What could be more French than Caron?
The creator of a string of inimitable perfumes from the 1910s onwards (Poivre, Narcisse Noir, Fleurs de Rocaille, Nuit de Noël….) may not exactly be a household name – at least not in England, and the friends that I know – yet in scent circles, and among the mad perfumistas searching for old extraits of these bygone classics at jumble sales, flea markets and stubborn old perfumeries – the house is truly up there in the stratospheric heights (equalled or surpassed only by Chanel or Guerlain). The perfumes of Caron, around for almost a century and still available, in various stages of degraded formulae, at their gloriously old-world boutiques in Paris and in concessions in quality perfumeries worldwide (such as the perfumery floor at Fortumn and Masons which nobody seems to know about or go to) exist on a fuller sphere of consciousness to most others. To me they are drier; darker, mossier, more bodied. Secret entities, historical undercurrents bind these creations, together with a leathered smoothness not often found elsewhere. Never wholly ‘clean’, yet laden with the finest components and a certain fox-eyed virtuosic precision ( less fuzzy, powdery and splayed than the greatest works of Guerlain), the perfumes will undoubtedly be seen by the fust-loathing pinky floss dunderheads as being ‘too old’, but who cares. So are Manet and Picasso.
One of the lesser known perfumes from this formerly illustrious Parisian stable is French Can Can, a derivative of En Avion that was made especially for the American Market for a bit of imported ooh la la: a strange, naughty, and now rather anachronistic perfume that treads the line, brilliantly I think, between coquettish and coarse, without ever descending to banality. Can Can is of very similar construction to the classic En Avion (a cool, spicy, violet leather) but overlaid with more garish, extravagant bloom: rose, jasmine and orange blossom kicking out from the layers of tulle that support the flowers. Behind faded, musty curtains lies a decadent heart of lilac, patchouli, iris, and musc ambré.
Thinking of a candidate for this perfume (who wears tiers of fluffy petticoats that I know?) I hit upon my friend Laurie, who is never afraid to dress up in extravagant numbers – I can even see her actually doing the can can, to be truthful – and with the slogan ‘dancers: powder, dusty lace’ I presented her with the scent. She came back to me later (after I had sprayed her bag with the stuff)….
‘No: graying crinoline’.
If the girl of the above story has a past, and love for sale, then the owner of this fine establishment might be wearing Montaigne. Where Can Can maintains a certain faux-demure grace throughout its development, Montaigne, on first impression, is suggestive; lewd even: a voluptuous figure forever telling dirty jokes. Many of the early Caron scents have a similar base accord: that murky, dark, dry signature with which Ernst Daltroff marked his classics. But Caron had to enter the modern world to survive, and Montaigne embarked on new climes. The result of this caterpulting into the eighties was a glowing, ambered potage of sandalwood, orange blossom, vanilla; very contrasting top notes – a layer of glinting fruits and herbs: mandarin, bitter orange, coriander, blackcurrant….all is voluptuous, sueded, medicinal, mysterious. You keep sniffing to find out more (what was the perfumer thinking of?)
Montaigne, then, one of Caron’s most ‘up front and sassy’ perfumes, is well worth exploring for its complexity,warmth and glamour, but also for a certain impenetrability. There isn’t really anything else like it on the market. Hermetically mesmerizing, even, and a perfume I have become strangely obsessed with.
Though obviously a Caron, the vanilla-mimosa themed Farnésiana couldn’t be more different. This obscure scent is a sweet, emotive, maternal refuge from all harshness and vulgarity (because she does sometimes needs a day off); a sugared, unusual perfume to nuzzle, cradle; regress with, even. The blend gets its name from the latin name for mimosa (Acasiosa Farnesiana), the flower at the heart of this scent. But place just a drop of this elixir on your skin and the heart-rending, powdery mimosa note smiles only briefly before being subsumed in a very edible, gourmand note of almonds and the roundest, gentlest vanilla. Not unlike a slice of the finest cherry bakewell in fact.
This is not a ‘foodie’ though, it is far too eccentric: somehow Farnésiana is not in the least seductive – you are not supposed to be ‘nibbled on’ by another. It is rather a lovely, melancholic escape from all that; the self as confection – a perfume to wear when alone.
” ……The troubling sensuality of a woman in a dinner jacket…..’
……negligently to take those ivory and mother-of-pearl cigarette holders to their lips, and swathe their femininity in a typically masculine veil, became the height of Parisian elegance……..To mark this dawn of female liberation, in 1919 Caron dared to dedicate the deliberately provocative Tabac Blond to these beautiful androgynes.’
