You wonder why François Coty never had someone break Jacques Guerlain’s nose.
In 1905, Coty launches L’Origan, a carnation-orange blossom-heliotrope cocktail set in ambery vanilla. Seven years later, Guerlain takes the same idea and turns it into a masterpiece, L’Heure Bleue, by adding an anisic note and the elegance of
In other words, every time Coty invented a structure, Guerlain went one better, made it more elegant, more evocative. Which would be reason enough to raise anybody’s hackles.
But the Corsican self-made-man had no reason to envy the scion of the most aristocratic family in perfumery: he was, by then, one of the richest men in the world. Coty wasn’t aiming to seduce the great ladies of the faubourg Saint-Honoré: he wanted the working girl to whom he sold his scented powders when she couldn’t afford his fragrances; he wanted to conquer the American women. And to found the first perfume empire. He succeeded.
From an artistic point of view, Guerlain won out: his masterpieces are still sold. Coty, on the other hand, produces mass-marketing and celebrity fragrances; L’Émeraude and L’Origan are gasping their dying breaths as drugstore cheapies. If you want to have any idea of the astounding creativity of the Napoleon of perfumery, you need to buy vintage or get yourself to the Versailles Osmothèque.
Of the origins of Opium and Poison...
That’s where I smelled the original formula of L’Origan for the first time. It was an olfactory punch in the stomach – just utterly beautiful – then a strange, déjà-vu (or rather, déjà-smelled) sensation. And not only because those bergamot top notes, the hot-and-cold gush of carnation/clove piercing a cloud of orange blossom and powdery heliotrope, softened by a bed of vanilla and coumarin, reminded me of L’Heure Bleue without the blues. Tone down the flowers, pile on the spices and resins (myrrh, benzoin, opoponax, labdanum), and you get Opium (1997). Turn on the tuberose and Christian Dior’s Poison (1985) pops up.
François Coty’s greatest compositions are the matrix of modern perfumery. Not only by their structures, which gave birth to whole families of fragrances, but also by their innovative use of synthetic materials, which tended to scare off traditional perfumers. The result, according to Edmond Roudnitska, quoted by Michael Edwards in Perfume Legends, was “the first modern intensity perfumes of the century”.
A Fragrance for the Birth of a New Century
L’Origan has the roughness of new-born things, the characteristic brutality of Coty’s work – he was a man of instinct rather than a consummate artist like Guerlain. It has the vitality of an upstart forcing the doors of posh salons, the colour-saturated rawness of Poiret’s orientalist gowns and of the Ballets Russes, which would soon take
Like all of Coty’s first fragrances, it innovated by introducing synthetic notes, often dressed up in bases (mini-perfumes composed by the labs), which gave a bone structure to heavy, oily natural essences of traditional perfumery, as well as a greater stability. Unlike the smooth, fleshed-out fragrances of Guerlain, Coty’s intuitive compositions – “slightly heterogeneous assemblages” miraculously transformed in masterpieces, according to Roudnitska – leave this bone structure in view.
Thus, in L’Origan, the almost medicinal whiff of Chuit Naef’s Dianthine base, strongly dosed in eugenol (the odorant principle of clove), paired off with tarragon, possibly coriander and/or cardamom, bursts out of the bottle with an almost shocking intensity. The licorice-y, powdery sweetness of heliotrope barely tames it; the round smokiness of resins, benzoin or opoponax, and of the amber-vanilla base notes, finally smooths it out by bathing it in sunshine.
But by then, you’re already reeling on your feet: you’ve been worked over by one of the oldest modern perfumes in history. And you’re coming back for more.
Image: Kees Van Dongen, Woman with Large Hat (1906)