Visit to The Osmotheque Perfume Museum in Versailles

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 Emeraude
Coty Ambre Antique
Coty Chypre
Coty L’Aimant
Caron Muguet du Bonheur
Parfums de Rosine Le Fruit Défendu
Guerlain Shalimar
Guerlain Mitsouko
Guerlain L’Heure Bleue
Schiaparelli Shocking
Balmain Vent Vert
(original formulations)

Photography by Jola (top image by Bois de Jasmin).

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62 Comments

  • Mirian: Wow!! How amazing. I am incredibly jealous of your experience. i can’t wait to travel to France myself and go there. December 7, 2012 at 7:41am Reply

    • behemot: It was truly a wonderful experience, Mirian. I would recommend it to every one who loves perfume and is interested in its history. December 7, 2012 at 11:13am Reply

  • Anna Minis: Absolutely fascinating! Thank you, Behemet! It is good to know that not all is lost, that the original formulas are kept somewhere. Fortunately also in our time there is enough to enjoy. December 7, 2012 at 7:43am Reply

    • behemot: Yes , Anna,you are absolutely right. There are definitely enough fragrances to enjoy today. If you count all new launches, it is even more than enough:) December 7, 2012 at 11:16am Reply

      • Anna Minis: Do I see there a little develish Behemot smile? December 7, 2012 at 11:33am Reply

  • HemlockSillage: Wow, what an amazing experience! Thank you for writing it up, and letting others know how to set up an appointment. You’ve inspired a perfume pilgrimage dream, and better yet, given me instructions on how to accomplish it. Thanks! December 7, 2012 at 8:20am Reply

    • behemot: HemlockSillage, I am glad you found my instruction helpful. And your idea of perfume pilgrimage sounds great to me. Let’s imagine a group of of “perfume pilgrims”.
      First. we go to the Osmotheque, next step iis Guerlain Boutique, then Chanel…
      Later we all go to visit Uncle Serge in Morocco.. and more. December 7, 2012 at 11:22am Reply

  • sara: This is my perfumista dream! Thank you for giving the details on how to make the appointment. The website confused me, maybe because I don’t speak French well. December 7, 2012 at 10:40am Reply

    • behemot: Yes, the website can be confusing. When you send them a message, you have to be persistent ( in a good way). December 7, 2012 at 11:23am Reply

      • Victoria: Ie, you have to send a couple of follow up emails, since they are really short-staffed. I definitely recommend being persistent. December 7, 2012 at 11:35am Reply

        • behemot: Yes, one has to be very persistent and motivated.
          But the Osmotheque is worth it. December 7, 2012 at 12:18pm Reply

  • Jessica: Thank you for this wonderful post, Jola. I met Patricia de Nicolai once, in New York, and I completely agree: she *is* such an expert, but very “modest and approachable,” and she really knows how to share her knowledge.

    I’m so glad you’ve shared your Osmotheque experience with us. I hope I can make a similar visit someday… but in the meantime, I’ll re-read this post. December 7, 2012 at 10:48am Reply

    • behemot: Jessica, thanks for your kind words. Patricia made huge impression on me and I am glad I was lucky to have her as my guide.
      Definitely go to the Osmotheque, if you only have a chance. December 7, 2012 at 11:30am Reply

  • George: A great article from Jola (and the usual generosity from BdJ in sharing her blogspace with others) It is also wonderful to note the generosity of Patricia De Nicolai- all in the interest of promoting great perfumery (how many other brand names/perfumers would appear from the back of their shop and sell their wares). Amazing! It just goes goes to show that the last precious people are about themselves, the more precious they become to others. December 7, 2012 at 10:54am Reply

    • George: *the less people are precious about themselves, the more precious they become to others. December 7, 2012 at 10:58am Reply

      • behemot: Well said, George. December 7, 2012 at 11:25am Reply

    • behemot: Thank you, George.
      Patricia de Nicolai is very accomplished, but modest at the same time. A true rarity today. December 7, 2012 at 12:16pm Reply

