Interview with French Perfume Names Connaisseur Bela (Frag Name of the Day):
French Names Sell Perfumes

Eau de Prep Tommy Girl S(m)ells Better than Preppy Tommy Girl's Water

Parisienne by Yves Saint Laurent

I don't know about you, but French makes my knees very soft :).

For example, a man can tell me many things in French and I believe it!

So, ever since I've started exploring the beautiful world of perfumes, I am very happy to read and hear lots of French all around the perfumes, e.g. the perfume names or in the perfume advertisements.

Perfume marketing gurus realized that French, the ultimate language of love, seduction, style, haute couture, sells perfumes, too. As a result many beautiful, poetic perfume names in French emerge. On the other hand, also lots of grammatically incorrect names or ridiculous hybrid perfume names, combining English and French, pop up all the time. The latest hybrid winner comes from the Pope of Pong, Tommy Hilfiger: Eau de Prep Tommy Girl.

One of the most important 'ingredients' of the French language is the correct pronunciation - which produces the enticing melody of the French. It is therefore a great pleasure and honor to interview Bela, the owner and editor of the Frag Name of the Day blog. Bela is born Parisienne, living in London. By profession she is a literary translator, published as well, and among other, she was also a speaker for BBC French Service.

Bela's blog is to my knowledge the only online resource specialized in the correct pronunciation of the French perfume names. Visiting Bela's blog is therefore a must-read, no, a must-listen for every decent perfumista.

Meet Bela and Her Frag Name of the Day

No. 5 de Chanel [Chanel No. 5]

Bela (by the way, your name means 'white' in my native language, Slovenian), your blog Frag Name of the Day is a unique online resource that includes enormous collection of audio files of correct pronunciation of French names of perfumes and perfume houses.

Where did the inspiration for creating this blog come from - was it the ubiquitous mispronunciation of French perfume names and perfume houses that maybe cringed you as a native French speaking perfumista, working also in Penhaligon's perfume shop in London for some time?

First of all, let me say how flattered I am by your interest in Frag Name of the Day. Thank you very much for inviting me to your lovely blog.

Since you mention my name, I would like to explain a little bit about it: when I first joined the US message board MakeupAlley [MUA], back in 2002, I was eager to post and had to choose a username very quickly, and the first name that came to mind - which would be easy to type and wouldn't take too much space on screen - was my mother's, Bela. She was born in Ukraine, in a town that was, at the time, one minute Polish and the next Russian and then back to Polish again. Bela doesn't actually mean 'white' in Polish, but the word for it isn't a million miles from it: it's 'bialy'. My father, who was 'properly' Russian, used to call my mother Bielka, which means 'squirrel' in Russian. Anyway, Bela became my Internet name and, although it did feel a bit strange for a while, I am now almost as much Bela as X (my real name, which I won't reveal).

So... what was the inspiration for Frag Name of the Day? Well, I didn't have the idea of doing it overnight. As I said, I joined MakeupAlley nine years ago, mostly to correct the errors I had noticed the first time I had read posts on the Fragrance Board. People were discussing Serge Lutens and getting very confused about the different ranges, etc., so I set about trying to explain things. MakeupAlley was a more relaxed, jollier place than it is now: off-topic posts were allowed and there was a lot of banter between members.

La Petite Robe Noire [The Little Black Dress]

Anyway, from time to time, a plaintive little voice would say, 'How on earth do you pronounce this name?' It was mostly French names that dismayed people and I usually endeavoured to transliterate them, but without the use of phonetic symbols they could only be approximations and therefore rather unsatisfactory. Once, I recorded a name - I think it was Guerlain, which someone couldn't get to grips with - and sent it to that person by email. One couldn't post audio files on MUA at the time (or maybe one could, but I didn't know how to yet); recording was more difficult than it is these days (Audacity wasn't available yet). Also, I was working very hard and couldn't devote a lot of time to a hobby. But I remember promising to record perfume names when I retired.

I am not fully retired yet, but I do have a little more time now (apart from when I'm on a deadline). So I'm just keeping a promise, really.

The name of your blog is Frag Name of the Day - does this mean you publish a pronunciation audio file for one fragrance every single day?

Yes, that's what I aim to do. I don't always manage it. I was very busy over the summer and let things slip for several weeks, but I am now up-to-date again. I will try my best to keep it up.

How many perfume names are already published on your blog? Where do you get new ideas, perfume names? Currently, from the perfume houses the biggest audio file collection on your blog is for your beloved Serge Lutens (55) and Guerlain (43)...

To date [October 20th 2011] 665 names have been posted. I scour the Fragrance Board [at MUA] and some blogs, etc. for names I haven't done yet. I also ask my partner, who is British, for help, since I can't always tell what someone else who isn't fluent in French will find tricky to pronounce. But I am starting to stall a little bit and I would be grateful if your readers asked me for names to record and post.

