Art, Beauty & Perfumes: The Genius of Roberto Greco

Sometimes, you stumble upon art of such great beauty that you stop in your tracks with awe. Art can move you deeply, whether it is from the sensuality that you see portrayed, the boldness of colours, the inherent drama of juxtaposed images, or the sheer talent that is involved. Last week, I came across a photographer whose works transcended mere pictures and involved actual Art. It left me speechless. In an extremely hectic week, his photographs (if one can even call them that) felt almost like a port in the storm, a place where I could seek quiet refuge to soothe my frazzled soul.

Candice Swanepoel in "Strict" by Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine September 2011.

Candice Swanepoel in “Strict” by Mert & Marcus for Interview Magazine September 2011.

I rarely talk about my love for photography, even to my friends, but I’ve had it since childhood. Other people’s photography, to be clear, as I have no talent of my own in this field whatsoever. I started by admiring the nature photography of Ansel Adams and the photojournalism of Robert Doisneau, then developed a particular interest in fashion and art photography. I have a huge passion for the works of the late, great Herb Ritts who is my absolute favorite, though I also really like Richard Avedon, and Helmut Newton. These days, I can fall down the rabbit-hole for hours staring at the strong, sexy women of Mert & Marcus, a brilliant duo who may be aesthetic sons of both of those last legends combined and whose work I’ve used a number of time for the blog.

Last week, I was calmly minding my own business, going about my work, when I received a very lovely email. I often receive notes from perfume lovers who want to talk about some of their favorite fragrances or to occasionally ask me a question. This one was from a chap called Roberto Greco who wrote that he was a photographer and a perfume addict who really appreciated my reviews. He added that he thought he’d share a link to some small photographs that he’d taken a year ago for himself. The mention of photographs was nothing big; it was all understated, presented more like a little vanity project that he’d done privately out of his love of perfumery and that he merely wanted to share with another perfume lover.

Willem Kalf, (1619-1693)  "Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate." The Getty Museum. Source: Wikipedia.

Willem Kalf, (1619-1693) “Still Life with Ewer, Vessels and Pomegranate.” The Getty Museum. Source: Wikipedia.

I clicked on the link, and… GOOD GOD! In fact, those were close to the actual words that I said to myself, since I just about fell over in my chair at what I saw. The next words which blasted through my mind were “Vermeer,” “Rembrandt,” and “Dutch Old Masters.” I was captivated, and wrote back to Mr. Greco with my astonishment. He’s an incredibly sweet man with excessive modesty, if you ask me, as he seemed rather amazed at my response. He shyly shared a few more of his photos and his main website, where I discovered further treasures, both perfume-related and otherwise.

I decided that I wanted as many people to see his work as possible, and asked him if he would mind if I highlighted his photos in a post on the blog. He has generously given me permission, and let me pick the images that I wanted to use, including several that were commissioned for commercial use by perfume houses, fashion designers, magazines or the like. (I insisted that he put a watermark and his name on them, lest they get stolen. Mr. Greco has a much kinder view of human nature than I do, but he put in a tiny one so that it wouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of the images.)

I’m really so happy to be able to share his work with you, because I think the word “talented” doesn’t even begin to describe him. So, I’ll start with the very first, initial photographs that I saw and that impressed me so much with their evocation of the classical still life painting tradition.

Roberto Greco Coco

Roberto Greco Tom Ford Still Life 2Roberto Greco Coco Noir Still Life

Roberto Greco Diptyque Still LifeLook at his eye for details, from the giant beetle on the corner which matches the colour of the velvet in the next photo:Roberto Greco Tom Ford Still Life  1There is no doubt that Mr. Greco is influenced by the Old Masters and the baroque tradition of still-life paintings. Some of the commercial work on his website makes that abundantly clear. Each work has such depth, richness, and dark luxuriousness, but I also love the extremely bold, powerful imagery. It hits you right off the bat, from contrast of colours, the unexpected juxtapositions, and those tiny, minute details that you only pick up if you look closer upon a second or third viewing. Honestly, I think this is actual Art, with a capital letter, more than just a mere photograph:

"Budgie and Pomegranate."

“Budgie and Pomegranate.”

"Girl and Grapes."

“Girl and Grapes.”

Look at how the juices from the grape stain her thigh, in the photo above, and the luminescent light of her skin that speaks more to painting than photography. I think Vermeer and his Dutch brethren would be so impressed by Mr. Greco’s Girl with Grapes.

Yet, Mr. Greco doesn’t slavishly copy the classical Baroque tradition. He turns it upside down by inserting animals or unexpected details into his still-lifes.

Roberto Greco __Still life with rats

“Still life with rats.”

"Still life with Discus fish."

“Still life with Discus fish.”

Commercial work for others can sometimes require an artist to restrain himself or to edit his voice, but I think Mr. Greco’s work remains powerful and still demonstrates his overall aesthetic beautifully.

Commissioned by Les Echos magazine.

Commissioned by Les Echos magazine.

"Bloody Wood" for the perfume house, Les Liquides Imaginaires

“Bloody Wood” for the perfume house, Les Liquides Imaginaires

"Bello Rabelo" for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

“Bello Rabelo” for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

"Dom Rosa" for Les Liquides Imaginaires

“Dom Rosa” for Les Liquides Imaginaires

For fashion designer, Nunzio del Prete.

Photo commissioned by the fashion designer, Nunzio del Prete.

Commissioned by Les Restos d'Occase.

Commissioned by Les Restos d’Occase.

Photo commissioned by Oriza L. Legrand.

Photo commissioned by Oriza L. Legrand.

The funny thing about that last photo is that I actually saw it while I was in the Oriza L. Legrand boutique last fall in Paris. I distinctly remember the crown, and doing a double-take at it, thinking to myself, “What a fantastic picture. I wonder who took it?” The world is a very small, funny place at times.

Roberto Greco Cuir de RussieI asked Mr. Greco about himself. His website biography talks about the exhibitions that he’s had, or the galleries that have proudly shown his work, but it doesn’t say much about the man himself. It’s clear he was educated in Switzerland, and that he now spends his time between Paris and Geneva, but little else. So, I asked Mr. Greco to write a tiny bit about himself, how he came to love perfume so much, and his aesthetic approach. English is not his primary language, but I think he managed beautifully:

I think it all started when, as a kid, my mother sprayed her perfume on my pillow to help me wait a long holiday absence. This smell was a picture, her face.

I’m a south Italian, but I was born in Geneva, Switzerland. At 15, I made studies in horticulture, but art was never really far. Indeed, I studied in 2 different art schools in Switzerland, and nature has a prominent place in my artistic work from the beginning.

Whether plants or animals in my childhood, the smell they gave off always fascinated me. Just a look at the steam emanating of a pile of wet leaves when it’s cold outside, will make you able to capture the complexity of all these organic things that surround us. All these smells are images. I will keep forever in my mind, and now I try to transcribe them in my art.

Once, an art director told me that my way of creating was the same as a perfumer. Different intensities which punctuate the picture. Here a detail, another one there, and then the rhythm starts to give the tempo and make an harmony …much like top notes , heart notes and base notes of a fragrance.

Recently, I found interesting to add a scent during my last personal exhibition. All the space was immersed in an animal and sweat scent. I make it by mixing different scents, and hidden some manure everywhere.

Today I am often asked to photograph perfumes, and it is a joy for me to marry two passions. Interpret the world of a fragrance while playing with the codes of art is an exciting challenge!

"Eaux Sanguines" for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

“Eaux Sanguines” for Les Liquides Imaginaires.

Currently I am very attracted to odours that remind me of my past. For example, olibanum incense is quite an obsession, probably because all those years I came to the church (Bois d’Encens by Armani Privé, Wazamba by Parfum D’ EmpireOlibanum by Profumum and Sancti by Les Liquides Imaginaires ). Woods and plants are also very present (Chêne and Iris Silver Mist by Serge Lutens, Virgilio by Diptyque).

Recently, I bought a perfume because when I smelled it, it referred me immediately to my Italian grandmother. It was obvious : this blend of lilies, dusty incense, wet clothes drying in the sun… It was her ! At least her image, because she doesn’t wear any perfume, and this is exactly for this kind of situation that I love and need perfume. (It was Relique d’Amour by Oriza L. Legrand ).

Now I live and work in Paris, and for a perfume addict like me, what could I expect more? [Emphasis to names with bolding added by me.]

Like every artist with depth, there is more to Mr. Greco than just baroque images or still lifes. He doesn’t limit himself to one particular thing, because photography is, at its heart, all about self-expression, a way to reveal different sides of oneself. Some of his perfume photos demonstrate a meditative, almost mystical quality, like the Chanel Cuir de Russie above, or the Opium photo below. Perfume bottles hidden by smoke, or the mists of time, perhaps. Others reflect a very modern sensibility with sleek minimalism or an almost textural, liquid feel.

Roberto Greco OpiumRoberto Greco FahrenheitRoberto Greco Calvin Klein CK One

"Blue Armani."

“Blue Armani.”

Then, there is the joyous mood of his hyper-saturated, pastel photos. The candied simplicity of their pop cultural, Andy Warhol-like brightness is brilliantly intercut with the unexpectedness of hair — hair twisted to grow like living bushes or sculptured into sleek, architectural waves:

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Valentino. Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

Valentino. Photo with Olivier Schawalder, hairstylist.

These are only a fraction of the multi-faceted things that Mr. Greco has done. You can see more of his artistic and exhibition work on his current website, but also on his earlier one that is devoted to some of his other projects, whether his personal perfume pictures, his fashion photography, videos, or the like.

One of my favorite things about blogging is the people who I meet, and the passions that they share with me. When I opened up that first email from Mr. Greco and diffidently clicked on the link enclosed, I had no expectations of anything. Humble, little photographs is essentially how he conveyed himself to me. I certainly didn’t expect to be blown away by Art, with a capital A. But that is what it is. Mr. Greco paints with his lens: textures, layers, moods, richness, and passion.

There is enormous depth and sensuality underlying his images, but a naughty, mischievous sense of humour, too, with the unexpected touches like the white mice in one of the still-life tableaux. (The piece is entitled “Still life with rats,” but they are cute little mice, not ugly rats, so I’m ignoring the official title.) Mr. Greco also throws in little “Easter egg” elements that reward the careful viewer who takes a second or third look, like the gigantic cicada (I thought it was a moth) hovering at the corner of the bowl of strawberries in his hanging Fish and Vegetable still-life for Les Restos d’Occase. I can look at his photos again and again, always finding new meaning or symbolism. A pink rose that drips like wax downwards, in contrast to the rigid, still, vertical legs going up of the dead bird in the corner. Or, the meatiness of the cherries that lie symbolically stabbed and bloodied by shards of glass in the photo, “Bloody Wood” for Les Liquides Imaginaires. So damn clever!

Many artists are temperamental creatures driven by ego or moods, and photographers are not necessarily an exception. I should know, as I have one in the family; a former fashion photographer who was even the legendary Helmut Newton’s assistant at one point. (If you want to talk about utterly crazy, egomaniacal geniuses, the late Helmut Newton might have topped the list.)

Yet, Mr. Greco seems to be quite a different sort of artist. Granted, I’ve only had email communication with him, but his modesty and consistently humble nature are striking. He is totally lacking in pretentious artifice or arrogance. All he sought to do in contacting me was to privately share his passion for perfumery. I’m the one who insisted on featuring him on the blog, because I thought that many of you would be as impressed as I was. And I really hope you have been. I also hope that you will share in the comments anything that struck you, moved you, or was a favorite, as well as the reasons why. If you have a message for Mr. Greco, please feel free to leave that, too. All artists love to hear feedback, or to learn about the emotional response that their creations evoke.

The great Ansel Adams once said, “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.” In the case of Roberto Greco, you can add perfumes to that list as well.

Disclosure: All photos used by permission. Full rights are reserved to Mr. Greco, and nothing may be used without his express authorization. Please don’t steal and not give credit!

Profile: Patricia de Nicolaï & The Guerlain DNA

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

Patricia de Nicolaï, via her own website.

I thought it might be nice to take a look at a very talented perfumer whom I deeply respect, but whose scents frequently seem to fly under the radar. It is a little surprising to me, given who she is. Patricia de Nicolaï of Parfums de Nicolaï comes from the Guerlain family, is a grand-daughter of the house’s founder, Pierre Guerlain, a niece of Jean-Jacques Guerlain, and a niece or cousin to the famed nose, Jean-Paul Guerlain. She is a pioneer amongst female perfumers, and has won prestigious honours from both her perfume peers and from the French government itself. Yet, even die-hard Guerlain lovers aren’t always intimately familiar with her works. I hope to remedy that in the upcoming weeks, but I thought I would first start with a look at the woman herself. 

Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: manager-magazin.de

Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: manager-magazin.de

Patricia de Nicolaï fascinates me not only because she is a trail-blazer in some ways, but because she seems authentic, down-to-earth, passionate, warm, and wholly unpretentious. Though she has the Guerlain genes in more ways than just mere chromosomes, let’s start with Madame de Nicolaï’s genealogy. She is closely related to Jean-Paul Guerlain who is both the current family patriarch and the last Guerlain who creates fragrances for the house.(Several sites call her his niece, but Patricia de Nicolaï says her mother was his cousin, so wouldn’t that make her Jean-Paul Guerlain’s second cousin?) Jean-Paul Guerlain is legendary for his creations. According to Guerlain’s Wikipedia page, he made such legends as: Vétiver (1959); Habit Rouge (1965); Chant d’Arômes (1962), Chamade (1969), Nahéma (1979), Jardins de Bagatelle (1983), and Samsara (1989), along with Héritage and Coriolan in the 1990s.

Madame de Nicolaï grew up surrounded by the Guerlain culture. As her website explains, she “spent her childhood in the Guerlain family home in Paris. A home in which she has been in contact with 4 generations of Guerlain.” She elaborated a little further to the The Daily Mail newspaper:

“I grew up surrounded by people who were fascinated by smell. My parents had a beautiful 18th century manor house in Burgundy with a lovely garden where the rooms were scented with Pot Pourri de Guerlain. Neither of my parents were noses but they had a vineyard and my mother was a famous wine taster. I think my love of fragrance was unconscious – I grew up with it.”

Vintage Shalimar ad. Sourc: caviardujour.com

Vintage Shalimar ad. Sourc: caviardujour.com

CaFleureBon has a superb, detailed interview with Madame de Nicolaï where her warmth, charm, and wit shine through in great abundance. I recommend reading in full if you’re interested, but I’ll quote my favorite part involving her memories of her childhood, her mother, and Shalimar. The quote not only creates the image of one, big family filled with strong characters who were all completely crazy about perfume, but also really underscores the powerful impact that one’s parents (and their fragrance) can have on a person’s olfactory development. As Madame de Nicolaï explained:

I lived within the Guerlain Parisian ‘Hôtel Particulier’ for the first 20 years of my life. We had – and we still have – a very big family and we all had our corner in this wonderful spot. I could tell loads of little stories about my childhood but if I had to take one moment, it would be when I was waken up every morning by the powerful and spellbinding Shalimar that my mother used to wear. I did not need an alarm clock in that time! The Shalimar scent was my morning wakeup call! And I loved it! My mother’s room was situated underneath mine and the scent came through my window which was always open, because sleeping with an opened window is in fact very healthy. You can trust my grandmother on that!

My mother loved Shalimar , it is true, but she really liked to be the first one to ‘test’ all the perfumes created by Jean-Paul Guerlain. She was the tender ‘guinea pig’ of her beloved cousin.

Source: .beauty-mekka.de

Source: .beauty-mekka.de

As an adult, Madame de Nicolaï attended the perfume school, ISIPCA, at Versailles, and then was employed at Quest, which later turned into Givaudan. During the late 1980s, she spent a few years working alongside some famous “noses,” like Maurice Roucel. There is also Sophia Grosjman whom she assisted on Lancome‘s very popular Tresor.

Madame de Nicolaï always forged her own path, in part because she was not allowed to work at the family business and, in part, because 30 years ago, perfumed doors were closed to women. In fact, there is an interesting article in the Edmonton Journal which talks about the glass ceiling faced by women perfumers:

When she graduated from ISIPCA, the perfumery school in Versailles, de Nicolai initially sought a job as a junior perfumer but doors were closed. “Because I was a woman. Even if the manager said yes, the chief perfumer didn’t ever want to have a woman on his team.”

She was never allowed to work at the family business. (To be fair, the family sold it to luxury goods behemoth LVMH in 1994, but still.)

“A lot of people ask me that,” de Nicolai shrugged, diplomatically, before adding: “You should ask that to the Guerlain family!” A couple years ago in Paris, when Jean-Paul Guerlain handed in the reigns of house master perfumer and LVMH brought in the first non-family member Thierry Wasseur, I had done just that. [¶]

Did he not believe that women could be good perfumers? I asked. Monsieur Guerlain, then 71, waved his hand dismissively and muttered something about de Nicolai being a woman who made scented salts and candles.

Jean-Paul Guerlain via The Telegraph.

Jean-Paul Guerlain via The Telegraph.

To put it as politely as I can, Jean-Paul Guerlain seems to have … er… issues… with a number of social groups, beyond just women, as evidenced by his attitude towards minorities and immigrants. I am doing my utmost to refrain from commenting further.

Patricia de Nicolai in 1989 with the prize for best international perfumer. Source: CaFleureBon

Patricia de Nicolai in 1989 with the prize for best international perfumer. Source: CaFleureBon

Still, Madame de Nicolaï had talent that other people couldn’t deny or so easily dismiss. In fact, she seems to have had the last laugh. In 1988, she became the very first woman to ever win the “Prix International du Meilleur Parfumeur“, an award given to the best international perfumer from the French Society of Perfumers (SFP). According to Madame de Nicolaï’s Wikipedia entry, Luca Turin reportedly called her  “…one of the unsung greats of the fragrance world.”

In 1989, Madame de Nicolaï founded her own company, alongside her husband, Jean-Louis Michau. I suspect she did so in part because there were not a lot of other options open to her. As she stated in the CaFleureBon interview, her uncle (Jean-Paul Guerlain presumably) had told her that she had “to improve [her] skills and then ‘we’ll see’. This ‘we’ll see’ never happened.”

