Monday, November 5, 2007

The Dior Chypres series ~1.the hidden force: Edmond Roudnitska

Perfume Shrine embarked on a mission: to disect and discuss one of the bastions of chypre: la maison Dior in its former glory, when under the baguette of Edmond Roudnitska and Paul Vacher it produced classics that remain up there in the pantheon for all of us to worship.

Edmond Roudnitska is probably the one name you simply need to drop if you want to appear as if you have at least a passing knowledge of scent. Of course name dropping is completely ridiculous, especially when used to prove that someone knows anything about anything, but the practice does not diminish the value of this Ukranian émigré who started as an assistant to Ernest Beaux; the Russian perfumer to the czars who made the legend of Chanel parfums almost single-handedly. Did his apprenticeship serve him well? More than that.

Roudnitska became much more than an artist of high calibre in the fragrant galaxy or a point of reference. He also pondered theoretically on the subject of perfume through his prolific writing and his polemic to establish perfume creation as an art form, especially in his book “Le parfum” in the “Que sais-je?” series (now out of print), “L’ésthetique en question” and “L’intimité du parfum”. But the dialectic he inaugurated has survived in his dictum (from a speech given on 20 November 1952 in Paris):
“For it to be considered Art, smell ceases to be a sense to be satisfied to rather become a medium. Thus perfumes will be spiritual compositions and the public will be able to initiate themselves into olfactive forms”.

For him it is not the sense of smell or the materials that are important, but rather the spirit which, playing with forms, will coax the latter with the aid of the former. This point of view had been forgotten for decades when perfumes came out with the eye more on the commercial than the artistic, only to be revived when certain niche companies came into the fore dynamically. Roudnitska bases his axiom in the comparison to other art forms (as mapped out by Etienne Souriau).
“A beautiful perfume is the one which gives us a shock: a sensory one followed by a psychological one. A beautiful perfume is one with happy proportions and an original form”.

One criterion is the pre-thought-out process that precedes composition, contrasting popular myths about “happy accidents” (too much aldehydes in Chanel No.5, vanillin in Jicky producing the basic accord for Shalimar) and certainly the rumour that Jean Carles composed by instinct rather than plan. Therefore artistic perfume composition should focus in evoking odours in an abstract manner. In this he found an eminable successor in Jean Claude Ellena who composes with pen and paper at hand and not concocting alloys at some secret lab. Emphasis on the interaction of materials with one another is also highly regarded.
Additionally, perfume composition should be unique, much like a musical piece, and protected against “plagiarism”. To this he was adamant. He would be sadly disillusioned to find out that nowadays there are hundreds of fragrances that are composed with gas chromatograph and mass spectometer at the side of the unlucky recipient of a perfume brief from a big company: that is, to replicate a best-selling fragrance adding a minimal twist. This is where the education of the public comes into the fore, as well as the possibility of expression both personal and national or era-related through perfume.

Perhaps one of Roudnitska’s best known triumphs -alongside Diorissimo, the iconic lily of the valley fragrance- is the classic Rochas chypre Femme {click here for review}. In this he explored the concept of the fruity chypre with touches of aldehyde and powder rendering a fragrance at once opulent, alluring and elegant. Himself he renounced the moniker of “chypre” for it. In an article appearing in Perfumer and Flavorist magazine in December 1987, he describes Femme as
“floral, aldehydic and very fruity, with the double characteristic of woodiness and sweetness”.
This was due to the antithesis to Coty’s prototype but probably also due to a desire to differentiate from previous fruity exempla, such as Mitsouko. Roudnitska continued to produce scents for Rochas: Mouselline (formely Chiffon), Mouche, Moustache and La Rose.

But it was his meeting with Serge Heftler-Louiche, director of parfums Christian Dior that cemented his style and directed him into a lucrative business and artistic collaboration that lasted for decades and it is interesting to juxtapose the chypres he produced for them with Femme. Christian Dior opened shop in 1945 under the insistence of the businessman Marcel Boussac. A new perspective to fashion was brought with his New Look, which took women back to the era of crinolines, in a way, counter-revolutionising what Cadolle and Chanel had accomplished through the use of pliable materials that helped women become the men in their lives in all areas besides the boudoir. Dior envisioned women in more traditional roles, wasp-waisted like some Minoan goddess and with meters of skirt lengths that challenged the rationed days of the war:
"We were emerging from a period of war, uniforms, female soldiers built like boxers. I was drawing female flowers with soft shoulders, full busts, waists as slim as liana and corolla skirts".
Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar remarked:
“It's quite a revolution, dear Christian. Your dresses have such a new look”.

