Madame Carven and Ma Griffe

She dressed Edith Piaf and Leslie Caron. She created uniforms for more than a dozen airlines and dressed French traffic police. When she launched a fragrance, she provocatively named it Ma Griffe, which can mean either “my signature” or “my claw” in French. She was a force and a character. She was Carmen de Tommaso, or as she was better known in the world of haute couture, Madame Carven. Yesterday Madame Carven passed away at the age of 105, leaving behind an incredible legacy, both in the world of fashion and fragrance.

madame carven

De Tommaso was introduced to couture by her aunt Josy Boyriven–the last three letters of whose name, “ven”, got joined with “car” of Carmen to form “Carven”–and she started designing both out of fascination and frustration. She was dismayed by the limited choices for petite women and the lack of attention from the fashion masters.

“France was learning to dance again after the war and I wanted to be slinky. This desire to be attractive inspired a few reflections,” mentioned Madame Carven in interviews. “First I noticed that I wasn’t the only petite woman I knew, and that the grand couturiers weren’t very interested in us. But I had a feeling for proportion and volume. All that remained for me to do was to create, with the help of friends who were scarcely taller than I was, dresses that would allow us to be ourselves. I’d found an opening where there was no competition and a moment when Paris was overflowing with happiness.”

When the Carven fashion house opened its doors in 1945, she rose to fame for her elegant lines and a dose of whimsy. By the time Jacqueline François sang of “les robes de chez Carven” in her 1949 hit, Mademoiselle de Paris, Carven embodied French chic.  In the male-dominated world of fashion, Carven was a breath of fresh air. Her sense of balance and style gave her an edge, while her marketing genius made her a tough competitor. As WWD reports, “Madras checks, batik prints, African patterns, raffia embroideries and Aztec-inspired motifs featured on outfits bearing names such as Amphora, Ivory Coast, Chiquita and Opium — the latter shown in 1964, more than a decade before the Yves Saint Laurent fragrance of the same name.”

ma griffe

Equally groundbreaking was her signature fragrance. Let’s consider for a moment today’s “youthful offerings”–all cute and sweet, and hard to tell apart. Carven dreamed up Ma Griffe for a young woman, but she also wanted it to dazzle and to project confidence. The perfumer up for the task was none other than Jean Carles, already famous in the 40s for his sophisticated compositions and impeccable craftsmanship.

Carles and Carven pinned gardenias on a velvety backdrop of moss and somber woods. They gave Ma Griffe a bold character, but the fragrance is put together as intricately as a Byzantine mosaic– notes like ylang-ylang, iris, jasmine, rose, sandalwood, and benzoin are set into a delicate arrangement and polished till they fade into each other. You notice the details only if you pay close attention and smell like a sleuth. I recommend just to douse yourself in Ma Griffe, shiver as the shimmer of aldehydes and green leaves brightens up the richness of white flowers and reflect on the life of a designer who brought it to life. Goodbye, Madame Carven.



  • Sandra: Great article!
    Have you smelled the re-release of Ma Griffe? June 9, 2015 at 7:13am Reply

    • Victoria: I have, and while it feels tamer and sharper at first, the drydown is still good. In fact, I much prefer today’s Ma Griffe to what it was like 10 years ago, because at one point the company went through a rough patch, and the quality wasn’t there. June 9, 2015 at 9:14am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Beautifully written In Memoriam for Mme. Carven. And very interesting.
    She was a beautiful woman! reminds me of Charlotte Rampling. June 9, 2015 at 8:07am Reply

    • Victoria: I love this photo. Actually, all of her recent photos are fantastic–she really knows how to strike the right post. June 9, 2015 at 9:11am Reply

  • Emma: A petite woman with strong character, personality and a vision. Now I find myself yearning for vintage Ma Griffe… June 9, 2015 at 8:25am Reply

    • Victoria: She really was a character, whatever her size. Vintage Ma Griffe is really worth trying! June 9, 2015 at 9:05am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Whatever her size?! HA!
        (you understood that I am petite myself). June 9, 2015 at 9:32am Reply

        • Victoria: 🙂 I am too.

