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September 1, 2005

"Le Parfum Idéal" By Luca Turin

"Le Parfum Idéal" By Luca Turin

In 1991, while in Moscow for work, I visited an antique store at the back of the Metropol Hotel. There, enclosed in a silk-lined yellow and black box, was an unopened Baccarat crystal bottle of Houbigant’s Parfum Idéal (Paul Parquet, 1900). Houbigant had done good business in Russia before the revolution, and this bottle had survived it and two world wars. How much ? 100 dollars. I shelled out immediately, to the horror of the saleswoman who thought it decadent not to haggle over three months’ pay. At the time, the Osmothèque (see last month) had just taken possession of the Houbigant archive. The curator, former Patou in-house perfumer Jean Kerléo, was puzzling over the Parfum Idéal formula: it was full of forgotten “bases” made by extinct firms. Without the actual perfume. even the normally all-knowing Grasse old hands couldn’t help.

I gave my bottle to the Osmothèque, they opened it for analysis and sent me back a sample. It was as good as new, a huge, sweet, buttery floral that brought to mind Sydney Smith’s description of paradise as “Foie gras to the sound of trumpets”. The reconstructed Idéal is now in the Osmothèque collection. A few weeks ago, I smelled another survivor, a perfume rebuilt from a sample found in the wreck of the Titanic. It had belonged to the perfumer Adolphe Saalfield, who made it to New York but lost his luggage. Same period, different smell, same glorious feeling. I was lamenting the fact that they didn’t make stuff like this any more, when two unusually plain bottles arrived in the post to prove me wrong.

One was Jeffrey Dame’s Wanderlust. Dame runs a perfumery forum called perfumeoflife. After years of bringing the aficiòn together, often to gripe about modern fragrances, he lost patience and made his own “super-fume”. It’s an unashamedly retro floral oriental. It is not particularly original, nor is it meant to be, but it smells sumptuous. The other is René Laruelle’s Jardin des Floralies. Laruelle is a legend in his own time. His fragrances have never been sold in shops. Despite this, two of his creations (Jardin and Baiser de Soie,) made it into the Osmothèque collection. Jardin was composed in 1991 around the idea of Osmanthus flowers, for his goddaughter’s fifteenth birthday. A timeless Chypre, it sits somewhere between the extinct Diorama and the first Dioressence, but with a sensational complexity that these two (relatively) mass-produced fragrances never achieved, even in their heyday.

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