Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Perfumes and Fur part 2

Relating fragrances to the warm, cozy but also intimately erotic connotations of furs is a task almost too enjoyable to be entirely legal. Some of those fragrances had even originally been thought of in relation to fur wearing which puts them all the more so in the vintage zone of a modern consumer’s consciousness, accompanied by a pang of nostalgia for things one has not even lived through.
The aristocratic aura they exuded makes them the decadent assortiment that a modern woman can reappreciate with eyes anew, cut off from their luxuriant aspirations and focusing on the richness and muskiness of their juice. But the creation process hasn’t been easy. Drom fragrances perfumer Pierre-Constantin Gueros is the son of a Parisian furrier, struggling to come to terms with how to translate his memories into scent: “The smell of the factory and smell of the different leathers and fur—that’s really something I think I will remember all my life,” he says. “And when I say leather, I mean there are so many different leathers. Sometimes I’m frustrated because we don’t have the raw materials to translate this leathery aspect. It’s sensual, but not really animalic. It’s textural—like silk, like wool. It’s very difficult to translate that into perfumes. You have the smell in your head, but translating it is very complicated.” [1] Fur in itself is a material which holds fragrance extremely well (although it’s strongly discouraged by the best furriers in the field to protect the pelts), often for generations which manage to make a simple hand-me-down the object of adoration and an infinite memory capsule.

Some of the old creators had no special qualms and went along on instinct. Jeanne Lanvin, the classic milliner most famous for her enduring Arpège, was responsible for commitioning in 1924 a rare marvel that was alas discontinued in 1988; a perfume eminently suitable to and evocative of vintage fur wearing. My Sin (Mon Péché in French), a sensuous, unapologetic beauty was created by André Fraysse of Firmenich in collaboration with the mysterious Madame Zed, an obscure personage of Russian extraction that remains a mystery in the history of perfumery. Supposedly resulting after no less than 17 unsuccessful perfumes [2] from her laboratory in Nanterre, My Sin proved that a sinful name and a classy, yet daring smell, was all it was required in the roaring Twenties.Its synergy of heliotrope and aldehydes gives a powderiness that is simpatico to both the romantic floral heart and the animalic musky-woody base of musk, civet and sandalwood, conspiring in giving an aura of silent but powerful distinction.

However Parfums Weil is the most characteristic example of fur perfumes, being the perfumery offshoot of Parisien furrier, Les Fourrures Weil (Weil Furs), established in 1927. Furriers since 1912, well before they became purveyors of fine fragrance, the venture of the founder Alfred and his brothers Marcel and Jacques into perfume resulted from the direct request of a client for a fragrance suitable to fur wearing. Weil obligingly capitulated to the request and produced scents that would guarantee not to harm the fur itself, yet mask the unwelcome musty tonality that fur coats can accumulate after a while. The names are quite literal: Zibeline (sable), Ermine (hermine), Chinchila, Une Fleur pour Fourrure (A Flower for Furs)...
The very first of those was an expansive floral chypre, conveived as an evocation of the oak forests and steppes of imperial Russia and appropriately named after the animal there captured: Zibeline, the highest quality in furs for its legendary silky touch, its scarcity value and light weight. Zibeline belonged to the original fragrant trio line-up that launched the business of Perfumes Weil. Introduced in 1928, Zibeline was comissioned by Marcel Weil and composed by Claude Fraysee assisted by his perfumer daughter, Jacqueline. (The Fraysee clan is famous for working in perfumery: His two sons, André and Hybert were to work with Lanvin and Synarome respectively and the son of André, Richard, is today head perfumer at parfums Caron)
Zibeline was released in Eau de Toilette in 1930 but the formulations came and went with subtle differences and their history is quite interesting. First there was Zibeline, then the company issued Secret de Venus bath and body oils product line which incorporated Zibeline among their other fragrances (a line most popular in the US) while later they reverted to plain Zibeline again. The Eau versions of Secret de Venus Zibeline are lighter, with less density while the bath/body oil form approximates the spicy-musky tonalities of the Zibeline extrait de parfum, with the latter being more animalistic. The older versions of parfum were indeed buttery and very skanky, deliciously civet-laden with the fruit and floral elements more of an afterthought and around the 1950s the batches gained an incredible spicy touch to exalt that quality. Later versions of Zibeline from the 70s and 80s attained a more powdery orange blossom honeyness backed up by fruit coupled with the kiss of tonka and sandalwood, only hinting at the muskiness that was so prevalent in previous incarnations, thus resulting in a nostalgic memento of a bygone epoch that seems tamer than it had actually been.
Marcel Weil's death in 1933 did not stop expanding their perfumery endeavours; they added several other perfumes: Bambou, Cassandra and Noir.The Weil family was forced out of France by Hitler, so they re-established themselves in New York from where one of the first perfumes released was Zibeline with the quite different in character chypré Antilope being issued in 1945, upon return to Paris in 1946 when they also introduced Padisha. Sadly the multiple changing of hands resulted in the languishing of the firm by the 1980s and although the brand Weil has been in ownership of Interparfums (Aroli Aromes Ligeriens) since 2002 Parfums Weil is largely unsung and long due for a resurgence.

