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Notes from the Osmothèque : Speed dating Roudnitska

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Going to an Osmothèque conference is like speed dating an oeuvre, you get a few minutes with a smelling strip before the next one comes along and the flow can go on for an hour or more. You can only get the most general idea of a perfume at the time, but at the end of the evening the smelling strips are all lined up in their paper sleeves ready to take away and work on later. The perfumes are all reconstructions, and as the Osmothèque doesn't give out vials it's impossible to try them on skin. A smelling strip is your only guide to what the perfume smells like.

Of twenty one works by Roudnitska only eighteen were presented, the missing ones were Daï Mo which is being reconstructed by Roudnitska's old company Art et Parfum, Grande Eau d'Hermès, and that unicorn of unicorns Diorama, which not even the Osmothèque has got.


• On dit : Roudnitska launched his career on a bold and powerful note of cumin, the centrepiece of a spicy floral chypre topped and tailed with powder and an animalic undercurrent.

• It's You : A luscious floriental jasmin; with citrus overtones, powder and a lightly unctuous heart. This light syrupy, rich smooth texture is a recurring motif in Roudnitska's work. And under the unctuous floral is another of his key notes violet, whose chaste propriety moderates the perfume's narcotic and seductive tendencies. It's You is an old fashioned composition with a beauty that rises above the limits of its style. I found the opening phrase of this the most moving of the whole collection. Edmond made it for Thérèse, his wife.

• Femme : By this time Roudnitska had attracted the attention of Marcel Rochas who contrived to bump into the perfumer as he cycled home one day. His efforts paid off and the result was Femme; which reprises the cumin, powder and unctuous florals of the first two works, but with the addition of a lactonic peachy accord it rises to another level. Femme is a great joy to behold, complex, subtle and deeply layered, a work of unalloyed beauty. In my opinion it's the high point of his early career.

• Chiffon (aka Mousseline) : Chiffon is an unctuous floral in the style of Femme but now quite dark and spicy, and again with a note of cumin. There is also a green-citrus-soapy note that feels odd and out of place. This is a jarring stumble.

• Eau de Roche : A change of direction which introduced the second great theme of Roudnitska's work, durable citrus. Eau de Roche would have been a rather conventional citrus if it weren't for its fizzy texture and remarkable longevity. One of it's secrets appears to be citronella, and another elemi, and there was possibly a verbena accord too. With a bouquet of subtle florals it is very nice, a bright, sunny, citrus Eau de Toilette, not a cologne.

• Mouche : Mouche contains the first minor chord to appear in Roudnitska's work. There's a strange undercurrent in the base, an insalubrious and sickly sweet balsamic accord rather like the foundation of Comme des Garçons Parfum. On top of that there's a spicy chypre-oriental, with cumin and moss, and this is where - for the first time - Diorella's over ripe melon makes an appearance. There is also a vinegary note in the top of Mouche; odd and challenging thing that it is.

• Diorama : Luca Turin - I'm looking for Diorama.
Keeper of The Flame - Everyone's looking for *** Diorama!

• Moustache : Another citrus and the first masculine by Roudnitska. It's very old fashioned, spartan and sour, vinegary, a hard woody citrus; not very nice to be honest.

• Rose de Rochas : An abrupt change of direction. Lush yellow rose, powdery violets and a hint of gourmandise. There could also be rotting melon in there too - the heart zone has a gloopy translucent feel like perfumey wallpaper paste.

• Eau d'Hermès : Because Hermès will have insisted on their signature note of leather the citrus of Eau d'Hermès is heavy and balsamic-spicy. There is something vaguely decadent about it. Apart from an extreme version this is the only work Roudnitska did for them.

• Daï Mo : This was described as a silvery version of Jicky without the animalics but no sample was available.

• Eau fraîche : This is a much lighter citrus with a floral heart and fizzy salicylates. A variation of the Eau de Roche theme, Eau fraîche is a lovely sparkling citrus; Innocence to the Experience of Eau d'Hermès.

•Diorissimo : The famous Lily of the Valley soliflor, although it uses jasmin and other florals as well as the now restricted hydroxycitronellal. Diorissimo is more of an artistic interpretation than a nature identical work, Roudnitska described it as an arabesque.

• Verlande : What begins looking like a lavender soliflor soon mutates into a fresh phenolic or even antiseptic cumin on a background of lightly powdered florals. Another, and this time less successful variation on Roudnitska's cumin fetish.