The Parfums de Nicolai website merely states that she

started ‘NICOLAI, parfumeur-créateur’ … to continue the prestigious family tradition of perfume creation. The concept was to emphasise the role of the perfumer. A perfumer free in his creative choices and free to use the best quality ingredients available.

With an impressive number of creations, Patricia de Nicolai has succeeded in building one of the largest collections of fragrances in the contemporary perfume business.

She is in charge of the creation of the fragrances as well as the purchase of the raw materials and the making of the concentrates.

In all these creations her personal style appears, giving a real signature imprint. Patricia de Nicolaï’s creations are identifiable, original and elegant reflecting the high Parisian ‘parfumerie’ and ‘Le luxe à la française.’ […][¶]

She is also the only independent woman perfumer to have her own fragrance company. [Emphasis in the original, not from me.]

In 2002, Jean-Paul Guerlain retired from the family business as Guerlain’s official nose. Many assumed the mantle would pass to Patricia de Nicolaï. Well, apparently, that glass ceiling is alive and well at Guerlain, even under LVMH ownership. Madame de Nicolaï was passed over entirely for the role of in-house perfumer, a position that eventually went to Thierry Wasser in 2008.

Thierry Wasser and Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: ellecanada.com

Thierry Wasser and Jean-Paul Guerlain. Source: ellecanada.com

I find it utterly astonishing that a talented, much admired and respected nose who is an actual member of the Guerlain family was brushed aside. I simply can’t wrap my head around it. Guerlain’s Wikipedia page states: “With no heir from within the Guerlain family to take over, the role of master perfumer is no longer tied to family succession.” But there was an heir! An heir who was an actual nose, and who had received international recognition from her peers at an extremely young age! A 100+year family tradition was broken simply because Madame de Nicolaï was a woman??! It’s bloody outrageous.

Today, Patricia de Nicolaï runs her personal company, but is also the president of L’Osmothèque, the famed perfume museum at Versailles. It has become the main guardian of what is left of many of the legendary perfumes of the past, perfumes from Houbigant, Coty, and the like, perfumes that have now vanished from existence except for the tiny quantities that Osmothèque keeps in a Fort Knox-like vault. (You can read all about the fascinating place in a Fragrantica article, if you’re interested.) Osmothèque’s importance is just one of the reasons why France awarded Madame de Nicolaï its greatest honour when it made her a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2008.

Madame de Nicolai at Osmothèque.

Madame de Nicolai at Osmothèque.

Madame de Nicolaï is passionate about the cultural importance of perfumery. As the Edmonton Journal article makes clear, she believes perfume

it is part of the French cultural heritage, as important a cultural and economic export as fashion (which, in the aftermath of the Second World War, saved the country’s economy thanks almost entirely to Christian Dior’s New Look). “It’s a notion of art, and when in the middle of the 19th century synthetic molecules appeared and perfumers were not only chemists or apothecaries, they became really creators,” de Nicolai said.

“Perfume is probably the most sophisticated creation to make,” she added; “it’s very intellectual. It’s the most valuable product of our spirit.” More important than gender, she said, is that each creator has what in fine art is called la patte d’un peintre — the hand of the artist. “You recognize Beethoven, Mozart immediately,” de Nicolai said, and so too the signature of a perfumer.

Her own olfactory signature admits to certain genetic tendencies. “I am influenced by my family!” she admitted with rueful laugh. “Growing up Guerlain was always only nice perfumes, something you could recognize from afar, the sillage, and you would know it was Guerlain. I wanted to have the same approach.”

Source: Now Smell This.

Source: Now Smell This.

I respect Madame de Nicolaï for her character more than for anything to do with Guerlain. It’s not only her passionate commitment to the art of perfumery, but what seems to be to be something that I can only describe as integrity. She puts her head down, and quietly creates what she thinks is beautiful. Fads or popular trends be damned; it’s beauty and elegance which matter.

In fact, as she told CaFleureBon, one reason why she left Quest (Givaudan) was because she was fed up “by the practice of creating fragrances based on focus groups and marketing questions. I was very frustrated and I wanted to be free!” Her desire to be true to her own beliefs helps explain why it has taken Madame de Nicolaï years to put out a fragrance with oud. She did so finally in late 2013, only after intensely studing the character of the wood. As she said in her CaFleureBon interview, “I did not want to be trapped by trends. I am a free woman, free to create my own perfumes the moment I want to, regardless of any marketing concepts.”

I can’t tell you how much I respect all that. I’m a sucker for quiet intellectuals who also seem to be very down-to-earth, funny, humble, self-deprecating, warm and kind — traits which all the interviews demonstrate that Madame de Nicolaï has in abundance. Really, CaFleureBon did a stupendous job with their interview, and it is a stellar read from start to finish. It’s also quite funny in parts. I laughed like mad at Madame de Nicolai’s confession that she would have loved to make a perfume for Margaret Thatcher… because of how challenging it would be.

Source: rd.hu/A_parfüm_titkai

Source: rd.hu/A_parfüm_titkai

Apart from the three interviews linked up above, The Smelly Vagabond also has an account of an evening which a London perfume group spent with Madame de Nicolaï last year. It has lovely personal anecdotes, like how Madame de Nicolaï’s daughter suddenly “gets the flu” whenever she’s required to smell perfume. Or the key role played by her very supportive husband who urged her to begin her own perfume house:

At that time I had to take care of my children. My husband told me that if I stopped working in the perfume industry I would never be able to come back to it. Working for other companies was not an option because there is not enough freedom for the perfumer, who is under the whims of the marketing team. There is competition not just within the company but outside as well. So my husband told me that if I made the perfumes, he would settle the rest of the business.

As for her perfumes, well, there is one that I instantly liked, and liked so much that its memory stayed with me for months after I tried it in Paris and I ended up buying it. That will be the subject of the next review. The rest of her line isn’t always very “me,” however, as I find that many lack the sort of bold, opulent heaviness that I enjoy. However, I respect them a lot, appreciate their very classique feel, and can see the technical skill behind them.

"New York" via Luckyscent.

“New York” via Luckyscent.

I get the sense that there often seems to be one single Nicolai perfume that wrap its tentacles around you and becomes “yours.” Take, for example, Luca Turin who loved Madame de Nicolaï’s New York cologne so much that he wore it for a whole decade. In Perfumes: the A-Z Guide, he gives New York his highest 5-Star rating, and writes :

If Guerlain had any sense they would buy Parfums de Nicolaï, add her range to theirs, trash fifteen or so of their own laggard fragrances, a couple of de Nicolaï’s, and install owner-creator Patricia in Orphin as in-house perfumer. She is, after all, a granddaughter of Pierre Guerlain and genetic analysis might usefully reveal the genes associated with her perfumery talent. As a control where the genes are known to be absent, use the DNA of whoever did Creed’s Love in White. Smelling New York as I write this, eighteen years after its release, is like meeting an old high-school teacher that had a decisive influence on my life: I may have moved on, but everything it taught me is still there, still precious, and wonderful to revisit. New York’s exquisite balance between resinous orange, powdery vanilla and salubrious woods shimmers from moment to moment, always comfortable but never slack, always present but never loud. It is one of the greatest masculines ever, and probably the one I would save if the house burned down. Reader, I wore it for a decade.

Amber Oud. Source: CaFleureBon

Amber Oud. Source: CaFleureBon

I have samples of a few Nicolaï scents to test in the upcoming weeks or months, including Luca Turin’s beloved New York. It’s a nice, masculine fragrance which contains some of the Guerlain DNA, as it opens with a very superficial similarity to Habit Rouge before turning into something very different and wholly chypre-like in nature. I also have the oriental Maharanih (which I may skip reviewing as it has been discontinued in favour of the new Intense version), and the new Amber Oud whose notes include everything from lavender and thyme, to cinnamon, saffron, cedar, styrax, musk, castoreum and amber.

First up, though, will be the scent which I fell for and bought for myself, Sacrebleu Intense, a fragrance which I find to be a darker, non-powdery and possibly more unisex, modern take on Guerlain’s legendary masterpiece, L’Heure Bleue.

The Guerlain DNA, indeed. Better still, it’s from a really lovely person.

Coco Chanel: Nazi Collaborator & Spy

Everyone knows of Coco Chanel as a fashion icon and style pioneer. She is justly respected for her vision, brilliance, and the way she changed the world of fashion. Yet, hardly anyone talks about the other side of the mirror, the Chanel who was the epitome of a cold opportunist, and an amoral, ethically challenged survivor who would claw her way to the top. If that meant — quite literally — sleeping with the enemy, then so be it. Even if that enemy was a Nazi. In fact, not only did Coco Chanel have a high-ranking Nazi lover before and after WWII, she was allegedly also a Nazi spy herself, code-named “Westminster.”

Source: lipstiq.com

Source: lipstiq.com

The whitewashing of history is a sore subject for me, and the case of Coco Chanel, in particular, has bothered me for a long time. Then, a few weeks ago over the recent Christmas holidays, I watched a French film about Chanel’s alleged affair with the famed composer, Igor Stravinsky, in 1920. “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is a gorgeous but problematic account for a few reasons, not the least of which is whether or not there was an actual affair. (Coco Chanel insisted it occurred, Stravinsky’s main lover and second wife insisted that it did not.) Regardless, the story reminded me of the Chanel that so few talk about, the real Gabrielle Chanel, and it brought back all my old feelings.

I won’t get into the details of Chanel’s extremely difficult childhood, or the well-worn territory of her rise to power through the assistance of various lovers. Both periods of time have been amply discussed. I concede here and now, explicitly, that childhood traumas can shape us, determine our character, and are important in discussing a person’s motivations as an adult. Again, I repeat, I concede that point fully.

However, I firmly believe that there are lines, lines which cannot be excused by one’s opportunistic hungers or an ingrained desire to survive. For me, Gabrielle Chanel crossed those lines, badly, and the cultish worship of Chanel as a fashion icon, woman and person needs to stop. There needs to be a more balanced, considered, and critical approach that takes into consideration the two faces of Gabrielle Chanel, a woman who I think resembles Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

"Sleeping with the Enemy," 2011 book cover. Source: Stylemagazin.hu

“Sleeping with the Enemy,” 2011 book cover. Source: Stylemagazin.hu

The primary focus for the following discussion will be a book called Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War by Hal Vaughn. Mr. Vaughn (who passed away three months ago) was a former diplomat who was also involved with the CIA before he became a journalist. His book was released in 2011, relies heavily on recently declassified French and German documents, and garnered many rave reviews.

The issue of Coco Chanel’s anti-Semitism and war-time collaboration with the Nazis is widely known, though rarely discussed, but the book went much further than that. Based on those newly released documents, Vaughn revealed that Chanel was a Nazi spy. Yes, an actual spy. With a code-name referencing her British lover, the Duke of Westminster, who was another notorious anti-Semite.

PRE-WAR CHANEL:

New York Times‘ book review on Sleeping with the Enemy provides a succinct chronological background to Chanel’s actions at the end of the 1920s, actions that lay the groundwork for some of the events that were to come to pass:

As her personal fortunes rose [in the late 1920s], she turned her attention to making serious inroads into British high society, befriending Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales and becoming, most notably, the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (known as Bendor), reputedly the wealthiest man in England.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminister. Source: The New York Times.

Chanel and the Duke of Westminster. Source: The New York Times.

Bendor’s — and Chanel’s — anti-­Semitism was vociferous and well documented; the pro-Nazi sensibilities of the Duke of Windsor and many in his circle have long been noted, too. All this, it appears, made the society of the British upper crust particularly appealing to Chanel. As Vaughan notes, after she was lured by a million-dollar fee to spend a few weeks in Hollywood in 1930 — Samuel Goldwyn, he writes, “did his best to keep Jews away from Chanel” — she found herself compelled to run straight back to England, so that she could wash away her brush with vulgarity in “a bath of nobility.” [Emphasis to names added by me.]

Chanel with WInston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source: betterthannylund.blogspot.com/

Chanel with Winston Churchill (far right) and his son. Source: betterthannylund.blogspot.com/

Coco Chanel wasn’t turned into an anti-Semite by her ducal lover. Many sources, including Vaughn, argue that her bigotry had deep roots, going back to her childhood at a convent where such views seemed commonplace amongst the nuns and villagers. What was more significant about the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England and her lover for 6 years, was that he introduced Chanel to Winston Churchill. They became life-long friends, and it was a friendship that would serve her well when the time came down the road. In the meantime, she was living it up in Paris and was one of the wealthiest women in the world, thanks, in part, to the runaway success of Chanel No. 5.

Pierre Wertheimer. Source: newyorksocialdiary.com

Pierre Wertheimer. Source: newyorksocialdiary.com

A little known fact is that Coco Chanel had Jewish partners, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, whose descendents now control the entire Chanel empire. (As a result, the modern-day Wertheimer brothers are billionaires, with a combined net worth of over $19 billion dollars.) Chanel may have been an anti-Semite, but she was an opportunist first and foremost — and she badly needed the Wertheimer brothers in order to make her perfumes a success. I’ll rely on Pierre’s Wikipedia entry for the basic background details, though I’m fully aware that Wikipedia often has serious flaws and should only be used as a starting point in things. Still, the brothers aren’t the focus of this piece, and the Wikipedia account is supported by a site called Funding Universe. So, back to the Wertheimers. In the early 1920s, the two brothers were very wealthy, thanks to their father who founded the French makeup company, Bourjois. (It is still the cheaper arm for Chanel cosmetics to this day.)

In 1924, Chanel sought their financial backing in order to launch her perfume line and, most specifically, Chanel No. 5. In essence, the Wertheimers acted as venture capitalists in a new corporate entity called “Parfums Chanel,” in return for a whopping percentage of the rights and profits. As the Wikipedia entry explains:

In 1924, Coco Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimers creating a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel.”

Chanel believed that the time was opportune to extend the sale of her fragrance Chanel No. 5. to a wider customer base. Since its introduction it had been available only as an exclusive offering to an elite clientele in her boutique. Cognizant of the Wertheimer’s proven expertise in commerce, their familiarity with the American marketplace, and resources of capital, Chanel felt a business alliance with them would be fortuitous. Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris department store, Galeries Lafayette, had been instrumental in brokering the business connection by introducing Pierre Wertheimer to Chanel at the Longchamps races in 1922. […] 

Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer. Source: http://reneeashleybaker.wordpress.com

Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer. Source: reneeashleybaker.wordpress.com

For a seventy percent share of the company, the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. Théophile Bader was given a twenty percent share. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to “Parfums Chanel” and removed herself from involvement in all business operations.[4] Ultimately displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of “Parfums Chanel.” In 1935, Chanel instigated a lawsuit against the Wertheimers, which proved unsuccessful.[5]

Then, war came, and oh, what an opportunity it was for Mademoiselle Chanel. Up to that time, she had been living the high-life in a luxurious apartment at the Paris Ritz Hotel. While that part of her life didn’t change when the Nazis goose-stepped their way up the Champs-Elysees, they brought with them the convenient benefit of Aryanization laws that would target Jewish-owned business.

THE NAZIS & CHANEL:

"Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery)."  Source: Newyorksocialdiary.com

“Chanel, age 56, photographed by George Hoyningen-Heune, 1939 (copyright Horst/ Courtesy Staley-Wise Gallery).” Source: Newyorksocialdiary.com

To quote a New Republic book review called “The Stench of Perfume“:

While her fellow countrymen starved and died, she lived like a queen in the Ritz, surrounded by Nazi officers and enjoying Nazi parties. Berlin ordered that the Ritz was “reserved exclusively for the temporary accommodation of high-ranking personalities,” meaning that Chanel must have made connections with some very powerful Nazis in order to stay there. And there is the matter of her anti-Semitism.

In addition to her collaborations, Chanel spoke loudly and vehemently against Jews, and even tried to take advantage of the Nazi seizure of Jewish businesses and property. Her world-famous perfume, Chanel No. 5, was owned and produced by the Wertheimers—a rich Franco-Jewish family. Chanel had always been paranoid that the Wertheimers were stealing from her (though her lawyer assured her of the contrary), and during the war, when the family had fled to America, she attempted to take full control of Chanel No. 5. But the Wertheimers had anticipated that the Nazis (or Chanel) might try to steal their company, and therefore they signed it over to a Frenchman for the duration of the war. Chanel couldn’t touch it. The Wertheimers also sent a spy, Herbert Gregory Thomas (under the pseudonym, Don Armando Guevaray Sotto Mayor), to retrieve the chemical formula to make Chanel No. 5 as well as collect all the necessary ingredients. He then brought everything back with him to America, so that the Wertheimers could continue to produce and sell the fragrance.

Chanel may have been thwarted in her attempts to use Nazi Aryanization laws to obtain control of the perfume company that bore her name, but the Nazis still made her rich. Very, very rich. The blog, MessyNessyChic, explains:

Source: MessyNessyChic.com

Source: MessyNessyChic.com

On May 5, 1941, Coco Chanel wrote to the government department in charge of the handling of Jewish financial assets.

These are her words in the letter:

 Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews … and has been legally ‘abandoned’ by the owners. I have an indisputable right of priority. The profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business…are disproportionate.

Ultimately, Chanel was awarded the wartime profits from the sale of her perfume, including share of two percent of sales which amounted to the equivalent of $25 million a year in modern currency.  This made her the richest woman in the world at that time– thanks to the Nazis.

"The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel." Source: NY Social Diary.http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

“The young Baron von Dinklage circa 1935 at the German Embassy in Paris when he was working for the Gestapo, already a close friend of Chanel.” Source: NY Social Diary. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

Chanel was equally successful in satisfying her voracious sexual appetites. There’s nothing wrong with that, but my disdain stems from her choice of lovers: Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a senior officer for the Abwehr or German Military Intelligence, who reported directly to Goebbels. Dincklage, who was much younger than Chanel, ended up being the last great love of her life.

Chanel didn’t stop at merely taking on a high-ranking Nazi lover. She became an actual Abwehr spy, with her own number: Abwehr Agent 7124. Her code name was “Westminster,” harkening back to her anti-Semitic ducal lover in England. The basis for Vaughn’s argument: those newly declassified documents from French and German authorities, as well as Nazi documents taken by the Soviets back to Russia and similarly released by that government in recent years.

