My most recent project was a compilation of feminine and masculine fragrances that influenced the course of perfume history for a perfumery training course. I decided that perhaps this list might be of interest to you. There are several criteria I used to select the 100 fragrances below: they have to be responsible for setting a new trend either due to their unique character or their novel use of a raw material and they have to be recognized as trendsetting by industry professionals, namely, perfumers.
While my list includes many legendary fragrances, it does not include every grand parfum. For instance, my list is missing Chanel Bois des Iles, Caron Nuit de Noël and Guerlain Nahéma, which are great fragrances, but their impact on the fragrance market was less profound than that of other less unique perfumes. While it is by no means a definitive list—even 100 is bound to exclude some remarkable fragrances–I hope that it provides a glimpse into the development of perfumery, from the late 19th to the early 21th centuries. With each entry, I include an explanation as to why I selected it as well as to demonstrate how its influence on the fragrance market is felt today.
The list has a strong bias to older fragrances, since it is much easier to judge the trendsetting capacity of a fragrance that has been around for a while. The sad truth is that most of the fragrances launched even as recently as a decade ago have been altered due to new regulations and raw material availability. Therefore, any list of historical fragrances is bound to include those that are either no longer available or are only pale shadows of their former selves.
Since my original purpose was to capture the development of perfumery over time, I decided not to exclude something just because it cannot be purchased. That being said, I will make all efforts to indicate how to find a vintage version or what modern fragrances capture the spirits of the discontinued/reformulated original. In the same vein, while I include a few niche launches, the vibrant growth of niche fragrances is a more recent development. Therefore, I try to include interesting niche launches that were inspired by great classics under each entry. For a great overview of the contemporary market, please see Robin’s 100 Fragrances Every Perfumista Should Try.
On Feminine and Masculine: The list includes both masculine (M) and feminine fragrances. I marked them only for the sake of identifying their original market audience, though these distinctions are at times artificial. Guerlain Habit Rouge, Christian Dior Eau Sauvage and Terre d’Hermès make very memorable and sexy feminine scents. Conversely, fragrances like Guerlain Mitsouko, Estée Lauder Alliage and Ô de Lancôme can work perfectly on a man.
The list is in chronological order.
1. Fougère Royale (Houbigant, perfumer Paul Parquet, 1882) M
Fougère Royale was a groundbreaking perfume, in that it was the first fragrance combining natural essences with synthetics. In order to create a fantasy accord of fern (fougère in French), Paul Parquet added the synthetic material coumarin to the classical eau de cologne accord of citrus, lavender and geranium. The rich notes of amber, musk and oakmoss completed the composition, thus giving birth to a family of fragrances called fougère. It is currently among the most popular fragrance families, and the dramatic juxtaposition of different elements first explored by Fougère Royale have influenced numerous fragrances, from early launches like Dana Canoë (1935) to trendsetters such as Yves Saint Laurent Kouros (1981), Guy Laroche Drakkar Noir (1982) and Davidoff Cool Water (1988). Recent launches like Penhaligon’s Sartorial and Gucci Guilty Pour Homme likewise explore the fougère theme.
Fougère Royale has recently been relaunched and reochestrated by Givaudan perfumer Rodrigo Flores-Roux. I had a chance to compare it against the original version restored by the Osmothèque perfume conservatory. The new Fougère Royale is certainly a very good reorchestration, preserving the main elements that gave Fougère Royale its character; however, it is paler and thinner overall, with the most significant difference being in the animalic notes. It also has a stronger accent on the moss and amber accord than does the original Fougère Royale. Guerlain Mouchoir de Monsieur (1904) is another fragrance that gives a good impression of the original Fougère Royale, since it was heavily influenced by it.
2. Jicky (Guerlain, perfumer Aimé Guerlain , 1889)
Guerlain experimented with synthetic ingredients in many of its perfumes after the launch of Houbigant Fougère Royale in 1882. Fragrances like Arôme Synthétique de Fleurs d’Espagne and Arôme Synthétique de Fleurs de Champs (both from 1883) disappeared long ago, but Jicky lives on. It used a combination of coumarin and vanillin to give a new dimension to its vibrant citrusy-herbal structure.
The newly discovered synthetics were not the only thing that made Jicky fascinating. It used a combination of elements that would eventually give Guerlain its distinctive signature—the modern freshness of citrus and aromatics, the seductive warmth of the oriental accord and a teasing gourmand sweetness.
Jicky gave birth to the family that produced such distinctive and trendsetting fragrances as Guerlain Shalimar (1925), Chanel Bois des Iles (1926), Must de Cartier (1981), and Christian Dior Dune (1992). Among the more recent Jicky inspired fragrances are Serge Lutens Vetiver Oriental and By Kilian A Taste of Heaven. Present day Jicky is a thinned out version of its old self with the drydown missing the plush animalic richness that made it memorable.
