November 21 2010
Lucia van der Post
A wave of nostalgia is wafting over the scent counters. In the grand department stores and among the purveyors of fine niche perfumes, the mood for retro is everywhere. Perfume blogs are filled with yearnings for the great perfumes of yesteryear, for the days when, as Luca Turin puts it in the introduction to Perfumes: The Guide (Viking Press), “expensive fragrances smelled expensive and cheap ones smelled cheap”. An article on Now Smell This (www.nstperfume.com) about why many of the greatest perfumes don’t smell the way they used to brought out a torrent of wistfulness from perfumistas. To meet this longing, what we have now is a twofold wave of revivals. The old houses that had fallen out of fashion are being rediscovered and brought back to life, their formulas being bottled once again. And, at the same time, some scents that had been reformulated or “modernised” over the years are once again being made as authentically as current legislation allows.
But first some caveats: scents, as Robin Krug, editor of Now Smell This and author of the above-mentioned feature, sensibly points out, are not static objects. Even with the best efforts of a skilled perfumer, a scent made in the 1960s or 1970s is unlikely to smell exactly the same as one made in 2010. Every good eau de parfum contains natural ingredients, which, just like grapes, vary from season to season. And sometimes it’s our noses that are fallible. We misremember. We’ve changed and grown, and so have our tastes, so that no scent – no matter how authentic – could ever live up to those powerful olfactory memories.
Furthermore, since the heady days of fine perfume-making many houses have been bought and sold several times, with new owners frequently deciding to use less expensive ingredients. Others fiddle about with old formulas in an attempt to modernise them and keep up with changing fashions. “Sometimes,” as Krug puts it, “once-plentiful natural materials become scarce or extinct. And some materials, such as natural animal-derived notes, have been replaced with synthetic substitutes.” Vanilla, jasmine, oakmoss, coumarin, birch tar, citrus oils, heliotropin, styrax and opoponax are just a few of the ingredients that are either restricted or banned by IFRA (International Fragrance Association). The banning of nitro-musks, for instance, means that almost all the great classics for which it is a key building block (Je Reviens, Jicky, Femme by Rochas, Shalimar and Mitsouko, Cabochard) are, to use Luca Turin’s phrase, “permanently hobbled”.
All this makes it very hard to bring back the great treasures of the past, and you might think that perfumers would just give up the struggle. But far from it. There are still passionate perfumers out there who are dipping into the archives and reworking the formulas in order to resurrect as best they can some of the greatest of the old favourites.
Take the old English house of Grossmith, which used to be among a coterie of influential English and French perfumeries – right up there with Guerlain, Creed, Penhaligon’s and Floris – making complex, refined, understated scents. It was a hugely important house, exporting all around the world; but its perfumes, like many of the great classics, fell out of favour when more showy lifestyle perfumes such as Charlie, Poison, Giorgio and their like came to the fore. Grossmith limped on into the 1970s, finally died in the 1980s and has now been resurrected by Simon Brooke, a great great grandson of its founder. He has worked with Roja Dove, a legendary figure in the world of scent and the genius behind the Haute Parfumerie on the fifth floor of Harrods, to bring back three of its oldest and finest perfumes. They’ve gone to Robertet for the finest ingredients and to Baccarat for the old bottles, doing it all as authentically as possible.
So today we can now once again enjoy Hasu-No-Hana (1888), a bright floral with pronounced chypre and Oriental notes, named after the Japanese lotus lily; Phul-Nana (1891), another floral – “a bouquet of India’s choicest flowers” – with warm, woody overtones; and Shem-el-Nessim (1906), an Arabian-inspired perfume named after an Egyptian springtime festival. Prices range from £100 to £125 for 50ml of eau de parfum, and from £390 to £435 for 100ml of the parfum.
Similarly, Molinard, one of the great luxury perfume houses founded in 1849, was hanging on by a thread until this summer, when it relaunched two of its greatest classics. Habanita (£225 for 100ml of parfum) is one of the world’s finest Oriental perfumes, combining vetiver and vanilla, and was originally made so that 1920s flappers could mask the smell of their cigarettes (Turin calls it “colossal”). Molinard de Molinard (£150 for 100 ml eau de parfum), first made in 1979, is meanwhile a very fresh floral that smells as if you had just walked into a garden slightly overgrown with ivy.
Readers who follow my Van der Postings column will already know that Houbigant, the oldest French perfumery house, has recently been bought by Michele Perris, who looked after the account for 40 years and couldn’t bear to see it die. He has revived it, and now it is again possible to buy one of the greatest classics of all time – Quelques Fleurs L’Original, first made in 1912 and what Dove calls “one of the five most important perfumes ever made”. A great big floral bouquet, it set the template for the classic florals that followed, from Chanel’s No 5 to Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps to Guerlain’s Jardins de Bagatelle. The Haute Parfumerie sells Quelques Fleurs L’Original at £80 for 100ml of eau de parfum and £180 for 15ml of parfum. Next year will come one of the great masculine scents: Fougère Royale, first created in 1882.
