Perfume as Art

Vintage ads courtesy of Caron

Perfume is a Siren’s call, or perhaps a sign of someone’s inner self. The seductress wears a heady tuberose, while the nonconformist wears a waft of leather and cigarettes. The lady wears a delicate floral, while the flirt wears a candy-coated burst of violets. And the secret keeper wears a mysterious oriental, while the classicist wears a strange combination of licorice and violets that shouldn’t work, but does. And sometimes….the order gets switched, and an unexpected fragrance catches a woman’s fancy and it uncovers a hidden part of herself and enhances her sense of style. These are the perfumes that become legends, the ones that are created by artists who paint with scent. They are part alchemist, and part chemist. Perfumes that have stood the test of time and developed followings of their own because they are simply works of art are fascinating in their own right. The “noses” that created them are even more so.

Vintage ads courtesy of Guerlain

Jacques Guerlain came from a family of perfumers and created masterworks in his own right, including L’Heure Bleue (1912) and Mitsouko (1919). These are the deep mysterious fragrances that use notes like aniseed and vanilla and smell nothing like a modern “gourmand” fragrance, which in some of today’s mass fragrances can smell like a cookie. When a woman wears Guerlain, she seems womanly and mysterious, never childlike. It is the gift of a perfumer like Jacques Guerlain that a fragrance like L’Heure Bleue, which is a composition of aniseed and violets that was created in1912 is still worn today. This beautiful fragrance is moody and seems to capture the feeling of a particular time. Seven years later, Guerlain created Mitsouko, which means “mystery” in Japanese. After the global upheaval of a world war, Guerlain wanted to capture the spirit of a new kind of woman, a woman embracing life. Mitsouko is a transparent fruity-chypre oriental named after a character who awaits her fate. This is a fragrance of imagination, and it embodies the true art of a “nose”. No market research went into this fragrance. It was purely Guerlain’s conception of what he wanted to project into the future. Guerlain fragrances almost seem to embody an ideal, a zeitgeist.

An iconoclast as a perfume “nose” was Germaine Cellier. This woman had a no holds barred personality that clearly came through in her perfumes. Two of her most famous and the two that are often considered flip sides of the feminine coin are Fracas and Bandit. Fracas is a heady, feminine fragrance that knocks you over the head with her seduction. She takes no prisoners and completely goes after what she wants. Men clearly fall at her feet. She is in control the whole time. A mix of tuberose and orange blossom, the perfect balance is not apparent unless you’re paying close attention. The alter ego to the Fracas is Bandit, which is her cigarettes and leather compatriot. This is a heady fragrance of another sort, perfume for a woman who drinks and smokes and is much more in touch with her masculine side. As a matter of fact, this reads “masculine”, but then again, perfume can be a place to explore. The fascinating thing about Cellier’s fragrances is that they are so deeply personal to her as a woman, that one can actually almost envision meeting her.

The gorgeous, delicate Fleurs de Rocaille was created in 1934, and is a blend of rose, carnation, aldehydes, and woods. This is the Lady of the fragrances, elegant, with her ankles crossed. It evokes the time in a different manner. Today, we don’t have that image in our culture as readily, so this fragrance evokes what our mothers attempted to instill in us, good manners, and a sense of richness. Decorum, yes, but there is intelligence and character in this fragrance too that offsets the delicacy.

Aimez-moi (1996) is a reformulation of an original 1916 perfume. It exudes candied violets and is the flirt of this bunch. Legend has it that the original was a memento created for the soldiers Penelopes. It is a sprightly fragrance, and one imagines, one full of hope. The new Aimez-Moi is lovely, with a burst of violets and it is just a happy, flirtatious fragrance. And yet, it is also one of the only perfumes I have ever experienced in which really appreciate the wisps of violet. It is a beautiful, beautiful fragrance.

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