The Art of Fortunate Proportions

“The art of fortunate proportions” is how Edmond Roudnitska described perfumery. The idea is simple–all elements in the right dosages and in the right balance, but as is often the case, the simplicity is the most elusive attribute of all. Whenever I revisit his fragrances, I’m moved time and again by their grace and harmony. In Perfumes: The art of balance and proportion, my new FT column, I describe Roudnitska’s art, the elegance of Guerlain and the feisty brilliance of Germaine Cellier.

art of balance

When I speak of balance in perfumery, I mean both the aesthetics and technique. Consider Guerlain’s Chamade, one of the most perfectly balanced fragrances. From the bright-green top notes to the rose and hyacinth heart and velvety, woody notes, the perfume unfolds like a silk scroll. Similarly modulated is Dior’s Diorissimo, one of Roudnitska’s masterpieces and the subject of many articles in this column. To continue reading, please click here.

Image via FT HTSI

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82 Comments

  • Karen 5.0: Victoria, I enjoyed this article and congratulations – I hope this will be a regular column in FT!

    Your thoughts on being both balanced and off-balance with regard to fragrances and dance made me realize that this concept is also most successfully applied to blending the perfect coffee, wine, and so many other organic things we often take for granted. We often don’t appreciate the considerable effort, time, and talent to “get something right.” I would say that it is the unusual quirkiness of something that makes it beautiful in the end and is what we most remember. May 23, 2016 at 9:42am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Karen. It’s a regular weekly column.

      Perfumers have different approaches to creation. Some are more intuitive than others, and some value balance, while others like jarring, shocking effects. Most of the commercial perfumery today is smooth and measured, but the exquisite sense of perfection that Roudnitska and Guerlain could master is rare indeed.

      I also agree with you that quirky elements are what gets remembered the most. May 23, 2016 at 2:19pm Reply

  • Karen A: Oh Victoria! Thank you for starting your beautiful article with my current crush Chamade! I keep wondering if I will get tired of it and so spritz on something else, but later on that day I am back to that perfectly balanced Chamade. (perhaps once my roses start blooming this week – it’s been a very very late season here), I will be wearing roses again, but for months now it’s been all Chamade all the time. May 23, 2016 at 9:45am Reply

    • Victoria: Chamade is a good perfume to be addicted to. Perfection!

      I forgot, which concentration are you wearing? May 23, 2016 at 2:20pm Reply

      • Karen A: Both! Extrait and EdT. I usually layer, but also wear each individually. Both have good longevity on me, which is a bonus for any fragrance. I also will add some spritzes to unscented lotion. May 24, 2016 at 5:30am Reply

        • Victoria: Chamade head to toe! 🙂 May 24, 2016 at 11:15am Reply

  • Austenfan: Very valid points and an interesting article. What I love most about Roudnitska’s work is how he managed to create fragrances that are quite aloof and yet have such a strong sensual character. He hints at decay in a wonderful way. I wore my Diorella extrait the other day, so gorgeous.
    And I love a lot of Guerlains, Chamade amongst them. May 23, 2016 at 10:12am Reply

    • Cornelia Blimber: aloof and yet sensual…that’s extremely well said, Austenfan!
      That’s exactly the character of these perfumes. May 23, 2016 at 10:17am Reply

      • Victoria: I was trying to think of another perfume that manages this feeling, and for me, the best contender is Van Cleef et Arpels’s First. May 23, 2016 at 2:24pm Reply

        • Austenfan: I think Ellena must have learnt from the master. A lot of his creations have this almost intellectual sensual side to them. Sorry but I don’t seem to be able to explain it any better.

          Sandrine Videault, who I think was taught by Roudnitska as well, takes the “overripe fruit” aspect even further in her wonderful Manoumalia. May 24, 2016 at 1:13pm Reply

          • Victoria: Sandrine Videault hit the ripe note perfectly. I can’t imagine what this perfume would be in less skilled hands. May 27, 2016 at 5:25am Reply

    • Victoria: Diorella is one the best perfumes to illustrate this “icy yet smoldering” paradox. Even Diorissimo, which is the epitome of dainty refinement, has a raunchy side.

