Image: Ted Humble-Smith @ Hmmm...
October 21 2009
Lucia van der Post
There are probably few people left who will remember Quelques Fleurs, the French house of Houbigant’s most distinguished perfume, though to every serious perfumer it’s an unforgettable masterpiece. It was made in 1912 by Houbigant, the oldest perfume house in the world, and Roja Dove, a legendary figure in the world of scent, calls it “one of the five most important perfumes ever made and the one which established France’s international reputation in the world of perfume”. It was to the world of scent what Coco Chanel’s relaxed clothing was to the world of fashion – an almost shockingly brave break with the old ways of doing things that paved the way for a different sort of future.
It is a floral bouquet, with jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, sandalwood (the gentlest of the woody notes) and a whisper of vanilla. As one fan writing on www.basenotes.net puts it: “It is like falling asleep in a flower garden on a hot summer’s day – a died and gone to heaven fragrance – youthful but not young – it is a perfume that any woman can wear at any time of the day.” It was the accord which set the scene for the great florals that followed it – Chanel’s No 5 (which has the addition of formaldehyde), L’Air du Temps, Arpège, Calèche, Madame Rochas, Jardins de Bagatelle.
The reason for writing about it now is that after disappearing from the scene in the 1960s (it was available in a debased form until much later), it is now back in almost identical form and a new generation of fans, some of whom remember their mothers wearing it, are now rediscovering it. One or two, Roja Dove tells me, have even cried on smelling it again, so potent are the memories it conjures up.
Houbigant, for those who don’t know about it, is, as we’ve already seen, the oldest perfume house in the world (Florence’s Santa Maria Novella is older but it is primarily a toiletries house), and its story is even richer than that of the distinguished house of Guerlain. Marie Antoinette, for instance, carried three phials of Houbigant’s perfumes to the guillotine. Guy de Maupassant, Napoleon, Queen Victoria all loved its wares.
The revival of Quelques Fleurs is part of the renaissance of the house of Houbigant since it was recently bought by the Perris family, led by brother and sister Gian Luca and Elisabeta Perris. Urged on by Roja Dove, they’ve gone back to their patrimony and are going to revive a few of their most important perfumes.
Quelques Fleurs is the first and it only differs minutely from the original because of current guidelines (IFRA, the fragrance body that lays down the law on such things, says that basil is a possible irritant). It is being brought back in the original bottle, and it’s made in the original place of manufacture. 15ml of the Parfum costs £180 from Roja Dove’s Haute Parfumerie on the fifth floor of Harrods and in some other exclusive outlets. 30ml of Eau de Parfum costs £41.
Coming up next from Houbigant: Fougère Royale, created in 1882, which was the precursor to Guerlain’s Jicky and which single-handledly, according to Dove, laid down the pathway for the birth of modern perfumery. It was the first perfume to be made with synthetics without which modern perfumery could not exist. So watch this space.