General Walter Schellenberd, nicknamed "Hitler's Spymaster"

General Walter Schellenberg, nicknamed “Hitler’s Spymaster.” Source: Wikipedia.

Chanel and her Nazi lover sought to recruit wealthy Europeans to the Nazi cause, and Chanel had two actual missions. To be fair, some of Chanel’s wartime efforts were an attempt to secure the release of those she cared about. One mission to Madrid was done partially to secure her nephew’s release from a German POW camp. Some people try to justify her meeting in Berlin with the SS‘s intelligence chief, General Walter Schellenberg, and Himmler‘s right-hand man in the same way. (Yes, she met with Nazis who were that powerful!)

The reason for that meeting was “Modellhut” (or “model hat”). That was the codename for her second mission for the Nazis, which took place in 1943, and sought to counter the turning tide of the war by using Chanel’s friendship with Winston Churchill to achieve a peace with terms that wouldn’t hurt Germany. As a Washington Post book review of “Sleeping with the Enemy” puts it:

When Germany began to falter, the Nazis came to believe that Chanel might be useful in contacting her old friends Churchill and the Duke of Westminster and brokering a possible peace. She didn’t disappoint. She did what she was told to do and, in 1944, she wrote Churchill a letter, referring obliquely to her German connections.

[It didn’t work, but] Chanel continued to live at the Ritz, rub shoulders with Nazis and dine on poularde rotie, even as French families dug through the city’s garbage, trying to fend off starvation. […] 

Parisians foraging for food, via NewYorkSocialDiary.com

Parisians foraging for food, via NewYorkSocialDiary.com. http://www.newyorksocialdiary.com/node/1907697/print

As the war ground on and Dincklage came and went from Berlin, convincing his bosses that she was trustworthy, thousands of French Jews were herded to sure deaths in Poland and Eastern Europe. But the glamorous woman with the deft needle and acid tongue was safe. The good life at the Ritz continued to roll on. There were legions of women of courage and derring-do throughout Europe, working hard to outwit the Nazis. Chanel was not among them.

THE LIBERATION OF PARIS & CHANEL:

In the final days of August 1944, after Paris was liberated, retribution for the “collabos” or those who collaborated with the Germans was harsh. Some say about 30,000 to 40,000 people were executed. “Horizontal collaborators” or women who merely slept with the Germans suffered as well, though it was primarily humiliation and ostracism. The punishment was swift and brutal, even though none of them were actual Nazi spies who went to Berlin to meet with Hitler’s spy chief. An excerpt of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in the New York Times gives you a small idea of what happened:

A thirst for revenge gripped the nation in the last days of August. Four years of shame, pent-up fear, hate, and frustration erupted. Revengeful citizens roamed the streets of French cities and towns. The guilty — and many innocents — were punished as private scores were settled. Many alleged collaborators were beaten; some murdered. “Horizontal collaborators” — women and girls who were known to have slept with Germans — were dragged through the streets. A few would have the swastika branded into their flesh; many would have their heads shaved. Civilian collabos — even some physicians who had treated the Boche — were shot on sight. The lucky were jailed, to be tried later for treason.

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source: histomil.com

Female collaborators in Paris, rounded up and marked with swastikas. Source: histomil.com

What did Coco Chanel do? She hurriedly ran out into the streets to give bottles of Chanel No. 5 to American GIs! (You have to almost admire her nerve.) A few days later she was arrested, but Winston Churchill made a phone call, and she was soon released.

Chanel got off scot-free, and for reasons that went much further than Winston Churchill’s intervention. With the help of influential friends, including her ex-lover the Duke of Westminster, she successfully orchestrated a cover-up. She lied about pretty much everything and to everyone. She even went so far as get a former collaborative ally arrested by the French Partisans and, later, to bribe the ailing Nazi spymaster to keep her secret. To quote the New York Times review that I referenced at the start:

She tipped off the poet and anti-Nazi partisan Pierre Reverdy, a longtime occasional lover, so that he could arrange the arrest of her wartime partner in collaboration, Baron Louis de Vaufreland Piscatory; she paid off the family of the former Nazi chief of SS intelligence Gen. Walter Schellenberg when she heard that he was preparing to publish his memoirs. (It was Schellenberg who had given her the “model hat” assignment.)

Chanel and Dinklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com via Paris Match & Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

Chanel and Dincklage. in 1951 at Villars sur Ollon, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland. Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com via Paris Match &
Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France/ Archives Charmet/ The Bridgeman Art Library

God only knows what the partisans did to a French traitor like the Baron, but it can’t have been anything good. In the meantime, mere days after her questioning and release, Chanel fled to Switzerland. There she remained for 8 years, until 1954, with her Nazi lover, living in style and in the height of luxury. Oh, and taking drugs while she was at it as well. Chanel was a hard-core morphine addict, relying on it daily until she was well into her 70s.

Throughout it all and until her death, she was coldly unapologetic for her actions, which is one of the things that bothers me the most. She may have done some things to survive, but I think she went too far, and, worst of all, she never once felt any regret.

Instead, when asked in later years about her Nazi ties, she coolly responded, “I don’t ask my lovers for their passports.” As for the French, a Portugese site, Fashionatto, quotes her as saying, “The French got what they deserved” and “Not all Germans were bad guys.” No, not all Germans were bad, and yes, the French behavior during the Vichy Government was abominable, but Chanel’s callous dismissal of the details goes a step too far. One of the things that irritates me to no end is her sheer indifference to anything other than herself. There is narcissism, and then there is megalomaniacal narcissism — I’m trying to decide there should be an entirely separate category reserved solely for Gabrielle Chanel.

As even the New York Times puts it,

Gabrielle Chanel — better known as Coco — was a wretched human being. Anti-Semitic, homophobic, social climbing, opportunistic, ridiculously snobbish and given to sins of phrase-making like “If blonde, use blue perfume,” she was addicted to morphine and actively collaborated with the Germans during the Nazi occupation of Paris. And yet, her clean, modern, kinetic designs, which brought a high-society look to low-regarded fabrics, revolutionized women’s fashion, and to this day have kept her name synonymous with the most glorious notions of French taste and élan.

CHANEL’S POST-WAR COMEBACK & THE WERTHEIMERS:

Chanel and Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Source: styleamor.com

Chanel and Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Source: styleamor.com

One of the strangest parts of this whole sorry tale is the behavior of the Wertheimer Brothers after the war. They paid for Chanel to live in the lap of luxury, from her exile in Switzerland until her death in Paris in 1971 at the age of 87. Their generosity boggles my mind. I can understand why they would finance her reestablishment in French society and the re-emergence of Chanel as a business success; that benefits them indirectly and financially. It was a business decision about a corporate entity. But her personal bills? All of them, and until her death? Despite her collaboration and despite how she had treated them personally? That takes the milk of human kindness to levels that I simply cannot fathom. (Yes, I am a much less forgiving person.) Meanwhile, Chanel grabbed the money, and then declared that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me.”

There seems to be the suggestion that Pierre Wertheimer was a long-time admirer of Chanel, and perhaps had a crush on her, but that didn’t prevent the two of them from having a little perfume war while Coco was in exile. There is a site called Funding Universe which has a detailed history of Chanel and her company, and which talks about the conflict over “Parfums Chanel“:

[After the war ended,] Pierre Wertheimer returned to Paris to resume control of his family’s holdings. Despite her absence, Coco Chanel continued her assault on her former admirer and began manufacturing her own line of perfumes. Feeling that Coco Chanel was infringing on Parfums Chanel’s business, Pierre Wertheimer wanted to protect his legal rights, but wished to avoid a court battle, and so, in 1947, he settled the dispute with Coco Chanel, giving her $400,000 and agreeing to pay her a 2 percent royalty on all Chanel products. He also gave her limited rights to sell her own perfumes from Switzerland.

Coco Chanel never made any more perfume after the agreement. She gave up the rights to her name in exchange for a monthly stipend from the Wertheimers. The settlement paid all of her monthly bills and kept Coco Chanel and her former lover, von Dincklage, living in relatively high style. It appeared as though aging Coco Chanel would drop out of the Chanel company saga.

At 70 years of age in 1954, Coco Chanel returned to Paris with the intent of restarting her fashion studio. She went to Pierre Wertheimer for advice and money, and he agreed to finance her plan. In return for his help, Wertheimer secured the rights to the Chanel name for all products that bore it, not just perfumes. Once more, Wertheimer’s decision paid off from a business standpoint. Coco Chanel’s fashion lines succeeded in their own right and had the net effect of boosting the perfume’s image. In the late 1950s Wertheimer bought back the 20 percent of the company owned by Bader. Thus, when Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87, the Wertheimers owned the entire Parfums Chanel operation, including all rights to the Chanel name.

Pierre Wertheimer died six years before Coco Chanel passed away, putting an end to an intriguing and curious relationship of which Parfums Chanel was just one, albeit pivotal, dynamic. Coco Chanel’s attorney, Rene de Chambrun, described the relationship as one based on a businessman’s passion for a woman who felt exploited by him. “Pierre returned to Paris full of pride and excitement [after one of his horses won the 1956 English Derby],” Chambrun recalled in Forbes. “He rushed to Coco, expecting congratulations and praise. But she refused to kiss him. She resented him, you see, all her life.”

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source:  Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com

Coco Chanel, back in Paris. Source: Source: fashionatto.literatortura.com

There is an interesting interview with the author of “Sleeping with the Enemy” in The New Yorker, where he answers some questions about the Wertheimers, talks about Chanel’s return from exile, and why there is so little discussion about Chanel’s past.

[Q.] As your title makes clear, the book emphasizes Coco Chanel’s wartime life. Why has this story not received much attention over the years?

I have no idea. I can’t figure it out. Either people didn’t want to know or chose not to deal with it. Of course, this story will not please the Wertheimers, one of the richest families in the world. Other than that, I have no idea why not.

[Q.] After the war, Chanel moved to Switzerland. How was it possible that she would ever be able to reëstablish herself in France, as she did in the mid-nineteen-fifties?

The simple answer is Wertheimer money: Chanel was backed by the Wertheimers. But really there was also the fact that, by 1954, most French people didn’t give a damn about who collaborated and who didn’t. De Gaulle had decided that all Frenchmen had been resisters, and all this collaboration business was behind them. And let’s not forget that Chanel was also tremendously talented.

[Q.] After everything Chanel had done to Paul Wertheimer, why did he ultimately agree to finance the reëstablishment of her couture house in 1954? And why did he consent to pay all her expenses—large and small—for the rest of her life?

From the point of view of the Wertheimers, the decision was extremely logical. What they were doing is not buying a business but rather an empire for a lifetime, and indeed that’s what it’s been. Here we are in 2011—can you go to any major city without seeing a Chanel store? It’s the unique mark in the world today.

[Q.] Especially in France—a nation still grappling with the legacy of collaboration—how is it possible that the Chanel brand today bears almost none of the stigma assigned to other brands often associated with Nazi complicity

The work of Robert Paxton never quite rubbed off on our memory of Chanel—and for a simple reason. She is essentially a hard-currency machine. Chanel is an icon, an idol in France—never mind the details of her life, her anti-Semitism, her dealings with the Nazis. Interestingly enough, I should mention that the French have not bought my book—at least not yet. It’s coming out in America and in Britain and in Germany. It’s been translated in Portuguese and translated into Dutch. But the French have yet to buy the book.

Source: entertainment.ru.msn.com

Source: entertainment.ru.msn.com

[Q.] Given Coco Chanel’s wartime past, what do you make of the prominence and popularity of the Chanel brand today? Should anyone still wear Chanel?

I have no feelings against Chanel. You can’t put someone like Klaus Barbie and Chanel in the same category: she didn’t kill anybody; she didn’t torture anybody. Madame Gabrielle Labrunie—Chanel’s grand-niece—said something to me that I found fascinating. She said to me: “You know, Mr. Vaughan, these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.” Chanel was, very simply put, an enormous opportunist who did what she had to do to get along. [Format “Q.” insertions added by me for sake of clarity.]

I very much agree with him. I think the primary, driving characteristic of Gabrielle Chanel was opportunism, followed closely by a ruthless hunger to succeed at any or all costs. She was petty, avaricious (she was reported to be notorious for not paying her seamstresses as much as others, and treating them harshly), narcissistic, coolly calculating, and pragmatic. In my opinion, if she had her heart set on something (or someone’s husband), she would stop at nothing to get her way. She would sup with the devil, if need be, and she would do it all without a second thought.

The same thing applies to the consequences for that behavior. If she could get away with something, she would do everything to ensure it, no matter what the cost to others. And Chanel never seems to have paid for anything. By 1954, she undoubtedly realised that passions had cooled and a prosecution would be too risky. Too many unpleasant truths would come out about too many powerful people. Far better to drop it all, and pretend that none of it had happened, much as the French did for other dirty memories of those years. By the 1960s, she was dressing the wife of the French President, Madame Pompidou, and re-emerging as a success.

Yes, she was an anti-Semite, but she never seemed to let that get in the way of making money or climbing the social ladder. That is one reason why I laugh at the company’s attempted defense of Chanel. They weakly offer the “Jewish friends” argument, whimpering that she would not have ties to the Rothschilds or some Jewish friends if she were really an anti-Semite. The Rothschilds, the bloody famous, supremely and galactically wealthy Rothschilds?! Of course she would! Good God, Chanel would probably have peed in public while standing on her head if the Rothschilds had asked her to. That doesn’t mean that she wasn’t a bigot. I personally happen to believe that she did agree with a number of Nazi beliefs. The idea of a “super man” would very much fit how she saw herself, as well as her snobbish disdain for anyone without power, money, lineage, or some combination thereof. As a whole, though, I think Chanel’s only real, unwavering belief was in the currency and religion of Coco Almighty. Does that excuse her actions? Hardly.

Chanel via The Telegraph and entertainment.ru.msn.com/

Chanel via The Telegraph and entertainment.ru.msn.com/

Two things need to be stated clearly. First, there are very few people alive today who are in a position to truly judge the situation of those wartime years. I did not go through the utter hell that was Nazi occupation, and I cannot know what I would do if I were in Chanel’s shoes. War and desperation can make us do terrible things. I recognize all that, and yet, I can never forgive Gabrielle Chanel her actions. Whenever I read people gushing over her admittedly exquisite taste, her glamourous life, and her luxurious apartments, I think about who she used, slept with, or betrayed. When people talking admiringly about her strong-willed passions and how fabulous she was, I grit my teeth. When people swoon over her exciting love affairs (e.g., a Romanov Imperial Grand Duke, among others), I think instead of her Nazi lover. I simply cannot get past what a vile and loathsome human being she really was.

Second, I want to preempt what is the inevitable response to all this: “genius can be terrible, but it’s still genius.” It is what I call the “Wagner Argument,” and often takes the subtext of “They were a genius, so it’s okay. We can excuse it, or still enjoy their accomplishments.” Perhaps, but I don’t think it’s actually okay. What I want is a more critical, balanced perspective of Gabrielle Chanel that doesn’t white-wash or excuse her. In short, I want the blind, whole-sale, positively cult-like worship of Gabrielle the woman to stop, even if people continue to enjoy the products or things that she achieved. And yes, I don’t think there is anything wrong with buying something with the name “Chanel” on it.

For me, the corporate entity that exists today has nothing to do with Gabrielle Chanel, and hasn’t in decades. That is one reason why I will never stop reviewing her perfumes or buying Chanel products. Certainly, “Parfums Chanel” was largely owned by everyone but Chanel since 1924. She had a mere 10% stake in the company from its birth, and lost even that after the war. Furthermore, she never made a single perfume herself after 1947; the Wertheimers did. Chanel is a multi-billion conglomerate that capitalizes on the personal mystique and legend of Gabrielle Chanel, and they would be foolish not to. It’s only business, as they say.

Nonetheless, the next time you admire something about Chanel, the woman and person, I hope you will remember the other side of the mirror. She was Janus, with one face that reflected a fashion and stylistic trailblazer, a pioneer whose achievements in those particular, narrow fields has to be terribly admired. I certainly do — enormously. But the Roman god, Janus, also has a second face. In the case of Gabrielle Chanel, it rather resembles Dorian Grey’s portrait in the attic: maggot-ridden, venal, ulcerous, oozing internal decay, and thoroughly diseased with amorality, cruelty, corruption, and the blackest of ethics.

BOOK DETAILS:
If you’re interested in Vaughn’s book, Amazon sells Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War in a variety of different formats. The paperback price is $13.13, while the Kindle price is $10.19. It is also available on Amazon UK and Amazon France. I assume it is available on all the other Amazon country sites, though I have not checked. I know that Amazon Australia only has it in Kindle form.

Oriza L. Legrand: The History, The Store & The Perfumes

When perfumistas with vast, expensive fragrance collections and tastes similar to yours urge you repeatedly to do something because “you’ll love it,” a person tends to listen. Again and again, before my Paris trip, I was told that I had to go to Oriza L. Legrand, not because I am a history fanatic, but because of the sophistication, complexity, depth and elegant luxuriousness of their perfumes.

Chypre Mousse. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

Chypre Mousse. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

I’m glad I listened, because I was utterly entranced. The history is fantastic, the boutique utterly adorable and filled with quirky personality, and the perfumes are lovely. In one case, so absolutely incredible that it stopped me in my tracks while on my way to buy my precious bell-jar from Serge Lutens. Those of you who know me (and my feelings about Serge Lutens) will realise that it takes a hell of a lot to make me turn around in my set journey to my perfume mecca — let alone to get distracted enough from Serge Lutens to buy another perfume, then and there, and after a mere 15 minutes!