The smooth dark fur of a living animal –for a change- was the inspiration behind one of the most elusive vintage fragrances: Mouche by Rochas from 1947, created by none other than Edmond Roudnitska who worked for several of the Rochas thoroughbreds (Femme, Moustache, Rose, Mouselline). Marcel Rochas had a cat, named Mouche, which means “fly” in French and the idea to name a fragrance after his cat was both fun and original.
The scent came in the same amphora bottle shape as Rochas’ first creation, Femme, designed by Marc Lalique, but with the outer box with the lacy interlay shaded in turquoise rather than grey. Unfortunately Mouche was all too briefly on the scene: It got discontinued in 1962 and remains a rare collectible.

Lots of other perfumes have been linked to the opulence of fur from lynx, ermine and chinchilla to otter, shearling and karakul. Some of the most characteristic is the demi-chypre/demi-floral 1000 by Patou whose refinement, disconcerting and mysterious complexity render it a difficult but intriguing proposition; or the old version of Piguet’s Baghari, which was quite different and more daring than the more demure aldehydic re-issued. Or think of the words of actress and model Camilla Rutherford reminiscing of her mother: “My mother used to wear fur. Her scent was Cabotine by Gres, and sometimes First by Van Cleef & Arpels, and it would cling to her coat. I remember when she was going out, my sister and I would be pawing her because of the softness of her mink and the scents that came from it.” [3]
But even the most unlikely fragrances can have the most surrealistic connotations implicating fur and its mystique. In one such case of free association, Diorella has been linked to “a new fur coat that has been rubbed with a very creamy mint toothpaste. Not gel. Paste.” [4] Nor are modern fragrances excluded from this wonderful game of synesthesia between touch and smell, between silkiness and swooning. Dzing! composed by Olivia Giacobetti for L’artisan Parfumeur, encapsulates the circus in a bottle with its odours of the great cats, the sawdust in the ring, the leather whip and the cardboard partitions; a wonder which would evoke soft fur even in the absence of it and the perfect accompaniment of a man or a woman on a crisp morning. Muscs Koublaï Khän by Serge Lutens has a silky radiance, warm with the intensity of living beings effortlessly appointed the quintessential parfum fourrure for modern explorers into the terrain of carnal pleasures. And Miller Harris composed L’air de Rien for Jane Birkin (and all of us eventually, as attested by our opinions) to evoke her brother’s hair and her father's pipe, resulting in an animalistic, fantastically ripe and alluring oakmoss and musks blend that would have Guerlain wishing they had come up with such an avant-garde yet also strangely retro composition.
Fur perfumes will continue to hold their fascination for every perfume lover who has been leafing through sepia-tinged old photos with a sigh of unuttered contemplation.

