Samples from the Osmothèque, and the Uses of the Past
by, 28th March 2011 at 08:40 AM (6025 Views)
A friend of mine returned recently from trip to Europe during which he visited a very special museum called the Osmothèque in Versailles, near Paris. Its mission is the conservation of perfumes and their formulae. I am sure that many Basenoters have already heard or read about it. It is located near ISIPCA (Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l'aromatique alimentaire), a school for students of perfumery, cosmetics, and food flavor technology. Founded in 1984 by a group of perfumers led by Jean Kerléo, it is the successor to an earlier school (ISIP) begun in 1970 by Jean-Jacques Guerlain. In 2004, it formed a partnership with the University of Versailles, and now offers both Bachelor and Masters degrees in the three disciplines.
The interesting thing for me at the moment is that my friend brought back with him a collection of plasticine envelopes each containing cardboard strips which the French call touches or mouillettes, whose purpose is to facilitate the smelling of scented materials. On these strips were samples of perfumes which ranged from reconstructions of ancient Roman perfumes to some of the intial milestones of industrial perfumery of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. On Saturday afternoon for a little over an hour, he took me, along with a few others, on an olfactory tour of various samples drawn from that long history. It was a fascinating experience, and one that I would like to share, insofar as I can put it into words, with you, my fellow Basenoters.
Many of the perfumes on the strips were faint, in some cases barely detectable, at least to my nose. Others smelled remarkably fresh for artifacts of their age and evanescent nature. Some smelled fractional, as if bits were missing; typically top notes that were missing or had gone off seemed to be responsible for a kind of blurriness or murkiness that causes the French to say that the perfume is pourri: literally "rotten," but really something more akin to blunted, like a knife that has lost the keenness of its edge.
What did I smell? Here's a brief rundown:
Among the ancient reconstructions, revived by studying ancient texts for clues to the methods of the perfumers of that time and some of their formulas, was an ancient Roman one that contained calamus, mastic, labdanum, spices, and incense resins. It was reminiscent of some "oriental" perfumes of our own day, but missing the familiar vanilla note which we associate with them, since vanilla was unknown in the Mediterranean until it was brought from the Americas. Another was a reconstruction of a famous medieval perfume, attributed to Queen Elisabeth of Hungary, called Hungary Water, made by distilling rosemary (and possibly thyme) with strong brandy, while later formulations also contain lavender, mint, sage, marjoram, costus, orange blossom and lemon. It was the first European alcohol-based perfume. The one on the touche I smelled featured rosemary most strongly, but lavender and mint, as well as a hint of orange blossom were there as well.
There were two that were said to be survivors of the sixteenth or seventeenth century. One was called simply Vanille and the other Cèdre (Cedar). While the first smelled exactly like a fine vanilla extract, the cedar was so faint as to be barely present to the nose; yet the faintest hint of Atlas cedar remained, ghost-like there, haunting the mouillette. Smelling that produced the strangest sensation of longing, a wish to have been there on the day it was made, so as to be able to smell it in all its piquantly suggested splendor.
Then there was another pair, from the early nineteenth century. A scent attributed to the successors of Jean Marie Farina, the reputed inventor of Eau de Cologne. It was in a kind of middling state of decay, with something of citrus rind oils still about it, but mostly herbal, with traces of an ambery-woody base; all this was hard to grasp at first, but after a couple of attempts, the impression became somewhat clearer. The second one of this pair was another Eau de Cologne, this time one said to have been made to order for Napoleon I. It was a bit more distinctly citric and seemed to suggest a bit of verbena and herbs, somewhat restrained and suitably imperial. (Napoleon apparently used vast quantities of the stuff, and even after his exile, it was said that his former officers tried to smuggle colognes to him.)
Finally, there were others that would be more familiar to modern readers. I will mention five:
- the original 1880s Fougère Royale of Houbigant;
- L. T. Piver's Trèfle Incarnat, ca. 1896;
- Chypre de Coty of 1917;
- Coty's Émeraude of 1921; and
- Bourjois Soir de Paris of 1928.
Devised by Paul Parquet in the early 1880s, using a synthetic coumarin developed by a British chemist, William Henry Perkin, in 1875, Houbigant's Fougère Royale is of particular interest to me because I have wanted to compare the 2010 reissue with the original ever since I first smelled the new one. I thought I would never have the chance — until yesterday. What I smelled on the blotter was much more coumarin than I suspected was possible; other notes were there, oakmoss, geranium, bergamot, and the whole composition was rather faint, but still present. I now have an idea, at least, of what it was. A professional perfumer who posts on Basenotes thinks that the original would be nearly impossible to produce today, largely for technical reasons related to changes in formulation techniques. I want to say emphatically that I still have enormous respect for the 2010 version, even in the light of what I could gather of its noble ancestor.
L. T. Piver's Trèfle Incarnat was the first fougère to be made for women. Perfumers Jacques Rouché and Pierre Armingeat used chemist Georges Darzens' synthetic amyl salicylate and isoeugenol to simulate the smell of clover blossom (trèfle is French for "clover"). This scent was startlingly clear on the blotter, and more than clear, delicately beautiful. Slightly floral, fresh, and reminiscent of the distinctive clover note of clover honey, it didn't suggest a feminine scent to me at all. If there were a bottle today, I would wear it without a second thought.
Coty's 1917 Chypre was a religious experience on the touche: a beautiful floral heart with carnation, orris, rose, lilac, ylang-ylang, and jasmine, with resinous bergamot floating over it, and labdanum, oakmoss, and styrax supporting from below. This was the floral chypre incarnate. It reminded me of the old 1930 formulation of Acqua di Parma Profumo, now reformulated, and while still good, not nearly the equal of its former redolence.
And Coty's 1921 Émeraude, stunningly beautiful on the blotter, the bergamot almost green in its play against the other citrus top notes, a floral heart lightened by rosewood, and a complex ambery oriental base of real ambergris, benzoin, opopanax, patchouli, sandalwood and vanilla — nothing like the series of reformulations which have left it a mere hint of its past elegance. This was a revelation of what Coty had been before being sold and resold.
Last of all, Ernest Beaux's 1928 fruity floriental Evening in Paris/Soir de Paris for Bourjois. The scent on the blotter reached my nostrils before it even came very close: apricots, peach, and violets along with the bergamot of the top note; rose, heliotrope, orris, jasmine, lily of the valley in the floral heart; amber, musk, sandalwood, and vanilla in a classic oriental base. It seemed almost as fresh as you would imagine a new bottle to be.
All in all, I felt on that brief tour of blotters almost as if my nose had been to the Osmothèque, even though my feet have never trod there, nor my eyes beheld it. And for that I am grateful to my kind friend, who chose to share those perfumed moments with me.
What I carry away from that experience of an hour or so of a Saturday afternoon is, as ancient Sappho said of love: ῍ἐρῶς γλυκυπικρός ἐστιν," namely, that it is bittersweet; and such I felt my experience to be. To know what has been and could still be, and to see how greed for profit and cynical marketing has reduced it to rubble almost evokes Jeremiah's Lamentations over Babylonian-ruined Jerusalem. I prefer to remember the heights to which the art has been brought, and to focus on the valiant few who try to continue as much of that tradition as can be salvaged today and into the future.
One of the uses of meditating on the past is to inspire hope for the best to survive, and to gain the resolve to fight to hold onto the finest of our heritage, in whatever field of endeavor. The world we live in is no longer their world, nor could it be; and great stretches of time make for great gulfs in spiritual and material culture. Yet beauty abides, and she still remains for us the face of truth. We may confront a world very different from theirs, but as they did, still we quest for joy.
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