On October 30 of this year, a tiny but, in its way, momentous event took place in perfumery : what must surely be the first open-source perfume formula ever was presented on Michelle Krell Kydd’s marvelous fragrance and flavor blog, Glass Petal Smoke.
Michelle asked Yann Vasnier, of Givaudan, for a perfume inspired by Baudelaire’s poem “The Perfume Flask”, from The Flowers of Evil. Vasnier provided her both with the composition and its formula, which she posted on her blog.
Of course, any attempt to reproduce Le Flacon would be stymied by the fact that the materials Yann used are all but inaccessible (ambergris infusion, civet, musk Tonkin infusion)… However, like open-source software, Le Flacon’s formula is available to play around with.
Michelle was kind enough to send me a dram of this über-rare elixir – now that’s exclusive! – and as a long-time worshipper at the altar of Baudelaire, I am quite smitten. Every perfume lover knows – or should know – that the French poet was the first to sing, not only the beauty of perfume, but its intimate links to memory, corruption and artifice with a truly modern sensibility. Violently rejecting the late 18th century’s Rousseauist infatuation with nature, he praised the anti-natural charms of cosmetics and fashion (“In Praise of Cosmetics”, 1863): like poetry, their goal is "to invent an ideal that surpasses Nature”. Fashion, he writes, “should be considered as a symptom of the taste for the ideal which floats on the surface of all the crude, terrestrial and loathsome bric-a-brac that natural life accumulates in the human brain”. Surely perfume was included in this philosophical rehabilitation of artifice – or would have been if Baudelaire had lived in the era of abstract perfumery which opened two decades later with Houbigant Fougère Royale (1882) and Jicky (1889). But by then, he was long dead…
“The Perfume Flask” speaks of “opening old trunks brought home from the Far East”, of “the powdery odors of moments that are dead”; of “old and rancid love, charming and long-interred”; of the “sweet pestilence of my heart”… The old perfume flask is him; the “beloved poison prepared by the angels”, his lover. The poem reeks of the hope for the grave of a tortured love.
I must admit I was expecting some whiff of corruption, but what rises from Le Flacon are the unmistakable, fresh-musty accords of the ghost of chypres past. The acrid smell of the dregs of a dried-up bottle hovers under the fresh rose-galbanum of Miss Dior (the original, not today’s travesty) as though the vintage version, complete with traces of age, were beating on the lid of the top notes to be released. The oddly fresh-fatty smell of Melonal acts like a Roudnitska quotation (shades of Diorama) until the peach-jasmine accord rises to resurrect Mitsouko.
A very subtle smell of vegetal corruption, like the brackish stench of a forgotten flower vase, threads in and out, barely perceptibly, throughout the development, until the scents folds into its animalic base of civet, musk, beeswax and very dominant ambergris.
By the time it subsides, another renegade poet’s song comes to mind: François Villon’s “The Ballad of Dead Ladies” (“Ballade des dames du temps jadis”), a lament on bygone beauties, with its haunting refrain “where are the snows of yesteryear?”.
Where are the chypres of yesteryear? Enclosed in Le Flacon… But with a twist: this isn’t an imitation of old classic fragrances. And though in part a tribute, it is also a reflection on bygone smells as they surge in our memory, even when we don’t really remember them as such, never having encountered them fresh…
Here’s hoping that Michelle and Yann’s groundbreaking endeavor will spawn imitators: to both, bravo.
Image: Portrait of Charles Baudelaire by Félix Nadar