Related reading on Perfume Shrine: Perfume and Furs part 1
[1]Perfumer & Flavorist March 2007
[2]Between 1924-1925, the house of Lanvin House launched NIV NAL, IRISE, KARA - DJENOUN (commemorating an Egyptian journey ), LE SILLON, Apres Sport (all of those were discontinued in 1926), CHYPRE, COMME-CI COMME-CA, LAJEA, J'EN RAFFOLE, LA DOGARESSE, OU FLEURIT L’ORANGER (discontinued in 1940), GERANIUM D’ESPAGNE (discontinued in 1962), friction JEANNE LANVIN, CROSS-COUNTRY, and MON PECHE/MY SIN (discontinued in 1988). (source: Tout en Parfum)
[3]Interview in
the Dailymail.co.uk
The Face Aug.2005

Vincent Price and Coral Browne photo by Helmut Newton. My Sin and Mouche ads through Ebay. Mouche bottle via Musee de Grasse. Zibeline bottle pic via cyberattic.com


  1. "Almost too enjoyable to be entirely legal" could apply to this post. This whole theme is getting at some essential aspect of my response to scent, though I never really explored the connection before. The quote from Gueros is wonderful, a perfect expression of the pain and pleasure of scent obsession.

    You make me want to revisit Patou 1000. I agree about the original Baghari, which was an exquisite scent. I had a vintage mini, and I actually gave away the juice--I liked it so much I was afraid it would become an expensive obsession.

    For modern scents that would be perfect with fur, I'd suggest another Lutens: Cuir Mauresque. It has such a sweet, rich animalic quality, with a touch of whimsy.

  2. Aww, thanks M! It's quite amazing how perfume has some tangible aura about it, isn't it? I loved the Gueros quote too *sigh*
    I like the re-issued Baghari, but it's a different scent, obviously.There is something to be said about not wanting to fall in love with a discontinued gem. Too painful...
    Cuir Mauresque! *Smacks forehead* But of course! Excellent suggestion.

  3. Anonymous07:56

    You're the golden standard you know about these historical posts, you know. So much info in such a sensuous packaging! A pleasure to read. And there is something to be said about your choices. They have me salivating after long-forgottn treasures which I recall on my mother's dresser.
    She was a big fan of 'Zibeline Secret de Venus' and I used to steal drops when I could, feeling all smug and grown up when I did! It's an abject shame the fragrance is not talked about more because it's spectacular.

    Inspired by that I think I will give your modern suggestions a whirl too and see what I think in relation to the context discussed!

  4. Thank you for these informative and brilliant posts on fur. If i ever wore my mother's redfox i'd use Shalimar with it. That's for sure... 'Mouche' by Roudnitska/for Rochas sounds intrigueing, do we know more about the notes etc.?
    never tried MySin, i am curious now. The Weils sound a bit fierce, i could imagine they're hard to wear nowadays. But then, you never know until you sniff. ;-)

  5. Sue,

    thank you my dear, you make me blush! Those old vintages are quite retro yet they have a yearning built into them, an ache. It's quite sumbliminal. And the modern contestants are ripe for exploration: creating memories for the next generation I should guess. I would be interested in seeing what you think!

  6. My sweet N,

    thank you for being so sweet :-)
    Shalimar in extrait would be fabulous with anything luxe and warm, it's so decadent. I hope to update with more on Mouche as soon as I am able ;-)
    The Weils are really wonderful, not too scary, worth finding out about.

  7. Helg, I finally dug up my notes for Marcel Rochas Mouche... It's pretty much the furthest thing you could imagine from fur, with aromatic mint, basil and tarragon top notes, Roudnitska's trademark Prunol base, rose, jasmine and muguet. Very fresh and surprising!

  8. Great post, as usual! I look forward to your next piece on perfume history.

    I think I need to go to perfume school to be able to identify all the notes in a scent. It's quite frustrating after a sniff of something quite good, to have all these images in my head but to be incapable of describing it to anyone! So I settle for "very good". What an anticlimax!

  9. I love the fur series- because furs were the first thing that came to mind-
    When I was 3 and smelled Scandal de Lanvin-
    [ Glorious women with breasts, hips, talons hauts, trailing sables...]

    Vintage Rumeur is another, so suited to the wearing of fur; you've named many loves of mine.

    This is a LOT of fun !

  10. Dearest D,

    isn't that fun!! How utterly unexpected considering it's been mentioned by someone as being a perfume FOR furs.
    It's been definitely inspired by a little furry friend, but I deduce by what you say that the said friend was consuming lots of grass to keep his digestion track regular ;-) LOL!!
    It's a rare collectable, it would be great to come across a big bottle in pristine condition.

