Saturday, May 21, 2011
The Scent of the Past - Perfumes and History
I bought myself a little treat on eBay the other day - a very old, unused and unopened bottle of a fragrance by Lanvin, called Arpege. There are only a handful of perfumes that I really like, and all of them are old. Almost antique! Top of my list comes L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain. I adore it, but it's not really a scent for everyday wear. I love Guerlain's Mitsouko, too, and occasionally wear Tweed, mainly because it reminds me of my mother. Not, I should add, Tweed in its later, nastier, thinner incarnation, but vintage Tweed, by Lentheric, rich and musky and heathery, the scent of my childhood. I can still remember opening mum's wardrobe door and sniffing at the scent of the perfume my father bought for her every Christmas, those lovely little bottles with the characteristic wooden top - and an expensive purchase for him in those days, when he was a struggling Doctoral student and we were strapped for cash.
But then, there's Arpege. Which I discovered only a few years ago.
Where do I begin?
This was a perfume which Andre Fraysse composed for Jeanne Lanvin in 1927, the year after my father was born, in a place called Dziedzilow, in Eastern Poland. They were quite a wealthy family, and since the Poles always had a connection with and affection for the French, I sometimes think the ladies might have worn French perfumes, perhaps even my great grandmother, Anna. I could attempt to describe this scent for you, but the wonderful perfume blog Bois de Jasmin does it better! It was reformulated in the 1990s and - unlike so many other scents, where the reformulation is a pale imitation of the original - this one is still good. Different but good. However, for me, the vintage scent is a pearl of great price, because it is in so many ways a scent of its time, rare, strange and turbulent.
The little parcel arrived, with the perfume - it was an eau de toilette - carefully wrapped in bubble wrap. I'm looking at it now. The old cellophane was still intact when it came, but I've opened that now. The box is in perfect condition, and the perfume bottle sits snugly inside, such a beautiful bottle too, tall and slender, an art deco glass bottle, with a black bakelite top, with the mother and daughter image - supposed to be Jeanne and Marie-Blanche getting ready for a ball. The scent entices - pale, golden, magical. You take the top off and sniff, and it's as perfect as the day it was bottled. Wear it, and its wonderful complexity is enchanting. It is the scent of the past, and, like all perfumes, can take you back to another time and place - in this case, as a writer of historical fiction, I find that it seems to have the power to transport me to somewhere I have never known. It's another reason why I love old perfumes, even when they may be perfumes I don't want to wear. Close your eyes, inhale, and you're somewhere else, somewhere that no longer exists.
But I'll certainly wear this one. Old scents, especially good ones, like this, made with fabulous essential oils, retain their power. Just occasionally you'll get a bottle that has 'gone off' but it's a rare occurrence. More often, the scent will have lost its 'top notes' but if you wear it and give it a little time, ten minutes or so, you'll find it's as beautiful as ever. And often too, if you can find an unopened bottle like this one, you'll be treated to the full time travel experience at first go! This perfume is perfect. Thank-you to the seller who found it, who didn't - as I suspect all too often happens - throw it in the bin, but instead allowed me to add to my little collection of magical scents of the past!