Half of Perrier's share of the U.S. imported mineral water market has evaporated since last year, when the company pulled its bottles off shelves because of benzene contamination.

The voluntary recall virtually eliminated Perrier from the market for four months beginning in February 1990. At that time, the bubbly water in the green pear-shaped bottles constituted 44.8 percent of all imported mineral water sales in America. Today, Perrier sales account for 20.7 percent of the market, according to Jacques Vincent, chairman of Source Perrier S.A. of Vergeze, France.

"Clearly, this is what happens when you remove yourself from the market for three to four months, and then have to restart distribution," said Helen Berry, marketing research director for the Beverage Marketing Corp. in New York, an industry consulting firm.

"It's not surprising," Berry said of Vincent's market-share estimate, published yesterday in a Paris newspaper, La Tribune de L'Expansion. Because the leader left the market, "all of Perrier's competitors gained," Berry said.

Perhaps the biggest gainer was BSN Gervis Danone, which markets Evian, another French mineral water. Evian held 32.9 percent of the imported mineral water market in the United States at the time of Perrier's recall. Today, according to preliminary 1990 figures gathered by Beverage Marketing, Evian has nearly 50 percent of that market.

Regionally, Roanoke-based Quibell Co. roared to success on Perrier's misfortune. Quibell had sales of nearly $12 million between February and April, compared with $1 million it had forecast for the period.

Retailers and industry analysts said that they see no evidence that Perrier's return has dampened the good fortune of its competitors.

For instance, at Suzanne's Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, before the benzene episode, "We'd sell 50 percent Perrier and 50 percent Saratoga" Mineral Water, said bar manager Bill Koerner. "Now, we sell five Saratoga bottles to every one Perrier. I reorder Saratoga stock once a week, Perrier once a month."

At Clyde's restaurant and bar in Tysons Corner, no Perrier is served at all.

"We stopped selling it and didn't take it back when it came back," said Clyde's Tysons Corner general manager Claude Anderson. Instead, Clyde's started selling a less-expensive Perrier product, Poland Springs mineral water. It was a Pyrrhic victory for Perrier.

"We thought we'd get adverse customer reaction for not restocking Perrier, but we got none at all," Anderson said. "People had been ordering 'Perrier' when they really only wanted sparkling water. Now, they just ask for 'sparkling water,' " Anderson said.

Perrier officials had hoped things would work out differently.

By withdrawing their product from the market, even though the Food and Drug Administration had ruled the benzene content harmless, Perrier had hoped to curry favor as a good corporate citizen. "I have built this company over 40 years on an image of perfection," Perrier President Gustave Leven declared in February 1990. "We do not want the slightest doubt, as minimal as it may be, to weigh on our product's image of quality and purity."

Perrier also launched a $25 million advertising campaign last year to burnish its image and to reintroduce the product after its absence.

But out of sight was out of mind, and getting back into the public psyche has been difficult, Perrier Group USA officials said yesterday.

"We certainly can acknowledge that we lost market share. We weren't in the market for four months," said Jane Lazgin, spokeswoman for the Perrier Group of America Inc. in Greenwich, Conn.

Vincent said he expects Perrier's U.S. sales to reach pre-recall levels by summer. The company's 1990 sales in France, where the manufacturer did not bar sales, are above 1989 levels and sales are also rising worldwide, Vincent said.