  • moi: How wonderful for you! And thank you for the informative report. A visit is definitely a “bucket list” item for me. It would be thrilling to speak with Patricia de Nicolaï as well. Her house is one of my all-time favorites. One of the best perfumers working today. December 7, 2012 at 11:05am Reply

    • behemot: Yes, Patricia de Nicolai is a great perfumer , and an underappreciated one. December 7, 2012 at 11:39am Reply

    • solanace: I’m really fond of her creations, too. Sacrebleu and Vanille Tonka are my favorites, but I also love Odalisque, Number One… It would be hard to choose… And they are so reasonably priced! December 7, 2012 at 2:34pm Reply

  • nikki: Thank you for your wonderful review! I can’t wait to go there myself.

    What a coincidence, I just ate great food at a Polish restaurant yesterday and ordered Kielbasa from Chicago. The relationship between France and Poland is quite fascinating with Louis XV th wife, Polish born Marie Leczinska, being the last crowned French queen who finished her reign and died of natural causes.

    Great article, Jola! December 7, 2012 at 11:13am Reply

    • behemot: Hello Nikki! I am glad you enjoyed Polish food.
      Actually, I don’t tend to go to Polish restaurants here in the Pacific Northwest since there are not so many of them and the food is a bit heavy. We always have traditional Polish dishes for Christmas. We make everything at home. My husband and I enjoy cooking, and we try to make pastries and pate in the same way our moms and grandmas used to. December 7, 2012 at 11:38am Reply

  • Heather: Thank you SO much for sharing this!! It sounds like such a wonderful experience. I have been curious about visiting for a while but haven’t made the effort to find out how to book, etc. How wonderful to have all of the information right here. :) December 7, 2012 at 1:40pm Reply

    • behemot: I am so happy Victoria suggested that I share this with other readers. A lot of people think it is impossible to get in. It requires some extra effort, that’s true, but it is absolutely fantastic! December 7, 2012 at 1:52pm Reply

  • Allison: What a thrill! Thanks for the post. I saw that you mentioned Caron’s Muguet du Bonheur. Do you happen to know if they have a wide range Caron scents? I’ve always been curious about ones that were discontinued a long time ago. December 7, 2012 at 1:41pm Reply

    • behemot: Allison, I would expect them to have a lot of Caron perfumes, but I am not sure about what exactly is available.
      Maybe Victoria or other readers will be able to help to answer your question?
      I requested just one Caron, Muquet de Bonheur. December 7, 2012 at 1:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: They have pretty much everything, Allison. The only time I’ve stumped them was when I showed up with a bottle of Chanel No46. The Osmotheque has never failed to amaze me with their collection. December 7, 2012 at 4:57pm Reply

  • Leah: What a wonderful escape you have provided me from the drudgery of my desk! Thanks for sharing your experiences at the Osmotheque, top of my list for my next trip to France, the country of all my most favorite things! December 7, 2012 at 2:01pm Reply

    • behemot: Don’t we need some cheer-up during these dark, short days of early December? December 7, 2012 at 2:18pm Reply

  • solanace: A tour with Patricia de Nicolai herself! How lucky! It’s like having Mick Jagger showing you London, only a bit cooler.

    Thank’s for the tip, I’m sure many of us will be booking these guided tours… December 7, 2012 at 2:04pm Reply

    • behemot: Love your comment, solanace :)

      Well, Mick showing me around London is a great idea. He is sort of a walking history himself.. December 7, 2012 at 2:12pm Reply

      • kaori: I love the comment too! Thank you for sharing your great experience. The botique looks wonderful. I am curious to smell Schiaparelli Shocking as I know only the bottle, very pretty!

