“The art of fortunate proportions” is how Edmond Roudnitska described perfumery. In his vision, a good perfume is the one that has balance and an original form, a simple idea that is far from easy to realise. Roudnitska spent his career creating fragrances that exemplify perfumery at its most artistic – Christian Dior Diorissimo (£82 for 100ml EDT, pictured), Eau Sauvage (£49.50 for 50ml EDT, pictured), Diorella (£82 for 100ml EDT) and Rochas Femme (£29.99 for 100ml EDT). His compositions have elegance and character, but one of the distinctive trademarks of his style is balance.
When I speak of balance in perfumery, I mean both the aesthetics and technique. Consider Guerlain’s Chamade (£225 for 30ml pure perfume), one of the most perfectly balanced fragrances. From the bright-green top notes to the rose and hyacinth heart and velvety, woody notes, the perfume unfolds like a silk scroll. Similarly modulated is Dior’s Diorissimo, one of Roudnitska’s masterpieces and the subject of many articles in this column.
But balance alone is not the ultimate goal. “The fortunate proportions” in Roudnitska’s philosophy are subject to the artist’s vision, because a well-balanced perfume can also be a dull one if it lacks originality or character. To counter the lassitude, perfumers can use a large proportion of a specific material to push the composition’s centre of gravity. This is similar to George Balanchine making his dancers hover off-balance in order to create tension and slow down time – as the ballerina lingers in an arabesque, pitching her body improbably forward, the effect is as dramatic as Odile’s 32 fouettés en tournant.
One of the most famous examples of such an off-kilter balance in perfumery is Balmain’s Vent Vert (£61 for 75ml EDT). To create her spring étude, Germaine Cellier added galbanum, an intensely green, pungent essence that smells of bell peppers and bitter sap. Set against a delicate floral backdrop, the verdant, sharp accord is as jolting as a gust of wind on an April morning. (The current version of Vent Vert has been through a number of reformulations, and while it is markedly different from Cellier’s original, it retains the exhilarating off-balance effect.)
Another legendary perfume with intriguing proportions is Chanel No 5 (£96 for 100ml EDP, pictured). Perfumer Ernest Beaux used a cocktail of aldehydes to give radiance to a rich bouquet of ylang ylang, rose and jasmine. Aldehydes smell of snuffed-out candles and waxy orange peel, a scent that’s borderline unpleasant in its pure state. But the right amount in Beaux’s hands evoked warm skin and champagne. Beaux also used a generous dose of aldehydes to reinterpret white flowers (Chanel No 22, £210 for 200ml EDT, pictured), spices (Bois des Iles, £210 for 200ml EDT, pictured) and leather (Cuir de Russie, £210 for 200ml EDT).
Roudnitska himself didn’t hesitate to play with the balance of components in order to convey his message. For Rochas Femme, one of his most sensual compositions, he used a sweet, plummy note to recast the dry, austere chypre accord of woods and mosses as opulent and warm. Femme was created in the Paris of 1943, and it was Roudnitska’s vision of beauty as much as his protest against the war.
Victoria Frolova has been writing her perfume blog boisdejasmin.com since 2005. Her explorations of fragrance touch upon all elements that make this subject rich and complex: science, art, literature, history and culture. Frolova is a recipient of three prestigious Fragrance Foundation FiFi Awards for Editorial Excellence and, since receiving her professional perfumery training, has also been working as a fragrance consultant and researcher.