Interview with Michael Edwards - creator of Fragrances of the World


In the eighties, a European named Michael Edwards invented a completely new way of describing fragrances. Drawing on his experience as Halston's international fragrance director, he published a guide that took the hassle out of selecting a new fragrance. What started as a simple yet innovative reference for staff in perfumeries and department stores has evolved into the world's most comprehensive fragrance manual. Basenotes interviewed Michael just before the launch of 'Fragrances of the World 2001'

How did you get your interest in the perfume industry?​

In the 1960s, as a young product manager at the Beecham Group in London, I was part of a generation of marketing specialists who ran out of new active ingredients to talk about. Within months of each additive emerging from the research laboratories, competitors had matched it. Searching for product pluses, I became intrigued with fragrance's ability to change people's perception of a product's performance.

Most scientists then dismissed the sense of smell as 'primitive'. Today, we know that it is one of our most complex senses. Yet, despite the advances, it remains the least understood.

In 1975, I attended a fragrance seminar organised by Firmenich, a leading fragrance house. I smelt a range of fragrances organised by their families: florals, aldehydes, orientals, chypres. For the first time, fragrance made sense. Common sense. It intrigued my senses and fired my imagination.

Firmenich's classifications, their feminine Bouquet de la Parfumerie and their masculine Synoptic (both, sadly, out of print since 1978), became my smelling bibles. Their classifications were not easy for a lay person to fully appreciate because within each family, the fragrances were classified by accord. That is perfumespeak for the foundation stone of any fragrance, a base or theme that results from blending together a few raw materials – two, three, four, maybe more - to create a new scentual experience. It's the perfumers' 'big idea', and when they find a new accord, often all it needs is a little touch on top to introduce it and a few accents in the drydown to round it out. I'm simplifying, of course, but I think you get the idea.

To give you a feel for the terminology, can you imagine the scent of an 'aldehydic green spicy Flowery (bud)'? That's the accord cluster to which fresh, green florals like Fidji (Guy Laroche, 1966) belonged. Or the fragrance of a 'woody aromatic animal Leather'? That's Aramis (Aramis 1965).

While the buzz talk didn't always make sense, Firmenich's guide provided me with a framework within which to organise my smelling. It helped make sense of the jumble of fragrances. I'd make a note of five or six new fragrances within one family and check them out in a shop. I kept notes.

I had the chance to concentrate on fragrances when I moved to Paris, to direct the international rollout of Halston's fragrances, Halston (1975), the great women's classic created by Bernard Chant, and the two men's entries, Halston Z-14 (still superb) and 1-12 (both 1976). If you wonder why two men's fragrances, the answer is that Halston couldn't make up his mind which one he preferred so he said, "Launch both". The names, Z-14 and 1-12? Those were the perfumer's code numbers.

Most people think French perfumes are only made by French perfumers and American perfumes by American perfumers... this is a great example of reality!

For me, those years in Paris were pivotal. I became fascinated with the work of the perfumers and had the fortune to get to know many of them personally. My interest in fragrance turned into a passion. And naturally, when one feels that strongly about something, one has the incentive to delve into it, boots and all.

What made you decide to create the Fragrance Advisor?​

While working with Halston, I became intrigued by the problem people have in finding a fragrance that will suit them and the lack of advice. Fragrance advisors tend to push the fragrances they personally like. It's quite natural. Our sense of smell is emotional, not logical. We are confident about the fragrances we like. That's why we talk about them and tend to push them.

Problem is, what I like will probably not be what you like. And so finding a new fragrance so often ended up being a frustrating experience.

That was what prompted the idea of a fragrance guide. While Haarmann & Reimer's Genealogy was available then, it had become a professional tool that was not easy for the layperson to use. There was no guide available that made sense to people with little or no perfume or technical knowledge.

In 1983, I turned my idea into reality. Halston had lost control of his licences and retired, a hurt and bruised man. His company was sold and I decided to strike out on my own. I moved to Sydney to test market the first guide.