        Kaori December 7, 2012 at 8:34pm Reply

        • behemot: And yes, Schiaparelli “Shocking” was truly shocking for me. Completely different from what I expected.
          Hope you will be able to smell it, Kaori! December 7, 2012 at 9:24pm Reply

  • Nancy A.: Note to myself: add to Bucket List! This should round out my other wish to tour the 10,000 Champagne vineyards. December 7, 2012 at 4:59pm Reply

    • behemot: Oh yes, Champagne vineyards.. I would like to go there too:) December 7, 2012 at 9:25pm Reply

  • Daisy: What an absolutely amazing experience! Thank you so much for sharing!

    I too would love the opportunity to smell the older versions of these amazing fragrances. I have never been to the Osmothèque, but a now a guided session is going on my bucket list too! And what a guide you had! Amazing!

    I am assuming that you would go back? December 7, 2012 at 5:05pm Reply

    • behemot: I would love to go back today, Daisy, really. It was totally awesome..
      I will have to definitely go to France again.
      I even started to learn French two weeks ago.
      So, we will see… December 7, 2012 at 9:28pm Reply

  • Poodle: What a great trip that must have been! I’d love to go there someday. Coincidentally I got a sample of Musc Intense this week and it was nothing like I thought it would be. It’s like you said, musk wrapped floral. The floral part is what surprised me. December 7, 2012 at 8:40pm Reply

    • behemot: Yes, Poodle, it was well worth going there, and if you have a chance, please do it.
      As of Musc Intense, I understand you were a little suspicious. So was I when Patricia enthusiastically exclaimed Musc Intense is one of her newest fragrances and handed me a tester. (She also mentioned MI contains notes of PEAR). What a surprise. I really liked it and purchased a small bottle.
      We are all tired of various fragrances, especially the mass market creations, which are based on these scary, laundry musks. Musc Intense is definitely different and a great scent. December 7, 2012 at 9:22pm Reply

  • Mel: A new Number One on my bucket list!!! Jola/Behomot, we have so much in common! The Master and Margarita is one of my favorite novels AND I am a graduate of NYU film school AND I live on the west coast and I love Seattle! Victoria, I’ve been thinking of you daily b/c I’m re-reading Anna Karenina before I see the film version. Only 50 pages to go! It’s such a complete experience – and reminds me of what Woody Allen said which I’ll loosely quote: “Tolstoy is like a full meal. Turgenev is a fabulous dessert. And Dostoevsky? Dostoevsky is a full meal with a vitamin pill and extra wheat germ…” December 7, 2012 at 11:05pm Reply

    • behemot: Welcome Mel !
      We really have a lot in common :)
      By the way, are you going to see a new version of Anna Karenina? i am still debating if I should go to see it tomorrow. I read about the director’s concept of playing some parts of the book on theatrical stage, and I find it quite interesting.

      As of these three great writers, Woody Allen put it really well, didn’t he? December 7, 2012 at 11:45pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve been thinking of going to see the movie myself, even though Keira Knightley is not how I picture Anna at all (for one thing, Anna is described as voluptuous). But I’m curious about the costumes and about the production as a whole. It’s in the movie theaters here already, so maybe tomorrow we will go and see it. December 8, 2012 at 5:07am Reply

      • behemot: It really is difficult to imagine KK as Anna, at lest to me.. I don’t know. December 8, 2012 at 12:08pm Reply

      • Daisy: It’s not how I picture Anna Karenina either. Keira Knightly is just too waif-ish!

        I picture Anna Netrebko from the Met Opera . . . They’re both named Anna, which doesn’t hurt :-) December 8, 2012 at 8:10pm Reply

        • Victoria: Exactly, too waifish! I loved Sophie Marceau as Anna, even though Marceau can’t act really. But in terms of looks, she fits perfectly. December 9, 2012 at 6:20am Reply

          • Mel: I never thought of Sophie Marceau! I didn’t realize she’d taken a spin as Anna K either, but I certainly agree that she is a much more interesting type of “beautiful” than KK, at least in my opinion. Now that I’m 800 pages in to the novel, Anna Karenin’s beauty is almost always described along with her poise, her manner, and her talent as a conversationalist to render the entire person radiant and unforgettable. She had the whole package. V, remind me, what perfume had you imagined for her earlier this year? December 9, 2012 at 2:08pm Reply

            • behemot: Rumor has it Sophie Marceau was first cast as Anna in a movie by her long time boyfriend, Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, circa 1992. Zulawski dropped from the project and director Bernard Rose directed Marceau as Anna in a movie, premiering in 1997. I have never seen this one.
              I remember watching the old version with Vivian Leigh as Anna, there was also one with Greta Garbo.

