The Art of Perfume : Perfume Techniques and Stories

I already wrote about my most recent perfumery course, covering the first day of our activities, visiting the Edmond Roudnitska garden and exploring the International Perfume Museum in Grasse. Today I’m continuing with our second day, which covered perfume history and professional smelling techniques.

Whenever I hear the phrase “perfume history,” I think of the typical introductory chapter in books on fragrance that start with the Egyptians and the stuff researchers still find in the pyramids. Then a writer might continue with a short homage to the Romans, include a remark on the use of perfume by the bath fearing Europeans in the Middle Ages and with a clear conscience they skip to the brave new world of the 20th century and its Chanels and Guerlains. Perfume history is fascinating stuff, but why is it presented in such a dull manner? I want to do something different.

Even with three days of classes, we were limited in how much we could cover, so as I was planning my course, I pulled out my library of perfumes that I consider the gold standards of their type and paired them with modern fragrances exploring the same themes. As much as I was looking forward to sharing the perfume greats in their original versions, my goal was to leave the students with a better understanding of what made them great, how perfumery evolved and which modern fragrances still have the same characteristics. I also shared some of my professional secrets on smelling better and memorizing aromas faster.

I planned on having us smell about 15-20 different perfumes in detail during each 2h session, which is the standard rate for my professional classes. Once again, my group surprised me. It not only exhibited the stamina of professionals, but also the astute observations of people who have tremendous experience talking about smells. This part is rare to find among perfumers.  We easily smelled 4 times the amount I anticipated, and it was a good thing I took extra samples just in case.

As we smelled, we talked about great scientific discoveries, books, music, art. People shared their impressions and memories.


Among vintage perfumes that people especially loved was a rare gem called Caron Voeu de Noël. Created on the eve of WWII in 1939, it’s a dark rose on a classical Caron base of moss, sandalwood, patchouli and violet known as Mousse de Saxe. It has a decadent richness, a fin de siècle melancholy at odds with its era, and layers of rose petals.

Comparing the different versions of Chanel No 5 such the 1950s extrait de parfum, the 1970s EDT and the modern parfum, we found that today’s No 5 is more photorealistically floral, sweeter and softer. Some people liked the toned down aldehydes, others missed the animalic richness. Comparing the fragrances in this way made us notice the facets we wouldn’t have observed otherwise, such a curious spicy note in the parfum and the green jasmine accord in the EDT.

Mitsouko in its original formula–or as close to the original as it’s possible to get today–was a favorite. When nobody speaks and just makes happy sighs, you know you’ve hit the sweet spot. After all, as the great Guy Robert used to say, “Above all, perfume has to smell good.”

Photography by Anna Kozlova.



  • OnWingsofSaffron: Vœu de Noël, oh my! Caron’s Nuit de Noël is among my favourites! I wish I could smell it: perhaps my next X’mas wish 😁 May 24, 2017 at 8:07am Reply

    • Victoria: Out of the vintage perfumes everyone is longing for, this one seems to be less well-known. On the other hand, as everyone admitted, it was their favorite. Such a plush, velvety rose with loads of sandalwood and amber. May 24, 2017 at 10:04am Reply

      • Carla: Bah, why did I give mine to my sister? But I can still smell it in my imagination May 24, 2017 at 2:55pm Reply

  • Caroline: Vintage mousse de saxe sounds intriguing. Would love to be able to compare vintages of No.5, a scent I’ve only recently begun to enjoy (Eau Premiere was my gateway). My bottle of vintage EDC seems heavily weighted to ylang and sandalwood, and is far more tenacious than the modern edt or edp.
    Your candid photos are appealing, and it’s lovely to see everyone so well-dressed. May 24, 2017 at 8:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Mousse de Saxe is one of my favorite perfumery bases, perfumery building blocks. Caron’s classics use it a lot, so it’s probably the most representative line to explore it.

      No 5 EDC wears for hours on my skin. It’s such a good alternative to the richer parfum. May 24, 2017 at 10:06am Reply

      • kpaint: I find No 5 cologne to be long-wearing as well. Do you know if the EDC is the same as the Spray Cologne? I’ve got both Nos 5 and 22 in both EDC and Spray Cologne and have never been sure whether they’re 2 different things. With Chanel EDTs, for instance, the splash bottle is designated “EDT” while the spray EDT is designated “EDT” with “Vaporisateur” printed on the bottle/box, if memory serves?

