lundi 6 décembre 2010

Grossmith Perfumes, or why some ghosts should be left to sleep




The breast-tip-coloured satin, bespoke Cadolle corset rests in its silk paper on the second shelf in my closet. I seldom take it out: when I do, it isn’t to wear it in the real world, unless I want to achieve a particularly wasp-waisted style. Corsets are odd instruments, their constriction enhancing the short, heaving breaths of pleasure, while straightening and insulating the very part of the body that should be flexible in its throes. Walking around in a corset in our contemporary world is like living with permanent, low-grade asthma: still, it is sometimes pleasant to play with a garment that is no longer compulsory; to reach beyond Poiret and Chanel into the Edwardian era and be possessed by the ghosts of the great courtesans that reigned over Maxim’s – where the original Mme Cadolle, who invented the brassiere, often went to deliver her frilly marvels…

Which is why I was so curious to try out Hasu-No-Hana, Phul-Nana and Shem-el-Nessim, three perfumes re-launched by the British house of Grossmith, founded in 1835 and back in the hands of the original owner’s family after a three-decade eclipse. How often do you get a chance to experience a fresh batch of perfumes that pull you back into the age of corsets and feathered hats? The 1888 Hasu-No-Hana predates Jicky by a year; Phul-Nana came out in 1891; the 1906 Shem-el-Nessim is the same age as Après l’Ondée and Coty’s epochal L’Origan. Yet just as Jacques Guerlain and François Coty – along with Houbigant’s Paul Parquet (Fougère Royale, Le Parfum Idéal) and Robert Bienaimé (Quelques Fleurs) -- were inventing modern perfumery, Grossmith apparently remained firmly entrenched in the 19th century.

This could give Hasu-No-Hana, Phul-Nana and Shem-el-Nessim, with their Orientalist, quasi-unmemorizable names, the charm of archaeological curios: the formulas are claimed to be authentic, and their adaptation was overseen by the-world’s-one-and-only-professeur-de-parfums, Roja Dove, who seems to have a good sideline in resurrecting bygone perfumes.
But how authentic are the scents themselves? There’s no way of knowing, really, since between the raw materials that were used back then and the ones that are available now, there may be a world of difference. Essences were extracted differently; synthetics were obtained by different processes. Any variation would upset the balance, as aficionados of reformulated perfumes well know.
The result is the olfactory equivalent of tight-lacing: a surfeit of rich notes which manages to be both as stifling as the corsets of the women who wore the perfumes back in the Belle Époque and as flaccid as their flesh when they removed it. Sensuous in an overbearing, costume-drama way that might appeal to tastes frustrated by today’s skinny juices the way a pastry cart will make a dieter drool…

Reviving Grossmith is a romantic gesture, and apparently one that is paying off in the Middle-East. But based on the three perfumes that were re-launched, at least in the form they have now, the house had already stopped being relevant before World War One.
 There’s a reason why some old perfume houses die off, and why some perfumes only live on in memoirs, history books and antiques shops… Their whole charm lies in their being ghosts. I’d just rather not attend the séance.


For proper reviews, please check out Now Smell This, Perfume Shrine, and 1000fragrances.

Illustration: from the Women in the Woods series by Deborah Turbeville (1977)


22 commentaires:

  1. Dear Denyse,
    Can I compliment you on your writting? You make me laugh and at the same time I'm impressed with your eloquence not to mention the historical background and knowledge you have. Voilà, had to get that of my chest first.
    I'm not sure as to where I can get acces to these perfumes. But might I conclude that they're not really your cup of..I'm curious never the less.I always dreamt of running around with a by corset elevated bossom...sigh, that must have been a great era.

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  2. Dear Illdone, thank you very much indeed for your kind words. The Grossmith perfumes are on sale in London at Roja Dove's perfumerie, Fortnum's and Mason's and Les Senteurs. Luckyscent stocks them in the US. They are indeed not quite my C-cup, and in my opinion, any pre-penicillin era is a risky bet! But I know what you mean about heaving bosoms... And of course, that's my taste, so you're the only one who can decide whether you love the Grossmiths or not.

