Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Drapeau Tricolore: 12 Quintessentially French Fragrances

"How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?" General Charles de Gaulle had infamously querried. Growing up one of my best friends was French. Her name was Marianne (coincidence?) and she was living in a Paris banlieu: We met in the summers vacationing, we exchanged cards and film-stars-stickers in the wintertime. She brought our family gorgeous stinky cheeses that cemented my life-long appreciation for them, we brought them handmade olive oil soaps and mastic liqueur; and between summer siestas and hot days skulking we came to know each other's culture in passing. I learned that the French are a sensual more than sexual people: They buy their fruits and vegetables every day (fondling them, like us); they like to satisfy their eyes, but also their touch and their tastebuds in everything they do. The cliché wants them to be dirty and if the Paris metro is anything to go by one can't blame that notion, yet much as they have legends of The Great Unwashed (Napoleon's note to Josephine "I am returning in three days; don't wash!") they also have recipes to aromatize said juices! (The tisane recipe of orange, rosewater and mint the French lover hands down to his American young mistress in bed in "Le Divorce" by James Ivory: "That's something you would never have found out in Santa Barbara" he tells her naughtily).
But what constitutes Frenchiness? In the mind of the American it has always stood as sophistication, but this really only stands for Parisians. And not as expected: French women often go for a thrift thrill at Zara and gloat on finding the perfect little outfit for less than 100 euros! They wear mainstream and high-street brands unapologetically and shop at department stores.
My own culture has been very influenced in the political and intellectual fields by France. Yet France is as much the Breton seaside with the matelot tops and its mussells as well as the Gitanes-smoking existentialists and the urinous paths of the clochards in Paris; the sole meunière with its bland ~to my Greek buds~ taste and the tangy blackberries growing on each side of the Loire valley. It's Midi and the characteristic familiar Mediterranean herbs (thyme, oregano, rosemary) picked by hearty housewives cooking a mean coq au vin, but also the Route des Vins d'Alsace (the Wine Route)!

Compiling a list of perfumes viewed as French-smelling, I had to eliminate many classics. Surely Paul Parquet's Fougère Royale for Houbigant (1882) and Jicky by Guerlain (issued in the same year as the Exposition Universelle and the Eiffel Tower, 1889) are beacons in the history of perfumery, but they were not as popular with the French themselves as other scents. The French are an elfin people, small, usually brown-haired and quirky, not blond and athletic, so anything Wagnerian can be safely left behind; nor are they Joan Crawford shoulder-padded and hollowed cheekboned; therefore Mitsouko and its Japonesque homage was out. By the same token the pale sunlight of Après L'Ondée (1906) reminds me more of northern climates. Miss Dior and Cabochard have now changed to the worse... And although France has traditionally been a very advanced country in the intellectual stakes, it is also conservative in its mentality, much like many of the older nations in Europe: People want to feel special, but not to be too different from the other respectable society!
Paris by Yves Saint Laurent seems like an obvious choice, yet its rosy embullient appeal transcends cultures. Same with Soir de Paris by Bourjois, especially popular with American women, and Narcisse Noir by Caron (initially a US hit before establishing Daltroff's knack). In the end I went for an arguably idiosyncratic list of French perfumes which satisfy my inner exploration of what "smells French".
Here it is for your enjoyment.

Amoureuse by Parfums DelRae
Technically an Anglosaxon fragrance (inspired by the Victorian boxwood trees on San Francisco), but executed by a masterful French hand (Michel Roudnitska, son of Edmond and responsible for Noir épices & most of the Del Rae line), Amoureuse is a sublime indolic, "dirty" floral (jasmine and a little tuberose) touched by honeyed sweetness and a ginger zing, that you can picture on someone as fortuitously vulnerable as Jeanne Morreau. It oozes femininity, frank sexuality and inner power like few other modern florals (Manoumalia perhaps?).

