What Makes A Perfume Great

“The art of fortunate proportions” is how Edmond Roudnitska described perfumery. According to the legendary perfumer, a good fragrance has balance and an original form, a simple idea that is far from easy to realize. Roudnitska spent his career creating fragrances that exemplify perfumery at its most artistic—Christian Dior Diorissimo, Eau Sauvage, Diorella, and Rochas Femme. His compositions have elegance and character, but one of the distinctive trademarks of Roudnitska’s style is balance.

When I speak of balance in perfumery, I mean both the aesthetics and the 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 the velvety woody notes, the perfume unfolds like a silk scroll.  Similarly modulated is Dior’s Diorissimo, where the musky and spicy notes balance out the floral and green accords.

Still, balance alone is not the ultimate goal. “The fortunate proportions” in Roudnitska’s philosophy follow the artist’s vision, because a well-balanced perfume can also be a dull one if it lacks originality or character. To counter the lassitude, perfumers may apply the technique of overdose, using a large proportion of a specific material and pushing the composition’s center of gravity. This is similar to George Balanchine making his dancers hover off balance in order to create tension and slow down time. The effect of such off-center balance is as dramatic as Odile’s 32 fouettés en tournant.

A striking examples of such an approach in perfumery is Balmain’s Vent Vert. To create her spring etude, perfumer Germaine Cellier added galbanum, an intensely green, pungent essence that smells of bell peppers and bitter sap. Set against a delicate floral backdrop, the verdant, sharp accord is as jolting as a gust of wind on an April morning. (The current version of Vent Vert has been through a number of reformulations and while it is markedly different from Cellier’s original, it retains the exhilarating off-balance effect.)

Another legendary perfume with intriguing proportions is Chanel No 5. Perfumer Ernest Beaux used a cocktail of aldehydes to give radiance to a rich bouquet of ylang ylang, rose and jasmine. Aldehydes smell of snuffed out candles and also of waxy orange peel, a scent that’s borderline unpleasant in its pure state. But the right amount in Beaux’s hands evoked warm skin and champagne. Beaux also used a generous dose of aldehydes to reinterpret white flowers (Chanel No 22), spices (Bois des Iles) and leather (Cuir de Russie).

Roudnitska himself didn’t hesitate to play with the balance of components in order to convey his message. For Rochas Femme, one of his most sensual compositions, he used a sweet, plummy note to recast the dry, austere chypre accord of woods and mosses as opulent and warm. Femme was created in the Paris of 1943, and it was Roudnitska’s vision of beauty as much as his protest against the war.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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29 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this illuminating post.

    “The perfume unfolds like a silk scroll.” That is the perfect description of Chamade!

    The concept of overdosing on certain ingredients to create a particular effect reminds me of a parallel technique in music. Years ago, in a special on Abba’s song, “Dancing Queen”, the record producer and engineer, Michael Tretow explained the strategy he used to make the ladies’ voices “sparkle”. He layered the vocals, using one track slightly above the note, another track slightly below the note, and so on, to create the sparkling effect. When I thought about it, I realized that I could hear the technique at play in the chorus.

    I’ve still never smelled Cuir de Russie or Bois des Iles, or any version of Vent Vert. But Femme I own, and it’s one of my favourites!

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline September 17, 2021 at 9:26am Reply

    • Victoria: Fascinating! I love learning details like this. September 18, 2021 at 8:35am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Isn’t it! I so enjoyed hearing about that process. September 18, 2021 at 8:37am Reply

  • Karen A: All it took was the photo of Chamade! Thank you for another great article. September 17, 2021 at 9:55am Reply

    • Victoria: We’re a group of Chamade-obsessed people, I know. 🙂 September 18, 2021 at 8:35am Reply

      • Theresa: Chamade is one of my very most favorite too! I feel like it is “happiness” in a bottle! September 19, 2021 at 8:50pm Reply

  • Rhinda: Hi Victoria
    Great content, as usual. Today is moving day. I plan to explore what you have recommended once I get settled.
    This next year will be devoted to perfumery. September 17, 2021 at 10:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Good luck with your move! Hope that you’re settling in well. September 18, 2021 at 8:36am Reply

  • Fazal: I love vintage Vent Vert. Since this article focuses on Roudnitska, too, I would take the liberty to ask if you have ever come across a properly preserved vintage Eau Sauvage from 1980s or before. I am asking because I recently got one sealed bottle from 1980s and the color is quite intense yellow as opposed to light yellow in modern formulations.

