Henri Alméras, the legendary perfumer of Grasse, stared contemptuously at designer Jean Patou and his confidant Elsa Maxwell, the plumpish society columnist from America. It was 1930, and the pair had come to the south of France in search of a perfume to prop up Patou's couture empire—hard hit by the Great Depression. Patou and Maxwell had spent two days smelling through everything in Alméras' workshop—and rejected all of them. Finally, the perfumer grabbed one last vial and handed it over. "If you don't like this," he sneered, "I'll get a job herding goats."
Patou did like it—a lot. But then Alméras delivered the bad news. "You can't use it commercially," he said. "The price will be prohibitive." Which was true. The scent that Alméras had made had used thousands of flowers and too much precious oil. It was, really, the costliest perfume ever made.
If Patou saw that fact as a problem, Maxwell saw it as marketing. "That's our angle," she proclaimed. "We'll promote it as the most expensive perfume in the world."
So it happened that one of history's greatest fragrances and one of business' greatest marketing gambits was born in the same room. For 85 years and counting, Joy by Jean Patou has boasted more flowers packed into a tiny bottle—336 roses and 10,600 jasmine flowers, supposedly—than anything else at the fragrance counter. To this day, Joy contracts with growers in France for tons of jasmine and roses. Considering that a single pound of hand-picked jasmine flowers from Grasse goes for $43,000, well, you get the idea. "It's not the most expensive perfume, but the costliest to produce," explained fragrance expert Marian Bendeth, owner of Toronto-based firm Sixth Scents. "That's a really good marketing ploy."
Indeed so—and not the only one. These days, the perfume industry hinges on the idea that owning a designer's fragrance is a practical, affordable substitute for owning the designer's clothes. But that idea goes back to 1930, when 250 prominent American women, their clothes shopping curtailed by the Great Depression, received a free bottle of Joy from Patou and Maxwell. "They said, 'If you can't afford our couture, we know you'll still want something desirable,'" Bendeth said. "This was the great crossover."
In Joy's case, that crossover was so effective that it outlasted both the designer (who died in 1936) and his label (which ceased production in 1987). Joy's days looked numbered, too, during a decade of lackluster stewardship by Procter & Gamble, but today the scent is enjoying a resurgence under London-based Designer Parfums and finding a new generation of women who, Bendeth said, "find a glory in the concept and its vintage quality."
And Alméras never wound up herding goats.