Serge Lutens was bound to be the 'star' because, as I said above, I owe him my Internet persona (I also devoted a page to his creations). And Guerlain, well, it is still - with Chanel - one of the most important perfume houses in the world. My first adult scent was Jicky and I've worn several other Guerlains in the past, but, in this case, the favoritism I seem to be showing towards it is not deliberate. I have absolutely no bias towards this or that brand. I hardly ever take it into account: I just try not to post several names from the same house too close together. I have no bias against any house either. For instance, I loathe the names given to some of their perfumes by État Libre d'Orange: they are deliberately offensive - and vulgar, which is even worse - and I believe it is a cynical marketing ploy, but I acknowledge that a lot of people like their creations and therefore I include those names too.

Pronunciation for which perfume names/houses are the most searched for on your blog; recently you've said it was Thierry Mugler and Rochas - any changes since then?

I'm afraid I don't know: that's what the stats indicated when the site was hosted by Posterous; now it's on Blogger I can't tell any longer. I expect Ange ou Démon Le Secret Poésie d'un Parfum d'Hiver will get quite a few hits. LOL!

Ange ou Démon Le Secret Poésie d'un Parfum d'Hiver
[Angel or Demon The Secret - Poetry of a Winter Perfume]

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Bela about French and Perfume Names

What is it about French language that makes it so chic, so poetic, so seductive, so sexy to us, non-French?

Is it really the specific melody of the language?

Could it also be the effect of the proverbial French charm, style, the French je ne sais quoi and joie de vivre?

And the effect of the French love 'iconology'; you know, the image of Paris at night, French kissing under Eiffel Tower, French men being great lovers and French women being great seductresses?

What can I add? I think you've said it all. I was born in Paris and love it very much, although it doesn't return my love: I wasn't very happy when I lived there. (Yes, it is possible to be miserable in that beautiful city.) I myself am completely immune to the charm you mention, I'm afraid: I know what it can conceal. I think it's a case of 'the grass is greener...'.

Would you agree that naming perfumes in French has become trendy lately, that it has become a specific type of perfume marketing? E.g., even the US Tommy Hilfiger's recently launched perfume is named Eau de Prep Tommy Girl and not Preppy Tommy Girl's Water, for example. Have perfume marketing gurus realized that French sells perfumes, that the magical marketing mix of langue de l'amour (language of love), French tradition in perfume making and fashion successfully exploits our collective 'weakness' for French?

Baiser Volé [Stolen Kiss]

Yes, absolutely. French sells perfumes. It's to do with what you were saying earlier and also with snobbery. Of course, it sometimes leads to complete nonsense when marketing people don't do their homework properly (or just don't care): 'Eau de Prep' is... prep-osterous.

The names I can't stand are the hybrid ones, those that combine a French noun with an English adjective (or vice versa), especially those that don't take into account the gender of the noun, which then gets coupled with an adjective in the wrong gender. They actually make me scream. Take, for instance, Miller Harris's Tangerine Vert: tangerine is 'mandarine' in French and it's feminine so I would expect the name to be Tangerine Verte. It would still be silly, but at least it would be grammatically correct. LOL! The same goes for Fleur Oriental (e).

My advice to the people who christen perfumes: stick to one language. It's safer.

Which perfume houses in your opinion do the 'best' job in picking the (French) perfume names and why?

Which perfume houses have the best names? That is a very difficult question. Hmm... I would say Caron, Cartier, Fragonard (shame about the juices, though, LOL!), Grès, Guerlain (probably the best), Éditions de Parfums, L'Artisan Parfumeur, Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, Parfums de Nicolaï, Roger & Gallet. Why? Because some of the names they've given their perfumes are beautiful and evocative and poetic. The ones I dislike most - apart from the aforementioned État Libre d'Orange and Miller Harris - are those from Diptyque. They don't speak to me. They don't look good written down. They are not euphonic. They grate on my nerves.

Can you please single out a few French perfume names that you personally find the most intriguing? Do these names also translate the olfactory character of the perfumes well? Do you also like wearing these perfumes?

There are lots of names I find intriguing, but most of the time I haven't got a clue what the perfumes that bear those names smell like since I haven't tried them and therefore couldn't say whether they reflect the character of those perfumes. I can only talk about those that I have worn, which are not that many - even though I'm not young any longer - because I have always been a serial monogamist (I only wear one fragrance at a time). So I will mention just two. Byzance by Rochas: a wonderfully baroque and opulent scent, very strong, rather 'perfumey'. What else could it have been called? That name was perfect for it. And Tubéreuse Criminelle by Serge Lutens (which I have recently started wearing again after a fairly long hiatus). I can't stand full-blown tuberose: it makes me nauseous. Tub Crim - as it's nicknamed by its fans - is the mildest tuberose scent ever. The Criminelle part is the kerosene top note. I am addicted to it. It is not for the faint-hearted. The name is a real stroke of genius.