But that is precisely what happened with Oriza L. Legrand‘s Chypre Mousse, a fragrance that I will review (along with some others from the line) in another post. The funny thing is that I had actually gone to Oriza with plans to investigate a completely different perfume, a patchouli-cognac-amber fragrance called Horizon whose lengthy list of notes had called to me like a siren song. It’s a beautiful patchouli-amber, but, in the end, it could not compare to the utterly haunting, unique loveliness that is Chypre Mousse. To me, Chypre Mousse is the damp, mossy, forest, leafy version of Serge Lutens‘ delicate floral triumph, De Profundis. My fellow blogging friend, Undina, once described De Profundis as a “homage to life,” and I think that beautiful phrase is also the ideal way to describe Chypre Mousse. I mean it quite seriously when I say that I think the perfume is a masterpiece.

Oriza logo. Source: the Oriza L. Legrand website.

Oriza logo. Source: the Oriza L. Legrand website.

I was impressed enough by Oriza L. Legrand (hereinafter just “Oriza“) that I decided to begin my coverage with a little overview of the brand. So this post will address Oriza’s history, its return to the perfume scene, and, at the very end, some of the fragrances that stood out for me. It will also focus on how the perfumes may have changed from their very original formulation. I was lucky to stumble across a superb interview with one of Oriza’s new owners in which he explains how he’s dealt with perfume formulas that go back to 1899 and the early 1900s, the tweaks he’s made in order to offer a slightly modernized version, some very famous fans of the new fragrances, and more.

In addition, I have to include some photos from my own time in the boutique. I loved the time-capsule feel of the store with its vintage posters or adverts from the early 1900s, its quirky collection of bow-ties made from vintage silk, and its brightly coloured window displays. As usual for this trip, my tiny camera wasn’t very cooperative. Nonetheless, I hope it gives you a little sense of what the Oriza boutique is like, especially if you are planning a visit to Paris. At the very end will be a discussion of some of my favorite Oriza perfumes thus far, along with their notes, and an explanation of how you can try the line for yourself.

THE HISTORY:

1720, King Louis XV, and famous beauties. Far before Guerlain, Grossmith, Creed or the like, there was Oriza L. Legrand. The brand originated with Fargeon the Elder who set up his first shop in the Louvre Palace’s central court, and who made a fragrance for the young king. It probably helped Oriza even more that Fargeon’s potions and creams were rumoured to be the secret of Ninon de Lenclosa great courtesan known for her beauty and eternal youth.

Composite of old Oriza photos and adverts, created by forevergreen.eu .  http://forevergreen.eu/a-fleur-de-peau/reliques-parfumees/

Composite of old Oriza photos and adverts, created by forevergreen.eu .
http://forevergreen.eu/a-fleur-de-peau/reliques-parfumees/

In a 2012 interview with the French blog, Flair Flair, one of Oriza’s current owners, Franck Belaiche, explains both the company’s name and what happened next:

As for the name of the house, it derives from Oryza Sativa, the latin name for rice, which was part of the cosmetics’ ingredients.

Then in 1811, Louis Legrand took over the house as he understood all the potential prestige it had. With its fragrant creations, he pushed it to its full extent. It is him who introduced the perfumes in the house although Fargeon, in his time, had created a fragrance for Louis XV, the young king.

He created the most refined, the most exquisite, the most complex things. Legrand was a true fragrance artist, like the perfumers one encounters in [Patrick Suskind’s book] Le Parfum. […][¶]

[Eventually] Oriza was one of the rare houses that provided the Courts of Russia, England, Italy and France. In France, it lasted until Napoleon 3. The house was also one of the firsts to turn its fragrances into lines of products. It has become the most natural thing now, but it wasn’t back at that time. For Déjà le Printemps, you had a perfume, a powder, make-up, soaps… You see, when I saw the industrial, powerful and innovative aspects of the house, I fell in love right away. I wanted to give it a second birth and give it its prestige back.

At the start of the 1900s, Oriza continued to enjoy success. It participated in the World Fairs, which were very big things back then and one of the rare occasions when the very best artisans, merchants, and luxury lines could present all their wares in one place. In essence, it was a sort of prestigious Olympics.In 1889, Oriza took home the Gold Medal for its perfumes but, in 1900, it received the very top honours with the Grand Prize. I’ve found a photo of the perfume which may have won and which may have been named after Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort.

One of the ancient Oriza baccarat bottles, as many used to be. This one seems to be for "Violets Prince Albert" and the winner of the First Place prize at the 1900 World Fair winner. Source: lylouannephotos.blogspot.com with the original on Flickr.

One of the ancient Oriza bottles, in baccarat crystal as many used to be. The name of this one translates to “Violets Prince Albert” and it seems to be the Grand Prize winner at the 1900 World Fair. Source: lylouannephotos.blogspot.com with the photo originally from Flickr.

Then, alas, things came to a crashing halt in the 1930s, and obviously WWII didn’t help matters. The house completely died.

THE RETURN OF ORIZA L. LEGRAND:

Franck Belaiche. Source: Flair Flair.

Franck Belaiche. Source: Flair Flair.

Decades later, a perfume lover stumbled across the Oriza name while doing research in a library. It was Franck Belaiche. As he told Flair Flair in the interview linked above, his background was in the movie and television industry, but he loved perfumes. So, he bought the brand with the goal of putting it back on its feet:

I’d spotted Oriza Legrand while doing some research and reading in libraries. Soon, I was fascinated by its story and how it was a precursor of so many things. The house seemed to me like it was one of the creating actors of today’s perfumery.  […]

What did you think when you bought it? What did you want to do with it?
I wanted to make it modern while keeping its essence and soul intact. I first had to select, among the 80 fragrances that had been created, which ones were likely to be adapted, reworked from their original formulas, and still be appealing. A good number of them are not easy to wear, especially since Raynaud and the steam extraction technique gave birth to many florals. But there were also a few synthetic molecules which allowed the creation of what we would call today “orientals”. I’ve had to work with the labs to see what we could do based on the formulas and also on the juices, since I have managed to get hold of some old, full bottles. I wanted to get close to the old perfumes while making them modern, without betraying them.

So from the beginning you wanted to make these formulas contemporary? It was never about saying “This is exactly what perfume smelled like back then”?
No, and let’s face it, that would have been impossible. First because of the raw materials that we can no longer use, and also because it would have mean making sent-bon (French for smell good). Besides, although these fragrances were high quality, they correspond to a time that is not necessarily ours. With Déjà le Printemps, just like the three others, we are very close to the original, but there is this little something that makes it modern. Careful though, reworking a fragrance does not mean making it attractive to a majority. Right now, I am working on the next two perfumes, which will come out at the end of January.

The whole 2012 interview is fascinating, excellent, and really informative. I urge any of you who may be interested in the technical aspects of how ancient fragrances are brought back to life, to read it in full. It addresses everything from the work process with the laboratory in Grasse and its chemists and perfumers, to the way that perfumes have changed since the time of Louis XV, and the company’s future plans. You can also learn more about Oriza, its current ownership, and the reconstruction of its scents from the lovely Caro of Te de Violetas who interviewed Mr. Belaiche back in September of this year.

One part I found interesting in the Flair Flair interview was Mr. Belaiche’s explanation for why all the new “re-edits” of the original Oriza line pertained to its 1900-era fragrances, instead of the 1720s one. As he explains, it would not have been easy to do a tweaked version of something like Violette du Tsar, a perfume created for the Tsar of Russia. Moreover, “not a lot of people would have enjoyed it, and then starting with old perfumes didn’t seem to me like a relevant way of bringing the house back to life.” (But aren’t you dying to know what that may have smelled like?!) Clearly, Mr. Belaiche is not trying to recreate fragrances merely for the sake of nostalgia and historical curiosity. Instead, he wants to do the house proper justice by making Oriza a viable, current, commercially successful brand with a long-term future. In other words, he’s not trying to create a museum, but a living and breathing house that has a chance of success beyond just the initial curiosity factor.

The Relique d'Amour.  Source: Oriza L. Legrand website.

The Relique d’Amour. Source: Oriza L. Legrand website.

Judging by the interest of two famous clients who are known for having exquisite, expensive tastes, I think he’s off to a good start. In the Flair Flair interview, Mr. Belaiche mentioned that the great Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Adjani are fans of the line. According to Mr. Belaiche, Oriza’s customers generally fall into two groups:

either they are foreigners from Russia, America or the Middle East, fascinated by the house’s story; or they are demanding customers from France who don’t want to wear what everyone is wearing. We were pleased to welcome Catherine Deveuve and Isabelle Adjani, who fell in love with the house. […]

[Their perfume choices:] Déjà le Printemps for Catherine Deneuve and Relique d’Amour for Isabelle Adjani.

I met Mr. Belaiche when I went to the Oriza boutique, along with his business partner and fellow Oriza owner, Hugo Lambert. They were both charming and very kind, though Mr. Belaiche seemed to blink a little at the extent of my enthusiastic outbursts over the fragrances and their quality. I don’t think he’s used to someone babbling a thousand words of English a minute, mixed in with French, while sniffing everything, taking photos from every angle, suddenly stopping in their tracks to announce “Aha! Armagnac! This has aged cognac in it!” in response to one fragrance, and being the sort of whirlwind that is rather uncommon to the very restrained French. I hope he took it as the compliment that it is — there are many niche perfume houses these days, I’m extremely hard to please, and I rarely find a brand to have impressively sophisticated, high-quality, original, creative or luxurious offerings almost across the entire line.

Relique d'Amour poster. Source: Oriza L. Legrand website.

Relique d’Amour poster and perfume label. Source: Oriza L. Legrand website.

I’d like to thank Mr. Belaiche for letting me take photos of the boutique, and I can only apologise to him for my camera taking such poor photos. While I’m at it, I’d also like to thank Mr. Lambert for providing me with a small decant of the beautiful patchouli scent, Horizon, to go with my purchase, even though he had to dig up a long vial from the back. As a side note, I wish I had managed to take photos of all the vintage Oriza posters and adverts framed under glass in the store. They were fascinating, and I’m so glad the new owners have kept the brand’s aesthetic, both in terms of the feel of their boutique and their perfume’s packaging. I’m a complete sucker for Art Deco, so I love Oriza’s brightly coloured labels with the old-style, vintage fonts.

Without further ado, here are a few photos of the Oriza store on rue Saint-Augustin:

The exterior of the colourful store.

The exterior of the colourful store.

Oriza 4-B

One Oriza store window, featuring Chypre Mousse and some of its collection of vintage bowties.

One Oriza store window, featuring Chypre Mousse and some of its collection of vintage bowties.

Some of the soaps from the Oriza line.

Some of the soaps from the Oriza line, along with boxed perfumes wrapped in wonderfully old-fashioned, patterned paper.

Oriza 5 B

Part of the Oriza collection of bowties made out of vintage silk fabric.

Part of the Oriza collection of bowties made out of vintage silk fabric.

One of the bowties up close.

One of the bowties up close.

Some of the original 1900s posters and adverts for Oriza fragrances, now framed and under glass.

Some of the original 1900s posters and adverts for Oriza fragrances, now framed and under glass.

THE PERFUMES TODAY:

I think Oriza is going to go places simply because the majority of its perfumes really don’t smell like anything else that I’ve encountered. (Chypre Mousse…. oh, Chypre Mousse!!!) They have the classique feel of fragrances created in decades gone by, much like the very old Guerlains legends. It is a feel that — somehow, I don’t know how — seems miraculously untouched by the impact of IFRA. Like Sleeping Beauties put to sleep in 1900 and awakened today, the Oriza fragrances have body, layers of notes, a very rich, concentrated feel, and the elegant signature of something that is both very French and very “perfume.”

That said, I don’t think the perfumes are generally something that a novice perfumista with commercial tastes would relate to very well. These are not scents that someone used to Estée Lauder‘s Beautiful or Viktor & Rolf‘s Flowerbomb would understand. I think that perfumistas whose tastes skew towards uncomplicated, light, clean, and wispy scents would also struggle a little. None of the Oriza fragrances that I’ve tried thus far would qualify as “wispy” or simple — thank God. They’re nothing like the By Kilian‘s with their largely straightforward, basic nature, or sometimes gourmand fruitiness. They’re too purely French to be like an Amouage or a Neela Vermeire, though they sometimes share both those house’s opulent sophistication. They’re full-bodied and with a vintage feel in terms of both their potent richness, their complexity, and their sophistication. If you like the early Guerlains, the complicated originality of some Serge Lutens creations, or the sophisticated weight of Roja Dove’s fragrances, then Oriza L. Legrand will be for you.

Oriza's list of perfumes with their original date of production.

Oriza’s list of perfumes with their original date of production.

Thus far, Oriza has seven “returned” fragrances. The list of the eau de parfums with their original date of creation:

  • Relique D’Amour (1900)
  • Rêve d’Ossian (1900) -(Fragrantica gives a different debut date for Reve d’Ossian which it lists as a 1905 creation, but I’m going by what was listed in Oriza’s own shop window in Paris.)
  • Oeillet Louis XV (1909)
  • Jardins d’Armide (1909)
  • Chypre Mousse (1914) (Fragrantica incorrectly states that this one is from 1920.)
  • Déjà Le Printemps (1920)
  • Horizon (1925).
Jardins d'Armide. Source: Oriza L. Legrand website.

Jardins d’Armide. Source: Oriza L. Legrand website.

Though I haven’t finished testing the whole line yet, the ones I have loved the most thus far have been three. Chypre Mousse wins, hands down and by a landslide, as one of the most fascinating, haunting, evocative chypres I’ve smelled in ages. It is then followed with Horizon and Reve d’Ossian in a neck-and-neck position. The florals that I’ve briefly and cursorily tested thus far have sometimes smelled dated to me, though generally not in a bad way. Only one of those triggered a strongly negative reaction: Jardins d’Armide, which felt too painfully difficult and old-fashioned with its heavy powder and its soapy feel. However, my perception has to be put in the context of one who dislikes powdery scents, and who loathes anything soapy, even expensive floral soap!

So, what are the notes in some of my favorites? Oriza provides the following details for my top 3:

CHYPRE MOUSSE:

    • Top Notes tonic & balsamic: Wild mint, clary sage, wild fennel & green shoots.
    • Heart notes aromatic & flowing properties: Oakmoss, Galbanum, Angelica, fern, wild clover, Mastic & Violet leaves.
    • Backgrounds Notes mossy  & leathery: Vetiver, Pine Needles, Oak Moss, Mushroom fresh Humus, Roasted Chestnut Leather, labdanum & Balms.
Reve d'Ossian label. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

Reve d’Ossian label. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

REVE D’OSSIAN:

    • Top Notes: Frankincense and Pine woods.
    • Heart Notes: Cinnamon, Benzoin, Tonka Bean and Opopanax [sweet myrrh].
    • Base Notes: Tolu Balm, Sandalwood, Leather, Labdanum, Amber and Musks.
Horizon. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

Horizon. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

HORIZON:

    • Top Notes: Bitter orange, Tangerine Confit & Dried Rose.
    • Heart Notes: Cognac Amber, Aromatic Tobacco Leaves, Cocoa, Roasted Almonds, Old Oak & Patchouli.
    • Base Notes: Benzoin, Amber Gray [ambergris], Peat, Tabac Blond, Vanilla, Honey & Soft Leather.
Chypre Mousse. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

Chypre Mousse. Source: Oriza L. Legrand.

One thing that I need to emphasize about many of these note lists is that I don’t think they accurately convey the real nature of the fragrances. One reason is that the perfumes are superbly blended and a bit linear, so that you often get an overall effect, rather than a detailed, distinctive sense of each of their parts. For another, something about many of these fragrances is… well, for lack of a better term, other-worldly. I’ll be honest and say that one reason why I’ve put off reviewing Chypre Mousse is that I’m not sure I could even BEGIN to describe it properly and in-depth. I’m not one who is usually at a loss for descriptors or olfactory adjectives, but Chypre Mousse may be beyond my abilities. The smell is simply like nothing I’ve encountered.

Given how many of the perfumes really are a “sum total” effect due to their seamless, fluid, often linear structure, I fear I’m merely going to have to give descriptive snippets of each. At times, my account may amount to instinctive abstractions, as in the case of Relique d’Amour:

RELIQUE D’AMOUR:

    • Top notes: Fresh Herbs, Pine.
    • Middle notes: Powdery Notes, White Lily, Pepper, Oak, Incense, Myrrh, Elemi.
    • Base notes: Musk, Moss, Waxed Wood, Woody Notes, Pepper.

Oriza describes it as “the smell of an old chapel of Cistercian abbey.” I think that gives a misleading impression of the perfume, as do the notes themselves. It is far from a dusty, cold, dark, foresty, woody, High Church olibanum/myrrh scent. To me, it’s a very complex, unusual, quite twisted take on a lily scent that actually feels like a Serge Lutens, only very old in nature. Relique d’Amour is different, original, and stands out a mile away — and it won’t be easy to summarize it in the upcoming review. [UPDATE 11/6 — You can find my reviews of the full Oriza line at the following links: Chypre Mousse, Horizon and Reve d’Ossian in one post; and the 4 remaining, largely floral fragrances in this second post.]

All in all, I think Oriza L. Legrand is a line that is definitely worth exploring. Though there are no U.S. retailers (yet), it’s easy to order directly from the company. In addition to the full bottles of the perfumes, they offer a sample set of the complete line. It’s quite inexpensive at €9 for 7 fragrances that come in 2 ml vials, thereby giving you quite a few test wearings. I think it’s well worth the minimal cost, and I believe Oriza ships the samples world-wide. If you’d like to sniff very elegant, very French, perfumed Sleeping Beauties, brought back to life after more than a century and in a largely unchanged form, give Oriza a try.  

PRACTICAL DETAILS:
WebsiteOriza L. Legrand. There is an actual e-Store that offers perfume samples. All 7 fragrances in the range are offered in 2 ml spray vials for €9. Shipping is listed as €9 extra, but a friend said he was charged only €7. The perfumes themselves are all eau de parfum in concentration, and cost €120 for 100 ml/3.4 oz. Store address: 18 rue Saint-Augustin, 75002 Paris, France. Hours: Monday – Friday: 10:00 am to 7:30 pm; Saturday: 1:00 pm to 7:30 pm. Metro: Opéra ou 4 Septembre. Phone: 01 71 93 02 34. Other vendors in Europe: For a few other French vendors, as well as one store in Sweden and one in the Netherlands, you can check Oriza Points of Sale page. The Netherlands retailer is Parfumaria.