3. L’Origan (Coty, perfumer François Coty, 1906) discontinued
A precursor of L’Heure Bleue (1912), L’Origan established a completely new style of fragrance—floral orientals. It combined the seductive richness of a classical oriental accord with the radiance of florals (orange blossom, jasmine, ylang-ylang, carnation.) The bridge between the dominant elements is the woody austerity of vetiver and methyl ionone (an aroma-material that combined the sweetness of violet and the darkness of woods).
L’Origan can claim Oscar de la Renta (1976), Vanderbilt (1981), Dior Poison (1985), and Cacharel Loulou (1987) as its offspring. Although it has been discontinued, it continues to influence new fragrances: Vivienne Westwood Boudoir, Ormonde Jayne Taif, Armani Code for Women, and Nicolaï Kiss Me Tender can trace their lineage back to this marvelous and groundbreaking classic.
4. Quelques Fleurs (Houbigant, perfumer Robert Bienaimé , 1912)
Smell the original Quelques Fleurs, and suddenly it all becomes very clear—one glimpses the outlines of the future Jean Patou Joy (1930) and even heady floral blends like Evyan White Shoulders (1945) and Revlon Charlie (1973). Although the fragrance has been in steady decline along with the house of Houbigant throughout the 20th century, it is a remarkable composition that I wanted to include for the breadth of its influence.
Created by Robert Bienaimé, it was a lush, opulent floral bouquet, but it was the inclusion of aldehydes (particularly aldehyde C-12 MNA) that gave the florals a lift and radiance. Ernest Beaux, who subsequently created Chanel No 5, and Henri Alméras, the author of Joy, were both quite taken with Quelques Fleurs and paid homage to it with their own creations.
Quelques Fleurs was reintroduced in 1987, but I cannot recommend it, because it is quite a bland floral with few similarities to the original. Different versions of Quelques Fleurs sometimes appear on various online auction sites, so a pre-1987 bottle can still be found, even if the quality will not be that great. Or else, just try Joy and imagine it with a richer violet, ylang-ylang and orange blossom notes.
5. L’Heure Bleue (Guerlain, perfumer Jacques Guerlain, 1912)
Although L’Heure Bleue was inspired by Coty L’Origan, it did not just repeat the floral oriental theme, but improved and built further upon it. L’Origan has a dramatic, bold character, but L’Heure Bleue is the embodiment of refinement. It is also remarkably luminous and vivid, despite all of the rich, heavy notes that go into it. Its sillage is among the most beautiful—bright, memorable, radiant. It was also the first Guerlain perfume to use aldehydes to give a lift to the rich floral accord.
Carnation, ylang-ylang and anise introduce L’Heure Bleue, but immediately one is aware of the plush iris, vanilla and musk that form its drydown. L’Heure Bleue inspired many perfumers and continues to do so. It is one of Sophia Grojsman’s favorite fragrances, and her Kenzo Kashaya, Lagerfeld Sun, Moon, Stars and Laura Biagotti Sotto Voce were inspired by its structure of plush richness and opulent floral notes.
Recent launches like Costume National Scent, Iris Ganache, Insolence and Kenzo Flower pay tribute to L’Heure Bleue. I do not care for the current version of L’Heure Bleue, which seems to have lost the very quality that made it outstanding—the plush, nuanced feeling; however, the parfum is still worth trying. Update January 2014: the newest re-reformulation of L’Heure Bleue is a marked improvement on the previous version, and the perfume now has some of its former lush curves.
6. Narcisse Noir (Caron, perfumer Ernest Daltroff, 1912)
With orange blossom set into a spicy oriental accord, Narcisse Noir has a distinctive Art Deco aura, a true child of its era. Like Coty, Daltroff was daring when it came to using strong, dramatic materials and exploring unusual contrasts. The spicy oriental genre initiated by Narcisse Noire produced fragrances like Dana Tabu, Estée Lauder Youth Dew, Jean Desprez Bal à Versailles and Lancôme Magie Noire.
Today, this languorous, decadent style of perfumery is out of fashion among mainstream launches, yet it is explored widely in the niche. By way of example, By Kilian Back to Black, Serge Lutens Chergui (and to an extent, Fleurs d’Oranger) capture that dark, exotic spirit for me. Narcisse Noir itself used to be excellent until a couple of years ago. The most recent batch of the EDT I have smelled was just a pretty jasmine and orange blossom blend. The parfum is much better, with the rich orange blossom and sandalwood accord, although the animalic “noir” part is missing.
