The original Visa (1945)
Though often attributed to Germaine Cellier (who authored the earlier, ground-breaking Robert Piguet fragrances Bandit and Fracas), Visa was in fact composed by Jean Carles, and it’s pretty much got Jean Carles written all over it : this is a less spicy version of Dana’s Tabu. The aldehydic top notes (almost evaporated in my flacon) and floral heart are all but smothered in Synarome’s Animalis base, a dense, feral mixture of civet, castoreum, musks and possibly costus (which smells of dirty hair and fur), smeared into sandalwood and some leather (though not an isobutyl quinoline leather type), to which are added some aromatic notes. Visa was originally launched in a leak-proof flacon with a green and red plaid box especially created for air travel, hence its name.
Animalis -- which, according to Luca Turin, and I agree, would be good enough to market as a fragrance in itself -- is still produced by Synarome, though not, of course, with animal-based materials. To get a whiff, try YSL Kouros, État Libre d’Orange Vierges et Toreros or Rosine Twill Rose, though the contemporary fragrance that comes closest to the original Visa’s indecent beastliness is Veroprofumo Onda (review coming up soon).
The new Visa (2007)
The modern Visa, however, bears no reference whatsoever to the original, unlike the new Baghari which is a riff on the original, and the two flagship fragrances Bandit and Fracas, which the current licence owner of the Parfums Robert Piguet tried to reproduce as faithfully as possible with the help of Jean Guichard, head of the Givaudan perfumery school – both fragrances never stopped production, and though they’ve undergone some changes (the new Bandit in particular is nowhere near as feral as the old one), they’re still entirely recognizable.
The all-but-forgotten Visa, in all its glorious pungency, was deemed unsuited to modern markets, and there certainly aren’t enough original Visa wearers around to complain. The new formula doesn’t even pretend to be inspired by the old one: as The Scented Salamander’s Marie-Hélène noted when it was launched (Tania Sanchez concurs in The Guide), Aurélien Guichard’s composition leans closer to his own Chinatown for Bond N°9; Bois de Jasmin's Victoria, in her own review, stated that Visa owed its structure to the Angel school of perfumery: fruity top notes (bergamot, mandarin, vineyard peach and pear), sweetened with ethyl maltol (the candy-floss note) on a patchouli base. But then, so many fragrances have been compared to the epoch-making Angel that this doesn’t really mean a great deal.
As Gaia writes, the fruit here isn’t of the cheerful, cheap, mall shower gel variety: it’s got that slight over-ripeness you find in certain chypres, especially latter-day ones like YSL’s Champagne/Yvresse. I do get a whiff of unlisted nuttiness at some point: could be prunolide (also know as nonalactone or aldehyde C-18), with its prune, dusty nuts and coconut facets: it is found in some vintage chypres like Femme, and could contribute to the retro vibe the new Visa gives off. Apart from the rose, which somehow adds to the greenness, I can’t really detect a lot of florals here (ylang-ylang and orange blossom are also listed in the notes).
With its patchouli, sandalwood, vetiver, moss, vanilla and benzoin base, it could be classed in the hybrid family of the “chypre gourmand”, which sounds like a mess but somehow resolves itself through the addition of immortelle, with its curry-maple syrup facets, matched with the basil facet of mandarin (which is what sets it apart from other citruses), the green earthiness of vetiver and a leather base. As a result, though the new Visa cannot compete with its forerunner’s dark animalic growl, it does give off a similar feel of density: but rather than feeling like you’re rolling around with a tiger, you might feel, with its burnt umber, burnt orange and deep green shades, as though you’d been offered a sweet-savory feast in the autumn sun.
Image: 1949 Visa ad from Okadi.