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A Scent for Fine French Perfumes

December 14, 1986|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

PARIS — Most of France's great fashion houses, and many lesser boutiques, have placed their labels on fragrances and cosmetics for men and women.

In Paris, chic refers not only to one's outfit. It is also one's scent, the expression of personality and mood, and the tone of one's skin.

Choice of product is important, and Paris, where most French fragrances and beauty products make their debut six months to a year before they reach the United States, offers opportunity to sample great variety and buy at substantial savings.

Start with the best. Guerlain is one of France's most esteemed perfume makers. The company was founded in 1828 by Jean-Francois-Pascal Guerlain, a doctor-chemist from Picardy who opened shop on Rue de Rivoli. From the first, Guerlain fashioned fragrances that expressed personality or the mood of an event.

Fragrance for Readers

His reputation rose rapidly, leading to early commissions from Honore de Balzac and from the fashionable periodical La Sylphide, which ordered a special fragrance for each issue, to impress its sophisticated readers.

In 1853, during the heyday of Napoleon III, Guerlain created the famous Eau de Cologne Imperiale for Empress Eugenie. That fragrance is still sold, in .25-liter bottles decorated with the original white bees pattern (about $58) or gold bees (about $100). On bottles with gold bees you can have as many as three initials inscribed in gold for about $5 each.

Guerlain moved to 68 Champs-Elysees in 1914. The shop's original decor of Italian marble and handsome oil paintings is still the background for the sale of Guerlain fragrances, including the famous Jicky (1889), L'Heure Bleue (1912), Mitsuko (1919), Shalimar (1925) and others. The most recent scents, developed by Jean Paul Guerlain, 49, the family's fifth generation "nose," are Jardins de Bagatelle (1983), a flowery, light fragrance for women, and Derby (1985) for men.

The Waiting Room

In 1937 Guerlain opened its Institute of Beauty above the Champs-Elysees shop. An elegant salon, decorated by Giocometti and other famous artists, is the setting for manicures. The waiting room has a balcony that overlooks the Champs-Elysees. Facials cost about $55 and are a fabulous experience. They use Guerlain's newest skin-care line, Evolution (1986), including masques, cremes and toners.

The Evolution products, including "Intensive Extract with Revitenol" gel (about $56 for 30 milliliters), are sold, along with the Issima and Ultra-Sport (also recommended for men) skin-care lines and makeup, in the institute and in the shop below.

Guerlain strictly controls the distribution of all its products, guaranteeing quality and freshness. You won't find these items in duty-free shops, so forget about discounts. But Guerlain does offer a tax rebate of as much as 22% on purchases of more than 1,200 francs (about $200), the detaxe minimum set by French law. It can amount to considerable savings.

Guerlain has additional boutiques at 29 Rue de Severs (with skin-care salon), 93 Rue de Passy, 35 Rue Tronchet and 2 Place Vendome.

Mistress of Napoleon III

Near Place Vendome is Payot, another highly respected perfumery and skin-care salon. Payot was founded in 1919 by Dr. Nadine Gregire Payot, a determined woman who had emigrated from Russia to Paris before World War I to study medicine. The salon, at 10 Rue Catiglione, occupies what was once the town house of Countess Castiglione. The countess was the mistress of Napoleon III, who reputedly climbed the spiral staircase (still in the salon) to visit her.

Payot is said to have been inspired by a meeting with the dancer Pavlova to pursue a solution to the troublesome problem of aging skin, especially that of the face, neck and hands. The doctor and her successors have combined a knowledge of medicine and chemistry to provide the revitalizing Aubelia line of skin care products.

Most recently, Payot has introduced the Jeunesse des Mains and Jeunesse du Cou, two intensive treatments for the hands and neck, respectively. These gels are about six times more concentrated than ordinary creams. They're expensive (about $30 for 40 milliliters of Jeunesse des Mains, about $40 for 50 milliliters of Jeunesse du Cou), but the results are fabulous.

Facials at Payot are superb. They're given in rooms named for famous women, including Sarah Bernhardt and Marie Laurencin among others, and cost about $50 for an hour session, including a marvelous makeup application.

Tax Rebate Offered

All Payot products are sold in the boutique, which offers the tax rebate on purchases of more than 1,200 francs. Payot's fragrance is named after the good doctor's inspiration: Pavlova.

Payot has its own credit card, accepted in Paris, the United States or wherever Payot products are sold. In addition, American customers are eligible for free facials if they book through Payot representatives in the United States.

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