• Eau Sauvage :
"In the sixties, when you went to the theatre you smelled Eau Sauvage."
"Everywhere."
I remember it. Above the hubub there floated a diaphanous cloud of hedione, florals and citrus (and cigarette smoke).

• Diorella : Diorella was Edmond Roudnitska's proudest achievement and his undoubted chef d'oeuvre; a vaguely unsettling work of citrus, florals and over ripe melon. Michel Roudnitska commented that Diorella was the end of something. It was the pinnacle of his father's creative output, the end of a road that had begun in another country with Eau de Roche.

If the high points of Roudnitska's career are compared one against the other we can see two principles at work. Femme shows Edmond searching for olfactorial beauty. But when he came to compose Diorella, Roudnitska had already moved away from the more conventional goal of beautiful scent and was now exploring the limits of that beauty. He appears to have been trying to find out what would happen if a perfume went beyond simple beauty and became a kind of 'jolie laide' - an ugly beauty, a perfume which is attractive and repulsive at the same time. This sort of Push me - Pull you ambivalence creates an aesthetic challenge to the wearer that few perfumers have dared to undertake.

It's not just Diorella that displays ambivalent qualities, several other perfumes challenge the audience in one way or another : Chiffon, Mouche, Rose de Rochas and Verlande on the floral side and Moustache on the citrus; six perfumes out of eighteen is one third of the available oeuvre. Michel said that for his father perfumery was a 'travail intellectuel,' and it was surely his intellectual curiosity that drove Roudnitska to create so many perfumes with jarring or unsettling elements. These were often the result of his unmatched ability to give a familiar note a surreal twist and a perfumer of his technical skill would not have achieved these results by accident, Roudnitska was exploring possibilities.

It's difficult to imagine Edmond being content with turning out trivial variants of the latest trend. Passages from his books, L'esthétique en question, Que sais-je ? - Parfum and Une vie au service du parfum show him to be a thoroughly engaged artist and a thinker who reflected deeply on his work.

A masterpiece like Diorella cannot be summed up in a few words, it demands to be smelled first hand. And, as any fule kno, a cleaned up modern version be not the same pong.

• Eau Sauvage Extrême : Dior asked him to re-orchestrate their blockbuster for the American market and the result was more citrus twang and less transparency.

• Dior Dior : Shapeless citrus fizz that returns to a theme of lavender and sickly balsamics. It becomes very soapy. Surprisingly bad in the light of what went before.

• Grande Eau d'Hermès : Was not presented. A stronger version apparently.


There is a hiatus of some ten years between Dior Dior and Grande Eau d'Hermès which was explained by Michel Roudnitska's revelation that during that time his father lost his sense of smell. It must have been a terrible blow, the equivalent of Matisse losing his eyesight, but his odorat did eventually recover and the result was the last perfume to be published in Edmond's lifetime:

• Ocean Rain : An airy-salty aquatic fougère, and a masculine which is also a big bold lily. It defies the convention that floral themes must be feminine.

Finally there is the posthumous release Le parfum de Thérèse which was the first edition issued by Frederic Malle.

• Le parfum de Thérèse : Was broadly speaking a private version of Diorella but it is much more than that. It has a major note of violets and a leathery base as well as many other nuances. In some ways this is the culmination of Edmond's career, the magnus opus he worked on for much of his life. Michel described it as divisive, and it is quite challenging, as well as being a technically brilliant piece of work.


Right from the start of his career Roudnitska showed he was not going to be a conventional perfumer content to churn out crowd pleasers. His creations were too personal for that, often driven by a fascination for unusual materials and strangely warped accords like his over-ripe melon or the weird balsamic base. Roudnitska seemed to have a penchant for making things that challenge our notions of: 1) what a perfume can smell like and 2) what olfactory beauty consists of. He also questioned the arbitrary limits of perfume genres with his masculine floral and the Citrus Eaux de Toilette.

As well as harmonious works like Eau Sauvage, Eau fraîche and Femme, any assessment of Roudnitska's legacy must also encompass thrawn and dissonant works like Diorella and Mouche, the ones that make us react; perfumes that, perhaps for the first time, reveal a darker side to the art.

Updated 30th June 2019 at 02:38 PM by Wild Gardener

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