      And what about Eau d’Hermes! That’s another raunchy thing hiding under a tame cologne guise. May 23, 2016 at 2:22pm Reply

      • Austenfan: You know, I’ve yet to try Eau d’Hermès. May 24, 2016 at 1:13pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, you’re in for an experience. May 27, 2016 at 5:25am Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: I enjoy your columns in the FT.
    Very interesting, your remarks about the right balance and the art of taking risks.

    How I miss that ”sweet, plummy note” in the post-1989 ”Femme”! But still, a beautiful perfume, one of my favourites.
    Maybe I am wrong, but I found something of the ”sweet pummy note” in Armani ”Sì, Huile de Parfum”. May 23, 2016 at 10:13am Reply

    • Victoria: Armani Si does have a nice plummy note. I haven’t compared different versions, though. The EDP was too sweet for me.

      Another unexpectedly delicious top note was in Black Opium, all peaches and apricot nectar. But the rest of the perfume is too cloying. May 23, 2016 at 2:23pm Reply

    • Steph: I wore Femme in my teens and today it smells very different. I discovered reading reviews that it was cumin, but maybe Im also missing its plummy note. May 23, 2016 at 2:35pm Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: Ha,ha! hear, hear! I bought me a little bottle of Black Opium. Could not resist it. I took the drydown into the bargain..the first half an hour is worth it. Perfect with my beloved espresso. May 24, 2016 at 3:30am Reply

        • Victoria: I don’t smell coffee in it as much as others do, but I can see how well it might fit with the scent of real espresso. May 24, 2016 at 11:15am Reply

          • Cornelia Blimber: I don’t smell coffee either, but the combination with espresso is great somehow. May 24, 2016 at 12:09pm Reply

  • Anne: Such a fascinating article. Thank you! It’s definitely such an art form to find the perfect balance in scent association. I think, because the raw materials where so rare and pure before, because perfumery was less accessible , it was definitely something perfumers thrieved to achieve before. So many perfume today, although they carry the name of great houses and great perfumers, seam to be a huge batch of a mixture thrown together in the hope to satisfy the masses, with no finesse and justness in their development. (Flankers and flankers of flankers for example). Saying that there are still some masterpiece coming out. May 23, 2016 at 10:44am Reply

    • Victoria: The main difference today is that technology allows perfumers to reproduce any launch on the market with relative ease. Many clients do ask for “J’Adore but with more fruit” or “La Vie est Belle but sweeter,” and creating a formula is a matter of getting a GC/MS print out of J’Adore, etc. and giving it a tweak. Doesn’t sound particularly romantic, but that’s how a lot of creation happens today. There are exceptions, of course, and those exceptions still make perfumery exciting. May 23, 2016 at 2:27pm Reply

  • Alicia: Ah, Victoria, I love and admire all the classics you mentioned, both balance and off balance. You compare this to ballet, and it makes me think of painting. The perfect balance of a Leonardo or Piero della Francesca on one side, Caravaggio, Rembrandt or Rubens on the other.The Renaissance and the Baroque; in composition both can be reduced to formulas, which may be repeated endlessly. What makes the difference is the flash of creative genius, or as you say, originality. I know only three Cellier creations Vent Vert, Fracas, Bandit, all striking and more or less off balance. She is a Caravaggio of scents. On the other side I often wear Arpege, among the aldehydic florals, one of the most balanced. Still, we are talking here of masterpieces. Each one is unique. The repetition of formulas leads always to the trite. I delight in Femme’s fruits, while I find annoying and expectable the fruitchouly cloud that assaults me every early summer as I enter a class full with enthusiasts of the cloying common place.I suspect that what attracts many of us to a new perfume is the unpredictable. What is between the predictable and the unpredictable in any art? The flash of creativity. That je ne sais quoi… May 23, 2016 at 10:56am Reply

