On January 21, The Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics, The Goethe-Institut, and The Institute for Art and Olfaction, collaborated to host an evening of bygone perfumery curated by Christophe Laudamiel. The event, which drew an estimable crowd of perfumers, writers, aficionados, and newcomers alike, offered a privileged glimpse into the Osmothèque—the official archive of perfumery based in Versailles, France. The evening served as an occasion to survey perfume's trajectory through a virtual tour and sniffing session of some of the archive’s most famous holdings, introducing lost fragrances, original formulas, and reconstructions of ancient blends.
The two-hour event included a comprehensive lecture by Laudamiel as well as the opportunity to sniff some of the most rare compositions in perfumery. Furthermore, the night served as an inauguration of sorts, as one of the first events in which the Osmothèque’s contents became available in North America. Considering that these items have never left Versailles, their journey across the ocean is both significant and telling.
Opening his talk with an extensive self-introduction, Laudamiel traced the distinction between his role at the New York City-based non-profit Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics and his more commercial role as the nose behind such mainstream hits as Abercrombie & Fitch’s Fierce (2002), Tom Ford’s Amber Absolute (2007), and Ralph Lauren’s Polo Blue (2002). Discussing his work on fragrances for the avant-garde S-Perfume as well as the forward-thinking Humiecki & Graef, he painted a picture of an industry that is largely retrogressive in its approach to production, noting the way that much of today’s niche perfumery reverts to a traditional aesthetic rather than moving forward and innovating. Yet this outlook is appropriate given Laudamiel’s responsibility with the Osmothèque’s archive as his talk intimated the importance of tracing olfactory lineage as a way to erect new, progressive bridges between the past and the future.
Laudamiel further articulated the importance of the archive’s international expansion and the recent acquisition of a 501C status as a means by which to virtually extend the walls of the archive so those outside of Versailles can gain access to its resources. Citing the role of the U.S. in the production of key ingredients commonly used in modern perfumery, Laudamiel’s talk implied the geographical and historical displacement of France as the central hub of perfumery—a gesture that maps onto the necessity to break away from tradition and expand toward more global notions of artistic creation. Consequently, the archive’s new mobility can perhaps be read as a way to concretize tradition, outlining past olfactory achievements, but also functioning as way to actively engage genealogy—a method by which to read patterns and shifts in the industry as a series of signposts for the road ahead.
Next, Laudamiel provided some of the backstory for the Osmothèque itself—a space that Luca Turin has amiably referred to as “The Perfume Museum.” The initial concept for the archive was proposed in 1976 by Jean Patou perfumer, Jean Kerléo in which a committee was established to discuss the possibility of such an archive. In 1986, Kerléo was entrusted with a collection of classic perfume formulae to be reconstructed, occasioning in the support of both the Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie de Versailles and the Comité Français du Parfum. 1990 saw the official formation of the Osmothèque, opening with a collection of official recreations from original formulae as well as acquisitions from the vaults of Chanel, Guerlain, and others.
The maintenance of the archive, Laudamiel noted, consists of the use of argon gas to replace oxygen in the bottles, in addition to a constant 54° temperature upheld in the building’s basement storage facilities. The current collection, he added, is comprised of more than 2,000 perfumes, 400 of which are discontinued fragrances with 170 discontinued formulas also on-hand. In cases of certain contributions, the formulae were kept secret—even for the archive—resulting in the need for analytical gas chromatography for archival records and future reconstructions. Together, these methods protect what can be regarded as both a shrine to olfactory art as well as a critical resource for the mapping of such an expansive and complex history.
Following this, Laudamiel shifted his talk into a nose-driven tour of the archive’s holdings as a means by which to tease out certain historical trends and patterns, illuminating the way that genres often converse in their process of development. Although too many scents were covered to list here in detail, what follows are some of the highlights of the tour.
He began by introducing L’Eau de le Reine de Hongrie (c. 1370)—a rosemary fragrance composed for the Queen of Hungary. Later accentuated with lavender, jasmine, and other notes, the scent of the original was largely camphorous and served to represent the first alcohol-based fragrance created. Highly linear, this watery composition was clearly a functional affair rather than one of direct aesthetic significance outside of historical lineage. This was followed by the equally minimal Vinaigre des Quatre Voleurs (c. 1609)—a pungent vinegar scent reportedly used as an immunization against the plague for corpse-robbing thieves. Moving into the 18th Century, Laudamiel introduced a bottle of Chartruese (c. 1605)—a liqueur with a distinctly fragrant and medicinal taste created by Carthusian monks in which notes of frankincense, absinthe, and sugar served to exemplify the connections between religion, scent and libation.
