The first time I encountered a perfume that beguiled me was in the pages of a book. The sultry red-haired witch in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita enticed women with the promise of “Guerlain, Chanel No 5, Mitsouko, Narcisse Noir, evening gowns, cocktail dresses…” It would be some years before I smelled these perfumes, yet their names left a “baffling but seductive” imprint, just as the novel suggested.
It is no accident that Bulgakov selected Chanel No 5, Guerlain Mitsouko and Caron Narcisse Noir as embodiments of glamour and magic: three of the greatest classics of modern perfumery, they remain iconic. Chanel No 5 evokes elegance, pearls and red lipstick; Mitsouko conveys sophistication; and at any mention of Narcisse Noir, the image of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard rushes forth.
The downside of this reverence is that even as we admire the classics, we stop appreciating them for the very qualities that made them stand out – their idiosyncrasies and daring combinations. They have come to seem polite, elegant and ever-so-slightly conformist; but what if we take a fresh look and try to uncover some of their hidden layers?
The version of Chanel No 5 (£95 for 7.5ml EDP concentrate) that Bulgakov’s Hella promised during her “black magic” performance in 1930s Moscow was the extrait de parfum, created in 1921 by Ernest Beaux. A former Muscovite with French roots, Beaux was inspired by the scent of air north of the Arctic Circle, which he described as a perfume of extraordinary freshness. He experimented with this cool, uplifting accord throughout his career, and one of the best examples is Chanel No 5.
What makes his creation memorable is the contrast between the metallic, bright opening and the velvety, warm drydown. Put a drop on the wrist and let it settle for an hour or two; it will soften to a plush, cashmere-like layer. Even as Beaux made this perfume impeccably polished, he infused it with enough opulence to be ravishing.
If No 5 captures the “less is more” philosophy of Coco Chanel, Guerlain Mitsouko (£59.50 for 50ml EDT, £87 for 75ml EDP) proves that elegance can come in baroque forms. Created in 1919, Mitsouko was inspired by the innovative fragrance of the period, Coty Chypre, which was memorable but had plenty of sharp edges. Jacques Guerlain, a perfumer in charge of his family business, blended the accord of woods and moss with a peach-like note, and suddenly the perfume glowed like a nugget of gold.
For a perfume wearer unaccustomed to the earthy darkness of moss, Mitsouko can be a puzzle. It’s also fiendishly complex, unlike many modern fragrances. Think of it as a symphony rather than a single melody. There will be ripe peaches, cinnamon-dusted jasmine petals, spicy patchouli and burnished woods. At first it might suggest an exotic dessert, while later it could conjure up a glass of cognac in an antique library. Wait even longer and it will take you on an autumnal walk.
With Caron Narcisse Noir (£136 for 15ml EDP), we are in another realm of fantasy. The year of its birth was 1911; its creator was Ernest Daltroff, a dashing, vivid personality. It was a time of dramatic changes as the Belle Époque drew to an end and avant-garde arts movements broke with conventions. Everything about Narcisse Noir was an answer to these new challenges; instead of crafting a romantic vignette of orange blossoms, the classical adornment of bridal veils and baptismal gowns, Daltroff made the white flowers so sultry that the scent smouldered. It may be called “a femme fatale perfume”, but Narcisse Noir is an excellent choice for men. There are enough woods and leathery notes to offset the floral sweetness, and its dark, inky accord is perfect for anyone who enjoys a touch of drama.
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. To read more of her columns, click here.