Exclusive: An Interview with Serge Lutens

I was recently granted the enormous honour and privilege of interviewing Serge Lutens. He was not in Paris during what had originally been intended to be a short stay on my part, so he kindly offered me a written interview. I cannot express my gratitude enough; even for someone as verbose as myself, there are truly no words to adequately express my appreciation, and how excited I was to receive the news.

Serge Lutens at his Marrakesh villa. Photo, courtesy of Shiseido and Serge Lutens.

Serge Lutens at his Marrakesh villa. Photo, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

My admiration for “Serge Lutens” has always been primarily for the man himself, even more than for his fragrances, despite their beauty, creativity, and originality. I’m utterly fascinated by the way he thinks, by his intellectuality, and by his elusive, enigmatic, Sphinx-like nature. The more I probe, quite often the less I understand, and the more intrigued I become. At this point, I think it’s quite safe to say that I have a full-blown obsession with trying to figure out Serge Lutens, and a complete acceptance of the fact that I never will. Genius is simply not subject to normal analysis or understanding. And, for me, Serge Lutens is the last of the 20th-century artistic greats, a combination of Picasso, Camus, Yves St. Laurent, Herb Ritts, and Richard Avedon — all in one very sylph-like, elegantly stylish, black and white, enigmatic package.

As a result, I intentionally asked questions that were designed to be more personal or theoretical in nature, and to focus on the mysterious man behind the legend. I also did not want to bore Monsieur Lutens by repeating the same sorts of queries that he gets so often, like what perfume he wears. Besides, I have already covered extensively both his background and childhood, his rise to success, his time at Vogue and Dior, and his perfumes in a very detailed, two-part profile. (Serge Lutens Part I, and Part II). In short, I was selfish and asked what I personally wanted to know, regardless of whether it pertained to perfume. In most cases, it did not.

The responses I received were detailed, long, philosophical, and thoughtful. Monsieur Lutens had taken the time to respond to each one (and there were twelve in all!) in depth and with enormous seriousness. I was thrilled, and a little awed. However, the responses were all in French, and, to be honest, I sometimes find my dear “Oncle Serge” to be a little oblique and abstract. (Even in English!) So, while I certainly understood his meaning and most of his nuances (I think), I did not trust my own French enough after all these years to provide you all with a truly accurate translation. (For example, I had to go look up what the word ‘ankylose’ meant, as I’ve certainly never encountered it before in either French or English!)

Consequently, I enlisted the help of two friends to provide a translation that faithfully captured the underlying tonalities, right down to the smallest metaphor and nuance. In a few, rare instances, I lightly reworded their interpretations or combined their two separate versions into one. Below, you will find my questions, Serge Lutens’ original French response (in italics), and then, the translated version (in red). Linguistic or contextual notes are in green. I hope you find his answers as interesting as I did.

Photo: Marco Guerra, Alaoui Marrakesh, the Palmeraie Villa.

Photo: Marco Guerra, Serge Lutens at the Palmeraie Villa, Marrakesh. http://marcoguerrastudio.com/?projects=portraits

1.      Out of all the great painters, are there any whom you might consider your artistic twin in terms of their aesthetics, poetic self-expression, or overall sensibilities? If so, why?

What may be one of the two portraits in London's National Gallery to which Serge Lutens is referring. This is Rembrandt's "Portrait of an old woman ages 83." Source: rembrandtonline.org

What may be one of the two portraits in London’s National Gallery to which Serge Lutens is referring. This is Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an old woman aged 83.” Source: rembrandtonline.org

Si vous voyez quelqu’un traverser un musée à toute vitesse, ayant l’air de chercher un ami dans un hall de gare, ou de chercher la sortie, cela doit être moi ! Mon œil est à ce moment-là aux aguets et aguerri. Il se ressent en danger et par lui, s’en trouve aiguisé (L’Art lui-même est un danger sinon, pourquoi ?). Parmi la foule agglutinée au milieu des chefs d’œuvre, je jette un œil, comme on le dit, mais parfois, je freine ma cadence et me dirige vers un tableau comme aimanté. A lui seul, il a l’air de justifier ma venue en ce lieu. Je ne sais pas pourquoi ; cela peut être n’importe quoi. C’est inexplicable mais cette toile me touche. Elle peut être signée ou pas (dans ce cas, c’est encore plus magique car plus mystérieux). A partir de ce moment-là, le tableau est en tête. Je garde éventuellement en mémoire la période et la signature (s’il y en a  une) et je sais qu’un jour ou l’autre, par un texte, une photographie, un parfum…ce tableau se fera connaître. Les grands peintres ne me sont pas moins indifférents que des inconnus. Aimer quelqu’un de connu peut vouloir dire qu’on essaie de se situer par rapport à un goût. Cela me gêne. Cependant, à la National Gallery de Londres, il y a deux femmes très vieilles. Traits et yeux semblent pris dans les rides, comme une mouche dans une toile d’araignée. La position de leurs visages est fixe et prise dans l’immense collerette de coton blanc amidonné. De cela, on retient la robe noire, la couleur blanche de ces godets multipliés autour des épaules et qui, comme un plateau pour une tête coupée, mettraient le doigt sur l’âge et sa beauté juste avant qu’ils ne meurent. Ce sont des Rembrandt !

What made be the other portrait to which he is referring: Rembrandt, "Portrait of Margaretha de Geer."

What made be the other portrait to which he is referring: Rembrandt, “Portrait of Margaretha de Geer.”

If you should ever see someone hurriedly crossing a museum, looking as if he is searching for a friend in a train station, or looking for the exit, that someone must be me! At that instant, my eye is wise and watchful, it feels the danger and is thus sharper (Art itself is dangerous, otherwise what is the point?). In the middle of the crowd huddled amongst the masterpieces, I cast a glance, as one says. But sometimes I slow my step and am drawn to a painting as if it were magnetised. This work alone seems to justify my being here. I do not know why, it could be anything, but the work touches me. It can be signed or not (in the latter case, it is even more magical because the experience retains its mystery). From that moment, the painting will remain with me. I may keep the period and the signature (if there is one) in mind and I know that at some point, through a text, a photograph, a smell that the piece will manifest itself. Great painters are no less important than the lesser ones. Liking someone famous may mean that one tries to position oneself in relation to a given taste. This bothers me. However, there are two very old women at the National Gallery in London. Their features and their eyes seem trapped by their wrinkles, as a fly in a spider’s web. The position of their faces is fixed and caught in the immense ruff of rigid white cotton. From this image, one retains the black dress, the whiteness of the multitude of ruffles ringing the shoulders which, like a platter holding a severed head, would accentuate age and its beauty just before they both succumb. They are Rembrandts!

2.      What pieces of music or particular songs move you emotionally and intellectually, or have such an impact on you that you turn to them in moments of great joy or sorrow?

La musique a ceci d’étonnant : elle vous enveloppe et si elle vous touche, elle vous comprend, elle vous gagne comme le ferait une ankylose des pieds jusque la tête. En un mot, elle vous saisit. Parfois, afin de découvrir en elle ce qui m’intrigue, je l’écoute et la réécoute. Il se peut, si je suis heureux, qu’elle me fasse danser seul, ou plus tard dans la journée, qu’elle me rejoigne et que sans elle, malgré tout, je la chante. Les joies et les solitudes qu’elle peut engendrer sont autant souhaitées l’une et l’autre mais, à dire vrai, la musique était surtout le lien indispensable qui, dans le temps de mes images, constituait l’atmosphère amniotique entre le modèle et moi-même. Elle était moi et je me voyais en elle. Se voir dans un autre sexe que le sien n’est pas évident mais, pour moi, cela a toujours était naturel.

[R.A’s Translation Note : “Musique” is a feminine noun in French (“la musique”) and its gender is paramount to the sense of Mr Lutens’ answer. It is thus also referred to as “she” in translation.]

Music is astonishing: she envelops you and, if she touches you, she understands you and  she conquers your being, like pins and needles running the entire length of your body. In a word, music grasps you. Sometimes, in order to find out why she intrigues me, I will listen to her again and again. On occasion, if I am happy, I may start to dance alone; or, later in the day, she might find me again and, though she is not with me, I may begin to sing. While the joy and the solitude she brings are equally pleasing, in the period of my photography, music was the amniotic atmosphere that connected me to my model. Music became me, and I saw myself in her. To see oneself in another gender than one’s own is not easy, but for me it was always natural.

[Kafkaesque’s note: I read those last two lines in a different way, and thought Monsieur Lutens was saying that music also helped him see himself in the model. That it was an indispensable link and atmospheric amniotic fluid which made the model become “me, and I saw myself in her. To see oneself in another of a sex other than one’s own is not easy, but for me it was always natural.” Given the issue of gender pronouns, I think his meaning can probably go both ways.] 

3.      What was one of the most meaningful things that someone has done for you? I’m not talking about gifts of great value, but an action that touched you deeply, even if it may have been a small thing?

Elle n’est pas une petite chose vu qu’elle est ma naissance et, par ce fait, ma mort. Je ne développerai pas ici ce thème. Cela est trop personnel mais, je suis né en 1942 à Lille, dans le Nord de la France. Je suis un enfant naturel, reconnu par une seule personne. Celle qui m’a mis au jour.

It is not a small thing as I am speaking of my own birth and, consequently, of my death. I will not elaborate on this, it is much too personal. However, I was born in 1942, in Lille, in Northern France. I am a natural child, recognized by only one person. She, who brought me into the world.

"Solitude has hard teeth." - Serge Lutens. Photo taken in Morocco by Ling Fei. Source: Le Monde Magazine. http://www.lemonde.fr/style/portfolio/2012/05/11/la-vie-en-images-de-serge-lutens_1699467_1575563.html

“Solitude has hard teeth.” – Serge Lutens. Photo taken in Morocco by Ling Fei. Source: Le Monde Magazine. http://www.lemonde.fr/style/portfolio/2012/05/11/la-vie-en-images-de-serge-lutens_1699467_1575563.html

4.      Were there any classic fragrances that you loved or wore before you started creating perfumes of your own?

Avant de les générer moi-même, je ne m’intéressais pas du tout au monde du parfum. Cela ne me touchait pas, aux deux sens du mot. Les senteurs sont depuis  un moyen de dire ce qui m’est cher. Que je sois en colère, en retrait du monde ou autre, l’instant où je les réalise est notre moment. Cet instant dépassé, cela cesse de m’intéresser. Certains s’y reconnaissent, d’autres pas ; cela n’a aucune importance. Le parfum se doit d’accuser ce tout que vous êtes, composé du mal et du bien que vous seul connaissez.

Before creating them myself, I had absolutely no interest in the world of perfume. Perfume did not touch me, in both senses of the word. Since then, scents have become a way for me express what is dear to me. Whether I am angry, isolated from the world or what not, the moment I create a scent is our moment. When that instant has passed, I am no longer interested. Some may recognize themselves [in a scent] and others not, it is of no relevance. Perfume must bear witness to all that you are, the good as well as the bad that only you know.

5.      What historical eras and places interest you so much that you wish you could go back in time to explore them for yourself, and why?

Ce que l’Histoire de France a eu comme effet sur moi, c’est le rêve, mais retourner dans le temps n’aurait pas de réalité. Ce qu’on garde d’une époque est souvent capté par le regard d’un peintre, d’un écrivain… et de ce fait, contient une part plus ou moins grande de suggestivité. L’Histoire sert une idée, une cause, une patrie. Ses visions nationalistes me sont étrangères. Pour répondre à votre question, je n’ai pas cette curiosité. Je ne serai pas mieux dans une autre époque que celle où je vis actuellement, même s’il est certain que la création née toujours chez moi, d’une situation qui me déstabilise.

The impact of the History of France on me was to make me dream, but to return to the past is not realistic. What one keeps of an era is often captured by a painter, a writer… and can thus be more or less suggestive. History serves an idea, a cause, a country. Its nationalist visions are foreign to me. To answer your question, I do not have that curiosity. I would not feel better in another era than my own, even though it is undeniable that creation only comes to me when I am feeling destabilized.

Source: news.madame.lefigaro.fr

Source: news.madame.lefigaro.fr

6.      You seem to draw inspiration from literature as much as from history. Who are some of your favorite writers? Is there a particular book or poem that you could read again and again without getting tired of it?

Si la poésie s’écoute parler, je ne l’aime pas. Si un auteur s’enfonce dans l’anecdote, il m’ennuie. C’est ce qui le met à vif, qui est insupportable aux autres et qui lui, le fait vivre, qui m’attache. Je retrouve ceci chez Baudelaire comme chez Jean Genet. Ces deux personnalités veulent à la fois être aimées et pour ce faire, nous montre à quel point, elles peuvent être détestés. Le condamné à mort est une œuvre magnifique, même si Baudelaire est le plus grand orfèvre des mots qu’il cisèle comme des bijoux fins mais avec toute la violence du forgeron. La littérature n’est pas un choix. En général, tous ceux qui ne l’ont pas lu, retiennent d’un auteur ce qui est dit partout. De Proust, on ne garde de sa Recherche du temps perdu, que l’histoire de cette madeleine mais c’est ignorer que Marcel Proust est la plus grosse madeleine du monde !

When poetry likes the sound of its own voice, I find it unattractive. If an author sinks into anecdote, he bores me. What connects me to a writer is what makes him bleed, what is unbearable to others but allows him to live. I can find this rawness in Baudelaire and Jean Genet. These two individuals show us how profoundly they long to be loved and in order to achieve this, show us how much they can be hated. Genet’s “Le Condamné à Mort” is a magnificent piece, while Baudelaire may be the greatest goldsmith in the way he chisels his words like a fine jeweller, yet with all the violence of a blacksmith. Literature is not a choice. Generally, those who have not read a given author simply retain what has been said about him. Of Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu” [In Search of Lost Time] many only remember the story of his “madeleine”, but that is ignoring that Marcel Proust is the biggest “madeleine” in the world!

[My Note: The episode of the madeleine in Proust’s work (specifically in Swann in Love) is famous for being the first instance of the theory of involuntary memory, and that theme is repeated throughout Proust’s work (and In Search of Lost Time). You can read more of the Involuntary Memory Theory, as well as the specifics of the madeleine incident and recent, modern analysis of Proust’s concept regarding memory triggers at the Huffington Post. You can also find an explanation of the Madeleine incident and the nature of cognitive memory recall at Wikipedia. It’s briefer, but, in my opinion, not as clear as perhaps the initial paragraph at the Huffington Post explaining the Madeleine metaphor. In essence, though, Monsieur Lutens is saying that Proust and his works are themselves an involuntary trigger of memories. He is also saying that the “madeleine” reference is itself a memory trigger for those who have not actually bothered to read the book, but are merely relying on what they have heard.]

7.      Is there a person in history or character in literature with whom you particularly identify? If so, why?

S’il m’est arrivé parfois de m’identifier à des personnages, c’est plus pour certaines parties. Un peu comme un homme miroir qui rechercherait des similitudes. J’ai ce talent qui est aussi un défaut mais il est certain que l’autre se voit également en moi. Remplacer et trahir c’est ce que, profondément, je fais et je suis. C’est le double en un seul.

If I have sometimes likened myself to characters in books, it has only been in morsels. A little like a mirror man searching for similarities. I have this talent, which is also a flaw, but yet it is undeniable that the other also sees himself in me. To replace and to betray is, fundamentally, what I do and it is what I am. It is the duality within the one.

8.      How has the perfume industry changed from the time when you first started in the 1980s? I’m not talking about IFRA or the EU, but in terms of your experiences as a perfumer and any pressures created by the business in terms of yearly output, the type of perfume genres, or the nature of the industry as a whole?

Serge Lutens in his perfume studio at his Moroccan villa. Photo, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

Serge Lutens in his perfume studio at his Moroccan villa. Photo, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

S’il n’y avait que la finalité produit d’un parfum, cela ne m’intéresserait pas. Quand il n’est pas un véhicule de ce qui me tient à cœur, à corps et à cris, le parfum n’a pas plus d’intérêt que l’assaisonnement d’une salade (surtout que je ne mange pas !). L’industrie opportuniste de la parfumerie a fait du parfum un produit d’identification dont l’objectif est que chacun puisse se retrouver via des scénarios stéréotypés : l’idylle amoureuse (très vendeuse), la réussite professionnelle et ce qui en découle, l’argent, le luxe…Tout cela n’a rien à voir avec l’identité et ce qui devrait toucher nos fibres les plus sensibles. Niche ou pas niche ! Ce que je fais depuis maintenant plus de 20 ans tient d’une démarche autant littéraire qu’olfactive, mettant en scène des zones et des terrains vagues en moi-même ignorés. Pour le reste, je ne sais pas si le monde de la parfumerie a changé. Il faut vendre plus, en faisant passer la banalité pour de la rareté et de l’ordinaire pour du luxe. Un immense trucage qui n’a rien à voir avec nous. En tous cas, pas avec moi !

If the perfume as product were the end goal, it would be of no interest to me. When perfume is not a vehicle for the things that I hold dear to my heart, to my heart and soul, then it might as well be a salad dressing (especially since I do not even eat any!). The opportunistic fragrance industry has turned perfume into a lifestyle product where the objective is for everyone to identify with stereotyped scenarios: the romantic idyll (a great seller), professional success and everything that stems from it, money, luxury…none of this has anything to do with identity per se, nor with what should strike our most sensitive chords. Niche market or not! What I have been doing for over 20 years stems from an approach that is both literary and olfactory, depicting areas and wastelands ignored within me. Otherwise, I do not know whether or not the world of perfume has changed. One has to sell more and thus banality is passed off as rarity and the ordinary as luxury. All the smoke and mirrors have nothing to do with us. At least not with me!

9.      What are some of your favorite dishes or things to eat? Do you have any gourmand or gastronomic weaknesses?

Serge Lutens in the Palmeraie Gardens, Morocco. Photo: Patrice Nagel, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

Serge Lutens in the Palmeraie Gardens, Morocco. Photo: Patrice Nagel, courtesy of Serge Lutens and Shiseido, France.

