In his marvellous essay Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino offers 14 definitions of what makes a classic piece of literature. Reflecting on his list, I thought how easily its ideas could also be applied to perfumery. The same notions of the inexhaustible sense of discovery, timelessness and “imprints on our imagination” also define a classic scent, be it Guerlain Shalimar or Chanel No 5. It was Calvino’s 13th point, however, that struck a chord. “A classic is a work that relegates the noise of the present to a background hum,” he says, noting that nevertheless the classics cannot exist without this hum. They’re rooted in the present even as they transcend it.
Inspired by Calvino, I decided to draw up a personal list of perfume classics, creations that reflect their moment and yet have timeless relevance. The first I selected was Serge Lutens’ Féminité du Bois, a fragrance conceived by the artist, filmmaker and photographer for Japanese brand Shiseido in 1992. Lutens wanted a perfume based on the Atlas cedarwood, to convey the softness of an ingredient that had beguiled him ever since he’d visited Morocco in the 1960s, but when he initially talked to perfumers about his idea, he encountered a lack of comprehension; cedarwood was traditionally treated as a sharp, masculine note, and few fragrance professionals understood how to reinterpret it in a different guise.
It was the brilliant partnership between Lutens and perfumers Pierre Bourdon and Christopher Sheldrake that made Féminité du Bois possible. Bourdon and Sheldrake created a simple but ingenious accord of Moroccan cedar embellished with spice and amber that turned woods into silk and richness into radiance.
For Lutens, perfume is “a combination of reality and imagination,” and Féminité du Bois illustrates his philosophy. It evokes distinctive images, but it’s a fantasy. It smells of cedarwood shavings tossed with violet petals, crushed cardamom pods and warm amber, but also of antique shops, labyrinthine souks and dry desert air. Depending on my mood – or perhaps, depending on the perfume’s inclination to reveal itself – I keep finding new facets in Féminité du Bois. Sometimes it feels austere and refined, sometimes baroque and opulent.
Since Lutens, Bourdon and Sheldrake released their genie out of the bottle, the idea of “feminine woods” has become much more acceptable. Féminité du Bois’ inflection can be found in the violet cedars of Estée Lauder Sensuous and Tom Ford Plum Japonais. Parfums DelRae Bois de Paradis with its layers of woods, roses and figs is ornate. Comme des Garçons 2, by contrast, is edgy; inspired by Japanese ink paintings, it pairs the crisp freshness of mandarin and aldehydes with the smoky darkness of cedar, patchouli and vetiver.
Eventually Lutens created his own perfume house, producing a collection of scents called Les Eaux Boisées, including such elegant compositions as Bois de Violette, Bois et Musc, Bois Oriental, Bois et Fruits, and Santal de Mysore. Féminité du Bois stands apart however. It is a classic that, to quote Calvino, “has never exhausted all it has to say”.
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.