There are some perfumes that, whether I wear them personally or just breathe them from the bottle, strike me as so impeccably conceived and crafted, so full of individuality, that they exist as self-contained works of art.
Although I have never read Michael Edwards’ seminal ‘Perfume Legends’, which details around fifty of the world’s recognized French classics of feminine perfumery, perusing the list of fragrances he includes, it is immediately obvious that all are worthy of the name. Beginning with Guerlain’s Jicky (1889) and ending with Angel by Thierry Mugler (1992), whether you like them personally or not, each of the perfumes that is described is undeniably a monument: realized; idiosyncratic, and fully finished.
Two perfumes that feature in the Edwards book are of course Calèche and Arpège, both of which (in pristine vintage extraits) I keep by my bed as comfort scents; a dab on the skin, or occasionally on the sheets, to pave my way into the night.
Though I only wear one of them outside the house (Calèche), both of these – woody/ floral/chypre aldehydics have that elusive quality in perfumery where the the whole is more than the sum of its parts: something that touches transcendence.
No perfume comes newly born. All have their revered predecessors, and any compositon based on aldehydes, the classic rose/jasmine/ ylang/iris accord: sandalwood, plus bergamot in the top notes and that musk in the base, draws somewhat predictable comparisons with the inescapable, ubiquitous N° 5. In fact, if you read any other reviews or descriptions of Arpège and Calèche, the aldehydic megalith is constantly used as a reference point.
In all honesty, though, until I did some research, this comparison had not even occurred to my nose at all. I am a very great admirer of the Chanel meisterwerk, for the simple reason that it smells heavenly; even untouchable (but not so its facsimiles: L’Interdit (Givenchy), L’Aimant (Coty), and Detchema (Revillon), which all seem to me to rehash the theme in jealous desperation to no real avail: although I have or have had all the above in parfum concentration at some point I can never truly get worked up about any of them..)
Arpège and Calèche, however, in my view, are entirely different beasts.
Calèche, which means horse-drawn-carriage in French – and is of course the symbol of the house of Hermès- is far more lithe, severe, citric, and masculine than the Chanel (which I shall henceforth stop referring to as it is irrelevant): a Parisian stripling thriving with life: morning avenue branches filtering lime-green sunlight onto the new day below. The air sharp and fresh: the carriage and its horses awaiting: all of those present secure, anticipating; and turned out impeccably. We sense that something is to happen on this brisk spring day that brims with potential…..
A taut, almost mouthpuckering – but somehow serene – lemon, fuses exquisitely with cypress (or Russian pine, according to some sources, increasing the crackwhipping troika motif if you let your imagination run away with you the way I do), over a white matinal soap of roses, jasmine and aldehydes. Neroli, bergamot, and vetiver buffet a rhythmic, almost athletic scent that is delectable and free, yet emotive, well-dressed, and extraordinarily elegant.
The scent confers a sense of calm, yet also of health, and there are certain days when only Calèche will do. Often on Sundays: white shirt – the spruceness of the top notes contrasting with the the woods of the base and the more mysterious and unexpected note of frankincense that adds dryness and spirit, keeping the perfume on the right side, for me, of androgyny. Not far off, in fact, from the beautiful, princely scent that is Signoricci (1965) and its peacock-like, beautiful citrus coniferous bouquet; both romantic, genderless bluebloods whose scents are almost interchangeable.
Lanvin’s Arpège, from the so called ‘Golden Age’ of perfumery, is far more the monogamist, more womanly. It smells so soothing that you feel sure it must have been used as a template for balms and creams over the years, to have reached this appeasing sense of the maternal archetype.
This is not simply because of the design on the box and flacon of a mother and young daughter dressing up for a ball, but because the fruited, sunful warmth is to me like a spiced pear orchard on a beautiful September afternoon, a Keatsian aroma of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ so ripe with sanctuary and goodness.
A gilded, Apollonian jasmine and rose are infused with an unusual note of coriander and softly powdered mimosa; while genet, or broom – which has a softening, hay-like nuance of honey and tobacco – vanilla, and styrax all add extra mellifluousness to the base. If Calèche has the thrill of young leaves, then Arpège is an old oak tree; rooted, wise, and worldly.
Though the name of the perfume suggests otherwise, in the very extraordinarily beautiful vintage parfum there are no rippling arpeggios such as those in a Chopin étude, but more the feeling of beautiful, sad Schubertian chords – it knows. There is a philosophical depth of feeling; of luxuriant sun-stroked interiors, but also the brown autumn mulch in the garden, and the inevitable coming of winter.
I find it almost heartbreaking.
As for vintage versus new, I can’t, personally, even entertain the latter as possibilities. If you are as versed in the vintages as I am, the remake of Arpège is crass and too shiny: the cellos and violas of a quartet usurped by unwanted, headache-inducing trombones and cornets; the Calèche recognizable but thin, metallic – a shallow, wan, less incisive and somehow bitchier, modern re-representation .
To what extent the emotiveness of these perfumes is to do with personal associations of family I do not know ( I have given both to my mother as Christmas or birthday presents in the past), but if I were really that sentimental I would have similar reactions to her signature perfume, First by Van Cleef & Arpels (which I don’t, as much I as love it); the original Nina by Nina Ricci; or indeed, her favoured No 5.
No, it is more than that. Calèche and Arpège are, to me, like delicate novellas: stories to be told and retold with different lists of characters, in different places and times. Endlessly, or at least as long as these precious vintage supplies last us. Masterpieces of perfumery that should have been preserved, not butchered by the cheapening of their souls with cheaper, more synthetic ingredients.
Because these perfumes, as they were originally intended, are quite exquisite. Warm and soulful, with real poetry. Different, but of similar air and beauty – like two separate rooms in a palace.