Tubéreuse Criminelle [Wicked Tuberose]

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Bela about Perfume Names as One of the Most Important Elements of Perfume Marketing

Nomen est omen - Name is the omen goes the Latin proverb. How important is in your opinion perfume name for the commercial or 'iconic' success of a certain perfume? Let's think of the likes of Chanel No. 5, Shalimar (Guerlain)? Jacques Polge, the Chanel in-house perfumer said in the interview for The Scotsman: "Curiously enough, the longest part of the process is to find a name for the fragrance because more or less every name has been taken."

What is more important for the perfume name - to sound 'great', imply a compelling story (e.g., Shalimar, Vol de Nuit, Insolence, all by Guerlain) - or does the name need to translate the olfactory nature of the perfume (e.g. Vétiver by Guerlain)? E.g., you mention the recently launched perfume Petite Mort (Parfum d'une Femme) - this perfume name is the metaphor for (feminine) orgasm...

Royal Bain de Champagne [Royal Champagne Bath]

When a new perfume is launched, the name and packaging are the two things that potential buyers are going to come across first - in stores, in magazine/TV ads, etc. - so names are incredibly important. They probably can make or break a perfume. Of course, one is often attracted by a name that sounds fantastic only to discover that the juice is not to one's taste at all. The disappointment is probably even greater because of that discrepancy. The opposite can be true too. I have worn perfumes 'in spite' of their names sometimes. I am not fond of exoticism (in any field) so Mitsouko, for instance, doesn't inspire me, yet I wore it because the fragrance itself is wonderful. Although, as I said above, I couldn't possibly bring myself to wear some of the more repellent État Libre scents. I just couldn't. I've actually never smelled any of them (not deliberately: I've just never had a chance to) so I can't say whether I would regret not being able to wear them or not. As a name, Shalimar doesn't appeal to me either, which is just as well because the perfume doesn't suit me. L'Heure Bleue has a beautiful name, but I can't wear it and I can't make myself like it just because it has such a poetic name.

Some perfumes suit a very straightforward name. You mention Vétiver by Guerlain: it was meant for men (although I know at least two women who have worn it exclusively for the past 40 years) and therefore had to have a simple name that wouldn't make men feel effeminate at the time and it is (or was rather since it is a shadow of its former self) such a clean, astringent kind of smell that nothing but a clean, sharp name would have done.

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Bela about BBC Perfume Series and Future Plans for the Blog

You've written briefly about the BBC Perfume Series by Ian Denyer like me; so I'd like to ask you if you would agree that the differences in French vs. non-French approach to perfume making and marketing could be compared to the differences that French perfume names have in terms of commercial (historic, iconic) success vs. non-French perfume names?

Were you satisfied with the pronunciation of French names/words in the documentary series?

I expect you're right. I'm afraid I wasn't paying enough attention when I watched that documentary to be able to answer your question properly. I found most of that documentary impossible to watch without scoffing - especially the first and third parts, which were about marketing and consumers. I only really enjoyed Part Two [Episode 2 of the BBC Perfume Series], which was about the creators, i.e. 'real' people.

As I mentioned on my site, four French names were mispronounced: Guerlain, Hermès, Jean-Claude Ellena and Givaudan. It was a bit annoying: it wouldn't have required much effort on the part of the presenter to learn how to say them correctly, I don't think, but that was a minor quibble.

Do you have any plans to include (where applicable) the translation of the meaning of French perfume names to your audio files in the future?

I've been asked this before. I have to say no. When a name is a pun, for instance, I try to explain why it's clever or funny, but I really can't translate all the names I post. People who wish to know what they mean can easily use Google Translate, which is usually OK for isolated words or simple expressions.

Translating is my job - and I like to be paid for the work I do. If anyone wants to pay me to translate names, I will gladly do it, otherwise, no. I'm sorry, I don't have the time.

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A Selection of Few Other Perfume Related Words in French

Parfum:

Eau de Parfum:

Eau de Toilette:

Flacon:

Sillage:

Our sincerest thanks to Bela for this intriguing interview about her work on her blog Frag Name of the Day and about French (and) perfume names.

Please visit Frag Name of the Day blog at http://fragnameoftheday.blogspot.com. As mentioned in the interview, Bela invites you to suggest French perfume names that aren't added to her blog yet.

Audio File Credit:

All audio files on this page are used with the kind permission of Bela, the owner and editor of Frag Name of the Day blog.

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