A Journey Through American Fragrance with Michael Edwards

Perfume expert in a suit speaking at a lectern on stage
Michael Edwards. Photo by Joe Carrotta for FIT.

Most of us remember the first scent we ever wore, our high school or college fragrance, and the one we spritzed on the day we got married. What many don’t know is that the scents we love are also defined by their context in the long and storied history of perfumes.

The memories of some 40 iconic American scents have been contextualized in American Legends: The Evolution of American Fragrances, the latest book by Michael Edwards. Edwards came to FIT on Monday, April 15 to discuss and sign the book and join both Linda Levy, president of The Fragrance Foundation, and niche perfumer Chris Collins in conversation.

“To the French, perfume is liquid art; to the Italians, liquid style; to the Americans, liquid money,” Edwards said.

Beginning with Caswell Massey, one of the earliest fragrances, from 1752, Edwards guided the enthusiastic FIT audience through key fragrances in American history. “The selection of the fragrances in the books are deliberate. Either the fragrance introduced a new note so innovative the competitors flocked to copy it, or tech advance so inspiring that others copied it, or the fragrance itself made such an impact that it started a new trend.”

The first perfume to gain classic status was Colgate’s Cashmere Bouquet in 1872; its popularity launched Colgate into the fragrance business. Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass, created in 1934, was the first international American success.

In 1973, Charlie changed the world. “Before Charlie, men bought fragrance for women,” Edwards said. “After Charlie, women bought fragrance for themselves.”

Edwards believes that the advent of social media changed the perfume world irrevocably. “I remember doing a presentation for Proctor and Gamble and I ended it by saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I hate to tell you but you are no longer in charge of your brands. Customers are … with social media.'”

The evening then transitioned to a conversation among Edwards, Levy, and Collins.

They discussed the ways fragrance consumption has changed since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. “Instead of people having one signature fragrance, they’re really into a collection,” Levy said.

Three perfume experts sitting on stage
From left: Linda Levy, Chris Collins, and Michael Edwards. Photo by Joe Carrotta for FIT.

In the past, Collins said, consumers had a signature fragrance, but now they have become collectors. “Now they might have 200, 250, 300. They want something new, they want something exciting, they want something that tells an incredible story, so as a niche perfumer, that’s what we have to bring to the table.”

Edwards advised retailers to catch up to the savvy new consumer. “The consumer is evolving, but I don’t think the retailer is evolving. I don’t think most of them are coming to grips with the niche market. Is there an opportunity for them? By God, there’s an opportunity for them.”

Collins shared a glimpse into his perfume-making process. He said he doesn’t head to the lab thinking he’s going to make a hit perfume. “It’s just like going in to the studio as a musician: You don’t go in to make a hit song; you go in to make good music. The hit is up to the consumer. It’s up to the people who listen to it and want to buy it. And you cannot even plan it. The stars have to align.”

Available On-Demand: Play the recording from the event