    • Victoria: Chandler Burr compared Cellier’s work to Brutalism, which seemed to me like a total misreading of her style. I’d side with your point, because her fragrances have all of the classical elements intact, but she’s playful and is not afraid to shock the burghers. May 23, 2016 at 2:30pm Reply

      • Alicia: Brutalism? Certainly not. Like Caravaggio, and his “terribilitá”, she has, as you put it so well, all the classic elements, to which she added something unique, and always memorable. May 23, 2016 at 7:02pm Reply

        • Victoria: Like Fracas! I’m surrounding by Brutalism in Brussels, so no, I see none of it in her work. Thank heaven. May 24, 2016 at 11:10am Reply

  • Nancy A.: All memorable and stimulating fragrances that I have and continue to favor/worn — at one time or another by these gifted noses. May 23, 2016 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: I know that I mention those perfumes often, but really, they are so perfect that they’re worth it. May 23, 2016 at 2:31pm Reply

  • Patricia: Your description makes me yearn to try Chamade, one of the classics that I’ve somehow missed. Is the current formulation good, or should I try to find some vintage? And should I try it in the EDT or the extrait?

    Thanks for a wonderful article. Your comments on balance and imbalance can be applied to all aspects of life. May 23, 2016 at 11:43am Reply

    • Victoria: I like the current formula very much. It has a delicious green note back (which at one point seemed diluted) and the perfume is lush and complex. It’s like a Mozart melody in a perfume form. May 23, 2016 at 2:32pm Reply

      • zephyr: I’ll have to check out Chamade again as well. It has a green note? I like green!

        The last time I tried Chamade, twenty years ago at least, I just couldn’t stand it. Didn’t help that an aunt I had no respect for and really disliked wore Chamade. I’ll try it again – cautiously! – when I get to a Guerlain boutique. May 23, 2016 at 2:43pm Reply

        • Victoria: Perhaps, the negative association has worn off by now. But Chamade is really worth trying again. May 24, 2016 at 11:09am Reply

  • Steph: Thank you for an interesting article. I have no idea how perfumers approach making a new scent. What is it like? Cooking? Music? Chemistry? May 23, 2016 at 2:36pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think it’s a little bit of everything. It’s a creative process like music or cooking, but it certainly has the rigor of science behind it. May 24, 2016 at 11:08am Reply

  • Elena: I can’t believe I have never tried Chamade, as often as I have heard its praises sung. Today I am wearing no. 19, which is so beautifully balanced, and seems to show me a different facet every time I wear it. May 23, 2016 at 5:53pm Reply

    • Victoria: If you like No 19, then I recommend Chamade to you even more. It’s also green, but it’s much less austere and cool. May 24, 2016 at 11:10am Reply

    • mj: I’m with Victoria in the Chamade recommendation. I also love Chanel 19, it’s one of my favourite scents of all time and my “office” scent except for spring, when I use mostly Chamade. Although they are not similar, they are complementary. May 24, 2016 at 11:21am Reply

  • mj: Victoria, very interesting article! it made me remember that I owned a tiny bottle of Femme de Rochas (perfume concentration). It’s a pity, that back then, I’m talking like 30 years ago, I could not appreciate it, too fruity for me.
    As I’m writing this, I’m wearing Chamade, my spring fragance of choice (edp concentration). I don’t feel very balanced today, alergies and stuff, I hope the scent helps along the day.. May 24, 2016 at 3:23am Reply

    • Victoria: I hope that it does! Chamade is a lovely choice. 🙂 May 24, 2016 at 11:14am Reply

  • annemarie: Perhaps the reason I don’t wear Chanel Misia as much as I keep telling myself I should is that it is so balanced, so perfect, that it makes my mind go a bit blank. I scold myself for this, because Misia is beautiful. And yet … May 24, 2016 at 7:01am Reply

    • Victoria: True, too much balance can also mean that. A little imperfection can make the pretty but dull perfume striking. May 24, 2016 at 11:16am Reply