The families were my starting point. They hold the key to people's likes and dislikes. Each family has a characteristic scent whose personality is reflected in its fragrances. People are always surprised to discover just how many fragrances they like actually belong to the same family.

I developed the Fragrance Wheel to show at a glance the relationship between the different families. To the major groups of fragrances defined by perfumers – Floral, Oriental and Woody – I added a fourth, the Fresh notes. Modern perfumery has transformed what were once simply light eaux de cologne into real Citrus fragrances. The true Green fragrances and the Water fragrances are also included among the Fresh notes.

The Fragrance Wheel

To help people pinpoint their selection more accurately, the Fragrance Wheel breaks down the four major groups into 12 distinct families. Each family leads to the next.

I simplified some of the family names to get away from perfume buzzwords: the name, Floral Aldehydes, confuses: Soft Floral makes their scent more easily understood. Chypres became Mossy Woods; Semi-orientals, Soft Orientals.

I positioned the Aromatic Fougères at the hub of the Fragrance Wheel because they are a universal fragrance family whose scent includes elements from different families:

  • The freshness of a Citrus
  • Floral notes of lavender
  • The spicy-sweetness of a Floral Oriental
  • The ambery depth of an Oriental
  • And the Mossy Woods warmth of sandalwood and oakmoss

The family takes its name from a fragrance long since discontinued: Fougère Royale, introduced by Houbigant in 1882. Men grew up on Fougères. Most of the key men's fragrances developed since the mid-1960s have come from this family: Mouchoir de Monsieur (1904, Guerlain's twist on Jicky), Mennen Skin Bracer (1931), Canoë (1935), Brut (1964), Paco Rabanne (1976), Azzaro (1978), Kouros (1981), Drakkar Noir (1982), Cool Water (1988), Tommy (1995), Paul Smith Men (2000).

What started out in 1984 as a simple guide for retailers has evolved year by year into the world's most comprehensive fragrance manual, dedicated to the simple idea that discovering fragrances should be a pleasure, not a problem.

Fragrances of the World 2001, my new guidebook, puts 2,695 fragrances at your fingertips. It includes over 300 new fragrances introduced in 2000 and 2001 and remains the only guide to match men's and women's fragrances, family by family.

It is also the only guide to classify the fragrances of the boutique perfumers: Annick Goutal, Comptoir Sud Pacifique, Creed, Diptyque, L'Artisan Parfumeur, L'Occitane, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, Molinard, Patricia de Nicolaï, etc. In the new edition, I've added the Demeter Fragrance Library, Fresh and Shu Uemura collections.



As the number of fragrances grew, so did the audience. Perfumers, evaluators and trainers now use Fragrances of the World as an encyclopaedic reference. Beauty writers refer to it and marketing professionals find the House Index a useful competitive reference. Now, to my delight, fragrance addicts are discovering my work. Harrods featured Fragrances of the World 2000 in their Christmas book catalogue.

Say, if I had developed a fragrance. How would I go about getting it listed? What stages does the fragrance go through before it is listed?​

Simply e-mail or talk to me. There is no charge is made for classifying and listing the fragrances but I won't automatically include every name. The fragrance has to be of some significance or interest.

Fragrances of the World is independent and impartial. Its publication is made possible by the thousands of stores and individuals that subscribe to each annual edition.

To include a fragrance, I need a 30-ml or 1-oz evaluation sample, its fragrance pyramid, the name of the perfumer who created it and a colour photo of the bottle to scan into the image bank of the Fragrance Advisor CD-ROM. That's all.

Do you personally smell everything in the guidebook?​

Yes and retain the bottles in a series of cool fridges. I evaluate each fragrance and check my classification with the house evaluator or perfumer.

Do evaluators always agree with your initial classifications?​

No. Does that bother me? No. I am quite undefensive about my work. My only objective is to come up with the best if-you-like-that-you'll-probably-like-this match. While I evaluate each fragrance on at least three separate occasions, my colleagues at the houses have lived through its evolution. Their knowledge and insight are exceptionally valuable so I take on board any comments or corrections they may care to make.

