Victoria’s Note: Today we have a special report from the Osmothèque perfume conservatory and museum in Versailles. It’s written by Jola, whom you might recognize as behemot from the comment section here (Behemot is a character from one of her favorite novels, Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita). Jola is a graduate of the film studies department at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and she works as a film script editor. She recently visited the Osmothèque in Versailles, France, and her experience was so memorable that she wanted to share it with other Bois de Jasmin readers.
When I first became interested in perfume about two years ago, I noticed many perfume writers were critical of the modern versions of such classics as Guerlain L’Heure Bleue or Miss Dior. Everyone praised the older versions of these perfumes, noting the use of high quality ingredients in the past and degradation of quality in modern formulas due to environmental, medical, and cost-related reasons. While reading that Jicky and Diorissimo are “thin” nowadays or that Caron Poivre doesn’t have its spicy bite, I longed to experience these perfumes in their full splendor. If only I had a time machine!
It turns out that I need not travel back in time to smell vanished gems like Jacques Fath Iris Gris or Coty Chypre. I only have to visit France. Since 1988, the Osmothèque perfume museum and conservatory located in Versailles has specialized in preserving and restoring old fragrance formulas, allowing anyone–professional perfumers and passionate perfume lovers–to study an impressive collection of fragrances. Only at the Osmothèque can you smell the exhilarating verdancy of the original Balmain Vent Vert or sigh over the gourmand decadence of Parfums de Rosine Le Fruit Défendu, a perfume created by Coco Chanel’s rival, fashion designer Paul Poiret.
When my husband and I started planning a trip to Europe this fall, the Osmothèque became a part of my itinerary. Versailles is only a short train ride away from Paris, after all. I sent an inquiry to the Osmothèque in French, with some help from Google Translator. Ultimately I settled on a paid séance, session, with an osmothecaire, a perfumer who works at the conservatory. I emailed them a list of fragrances I wanted to smell; this was compiled with the help of Victoria since the Osmothèque staff needed to prepare for my visit in advance*.
The Osmothèque is located in a beautiful, tree-lined street, Rue du Parc de Clagny, in Versailles. The building is also host to the famous ISIPCA Perfumery School. One the day of the visit I arrived earlier than planned. I made my way into the building after searching for the entrance amid the renovations that were in progress. I was directed to the small office where the staff was aware of my arrival. They informed me that my session would be with Patricia de Nicolaï herself.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better guide to the vintage world of perfumery, but I admit that I was a bit star-struck at first. Patricia de Nicolaï is the president of the Osmothèque and a talented perfumer, whose Parfums de Nicolaï collection is one of the most highly rated niche houses. A charming, charismatic woman, who also seemed modest and approachable, Patricia turned out not only to be an expert, but also a talented storyteller. She illustrated her lecture with slides and with fragrances which were collected in a dark wooden case, lined with black velvet.
Patricia started her presentation on François Coty and his fragrances. It was a fascinating journey through his turbulent life. I was surprised that many of the vintage Coty fragrances recognized as milestones of perfumery, especially Ambre Antique and the famous Chypre, are also wonderfully wearable perfumes I would not hesitate to dab on my wrists today. While I focused on smelling the scent strips, Patricia made comments and answered my questions. The 90-minute session passed very quickly. I exited the building with a big smile, carrying my brochures and many blotters, all preserved in tiny envelopes, labeled with the fragrance names.
The following day I decided to start my perfume explorations in Paris with a visit to the Parfums de Nicolaï boutique on Rue Raymond de Poincerre. I’ve read many positive comments about Nicolaï perfumes, but I’ve never come across this line in Seattle, and in Paris I at last had a chance to experience them. As my husband and I entered the boutique, a familiar figure emerged from the lab near the back. Lo and behold, it was Patricia de Nicolaï! She gave us a tour through her fragrances, and I finally purchased two of them: Vanille Tonka and the newest, Musc Intense, that smelled of musk wrapped flowers.
After a pleasant meal at a nearby bistro, it was time to start driving again. The rain poured heavily, and the peak hour traffic on Boulevard Périphérique was at its worst. It felt so familiar to us, as if we were leaving Seattle and driving onto the I-5 North on a rainy day. But unlike in Seattle, this time we did not complain about the rain, drudgery and slow traffic. After all, we were heading to the vineyards of Burgundy to continue our sensory explorations.
Practical Information on Visiting the Osmothèque
Osmothèque, the International Perfume Conservatory and Museum
36 rue du Parc de Clagny
78100 Versailles, France
Tel : 01.39.55.46.99
email: osmotheque at wanadoo dot fr
www.osmotheque.fr (click on the Conférences et Visites tab)
Open by appointment only. The Osmothèque offers various programs and sessions for individuals. Check their calendar and inquire at the office for detailed information and cost. Some events are free of charge. Group session during which you can smell the perfume classics and receive a history lesson are €8-15 and are held each week (in French only). Individual sessions start at €100 per hour. Please note: If you request a session (séance) with a perfumer and do not speak French, please mention it while making your reservation, so that you get assigned someone who speaks English. Price for a 90 minute individual session: €150, payable in cash at the time of your visit. My session was definitely worth the price. Update April 2014: Price for an individual session is now €400. The group sessions (more reasonably priced) are still available.
For visiting the rest of Versailles, the tourism office website www.versailles-tourisme.com can be helpful.
How to Get There
By train: The train station, Versailles-Rive-Droite, is about a 15-minute walk from the Osmothèque.
By car: About 25 minutes from Charles De Gaulle Airport, on paid roads and off-peak hours.
*Some of the Osmothèque Perfume Gems
Houbigant Fougère Royale
L.T. Piver Le Trefle Incarnat
Coty Ambre Antique
Caron Muguet du Bonheur
Parfums de Rosine Le Fruit Défendu
Guerlain L’Heure Bleue
Balmain Vent Vert
Photography by Jola (top image by Bois de Jasmin).