        Also, do you know when Chanel (and other houses) stopped making cologne variants? Shalimar spray cologne is one of my favorites; I also happen to be wearing No 19 EDC today. May 24, 2017 at 12:09pm Reply

        • Victoria: My most vintage Chanel colognes are in the splash bottles. I don’t think I’ve smelled any others. As for the cologne versions, some still make them, but it’s the 1980s-90s that saw the rise of the EDP and the EDT over all else. May 25, 2017 at 3:09am Reply

          • OnWingsofSaffron: I have two vintage EdC Chanel N° 5 bottles, both rectangular: the large one is 10 cm high and 6 cm on both sides, and is “masculine” in shape, size and weight. The scent is powderish-dry, perhaps even a bit leathery, though I have a feeling that in both my bottles quite a bit of the original floral and citric accents have disappeared. There no aldehydic “fizz” left, rather somewhat faceless quality, a bit like the smell when opening drawers filled with perfume bottles. May 25, 2017 at 5:07am Reply

      • Lydia: DSH’s Pandora perfume makes use of the mousse de saxe accord, according to the website. My nose isn’t educated enough yet to identify which part of the perfume was the accord, but I did enjoy a leather note which seemed to give it a vintage quality.

        I’ve also been so drawn to descriptions of a carnation base in vintage Caron scents, since spicy carnation is one of my favorite perfume notes. May 24, 2017 at 12:14pm Reply

        • Victoria: I wish a niche line would make some of these bases available, with a simple ornamentation. Mousse de Saxe is almost a perfume in its own right. May 25, 2017 at 3:09am Reply

          • Lydia: That would be wonderful, especially if they were authentic and not a “modern-clean-fresh” reinterpretation. And what an education in perfume history to explore a variety of bases that way! May 25, 2017 at 10:37am Reply

  • Jillie: Yes, as you and Caroline say, No 5 EDC is amazingly rich and tenacious, but I suppose these days EdTs and EdPs are for the most part just not as “strong” as they once were and an old EDC can outstrip them! It seems that the names/strengths don’t mean quite the same thing now.

    I have never even heard of Voeu de Noel – it must be wonderful.

    Your students must have been a very happy group of people! May 24, 2017 at 10:24am Reply

    • Victoria: They don’t really mean much and one has to compare and see what lasts/projects better. I do love the vintage EDC. May 25, 2017 at 2:59am Reply

  • Phyllis Iervello: Victoria, again thank you for sharing this with all of us. To me it would be a dream to take a perfume course like this, but thanks to you, I am taking it vicariously. May 24, 2017 at 10:28am Reply

    • kayliz: Seconding this, Phyllis!

      What strikes me as a teacher from the photos is how actively engaged everyone is. Most people are very obviously enjoying themselves enormously, and even the one less positive face looks actively skeptical rather than bored or distracted. Perhaps this is what all classes should be like, but in reality few classes would look like this when photographed. The photos speak volumes about you as a teacher, Victoria! May 24, 2017 at 3:43pm Reply

      • Victoria: Thank you very much, Kay! 🙂 May 25, 2017 at 3:14am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Phyllis. I realize that not all could attend, so I wanted to share anyway. Anna’s beautiful photos made it possible. May 25, 2017 at 3:00am Reply

  • kpaint: Coincidentally, I recently noticed the same with the modern versions of No 5. I have vintage bottles of the extrait, edp, edt and spray cologne, and they’re what I’ve been wearing for years.

    A couple of weeks ago, I ran across a sample set put together by Chanel that I’d forgotten I had. It includes the extrait, edp, edt, Eau Premiere, and Elixir Sensual (so I figured it’s about 10 years old?) I wore the edt the other day and followed it with the extrait that evening. The modern edt smells quite different from my (1970s?) splash bottle, but I was a bit stunned by the sweetness of the extrait. I almost thought I detected a light strand of vanilla, something I’ve never detected in the older versions. May 24, 2017 at 10:47am Reply

    • Victoria: Vanilla was there too, but it was layered with other notes, especially nitromusks and animalics, so it was not as visible. The aldehydes were more prominent, but so were the floral absolutes. Today the flowers in No 5 feel more natural, less abstract. May 25, 2017 at 3:02am Reply

  • Amalia: I adore/ admire people who shares their professional secrets and knowledge. Congratulations! May 24, 2017 at 11:03am Reply

    • Victoria: To share with a passionate, fun group is a pleasure. May 25, 2017 at 3:03am Reply

      • Amalia: it is not obvious to all teachers, please allow me to congratulate you! May 25, 2017 at 3:45am Reply

    • Michaela: Me, too. It’s indeed a rare and precious quality. May 25, 2017 at 5:20am Reply

  • Lydia: Your workshop truly sounds like heaven, and Caron Voeu de Noël sounds gloriously wonderful.