Peut-être est-il logique ou destiné que tout artiste se dirige, dans le temps, vers une forme d’ascétisme, rigueur oblige ! La faim crée une tension qui me semble providentielle à celle que la création requiert. Cependant, il n’est pas exclu que cette tension puisse, d’un jour à l’autre, se transformer en un comportement gargantuesque et cette autre extrémité de la rigueur prendrait alors des proportions énormes, dont je serai l’image vivante. Toute restriction implique une autre extrémité et ceci vaut dans les deux sens.

Perhaps it is logical or destined that all artists, at some point, drive themselves towards an ascetic approach, as rigorous standards may require. Hunger creates a strain I believe to be providential to the tension required by creativity. Which does not mean that that this tension cannot, from one day to the next, be transformed into gargantuan behaviour. This other extreme of rigour would then take on enormous proportions of which I would be the living image. All restriction implies an opposite extreme, and this goes both ways.

10.   You are clearly a perfectionist, and that can come with a high price. Are there any aspects of perfectionism that plague you in particular, or that you wish you could change?

Je me permets de vous contredire : je ne suis pas un perfectionniste même s’il est certain que tant que la justesse ne m’aura pas rejoint, je ne la lâcherai pas. La justesse se présente à tout moment, dans notre comportement, notre choix vestimentaire, nos attitudes, nos goûts…C’est en quelque sorte le point sur le I. Cela parait dérisoire mais sans ce point, le I n’existerait pas. Il ne serait qu’un droit-fil. La perfection pour la perfection ne pourrait pas me toucher alors qu’une erreur, une maladresse peut le faire mille fois plus, qu’une chose dite « bien faite ».

[R.A’s translation note: the concept of “justesse”, which is at the heart of this answer cannot be translated in a single English word. Not only does it encompass concepts such as authenticity, truth, perfection, or exactness in all their philosophical, literary, artistic and scientific senses, it is deeply embedded in a part of French culture that presupposes that there is one “right way” to everything. For that purpose it has been left in French in the text below.]

Please allow me contradict you: I am not a perfectionist, even though it is undeniable that I will not let go until “justesse” has caught up with me. “Justesse” can present itself at any given time, in our behaviour, our choice of clothing, our attitudes, our tastes…It is the dot on the “i” so to speak. It may seem trifling, but without this dot the “i” would not exist. It would only be an unbroken line. Perfection for perfection’s sake does not move me, but a mistake, a blunder can touch me a thousand times more than something that is “done right”.

Source: alafoto.com

Source: alafoto.com

11.    “Veni, Vidi, Vici” would seem to apply to many areas of your life, but it can’t have been easy. Which of the many worlds that you’ve conquered was the hardest? Are there any worlds or areas that you wish you had explored on a professional basis?

Ce n’est pas une question de difficulté puisque c’est un non choix. Rien n’a jamais été facile ou pas. Cela a toujours été tenu par une exigence, une rigueur, un besoin d’éclaircissement pour un texte, une mise en trouble pour un parfum, une entrée dans le royaume des ombres pour le fard. C’est là au fond que je me sentais chez moi ! L’idée de facilité me ferait reculer. Je sentirais que je suis mon propre imposteur.

It is not a difficult question since it does not involve a choice. Nothing has ever been easy or not. It always had to do with an exactingness, a rigor, a need for clarity in a text, a feeling of uncertainty for a perfume, an entrance into the kingdom of shadows for make-up. This is where I felt at home! The idea of ease would make me recoil. I would feel as if I were my very own impostor.

12.   What do you do to relax, to de-stress, or, perhaps more importantly, to get your mind to stop thinking so much?

L’esprit est occupé. S’il ne l’était pas, ce serait un temps vacant. Le temps est la seule valeur à laquelle j’accorde de l’importance. Rien d’autre que lui ne pourrait me donner ce sentiment d’urgence que j’ai toujours eu. Il met l’alarme au rouge ou, si vous préférez, la conscience de la mort depuis le début de ma vie est peut-être ce qui fait ce que j’ai fait.

The mind is busy. If it were not, it would be empty time. Time is the only value I give importance to. Only time can give me the sense of urgency I have always felt. It activates the alarm bells or, if you prefer, the awareness of death that I have felt since the beginning of my life [and which] may account for the fact that I have achieved all that I have.

Serge Lutens by Cristian Barnett. (Website link embedded within photo.)

Serge Lutens by Cristian Barnett. http://www.crisbarnett.com/serge-lutens/

Again, I extend my deepest thanks to Serge Lutens for taking the time out of his busy schedule to so patiently and thoroughly answer my questions. I’m so grateful for this enormous privilege, his graciousness, and his kindness. I’d also like to thank my two friends (Liesl E. & Richard A.) for helping me out with their translation skills for all the finer nuances. (I know it wasn’t easy, but I don’t know what I would have done without you two!)

JAR: The Experience, The Perfumes & The Philosophy

Sometimes, you just have to experience something, and forget about all practical considerations. That was the thought that drove me to the very exclusive environs of JAR Parfums in Paris. JAR is a perfume brand that is often spoken about in hushed tones, and which reeks of inaccessibility. The perfumes are the creation of one of the world’s most expensive, famous, secretive, and idiosyncratic jewellers, Joel Arthur Rosenthal, who simply goes by his initials as JAR. To really understand what the JAR perfume experience is like, you have to understand who JAR, the man, is first.

Forbes’ Magazine has a piece entitled The Cult of Jar which explains some of the jeweller’s mystique and legend:

[The] creator is a secretive, eccentric artist called, by Diane von Furstenberg, the Fabergé of our time.

This jeweler certainly knows how to make his products sought-after. Born Joel Arthur Rosenthal, he affects to be known, in the manner of Prince or Christo, by a single name: JAR (no periods). His shop in Paris’ Place Vendôme has no display window, no regular hours. It does not advertise and opens its doors to only a select few, including Elizabeth Taylor, Elle Macpherson, Barbara Walters, Ann Getty, Mary Pinault and Jo Carole Lauder (and reportedly Marie-Josée Kravis, Marella Agnelli and Princess Firyal of Jordan). [Gwyneth Paltrow and the philanthropist, Mrs. Lily Safra, are clients, as well.]

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The craftsmen in Switzerland and France turning out his creations produce only 70 to 80 pieces a year, each of them one of a kind and many designed with a particular buyer in mind. He reserves the right to refuse to sell an item if he doesn’t think it would look good on the intended wearer.

That last sentence is actually not an exaggeration. I’ve heard a lot about JAR’s refusal to sell millions of dollars worth of jewellery if he doesn’t think it would suit a buyer’s personal style. In his defense, he has been quoted as saying, “I am not arbitrary. If you happen to have ideas and defend them, people make you into a dragon. Getting the right things on the right people is part of making those things[.]” I’ve heard that his refusal to sell his extremely exclusive jewels (apparently only about 250 women in the world own one of his pieces) can result even from such small matters as his disapproval of a client’s fragrance.

It may be hyperbole, and part of the whole mystique, but one thing is for certain: Joel Arthur Rosenthal has very definite ideas on perfumery. He began his line in the 1980s, with the motto: “JAR does not believe scent can be rationalized. Fragrance is an emotion.” The blog, Style Sight, quotes more of Mr. Rosenthal’s perspective in an article that focuses specifically on the New York Bergdorf Goodman store:

[It] is in a hushed alcove at Bergdorf Goodman in NYC [… and] so hidden that many Bergdorf employees don’t even know of its existence. There, the seven perfumes are displayed with a price tag of up to $380 an ounce. Although he has never revealed the notes in his fragrances, they contain the finest high-quality materials and are exceptionally concentrated to extend the wear on the skin. “It’s fragrance the way it was originally meant to be experienced way back when,” explained our JAR specialist. The perfumes do not contain the typical top, middle, and base notes. Rather, they blend together for an unpredictable release. The Bolt of Lightning fragrance takes 10 minutes to develop on the skin.

JAR Bolt of Lightning via StyleSight.

JAR Bolt of Lightning via StyleSight.

Inside the boutique, a specially trained JAR representative takes you on a fragrant journey, offering a series of lidded glass containers from which the scent rises. They are instructed not to sell, and just guide visitors through the JAR experience.  “Part of the pleasure of perfume,” said Rosenthal, “is where it comes from–literally the shop it comes from. If you can buy something anywhere in the world, as is almost always the case today, the pleasure and mystery of the source of the thing is gone.”

JAR boutique exterior, via Yelp.

JAR boutique exterior, via Yelp.

I was hesitant to enter his Paris perfume store because, frankly, his fragrances (which can be far more than $380) are outside my budget, but when there are only two places in the entire world which carry a particular line, and you are standing mere feet away from one of them…. well, it seemed damn foolish not to give it a try. I pushed open the heavy glass door to JAR at 14, rue Castiglione (a few doors down from Jovoy), and thought to myself: “Well, here goes nothing.” I had no expectations for what I was going to experience, except that I had been told that you can’t sniff the perfumes at will, you can’t put it on your skin, you can’t sample them, you can’t take photographs, and… well, basically, you can’t do anything but submit to the experience that JAR wants you to have. To my surprise, I had an absolutely lovely time that engaged me on a very intellectual level. Ironically, for the most part, JAR is all about the senses, and not about the mind. Intentionally so.

Source: Bonkers About Perfume blog, taken originally via Facebook.

Source: Bonkers About Perfume blog, taken originally via Facebook.

So, what is it like? From the outside, the boutique doesn’t even appear to be a perfume destination; the discreet facade barely proclaims its presence at all, let alone the fact that it is the passion project of one of the world’s most exclusive jewellers. As you push open the heavy, glass door, you enter a small, narrow room decorated in purple velvet and mirrors. It’s not imperial Roman purple, nor a true eggplant purple, but more of a dusty plum-mauve. The velvet coats the walls and all the tables, creating an elegant, opulent cocoon where all sounds are stilled and hushed. Mirrors hang on the three velvet walls, while overhead is a crystal chandelier which hangs low from a painted ceiling. It’s a fresco of a dark, stormy sky, marked by a large bolt of lightning. Your overall impression is a plum, velvet jewellery box decorated with crystal and gold.

JAR. Source: Bonkers About Perfume blog, taken originally via francescocatalano.it.

The JAR Parfums stand on the “Master Piece” fair in London in June 2011. Photo source: Bonkers About Perfume blog, with the photo originally from francescocatalano.it.

JAR ceiling. Photo: my own.

JAR ceiling with the lightning bolt. Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

Photo: my own.

The JAR table and perfume cloches. Photo: my own.

The JAR table and perfume cloches. Photo: my own.

JAR Golconda, the original and first JAR fragrance. Source: Basenotes.

JAR Golconda, the original and first JAR fragrance. Source: Basenotes.

Right below the chandelier, in the center of a room, is a table with two or three plum, velvet, straight-backed chairs, and whose surface is covered with an array of glass cloches. There are six, round, glass coverings in a circle, each lying over a glass plate that contains some sort of fabric (silk?) infused with perfume. In the center of the circle is a seventh glass bowl containing a small, oval bottle with a pink, jeweled lid nestled in a pile of tiny, dried, crimson rosebuds. It is the very first JAR fragrance, called Golconda, but I’m afraid I can’t recall how it smelled beyond the central rose note. Speaking of my memory, I’m afraid it’s rather hazy on quite a few of the JAR perfume specifics, as I was not able to take notes. (Much more to the point, I had arrived in Paris after partying in the South of France, with perhaps a maximum of 12 hours sleep in four days, if even that.)

Upon my arrival in JAR’s hushed, elegant environs, the manager came out and greeted me. As I later learned, his name is Jozsef, and I think he was quite key to my JAR perfume experience. Jozsef is a tall, courteous, handsome, very serious man in his early 40s (I think) with dark hair, elegantly chiseled high bone structure, a quiet smile, and beautiful, piercing, sensitive, blue-grey eyes. I told him that I knew of the JAR rules and that I was in his hands, but I also informed him up front that I was a perfume blogger who wanted to write about the experience.

Jozsef removed the first glass jar covering, starting with the one around the front center left side of the circle at what would be the six o’ clock mark on a clock. The cloche had a name etched in the glass, but I didn’t see it as Jozsef extended it to me, inverted, for me to take a sniff of the aroma molecules coating its interior. I’m someone who has difficulty in getting to the core essence of a fragrance on the blasted paper strips, so this was even more elusive for me. For someone who loves details, facts and analysis, it was a bit frustrating, I must admit. I remember giving Jozsef my impressions, but he said nothing, neither confirming nor denying the notes that I suspected. It is not the JAR philosophy. He then gave me the perfume’s name; I cannot recall it, but I do remember that the perfume left me largely unmoved. As did the next two. 

I think it was around the third glass cloche that we had the discussion which really made JAR a memorable part of my Paris perfume visit. In essence, it was a vigorous debate on what should be the perfume experience, about two extremely polarized perfume philosophies, and what constitutes honesty versus PR/marketing. There are few things I enjoy more than a spirited, intellectual discussion, and Jozsef (speaking on behalf of his employer) made me — temporarily at least — really question the essence of what should be the perfume experience, or one’s approach to fragrances.

It began when I told Jozsef how the JAR experience was completely antithetical to my personal approach as a blogger. My goal is to dissect a perfume down to its notes, hour by hour, or minute by minute even, and arming my readers with absolutely every single piece of information that they may possibly find useful. From my personal breakdown to the quoted assessment of others, my reviews are intended to avoid generalized, purely sensory generalizations or impressions. I want to be as detailed and comprehensive as possible, giving you a starting point from which you can then explore more. I think it does a reader absolutely no good at all to talk about abstract emotions or fanciful stories, without also giving you the specific details of what the hell the perfume actually smells like, from the first minute to the very last one.

JAR represents the exact polar opposite of that philosophy. In fact, I don’t think you could find a more singularly contrary perspective to my own if you tried! After I had explained to Jozsef the reasons for my approach, he countered with his own (or, to be precise, with Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s) rebuttal: perfume is meant to be a sensory experience and a highly personal, subjective, emotional one at that. Moreover, it’s dishonest for some perfume houses to lead you by reference to such factual details as notes. For example, if you go to a store and tell the assistant what notes you like, you are directed to certain fragrances and — in the JAR philosophy — that’s rather limiting. Why not explore on the basis of your senses and without prejudgment? Is it in fact honest to direct you like sheep to certain things through marketing, names, a list of notes, and a factual context, when it may condition your responses to the scent? 

Intellectually, I can completely see his point. Perhaps JAR’s philosophy respects the client more, by giving them free will and believing that they have an unlimited potential to like different sorts of things. There is no doubt that perfume is all about the senses, and where a particular fragrance will transport you is very personal. I think we all agree on that. So, is JAR actually giving people and their instinctive ability to respond to aromas the greatest amount of respect by not limiting clients to predetermined little boxes?

While I was impressed by the theoretical implications of all this, I was wholly unconvinced on a practical level. The simple reality is that I just don’t like certain notes. You can tell me until kingdom come that I should be open-minded to go where the aroma takes me, but the truth is that I wouldn’t like something like synthetic, clean, white musk (let alone that hideous ISO E Super) if you put a gun to my head. Plus, I’m not one who enjoys a lack of control, especially not at niche perfume prices. As a former lawyer with some obsessive-compulsive issues involving details, I demand facts, and I need to have some (very precise) idea of what on earth is going on.

Still, JAR is not about trying to convince you that you like something you don’t; JAR is merely telling you that you should make up your mind for yourself. Sniff something without preconceived notions, and then make up your mind from there. If you love it, great. If you don’t, then that’s fine too. But at least give things a chance without the influence of specific notes, detailed facts, or a sales assistant’s hard sale to sway your perspective.

Honestly, JAR may have a point. And, I’m afraid to say, Jozsef concretely proved that precise point later on in the visit. As he extended one of the glass cloches, I inhaled deeply at the inverted glass, and murmured, “grassy, earthy notes. A damp forest with green notes, then a floral.” I smelled that cloche at least twice, if not perhaps three times, and the primary thing I detected was a green, almost earthy, damp forest floor smell. The floral aspect was always secondary.

You know what that perfume turned out to be? Jardenia (which may be written as JARdenia, perhaps), a fragrance that some consider to the epitome of a gardenia scent. Now, granted, gardenia doesn’t technically have a true aroma of its own and is often reconstituted from other elements. And, at least one Fragrantica commentator noted that JARdenia has a grassy, earthy, almost “mushroomy” scent similar to what I detected from that glass covering. Still, the real point is that I would never have thought “gardenia” as the immediate, automatic aroma of that fragrance when smelled blindly. Upon hearing the name, however, my mind did immediately connect to the flower, and translate the molecules that I sniffed into what my mind has registered or programmed as “gardenia.”

It rather proves Jozsef’s point. Had I known the perfume’s name prior to sniffing it blindly, then I would immediately have made a mental association between the obvious olfactory note, and what I detected. However, when free of all preconceived notions, I primarily detected something else. I was not mentally transported to a hot-house with lush, blowsy gardenias, nor did I visualise a languid, sensuous 19th-century courtesan whose pillowy, white flesh reeked of opulently indolic flowers (as I did once in the past when it came to a white floral fragrance by Grossmith). No, instead, I smelled the green earthiness of a forest first and foremost.

Think about all those people who dread the richness, potency, or indolic nature of white florals like gardenia. They immediately eschew a fragrance when hearing it is centered upon that note. However, as my experience may suggest, perhaps they are inherently limiting their options and boxing themselves into unnecessarily narrow, predetermined categories of taste by making such judgments. Perhaps the JAR philosophy is far from being rigid, and is actually more freeing at the end of the day? At the very least, I think it is an intellectual approach that is worth debate, instead of merely rejecting it as the eccentric, difficult, possibly cantankerous rules of an incredibly wealthy jeweller who has made perfume his passion project without concern for the traditional, conventional system.

As for the rest of the perfumes, some were my cup of tea, and some weren’t. Two of them, however, made me sit up and blink. The first was JARling which Fragrantica classifies as an Oriental Vanilla and which it says includes “star anise, spices, vanilla and heliotrope.” I can’t recall the exact aroma, but I really liked it.

The bolt of lightning on the painted ceiling. Photo: my own.

