The Sniff Box – Perfume In Plain English

Tagged With ‘Jicky’

You must remember this

Do men and women smell perfumes differently? Of course they don’t. But the other day it struck me that many – and maybe most – men have a different relationship to perfume than women do, which affects the way they approach the whole subject.

One of the many clichés about perfume is the story, which gets recycled again and again, of how the (inevitably female) writer’s earliest scent memories were of the perfume that her mother wore. It’s a plausible enough story, I suppose, but after I’d read it a few times alarm bells started to ring.

I don’t think I’m a particularly unusual kind of chap, yet though I love perfume I don’t have any of those kinds of memories. My mum probably did wear perfume when I was growing up, just as she does now (and she smells very nice), but I don’t remember it making any kind of impression on me. And as for my dad, like the vast majority of dads when I was growing up (and I suspect still today), if he smelled of anything it was Imperial Leather, not Jicky or Cuir de Russie.

In fact the first perfumes I remember trying were when I was in my later years at school, and my introduction to them was through friends of my own age. In other words I don’t have that long, intimate familial relationship with fragrance that many women seem to have, and I suspect that’s fairly typical among men. Yet when I mentioned this to a female acquaintance it came as a complete surprise to her, and you’d certainly never realise it from what you read in the press.

My guess is that this may be one of the reasons why so many men find choosing and buying perfume so mystifying: they haven’t had the practise women have, or anyone to guide them or compare notes with from an early age. But maybe it’s my own upbringing that was unusual. It’d be interesting to hear what your own experience was.

Caron

Pour un Homme

Pour un HommeI’ve known about Caron’s Pour un Homme for many years – it’s often been hailed as one of the classics of men’s perfumery, and a couple of friends used to enthuse about it – but on the odd occasions when I’d tried it I couldn’t really see what there was to get so excited about. Despite its heritage it came in a cheap-looking bottle, and the testers I smelled did nothing much for me; to be honest I thought it was a bit dull.

But then I got a new bottle, and either Richard Fraysse, Caron’s in-house perfumer, has smartened up the fragrance formula, or the scales have fallen from my eyes. The new bottle is certainly tidier than the old ones were: even my enthusiastic friends admitted that it looked like members of the Caron family had stuck the labels on, rather wonkily, by hand.

Actually the Carons haven’t been involved with Parfums Caron since the early 1900s, when Anne-Marie Caron sold her family perfume shop in the Rue de la Paix in Paris to the brothers Ernest and Raoul Daltroff. The brothers came from a cosmopolitan Russian Jewish family – their father ran a railway company in Saône et Loire – but for some reason they decided to get into perfume.

There doesn’t seem to be any record of Ernest training in perfumery, but he evidently had a natural talent, and he was helped, from 1906, by a one-time dressmaker called Félicie Wanpouille, who became what we’d now call the company’s creative director. Between them they developed a series of perfumes, with striking packaging and beautiful Baccarat bottles, and in 1911 they had their first big success with Narcisse Noir (still available but completely reformulated and apparently nothing like the original).

In 1919 came Tabac Blond, which for many contemporaries captured the spirit of the so-called Jazz Age, and more particularly to the outrageous young women who had taken to smoking cigarettes in public (again it’s still on the shelves, but the modern version smells nothing like the original, which was more like the wonderful and still untampered-with Knize Ten). Daltroff made Félicie Wanpouille co-owner of Caron in 1922.

Pour un Homme arrived in 1934, and has since established itself as one of the all-time fragrance classics. On the face of it it’s a simple enough smell: lavender, lavender and more lavender. But perfumes (at least good ones) are rarely as simple as they might seem, and Pour un Homme is no exception.

Like Guerlain’s ground-breaking Jicky from 1889, it mixes lavender with vanilla, but with very different results: sniffing them side by side is a good reminder of why a list of ingredients tells you very little about what a perfume will actually smell like. Jicky has a strange, sexy but disconcerting smell, which has sometimes been compared with cat wee, and it’s the (mostly synthetic) vanilla that you notice first.

Pour un Homme, by contrast, smells very like real lavender when you brush its leaves, and (to me at least) it’s got an almost minty cool freshness. It’s a while before you smell the vanilla – and actually if I didn’t know it was in there I’m not sure I’d have even noticed. Though the lavender smell stays for a long time, this extra touch of vanilla (plus some nice but unobtrusive musks) adds a gently comforting character, without being sweet or cloying in any way.

All in all I think Pour un Homme is a lovely fragrance, if not one that’s likely to get you noticed at a party; this is something I’d wear for myself rather than for other people.

As for its brilliant creator, Ernest Daltroff, he came to a rather sad end. Though he escaped the Nazi invasion of France in 1939, moving first to Canada and then New York, he was by this time in his seventies, frail and depressed, and he died just three years later.