    When I read descriptions of perfumes like this, I always wonder if it’s possible for them to be reproduced and sold again. I know animal-sourced musks are cruel and shouldn’t be used, but for the botanical ingredients – can’t the vintage perfume lovers among us sign a waiver form acknowledging that we’re willing to take on any allergen risks? Surely there are enough dedicated vintage fragrance lovers at this point to sustain a small offering of original formulations…? May 24, 2017 at 12:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: I think that from the perspective of a perfume company, it’s not a worthwhile undertaking. A niche line might want to try, especially if they simply labelled “only to be worn on fabric.” The industry is just too conservative to think of more possibilities. May 25, 2017 at 3:11am Reply

  • Sandra: Professor Bois de Jasmin!
    Great work and looks like everyone is having a lot of fun! May 24, 2017 at 12:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 It was a great experience for me, and based on the reviews, for others too. May 25, 2017 at 3:12am Reply

  • spe: What a fabulous experience! My favorite part is how you describe the amateur sniffing abilities of the group exceeding your expectations. How much fun that must have been! May 24, 2017 at 1:34pm Reply

    • Victoria: I certainly didn’t expect how willing everyone was to stay for extra hours after the sessions were over and smell, smell, smell. May 25, 2017 at 3:12am Reply

  • maja: How great it must have been for you and for your “students”! Teaching or lecturing is such a fantastic experience of sharing.
    I wonder and can only imagine how your trolley looks like when you’re traveling – full of cute little precious bottles. 💗 May 24, 2017 at 2:16pm Reply

    • Victoria: I travel either with minis or decants. Otherwise, it’s pretty much impossible to travel by air!
      Thank you, Maja. May 25, 2017 at 3:13am Reply

  • Carla: This must have been such an experience for the guests! How special to have those perfumes and others to discuss with and an expert on hand. You can really get enthused that way, notice things you wouldn’t have otherwise… May 24, 2017 at 9:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: And smelling with other people, because it was amazing how different individuals noticed different facets. And we often smelled blindly, that’s without me telling the group what exactly we were smelling. Some people were better than some perfumers at identifying the classics! May 25, 2017 at 3:20am Reply

      • Michaela: It must have been fascinating!
        I’m happy your students were as good as or better than professionals. That says something about their huge passion and your teaching skills. May 25, 2017 at 5:25am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: I have one question regarding the actual smelling of the different scents: I see a lot of paper strips in the fotos.
    Whenever I am in a shop and smell the scents on paper strips provided there, I am irritated at the smell of the paper itself (wet cardboard). I find it interferes tremendously with the jus. I almost always start spraying onto my skin as it just feels really different.
    So: are there different qualities of paper strips? Or does the paper change according to humidity? (As a side remark, it seems that different perfume companies deliver their own individual paper strips.)
    Some shops now offer feathers which I find don’t have a peculiar smell, but tickle when smelling 🙂 May 25, 2017 at 5:17am Reply

  • Michaela: Thank you a lot, it was so kind of you to share. And congratulations to Anna Kozlova for the pictures, so beautifully telling their story. She captures so well the enthusiastic atmosphere. May 25, 2017 at 5:30am Reply

  • Karen A: What a wonderful time it must have been! Thank you for writing about the class and Anna’s photos are terrific! May 25, 2017 at 6:21am Reply

  • Aurora: The students seem very engaged and happy looking, it’s wonderful what you have achieved, may the provence classes continue! May 25, 2017 at 3:27pm Reply

  • Notturno7: Thank you for sharing, Victoria!
    What a treat that must have been, having that workshop with you. And being able to discover the vintage scents that aren’t available anymore. Amazing 💖
    I’m trying to imagine Voeu de Noel as I love vintage Carons and it gives me pleasure to even just read your description!!
    Thank you! May 26, 2017 at 11:38pm Reply

  • Inma: Dear Victoria,

    I love your approach to perfume history.

    And I am starting to practice your “Workout for the nose”, slowly, slowly.

    Your writing and the photgraphs are so so beautiful! Thank you.

    Have a nice weekend! June 2, 2017 at 8:19am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Inma!

      There photos are by Anna Kozlova, who was such a pleasure to work with. June 2, 2017 at 9:51am Reply

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