This allowed Laudamiel to move into a more extensive discussion of Eau de Cologne—a genre of perfumery that is still thriving today with various takes on the concept enduring as best sellers. Beginning this section with a sampling of Mäurer and Wirtz’s 4711, Laudamiel narrated the story of the Farina family’s trials, Napoleon’s passion for the scent, in addition to its links to the aforementioned Carthusian monks—one of whom is said to have produced the very first take on “cologne water,” offering it as a wedding gift to Wilhelm Mülhens who went on to produce the scent soon after. This was followed by a sampling of the loquaciously titled L'authentique Eau de Cologne de l'Empereur Napoléon 1er à Sainte-Hélène—essentially a more developed, full-bodied cologne water that smelled slightly gourmand with the mix of standard cologne components of citrus and lavender merged with a pronounced vanilla note. This warmer, vanillic focus segued into one of the more impressive scents of the night: the original Fougère Royale by Houbigant (1882)—a scent made famous, according to Laudamiel, as the first perfume to deploy a scent molecule of coumarin as well as establishing the fougère genre. Here, in its original form, the semi-sweet lavender displayed a rich tonka-esque base, highlighting perfumery’s route away from the more transparent cologne waters to the kind of textured and bodied scents that we find as more commonplace in today’s perfume market.
Next up was a reconstruction of the original Jicky (1889) in which notable differences from the contemporary formula were brought to light. As one of the first women’s fragrances to venture away from a purely floral composition, Jicky’s arrival can be read as an axial moment in perfumery—and in the initial formulation, the scent still stands head and shoulders above many contemporary scents in its study of presence and texture. Laudamiel followed this with a discussion of Coty’s Emeraude (1921) and its fascinating connection to Shalimar (1925) in which Guerlain is said to have taken direct inspiration from Emeraude to guide the oriental genre to its next logical stage of development. Whereas the two do indeed smell quite similar, it is the addition of the infamous Guerlinade that marks the main difference. And while both scents have endured and still sell to this day (signifying their lasting role in the industry), the originals carry much more heft through the use of materials that can longer circulate with regularity.
Laudamiel moved into the final part of his discussion by stepping back in time to introduce one of Coty’s first scents: La Rose Jacqueminot, a rose and candied violet scent that exemplifies the “lipstick effect” that has come to dominate a number of contemporary fragrances—a technique often used to add body and heft to an otherwise thin composition. Here, the damascone rose was the most prominent factor, but patchouli and a soft musk ketone were also detectable throughout.
But the final scent of the tour was the first formulation of Chanel No°5 (1921)—a recreation designed to simulate the scent exactly as it would have smelled in its cultural moment. Here, peppery jasmine and vivid aldehydes were supported by a clean laundry detergent note in a manner that, in today’s versions, reads more as powder than anything else. In this original version, what became evident was Ernest Beaux’s desire to capture an impression of rippling water through the combination of aerated aldehydes and ketones that allowed for a certain spaciousness largely absent from today’s formulation.
Despite battling jetlag and the knowledge that he’d be boarding another plane just a couple of hours later, Laudamiel was in good spirits, fielding questions and keeping his audience well entertained with anecdotes about the industry as well as his commendable ability to dissect a scent on the spot. What was so fascinating about this talk was the implicit significance given to archives as functional spaces rather than simply the storage chambers of the past. By expanding the holding of the Osmothèque beyond the walls of the archive itself, The Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics serves to grant practicing perfumers the ability to learn not just from what came prior, but the nature of olfactory art’s stages of development as a means by which to navigate uncharted territories. While industry restrictions will prevent many of these original formulations from ever seeing regular distribution again, access to the archive will allow for legacies to live on in the production of perfumes that express an engaged historical consciousness while maintaining their primary focus on innovation and new ideas.
- For more information on The Academy of Perfumery and Aromatics, see acadepa.org.
- For more information on upcoming programing at The Institute for Art and Olfaction, visit artandolfaction.com
- For more information on events at the Goethe-Institut, see www.goethe.de
Updated 3rd April 2014 For clarification, it’s come to my attention that a couple of points made during the lecture weren’t exact: the Osmothèque does not use GC methods for purposes of recreation—the collection is supplied from the perfume houses themselves and recreations are always made from entrusted formulae; and also, the Chanel No. 5 that was presented at this event was actually not a recreation, but an original sample provided by Chanel. Thanks to Will Inrig for pointing this out
Further reading: You can read about Persolaise's visit to the Osmotheque on Basenotes next week.