    I did expect it to be yellow but not as intense yellow as it turned out to be. Given the fact that the box was sealed, I assume there is good probability it is well preserved due to lack of exposure to light (hopefully the box was not stored in inappropriate temperatures for a long time). September 17, 2021 at 10:24am Reply

    • Victoria: It turns yellow with time, and it’s normal. It’s just a by-product of oxidation or perhaps a Schiff’s base reaction. Not ideal, of course, since will affect the smell, but it can’t be helped. So, it’s rare to find Eau Sauvage in a good state. Plus, it’s a cologne, and citrus notes are fragile. Does it smell ok? September 18, 2021 at 8:38am Reply

      • Fazal: I have it worn it yet but it did seem ok when taking a sniff of the mouth of the bottle. Judging from the info you have provided, I probably overestimated a bit as to how a sealed packaging would help Eau Sauvage retain its original brilliance, even after decades. September 18, 2021 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: I love your descriptions of these iconic perfumes.
    I smelled all of them; Vent Vert was one of my first perfumes. No 22, Cuir de Russie, Bois des Iles, and of course No5.
    Diorella reminds me of the sixties, I smelled it a lot in these years.
    Femme was reformulated in 1989, the smell of overripe fruit was gone. But still great and one of my favourites.
    As a child, I choose Femme for my mother.
    Maybe because Femme was from the year of the Sheep (Chinese astrology), like my mother! September 17, 2021 at 4:38pm Reply

    • Victoria: What do you think of Diorella in the current version, if you’ve smelled it? September 18, 2021 at 8:40am Reply

      • Cornelia Blimber: So nice you didn’t correct me: Diorella is from 1972, I googled. I have the eau de toilette from about 10 or maybe 15 years ago, and to my Nose it still has the character of the original Diorella, which I smelled in the seventies, of course ! September 18, 2021 at 9:04am Reply

        • Victoria: I didn’t even notice, mostly because Roudnitska was already playing with that accord in the ’60s and he might have created the prototype of Diorella much earlier than 1972. I also associate it with the ’60s, since in the ’70s the green accords became much sharper and drier. September 18, 2021 at 9:41am Reply

      • JulienFromDijon: Please forgive me of interfering and speaking of “Diorella” vintage on my own. I have a big hound-tooth bottle of the edt. So it’s from the 80’s, maybe?

        Each time I’m surprised to pick up the subtlest hint of what seems to be real tuberose, waxy tones of real jasmine, and the lushness of ylang-ylang. (Maybe even narcissus).

        So there is a transparent bed of these natural flowers under the technicality and efficiency of the top notes. It’s almost a gardenia accord under the fun of hesperidic, hedione, ripe melon, basil and other notes.

        The vintage one feels more like a real person, with her restrained exuberance, and her mouth with moist lips. In comparison, I find the current one stingy on ingredients, veering too much on the ripe melon, and relying too much on ambroxan. I have to admit it’s still excellent, but it is disheartening for me who grasps the gap with the original, so I would prefer wearing “Eau du sud” from Goutal instead. (It’s very close to the current one, but with more neroli on top, and more smartness in the citrus ylang-ylang and herbal notes, until the ambroxan drydown comes in. I always envision a swimming pool under the summer sun, in a David Hockney fashion, I don’t know why. Malle’s le parfum the thérèse is another good point of comparison).

        (The diorissimo of the same age has, similarly, some narcissus facet apart from the jasmine waxiness, the ylang-ylang, and rose unctuosity. Only in Cartier’s L’heure fougueuse does I grasp a similar “walking in a clearing, in a forest, near water” effect from narcissus).

        “Femme was created in the Paris of 1943, and it was Roudnitska’s vision of beauty as much as his protest against the war.”
        Your writing rings with truth. It’s so poetical. I love it! Thanks 🙂

        I will try again Bois des îles, and Cuir de russie, to enjoy more closely the play with aldehydes.
        I always over-spray Bois des îles to amp up the “enchanted forest” drydown of sandalwood. (It works very close to vintage Samsara in that sense.) Cuir de russie reminds me more of a 1900 shop, through the fumes of the old oil or gaz lamps, burning some weird waxy stuffs like whale’s fat, mixing with the perfumes of the clients and their leather boots. September 25, 2021 at 12:43am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: What a clear explanation of this technique! I especially appreciate the analogy to Balanchine’s choreography. September 17, 2021 at 10:02pm Reply

  • Marianne: Hello Victoria, thank you for this elegant and informative post. Reading is, as always, a delightful way to learn, and I’m learning a great deal from you and the comments that are generated.