          It made me wince to read articles that made quips about her petite size and “outsized influence”. Never witty, especially not in an obituary. June 9, 2015 at 9:37am Reply

          • Austenfan: Just as bad as sexist jokes! Or jokes about short men. Utterly irrelevant to her achievements. I found them jarring and I’m neither short nor petite. June 9, 2015 at 1:37pm Reply

            • Victoria: If a guy is short, a hack journalist is bound to bring up Napoleon (or something about the Napoleonic complex). It’s uncanny. Cliches and sexism kill any writing. June 10, 2015 at 9:51am Reply

              • austenfan: But I think whenever someone is described as having very short legs a reference to dachshunds is in order 🙂 June 10, 2015 at 2:51pm Reply

  • Bonnie: Ma Griffe was my introduction into the world of perfume and luxury. It is my favourite scent to this day, although it’s been over 30 years since my last whiff. It is a scent and a memory that changed my life forever. Ahh, what a woman she was to have such an influence over so many lives. June 9, 2015 at 9:16am Reply

    • Victoria: Her story is inspiring, because instead of merely complaining about the state of affairs, she went out and did something about. I saw her dresses at a fashion exhibit, and I loved how she used cuts and decorative elements to flatter the figure. Ma Griffe is a separate story. It is a legend in its own right. June 9, 2015 at 9:30am Reply

  • Annikky: I want to be her when I grow up. Although I’d maybe keep my height… Thank you for the article, I didn’t really know much about her. June 9, 2015 at 9:37am Reply

  • Neva: So sad to hear Mme Carven passed away…but she had a truly fulfilled life. I first learned about and tried Ma Griffe when I was a teenager. My aunt was wearing it and since she spoke some French, she explained to me the meaning (claw) and I was totally shocked by it 😀
    It’s been a long time since then and I don’t remember the scent exactly, but when I tried the new version some years ago, I am pretty sure that it was different from the original. Like all the vintage perfumes, this one was originally stronger and it had that great ladylike vibe from the 70-ies. June 9, 2015 at 9:38am Reply

    • Victoria: Those early scent memories are strong! I wish I knew Ma Griffe in such an intimate way, rather than as a vintage sample discovered because I heard it was a legend. Nevertheless, I loved this perfume and I still remember how surprising it felt. June 9, 2015 at 10:37am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: What a wonderful article Victoria! I do have both of the bew Carvens but wish I still had my bottle of Ma Griffe. June 9, 2015 at 10:33am Reply

    • Phyllis Iervello: “new” Carvens! June 9, 2015 at 10:34am Reply

    • Victoria: I also have a bottle of the new one, and I regret not taking more than a decant out of my vintage bottle before I left the US. But I enjoy Ma Griffe in whatever form.

      Thank you! June 10, 2015 at 9:40am Reply

  • solanace: My mom used to wear Ma Griffe when I was a kid, and I had a bottle at some point, but gave it to her a while back. Thank you for the beautiful article. I knew nothing about Mme. Carven, and now I am happy that she lived such a long and fulfilling life. June 9, 2015 at 11:44am Reply

    • solanace: The perfume is amazing, by the way. So lovely, elegant and always fitting, be it day or night, city or a desert beach, summer or winter. One of the truly greats. June 9, 2015 at 11:47am Reply

      • Victoria: Can’t agree more! Proves that a great perfume is great, nomatter the mood and occassion. June 10, 2015 at 9:46am Reply

    • Victoria: When I studied Ma Griffe during my perfumery training, I read about Madame Carven, but it was only recently that I started becoming curious about that period. She was remarkable. June 10, 2015 at 9:45am Reply

  • Kat: From the article: “In 1954, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris, she dropped samples of her fragrance Ma Griffe tied to small green-and-white striped parachutes over the French capital.” That’s some great publicity. Just imagine – it rains perfume! June 9, 2015 at 1:04pm Reply

  • Alicia: A fitting memorial to a memorable woman. I remember the green and white box of Ma Griffe, many years ago, but have only a faint memory of the fragrance. It seems to me that it was a green floral chypre, but I am not certain. If it was I must have loved it because very soon my favorite became Miss Dior, which I still love. Green chypres are now rare, but I feel them supremely elegant. Thanks to you, now I am going to buy a bottle of Ma Griffe in Ms Carven homage. June 9, 2015 at 1:13pm Reply

    • Victoria: You’re exactly right–it’s a green chypre with a big juicy gardenia note. Miss Dior, by the way, and Ma Griffe are related to me, especially in the use of white flowers against the green mossy backdrop. It’s fitting since Miss Dior was also created by Jean Carles. June 10, 2015 at 9:49am Reply

      • Alicia: Thank you so much, Victoria. Jean Carles? Wasn’t he the extraordinary perfumer who in the end crrated his masterpieces while being completely anosmic? June 11, 2015 at 9:33pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes! They say that he was already suffering from the onset of anosmia when he composed Ma Griffe. But he was such a skilled technician, he could pull it off. Perfumery work is the work of the imagination. June 12, 2015 at 3:07am Reply

