Sunday, 28 November 2010

A Perfume is for Life as well as just for Christmas

As a very young editor I was changing planes at Frankfurt on my way back from Warsaw and took a moment to buy a bottle of scent (duty was very high in those days).  Except I had no idea what I was looking for and little time.  The commessa looked me over and handed me a   tiny box. "No you can't try it", she said briskly, "Just buy it."  I gave her what felt like an enormous amount of cash and headed for my plane.

This is what I had taken so meekly:

'There are perfume legends, there are perfumer legends, and then there are perfumes that become obsessions. Fracas is all three, which is a hat trick less common that you’d think. Still more extraordinary, Fracas is built on a concept of tuberose, a small white flower (unrelated to rose; the name comes from the Latin word describing the plant’s tuberous root system) that generates an overpowering scent and is notorious among perfumers for being a difficult raw material to master. Which is perhaps why Fracas’s perfumer, Germaine Cellier, managed it.

Born in Bordeaux in 1909, Cellier was a pioneer in every sense: a professional woman, a chemist, an artist working in the olfactory medium, tall, beautiful, abrasive (and possibly lesbian), a brilliant and intellectually voracious friend of Cocteau, a proponent of synthetic raw materials. She was also the creator of a striking style. “She transposed Fauvism and Abstractionism into perfume,” Jeannine Mongin has written. “She created in dissonance.”

And the creations have lasted. During WWII, the designer Robert Piguet asked Cellier for a perfume. She created Bandit for him in 1944. In 1946, she did Coeur Joie for Nina Ricci, and in 1947 the landmark Vent Vert for Balmain. Then Piguet asked her for another scent.

It is possible that the secret of Fracas (1948) is an equilibrium between the power of Cellier’s style and the power of tuberose. Perfumer Aurelien Guichard is the caretaker of the formula, which he calls “incredibly complex.” (Due to bans on various raw materials for toxicology, no mid-century perfume is street legal in its original form, and Guichard is charged with conserving Cellier’s vision while constantly updating it with non-allergenic materials.)

Cellier packed her formula with Indian tuberose absolute, which gives it huge power and “sillage” (the olfactory trail). Like all good perfumers, she was an illusionist. To achieve an even more lifelike, more raw tuberose (this flower smells of armpit, flesh and decay due to heavy molecules called indoles; jasmine is similarly loaded with them), she used an even larger quantity of Tunisian orange blossom absolute, plus some astronomically expensive French jasmine and Italian iris root butter. Add natural violet leaf to give the sweet, heavy scent a refreshingly harsh, wet green aspect, iris for a woody depth, synthetic civet (the smell of unwashed construction worker) for power, the synthetics C18 for an unctuous, milky, soft tropical quality and methyl anthranilate for fizz. The result is a signature, a persistence on skin, and a diffusion that are – all three – astonishing.'

Then for some years it became almost unobtainable;  the only source was the Profumeria Inglese in via Tornabuoni and the price became ever more astronomical.  It was a good thing so little was needed because I only ever was given it at Christmas.  In the '90s  it reappeared elsewhere again and became newly fashionable.  But the packaging is black now, not pink, and I'm not sure it's quite what it was.  But perhaps it's me, not quite what I was.


Odin's Raven said...

Dare one enquire why women want to smell like a brawl?

Sen. C.R.O'Blene said...

But this is a great story Hats.

I can still smell the paella restaurant from my first ever holiday in Spain, or my daughters' hair from a quite a few years back!

My sister gave me a sample bottle of cologne in 1970, and I still have it - still half full, and now with an unreadable label. I'm still convinced it helped to ensnare Mrs S...

A few years back, just before Christmas, I was wandering along Oxford Street, and just inside Selfridges, I was accosted by a beautiful lady who persuaded me to accept a squirt of 'Farenheit'.

Hooked was I from then on, and that very first evening, the Girls' Headmistress gave me a huge smacker at the Parents' bash and said I smelled nice...

Not up to the high echelons of your superb perfume maybe, but evocative, discreet and instantly recognisable in the 'Turrets'!

hatfield girl said...

No, Raven. Don't smell like a brawl, she added sulkily. Smell lovely.

hatfield girl said...

The whole Turrets will be imbued with subtle undertones, strokes even, of Scrobs, and all the better for it, Scrobs.

Piguet may not care for the endorsement but the small HGs tell me that Fracas is the scent of mamma, and easily the safest scent ever.