While Houbigant was struggling, the house of Lubin actually closed its doors. Founded in 1798, when perfumery was still considered more a branch of medicine, its perfumes came to be worn by almost every crowned head in Europe. In its heyday Lubin supplied perfumed ribbons, ball masks and rice powders to Les Incroyables and Les Merveilleuses at all the grand Parisian soirées. Today, the house has been bought by Gilles Thevenin, a former creative director at Guerlain who has a passion for traditional fragrances made from the very best materials. He’s just opened a standalone shop in Paris on the Rue de Canettes and has a two-pronged approach: he’s reintroduced five of its most classic scents but at the same commissioned five new ones from great “noses”. Possibly the most famous of the old ones is Nuit de Longchamp, which, according to the Bois de Jasmin blog (www.boisdejasmin.typepad.com), “has graced the shoulders of elegant women since 1934 like a magnificent garden of white flowers blooming in the twilight”. Then there’s Gin Fizz, a favourite of Grace Kelly first created in 1955, and L de Lubin, a heady 1970s scent. Of the new ones, Idole de Lubin by Olivia Giacobetti is a heady aromatic perfume containing saffron, cumin and sandalwood much-loved by perfumistas. Prices range from £65 for 75ml of eau de parfum to £90 for 100ml of eau de toilette.
There’s great excitement too at the reappearance of Bal à Versailles, Jean Desprez’s much-loved 1962 fragrance. It has been bought by a fan, an American whose wife had always loved it, and is now being restored to its rightful place as an icon of 20th-century perfumery. It’s a heady concoction that uses some 300 different materials and was once the most expensive scent in the world. As its name implies, it’s meant to conjure up the thrills and glamour of the balls at Versailles in the time of Marie Antoinette; the silks and satins, the furs and romance. “Many scents are a string quartet,” says James Craven, archivist of London perfumery Les Senteurs, “but Bal à Versailles is a symphony.” At the moment it is only available in limited quantities, so catch it while you can (£55 for 50ml of eau de toilette). When the first consignment arrived in Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie, one man bought the lot.
Meanwhile, many of the great perfume houses are looking to their heritage and revisiting their old formulae. In 2008, Chanel relaunched one of its great classics – Sycomore (£160 for 200ml of eau de toilette), created in 1930 – while at Dior there was great excitement earlier this year over the relaunch of Eau Fraîche (£68, 100ml eau de toilette), one of the great classics of all time, devised by that master “nose” Edmond Roudnitska in 1953. It was Christian Dior’s own favourite, its natural simplicity reminding him of the flowers of his youth and the lemon trees in the winter garden of the villa Les Rhumbs at Granville. And while Diorama (1949) was never completely discontinued, it could only be bought by Dior couture customers in Paris – now it can be found in London, at the Haute Parfumerie (£68 for 100ml of eau de toilette).
You may wonder why all this should be happening now. According to Roja Dove, it is because people are buying less but looking for higher quality. Shoppers are more sophisticated, and more and more of them understand what fine perfumes are all about and what it takes to create them. Many would rather now buy one fantastic perfume than a raft of cheaper versions. They aren’t taken in by marketing spin, and prefer the particular and precious to the heavily advertised or celebrity endorsed. More and more, too, they want something that they can’t smell everywhere else.
For those who loved the old-fashioned perfumes, who perhaps fell in love with one of them years ago, whose mother wore one and who is now reminded again of that long-forgotten childhood, their pull is powerful. But not everybody thinks it’s altogether a good thing. Frédéric Malle, for instance, points out that that perfumery is an art and just as Rubens or Goya or even Picasso would not be doing now what they were doing when they were alive, so it is with perfumers. Nostalgia mires one in the past. You can still have a fine, beautifully made perfume, but it should be moving the boundaries, it should be modern.
He clearly has a point, but I believe there’s room for both – the route that Lubin, for instance, has taken. There’s room for the cutting edge, the new, the breath-taking breakthroughs to sit alongside the wonders of the past. The power of scent is so strong that if you fall in love you never forget it, and you can’t “unlove”. I, for instance, got married wearing Guerlain’s wonderful classic Jicky. It doesn’t smell today the way it used to, and I don’t think it is just my memory playing tricks. Every so often I buy it and have another go – and every time I’m disappointed. Luca Turin confirms that the “Jicky of my childhood was raunchier, more curvaceous, less stately”. His guess is that what made the old Jicky was “the irreplaceable nitro-musks, most of which disappeared from European perfumery years ago because of alleged neurotoxic and photochemical problems”.
If I could find it today the way it used to smell I would scarcely mind what it cost, so profound is its pull on my memory and my subconscious. There are plenty of others, too, who are grateful to this new band of perfumers doing all they can to bring back some of the great classics of yesterday.