The bolt of lightning on the painted ceiling. Photo: my own.

It was nothing, however, as compared to the next one which Jozsef informed me had no name. There was, however, a bolt of lightning on the glass cloche and the fragrance is often referred to as such. I asked Jozsef if he had heard about the new American television series, Hannibal, which focuses on Hannibal Lecter’s early life and which had a whole dinner scene devoted to the beauty of JAR’s Bolt of Lightning. He smiled, and said that someone had told him about it the week before. He also pointed to the painted ceiling of the room where a large bolt of lightning streaked across a darkened, stormy sky.

As I’ve said a number of times in the past, I struggle with a perfume’s smell on paper strips. I simply can’t get at the essence or notes unless the perfume is actually on my skin. JAR never gives samples,but Jozsef was kind enough to put Bolt of Lightning on my arm, and it took my breath away. It was very different than what I had smelled in the cloche, and so much more beautiful. Immediately, I detected white flowers that were somewhat mentholated from heavy indoles. To be specific, I thought I smelled orange blossoms, but looking now at Fragrantica, Bolt of Lightning is a floral oriental that supposedly features tuberose. Given how JAR never releases the notes, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were orange blossoms in there too, but perhaps my nose is merely broken. Either way, it was gorgeous. In fact, the perfume almost brought me to tears, and that has never happened. Simply exquisite, whatever the hell its specific notes may be.

Source: Fashionbelief.com

Source: Fashionbelief.com

Naturally, however, my favorite perfume also turns out to be THE most expensive one from a house that is hardly cheap to begin with. If I recall correctly, Bolt of Lightning retails for €600 or $825 for a single ounce of parfum. There is a reason why Bolt of Lightning is on all the magazine lists of the most expensive perfumes in the world (per ounce). Other JAR fragrances are much cheaper (though we’re talking about the absolute wonkiest scale of relativity here), but Bolt of Lightning surpasses them all. If I had the money, I would absolutely buy it but, as I had made clear to Jozsef early on, I certainly could not afford it.

My experience at JAR left a mark on me in a few ways. I continue to think about the idea of preconceived notions. It is something I had previously explored a bit in my satirical courtroom review of Etat Libre d’Orange‘s notorious Secretions Magnifiques. As noted in that review, I suspect that a small, tiny portion of people filter what they smell through the lens of preconceived notions, the fragrance’s notoriety, and their existing knowledge of its notes. For some, the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve smelled far more horrid fragrances, and I have to wonder what the result would be if people approached Secretions Magnifiques in the JAR way, blindly.

Another thing I ponder quite a bit is Joel Arthur Rosenthal’s unique position as a perfumer. This is a man who has the good fortune, metaphorically and literally, to make perfumes his way, to paraphrase the old Frank Sinatra song. He has chosen to approach them as art, without concern to their saleability or accessibility. If you like them, can afford them and buy them, great. If not, it doesn’t matter because he’s doing it for himself. He ostensibly creates them without the help of any trained nose, without regard to the usual rules about perfume pyramids and structure, and without giving the smallest damn if he sells any at all. You could call it a “vanity project,” or you could argue that his approach perhaps meets the purest definition of art as art. There isn’t a single commercial consideration involved. Instead, it is all entirely personal, and a creative extension of himself. Does it really matter what the perfumes are like, or what their specific notes are, when the original impetus is pure individualism and self-expression without submitting to what others may think or do?

Very few people are lucky enough to be in Mr. Rosenthal’s position, and I think we’re all probably a little envious. Wouldn’t you want to be able to create your own perfumes, without concern to financial cost or profit? I certainly would. I think it helps to approach JAR’s perfumes in that light, and with an understanding of the underlying philosophy, as opposed to how one would approach regular, normal fragrances. JARling, JARdenia, Bolt of Lightning, and its siblings are not intended to be something like a Dior or Guerlain perfume. On some levels, they’re not even actually intended for you. They’re the love child of a man who has the total freedom to express himself as he wants, and the rules be damned.

Everything about JAR is a different world, and that’s what made it so fascinating for me. It is an absolutely unique perfume experience from start to finish. And I cannot thank Jozsef enough for all of it. There were a few people who came in as he was walking me through the seven or eight cloches on the table; each time, with incredible courteousness, he made them feel welcome and attended to, but without leaving his demonstration for me or pushing me out the door. Instead, he asked them if it would be possible for them to return in 10-15 minutes so that he could devote himself to them fully. He spent a considerable amount of time with me, debating the finer points of the JAR philosophy, and even sharing some of his own perfume tastes. (He loves vintage Opium, which pretty much sealed the deal for me in terms of how fabulous I thought him to be! And, a long time ago, he used to wear one of my favorite, comfort scents, Karl Lagerfeld‘s Lagerfeld cologne.)

Since I can't show you Josef, imagine a more cerebral, serious, somber, intellectual version of the actor, Jim Caveziel.

Since I can’t show you Jozsef, imagine a more cerebral, serious, somber, intellectual distant relation of the actor, Jim Caveziel.

Jozsef gave me permission to photograph the store, which is an incredibly rare privilege. Unfortunately, as I’ve stated numerous time by now in writing about my Paris experiences, my bloody camera seems to have chosen this time in which to die and seemed to have a particular neurosis about taking crisp, non-blurry photos of perfume in specific. I am rather horrified by how terrible my JAR photos turned out to be (even the few that weren’t wholly unusable and which I’ve included here), so I can only apologise to Jozsef. By the way, I was even allowed to take a picture of Jozsef himself, but I was informed that he would hunt me down and throttle me if I posted it. He gave a small grin as he said it, but obviously I will respect his wishes. I will say, though, that I thought he looked like an extremely intellectual, serious, distant cousin to Jim Caveziel, and that’s a compliment.

All in all, I think JAR is something that every really serious perfumista should experience. It’s not about the perfumes and their price; it’s about the completely unique philosophical perspective that Mr. Rosenthal brings to the perfume discussion. It’s about reconsidering how one sees one’s own perfume tastes, the basis upon which we make our judgments, and the very theory upon which perfume is presented or marketed to the general public. It may be a very abstract discussion triggered by a man who is not subject to the common norms or to the practical considerations of the usual perfume house, and none of it may be very realistic for the average perfume buyer (as opposed to a hardcore perfumista), but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss his opinion without giving it a chance. Mr. Rosenthal has a very original voice to match his unusual fragrances, and a philosophy that I found that worthy of respect. The ultimate irony, however, is that the man who wants us to stop thinking analytically and intellectually about perfumes impressed me precisely because he made me think….

PRACTICAL DETAILS:
Address: 14, rue de Castiglione, 75001 Paris, France. Metro Stop: Tuilleries, Metro Line 1. JAR Parfums is also accessible from the Opera, Madeleine and Pyramides metro stops, though it is a longer walk in my opinion. Phone: +33 01 40 20 47 20 or, if in Paris, 01 40 20 47 20. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Website: none. 

Jovoy Paris: Aladdin’s Cave of Luxury Perfumes

Source: Tribaspace.com

Source: Tribaspace.com

If you had one day to shop for perfumes in Paris, and wanted to experience the absolute widest possible range of niche perfumes, there is really only one place to go: Jovoy Paris. It’s a surfeit of riches and treasures that is located in the Rue de Castiglione, about a block away from the Place Vendome (as well as some of the chic-est parts of Rue St. Honoré).

Jovoy6In fact, the vastness of their range makes it a one-stop shopping destination that a true perfume lover absolutely has to visit. Sure, you could always go to the beauty sections of the large departments stores like Printemps and Les Galleries Lafayettes, but you wouldn’t be exposed to the very highest end of the niche perfume world, nor to some of the smaller, rarer, more unusual or high-quality perfume treasures. Instead of focusing on brands like By Kilian, Jovoy has things like Roja DovePuredistance, LM Parfums, Neela Vermeire, and many other fantastic brands that it — and it alone — carries in Paris.

Jovoy5I dragged my exhausted self to Jovoy almost at the tail end of my trip, and with the warning of one Paris perfumista ringing in my head that Jovoy has almost too much stuff. It’s true. It absolutely does. But what a sensory delight from start to finish! Even on the most initial, concrete levels of visuals, Jovoy is lovely. The walls are decorated in a chic Chinese red and the furniture is black. I’m quite biased, I must admit, as that is the pairing for my library/office, and black is my favorite colour (non-colour?) in general. Still, Jovoy is a study in chic sleekness and elegance from a mere decor perspective.

My photos cannot do it justice, and, once again, I have to repeat what I’ve said elsewhere: my camera chose Paris to start dying, though I now wonder if it’s perhaps just my batteries that may be the problem, despite nightly charging. Either way, my little, conveniently pocket-sized Canon seemed to be having a tantrum in photographing a lot of perfume bottles in a large number of stores (but, oddly, not a single problem at all in photographing French cheeses somehow……). From blurriness, to strange lighting, to actual zig-zag lightning strikes in neon colours, the perfume images were often wholly unusable. The ones that weren’t still aren’t fantastic. The situation seemed worst of all in Jovoy, so I can only apologise to you and to Jovoy for the quality of some of these. I include them only to give you a sense of the sheer enormity of the brands they carry, as well as a feel of that day.

Parfums de Marly

Parfums de Marly

So, you’ve entered the chic, sleek, minimalistic Asian-influenced environs of Jovoy, and then you see the range of the brands they carry — and your mind is effectively blown. Where do you start? How do you cover everything? None of the pictures I had seen of Jovoy had adequately conveyed the extent of all the unusual brands here. There is SO MUCH stuff! Even the tiniest of shelves has one full range crammed in; every bottle of Parfums de Marly in a tight row, one after another. And that’s only one of the tiny shelves! Jovoy is a wonderful problem for a perfumista to have, but it does also require a few practical considerations before you go.

First, if I may suggest, you should put aside at least a solid two hours — at a bare minimum — for a visit to Jovoy; and if you’re a hard-core perfume addict who hasn’t had much concrete access to testing many, less-accessible lines in person, then perhaps more like four hours. At a minimum. That was approximately the amount of time that I spent in the store, and I tell you without any hyperbole at all that I may have sniffed or tested only a mere fraction of their stock. Maybe 10%. I could have spent six hours in Jovoy, and probably still wouldn’t have had the chance to get through everything. Plus, even if you could get through it all, you would have such olfactory fatigue by the end that I’m not sure you could really process it all. I certainly couldn’t. Again, all of this is a wonderful problem to have. I’m merely warning you that you will have a sensory overload from the sheer range of perfume brands that they have, and that you should plan accordingly.

Jovoy4Second, I think you really need to dress carefully for Jovoy — and I’m not talking about the quality or expensiveness of your attire. I highly doubt that they give a damn. But, you need to wear clothing that will give you the easiest amount of access to as much of your skin as is socially acceptable to be shown in public without getting arrested. And wear layers, because you will run of skin real estate — extraordinarily quickly given the amounts of perfume brands they carry — so you may need fabric upon which to test some of the perfumes that really catch your attention. Even after all that, you’re still likely to be screwed for all the reasons listed up above. There still will be stuff that you don’t get to test or try, that you loved on paper, or that the perfume strips simply didn’t adequately convey.

Perhaps some of my personal difficulty stems from the fact that I have never been able to get a really good sense of a perfume from a mere strip of paper. It’s easy to know which ones you can immediately discount and ignore, but that’s the absolute lowest threshold and bar. What about the ones you think you may like, but are unsure? Or the ones that you really like, but are not sure you absolutely love as much as some of the others? What happens when, towards the end and almost on your way out the door, you stumble across something that takes your breath away on paper, but you have no idea how it will be on your skin (or how long it will last) because you can’t strip to your underwear to find more space on which to test it? As I said, Jovoy has too much stuff — and most of it is amazing.

Roja Dove, exclusively at Jovoy Paris.

Roja Dove, exclusively at Jovoy Paris.

So, now, onto my actual experiences at Jovoy. I walked in without much of a plan except, first and foremost, to try Roja Dove‘s famous perfumes, then perhaps Von Eusersdorff‘s Patchouli. One thing that I liked about shopping at Jovoy is that they left you in peace and quiet to explore, without pestering you, though there were always assistants close-by to help you immediately if you asked. That is really my ideal way of shopping; to perambulate and see what intrigues me, pick up a bottle here or there to spray on a paper strip, and then go from there.

Another wonderful thing about Jovoy is that paper strips are conveniently and discretely placed next to each and every single brand display. No hunting around for mouiellettes, and, even better, no hunting around for a pen with which to write down the name of the sprayed perfume. No, Jovoy thoughtfully places pencils immediately on hand and throughout the store for you to use in remembering which strip contained which perfume. It a practice that that I wish more perfume stores would follow because, for most of my trip, I had started sticking pens in the back pocket of my jeans, in my leather jacket, and even behind my ear at one point. (I would often come home with over 15-20 paper strips a day, winnowed down from about 50+ things that I’d sniffed or sprayed on paper, and I tell you, you need an easily accessible pen or you’ll be lost!)

Jovoy Roja Dove 3 - B

The minute I walked in, I was greeted by a smile from one assistant, but I knew exactly where I was heading. My eye went straight to the lit, highlighted Roja Dove display at the far end. Even before I’d left for Paris, a blog friend had told me about the supposed gloriousness of Roja Dove’s Diaghilev chypre, and its old-style luxuriousness, opulence, and elegance. I also knew, however, that it was €990 for a small bottle, which translates to more than $1330. Some luxury perfume brands have stratospheric prices, but the Roja Dove ones are in another galactic solar system entirely. I know he’s considered one of the most famous, legendary noses in the world, but bloody hell!

Still, it’s free to sniff, right? So I did, and I liked Diaghilev. But I wasn’t blown away, and certainly not enough to try it on my skin. (Besides, what was the point at €990?!) So, what should I try? There were so many bottles, all gleaming in the light with a vast number having lids heavy with crystals. To my relief, there was a wonderful, thin, hard-bound book to the side that described each scent and its notes, and I used it to get an idea of where I should start. Honestly though, even after reading the book, I was still at sea — what with his pure absolute Extraits of florals like gardenia and lilac, his regular line of eau de parfums, and their pure parfum versions. Making matters even more complicated is that the exact same perfume comes in a Men’s and Women’s version.

Jovoy Roja Dove 1 - CI liked description and notes listed for Dove’s leather chypre, Fetish, so I tried both gender versions in Parfum concentration. (It comes in an Eau de Parfum as well, but I couldn’t deal with trying three variations of the same perfume!) According to Fragrantica, the notes for Fetish for Men are: bergamot, lemon, lime, fig, jasmine, neroli, violet, cardamom, cinnamon, elemi, oakmoss, patchouli, pepper, vetiver, ambergris, benzoin, castoreum, labdanum, leather, musk and vanilla. Phew, that’s quite something, especially by today’s standards where all too many fragrances have between 3-6 notes. (Hello, Jean-Claude Ellena! Hello, Montale!) The Fetish for Women is more floral and is perhaps even lovelier, though I have to give both a good test to make up my mind as to which one I prefer. The women’s Fetish includes: rose, ylang-ylang, jasmine, tuberose, galbanum, cinnamon, cloves, cedar, oakmoss, patchouli, vetiver, castoreum and musk. They’re both pretty — and pretty costly, too, at €395 for 50 ml, but at least they are pure parfums.

Another one I liked was Roja Dove’s Innuendo, which I believe I smelled in pure Parfum version as well. The notes, according to Fragrantica, include: bergamot, lemon, orange, lemon verbena, jasmine, may rose, violet, ylang-ylang, patchouli, sandalwood, labdanum, musk, orris root and tonka bean. Lordie, was that pretty! I was significantly less moved, however, by the Roja Dove’s Extrait fragrances which are soliflores in nature, like Vetiver, Gardenia, Neroli and the like. One of them was okay, though I can’t recall now if it was the Gardenia or Lilac, and, to be frank, some of that whole Roja Dove experience is a bit of a blur now. I didn’t try every single one of the absolutes, primarily due to being completely overwhelmed, but generally, I wasn’t hugely moved by those I did sniff. I most certainly was NOT moved enough for the price of the bottle, which is around €325!

The soliflore Extraits in their pure white bottle in the back.

The soliflore Extraits in their pure white bottle in the back.

I also wasn’t passionate about the two Roja Dove ouds I tried, Aoud and Amber Oud. They were fine, though I didn’t think either one was extraordinarily special, and one had far too much saffron for me. As a perfume blogger, I’ve reached critical saffron-oud overload, which is a shame as the spice used to be one of my favorite notes. Clearly, it’s not the perfume’s fault, and is a matter of personal tastes. One thing was unquestionable, however, and that was the gorgeousness of the cranberry-red juice for the Amber Oud. Really lovely.

After Roja Dove, I went next to one of the bookcases in the center with its wide variety of different brands. I was thrilled to see Parfums de Marly, a line about which I’d heard much talk. It is now available in the US at OsswaldNYC, but I don’t live in New York and have no immediate access, so to get to try it leisurely here was exciting. I intentionally eschewed the perfumes that seems to get the most fuss, Herod, because when a company actually and officially lists ISO E Supercrappy (™ Sultan Pasha) amongst its notes, I know it’s best for me to steer very clear indeed. (Seriously, can you imagine how high the percentage of that olfactory carrion vulture must be for Parfums de Marly to have to list it officially?!) All the other bottles appealed to me, but I didn’t know where to start. There were also no notes listed anywhere, and I didn’t want to ask someone because I preferred to be left alone.

Parfums de Marly on the top shelf. Isabey on the bottom. Far right is Von Eusersdorff

Parfums de Marly on the top shelf with Safanad as the second glass bottle from the right side of the frame. Isabey perfumes are on the bottom shelf. Far right is Von Eusersdorff on both top and bottom.

So, at random, I just picked up one of the smaller, clear, non-opaque or coloured bottles that was to the far right, and sprayed a little. WOW! Glorious, simply glorious. I couldn’t find a name on the bottle (which I thought was quite odd), so I asked one of the sales ladies who was equally perplexed. Finally, on the bottom and in tiny font, we saw the name. The perfume turned out to be Safanad which according to Fragrantica is a 2013 Floral Woody Musk whose include: orange, pear, orange blossom, ylang-ylang, iris, amber, sandalwood and vanilla. Really gorgeous. It’s an eau de parfum that comes in an 75 ml bottle and costs €159.

