Classics & Vintages: 139 posts

Vintage treasures, iconic perfumes

Chanel No 5 Body Cream : Between Silk Sheets with Marilyn Monroe

“I know what we need. We need a bed, and we need white silk sheets – they must be silk. Frank Sinatra records, and Dom Pérignon champagne.” When the young photographer Douglas Kirkland arrived to photograph Marilyn Monroe for Look Magazine, he had no idea what to expect when meeting a mega star. Least of all did he expect silk sheets and champagne. In his book, With Marilyn: An Evening/1961, he described the photo shoot and shares the images he took. I can’t think of another photographer who captured better Monroe’s vulnerability and sensuality. It’s almost paradoxical. Even in the moments when she looks surrendered, she’s in control.

Monroe was known to say that she wore to bed nothing but a few drops of Chanel No 5. Although I’ve known this for a long time, I always found it hard to associate No 5 and Monroe. No 5, though elegant and beautiful, struck me as uptight and austere. Monroe, with her voluptuous beauty, fragility and intensity, somehow seemed to belong to another universe.

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Michael Edwards’s Perfume Legends II

I’ve been waiting for Michael Edwards’s Perfume Legends II in the same way that Star Wars fans anticipate the new sequels. First published in 1996, Perfume Legends told stories behind more than 40 iconic fragrances. Edwards explained the inspiration behind the concept and the bottle and also left room for perfumers’ voices. Why did Edmond Roudnitska add an opulent plum note to Rochas Femme? How did Jacques Polge create the baroque effect of Chanel Coco? I read and re-read the book so much that my copy fell apart.

Edwards, however, wouldn’t rush the sequel. Respected in the industry for his Fragrances of the World database that assiduously tracks every new launch, he brought the same meticulousness to the Perfume Legends project. He decided to update the list, and so he spent several years researching information and interviewing perfumers, creative directors and designers. The industry can be frustratingly secretive, especially when it comes to explaining the perfume formula, but Edwards has never been daunted by such obstacles. The book reveals it all.

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Carine Roitfeld Parfums George : Perfume Review

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In a memorable scene in Joris-Karl Huysman’s novel Against Nature, his character Des Esseintes is so inspired by reading Dickens that he decides to visit London. Yet, having traveled only as far as grey and rainy Paris, he feels that he has experienced London’s atmosphere enough in his imagination and abandons the whole idea. No doubt, Des Esseintes would have been sympathetic to the efforts of perfumers who attempt to satisfy the wanderlust of armchair travelers. One such venture is Carine Roitfeld Parfums, created by the former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris. The line includes seven unisex fragrances, Aurélien, George, Kar-Wai, Lawrence, Orson, Sebastian and Vladimir, inspired by travel and by fictional lovers.

My ideal lover is George. He is elegant, suave, and soft-spoken, yet whatever he says keeps my interest piqued. (He has certainly read Huysmans, although decadence is not his favorite art current; he is more into realism.) I travel to Tokyo with George, where we stroll through autumnal temple gardens, take baths with iris petals and visit painting exhibits in those typically Japanese galleries filled with silence, soft light and a whiff of wood polish. With George on my arm, everything smells of violet leaves, moss and crushed green leaves. He doesn’t smoke, but the leather jacket that he wears so well is redolent of ashes and fine tobacco.

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The Allure of Extrait de Parfum

If you were a medieval caliph and desired a fragrance to delight your senses, your royal perfumers would have mixed Tibetan musk with an equal amount of Yemeni ambergris and steeped the mixture in ben tree oil over a weak fire. They would have stirred it with a gold spoon and used a silver vessel to refine it further until the liquid itself turned golden and smelled like paradise itself. If you were the wife of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, the one of One Thousand and One Nights fame, then you would have asked for a touch of jasmine oil to remind you of Persian gardens in bloom. According to the 14th century Egyptian scholar Al-Nuwayri, such were indeed the refined tastes of his time.

The luxurious, oil-based perfumes Al-Nuwayri describes in his book are the distant ancestors of the modern extrait de parfum. Today, the extrait de parfum is usually diluted in alcohol, but the proportion of fragrant oils in its formula is still sumptuously high. In my recent FT magazine column, The Allure of Extrait de Parfum, I describe what makes extrait de parfum different and why it still has a place in our perfume wardrobe.

As I’ve noted in my article about perfume concentrations, the proportion of oil alone doesn’t matter as much as the ingredients themselves. However, the parfum, along with the Eau de Cologne, is the oldest way of enjoying fragrance. It was meant to be applied directly on skin, allowing it to envelop the wearer in a soft cloud of scent. For instance, the great classics like Chanel No 5, Guerlain Jicky or Caron Tabac Blond were created as such concentrated blends. Their lighter variations appeared later in the second half of the 20th century when atomizers became popular. To continue reading, please click here.

What are some of your favorite extrait de parfums?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

Tamara Toumanova’s Perfume Collection

Called “the Black Pearl of the Russian Ballet” for her glamorous look and dramatic beauty, Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) was as memorable on stage as she was behind the curtains. I very much like this photo showing the ballerina before a performance surrounded by icons, flowers and perfume bottles. It reminded of the gift that the American avant-garde artist Joseph Cornell presented to her in 1968.

Called Untitled, the box contained eleven perfume bottles filled with objects that captured the essence of Toumanova’s performances. Some bottles contain fragments of the costumes she wore to dance Don Quixote and Les Sylphides. Another one includes fragments of painted eggs, colored beads and gold threads, referring to Easter rites and the importance of the Orthodox faith for the dancer. Looking at the photo above, I can see why Cornell’s was an ideal gift for Toumanova.

Anyone care to guess the names of the perfumes on her vanity table?

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