7. Chypre (Coty, perfumer François Coty, 1917) discontinued
Out of all discontinued and long gone fragrances, Chypre de Coty is the one I most long to see relaunched, even if in a paler, thinner version. During my every Osmothèque visit, it is one of the few perfumes I ask to smell again and again. Chypre is simply remarkable, and a great testament to the avant-garde vision of François Coty. It took the idea of a moss, bergamot and labdanum structure that has existed in perfumery since the Roman times and made it bolder, fresher and brighter with the addition of modern leather materials (iso-butyl quinolines, which subsequently would become an important note in the perfumer’s palette) and new floral bases.
The effect of the roughhewn green mossy accord contrasted with the transparent jasmine-lily of the valley heart is striking and haunting. Chypre was never a commercial success, but its influence on the perfumery was profound. Not only did it revive and modernize a classical fragrance genre, but it also inspired a number of fragrances that themselves were trendsetting and influential: Guerlain Mitsouko, Rochas Femme, Carven Ma Griffe, and Shiseido Féminité du Bois. Chypre was occasionally relaunched, and it is possible to find bottles from the 1960s and earlier today. I find that the quality of Chypre relaunches is highly variable, but even the poorest, thinnest versions nevertheless convey its original strong character.
8. Guerlain Mitsouko (Guerlain, perfumer Jacques Guerlain, 1919)
The most famous offspring of Coty Chypre, Mitsouko took the idea behind its famous forerunner—a bright citrusy top, complex floral heart, coolness of oakmoss and the richness of amber and animalic notes – and made it elegant and refined. Jacques Guerlain used the peach scented aroma-material aldehyde C-14 to give a soft, glowing quality to his composition.
A classical Guerlinade accord of tonka bean, vanilla, iris and rose further refined and rounded out Mitsouko, lending it a delicious, teasing gourmand sensation. Mitsouko inspired classics like Rochas Femme, Guerlain Chant d’Arômes, Yves Saint Laurent Y, Yves Saint Laurent Champagne/Yvresse. Today, its influence is felt in Gucci Rush, Jean Patou Enjoy, and to an extent, in Guerlain Idylle.
9. Chanel No 5 (Chanel , perfumer Ernest Beaux, 1921)
I do not believe in the notion that “clever marketing” is the reason behind the success of No 5. This fragrance remains iconic, because it is an exquisite example of perfumery craft. For all the talk about the aldehydes in Chanel No 5, what makes this fragrance outstanding is its balance of accords: the shimmering aldehydes, the rich ylang-ylang, jasmine, rose and iris, the creamy vanillin and the warm animalic notes. It is a polished, complex fragrance that has a beautiful development and a memorable signature.
Chanel No 5 has a very distinctive character, and it inspired Lanvin Arpège (1927,) which retained the aldehydic floral accord of No 5, but reinterpreted the backdrop to give a richer woody effect. This innovation led to such great creations as Hermès Calèche, Madame Rochas, Paco Rabanne Calandre and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche.
Today, strong aldehydic notes are not as fashionable as they once were, but the soft floral accord of No 5 continues to influence fragrances, whether mass market launches like Bath & Body Works Moonlight Path or niche launches like Amouage Jubilation 25.
10. Shalimar (Guerlain, perfumer Jacques Guerlain, 1925)
“If I had used so much vanilla, I would have made only a custard sauce, whereas Jacques Guerlain creates Shalimar! (si j’avais utilisé autant de vanille, j’aurais seulement obtenu une crème anglaise, tandis que lui, Jacques Guerlain, créa Shalimar! ),” said Ernest Beaux, creator of No 5, thus giving his famous compliment to Shalimar. It is impossible to speak of the oriental fragrances and not mention Guerlain Shalimar.
The memorable aspect of Shalimar is its classical 19th century structure of a citrusy cologne (it contains almost 30% bergamot oil) paired with a rich oriental accord of vanilla, tonka bean, musk and castoreum. In the original 1925 version, the natural animalic tinctures of civet, ambergris, musk and castoreum were used, but over time they were replaced by their synthetic variants. Compared to the orientals created around the same time, Shalimar really seems avant-garde for its radiance and marvelous sillage.
Even today, after almost a century and a slew of offspring and copycats, Shalimar still seems unique. It spawned a very diverse family: the leathery-animalic orientals like Must de Cartier (1981), the gourmand orientals like Chopard Casmir (1991) and Thierry Mugler Angel (1993), and the fruity orientals like Chanel Allure (1996). Modern niche launches like Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur, Cartier L’Heure Mystérieuse and Atelier Cologne Vanille Insensée pay a particularly interesting tribute to Shalimar. In my opinion, it is one of the more successful Guerlain reformulations.
Coming next in 100 Great Perfumes Series: an influential, if much maligned fragrance and contributions to fragrance history by great female perfumers…
Photography: Vera, Lavender fields near Grasse, France. Nature is the greatest creator of all.