Here we have then the official story of Caron’s legendary Tabac Blond, Dietrich’s most favoured perfume. If ever there were a ‘holy grail’ of perfumes, it might be this: people are mad for it, obsessed. It is one of the world’s cult perfumes, deliberately aimed at a small contingent in society, ‘scandalous’ at the time of its launch (just six years after Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring) into the fey little lamp-lit worlds of lilacs and violets, of powder and of rose. A unique creation that has kept its reputation to this day (strictly in its vintage versions, mind), Tabac Blond is a resinous, deep, heart-locking perfume that unfolds in space and time. Flowers – carnation, linden, ylang, and iris (giving the perfume, as critic Jan Moran says, ‘a powdery floral heart meant to transcend a smoky environment’) feature in the scent, but only subtlely. They are hidden, masked for the most part, by a stunning note of undried blond tobacco, animalic leather, and tobacco leaf, made drier still with a sun-powdered note of cedarwood and vetiver. This exquisite whole is suspended in a liquid gold of tenuous, refined amber that only takes on its full character in the perfume’s conclusion, later, much later, at night.
Chandler Burr says of Tabac Blond that there is something ‘dykey and angular’ about this perfume; Luca Turin, that it is for those of a melancholy bent, who like Autumn, old manuscripts; libraries; Egypt.
Whatever the image it conjures, this is certainly a beautiful perfume; absurdly refined on the right skin, conferring on the wearer an air of restrained, rich elegance…………… pure Caron.
22 responses to “THE SPIRIT OF PARIS: FOUR PERFUMES BY CARON / French Can Can (1936): Montaigne (1986): Farnésiana (1947): Tabac Blond (1919)”
Reblogged this on The Black Narcissus and commented:
What a treat! A quartet of lovelies to be sure.
These are pitch perfect pencil portraits, from the decayed undergarments of French Can Can, to the almost surreal individuality of Montaigne and the near perfect sexual equidistance of the sublime Tabac Blond.
Oh that they were all still whole and with us now.
I hope the ‘new versions’ of certain Carons haven’t reached you. Tragic.
Console yourself in the past.
The Perfumed Dandy
Are there really none left? The last time I was at Fortnum’s they smelled pretty close. If not, how dare those phony urns mock us with their gilded paraphernalia?
I should have been more exact in my remarks ‘whole and still with us’ was meant as a single sentiment.
Fortnums still glories in a splendid collection of amphorae (I’m with you it is the best place for proper perfume browsing in London). It’s simply that the scents inside are not always what the parfumeur of old intended.
That said, I still think that even reformulated most Caron odours knock most things modern into a cocked hat.
The Perfumed Dandy
The new Tabac Blonde (extrait, even) is a cruelly thin leather + carnation on me. Like the leather on old jackets that haven’t been worn in a very long time after a lot of use – the sort of cracked and falling apart in layers leather. I must confess, I fail to see the magic. Oh for a time machine – and today’s wallet!
I have smelled earlier versions and they were honestly sublime. My friend has a vintage bath oil that is FEROCIOUS.
Yes it’s so sad, I went to Fortnum’s yesterday (completely empty above the total chaos and crowds on the ground floor Christmas shopping) and failed to find anything of any depth or strength at the Caron counter… At least Guerlain still holds on?
Caron is absolutely the equal of Chanel and Guerlain, but are their own worst enemy by making their fragrances to hard to find, and marketing them so poorly (i.e. not at all). Forget vintage, I own the current Tabac Blond, Farnesiana, and Montaigne in parfum, and they are still far and away better than most of the new stuff out there, even so-called “niche”..
Here’s a caveat: Don’t waste your money on the current EDT versions, and don’t judge the fragances based on them; they are barely-scented water. Some EDPs are OK, and of course the parfum is the best, but only available from those urns in the boutiques.
Thank you for this lovely piece, and for reminding me to go to the little perfume shop downtown that carries Caron.
What shop is that?
What shop is that?
It is called Jacqueline Perfumery located at 103 Geary St San Francisco, CA 94108 (415) 981-0858 the man who owns the shop since the 1950’s is Andre. He is French and grew up part time in France and part time in upstate New York. He is quite a character. You can read more about him on my blog. MEETING MR. JACQUELINE ~ it the post name.
I may have already read it, actually. I remember a very interesting piece on a grumpy perfume shop owner, but will have another look.
That’s the one! LOL If you ever come to San Francisco you must check it out.
I have been once and LOVED that city. Would love to go there again, though I hear that the groovesters, the computer people, are ruining it.
They are just a passing fancy. The heart of San Francisco as well as the city itself has survived much worse.
Waking up early I find you and Caron among my post. It was you who advised me to go the Caron way….
The perfumes are still resting and waiting to be put on. Just now I have a great longing for all that recalls me to the atmosphere above.
I love Paris in the fall, my saison. I shall wear them. And can I borrow those Harlequin shoes for the French connection to my feet? Shoes, another passion.
Still searching and looking for Tabac Blond, a garconne fleurie with a cigarillo mmm maybe…
A friend once told me that years ago, when she was working in Schiphol, Amsterdam AirPort, La Dietrich arrived. Just when she was passing her Marlene reached out and swept het fingers through her hair …
good lord that’s a gorgeous anecdote
Yes, I would not have wanted to wash my hair; or maybe cut of a strand?
and perhaps one day the Caron I am desperate for you to review???
Still in my top three……