The year was 1947 and Dior came out with his first scent, Miss Dior, as homage to his sister. Credited to Paul Vacher, based on a formula suggested by Jean Carles and reorchastrated by Roudnitska in 1992 in extrait de parfum, it is nothing short of a classic and the introduction of a big trend in the coming years: the floral chypre; but with an animalic twist down the line, of which more later on.
But it was in 1949 that Diorama, a fruity chypre perfume, was created by Roudnitska. With it he found a balance between complexity and clear vision that captures several olfactory nuances: spicy, floral, fruity, animalic and all enrobed in a sensual feminine dress. By this time he began simplifying his palette, making stricter formulae, with a mathematical precision that abandonded notes that served merely for the pleasantry of the senses, like heavy sugary ones, to focus on more spiritual endeavours using purer, strictly “olfactory” notes that aimed at the cerebral rather than the carnal; aiming at elevating scent from the instinct of the reptile cortex into the fully developed Homo sapiens membranes. Eau d’Hermès followed in 1951, all spices galore, and Eau Fraîche for Dior in 1953, comissioned and modeled around Coty’s Cordon Vert eau de cologne (in its turn by Chypre) and by Roudnitska’s own words the only true chypre version in the market (this was in 1993).
In 1963 Paul Vacher produced another chypre in the Dior stable: this time a leathery fragrance, Diorling. With it all elements fall into place into a supreme elegance that is as buttery smooth as the fur of an alpaca coat.

Roudnitska’s most successful –commercially certainly! - scent entered the scene in 1966: Eau Sauvage. A chyprish citrus for men with the daring floral note of jasmine through the use of hedione. In this Roudnitska culminated his aesthetic odyssey of the sparseness of composition with an artistic merit that defies criticism. Diorella (1972), with its foot in the fruity tradition of Diorama, was the feminine chypre counterpart to Eau Sauvage, enigmatically relying on very few materials to give a very fresh, very young fragrance and which Roudnitska himself considered one of the best in his career. Dior Dior, a woody floral perfume, issued in 1976, never took off commercially and was destined to be discontinued till now.

Luckily Diorama and Diorling, two of the pre-eminent chypres in the Dior constellation have been re-issued and will be reviewed shortly along with the other Dior chypres.

Related reading on PerfumeShrine: 
The Dior series, fragrance reviews of classic perfumes

Pic of E.Roudnitska courtesy of artetparfum, Dior ad from parfumsdepub. Translations of quotes from the French by Elena Vosnaki


  1. Helg, thanks so much for this well-researched overview. I've been working my way through some of the old Diors, trying to make them "my own" and not just a memory. I'm looking foreward to the rest of the series.

  2. Thank you Gaia.

    Those old Diors were really something, weren't they? To varying degrees they mirror the evolution of an aesthetic standpoint.

    I have already fallen head over heels with one....

  3. Anonymous16:47

    Wonderful post about my favorite perfumer and one of my favorite houses. Thank you so much! I'll wear a generous spritz of Miss Dior today in its honor.

  4. Thank you Angela for the lovely compliment and enjoy Miss Dior. I will devote an entry on it shortly.

  5. Anonymous21:20

    Fabulous article, Helg. Thank you for all the work you put into your blog. Looking forward to more articles about the great Diors.

  6. Thanks so much for such enthusiastic reception freegracer. Hope I won't disappoint.

  7. Hats off to you and another magisterial post! Neophytes and sage perfumeophiles alike need to know this man. To understand him is to understand the better part of postwar perfumery.

  8. Great post. I didn't know Roudnitska have disavowed Femme as a chypre -- it's so far off from the Coty as to be in a class by itself, though to me, in many ways, Eau d'Hermès is its masculine counterpart.
    I've given some thought to the relationship between fashion houses and their scents, especially the first ones. While there is a remarkable coherence between Chanel perfumes and fashions (in Mademoiselle's era), the early Dior chypres, though very womanly, don't seem to mesh with the regression to traditional femininity that the New Look represented. Miss Dior is somewhat tougher, a well-bred sister to Bandit; Diorling is a variation on the theme and both, with their aromatic opening and mossy base, could easily be worn by men, at least in the vintage versions I own. Diorama, with its tart opening notes, is also much more bracing and supple than the very stylised, corseted silhouettes created by M. Dior. Perhaps they were a subtext to the freer, tougher woman who would bridge the gap between the hardships of the Forties and the liberated Sixties exemplified by Eau Sauvage and Diorella (which I have yet to try...).

  9. Dear C,
    it's very true that his oeuvre is fundamental to the understanding of modern perfumery. And look how he influenced so many!

  10. Thank you D, I appreciate your compliment.

    This is an interesting point you bring on!
    I think that a certain "masculinity" in vintage fragrance was not intended as such. I believe what today is perceived as slightly more masculine in fragrant terms(animalics,leather, tobacco notes etc.) was considered to be a slight "dirtier" underlay that was not antithetical to the natural womanly odour. At least in French perfumery...
    Of course by today's standards this is unacceptable (so much the pity).
    The fashion counterpoint merits its own investigation perhaps.

  11. I'd be interested in finding historical sources on that point: which notes were considered masculine and feminine in the heyday of classical French perfumery. I do believe that notes of tobacco and leather must have been meant to express feminine emancipation -- they were prominent in "garçonne" era scents such as the great Carons, En Avion and Tabac Blond. So they must've had masculine connations. But more on that theme later, I think...

  12. Undoubtedly there has to be some truth in emancipation expressed through smoking (hence Tabac Blond).
    Leather might be more attuned to luxury cars (the upholstery), gent's clubs (the Chesterfield couches) or expensive leather goods (we all know about those and women!), as it wasn't used as an item in women's clothing so much as today.

    It's interesting to examine. Till later...


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