  • Aurora: I always learn something from your posts Victoria, and I’m enchanted by that quote by Roudnitska; is it ‘heureuses proportions’ as he must have said it in French? A brilliant article, and I love your comparison with dance. I tried Diorissimo recently and it gave me a jolt of happiness and literally stopped me in my tracks as it reminded me suddenly of wearing it in EDT in Paris. This lily of the valley is the stamp of Dior for me. So I now have a bottle, it lasts very well, the extrait must be out of this world. The current EDT is too fleeting nowadays and I’m so grateful there are 3 concentrations. May 24, 2016 at 8:54am Reply

    • Aurora: I wasn’t very clear re concentration: what I tried and bought is the EDP which reminded me the most of the EDT I used to wear in Paris. May 24, 2016 at 9:17am Reply

      • Victoria: The EDP is a Francois Demachy’s version, and while it’s a different perfume from the original, it wears really well. May 24, 2016 at 11:19am Reply

        • Victoria: Have you tried Hermes Muguet Porcelaine already? A Diorissimo lover, you might appreciate it. May 24, 2016 at 11:19am Reply

          • spe: Fruity on me. Not as fresh as I was hoping. May 24, 2016 at 12:59pm Reply

            • Victoria: Good to hear your thoughts. Thank you. May 27, 2016 at 5:20am Reply

          • Aurora: Not yet, I can’t wait. May 24, 2016 at 3:11pm Reply

        • Aurora: Thank you very much for the additional info, Victoria. It seems to have a lot of beautiful jasmine besides the lotv effect. May 24, 2016 at 3:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, exactly.
      I was thinking of the way Suzanne Farrell could hover off balance in some of Balanchine’s ballets for what seemed like eternity. Those are some of my most vivid memories of any dance. By contrast, Benjamin Millepied’s choreography is too predictable and boring. May 24, 2016 at 11:18am Reply

      • Aurora: She always reminded me of a gazelle. May 24, 2016 at 3:13pm Reply

  • Nicola: Very interesting article Victoria, and so good to see such learned writing in the UK press….
    Thinking about balance and over dose didn’t Roudnitska put an overdose of hedione into Eau Sauvage? I love your analogy with Balanchine’s choreography. Diorella (vintage) is probably my favourite perfume in that I always feel just right wearing it no matter the occasion. So chic and sunny yet aloof (as others have noted) but you still want to lean in….. May 24, 2016 at 1:01pm Reply

    • Nick: Eau Sauvage is the first to employ pure Hedione at the time because it was really expensive. I am always afraid to try the current version of Dior’s old catalogue for fear of having the wrong impression of the classics. May 25, 2016 at 2:12pm Reply

      • Victoria: Pierre Bourdon was saying more than 10 years that Eau Sauvage was no longer the same, but well, what can you do? This is how Dior is.
        It’s still a good perfume, though. May 27, 2016 at 5:54am Reply

        • Nick: With Miss Dior Originale, the current version is unrecognisable, I think. Not sure if they can still attract loyal wearers. But, with Diorissimo, I still find it good enough. Some formulae are more difficult to reformulate than others. May 27, 2016 at 9:18am Reply

          • Victoria: Some people say that the drydown of Miss Dior smells like the original version, while the top notes are different. I find them jarring, so much so that I don’t enjoy the whole thing. May 27, 2016 at 12:03pm Reply

            • Nick: I think the EdT has a sharpness to the dry down and more ylang ylang brightness. It feels odd the more it develops. Not sure about the EdP and extrait, though. May 27, 2016 at 2:09pm Reply

              • Cornelia Blimber: I am one of those people saying the drydown of Miss Dior the Original smells like the original one. I wore it in the 1960s, and smelled it a lot around–it was very popular at the time. May 28, 2016 at 3:49pm Reply

              • Nick: I meant for Diorissimo, oops! May 28, 2016 at 4:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Nicola!
      Roudnitska did put hedione into Eau Sauvage, but it wasn’t so much an overdose as the first time someone has used it in a fine fragrance. In contrast to the way it’s used today–50% of the formula in some cases, Roudnitska added a smidgen, but without it, Eau Sauvage is not the same. The balance is perfect. May 27, 2016 at 5:24am Reply

