Some of the effervescence has gone out of the bottled water business.

Selling water in hard times is a challenge that the mineral water companies -- led by Perrier -- are confluent they can meet, but the phenomenal growth of the market has slowed and some analysts doubt that mineral water will ever capture the hearts and stomachs of large numbers of Americans. w

The financial prospects are mouth-watering. In France and Italy, 55 liters of mineral water go down each throat each year. Despite the surge in bottled water sales the last four years, Americans are drinking less than a liter per person.

Perrier is one of the great marketing success stories of recent times, leaping from the obscurity of a few gourmet shops to a prominent place in most supermarkets and restaurants.

Its sales in the United States jumped from 3 million bottles in 1976 to about 200 million last year. Perrier has more than 80 percent of the U.S. market for sparkling mineral water and about 50 percent of all bottled water sales.

It's hard to imagine people flocking to bartenders around the nation to ask for water with a slice of lime, but the Perrier name is becoming almost as generic as Kleenex.

"It has a mystique. It has a certain chic I think all quality products do," said Anita Tiburzi of Perrier's American subsidiary.

Perrier bubbles with confidence that the recession won't throw cold water on Americans' love affair with the pale green bottles shaped like Indian clubs.

"The people we are aiming at are not going to substitute Thom McAn for Gucci shoes or seltzer for Perrier," Tiburzi said.

In Europe, mineral water was largely consumed by the wealthy until after World War II. Armed with current statistics on European consumption, bottled water producers insist that their products aren't just a fad here.

"It's not a pet rock. It has quality behind it," Tiburzi said.

The quality is, for the most part, an absence of evils. Mineral water won't cure your ills, but it is salt-free, chemical-free, pollution-free, sugar-free, and it won't lead to a hangover.

One of mineral water's best salesmen is the Environmental Protection Agency. Each time another source of drinking water is found to be polluted by EPA, some people switch to bottled water.

Michael Schott, chief operating officer of another bottler, Poland Springs, brings up the Love Canal frequently. "It's not that we have got a national water crisis, but people have taken for granted for too long the safety and quality of their drinking water," he said.

Health is a major theme of bottled water advertising. Perrier blazed the trail by sponsoring road races, physical fitness courses in public parks and other events that bubble with healthiness.

Perrier was first sold in the United States in 1908. It enjoyed an upsurge in popularity -- which the company can't explain -- during Prohibition, but its sales remained insignificant until Gustave Leven, Perrier president, decided in 1976 that all the surveys saying Americans could not be weaned from soft drinks, beer and tap water were wrong.

Leven's gamble paid off beyond his expectations. But after three years of phenomenal growth, sales began to level off last year, apparently catching Perrier by surprise.

Even though its sales were growing at a rate better than 20 percent a year, Perrier found itself being described in the French press as "stumbling". Perrier stock sank on the Paris exchange.

Even though, as one competitor said, "We'd all love to have Perrier's problems," everyone is waiting to see what will happen next.

"I have my doubts about the size of the market," said Emanuel Goldman, who follows the beverage industry for Sanford C. Bernstein and Co." "The American consumer is used to getting something in his water."

Robert Mohel orders provisions for Maxwell's Plum and Tavern-on-the-Green, two chic New York restaurants. "The demand has basically leveled," Mohel said. "By the fall we'll know whether this is going to keep growing."

Although Poland Springs, Saratoga, Montclair and other mineral waters have rushed into the market in the wake of Perrier's success, none is established as a clear Number Two.

Adding to their troubles is Canada Dry, which has begun an advertising campaign, modeled on the Perrier image, for its club soda. The mineral water people are outraged, because club soda isn't a mineral water. No cool spring gushing from the earth gives us club soda. In many places its water comes from the tap and it is not salt free. It is, however, cheaper than spring waters.

"This casts a negative shadow on products like ours," Schott of Poland Springs said.

Industry executives say no one is going to overtake Perrier. The problem in achieving the Number Two spot is that supermarkets and restaurants won't stock a product that doesn't sell.

A survey of half a dozen bartenders found general agreement that Perrier is still the only mineral water that people order by name. Customers will accept a substitute, but they won't aske for it.

Meanwhile, the numbers keep leading the water company executives on. Perrier has achieved its goal -- 1 percent of the U.S. soft drink market -- which doesn't sound like much but is worth about $120 million a year.

If soft-drink customers can be persuaded that they'll be healthier drinking mineral water, now-struggling water companies could find their coffers overflowing.

In the town of Pilesville, Ky., for example, the people drink 491 bottles each of Pepsi-Cola every year -- plus a lot of other soft drinks. A market like that is enough to bring a sparkle to a water producer's eye.