Magazine article History Today

Scents of the Past: Nothing Captures the Past like a Drop of Perfume, Says Roja Dove, Connoisseur and Curator of a Recent Survey of the History of Perfume, as He Sniffs out the Fragrances That Characterised Their Age

Magazine article History Today

Scents of the Past: Nothing Captures the Past like a Drop of Perfume, Says Roja Dove, Connoisseur and Curator of a Recent Survey of the History of Perfume, as He Sniffs out the Fragrances That Characterised Their Age

Article excerpt

A new engagement with the history of perfume is awakening the public to the skills and complexities of its creation and appreciation. Is it the thought of eating warm, sweet scented brioche or memory of spectral Madeleine's baked by Proust himself that made us regain our sanity and reject the miasma of mediocrity that makes up modern perfumery? Whether in Paris, London or New York, the 'me too' sameness of over-commercialised scent is making anyone with a modicum of style, taste or refinement turn their back and look to the past--the old is the new.

Everything is cyclic. The exhibition I recently curated for Harrods is in tune with a global trend, with the revival of classic French brands such as Houbigant and Lubin. English perfumery is undergoing a renaissance too. The London house of Grossmith was founded in 1835 and closed its doors at some time in the late 1970s. The husband and wife team of Simon and Amanda Brook discovered that they were direct descendants of the founding family and set about resurrecting the brand and its scents. Three of Grossmith's most famous creations, Shem-el-Nessim, Hasu-no-Hanna and Phul-Nana, have been revived and placed in exact reproductions of their magnificent Baccarat bottles (named after the town in eastern France where the crystal glassware is made), dating from the early part of the 20th century. This fits in with another current consumer trend, of purchasing an item that is not disposable, that can be kept for future generations and that has an intrinsic value beyond the scent within. The perfume industry played a crucial role in the development of packaging.

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I fell in love with scent when I was a young boy, when I became aware for the first time that it has the power to metamorphose; as my mother applied her perfume before leaving for a cocktail party it worked its siren's spell. A while ago a journalist I have known for years smelt a drop of Houbigant's classic Quelques Fleurs extract, her eyes brimmed with tears and she was lost for words, transported back to childhood as the scent her mother wore worked its profound magic.

Houbigant, France's oldest perfume house, was founded under the sign of a basket of flowers on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris by Jean-Francois Houbigant in 1775. From the start his fragrances found favour with royalty and nobility, including Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI and he quickly became the perfumer to all the royal courts of Europe. As etiquette at the French court decreed that one needed a different scent for each day of the year, Houbigant's business flourished. But, when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, Houbigant began to lose clients. Marie-Antoinette asked for a special dispensation on her way to the guillotine so that she could tuck vials of Houbigant scent into her bodice to give her courage. Yet, as aristocrats fled France, they continued to order their Houbigant scents, spreading the house's reputation throughout Europe. A royalist group formed called the Muscadins, who showed their allegiance by wearing heavily musked scents: they sported hair that was short at the back, a la victime. Their perfumed taunts meant that they literally risked death for wearing scent.

By the early 20th century the Houbigant house had a new joint owner, perfumer Paul Parquet. He was to make Houbigant not only one of the most refined perfume houses but also one of the most important, shaping perfumery as we know it today. In 1882 he created Fougere Royale, the precursor to modern perfumery. Until its creation, scents had simple structures or were based around an eaux de cologne theme. Fougere Royale introduced a more masculine mixture of lavender, oakmoss and tobacco. Fougere Royale paved the way for Guerlain's Jicky, 1889, a unisex composition of vanilla and lavender and the oldest perfume still in production today. The Fougere remains the most popular of all masculine harmonies. …

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