Bal à Versailles by Jean Desprez
If there was a void of great French orientals that didn't took you to the gardens of India in the manner of Shalimar, but kept you within terra franca, Bal a Versailles (Ball in Versailles) would be it. Unusually for the second half of the 20th century (1962) issued by the perfumer himself, Bal smells like afterglow ~spent, content and animalic, its citrus opening cascading into a cadenza of rich florals, fanned on opulent resins and golden balsams.

Bel Ami by Hermes
The citrusy leather modern classic of 1986 is often overlooked in its unusual pepperiness and floralcy under the smoky woods (cedar and sandalwood) and the animalic vanilla, which make it raunchy and assertive at first, refined later on. Named after a novel by Guy de Maupassant chronicling the rise to power of a manipulative journalist, Bel Ami has always striken me as the perfect masculine choice for a genuine French lover. Someone like Michel Piccoli of Le Mépris, Belle de Jour and The discreet charm of bourgeoisie. Can you think of anything more French?

Cologne à La Française (Institut Très Bien)
Small children in France ~and all along the Mediterannean~ often have their hands "washed" and their clothes sprinkled with Eau de Cologne. This cherished memory I have has undoubtedly contributed to my appreciating fine fragrances later on. This particular ~recently discontinued~ cologne by Pierre Bourdon bears its nationality proudly as a crest and its lemony goodness is akin to the optimism felt on a bright summer's day. I like to think that it smells like the one (American born) Jean Seberg casually splashes on her nape in Godart's A Bout de Souffle under Belmondo's watchful eye.

Hypnotic Poison by Christian Dior
Annick Ménardo went for the gourmand idea inaugurated by Angel, yet proposed a novel approach: the plummy, bitter almond heart poised on coumarin radiates like a poisonous apple of temptation (cyanide smells of almond) while the heliotropin is a distant wink to Après L'Ondée . Although Angel can be smelled everywhere in Paris, so it can in several other metropoleis (London, Athens, Miami...). Hypnotic Poison (1998) is just this side of being subversive without straying too much.

L'Air du Temps by Nina Ricci
Paris was liberated and hope was brimming in the air; the world was ready for light-hearted optimism after the austerity of the WWII ravages. Francis Fabron was thus commissioned to create the first Nina Ricci perfume in 1948 capturing exactly the "air of the times". The Lalique doves almost kissing on the top of the cap (designed in 1951) symbolised the romanticism that Paris has always stood for in the collective unconscious, preparing us for the olfactory equivalent of delicate Chantilly lace. The scent's tender clovey-carnation and peachy heart seems strung by fairies (especially in the vintage version), given a boost by benzyl salicylate, effectuating one of the most memorable scents of my own childhood.

L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain
From the Impressionist paintings that Jacques Guerlain was inspired of, to the elaborate pattiserie tradition that the French have been going to extremes for (see Vatel), everything in L'Heure Bleue (1912) is redolent of French Belle Epoque: the orange blossoms of the South, the Meditarranean herbs with the spicy anise overlay of rustic bread and the woody violets flanking it, as well as the paradigmatic sillage left behind it, enforce L'Heure Bleue as one of the masterpieces of French perfumery. Its wistful contemplativeness feels very Parisian to me.

Musks Kublaï Khan by Serge Lutens
Named after the bloodthirsty warrior of the steppes and created by Christopher Sheldrake in 1998, the shocking reality is this purring cougar smells soft, luminously warm and inviting in a special, "dirty" way, thanks to intense cistus labdanum, castoreum (rude hide) and civet essences. It shares the barnyard quality with the otherwise mossy musk of L'air de Rien by Miller Harris and several parfums fourrure. Despite its reputation of "the armpit of an unwashed camel driver" (perhaps due to the dirty hair note of costus), my personal perception of it is highly erotic, a view which the many French pilgrims of Les Salons du Palais Royal, where it's exclusively sold, seem to share.

No.5 by Chanel
Is No.5 French-smelling? Does the Pope wear a hat? No list would be complete without Chanel's icon of 1921 by Ernest Beaux, simply because it is emblematic for the perception of French perfume throughout the globe. The image of the little black dress with a single strand of pearls and two drops of No.5 is not especially francophone (it's more of a WASP image nowadays), nor is the touristy "baguette under the arm and tilted beret" cartoonish notion. Yet whether you like its soapy aldehydic bouqeut of intense ylang-ylang and jasmine over a musky trail or not, No.5 has accomplished what the Eiffel Tower has as well: to be considered an instantly recognisable French hallmark!

Nuit de Noël by Caron
The mysterious Mousse de Saxe (Saxon moss) base, with its cool and dark, animalic edge rich in musky and vanillic aromata (it's said to include geranium, licorice, leather, iodine and vanillin), and its jarring 6-isobutylquinoline (leathernote) produce a rosy-woody-powdery fragrance with a raw undercurrent that stood apart even in an era filled with outstanding perfumes (1922). Guy Robert praised it thus: "If a woman were to enter [a crowded theatre] wearing Nuit de Noël, all the other women would become invisible".

Une Fleur de Cassie by Editions des Parfums Frédéric Malle
I recall seeing farmers collecting gum from the cassie tree (acacia farnesiana) for use as gum arabic substitute in Australia, their agile hands working effortlessly. Known as Cassier du Levant in the South of France, the scent of cassie is rich in benzaldehyde, anisic aldehyde, and a violet-smelling ketone, rendering the essence sensuous and shadowy fleshy like the contours of a soft feminine body through gauzy garments. Cassie has been harnessed in several renditions from Caron's Farnesiana to Coty's La Jacée through Creed's Aubepine Acacia, but nowhere is the flesh-like honeyed richness, from bark to thorny stem to sugary-spun blossom, best interpreted than in Dominique Ropion's masterpiece Une Fleur de Cassie.

Vétiver by Guerlain
Simply put the scent of the French bourgeoisie, a classic that smells respectable and always pleasant in all situations; the passe partout that opens all doors! It seems there's nary a banker, broker, lawyer or well-to-do doctor in France who hasn't got a bottle of this citrus woody with refreshing vetiver notes of Jean Paul Guerlain in their bathroom. Although Eau de Guerlain with its provencal herbs accord is just as French, Vétiver (1961) caught on more, due to its erstwhile virile profile. A bit hacknayed thus if you're actually French and in France, it stands along with Dior's Eau Sauvage as the classic of classics in the great masculines pantheon. Its feminine counterpart is exceptional too!

Please add your own suggestions on French-smelling perfumes!

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Stars & Stripes ~10 Quintessentially American Fragrances

Painting "La Liberté guidant le peuple" by Eugène Delacroix (technically commemorating the July Revolution of 1830) via Wikimedia Commons. Jeanne Morreau in Les Amants via cinemoi.tv, J.P.Belmondo via artscatter.com, L'Heure Bleue photo via Tangled up in L'heure Bleue


  1. Petals12:35

    Hey E!

    Great list and I have three more to add.

    Chamade -- very French, elegant, powdery, girly. I am so lucky to have bottles of of the vintage PdT.

    24 Faubourg -- Frehchness at its peak.

    PdN Sacrebleu -- maybe because it reminds of me my days in Paris, cold Feb, diplomatic dinners and gala soirees at the Hotel de Ville in Paris and I was wearing this after having discovered it during this trip.

    I believe Catherine Deneuve wears Chamade and Sacrebleu. Can she get any more French?!

  2. Fiordiligi12:39

    Hello dearest E! Long time no speak.

    Thank you for that beautiful piece. To me, the gorgeous l'Heure Bleue is French chic personified and I always smell it when I'm in France, wafting by on elegant French women.

    However, I have to say that Shalimar is also quintessentially French and will forever be associated with Paris, especially, for me.

  3. Helg, what a great list!
    The Frenchest of French perfumes will always be Coco for me but then i wore it almost exclusively during a longer trip to Paris and Brittany, 12 yrs ago..