  • Wrenaissance Art: Totally OT, so feel free to delete! 🙂
    Did you hear that Grace Coddington has just released her own fragrance through the Dover Street Market?
    Now there’s a celebrity perfume I would be interested in sampling– she’s so well known for her strong-headedness, even a dash of eccentricity.
    Your magazine articles are always interesting, and give a nice peek into the world of scent for the general audience. May 24, 2016 at 3:20pm Reply

    • Victoria: I did, but I haven’t tried it yet. Sounds interesting. May 27, 2016 at 5:27am Reply

  • Tijana: Great article, thank you so much Victoria!!!! May 25, 2016 at 6:22am Reply

  • Nick: ‘Fortunate proportions’ — what an aptly titled post. A composition centred on something always needs a balance, but if one tries to balance too much, it loses its potent character in the first place. It is always difficult to know what the right overdose and balance are that will strike a perfect chord. I once tried my hands at creating a sandalwood, amber, and incense composition, I ended up smothering the creamy amber character with incense that easily goes overboard! So, I tried to balance with a fresh top of petitgrain overdose to correct it. Still, it can only do so much. It certainly was not easy even for a short three-hour perfume making session. May 25, 2016 at 2:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s a tricky formula to balance, since all of the ingredients are heavy. You’d have some luck adding patchouli, which works well with all of those elements. May 27, 2016 at 5:55am Reply

      • Nick: Thank you for the tip, Victoria. Now, I find this composition so strong with a massive sillage and tenacity. Totally uninteded! Must have been the bases that the perfumer made for us to use in the session. May 27, 2016 at 9:21am Reply

        • Victoria: 🙂 The creativity of total freedom. May 27, 2016 at 12:05pm Reply

    • Victoria: Oh, this reminds me of a time I tried to make a sweet jasmine, but the addition of vanilla kept turning jasmine into a tiare blossom. Not exactly what I was hoping for. May 27, 2016 at 6:33am Reply

      • Nick: Like Lou Lou, though. Don’t you just love great ‘accidents’ in perfumery? 😉 May 27, 2016 at 9:22am Reply

        • Victoria: I do! There are few truly accidental discoveries like this, but they are still fascinating. May 27, 2016 at 12:06pm Reply

  • Neva: I love Roudnitska’s work, especially Le Parfum de Therese which I discovered only recently and right now I think I’ll never be without it. He was a genius! Just think of Eau Sauvage – such a classic cologne. May 25, 2016 at 6:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s also one of my favorites. The way jasmine oscillates between flowers and ripe fruit is marvelous. May 27, 2016 at 6:16am Reply

      • Nick: speaking of which, is the melony/plummy note in Le Parfum de Thérèse chiefly due to some marine/melony odorant? May 27, 2016 at 2:12pm Reply

        • Victoria: They’re separate effects. One is marine, another is lactonic. May 30, 2016 at 12:57pm Reply

      • Nick: If so, it must be quite ahead of its time! May 27, 2016 at 2:13pm Reply

  • spe: So much to consider with this topic!

    A few years ago, I began finding Chamade too “heavy” in the EDT and parfum.

    Perhaps I should attempt the current reformulation?

    With all of the fans here, I’m surprised it didn’t make one of our “most elegant” or “most versatile” lists!

    And I love Eau Sauvage, especially on men!

    First is another favorite. Because it is my Mom’s signature, I don’t wear it. Victoria, if I want a perfume close to it, what would you suggest, please?

    Thank you for the amazing post! May 29, 2016 at 8:58am Reply

    • Victoria: Try the new version. I think you’ll find it easier to wear, but it’s still close to the original

      As for First, I wonder if you might have more luck with Chanel 1932. It’s not exactly the same, but the character reminds me of First. May 30, 2016 at 1:12pm Reply

      • spe: Will try both – thank you! May 31, 2016 at 11:48am Reply

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