fanatic: a decade ago, he organized an astonishing exhibition in Paris in which all the great natural raw materials of perfumery were presented together with superb specimens of the live plants whence they came, all in full bloom. It was a logistical miracle, and a feast for eye and nose. Laporte started out as a chemist and once told me that his first olfactory experiment as a child involved putting cabbage leaves into an empty metal box and letting them rot for months, releasing on the way, as he put it, “most of sulfur chemistry.”. He left in 1989 to found Maître Gantier et Parfumeur, plowing a parallel furrow. After his departure, L’Artisan Parfumeur changed owners and seemed to lose its way, then recovered with a hit-and-miss string of very fashionable, slightly arty fragrances among which Olivia Giacobetti’s excellent Premier Figuier and Dzing!.

By this time (in the late 90’s), the niche competition was fierce, and within it the natural-materials tendency was in the ascendant. L’Artisan cleverly made use of the best talent available, that of Bertrand Duchaufour and Jean-Claude Ellena. Never underestimate the French gift for refinement: from Debussy to Nouvelle Cuisine, they do fresh, spare, subtle beauty like nobody else. No fragrance better illustrates this, and better exemplifies what amounts to a new school, than Duchaufour’s sensationally beautiful Timbuktu (2004). It is a vetiver, but unlike any other, with a cool, rosy, dawn-like radiance that makes you want to buy twenty years’ worth in case L’Artisan is ever bought by LVMH.