Houbigant Essence Rare : Vintage Perfume Review

Houbigant is a fragrance house with a remarkable legacy. Its Fougère Royal created in 1882 by talented Paul Parquet was the first fragrance that successfully fused the manmade ingredient coumarin with natural aromatics. The majority of fragrances trailed by men today are descended from this abstract and effervescent composition. By the time Robert Bienaimé took over the reins from Parquet as the chief Houbigant perfumer, the house had several beautiful fragrances to its name: Le Parfum Idéal, Violette Pourpre and Coeur de Jeannette. Bienaimé created several other distinctive blends, including Quelques Fleurs before opening his own house Bienaimé Parfums in 1935. Essence Rare was one of the last few fragrances he designed for Houbigant before his departure.

One my readers, Jillie, who had also set out on an exciting search for Nicky Verfaillie Grain de Sable, is likewise responsible for my discovery of Essence Rare. She wrote to me, “I remember that I was wearing it in the early days of engagement to my now husband, and his roommate commented that he smelt strongly of perfume after visiting me!  But at least it was a lovely perfume.” She sent me a sample from her vintage bottle and when I dabbed a dark drop of liquid on my wrist, I was not sure what to expect. I knew that the Essence Rare originally launched in 1928 was meant as Houbigant’s take on Chanel No 5, and I’ve learned subsequently that the fragrance was relaunched in the 1970s, which is what Jillie wore during the early days of her courtship.

The top notes of Jillie’s sample have deteriorated, but the pungent, sour notes spelled the obvious presence of a big dose of aldehydes, synthetic materials that give a great lift and champagne-like sparkle. Once the top notes melted away, I could smell a rich rose laced with spices, a thick slick of civet and velvety musks. The patina of age doesn’t serve a perfume well, but as Jillie and I agreed, some aspects of the former beauty remained. I promised Jillie that I would try looking for more information and give her some ideas as to what other perfume might be similar.

According to Michael Edwards and Luca Turin, the 1970s reissue of Essence Rare was a take on Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche. When a couple of weeks ago I finally managed to smell Essence Rare in a more or less intact state, I could see the green metallic roses of Rive Gauche clearly. There is a rich oriental twist to Essence Rare that made for an enveloping, sensual drydown. Rive Gauche is the embodiment of elegance, but Essence Rare feels like more of a bombshell.

Even the current reformulated version of Rive Gauche should hit the spot for anyone who loves Essence Rare or enjoys luscious floral bouquets made more effervescent by the addition of aldehydesLanvin Arpège is floral and sweet, with a beautiful vanilla and sandalwood accent. Estée Lauder White Linen is a classical aldehydic rose that’s clean and refined, while Pure White Linen is a modern—green and  fruity—take on the original. Etat Libre d’Orange Putain des Palaces, by contrast, has a smoldering accord of musk, amber and leather that contrasts well with the gentle aldehydic softness of its top notes. It’s like smelling a corsage of rose and violet on someone’s warm skin.

My last suggestion would be Paco Rabanne Calandre–it inspired Rive Gauche, which in turn was a role model for Essence  Rare. Calandre is a stunning perfume that smells of hot metal, warm skin and dark roses. Its shimmering green opening doesn’t prepare one for the seductive twist of civet and moss that follows the bright prelude. An impeccably crafted fragrance that truly deserves a chapter in any book on perfume history.

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21 Comments

  • Jillie: Thank you, Victoria, for carrying out your investigation into Essence Rare with such determination and clarity! You have hit the nail on the head with your recommendations for alternatives – I wore Rive Gauche constantly before the Houbigant, so they must have had similarities to my young nose. And a few years later I wore White Linen too. Calandre has always escaped me (I was a fan of Metal), but I shall now look forward to trying this.

    Again, I am thrilled that you have looked (or should that be smelt?) into this old favourite and captured its “essence”! June 8, 2012 at 8:17am Reply

    • Victoria: I loved exploring it, and it was such a great learning experience. I was told that the reissue was different from the original, as Houbigant reissues tend to be, but it was interesting to see and smell the big aldehydic burst. If Essence Rare was meant as a competition to Chanel No 5, the reissue isn’t too much of a stretch.

