My fascination with vintage perfumes owes a lot to Coty L’Aimant and Jacques Fath Iris Gris, fragrances created by Vincent Roubert. I stumbled across L’Aimant at a second-hand clothing store, where its red box sat among the bins of faux pearls from the ’60s and “genuine nylon” shirts from the ’70s. I had no idea that this perfume was launched in 1927 or that it was Coty’s answer to the smashing success of Chanel No. 5. I simply enjoyed its powdery, sweet scent that was completely unlike any of the fragrances I smelled at department stores. It gave me an escape from my routine on par with favorite books and The Classic Movie Channel.
Iris Gris, on the other hand, was a special quest. By then, I already knew that Roubert was a talented but not a prolific perfumer and that he crafted a legend by blending the cool, earthy iris essence with the luscious sweetness of peach skin. I searched high and low, and when I finally found a bottle of Iris Gris, the remaining perfume smelled of tobacco and sour wine. It was too old. My encounter with Iris Gris–pristine, stunning–took place years later, and I still have a blotter perfumed with iris and peaches.
So who was Roubert? What inspired him? In partnership with the Osmothèque, I offer you an excerpt from The Perfume of Memories, a 1947 magazine article by Vincent Roubert. The Osmothèque has all of the perfumes he mentions in his piece: Caron Fleurs de Rocaille, Chanel No. 5, Coty À Suma, Coty L’Aimant, Coty Muse, Guerlain Jicky, Guerlain L’Heure Bleue, Houbigant Cœur de Jeannette, Houbigant Demi-Jour, Houbigant Quelques Fleurs, and Lanvin Arpège. Iris Gris is still awaiting its hour.
“It was at Coty that I brought into the world – I pray you allow me the expression – L’Aimant then, afterwards, À Suma, Le Vertige, and finally Muse.
I think – I wish to advance nothing of myself, but I have been told – they are entitled to a place of honor alongside the great masterpieces of my confreres, masterpieces titled:
Jicky and L’Heure Bleue by Guerlain, Quelques Fleurs, Demi-Jour (following Cœur de Jeannette) by Houbigant, No. 5 by Chanel, Fleurs de Rocaille by Caron, Arpège by Lanvin, etc… to name but a few, and in excusing myself for being unable to list them all.
I have often been asked questions, pertinent or preposterous, as to the manner in which a creator of perfume – a chemist – finds a new note. The response is at once simple and complex. I convey it to you roughly – dreams and inspirations are inexplicable.
Our existence is made of events at times happy or unhappy, fortuitous, senseless, admirable. It is in living each day that a creator, like a poet, a musician, a painter, a sculptor, finds his nourishment, which he devours after having run through the grinder all these imponderables that are the gifts of the heavens and the atmosphere. Studies arrive in second place, as they serve nothing without that inspiration at once exultant, surging, sensual, even very painful.
To call upon an explanation that I confided to one of your confreres:
‘Certain great works of music thrilled me to the point of helping me, alongside other sources of inspiration, to find the idea, the tonality, the stroke, if I may say, behind a new perfume. And often the immense olfactory pleasure that I received in smelling certain great masterpieces of perfumery recalled to me – recollections are sisters, like the nine Muses – works rare and exquisite, those of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Mozart or Albéniz, to name but these, whereas in similar cases never has an olfactory sensation sparked within me a memory of the “Ride of the Valkyries”, “Wotan’s Farewell” or the overture of The Flying Dutchman.’
‘Your inspiration, throughout the sometimes long period of the development of your work, of your research, does it undergo, without your knowing, much transformation?’
‘That depends upon one’s initial enthusiasm. It may occur that one’s sources of inspiration evolve, but the basic idea, born of an outpouring at once impetuous and splendid, hardly varies…’
‘The various operations of a technical order, laboratory experiments, calculations, compounds, etc…, do they not diminish somewhat the grandeur of it all?’
‘In my case, no. They remain marginal, and I put them aside automatically. Without one’s inspiration, ideal to a work that is above all else luminous (though very often ungracious), interminable would be the days – that chain of days that often becomes a chain of years – those days that wear on, the first to the last, during which, tirelessly, drop by drop, the monster transforms to become, little by little, the pure model of beauty, of perfection, in a word, a masterpiece.’
A perfume is a note placed on the musical staff – Jeanne Lanvin, in creating Arpège, discovered two masterpieces, the perfume and its name. After this note falls an infinite quantity of other notes, sounds, sharp bursts, gold dust, scents, landscapes, faces, colors. – It is the ‘flea market’ of our visions upon an archangelic wire, strung across a circus ring beneath a tent – and our measure, in this case, is the balance pole of our taste.
I found inspiration for certain perfumes in the most diverse locations. At the theater, the cinema, the ball, in a bar, on a boat, in the souks; in order to discover, the creator-perfumer must often go out, travel, lead a social life sometimes exhausting, though indispensable because in all places he finds, mixed up, unexpected olfactory sensations. Occasionally much time is needed to capture, following an insidious graze, the round and carnal note of novelty.”
Roubert, Vincent. “Le Parfum des Souvenirs.” Industrie de la Parfumerie May 1947: 151-155. Print.
Image: Vincent Roubert, via the Osmothèque.
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Translated from French by Will Inrig. December 16, 2013. COPYRIGHT The Osmothèque 2013. French version here (link is to be updated).