    I’ve looked at Vent Vert, it’s available locally, but have dismissed it assuming it would have changed in a negative way over the many years since it was created. Chamade has also fallen victim to this prejudice. I look forward to exploring both.

    I appreciated learning how the off-balance of a great perfume is different to a ‘perfect’ composition. I’ll add that for me it applies to people as well … a point of difference, the courage to be oneself, a touch of eccentricity, can set a person apart, can make them sparkle. September 18, 2021 at 3:27am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s hard to say what you might find in the new version, since Vent Vert changed often. I tried it last a year or so ago, but I understand that it was reformulated again. September 18, 2021 at 8:42am Reply

  • ClareObscure: Hi Victoria. Thanks for writing this superb article which really “floats my boat”. All the comments are interesting, too. Honourable mentions to Karen A. and to Tourmaline, to whose comments I must refer.
    Like Karen, the heart shaped bottle of Chamade quickens my heartbeat in anticipation of surrendering to its gorgeous fragrance which initially sparked my interest in perfume.
    Victoria, you have mentioned Alyssa Harad’s book, Coming to My Senses in a recent article. (also the poor impression left when people don’t answer emails… guilty as charged) Alyssa’s experiences of discovering the importance of perfumery really resonate with mine. Voices of judgement often make people feel that it’s silly to be passionate about perfume. Her book is now one of my select group of favourites.
    Tourmaline’s comments about the ABBA song & how innovative the mixing of sound tracks can be in achieving emotive effects… Wow! It’s the artistry of ‘light & shade’, ‘smoke & mirrors’, etc. ; the magic in the artist’s touch. Your background in Ballet, Victoria, adds to the richness of your writing about the intricacies of how the perfumer’s Art can be so moving.
    I’ve heard that in in the alchemy of song writing, probably in all artistic creation, there can be moments when the Artist acknowledges that something like a separate, possibly ‘higher’, power of Inspiration takes over the procedure, making it feel like a gift. Perhaps in such moments the Artist is a conduit for the gift of inspiration. September 18, 2021 at 4:59am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Clare! I enjoyed reading this. I agree that all art is about technique and artist’s own instinct. Or inspiration, as it might be called. Just technique on its own won’t be enough. September 18, 2021 at 8:43am Reply

      • Aurora: A wealth of information in this article and your unique gift to describe fragrances, thank you so much Victoria. I am just thinking that Roudnitska may have taken into account an element of luck in the equation. September 18, 2021 at 10:12am Reply

    • Tourmaline: Hi Clare,

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading about the technique Michael Tretow used in crafting “Dancing Queen”. In my opinion, the main element involved in creativity, which is sometimes called inspiration (or “the muse”), is talent! I’m not religious, but I’m aware that many people believe the source of talent is divine.

      With kind regards,
      Tourmaline September 19, 2021 at 8:05am Reply

  • Sally Swaine: While visiting Florence today, I passed a young girl with a haunting fragrance. When asked, she said it is called Fagona. I cannot find it on the internet. Maybe you can help me. September 18, 2021 at 7:55pm Reply

    • Cornelia Blimber: Hi Sally!…maybe she meant ”Fragonard”? September 19, 2021 at 8:51am Reply

  • Zazie: Interesting observations!
    While I’m not sure I know what makes a perfume great, the perfumes that smell “great” to me are all characterized by a very noticeable development, a change throughout the day/night where every stage is memorable, provoking or simply comfortable, without ever being the same. I think Chamade is a great example of a dramatic metamorphosis… it seems to contain several different, even opposing souls, each making an entrance at a different moment in time. Love it. Many dub it as the epitome of spring fragrance, but to me it’s green to gold to dark progression is a most perfect rendition of autumn, all the way through. Will have to get it out.

    (When you spoke about families, I checked my favorites on fragrantica, and they all essentially belong to two groups…so I suppose I have a strong bias on what is “great”… 😅) September 20, 2021 at 6:59am Reply

    • Marianne: Thank you Zazie, for explaining your nuanced perception of how Chamade unfolds for you. now I’m fully committed to trying this perfume! September 20, 2021 at 7:26pm Reply

  • Cornelia Blimber: Beautiful description, Zazie!
    I can see why you love Chamade and Caravaggio! September 20, 2021 at 9:36am Reply

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