Félicie Wanpouille continued running Caron until she retired in 1962, when she sold the company to Parfums Revillon. In 1967 the brand was bought by the American pharmaceuticals company AH Robins, which opened a flagship store on the Avenue Montaigne. In 1988 Caron was sold again, this time to a French hair-products and cosmetics group, whose owner, Patrick Alès, had long admired the brand. Today it’s run by Patrick’s son Romain. Long may it prosper.

Slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails

A while back I attended a perfume training day with Roja Dove, perfumer extraordinaire in several senses of the word. A small group of us smelled something like a hundred different perfume ingredients, from bergamot to tuberose (the pure extract of which smells far more refined than any of the so-called ‘tuberose’ perfumes I’ve sampled).

Lots of surprises: extract of daffodil smells like hay; galbanum like freshly-podded peas. Fine lavender oil has an oddly sweaty side to it, which I think is one of the things I smell in Guerlain’s legendary Jicky. Roja brings in beaver glands, which gave us the wonderful leathery smell of castoreum (used in Chanel’s Cuir de Russie), and the greasy scrapings from the Ethiopian civet cat, which has the farmyard reek of fresh cow-pats but – in minute quantities – adds a disquieting hint of sex to any perfume in which it (or its synthetic equivalent) is used.

It was a fascinating and really useful day, though it must take daily practise to memorise so many ingredients. What surprised me, though, was the imprecision of perfume terminology. Particularly extracts come from very specific sources: galbanum, for example, derives from the roots of particular species of Iranian fennel (Ferrula gummosa and Ferrula rubricaulis), yet in our training day it was vaguely described as coming from ‘an umbellifer root’. Given that there are over 3,700 individual species in the umbellifer family (now renamed the Apiaceae), that wasn’t much help – cow-parsley is an umbellifer too, but I bet its roots don’t smell like fresh peas.

And as for daffodil smelling like hay, I wanted to know which daffodil: there are between 30 and 70 species of narcissus (the Latin term for daffodil) and hundreds and hundreds of varieties, many of which smell very different from each other.

It struck me as an odd contrast between how incredibly precise perfume chemists have to be, describing specific fragrances down to the molecular level, and yet how imprecise so much perfume terminology seems to be at the same time. If perfumers themselves use such vague descriptions, is it any wonder that we, the perfume-buying public, find the subject so confusing and so hard to understand?

Sex and scentsibility

Are you man enough to wear Chanel No. 5? Or woman enough to splash on Azzaro Pour Homme? I have to admit that I’ve never been a great fan of cross-dressing, but it makes about as much sense to talk about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ fragrances as it does to talk about ‘male’ or ‘female’ art, music or food. The fact that we divide perfumes into men’s or women’s fragrances has less to do with logic than it has to do with marketing, packaging and conventional thinking – and if you look back it’s not even that old a distinction.

Once upon a time, perfumes were perfumes, and there appears to have been little in terms of a gender divide until the early twentieth century. Men wore fragrances which today we’d regard as outrageously effete: both Napoleon and Wagner were famous for drenching themselves in scent, and Victorian gentlemen favoured sweetly scented floral perfumes alongside the ubiquitous eau de cologne. Even the words themselves – fragrance, perfume, scent – are genderless: the daft male-only term ‘after-shave’ appears only to have been dreamed up in the 1920s as a marketing wheeze. Though the expression may have made perfume sound a bit more butch and manly, all too often (in the days before male moisturiser became acceptable) it also left the more literal-minded chap with a burning face and peeling skin.

I’m not suggesting that male readers should rush out and purchase the olfactory equivalent of a pair of pink frilly knickers. Some scents (naming no names) are so insanely sweet and girly that it would be hard for even the most rugged male to get away with wearing them, but then they also tend to be the kind of perfume that smell as terrible on a grown woman as they would on any self-respecting man.

Beyond those parodies of perfume, there are remarkably few fragrances that, if you trust your nose and can brace yourself to ignore everything you’ve been told by breathless adverts and terrifyingly made-up sales assistants, are so incontrovertibly feminine or masculine as to be completely unwearable by either sex. Take one famous example. Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage was launched in 1966 and quickly established itself as a hugely popular men’s fragrance. It’s stayed on the best-seller lists ever since, and I think most men would agree that there are few more bracing, fresh and (above all) masculine fragrances around.

I couldn’t agree more, but if you’re a fan of Eau Sauvage, next time you’re in a well-stocked perfume store, wander over to the women’s-perfume counter and have a smell of Diorella, launched just six years later and designed by the same perfumer, the legendary Edmond Roudnitska. The first time I smelled it I thought, ‘But this is Eau Sauvage!’ And it is, give or take some extra fruitiness which, you could say, gives it a slightly more girly character – though perfume guru Luca Turin regards it as ‘a perfected Eau Sauvage and one of the best masculines money can buy’.

In many ways it’s even easier the other way around, and women seem always to have been less inhibited about adopting fragrances that were originally intended to be for the opposite sex. Eau Sauvage is a classic example: whether they smelled it on their boyfriends or discovered it for themselves, women quickly recognised it as the masterpiece it is, and those in the know have been wearing it ever since. Guerlain’s superb Vetiver is, to my mind, one of the most archetypically masculine perfumes in existence, yet it, too, has long been a female favourite – the olfactory equivalent of an Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo.