  4. Anonymous14:16

    What a beautiful article! I can add Chanel N.19 edp because of that leather and maybe Rochas Femme or some Balmain scent.

  5. I'm impressed with your list. I put the task to myself and quickly got bogged down in conflicting aspects of "Frenchness." If I had to pick just one, though, it would be Bal a Versailles. The only other scent I wouldn't dare leave off is Jolie Madame.

  6. Hi T!

    Thanks for chimming in with your lovely suggestions. :-))
    I was struggling with Chamade, it has so many French associations doesn't it? It's simply wonderful.....
    Love the others too!(the edt of Faubourg is great for summer)

    Deneuve is one of us, she wears tons of fragrances, her choices on my celebrity list read like a perfume-maniac's almanac. ;-)

  7. Dearest D,

    hi there! Hope you're having a rest after the sniffa and a much needed vacation. (are you in the country or in the city now?)

    You're absolutely right, Shalimar is very French. Its Indian tale is so romantic though, I'd hate for it to disassociate it from it, even though I fully realise it's a fabrication of a resourceful mind.
    And LHB....ah, indeed.

  8. N, darling,

    I wouldn't have pegged you as the Coco type and here you are surprising me! It's quite baroque, so it should fit with French interiors. I imagine it at the Opera!

  9. L,

    excellent choices! Thanks for adding them. I love No.19 as you probably know (what a summer staple) and I could add Vent Vert as Bardot's scent of choice: very fresh, very bracing! (at least in the otiginal composition)

  10. M,

    aww, you're too kind. Frenchness could be seen better I believe if one takes a little distance. What IS the essence of a people anyway? Their best-sellers or the things that embody what the people (or other foreign people) see as their core? Interesting and perplexing matters no doubt.
    100% agree on Bal, it's French from A to Z.
    But I left Jolie Madame out...now I have to go sit in my little corner.... *bad, bad Elena*

  11. Heh, when I went to France to visit my relatives I kept a little tab on all the fragrances they wore (I am above all a fragrance dork). My grandmother was a lover of Yves Rocher Ambre and Monoi oil. I got one of my aunts who never wears perfume to fall in love with the original Narciso Rodriguez. One of my cousins proclaimed her love for Coco Madamoiselle and Light Blue. My other cousin Coco and YR Vanille. My uncle on the other hand wore Egoiste.

  12. Great post! :) I enjoyed reading it and now have again some new things on my list that I need to try.
    Btw, I discovered Vetiver a while ago and I love wearing it (though I admit I didn't try the feminine version). :)

  13. Jen,

    great!! That's what I am after too :-)
    It proves what I'm saying: no disregard for more economical brands, an appraisal for best-sellers too. I am impressed by your aunt's choice: quite elegant and contemporary! Your uncle smelled divine.....

  14. Ines,

    thank you darling, hope you find lots of things to fall madly in love with! (isn't reckless love very French too?)
    The Vetiver pour Elle is synonymous with summer, it reminds me of the very best in the fragrance world ;-)

  15. YSL Rive Gauche smells "French" to me, and I agree with Petals about Hermes 24, Faubourg.

    The fragrances that evoke Paris for me personally because I have worn them there are Ambre Sultan and Datura Noir by Serge Lutens, as well as Fragonard Capucine.

    Fun post! Combines two of my favorite things: France and perfume.

  16. Rappleyea16:34

    Both my maternal and paternal history is French and "small and quirky" and "arguably idiosyncatic" could probably be used to describe me!

    A wonderful list that includes several of my personal favorites! I would add only the perfume that was said to be named for Napoleons's legendary quote, Je Reviens.

    Loved this post - it was well worth waiting for. Thank you!

  17. You are spot on with your list, E, especially in your reference to L'Air du Temps. I remember smelling it throughout Paris on my first visit there back in 19--...well, back in the day! It's a pity that it's been reformulated into a withering version of the original.