      At any rate, I bet that you smelled fabulous. 🙂

      Yes, do try Calandre (if you love Metal, it’s a must try for you). Also, Etat Libre d’Orange perfume I mentioned definitely is worth trying. I also love Vraie Blond from the same house, a rose and peach confection with a fizzy aldehydic top. June 8, 2012 at 9:16am Reply

    • Susan Owen: I too loved Essence Rare and wore it when I was courting and then engaged to my husband of 36 years. No perfume has ever come close for me. This article which I lucked upon today will give me the opportunity to try some of the recommended fragrances. I was given Youth Dew as a gift many years ago and still love it, it works on my skin. February 22, 2016 at 6:24am Reply

  • marsi: I’ve never heard of Houbigant or Essence Rare, but I enjoyed this post. I was smiling when I read “his roommate commented that he smelt strongly of perfume after visiting me!” What a nice story! 🙂 June 8, 2012 at 11:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I liked Jillie’s story as well. It made it even more fun to try to find a replacement for her discontinued favorite. And as a result, I learned something too. June 8, 2012 at 11:57am Reply

  • Elizabeth: I love stories of perfumes that evoke memories of romance! The early days of my courtship smell of Yves Saint Laurent Y and L’Eau d’Hiver. June 8, 2012 at 11:41am Reply

    • Victoria: Those are beautiful perfumes. I’m glad to see YSL Y mentioned, because it’s such a beautiful fragrance. A distinctive peachy chypre that wears so well. June 8, 2012 at 11:58am Reply

      • Elizabeth: I had no idea that Y existed until I read Perfumes: The Guide. Then I just had to try it. Turin writes that it is as quintessentially French as Chablis, Danielle Darrieux, and the theme from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. How could I resist? June 8, 2012 at 12:03pm Reply

        • Victoria: That description is irresistible! I completely agree with Luca. Y is one of the perfume gems. June 8, 2012 at 12:23pm Reply

          • marsi: V, is Y discontinued? Elizabeth’s description is too tempting – I found myself thinking I *have* to smell this! June 8, 2012 at 2:55pm Reply

            • Victoria: Yes, it’s discontinued, which is a shame. But you can still find it fairly easily online. If you can find the parfum, you’re in luck, but even the EDT, as minette says below, is wonderful. June 8, 2012 at 4:26pm Reply

  • minette: nicely done! i will have to now revisit calandre, rive gauche and metal.

    i lovvvvvvve y, and was lucky enough to grab some of it in parfum form (though i also dig it in the edt). y is totally gorgeous all the way through, and somehow lost to a lot of people. June 8, 2012 at 2:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: Those are such gorgeous fragrances. It’s always a pleasure to talk about them.

      How lucky of you to find Y in the parfum version. That’s by far the best one–so rich and elegant. June 8, 2012 at 4:24pm Reply

  • Anna Minis: Very interesting! I adored Rive Gauche in the seventies; I had it all: perfume, eau de toilette, talcum powder. I thought at the time that it was a modern, little bit excentric smell, so I am surprised that it was inspired by an old perfume. Lucky me: I have Calandre and Y edt. I feel really elegant wearing Y. Have a nice weekend, Anna. June 8, 2012 at 5:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: Rive Gauche was inspired by Calandre, which was launched just a year or a few months earlier. When Houbigant decided to reissue Essence Rare in the mid 1970s they took Rive Gauche, a very successful perfume at the time, as their role model. June 9, 2012 at 7:40am Reply

  • Natalie: I agree with what others have said; thanks for sharing both the background and some clear descriptions on what this smells like. It sounds divine! I’ve been reading up on the Rive Gauche reformulation recently, so this adds another interesting dimension to my interest in Rive Gauche. June 8, 2012 at 9:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you enjoyed it. Rive Gauche, Calandre, Metal are such stunning fragrances. Very elegant, but also edgy. I’m wearing Rive Gauche today. June 9, 2012 at 7:41am Reply

  • Flora: Great post! I am collecting as much Essence Rare as I can after stumbling across it on Evilbay one day. I have examples of the parfum in both the “real” vintage and the reissue, and EDP of the modern version. Both are truly wonderful. To my nose it is an aldehydic chypre with a boozy heart, and it is definitely a bombshell!

    I also have a little bit of “Y” parfum in addition to both older and newer EDT. I don’t know how it escaped my notice all this time, because it has quickly become a favorite and it’s one of the best chypres I have ever smelled. I guess chypres are out of fashion, hence the discontinuation, but when I see what’s in the YSL lineup now, it is pretty depressing! June 13, 2012 at 4:55pm Reply

  • lila: I’m in the process of trying to score a vintage bottle of Esprit de Noel by Houbigant (1/2 full bottle) for $18. This is my first vintage purchase. I hope I don’t get burned! 🙂 May 7, 2013 at 10:37pm Reply

  • Bette: I thoroughly enjoyed this site. I am 66 yrs old & loved Essence Rare in my teens. Around 25 yrs ago my daughter had some Rive Gauche in a metal blue spray can & it reminded me of Essence Rare. Thank you for this review. I love it and want to follow it. June 22, 2013 at 4:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Bette! It’s always hard to replace favorite perfumes, especially something as complex as Essence Rare. At least, you could find something that reminded you of it, and Rive Gauche is a perfume masterpiece in its own right. June 24, 2013 at 12:30pm Reply

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