Enter Michael Edwards, the industry-renowned scent expert, author and founder of Fragrances of the World – the benchmark guide to perfume classification.
Edwards has devoted his career to demystifying fragrance for those of us who want to smell amazing, but don’t know where to start.
Here, MECCA’s fragrance, hair and body education manager Laura Curtis sits down with Edwards to unpack his storied career, explore his ‘universal perfume language’ and discover his simplified approach to curating a scent wardrobe.
Can you start by telling us what inspired you to devote your career to demystifying the world of fragrance?
What sparked the idea for fragrances of the world?
“I was working for Halston, which was a great American designer brand at the time, and I would travel to visit retailers and department stores around the world because I was responsible for rolling out the fragrances internationally.
“That was when I became convinced that there was a better way to sell fragrance. All you had to do, I thought, was to ask people for the names of their favourite perfumes. That would immediately tell us the family that they most liked. And once we knew that, if there was a guide, then it would be easy to suggest three other fragrances for them to try from the same family.
“The problem? There was no guide. And that’s how it all started.”
How did you work with the perfume industry to create a universal fragrance language?
“I spent nearly a year talking to perfumers and oil houses, because each of them had their own classification system. I turned all the different descriptions the brands had upside down and out of it, I came up with a new, simplified fragrance language that is easy to understand.
“[For example] instead of talking about floral aldehydes – nobody has a clue what that means – I talk about soft florals. Instead of talking about chypre, which in English sounds like furry little animals, I talk about mossy woods. In other words, I made it simpler.”
What has fragrances of the world become today?
“Today, we have classified 44,000 fragrances with the help and collaboration of the brands and perfumers. Right from the start, we made the decision that we would charge no money for listing or classifying new fragrances, and we would not accept sponsorship or advertising.
“The upside was that I could work with any perfumer and any brand in the world. The downside, of course, was that I didn’t make any money apart from selling some books! But it gave me the authority of being totally impartial and independent – the only impartial authority in the fragrance world today.”
You are also the creator of the Michael Edwards Fragrance Wheel. What is the fragrance wheel, and how can it help us to navigate the perfume world?
“With the launch of the Fragrances of the World guide, I was doing an enormous amount of training. Between 1985 and 1994, I trained just under 50,000 people from around the world.
“It was in trying to describe the evolution of the [fragrance] families, the interrelationship of the families, that I came up with the idea of the wheel. Because a floral fragrance with the addition of an aldehyde leads logically to a soft floral, you can smell the transition. If you then start adding potent floral notes like orange flower, for example, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, a soft floral merges into a floral amber – like TOCCA Gia EDP or Floral Street Wild Vanilla Orchid EDP.
“Add incense notes and you get a true soft amber, like Ellis Brooklyn BEE EDP. It’s soft by comparison to a true amber, like Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur, for example. And so it goes on. That’s how the wheel evolved.
“It’s a lovely way to look at fragrance. And if you’re somebody who likes a floral, if you’re looking for something different, don’t hesitate to try a fragrance from the family on either side of the wheel. If you’re somebody, for example, who likes a floral amber, try a more potent soft amber, or a more powdery soft floral.”
Editor’s note: To discover which MECCA fragrance falls into which fragrance family, and where your favourite scents may sit on the spectrum, explore our Shop by Scent page here.
Do you have any advice for people shopping for a new fragrance online?
“When you order a fragrance online, clearly you may be hesitant about it, if you’ve not tried it. Some niche perfumeries like MECCA offer sets of samples. If you open the sample and you love it, great. If you don’t, you can send it back. In other words, they take the risk out of finding a new fragrance.”
Editor’s note: Find MECCA’s collection of fragrance discovery sets here.
What is your advice for choosing perfume as a gift for someone else?
Sometimes we will smell a fragrance on someone else and love it, but it doesn’t smell the same on us – why is that?
Where should we apply our perfume?
“When you look at the underside of your wrist, you’ll see that you have veins – dark little veins, close to your skin. You also have them at your elbow, you have them at the nape of your chest and at the collarbone. Behind your knees is another good one, because scent rises. So, anywhere that you have [these] pulse points. I think it was Coco Chanel who said, ‘Wear it anywhere you want to be kissed,’ which sounds very nice.
“[Don’t apply fragrance] under your ears – the skin [there] is very much oilier, and with a slightly different acidic balance to it. So, if you put something at the back of your ears, chances are that it is going to sour the fragrance.”
And how much fragrance should we spray?
“Be cautious. It is very difficult for us to know how much suits our skin. I’m constantly surprised by the way that people can smell what I’m wearing, and I wear it very discreetly. My skin has the ability to radiate fragrance – and I don’t smell it, but you can smell it.
“The fact is that we can’t smell our fragrance after a couple of minutes – our nose almost cuts off scent – but other people can. So, ask your nearest and dearest, ‘How do you like my scent? Can you smell it?’ It’s trial and error until you learn how much your skin radiates fragrance.”
And finally, can you share some of your favourite MECCA fragrances?
“That’s easy – Editions de Parfums Frédéric Malle Cologne Bigarade EDP by Jean-Claude Ellena. I like that very much! It is a bitter freshness, and that is unusual because so often freshness is sweet.
“From diptyque, years and years ago I discovered L’Ombre Dans L’Eau EDT – ‘the shadow in the water’. It was a fragrance created by a man called Serge Kalouguine. He did about six of the [diptyque] fragrances at the start. We know very little about him or what other fragrances he did, but I know he composed that one and I’ve always enjoyed it.