Reflexive Perfumery: A Virtual Tour of the Osmothèque with Christophe Laudamiel

28th February, 2014

Given the IFRA’s increasing chokehold on some of perfumery’s most commonly used materials, the fragrance industry has found itself at somewhat of a crux. Reformulations of countless classics have stripped them of their original charisma, and perfumers and creative directors alike have publicly voiced concern over their ability to work within such progressively challenging confines. On the one hand, this has led to the escalation of exciting guerrilla and underground perfumery; on the other, it has necessitated a greater effort to forge ahead with new materials and resources. Consequently, what has emerged is a time for reflection upon perfume’s historic development as a method by which to diagram the path ahead. And now, for U.S.-based perfumers, this capacity to reflect has been enriched through transatlantic access to the fragrance world’s greatest archive, allowing for the ability to sniff back through history in order to look toward the future.

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

  • For more information on upcoming programing at The Institute for Art and Olfaction, visit

  • For more information on events at the Goethe-Institut, see

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.

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About the author: Deadidol

Deadidol is a writer and academic working in the arts. He’s a contributor, editorially as well as in the forums, and is also one of the site’s moderators

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    • lpp | 28th February 2014 14:57

      Fascinating - thanks for posting, deadidol :)

    • alfarom | 28th February 2014 16:41

      Now, this is a write-up. Thanks.

    • rowan- | 28th February 2014 18:08

      Couldn't agree more. Thanks for taking us there!

    • Indagnacious | 28th February 2014 21:44

      I was under the impression that the Osmothèque contained every fragrance that was ever made, not just over 2,000 (even if they are 2,000 of the best), i.e., like our Library of Congress here in the U.S.? Now that would be amazing! Of course our LoC does not hold EVERY book ever published, but an entire collection of every fragrance could certainly omit Avon for instance. At 2,000 new entries a year currently, that would be quite an undertaking, but I think it could and should be done, lol.

    • rubegon | 1st March 2014 02:48

      Great article deadidol! It's great to see your debut here as a "contributor".

      This sounds like it was a great event. Thanks to taking us there. I really need to go to the Osmotheque the next time I'm in Paris!

    • FISS80 | 1st March 2014 03:13

      Amazing read! Very informative!

    • cacio | 1st March 2014 05:30

      Great article! Well, only in NYC, I guess - these things never come to DC. Looking fwd for persolaise's visit too.


    • pluran | 1st March 2014 09:13

      "........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......."

      Excellent. Need more stuff like that. Let the average person know what's happening to perfumes. These people (EU, IFRA, whoever) are attempting to steal beauty from people's lives. Be good to see this kind of thing on the big media outlets, etc.

    • Kagey | 1st March 2014 09:34

      Really interesting. Thanks, deadidol.

    • Curly11 | 1st March 2014 14:23

      Thanks, deadidol. I wish there would've been some discussion about Chypre, but perhaps Coty's contributions were sufficiently represented. As an armchair historian, these types of events fascinate me. I look forward to learning more.

    • FrouFrou | 3rd March 2014 16:01

      Thank you for this very interesting article.

      I wish the perfume industry was more retrogressive :( it seems that all my true favorites are discontinued oldies :(

    • anrat | 3rd March 2014 18:23

      Thank you for this article. There is somekind of missing link though... or maybe I don't understand enough. It's said a "guerilla" or "underground" or "niche" perfumery. What does it mean? To my understanding, in Europe, all cosmetics and perfumes must pass a legal marketing regulation before being able to sell to anyone (even anyone you know). At least that's the basis of being a legal business. Unless if the selling is not registered, but that means it's illegal (?), and how about paying the tax (?). I would also like to be able to express my creation without limit though, but it seems to be impossible in Europe, because once we get caught selling unregistered products, the penalty is high. On the other hand, if these underground perfumes pass the safety marketting, doesn't that mean that they use the same "permitted" ingredients as the mainstream brands? Please enlighten me, maybe I miss some understanding here.

    • Nukapai | 4th March 2014 13:36

      Thank you for a great write-up! Wish I could have been there. Very curious about the Osmotheque and plan to visit it one day.

      Anrat - maybe it's because people confuse IFRA with the EU. EU has a set of its own regulations, the Cosmetics Directive and so on; a list of allergen labeling requirements and certain banned materials. What's decreed by the EU is a legal requirement.

      Whereas IFRA is an industry-funded self-regulating body which offers recommended maximum levels of certain materials (many of which would otherwise have been banned by the EU). IFRA is trying to act as a barrier between the EU and the industry. Not wishing to go too much into how things could have been handled better, all round, IFRA is currently attempting to fight for more self-regulatory measures instead of bowing to EU's recent proposals for more bans.

      However, IFRA membership is voluntary. If a company is not member of IFRA, it will not have to follow IFRA recommendations. It's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid following IFRA, however, because in import/export and many other situations, officials and organisations demand IFRA certificates.

      One could also argue that if there are many non-IFRA compliant products in circulation, it gives the EU regulators more power to state that the industry self-regulation is clearly not working (and they'll take a harder line and we can kiss goodbye to a lot of materials). So in a perverse (?) way, it's in everyone's best interest to be IFRA compliant (and IFRA PR would like everyone to believe that there are no violating products on the market. It does conduct spot-checks, but of course it'll only be able to enforce anything with its own members).

      Now there's a new kind of underground perfumery movement happening - people creating their own perfumes, potions and lotions at home; not for sale, not for anyone else, but for their own use. Perfume materials are increasingly becoming available to the general public via suppliers and small businesses who don't insist on large minimum order quantities, and many even sell perfume making kits. There are many people offering make-your-own-perfume type training (Sarah McCartney, Cotswold Perfumery, Karen Gilbert, just to name three I am aware of) and people are encouraged to use whatever they please, providing they're happy to take the risk of a potential allergic reaction. I haven't attended these courses but I would assume some basic safety cautions are exercised (e.g. not putting excess eugenol into a fragrance - some of these recommendations are pretty sensible; eugenol is used as a dental anaesthetic and it's toxic to cells, so overdosing it in a perfume is not a good idea).

    • jujy54 | 10th March 2014 01:43

      Fantastic. Thank you, deadidol.

    • bokaba | 25th March 2014 03:37

      Glad to see a few are still interested in the old classics (though I would dispute the status of 4711).

    • HORNS | 25th March 2014 16:32

      Thanks so much for the effort put into this. This kind of stuff is why I am here!

    • cytherian | 13th April 2014 18:12

      Thank you so much for this intriguing and informative article. I'm very appreciative to know that such an effort has been afoot to preserve so many of the great legendary fragrances, and that many of the heralded perfume houses have graciously donated to the cause. Christophe Laudamiel is just the person we've been needing for so long, to help champion the significance of perfume's history and to forge ahead beyond the well worn traditional concepts of perfume creation.

      Here's an interesting video about the Osmothèque: