During the course of my love affair with fragrance, I have grown to enjoy many types of perfumes, but I have always had a soft spot for classics. I gravitate to classics in my other interests too—books, films, music, dance, so it is not surprising that the retro aesthetic appeals to me in scents. Even some of my favorite modern fragrances like Serge Lutens Bois de Violette, Chanel 31 Rue Cambon, Bulgari Black and Frédéric Malle Carnal Flower are rooted in the classical tradition which they’ve reinterpreted in novel ways.
The other day as I was sighing with pleasure over Guerlain Après l'Ondée, I wondered what makes me enjoy classics so much. I came up with this list. Reading it through, I realize that I keep juxtaposing classical and modern perfumery, sometimes to the disadvantage of the latter. The perfumery has changed tremendously over the past few decades, and some changes have not benefited the output, while others resulted in more choices and new fragrance styles. When it comes to the perfumes I wear day to day, my selections lean heavily towards the modern blends. That being said, I cannot imagine my perfume shelf without the classics, and here are my ten reasons why.
1. Complexity and 2. Richness
Complexity and richness are the hallmark of the grand parfums—Guerlain, Jean Patou, Chanel, Caron, to name only a few quintessentially classical houses. The French perfumers sometimes call it “gras,” fat, alluding to the unctuous, rich quality that used to be fashionable. Today, “gras” is not necessarily a positive trait in a perfume. I love the luminosity of modern fragrances like Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue, Gucci Rush or Bulgari Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert, but I also get weak in my knees smelling the delicious heft of Miss Dior or Chanel No 22.
The rich, complex effect was achieved in the past by using a high proportion of bases and natural materials, especially florals. Perfume bases are accords of several different materials that give a novel effect. The famous Mousse de Saxe, a base used by Caron in many of its early classics is one such example. If you could take a look at old perfume formulas, you would discover that some of the bases had other bases inside! Add to this the inherent complexity of materials like rose or jasmine absolute, and you can understand why classical fragrances smell the way they do.
Balancing many different materials requires great skill and too much complexity can result in a muddled clamor. However, many classics that survive to our day do so because their creators made each element sing in perfect harmony. Today if a young perfumer includes a dozen bases in her formula as Germaine Cellier did in Fracas, she should expect a call from her supervisor. Of course, bases are still used, but with a much lighter hand. The preference today, with some exceptions, is for a formula that is simple to produce and simple to understand.
I like when the perfume changes on my skin throughout the day and smells different in the evening than in the morning. I like Clinique Aromatics Elixir and Caron Nuit de Noël, perfumes that do not reveal all their charms at once. I love being surprised by the wistful rose note that peaks out of the jasmine and hyacinth accord of Guerlain Chamade. It makes wearing these fragrances as exciting as re-reading great literature. You discover something new each time.
4. Unusual Materials
Today there are more materials in the perfumer’s palette than was the case 100 or even 50 years ago. It is now possible to create luminous, bright effects that were difficult to design with the materials of the past. As in all areas of our societies, however, progress comes at the expense of something else. In the case of perfumery, regulations and the rising costs of materials have put some notes out of reach—Indian sandalwood, traditional oakmoss with all its dirty, funky bits, rose and jasmine from Grasse, dark synthetic musks like musk ketone and musk ambrette. To smell these materials, you have to seek out vintage perfumes.
On the other hand, even post-reformulation classics can give a glimpse of the interesting materials used by perfumers of the past. I love the dark plum accord in Guerlain Mitsouko and Sisley Eau de Campagne. The smoky leather of Chanel Cuir de Russie and Knize Ten is among my favorite animalic notes. Finally, Chanel No 5 and Jean Patou Joy still use such opulent floral absolutes that they should be smelled for this reason alone.
5. Animalic Effects
In contrast to today’s fashion for “sexy clean,” many classical fragrances do not shy away from exploring “sexy dirty” effects. In Rochas Femme, the cumin and musk layered over peaches and plums, hint at ripeness, perhaps of a fruit or perhaps of someone’s warm skin. The pungent civet in Paloma Picasso, the dark honey and old furs in Schiaparelli Shocking, the smoky leather of Caron Tabac Blond… Did you know that the original formula for Chanel No 5 contained more than 30% of different musks and civet? These days you have to scour niche perfumery to find something comparably raunchy.
I am usually much more interested in the contents, rather than the bottle itself, but I appreciate a beautiful presentation, whether elaborate like Nina Ricci’s or minimalist like Chanel’s. Legendary bottle designers like Pierre Dinand (Yves Saint Laurent Opium, Worth Je Reviens, Lancôme Magie Noire) sometimes worked directly with the perfumer to create a bottle that matched the fragrance. Today, by contrast, the packaging is often designed by the marketing teams separate from the fragrance development.
Aramis, Mitsouko, Habanita, Chaldee, Cabochard, Brut, Opium… I love their meaning and simplicity. These names also match the perfumes perfectly. One of the most challenging aspects of launching a new perfume is to register a name. With many interesting names already copyrighted, a new fragrance brand faces quite a hurdle finding something original and distinctive.
8. Ground Glass Stoppers
The vision of a woman dabbing herself with a glass stopper may be a cliché, but spraying perfume, however convenient, simply does not have the same connotation of luxury and intimate pleasure. I especially love the raspy sound that a ground glass stopper makes whenever I open a perfume bottle. Ground glass stoppers are extremely rare these days. They require great skill on the part of a bottle maker to ensure a perfect fit and they are expensive.
I am not going to say that in the good old days the advertising was always tasteful and creative. Far from it! There were plenty of tacky advertising campaigns in the past. Caron French Cancan ads immediately come to mind. However, whenever I browse through the archives of Parfums de Pub, the older ads catch my attention for their elegant and often whimsical presentations. I also love drawings, which one hardly sees in ads anymore.
Finally, the longer the perfume has been around, the more lore it accumulates. I do not mean only the stories about its creation, but also about people who wear it and even those who hate it. It might be an endorsement of Chanel No 5 by Marilyn Monroe who declared that the only thing she wears to bed is Chanel No 5 (“five drops of Chanel No. 5,” as she put it in a 1954 interview.) Or a story could be a sign at a restaurant prohibiting Giorgio Beverly Hills, a tuberose perfume with a Godzilla-like sillage. Moreover, the story of people in your life who wore some of these classics can add its own special patina.
Do you like classical fragrances? Why or why not?
Rene Gruau drawing for Dior Diorissimo, 1956. Originally, he sketched the young woman in the nude, but Dior asked the artist to dress her in an elegant black dress.