By Rachel Alt
“We’re not selling perfume,” Michael Edwards tells an assembled crowd of Sydney fragrance industry executives, as they scribble notes madly, “we’re selling confusion.” When Mr Edwards speaks, the fragrance industry listens. He’s right about the confusion. With 1,500 new fragrances on the market every year, buying perfume has become an exercise in fear and frustration. It takes a very special talent to be able to help people find what they want.
Mr Edwards was called ‘the perfume experts’ expert’ by the late Evelyn Lauder, a Vice-President of Estee Lauder. He has dedicated his life to making the world of perfumes accessible to everyone and, in doing so, has carved out a reputation for equality and fairness in the industry. There is no-one he has not, or will not, speak to about perfume – from overwhelmed interns, to artisan perfumers to product managers at all the major fragrance houses.
“I would love to tell you that my work is that of genius, but it’s really just evolved by accident,” he says at a Sydney Perfume Lovers Meetup group.
Michael Edwards grew up in “deepest Africa”, in Malawi, playing with the servants’ children under the shade of the tamboti tree, with its sweeter-than-sandalwood scent. White families in Malawi, at least those who could afford to do so, would “keep their dogs at home and send their children away”, he says. And so he began his formal education at age seven when he attended boarding school in London.
As a young man in the 1960s, he was hired as a product manager in the toiletries marketing department of a fast-moving consumer goods company. He says of the time “the 1960s were a really ‘go-go’ time. We could do things so much faster. It was an age of marketing, anything was possible.”
In New York, the Madison Avenue advertising agencies were also reshaping consumers’ emotional connections to the products they bought. He says that among these cognitive changes was the fact that “we had become aware that perfume had an effect on how people felt about a product’s performance”.
He was fascinated, but credible information about scent was hard to find. In 1975, he came across a technical guide from Firmenich, an international producer of perfumery and flavor chemicals, which categorised fragrance into olfactory families. This structure made it easier for non-chemists to understand how to explain the difference between fragrances. The guide remained his constant reference as he rose through the industry ranks to head up the international fragrance business for Halston and Orlane in Paris.
In 1983, he was posted to Sydney to oversee a merger. Three months after arriving, and as a result of a corporate takeover, he found himself out of a job.
He knew that there was still a need for fragrance retailers and distributors to understand the olfactory families better and so started running fragrance workshops of his own – first with Yves Saint Laurent then Dior. From there his education business grew — and he wrote his first fragrance guide.
What started as a “tatty, spiral-bound, instant-printed” book, covering just over 300 perfumes, evolved into the Fragrances of the World industry bible which lists over 8,000 fragrances and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. He does not accept payment for listings, advertising or consultancy fees from any brand and this means Mr Edwards is regarded in the industry as impartial. He says that when he consults with the major fragrance houses “We’re relaxed, we’re friends. I’m not there to prove anything”.
The book proved such a reliable and comprehensive resource that soon the industry wanted more information. It wanted to know about the structure, history and teams behind each perfume. The online database, fragrancesoftheworld.info, was launched and now carries details of over 18,000 fragrances. Proctor and Gamble call it their ‘unofficial archive’.
Michael Edwards’ fascination with fragrance lead him to write Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances and reveal the stories behind 45 legendary perfumes. While writing the book, he interviewed over 160 perfumers, fragrance houses, suppliers and evaluators, many of whom became friends. People thought he was mad; they said “Why do you want to speak to them, they’re ‘people of the shade’?” But he wanted their stories. “So far as the world knew, Dior brewed his own perfume and Yves Saint Laurent filled the vials from his own workshop.” Acknowledgement of the work, and creative practice, required to bring a perfume to market was all but hidden, until the publication of Perfume Legends.
The book’s launch caused a flurry of consternation. In London, Mr Edwards was attacked by two reporters who said “How can you come from Australia and know anything about perfume?” Now that Perfume Legends is out of print, it’s a collector’s item. In August, a copy sold for £581 on eBay. Recently he was at Institut Supérieur International du Parfum, de la Cosmétique et de L’aromatique Alimentaire (ISIPCA), the acclaimed perfume school near Versailles, when a young woman told him “I’m here because of your book.”
Ainslie Walker, a journalist for australianperfumejunkies.com, describes him as the “David Attenborough of the perfume world”, not just because of his contribution to the industry, but for his “mannerisms and gentle accent”. His fragrance evaluator Erica Moore, with whom he has worked for 10 years, agrees and says, “He’s a stickler for manners. He always sends a hand-written thank you note after meetings.”
Michael Edwards is always impeccably attired in well-tailored, classic black or dark suits made of the finest wool, cotton or silk. He has an energy when addressing a crowd that makes everyone in the room feel he is there just for them. He doesn’t command presence so much as invite it.
His deep, cultured voice endears him to those with whom he speaks. His global experiences are reflected in his speaking style – clear elocution from his English educational upbringing; French words fall from his tongue as if he were a native Parisian. Only the softening of the ‘t’ to a ‘d’ in ‘fruity’ reveals his time spent in the United States.
His work requires Mr Edwards to remain impartial, yet accessible, to the global perfume industry so he and his wife Joanne travel a great deal. Six months of the year they live in their Paris apartment (‘‘a marvelous base from which to travel in Europe”, he says), and a few months of the year they live in New York, consulting with American retailers. The remaining months they relocate to Sydney. “Sydney is my downtime,” says Mr Edwards “I love it here. I still call Australia home.”
In a 2009 interview with Fragrance Forum, Mr Edwards said, “I can’t recall a time that I didn’t travel, so for me, home is mostly wherever I am.”
It seems that making everyone feel at home is Michael Edward’s gift – especially in the wonderful, challenging, rich and rewarding world of fragrance.