  18. Marsi, thanks a lot for your stimulating comment!
    You're probably right in pegging RG as quite Parisian, apart from the name it has that cool sophisticated touch that is very chic. Love your scented memories of Paris, these two get a lot of love don't they? I can't say that I recall Capucine all that well, despite having a fabulous name, is it the coconut one? (Or is that Miranda?)

  19. Donna,

    thanks honey for your kind words, I usually manage to sneak in a post or two, but not this time. :/

    Of courser Je Reviens has a wonderful story behind it. I find it has changed though, I never managed to pinpoint which was my favourite concentration, I have samples of several, but am hesitant on splurging on a bottle without guarantee!

    How lovely that my descriptors have been taken in the proper (respectful) light and you find them fit! Thanks for saying so!! :-)

  20. R,

    darling, I grew up with ladies bringing L'Air du Temps back from their Parisian trips (they went to get dresses as well as designs) and it always seemed like a very romantic, youthful fragrance. I smell it on (older) women often still and immediately think of them being in some sort of romance.
    Indeed a pity it has been thinned...

  21. I had to look up the notes for Fragonard Capucine because I couldn't recall them. They are bergamot, rose, jasmine, musk, and vanilla. I have too many bottles and like to use this one to scent my closet and office, and it's always a nice little blast from the past.

    Bal a Versailles was perfection for this list as well. Meant to mention that. The Eau de Cologne smells like old man butt on me, but I used to wear the parfum and eau de toilette, and both are gorgeous and very French.

  22. Nina Z.19:51

    I thought your choice of Amoureuse was very interesting. I live in the San Francisco Bay area and have worn all four of the original DelRae fragrances. But I have been completely baffled by the claim that they were inspired by San Francisco! For I immediately thought, about all of them, but especially Amoureuse, that they smell "French."

    (That being said, I particularly love Bois de Paradis and Eau Illuminee and they are both on my current wish list.)

  23. What a delicious article! For me Paris smells heliotropin and vanilla. Every time I'm far, when I come back I can smell fragrances on people that are hard to detect elsewhere and the sweet almondy note of heliotropin is what strikes me the most on some streets. Of course it comes from 2 perfumes you mentioned.
    It is nice to notice that between the perfumes you've chosen there is a distinctive olfactory link. The facets of the same ideal.
    There is undoubtly the trace of l'Origan that lingers in the air and in the imagination of perfumers.
    With Nuit de Noel you have the perfect link between the sweetness of Hypnotic Poison and the woody Vetiver around a rich rose.

  24. M,

    thanks for looking them up. Seems I was wrong and it was Miranda that had coconut, so glad to have set this straight.
    Old man's butt...hmm, that's so French!! *naughty look*

  25. N,

    thanks for reading and for confirming my own confused surprise as to why they claim they're inspired by SF! (Come to think of it, however, it's ever so more welcome than the plain old "inspired by Grasse" etc etc that foreign companies like to stick on the ad copy to lure in customers hankering after who knows what. Kudos to them therefore for not being afraid to produce an American fragrance that smells...French! And kudos to mr.Michel Roudnitska for being such a good sport and producing an amazing classic French floral! :-)

    Love your choices, the EI is especially pleasant for summer.

  26. O,

    thanks for chimming in and your compliment and most importantly for providing your own personal view of Paris and the scents that waft from Parisians. So it confims my own less permanent impressions, which makes me all smug! :-)

    It IS interesting, isn't it? There is a very distinct heritage and while going through my list I was conscious of it being a thread that has one end on one corner and the other on the other, yet it takes twists and creates a labyrinth of sorts. I suppose Coty WAS a revolutionary indeed and his creations cannot be bypassed: they changed the face of perfumery forever!
    How very intriguing on NdN too!! Hadn't thought of it that way.

    BTW, Hypnotic Poison is very popular here as well and I tend to follow it along the street when someone wears it, hehe.


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