For a moment, I wonder if the thing is going to leap out and attack me. Curled into the base of a steel box, it's a tangle of what looks like fur, claws and hide. It could be a piece of a garish Halloween costume. Or the remnants of some very strange Biology experiment gone wrong. I stare at it for a moment. And then, reassured that it's quite dead, I bring it closer to my nose and breathe in.
The smell that fills me is complexity itself. Both clean and dirty, old and new, intimate and vast, it isn't unlike the experience of sniffing the paws of a puppy or the back of a freshly-washed neck.
I look up and see the lined face of Yves Tanguy
smiling at me. "You like it?" he asks. When I give him several vigorous nods of the head, he laughs.
The object he's just handed me is a sample of Tonkin musk, probably the most valuable material in the collection of the organisation whose front room we're currently occupying: the Osmotheque. Formally established in 1990 as a result of the efforts of ex-Patou perfumer Jean Kerleo
, the Osmotheque is now the largest and most important scent archive in the world. A short walk away from the centre of Versailles and nestled in a corner of the main ISIPCA building, it is the only place on the planet that has devoted itself to the preservation of classic fragrances in the version in which they were first presented to the public. In other words, it is a scentusiast's dream come true: a bone fide treasure trove containing recently reconstituted samples of every single vintage gem you could name, as well as several others you've probably never heard of. As enticing as the house of the witch from Hansel & Gretel, the place has 'sensory overload' written all over its modern exterior.
Thankfully, Tanguy (right) is by my side to guide me through all the riches on offer. Although his name may not be as well known as that of some of his contemporaries, there's no denying the wealth of his experience and the value of his contributions to the industry. For one thing, he spent several years working alongside Henri Robert
at Chanel, where he developed a profound knowledge of that brand's scented output. For another, he was responsible for such classics as Lancome's Magie Noire
and Jacomo's Silences
. And he even has the dubious honour of popularising the much-maligned marine note: it's thanks to him that we have the original New West
Charming and modest, he doesn't dwell on his own credentials for one moment as he takes me from one fragrant milestone to the next. The first of these is the so-called Parfum Royal
from the 1st century AD, based on a rough formula recorded by Pliny The Elder. "It has a very interesting story," says Tanguy. "The Romans had a lot of feasts and they wanted to create a perfume with the ingredients that were on their banquet table. The formula has 27 ingredients, some of which we no longer know, and there were no quantities listed. Kerleo set out to find the ingredients needed to put the perfume together." Sure enough, the scent is a gastronomic pot pourri, combining cinnamon, cloves and honey with a gentle, floral powderiness.
After this relatively sedate intro, the rest of my smelling session is an extravagance of superlatives. We have Paul Parquet's Fougere Royale
(Houbigant, 1882) with its effortlessly endearing lavender. Then there's Aime Guerlain's Jicky
(Guerlain, 1889, recently reconstituted by Thierry Wasser and presented to the Osmotheque), an incomparable blend of raw bergamot, civet, aromatic notes and, of course, the brand's trademark patisserie twist. Francois Coty's Chypre
(1917) is a study in sophistication, with a surprisingly effective banana note at the top (courtesy of amyl acetate, according to Tanguy). Germaine Cellier's Vent Vert
(Balmain, 1947) is nothing short of astonishing for the confident manner in which it moves from greens to florals to mosses. And Henri Almeras' Joy
(Jean Patou, 1930) is a breathtaking expression of perfume as texture: an endless expanse of rose and jasmine floating across a bed of eroticism. All of them are markedly smoother, richer and more finely finished than the versions currently sold on the market.
Still, gorgeous though they are, it isn't possible to be certain that these reconstitutions are exactly the same as the original scents: variations may be caused by factors such as differences in raw material harvests from year to year, as well as liberties taken by the perfume houses donating freshly-made 'vintage' juices. However, the Osmotheque has been granted a special dispensation: it is permitted to use materials that are completely forbidden in fragrances aimed at the retail market (such as animal musks or the raw bergamot in Jicky
), which leads Tanguy to be confident enough to declare that the spirit of all these samples is entirely faithful to the compositions of yesteryear. "It is the best that we can do," he says. "When we have the formula - like Chypre
by Coty - we remake it ourselves, using exactly the same raw materials as at the time of creation. A group of perfumers meet to decide if the product is the exact replica of the original."
As I hurriedly tuck my fragrant blotters into their glassine envelopes - applying the scents onto skin is against the rules of the visit - I ask Tanguy if the students attending ISIPCA are ever dismayed by the knowledge that current regulations prevent them from being able to create scents such as those pioneered by Coty, Beaux and Parquet.
"I'm not sure, exactly," he says. "The students are too young. For them, this is the past. But the professionals with 10 or 20 years experience enjoy seeing certain raw materials in an unusual aspect."
"But my preoccupation is not the Osmotheque of today. It is the Osmotheque of tomorrow," he continues with a sigh. "There is a serious lack of Osmocurators. There's no-one to carry on this work. Not everybody is that interested in perfume. It's all volunteer work here. It's not paid. There are a lot of perfumers who don't want to get involved. I know a perfumer who has worked for a long time in the industry. When they asked him to come to the Osmotheque, he said, 'Sorry, I'm working elsewhere.' Younger perfumers have no time. They work too hard. They have to travel."
With only one full-time employee and with minimal funding from the industry, this repository of the western world's perfume heritage is at risk of ending up as lifeless as the ghoulish contents of the box which greeted me upon my arrival. Even the Osmotheque's current President, Patricia De Nicolai, has expressed fears about the organisation's ability to survive without an injection of material support.
It would be heart-breaking to think that all those lovingly re-worked juices - housed beneath a layer of argon gas in chilled containers - may soon find themselves without a home. But the modern world has little patience for the interests of a small number of individuals, no matter how passionate they may be. So it seems reasonable to suppose that without some help in raising its profile and generating a steady stream of funding, the Osmotheque will have to close its doors. And then the jewels that are Coty's Emeraude
, Roubert's Iris Gris
and Desprez's Crepe De Chine
- amongst hundreds of others - really would be gone, for ever.