Elisabeth de Feydeau, on perfumes, history and teaching in China

Passionate about perfumes and history, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, Elisabeth de Feydeau obtained her PhD in Contemporary History at the University Paris-Sorbonne, and worked as head of cultural affairs at Chanel whilst learning about the ingredients used in perfumery through her olfactory training at the Laboratoire des Parfums.

Since, Elisabeth has launched her own consulting company specialized in olfactory and cultural development as well as a company specialized in design of perfumes products ARTY FRAGRANCE. She also has written several books on luxury and fragrance, translated in several languages.

Recently, Elisabeth was a guest teacher for the Intercultural Management Class for the “Art & Technology” master students in the newly created Sino-French program NACAA. She taught the students about perfume history between China and France.

Q1/Dear Elisabeth, what inspired you to love perfume and become a perfume historian?

Enchanter, storyteller, seducer…perfume has been attracting my nose and mind for many years. What is fascinating with scents is that there is no truth in itself, because the feeling depends on each one.

An emotion is a vibration that can be translated by certain scents. We have our personal olfactory map, made up by the smells that we remember since our birth with the emotion or physical sensations that are associated. Thus, it is how our tastes and dislikes, our pleasures and rejections in terms of perfumes are constituted.

And at the same time, the history of perfume recounts the development of civilizations. Perfumes continue to translate our societies into motion. Olfactory trends follow or precede those of fashion, or art in general. Perfumes are a reflection of our collective unconscious. For example, today, gourmet scents bring us back to childhood and are the translation of today’s need for reassurance. But also, globalization has given rise to the need for societies to reclaim their ancestral culture, their traditions. Perfume today is in search of its roots and that is what fascinates me. I also like that the perfume is like a happiness spread over the world. A perfume tells a story, that of humains and their time. It touches sensitivities and it unites cultures.

Q2/ We had the chance to see your book in Chinese, Have you had any interesting experiences researching perfumes?

It is a great honor for me that my book La Grande Histoire du Parfum (The Great History of Perfume) is published in China. Today, I continue my research and I still work for luxury perfume brands. I appreciate the diversity of style of Maison for which I work. You have to adapt each time, understand without preconceptions but with convictions, be a little chameleon by stepping aside so that the particularity of the brand is highlighted. What matters above all is to serve the Maison that trusts you as best as possible.

I will also soon start writing a new book, still on perfume, but in a novel form. And of course, I also create new scents, attached to new stories for my candle line and home fragrances Arty Fragrance.

Q3/ Which period do you think is most important for the development of French perfume history? Why?

Mystery, subtlety, refinement, bewitchment: perfume has always been used to awaken the senses. This is why since Prehistory, it has fascinated men; capsizes the hearts of women; intrigues and bewitches to the point of sometimes driving you crazy.

The most famous perfumes in the world are French; some are even icons. But do we really know why France has become one of the leading nations in world perfumery? And do we really know its most beautiful treasures?

Voluptuous elixirs with mysterious virtues during the Antiquity; luxurious privilege of kings and queens since the Renaissance; marvellous object of seduction since the 18th century… The history of perfume is an exciting saga initiated by the Egyptians who burned aromatic plants for their supposedly sacred virtues –per fumum, through smoke-; prolonged in Ancient Rome where the nobility was intoxicated by strong perfumes and crazy scents; and accelerated in the Middle Ages with the development of distillation, ethyl alcohol and stills by the apothecaries of the University of Medicine of Montpellier, the oldest in the Western world. Some of these secular or even millenary formulas have survived.

Which period is the most important for French perfumery? Hard to tell! Catherine de Médicis who, arriving from Florence, launched the fashion for perfume in France by demanding that the tanners of the city of Grasse make her gloves of scented skins; Louis XIV who loved Orange Flower water so much that he had it poured into the fountains of the Palace of Versailles; Marie-Antoinette who demanded from her perfumer that he capture, in a bottle, all the scents of the Trianon; Napoleon who rubbed himself every morning with the Eau de Cologne invented by Jean-Marie Farina, who slipped bottles of it into his boots and drank a few drops before giving battle; Empress Eugénie who, in her bathroom in Fontainebleau, was the first to spot the talents of a young 19th century perfumer, Pierre-François Guerlain. His first creation will be Eau de Cologne Impériale; This is how the fabulous Guerlain dynasty was born and the bottled treasures invented: Jicky, Shalimar, L’Heure Bleue, Mitsouko, Mouchoir de Monsieur…

From this wonderful stories, objects remain: fans, gloves, bottles, ointments, scented Cyprus birdies (bird-shaped perfume burner), royal caskets and perfume fountains!

Q4/ Have your understanding of perfume, aesthetics, art influenced your life? 

Of course, every day and in all areas of my life. I believe that I always begin by feeling before understanding! Knowledge of art history is also very important in my life and in my work. These two areas are linked.

Q5/ What perfume do you often wear and why?

L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain that I’ve been wearing since I was 16 but I also really like Chanel’s N°5

Q6/ Recently, we had the chance to have you as a guest speaker for the Intercultural Management Class for the “Art & Technology” master students in the newly created Sino-French program NACAA. How was your experience during this session? 

It was a very interesting experience even if it was more difficult to share the content by video conference. I would have liked to have had more direct interactions and above all I would have liked to smell certain perfumes and scents with the students. But despite the distance, it was a wonderful moment of fellowship and I am very grateful for your invitation to speak in front of the students, who represent the future of creation.

Q7/ NACAA is a Sino-French program between l’Ecole de Design de Nantes Atlantique and the China Academy of Art. What are your advice for our students? 

Learn the past to better understand the future. Creation is an expanded past. Picasso said “we copy first and then one day, we miss our copy and we create!” That’s exactly it, first you have to know the heritage well and then deploy your talent. Open your senses to all forms of creation!

Q8/ How did you get inspired by the French and Chinese intercultural connections ? Is there something in Chinese culture that impressed you (or something you would like to know more ?)

I already came to China to work on the creation of a Perfume Museum in Kunming, in the Yunnan region, from the field of flowers to the bottle. It made sense to create a perfume museum in China, which is one of the cradles of perfumery. I liked discovering this beautiful region of Yunnan. In China, the cultivation of incense has a long history. Perfume has been used for millennia as a spiritual vehicle for the worship of ancestors and gods, in the daily lives of scholars for study and meditation, as an offering in Buddhist ritual. It was and remains an essential element of daily life and medicine. Incense represents a tool, an art and a sign of prosperity. It is fascinating to rely on this heritage to go further in perfumery.

Last word : your main wish for the future of NACAA?

Lots of success, and passion above all else !