  11. AD,

    honey, thank you for your compliment :-) It's so kind of you.
    I wouldn't think that one needs to necessarily "catch" every described note in fragrances. Sometimes most are fantasy and other times perception might be different. For instance I describe what I smell myself, but perhaps someone with a different cultural background might pick something else entirely based on their own associations which I might have missed. It's interesting to compare with real, tangible things and take it from there, though: open the spice cupboard and compare with perfumes, cut fruits and vegetables fresh and compare with things in bottles, smell animals (cats, dogs, horses etc), smell different flowers etc. It's all fun! :-)

  12. Oh, I! Vintage Scandal....how wonderful that is. And how sad that it can't be resurrected now, at least not under that name (RD has the name for one of his trio).
    And vintage Rumeur. Ah! Good one, yes.
    I knew you'd appreciate the spirit of the posts :-)

  13. maria blogrom21:12

    Late for a post here, but I love your Fur serie. Comes from another world where the word fur was still alowed. Like most of us here I feel so many times I was born in the wrong place.
    Anyway, for me Mitsouko is the unmistakable smell of or rather for a fur. Whenever I try it I see and feel a somptous velvety fur. Heavy and light, musty and airy. I reach for it in the middle of summer only to feel the fur, the temptation of warmth in winter.

    (Recently I was at a family party where the clothes of the grandma of my husband, dead more then 10 years ago, where taken out and, being a stilish and slim woman, most women in family where looking for something. The star was a evening short fur, absolutely marvelous, which everybody tried embarassed, some women looked like transformed by the small so elegant fur and all of them put it away. I found one of them looking really fantastic, I told her, she smiled and put it away. So you take it, I say. She looked upset at me and said 'I won't wear fur'. OK, I do support that, but it was just a piece coming from another world, at least 50 years old, a time when the poor grandma didn't have any idea what crime she comits. So I convinced her that she might try to take it, could be only for herself looking in the mirror and it's still worth it. She took it.)

  14. Dear Maria, thank you for stopping by and welcome to our venue! Hope to see you often.

    Sorry I caught this with some delay, it's a most interesting comment and it merits recognition. It is as you say: there is something distirbingly primal about fur that is very enticing. It's all the better if it's still on the living animal and we can touch it, of course!

    As to Mitsouko, although I have always tied it in my mind with rainy weather I can see your point: there's something troubling (in a good way!) and golden about it and warm at the same time. It's delicious...

    The story with your husband's grandma which is so poignant (don't you love these things) illustrates my point exactly: if it's vintage fur and it's cold outside, someone might at least wear it instead of the closet; the deed is already done so what would be the point apart from making a "statement"? New fur on the other hand...nope; not worth it knowing one contributes to slaughter.

    Thanks again for your story, had lots of pleasure reading about it.

  15. I don't know how I missed this post!! Many of the details of the Weil scents are very well known to me, and were included in an article I wrote for another blog several years ago. I would like to point out one thing I believe to be inaccurate:

    You mention Une Fleur Pour Fourrure. There never was such a perfume, as far as I know. There was a scent called simply "Une Fleur" which was launched in 1931 and discontinued in 1941. There was also a perfume name registered during the war as "Fleur dans la Fourrure," but it was never produced. I think it's possible you've conflated the two into an entirely new perfume?

    Can you tell me where you came upon the name as you wrote it? I'm curious if there is a source out there which I may have overlooked.

    Very interesting topic!!

  16. J,

    how nice to see you here! How are you? Thanks for your encyclopedic knowledge on the Weils.

    I believe I had the info on that name from that perfume appraisal lady, Gracie-something? I see it perpetuated on another site, although Perfume Intelligence marks it as Fleurs pour la Fourrure just as you say. So you must be 100% correct and I have been wrong and should have checked with you. (off to edit the name so that readers aren't misled)

    And yes, it IS an interesting topic, isn't it?

  17. Oops, I was quick to post.
    Perfume Intelligence lists it as:
    "Un Fleur pour le Fourrure, Weil. 1925"
    Weil Perfumes List

    Now, they have a grammatical error there (it's a feminine noun in French so it should have been Une Fleur, so I'm getting second thoughts) But they do also list Une Fleur for 1931.

    The plot thickens... *scratching my head* Advice?


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