If – and it rarely happens – we can't agree, then I refer the classification to my Technical Consultant, M. Guy Robert. A former president of the French Society of Perfumers, he is the celebrated perfumer who created Madame Rochas, Calèche, Équipage and the Amouage fragrances some of your members have raved about.

When a fragrance is discontinued, how long is it before you remove it from the book?​

I tend not to delete prestige fragrances because stocks hang around in stores for years and because subscribers want to know the family to which they belonged. In fact, at the request of some subscribers, I have put back some long-gone fragrances like Deneuve, Clandestine, and Ruffles.

Unless they are important, I remove mass-market fragrances two years after they have been discontinued worldwide. Bear in mind, though, that a house like Revlon may delete their fragrances in the States yet have a thriving business in Australia or the UK. That's why your members may come across a fragrance that is no longer available in their country but which, in my guidebook, is not marked as discontinued.

Have you ever thought about including more detailed information about some of the more popular fragrances (eg. description, dominant notes)​

I have a team working on a project right now that will do just that.

Anything else you would like to mention about the book?​

Only to mention that Fragrances of the World is more than a professional reference. In my foreword, I said that "it is a fragrance map to a world of olfactory delights. I hope it will encourage people to be more adventurous and spontaneous with their fragrance wardrobe. Fragrances can be so much more than just pleasant accessories, "Perfumes are foods that reawaken the spirit," as it says in the Koran. A great perfume is a work of art. It is silent poetry, invisible body language. It can lift our days, enrich our nights and create the milestones of our memories.

Fragrance is liquid emotion."

I mean it!

What are your favourite fragrances (male/female) and why?​

Eau Sauvage for its miracle of balance. Jo Malone says that it smells of crisp sheets and money. She's right.

Other favourites include Armani Pour Homme, Kenzo Pour Homme, Givenchy Gentlemen, Chanel Pour Monsieur, Hermès Équipage, Guerlain's Vol de Nuit and Vetiver, Serge Lutens's Bois de Violette from his Palais Royale collection, Diptyque's L'Ombre dans l'Eau, Demeter's Dirt

Which male fragrances do you think have been the most important for the
men's fragrance industry as a whole? Why?​

Here are my benchmarks, the movers and shakers whose fragrances have influenced the evolution of men's fragrances: (The house is in brackets, followed by the perfumer.)

Any fragrances you feel are vastly overrated?​

Of course!

Any books you could recommend for anyone interested in learning more about fragrances?​

  • Les Sens du Parfum Guy Robert (only in French) - ISBN 2-7464-0187-8
  • Fabulous Fragrances II Jan Moran (primarily women's fragrances) - ISBN 0-9639065-4-2
  • The H&R Book of Perfume Julia Muller - ISBN 3-87261-049-X
  • The New Perfume Handbook Nigel Groom - ISBN 0-7514-0403-9
  • Parfums : Le Guide Luca Turin (Only in French)
  • Perfume William Kaufman (out of print but check libraries) - ISBN 0-525-49506-1
  • Perfume Legends: French Feminine Fragrances Michael Edwards - ISBN 0-646-277794-4
  • Perfume: The Story of a Murderer Patrick Süskind - ISBN 0-241-11919-7
  • Scents and Sensuality: The Essence of Excitement Max Lake- ISBN 0-7195-4600-1
  • Scent: The Mysterious and Essential Powers of Smell Annick LeGuérer - ISBN 0-394-58526-7

For those who live in one of the major US cities, Friday's issue of Women's Wear Daily, the New York fashion trade newspaper available at newsstands, focuses on fragrance and cosmetics. It's really worthwhile.

If you could bring back one discontinued fragrance, which would it be and why?​

Grenouille's elixir from Patrick Süskind's book!

On a more serious note, Chypre de Coty (1917), a fragrance so admired that it gave its name to the modern Chypre family of fragrances. The closest match today would be Chanel Pour Monsieur.


Basenotes would like to once again thank Michael for his time in giving us this interview. If you would like to get hold of one of his books, visit his


About the author
Grant is the founder and owner of Basenotes and lives by the sea.

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