          • Austenfan: Sort of like Beethoven then. Although I think anosmia is worse than deafness. June 13, 2015 at 1:47pm Reply

            • Victoria: I think so too. And there is no cure whatever for most forms of it. June 14, 2015 at 5:19am Reply

  • behemot: What a great article! Thank you so much, Victoria. June 9, 2015 at 3:01pm Reply

    • Victoria: Very happy that you liked it. Mme Carven inspires me. June 10, 2015 at 9:51am Reply

  • Karen: Thank you for this beautiful article! What an inspiring woman, my favorite line may be about creating dresses that “would allow us to be ourselves”. Can we ask anymore from our clothing? June 9, 2015 at 6:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes! That’s the part where I wanted to clap and shout “bravo.” By the way, another brilliant designer whose clothes are all about the woman (and not some abstract concept) is Madeleine Vionnet. I saw an exhibit of her dresses at the FIT years ago (might have been the same one with Carven’s clothes I mentioned earlier), and if I could, I would have left with all of her designs. June 10, 2015 at 9:54am Reply

      • Karen: And yes to Madeleine Vionnet! I just read a quote of hers, When a woman smiles, her dress should smile. And I am so happy that I was able to donate my bottle of Ma Griffe for one of your wonderful giveaways – reading everyone’s experiences with it, new and vintage versions, makes me appreciate the power of perfume even more! June 10, 2015 at 3:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: I love this quote!

          Your giveaway made someone very happy. June 11, 2015 at 1:31pm Reply

          • Karen: And your giveaways with the always-thought provoking questions make us all happy! June 11, 2015 at 1:53pm Reply

  • angeldiva: Rest In Peace, Tres Chic Madame Carven.
    Designer on earth
    Designer in Heaven… June 9, 2015 at 8:13pm Reply

    • angeldiva: Oh! My gracious! I just followed the leader, and doused (five sprays per wrist) myself in Ma Griffe!
      Honestly, this has never smelled good to me before now…
      But, I finally, finally get the popularity of this perfume because I can finally smell the mixture of notes!
      I wonder if layering this spray over some oak moss essential oil would create something like the original?
      Maybe Madame’s Angel has flown in to help!

      Also, I’ve discovered so many new scents lately.
      I really enjoyed doing a side by side of Prada Amber for Women- next to Prada Amber Pour Homme.
      I actually prefer the mens version- a truly wonderful addition to my growing collection. And, now the I can wear Ma Griffe, too!
      🙂 June 9, 2015 at 8:34pm Reply

      • Karen: Hi Angeldiva! Hope all is good with you! are you moved? If so, hope that went well. Happy that you’ve found a good Amber fragrance – years ago I used to wear Amber oil and have good memories associated with it. June 10, 2015 at 5:22am Reply

        • angeldiva: Hi Karen, Hi Victoria,
          Thanks for your kind enquiry! No, I’m still here! But life is easing up- bit by bit. It’s so fun to look at homes online, too.
          Now that I know my bottle of Ma Griffe is good- I’d like to give it away in honor of Madame Carven’s passing.
          I know you did this not long ago, Karen, and wouldn’t want to steal your thunder!
          The bottle is just slightly used, any thoughts Victoria?

          Also, bought a FB of Bvlgari- pour femme- EDP- as it was Whitney Houstons fav, and I pray for her daughter who is in a coma.
          Wow! This is so beautiful,floral and lemony. It’s light, potent, and long lasting at the same time. I would highly recommend this inexpensive perfume! June 10, 2015 at 6:29pm Reply

          • Victoria: You’re more than welcome! I’m sure someone would love to give a good home to your perfume. June 11, 2015 at 1:32pm Reply

          • Notturno7: Hi Angeldiva, is your offer still available? Is it a vintage bottle? I’m starting to drool, haha.
            Yes, I love La Femme too, got it after reading Turin&Sanchez book, along with ton of the others.
            Great article, Victoria. I’m so impressed!! July 23, 2016 at 2:38pm Reply

      • Victoria: It might be tricky to layer it, since the perfume is so complex and oakmoss essence is a tough material to work with. But I wonder if layering it with a light green chypre might work. Or to layer it with Miss Dior? Might be either a total disaster or something memorable.

        Glad to hear you’re making so many new discoveries. I’m with you, I also prefer the masculine version of Prada’s Amber. June 10, 2015 at 9:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Indeed! May she rest in peace. June 10, 2015 at 9:56am Reply

  • silverdust: Victoria, would you say that Ma Griffe was the inspiration for EL’s Azuree? Azuree was my first love in the perfume world. And while the company says it has not changed a molecule, it doesn’t smell the same to me.