More striking still are those fragrances that have crossed the gender divide more or less entirely. When Aimé Guerlain launched Jicky in 1889, it was initially bought by men; at the time its sharp, slightly catty smell was considered too overtly sexual in character for respectable women to risk wearing it. By the 1920s, though, liberated by the rise of female emancipation, women started using Jicky too, and gradually it became a ‘female’ fragrance – though a few self-confident men (Sean Connery being the most often-cited example) continue to wear it today. Chanel’s super-plush Cuir de Russie followed a similar trajectory, though it would be hard, even now, to define it as either masculine or feminine in character.

Visit the standard-issue perfume store and you’d be forgiven for thinking that we were still stuck in a world where men were men and women were women and never the twain should meet, as if history – in the world of perfume at least – had got stuck around 1955 and all the social and sexual revolutions since then had never actually happened. But society, of course, has changed, and there are encouraging signs that at least parts of the perfume industry have begun to realise that dividing fragrance along crude gender lines is a weirdly outdated thing to do. A handful of future-looking perfume brands, such as Byredo, Comme des Garçons and Escentric Molecule, already offer ‘genderless’ fragrances, and there is a growing trend for imaginative retailers to follow their lead, stocking perfumes by brand instead of dividing them into men’s and women’s scents.

Perfume customers are changing too. The majority of people may continue (for the moment at least) to accept the status quo, but for the small but growing band of perfume-lovers who are happy to think for themselves, choosing perfume on the basis of its supposed masculinity or femininity has come to seem increasingly outmoded. The trick is simply to follow your nose: to choose the perfumes you love, like the people you love, regardless of what other people might say.

Guerlain

Guerlain Homme l’eau Boisée

Guerlain Homme L'eau BoiséeFew perfume companies have such a great heritage (and so many perfumes) as Guerlain, which is presumably why the luxury behemoth LVMH bought it in 1994. Founded in Paris in 1828 by Pierre-François Guerlain, it reached its apotheosis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century under Pierre-François’ grandson Aimé (who concocted the wonderful Jicky in 1898) and Aimé’s nephew, Jacques Guerlain.

One of the greatest perfumers of all time, Jacques created a whole series of legendary fragrances between 1906 and 1925, whose names are almost as alluring as the scents themselves: Après l’Ondée in 1906, L’Heure Bleue in 1912, Mitsouko in 1919, Shalimar in 1925, and Vol de Nuit in 1933.

Jacques’ grandson, Jean-Paul Guerlain, continued the family tradition, creating many superb fragrances of his own, for women and for men, including three of my own personal favourites – Vétiver (1959), Habit Rouge (1965) and Héritage (1992). But his reign ended sadly: after the Guerlains sold out to LVMH, Jean-Paul became just one of Guerlain’s hired hands, and in 2010 even his post-retirement role as a consultant was terminated after he made a casually racist remark on French television.

I’ll return to some of my own favourite Guerlain perfumes in future reviews, but I’ve recently been given, very generously, a bottle of Guerlain Homme L’eau Boisée, and as I rather like it I thought it would be good to feature something that was only released in 2012.

L’eau Boisée was created by Thierry Wasser, the Swiss-born perfumer who, before he took over from Jean-Paul Guerlain in 2008, worked for the multinational fragrance company Firmenich and was responsible for perfumes as diverse as Dior’s Addict, Diesel’s Fuel for Life and Kylie Minogue’s Darling.

Wasser’s original Guerlain Homme was released, to mixed reviews, the same year that he joined the company in-house. With a nice touch of wit, it’s based on the smell of a mojito, the Cuban cocktail whose ingredients include white rum, spearmint leaves and lime juice, but it’s been generally described as a fairly mass-market men’s fragrance – perfectly wearable, at least, but hardly up there with Habit Rouge or Jicky.

Since then, impelled by perfume retailers’ insatiable (and ultimately self-defeating) demands for novelty, Wasser has so far created three further versions of Guerlain Homme: Intense (2009), L’eau (2010) and L’eau Boisée. This last is a soft, woody fragrance, whose initial fresh scent of lime fades fairly quickly, to be followed by the warm scent of cedar wood and the pleasantly earthy smell of vetiver (Wasser uses a special vetiver from Tamil Nadu in southern India, apparently, rather than the more usual variety from Haiti or Réunion).

I can’t smell rum in L’eau Boisée, but to me it does have a faint but not unpleasant smell of celery, and a faintly sweaty (but again not unpleasant) scent that reminds me of a bottle of Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet that I used up years ago – must go and have a sniff to compare.

Would I rush out and buy a bottle? I’m not sure I would, as it’s hardly a groundbreaking scent; but as new perfumes go it’s both pleasant and rather refined, the kind of thing you could safely buy for an uncle or a friend. I’d be interested to know what you think.

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