On Tuesday afternoon, September 14, 2010, a small group of people had the tremendous privilege of attending a Private View of the Harrods exhibition The Perfume Diaries hosted by the curator, Roja Dove. (If you missed the previous reportage of the Guerlain evening, please read this article). The exhibition, the brainchild of perfumery buyer Emma Hockley, is the biggest that Harrods has ever staged and Roja’s reputation in the industry is such that legendary perfume houses, as well as private collectors including Roja himself, have lent priceless items, many of which have never been seen in public before.
Structured by reference to socio-economic influences over the past century, the exhibition opens with an explanation of the standard construction of perfumes (the pyramid) and the recognized fragrance families and moves on to mouth-watering displays of rare and beautiful items decade by decade. The initial display covers the century from 1800 to 1900 and Roja, a born raconteur, had his audience spellbound explaining the birth of perfumery in England and, later, in France. Many amazing examples were on display, including the original bottles of perfume made for Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Napoleon. Roja explained that in the early days there was no such thing as advertising and bottles were generally of a very simple apothecary style, but with large labels indicating the content. The hope was that passers-by would be enticed by the labels and drawn in to the shop to make a purchase.
We are all familiar with the idea of eau de toilette but the origin of the term was explained by Roja. In the very early days, toile (cloth) was scented with oils, dried, scented again, dried again, and so on, until it became thoroughly impregnated with perfume. It was a very costly luxury. The toile was then used, dry, to rub down the body after sleep and provide freshness and scent when bathing was not terribly common! After this start, it evolved into the liquid product called eau de toilette which we all use today. Roja pointed out an incredibly rare sealed bottle which was the original eau de toilette (“water from the little cloth.”)
In the beginning of the 20th century, great houses such as Guerlain, Houbigant and Piver moved from the simple soliflore scents they had been producing and started to give their perfumes fanciful names (how about Voila Pourquoi j’Aimais Rosine?) as they started to use some of the modern synthetics to make their fragrances more complex. Roja joked that celebrity scents are nothing new, as Guerlain named one of their perfumes Jasmiralda (and yes, there is a full bottle in the exhibition) after Esmeralda, the heroine of Victor Hugo’s popular novel Notre Dame de Paris.
The genius known as the father of modern perfumery, the Corsican Francois Coty, revolutionised the perfume world in the early part of the 20th century, not only with his wonderfully innovative creations but also with the presentation of his scents. He had his friend Baccarat make bottles and another friend, a jeweller by the name of Rene Lalique, make labels and boxes for his perfumes (previously unheard of). The rest, as they say, is history.
The 1920s saw the launch of many masterpieces, and the creation of Chanel No 5 in 1921 with the use of aldehydes was a milestone. Roja showed us an exhibit which belongs to him – a red leather box containing Chanel No 2 (never produced commercially), Chanel No 5, Chanel No 11 (again, not a commercial production) and Chanel No 22. His box is the only one known in the world!
As the exhibition moved through the decades, the stories came thick and fast. We saw the fabulous silver ship presentation of Patou’s Normandie which was presented to every lady in First Class on the inaugural voyage of the luxurious transatlantic liner of the same name. The example of the bottle on display is numbered one, belongs to Roja and was recovered from a skip where it had been jettisoned after Patou was sold.
In the 1940s the wind of change was sweeping through the world after World War II and it brought with it fragrances such as Vent Vert and Miss Dior. One of the few non-perfume exhibits is the original dress from Dior’s New Look collection of 1947, named Miss Dior. Roja also pointed out a bottle in the shape of a dog, called Tian, which contains Miss Dior. This incredibly rare item is named after Monsieur Dior’s dog, called Tian as a diminutive of Christian, his owner’s name.
As we moved into the 1960s Roja talked about the social changes which would have such a huge influence on everyone – the Beatles, the Pill, the mini-skirt and the new freedom of the decade. Dior launched Eau Sauvage which capitalised on the new synthetic hedione (a jasmine derivative). Such was the influence of this scent that just about every perfume made since that time has incorporated this element. Roja showed us an unbelievably rare bottle in the familiar Eau Sauvage ribbed style but with the label Favorit, for that was to be the name until a Dior employee named Monsieur Sauvage, always late for meetings, walked in one day, late as usual, and a colleague said “oh, Sauvage!” The perfume had its new name.
The display for the 1980s had everyone laughing and amongst the tales of excess was the one recounted by Roja which was that when Giorgio was released there was a line outside Harvey Nichols in London stretching right down the street every single day as people rushed to buy this blockbuster! It is also interesting that the first true celebrity fragrance appeared in the 80s, and it was Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds.
The 1990s, with the rejection of excess and embracing of minimalism, together with the fear of HIV/Aids, brought us the anti-scents of Calvin Klein’s Escape and Issey Miyake’s l’Eau d’Issey, using the synthetic Calone, previously used to fragrance detergents. It also brought us the return to childhood which is the sweet and sticky candy-floss of ethyl maltol found in the astonishingly successful Angel.
None of those present wanted the guided tour to end, but after almost two hours we landed in the present day with its “sets” of fragrance, such as Cartier les Heures, Chanel’s Les Exclusifs and Van Cleef and Arpels range. Roja pointed out that this craze for a group of perfumes was started with Guerlain’s Aqua Allegorias and Jean-Charles Brosseau’s Fleurs d’Homme, so there really is nothing new under the sun.
Among the highlights of the afternoon were the incredibly rare early bottles and all the amazing Guerlains, many in mint condition and in very large sizes, all described so vividly by Roja. Next time you feel guilty about buying perfume, remember that until relatively recently, perfume extrait was sold in 30 ml, 60 ml, 120 ml and 250 ml bottles. The little 7.5 ml size was for a lady to keep in her handbag, before the advent of the travel-sized atomizer. And Hermes made (unsigned) coloured leather or crocodile cases for Guerlain, containing bulb atomizers to fill with your favourite scent. Imagine!
A few of the other special items on display and their stories:
- The Baccarat Papillon (bow-tie) bottles were made of blue glass and covered in gold (they originally contained Guerlain’s Coque d’Or) but some were not covered in gold. Why? Well, the factory doing the gilding burnt down!
- Receipts and bills for Marie Antoinette, who had the Sevres factory make porcelain flowers for her garden at Versailles, which were scented every day with her favourite perfume.
- A large leather ledger from Floris shows orders for the King and Queen. The late Queen Mother paid her Floris bill by Postal Order!
- A “plan” of the Chanel No 5 bottle (i.e. the view looking down from above on the stopper and bottle) reveals itself as a diagram of the layout of the Place Vendome in Paris.
There is so much to see in this museum-class and absolutely enthralling exhibition and anyone who can manage to get to London should make a point of visiting as soon as possible.
pics via cultbeauty.co.uk, vintageposterart.com, britishbeautyexperts.com, quirkyfinds.com