              I personally like Keira Knightly. I cannot picture her as Anna though.

              Maybe I should see this movie then? December 9, 2012 at 4:20pm Reply

              • Mel: I imagine it’s extraordinary for cinematography, costumes, and production design at the very least! I’m going, even though reviews (in print and anecdotally) have not been awesome. I don’t care. I can’t wait to see it! I’m going this weekend! December 10, 2012 at 10:24pm Reply

            • Victoria: I always think of Frederic Malle Iris Poudre as a perfume for Anna. I even used a movie still with Marceau to illustrate my review. I believe that it’s because she’s described in the ball scene as wearing a dark velvet gown, and everything about the description said “Iris Poudre” to me. December 10, 2012 at 6:10am Reply

              • Mel: I can’t wait to go to the Malle counter at Barney’s, spray my wrist, inhale, and close my eyes imagining that scene! incidentally, your chicken kofta kebab recipe mixture is “marrying” in my refrigerator overnight. At long last I am making it! December 10, 2012 at 10:22pm Reply

    • nikki: This is a great quote! Thank you! December 8, 2012 at 8:18am Reply

  • Claire: Jola (and Victoria), thank you for sharing this story. I *cannot* believe I missed this museum! I used to live in Paris and I’ve been to several perfume-related museums around Paris, but never this one. Well, more reason for me to go back to Paris again, then? December 8, 2012 at 12:59am Reply

    • behemot: Claire, such things happen quite often.
      After five years in Seattle, one summer I went to visit my friends and family back in Poland.
      During one of the parties, my friend’s boyfriend, who turned out to be an avid fan of Jimmy Hendrix, confessed he always wanted to visit Seattle, since it was Jimmy’s hometown…
      I was obviously very familiar with Hendrix, I but did not have the slightest idea he came from Seattle.
      It made me very embarrassed. December 9, 2012 at 6:25am Reply

  • silverdust: The ultimate field trip! And what a tour guide! December 8, 2012 at 11:37am Reply

  • Theresa: What an exciting trip – and to have Patricia de Nicolai as your personal guide – I was truly thrilled to read about it! as a side inquiry, are there any special fragrance-related high spots in Seattle? I visit there a few times a year, and would love to have an excuse to go perfume shopping!
    Theresa in Portland December 9, 2012 at 10:31pm Reply

    • behemot: Theresa, the Osmotheque is a magical place, truly.
      As of Seattle, my favorite perfume spot is Essenza in Fremont http://www.essenza.com. They have SL, L”Artisans, Santa Maria Novella , Histoires de Parfum and many others , as well as a lot of bath products. Very friendly and knowledgeable staff, generous samples.
      If you are staying downtown, there are Barney’s and Flagship Nordstrom at Pacific Place Mall. There is also Perfumerie Nasreen on 1st Avenue, http://www.parfumerienasreen.com. They carry a full line of M. Micalieff fragrances, which are otherwise hard to find , at least at the Pacific Northwest. December 9, 2012 at 11:34pm Reply

      • Theresa: Thank you so much for your Seattle recommendations! I will definitely check them out! and when you come to Portland, you should venture into The Perfume House on SE Hawthorne St – an old-fashioned, other-worldly shop, which has just started carrying Andy Tauer’s line. December 10, 2012 at 5:35pm Reply

        • behemot: Thank you, Theresa. I was just going to ask you about Portland! December 10, 2012 at 7:26pm Reply

  • Elve: Zajebiście! :) March 1, 2013 at 6:00pm Reply

    • behemot: No pewnie! March 17, 2013 at 5:16pm Reply

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