    I had the chance to smell a high-end dupe of Ma Griffe and those heady days of 1970’s Azuree hit me like a freight train! June 9, 2015 at 10:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: I notice many Carles inspired elements in Azuree and other Lauder classics from the period, and I know that perfumers at the time swapped formulas in secret (it was long before the technology to decipher ingredients in formulas became commonplace). Azuree was, of course, changed. This is not a guess, it’s a fact. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be able to stay on the market. But I like the way it smells today; the reformulation is very good. I’m not sure why the companies continue to fib about this reformulation business, though. June 10, 2015 at 10:03am Reply

  • Joy: Loved this article, Victoria. She looks so handsome in her beautiful, crisp suit. I do so enjoy the historical information that you present. I have a small sample vial of MA Griffe. I will have to sample it again. I wore this when I was young. I felt so sophiscated using it. I loved the green and white striped box. June 10, 2015 at 12:14am Reply

    • Victoria: She does, doesn’t she! Ma Griffe is utterly sophisticated, but what I love the most about it is that it doesn’t try too hard. June 10, 2015 at 10:04am Reply

  • Tati: Thanks so much for sharing this. A wonderfully inspiring lady. What a superb example of aging with beauty and grace. I will search out a sample of Ma Griffe to honor her memory. June 10, 2015 at 2:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: I was wearing Ma Griffe too, a recent one. June 11, 2015 at 1:29pm Reply

  • Aurora: A beautiful tribute to a remarkable woman. She must have been a mine of information on the history of fashion in France. As for vintage My Griffe, nothing smells quite like it, it is so distinctive with its mysterious accent of asafoetida, I don’t know if anybody dares to use it in current parfumery, it must be difficult to handle. June 10, 2015 at 2:37pm Reply

    • Victoria: Can you just imagine! She was there at the golden age of fashion.
      The asafoetida mention is so curious. I also don’t know how often it’s used, and even if used, few press releases today would mention such a thing. June 11, 2015 at 1:30pm Reply

  • The Scented Salon: Goodbye Madame Carven is right. When I was younger, an older man came to our office and gave me two tiny bottles of perfume. They were smaller than minis: micro-minis is what I have seen them be called. One was Le Dix and the other Ma Griffe. I never liked either of the smells enough to wear them but they were so cute. I decided to give them to another friend so they would not go to waste and I hope she uses them. June 10, 2015 at 7:40pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m sure someone ended up loving them. These are amazing perfumes. June 11, 2015 at 1:33pm Reply

  • Rednails: I broke out a sealed vintage bottle of Ma Griffe EDT that I had been saving in her honor today. It was glorious, as was she. June 10, 2015 at 9:43pm Reply

  • Terry: Over 40 years ago, when I was a teenager, I visited my favorite boutique, in a small town, in North Carolina…In the early 60’s, society was very, “prim and proper”… I remember. It was during this time, I was introduced to Madame Carven’s clothes and fragrance, “Ma Griffe”. There, in this little boutique, in all it’s green and white glory, was my first bottle of, “Ma Griffe”! No words can describe the complex, shimmering, green scent, but it lives in my memory, to this day. It was a revolutionary scent, because it stood out from all the other fragrance, at this time. It was so lush and lovely and, “live out loud”. Rest in peace, Madame Carven. A life shared with so many of us and very well lived… June 21, 2015 at 9:02am Reply

    • Victoria: This is such a lovely, touching story. Thank you, Terry. You’ve given me another reason to love Ma Griffe. June 22, 2015 at 1:45pm Reply

  • Anna: The first time I ever smelled Ma Griffe was when I found a bottle in a bathroom cabinet in a friend’s small cabin north of Montreal in Quebec. I sprayed some on my wrist and the greeness of the scent exploded in my brain. It was at once green and icy cold and felt like a mystical experience that took me into the woods outside the cabin. I have a bottle of the reformulated version but it seems so much quieter and lacks the impact of the original. July 9, 2015 at 1:35pm Reply

    • Victoria: What a gorgeous description! If I didn’t know Ma Griffe, I’d already be running out to get a sample, just from reading your note. July 9, 2015 at 5:48pm Reply

  • Dr. Gwendolyn Blackshear: I bought an old bottle of this from Chestnut hill academy clothes closet for like $2-$3…the cashier said she donated it from her mothers collection…who had passed away….i love it! Reminds me of balmain vent vert…babe paleys favorite! June 21, 2020 at 9:50pm Reply

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