Tag Archives: 1910s scents

THE SPIRIT OF PARIS: FOUR PERFUMES BY CARON / French Can Can (1936): Montaigne (1986): Farnésiana (1947): Tabac Blond (1919)

 

 

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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.’

 

(Caron website)

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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THE EMPRESS OF MOSS: MITSOUKO by GUERLAIN (1919)

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Takedera, the bamboo temple; Kamakura. A Wednesday. Torrential downpour, the dark, sleek, shining bamboo trees ruffled with rain. Austere Buddhist furnishings: wet green; cold, grey stone. A small gate out to the back, and then the bamboo. Through this black-glistening, silent grove to the tea house. Sit and hear the water; cradling your cup of matcha in its rough, earthenware cup. Inhale the scents of nature. The cold, fresh air.

 

Helen, visiting from England, was wearing Mitsouko, in vintage extrait, on her wrist….

 

 

It had been perfect. I remember us shivering at the bus stop afterwards, the scent of Guerlain’s most revered scent prolonging the experience we had just had. Sombre, beautiful, it had fitted the spiritual clarity of the moment, while simultaneously warming the chill.

 

 

 

 

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Mitstouko is one of Guerlain’s oldest perfumes, and one of the most talked about by perfume lovers on scent fora, where it has achieved a kind of maniacal devotion. It is easy to understand why. It is a mysterious perfume of great complexity that adorns the wearer with a classical, velvet-green aura from another age; a unique, dark, powdered moss.

 

The inspiration for this greensleeved empress, famously,  is said to have come from a popular novel of the time, ‘La Bataille’, by Claude Ferrare, the story of the affair between a British naval officer and the wife of the Japanese admiral during the Russian war. Yet there is nothing sloe-eyed or adulterous about the scent, its composition eschewing traditional, romantic accords in favour of a more unusual, ambiguous – even solemn – resonance.

 

The final accord in vintage Mitsouko is a suite of cinnamon and clove-tinted mosses, Oriental and European, with soft earth tones of patchouli, vetiver and kyara (Japanese aloes wood) on a bed of amber and old-fashioned musk. The heart is an abstract, powdery, rose jasmine and lilac blossom accord, uplifted brilliantly by scintillating top notes of bergamot and lemon in a cloud of peach, an effect, plush and very three-dimensional, that is like forest sunlight dappling through Autumn trees onto the mossed river stones lying beneath.

 

 

Mitsouko is a dignified scent: strangely androgynous, and very much an acquired taste. But when she suits you, she is  is magnificent.

 

 

 

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Critic Luca Turin is famous for loving Mitsouko.

 

In ‘Perfumes, The Guide’, he states that it is his favourite perfume of all time….’a masterpiece whose richness brings to my mind the mature chamber music of Johannes Brahms.’ He also says that ‘there is nothing Japanese about Mitsouko aside from its name’, and it is quite possible that I have been overly influenced by the legend, the name, and possibly even the moss, in this review. But that moss is key. To visit a kokedara in Kyoto, to sit on wood, and gaze out at a garden of  different varieties of moss as the shades of green change incrementally with the light, is one of the most quintessentially Japanese experiences you can have. And the fact also remains that this perfume is probably the most popular Guerlain scent, even now, in Japan. It resonates here. It is the only Guerlain you can always find in department stores and other perfume shops,  and whenever I  come across vintage Guerlain bottles at flea markets, despite my inner prayers that it will turn out to be one of my Guerlain’s favourites instead (please be Vol de Nuit!) or something rarer, it is invariably a Mitsouko. It does have a Japaneseness to it, this scent; something shadowy, vague, impenetrable, and a very definite sense of knowing comportment and elegance, which is why I sometimes notice it on Japanese women of a certain age out in their kimono, meeting other ladies for some formal engagement. The combination of the Japanese sense of beauty, or wabisabi, the elaborate ritual of traditional Japanese dress, so concealed, and that more intimate and sensual French je ne sais quoi, is beautiful.

 

 

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This April, in my new class of high school students in the city of Hiratsuka, there was a girl whose name was Mitsouko. I have never met anyone with this name before, and initially I was amused and secretly delighted every time I said her name, as though I were teaching a class of perfumes. Mitsouko, have you done your homework? Shalimar, great job with that assignment. Chamade, stop daydreaming. Ondée, your haiku on Autumn was really quite exquisite…

 

 

Eventually, I decided I had to show this girl her namessake perfume, just out of interest.

 

In the class that day there was a boy as well, Yasuhiro, just the two of them, and during a lull in the lesson I took the perfume out from my bag (a vintage eau de toilette, pictured), and asked her if she would like to smell it. Most definitely, she said. She had had no idea that such a perfume even existed, and her vanity must have been piqued.  Mitsouko, despite wanting to do international studies when she goes to university, speaking Spanish and English, is very much the yamato girl, Japanese to her core, and I think she was strangely thrilled that her English teacher had suddenly procured such an object in front of her, seemingly out of nowhere, with her own name on the flacon.Yes, they were both most certainly intrigued. But what of the scent itself?  Sure that neither of them would ever have smelled anything so fusty and antiquated I was waiting for the usual wrinkling of the nose or some kind of polite ‘I see’. Instead, both students’ eyes lit up, then went kind of dreamy. They loved it, genuinely, and I was really quite surprised, loving the idea that some kind of new world had been opened up to them. Then, to forever imprint it on her memory I asked Mitsouko if she would like to wear some of the perfume. She said yes, and was also quite happy, at that moment, for me to spray, liberally, the Guerlain masterpiece into the pages of her notebook.

 

 

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Filed under Flowers, Moss, Perfume Reviews