Amouage

Amouage

I ambled around further after that, smiling at the chic Puredistance display in one corner, admiring the wall of Amouage elsewhere, and trying to figure out who on earth made the perfumes that were in some very fancy, glittering orbs and locked behind glass. It turns out, it was a line called House of Sillage.

Jovoy House of Sillage 2

House of Sillage

House of Sillage in the cabinest, and more Amouage lined up on top.

Then, I stood gulping in abject awe at the Baccarat-and-gold bottles of Grossmith‘s original, historical line under glass. I had previously tested and reviewed Grossmith’s Phul-Nana, which is a simply gorgeous, opulently Victorian, lusty and spicy orange blossom, neroli, tuberose, ylang-ylang and woody fragrance. At the time of its release, back in the 1880s, it had been the Chanel No. 5 of its day, and I loved its faithfully translated modern version. In that review, I’d written about the famous Baccarat bottles which were created with the help of various Middle Eastern royal families and whose price tag is astronomically high, so to now see them in person…. I was thrilled! It is just as well that they were locked behind glass, because I would probably have stroked them with lust like a crazy person.

Grossmith's baccarat flacons of the original trio in the line. I'm so sorry about the poor photo quality!

Grossmith’s baccarat flacons of the original trio in the line. I’m so sorry about the poor photo quality!

Later on, I had the chance to smell a Grossmith scent which I had previously eschewed testing because I had heard that it was very powdery — and I don’t do powder! It was Shem-el-Nessim, which Fragrantica classifies as a Floral Woody Musk with notes that include: bergamot, neroli, geranium, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, iris, musk, patchouli, cedar, sandalwood, heliotrope and vanilla. Good heavens, is that a beautiful perfume! And what sillage it had, too! I was fortunate to obtain a sample, and I’m definitely going to do a full review down the road, but I have to say now, it was truly an opulently luxurious scent in the very best of the old-time tradition from the golden age of perfumery. I’m really glad that Roja Dove helped Grossmith to recreate its ancient classics, because I think the perfume world is far better for it. Now, if only they were more easily accessible….

Eventually, I made my way to the far right wall where I came across Jovoy‘s own line of perfumes. As always, my problem was knowing where to start, and I already had about 13 paper strips in my hand at this point. (And those are the ones that I had not discarded!) I tried Gardez-Moi which was a lovely white flower bomb, but then what? I went by colour, knowing that the darker the juice, the more likely it would be a woody, spicy or oriental fragrance which is my personal, preferred category. I started with Psychedelique because of the name, and it turned out to be an intriguing patchouli.

Von Eusersdorff.

Von Eusersdorff.

Previously, however, I’d tried another patchouli — Classic Patchouli from Von Eusersdorff — which had come highly recommended by another blogger, Susie of Scent Epiphany. I was unsure about both of them, not because they weren’t excellent (they were), but because I’m on the hunt for a very particular patchouli scent. Perhaps more to the point, I simply didn’t dare put two different ones on my skin, lest patchouli’s generally forceful characteristics overwhelm everything else that I may want to try down the road.

Then, my eye was caught by Jovoy‘s Private Label fragrance with its dark, cognac-coloured liquid. It was a woody oriental which smelled of vetiver, amber, leather and, oddly enough, a sort of chilly peppermint that was exactly like that in the American candy, York Peppermint Pattie. I was intrigued by how it conjured up warm winter comfort from its initial whiff, and thought it definitely required further testing. I didn’t try any more from the line and, now, in hindsight, I wish now that I had been clear-headed enough to sniff Jovoy’s Rouge Assassin. Alas, Jovoy had scrambled my brain, so I completely blanked out, and sadly missed my chance.

There were so many bottles within each line, and so many paper strips in my hand, that I decided it was time to seek help. I made my way to a very tall, youngish chap with dark hair who seemed to be the manager. It turned out that he was one of them, but also, the brother-in-law of François Hénin, Jovoy’s owner. Mr. Hénin wasn’t there that day, but Léon took good care of me, even before he found out I was a perfume blogger. Prior to that point, he seemed initially a bit mystified by my rather endless series of questions about the specific notes in different perfumes (and he blinked at my intense, forceful hostility to the ISO E Super that I detected in one fragrance), but he caught onto my tastes quite quickly and steered me to a few things I liked.

Generally, though, he politely and courteously followed my lead in pursuing the specific fragrances I was curious about. By now, I had about 18 paper strips in my hand that I had narrowed down to about 7 that I wanted to try on my actual skin. We went through those 7, but he also pointed me to a few other things. It was actually thanks to Léon that I tried the fantastically diva-ish, seductive Grossmith Shem-el-Nessim, when I would have otherwise discounted it from talk that I had heard about its ostensibly powdery nature. (It wasn’t on my skin, though I haven’t yet had the chance to do a full, thorough test of it.) Léon also pointed me to specific Amouage scents that he thought would appeal to my tastes, and to Puredistance M which, unbeknownst to him, is actually one of my favorite perfumes. (It was around this time that I had to explain that I was familiar with many fragrances in question because I was a perfume blogger, had reviewed them, and/or owned them.)

I hesitated to ask for samples because of the number of things that I was really intrigued by, but Léon was more than generous. I’m extremely grateful to him and to Jovoy, because the simple reality of my skin’s wonkiness is that I need samples to get a sense of a perfume. I can’t really get proper idea of a perfume from paper strips, there is only so much space for spraying perfumes, and, most importantly of all, I have absolutely voracious perfume-eating skin.

In short, it is completely impossible for me to buy a perfume without a sample to test its layers, its sillage and how long it may last. I was disappointed, for example, that the gorgeous Parfums de Marly Safanad had already faded substantially in projection before I had even left the store! The Roja Dove Fetish leather perfume also seemed much more intimate on the skin, though I think some of that may have been olfactory fatigue. While the Grossmith Shem-el-Nessim went strong for hours, there were a number of scents that I had really liked but had no space to try on my skin at all. So, samples were essential.

And samples, I got — without a murmur or raised eyebrow. From Roja Dove, to Safanad, two fragrances from Jovoy’s own line, and a few others. I had heard from one blogger that Jovoy was “stingy” in giving samples, even upon the purchase of a fragrance, but that was not my experience at all. As Léon was calmly spritzing things into vials, I espied the new Histoires de Parfum fragrance, 1899, devoted to Ernest Hemingway, at one end of the counter. I like Histoires de Parfum quite a bit as a brand, but rather loathe Ernest Hemingway for his personal life and character, and I have never been particularly impressed by his writing with the (perhaps understandable) exception of A Moveable Feast which focuses, in part, on Paris. Still, Histoires de Parfums was going to take on Hemingway, and put his essence in a bottle?! This I had to try! I wasn’t impressed by my initial sniff, but as we’ve already discussed, paper strips can go fly a kite in terms of usefulness and true accuracy! So, we shall see how it actually turns out. 

Nasomatto and Boadicea the Victorious.

Nasomatto and Boadicea the Victorious.

Léon kindly gave me permission to take photographs for the blog. I was on my way out of Jovoy when I began taking pictures, but I came across so many cool things that I had to start sniffing all over again! There were things that I had initially missed, like Xerjoff‘s new collection, Join The Club. The few I tried from it were merely average, in my opinion, though I didn’t give the full range a thorough sniffing. (There were so many of them!) Then, I admired the endless, pretty, and sometimes bejewelled, bottles of M. Micallef, and seemingly all or most of the Boadicea the Victorious line. My God, so many of the latter! I didn’t pick up a single one because I didn’t know where to start! I was also a bit at sea when it came to the large Fueguia 1833 line from South America. I’d heard much about it, but I was starting to experience olfactory fatigue to match my physical one. So I gave two bottles some half-hearted sniffs, then gave up and returned to my photographs.

All around, there were bottles from perfume houses that I knew and/or had previously reviewed. To name a few: FrapinLubin, Juliette Has A Gun, Aedes de Venustas, Nobile 1942, David JourquinHeeley, M. MicallefTauer Perfumes, Vero Profumo, Ys.Uzac, and a blast from the past in the form of Jacques Fath and Revillion

M. Micallef

M. Micallef

M. Micallef.

Bottles from Rancé, I think.

I was in the midst of full olfactory (and visual) overload when I saw lines that I’d heard other perfumistas talk about, but had never had the chance to try: Isabey, Andrea Maack, Humiecki & Graef, Czech & Speake, Majda BekkaliJuls et Mad, SoOudE. Coudray, Miller Harris, Evody, Sospiro, Ann Gérard, Brécourt, Undergreen, and… good lord, there were so MANY

Finally, there were perfume brands that I’d never heard of at all, leaving me blinking at their bottles like a deranged owl. To name just a few: Steve McQueen (?!), House of Sillage, Philly & Phil, Eight & BobAmorvero Profumo, Arty Fragrance by Elisabeth de Feydeau (a French historian whose line is inspired by the palace and life at Versailles), Arte ProfumiLostmarc’h (yes, it’s apparently spelled that way, and no, that is not a typo), Testa Maura, Hors La MondeMendittorosa, and Alexandre J. Can you see why Jovoy requires at least a whole day’s exploration to really have a chance to cover even a small portion of their stock? Below are some thumbnails that you can expand to see a bit more of the Jovoy selection, but even these photos are hardly the complete story. 

Speaking of Alexandre J., the latter’s bottles actually stopped me dead in my tracks. In the middle of my photographing, I suddenly saw gleaming mother of pearl! A solid, massively heavy, hefty bottle of white mother of pearl, and then a truly spectacular grey-black one. I took some photos of the accompanying book that explained a little of the supposedly unusual technique, process, and quite original look of the perfumes, but I really couldn’t get a good sense of the exact notes. The white one was for women, that much was clear from the book, and the grey-black one was the men’s version with somewhat different notes, but what were they exactly? The book didn’t say, at least not from what I saw.

I had to go get Léon, who merely grinned at me at this point and asked if I’d like to have an expresso. I laugh at the memory of it, because it was so clear (to both of us) that I was going to be there for the long haul, and that there was no way I was going to be able to drag myself out of Jovoy for a few more hours. While he left to kindly make me an expresso, I noticed a some more brands that caught my eye including a bottle in a steam trunk called Lys Epona. I picked up the stopper, dabbed it on a paper strip, and blinked. Good God, that was fantastic!

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Léon had returned at this point with my much-needed dose of concentrated caffeine, and I asked him about both brands. Alexandre J. seems to be a French designer who apparently seems to be interested in history, art, and luxury craftsmanship. The perfumes that had caught my eye were called Legacy, White and Black. Each of those 100 ml mother of pearl bottles took over 200 hours to make, polish, enamel and inlay, and it was all done by hand. That explains the €495 price tag which translates at the current exchange rate to around $677. I wasn’t impressed by the white one which seemed to be an incredibly light, bland, unoriginal fruity-floral, but the darker woody-musk aroma of the grey-black one was okay. However, I didn’t think either one was original, different or luxurious enough in smell for me to really bother.

Lys Epona via the Jovoy website.

Lys Epona via the Jovoy website.

More to the point, I was still haunted by the beauty of Lys Epona. I had found one tiny, miniscule square of untainted, virgin skin on which to dab a little, and I was transfixed by the aroma wafting over me. So, upon his return, I dragged poor Léon to the large, rather old, classic steamer trunk in whose top shelf the old-fashioned (in a fantastic way!) bottle of Lys Epona with its almost Lalique-looking top lay nestled. “What is that??!” I demanded.

Léon explained that it had been created by Amelie Bourgeois (who had also created Jovoy’s much praised Rouge Assassin) in conjunction with François Hénin of Jovoy. The scent is considered to be part of Jovoy’s own perfume line, and is exclusive to the store. I have the impression that there are only a hundred bottles made, due to a comment made by Surrender to Chance on their website, but I’m not certain on that point and I don’t recall Léon saying that it was limited in nature. 

Jovoy’s website categorizes Lys Epona as a “leather” eau de parfum whose notes include lily. There is nothing else really mentioned other than the fact that it is an eau de parfum that comes in a 65 ml size, and that it costs €225. Fragrantica says its notes are: bergamot, lily, ravensara, narcissus, jasmine, ylang-ylang, wheat, hay, lily, musk, labdanum, tobacco and cedar. I thought it was spectacular with a floral richness and headiness that really evoked the classic style of the golden age of perfumery, and I am incredibly grateful to Léon for giving me a sample. I will review it as soon as possible, probably next week, because its potentially limited nature has got me rather going. If Lys Epona works on my skin, and lasts, it’s going to be something to consider sooner rather than later.

After Lys Epona, Léon and I walked around the rest of the store and discussed the various brands. I asked him about Amouage‘s new Fate, and was surprised to hear that it was far from being a big seller at Jovoy. I would have thought that the blogosphere and perfumista mass frenzy over Fate Man and Woman (especially Woman which I loved), along with those gorgeous iridescent bottles, would have made people rush to buy it. Apparently not. I can’t recall which Amouage is Jovoy’s biggest seller, but I vaguely remember that Beloved does very well, and I think Interlude as well. Still, I might be mistaken on the details, given both the hecticness of that visit and my exhausted state of sleep-deprivation on that trip as a whole. 

While walking around with Léon, I came across a number of perfumes that I had previously reviewed. There was the new Ashoka from Neela Vermeire, and we both agreed on how great the line is as whole. I told Léon my thoughts on Nasomatto‘s sexy Black Afgano, and how it seemed to me to be a super-concentrated version of YSL‘s famous M7 in vintage form. We came across Agonist; I grimaced a little at the sight of The Infidels which, I told him, smelled exactly like Tutti Frutti or Juicy Fruit chewing gum to me. There were many more fragrances I knew well, but I had to smile at all the bottles of LM Parfums lined up, including the new-limited edition Chemise Blanche. I had met with Laurent Mazzone, the brand’s founder, just five days before for tea at the Hotel Costes, and I had gotten to try Chemise Blanche as well as LM Parfums’ upcoming releases

Then, I came to a rather sharp, skidding halt at the sight of Comptoir Sud Pacifique‘s silver aluminum bottles near the front of the store with its wall of expensive candles. I might be a slight snob, but I don’t think the brand really fits in Jovoy, even if it’s CSP’s ostensibly “haute” niche collection with an average price of around €115. It certainly seems a slightly odd stable mate to go with the Amouage, Puredistance, Xerjoff, Neela Vermeire, Vero Profumo, Clive Christian and other lines represented in the store. (My suggestion: carry Profumum Roma‘s fabulous perfumes instead!)

Despite that last list of very respected, expensive perfumes, I would like to stress that there is something for every budget at Jovoy. There are some affordable, high-quality lines available in the store that I really like, from Parfum d’Empire to Histoires de Parfums. (The small bottles of Parfum d’Empire generally start around €66, or about $75-$80.) Jovoy also carries a perfume house that was a new discovery for me on the trip, and which I fell for very hard: Jardin d’Ecrivains. I had first come across the perfume line at Marie-Antoinette, the only other store in Paris to carry the line, and had bought one of the fragrances. It had been an enormous struggle to decide which one I had liked best because they’re all really special, unique, or just simply gorgeous! They’re also extremely reasonably priced at €85 for the large 100 size, high quality and concentration (eau de parfum). So, yes, Jovoy carries Clive Christian which prides itself on being the most expensive perfume in the world and which explicitly uses that phrase as their official (and, hence, very obnoxious and nouveau riche) company motto. But, at the same time, Jovoy also offers brands with bottles in the €66 to €87 price range. Still, I would be lying to you if I said that there are a ton of things at that lower end of the price scale, but there are some.

It was getting late at this point, and I had to meet some friends, so I reluctantly dragged myself out of Jovoy. I was scheduled to leave Paris in two days, and Jovoy was closed the next day, on Sunday, so I was even more grateful to be armed with some samples to help me make up my mind. It’s going to take me a while to go through them all for the purposes of a full, detailed review, but I know I can always turn to Jovoy. Unfortunately, I don’t think they ship to the U.S., but they do to most of Europe. (I’ve already got a mental list of Paris friends who can stop by to pick up what I may need and send it on to me themselves, or whose European addresses I can use for shipping.) If you’re in Europe, I’ve generally heard very positive things about Jovoy’s customer service, so if there is a brand that I’ve mentioned that you’ve been tempted by in the past, or if there is something I review that isn’t easily accessible in your city, you should absolutely check out the Jovoy website

They say that the Louvre can’t be seen in any real or substantive way in just one day, and I’m going to have to add Jovoy to that list. Those who live in Paris are lucky. Those who visit are going to need to give themselves ample time to sniff. Chances are, you’ll find far more things to love than any (regular) person could ever afford. In fact, if you can easily walk out of Jovoy with only one bottle or only one thing on your wish-list, then you’re a far stronger person than I am. Short of having an unlimited budget, there will always be some treasure that beckons to you with a siren song of seduction.

One has to really applaud François Hénin for curating such an astonishing, tempting collection of such high-quality. When I think that he started Jovoy a mere three years ago in 2010, and then see all that he has done, including getting the exclusive rights to carry Roja Dove’s perfumes, I have to give a very huge, very sincere Bravo to him! He’s created such an incredibly large range of tempting, luxury perfumes that Jovoy really is more like Aladdin’s Cave. Now, I just need to find a genie to grant me all my perfume wishes.

Note: All photos are my own, unless otherwise stated.
PRACTICAL DETAILS:
Address: 4 Rue de Castiglione, 75001 Paris, France. Be careful if you see the address of 29 rue Danielle Casanova listed on some sites, because that is the old address. They moved and the only location now is in the Rue Castiglione, about a block away from the Rue St. Honoré and two blocks away from the Place Vendome. Metro Stop: Tuilleries, Metro Line 1. Jovoy is also accessible, though a longer walk in my opinion, from the Opera, Madeleine and Pyramides metro stops. Phone: +33 1 40 20 06 19 or, if in Paris, 01-40-20-06-19. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Website: Jovoy Paris.