A white glove. White coat… Madame Rochas, a beautiful scent in pristine vintage extrait, is comparable to other perfumes of similar classical vein: the woods, the flowers, the musks, and the shimmering aldehydes, but refines the formula; gleans it to a superior level of sensual, cold remove. This scent has a marble translucence; a dimension of light not quite seen in any other scent of this genre, lending the perfume a very refined, calm dignity. With genius, Guy Robert, author of the later Calèche (fresher, greener, perhaps more androgynous), fuses a long and complex list of rose-touched ingredients; sweet, tight bound, into a glass-like, scented, impenetrable fuselage. The effect : glinting, as the perfume glacially begins to unfurl on the body, is startling. A drop of the the parfum is applied to the skin. Silence. She is wondering where she is. Then, from a cool, imperturbable, smoothness, sing out, gradually, individual flowers: rose, jasmine, muguet, and at the forefront a very prominent dose of ylang ylang; a poised and lady-like accord that then graduates, gently, to a tender, yet very sensual, soft and woody finish left tactfully, discreetly in the air of the closed room behind her.
Tag Archives: 1960s scents
A very rare find, my eyes almost popped out on stalks of amazement when I saw Diorling standing there impassively and forlorn, neglected by perfume-blind passersby at the Sunday Shinagawa flea market. Didn’t the seller standing obliviously at his stand know that bids for this perfume start at extortionate prices on e-bay? Did he not know that some perfumistas would be clawing each other’s eyes out to get their hands on a bottle of this rare and rarified creature?..
The feeling of discovering these long forgotten treasures is, as you know, one of the most constantly nerve-crackling moments of my life. One that never fails to send my red blood cells, anaemic from a week of too much reality, writhing and thickening with adrenaline. Perfume REVIVES me, like a vampire right after a feed.
In the past, during my expeditions among the various recycle shops and fleamarkets here, I have come across countless vintage Carons; a Guerlain Ode extrait; oodles of Chanel parfums, and things I had never even known the existence of, such as Quiproquo de Grès (a lemon-leaf reinterpretation of Cabochard) and the exquisite Michelle by Balenziaga ,my avaricious thrill of clutching my Diorling (‘Mine! Mine!! ! MINE !!’! !) being childishly tempered, only slightly, upon then finding that the perfume had, at Roja Dove’s request, been made available again at the Harrod’s Haute Parfumerie, along with the legendary Diorama. It was thus not quite as precious or as exclusive a find as I initially thought. However, debate has raged over how tame the recent Dior reformulations have been: this edition is definitely the original, dirty-elegant dissipation from 1963. And while the top notes may have deteriorated slightly ( I am not getting much of the muguet/rose said to be in the blend), you would hardly know it; you would also hardly imagine it to be designed for a woman. Like Cabochard, this type of chypre is a category of scent that in dry down is irrevocably bi-sexed: suave, nonplussed and wordly on a man as it is on a woman.
A shrewd creature dressed in tweed and satin and wearing Diorling could have a room in the palm of their hand.
Luca Turin once wrote of ‘parfums fatigués’, those sly, ironic scents with hints of overripe melon and a whiff of decay; scents that reek, basically, of decadence, even death. Diorella (1972) is one such scent – a brilliant mix of fresh/stale; clean/dirty, at once citric and animalic. Dior somehow mastered this type of scent better than anyone else, Guerlain included – that regally supercilious Parisian paradox of chic and fromage. Even the angelic Diorissimo has that corrupted aspect somewhere in the heart of its innocence; that depth and knowing. These scents have such style: a true, fuck-you grace that can be almost daunting. And Diorling is of course possessed of similarly exquisite taste; restrained, low-registered, composed, but, if required, quite ready to pounce. I see it on the incestuous matriarch of Visconti’s ‘The Damned’, contemptuously lowering her lacquered eyelids, her half-forgotten, ever-present cigarette……. invincible, magnificent. That is, before her destruction at the hands (and body) of her son, played with malevolent disdain by the beautiful, and ice-hearted Helmut Berger.
The cruel vulnerability of a scent that tries to reason with your emotions even while dominating them. The laconic orange blossom; peach-tinted flowers layering a subtlely spiced, wood-bedded scent laced with tobacco and patchouli that then softens to a complex, secretive series of moments (who was the Japanese woman that owned this perfume? Why did she discard such a treasure at a flea market?); gives nothing away, titillates you with visions of times forever gone.
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.
Thus far on the Black Narcissus I have also described a variety of scents: some intriguing, some I dislike, and others I consider among my personal treasures for the sheer sensual pleasure they give me.
But not that many, until now, that touch me emotionally.
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 (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.
But no perfume comes newly born. All of course 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 comparisons with the inescapable, ubiquitous N° 5. In fact, if you read reviews and 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 great admirer of the Chanel meisterwerk, for the simple reason that it smells heavenly (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..)
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 for me. Often on Sundays: white shirt – the spruceness of the top notes contrasting with the the woods of the base and the more mysterious 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.
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 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 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, 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 mum as Christmas or birthday presents), 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.
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.
AUBEPINE-ACACIA/ CREED (1965)
The lemon mimosa. For an entirely different take on the mimosa tree, there is always Aubépine Acacia from the Creed Private Collection series (typically very atypical scents that are as unusual as they are expensive). Les Senteurs, which is one of the only places to stock this scent, describes it as ‘a return to a more gracious age’, the ‘scent of country hedges enhanced with powdery acacias and mimosa’, and the scent is a refreshing alternative to more traditional, powdery mimosas. Starting with a very sharp, citric and green chord of lemon, bergamot, pine and galbanum, the perfume gradually reveals the warm, almond-milk caress of hawthorn flowers and mimosa over hay and ambergris. Fresh, distinctive, and ideal on either sex.