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  3. Jeezes, I found them on the Senteurs d'Ailleurs website (Brussels)They are really expensive aren't they? Aiming at a certain sort of clientèle I suppose? or the materials used must be really good. Well a quick sniff won't hurt but i'm allready saving my pennies for l'Heure Fougueuse. Thanks for another enlightening review!

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  4. Illdone, yes, it's costly stuff because it's full of naturals, which is why it's doing best in the Middle-East where there's a sizeable clientele for high-end niche. But I'd be saving my € as well for L'Heure Fougueuse. It's next on buy list in fact!

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  5. I received a sample set as a gift and I'm really enjoying them, because I've been on a vintage exploration for a month. They're beautifully done, but, like a corset or panniers, one wonders where and how to wear them? Still, they are fascinating, and even if their accuracy cannot be verified, they do give a glimpse into a very different era. By the time Ma Griffe and its ilk came around, Western women were heading to a really different place! I'm not surprised these 3 perfumes are popular in more conservative countries in the Middle East.
    -Marla

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  6. Marla, it's true that it's interesting to get a glimpse into pre-modern perfumery. I found these to be fairly unwearable though, not because their smell was unpleasant but because they were just too rich, with no apparent structure. I can just imagine a modernist like Chanel rejecting exactly that type of perfumery. Some classics of yesteryear like Ma Griffe (or Femme, L'Origan, Scandal...) might be difficult to pull off today but their beauty and originality cannot be doubted. The Grossmith were not landmarks, clearly. Still, it's worth enjoying those samples, though at that price point, well...

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  7. I get what you mean. That "squashed all together" effect happens in some naturals, too. There's no air and no space. Kind of like a corset!
    -Marla

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  8. Marla, you may remember that this effect was my issue with all-natural perfumes though it's not systematic. Just harder to avoid. But I have a few samples that I keep planning to delve into, maybe during my Christmas holidays... I feel those need more focus because they're a less familiar genre to me.

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  9. I tried two of these and I confess a fondness for Shem-el-Nessim, despite the little problem of finding the appropriate time and place to wear it. It has a similarity to L'Heure Bleue, which is another perfume that sometimes gives me the same trouble. Yes, it seems that I should be dressed in a velvet gown of some sort. My usual wardrode choices-basic neutrals, simple clean lines, no fuss etc-just don't quite fit the scent.

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  10. Melissa, it's true there's some similarity between S-e-N and L'Heure Bleue. L'Origan, which was the template of this type of scent, predates both and was a huge success. I find this type of classic formula is not for everyday wear, but I know at least four women whose signature scent is L'Heure Bleue, so clearly it's a matter of taste! They certainly smell marvellous when I kiss them on the cheeks...

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  11. Oh dear, it looks like we've found some perfumes on which we disagree. I think Phul-Nana and Shem-El-Nessim are just wonderful (and I find the former totally wearable)... but then I did grow up in the Middle East...

    Thanks for your thoughts, though.

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  12. Persolaise, it's bound to happen now and then, right? They make me want to reach for my smelling salts... Oops, none!

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  13. Persolaise has got it, I think! I like Phul-Nana as well, and have a fair bit of Middle Eastern experience, too. Obviously, those olfactory memories hang around....
    -M

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  14. Marla, the Middle-Eastern tastes are very obviously inflecting the niche market. I felt very positively about that until very recently, now I'm wondering a bit... but that's a subject for another post.

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  15. That's a wonderful subject for a post. Looking forward to it!
    -M

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  16. I know I have sniffed these but they made little impression. I wish I could say that it was because I noticed the lack of breathing space but it is only with your words in my head that I rewind the memory and remember that they felt old fashioned in an unattractive (to me) way. Hurah for hedione! (amongst others)
    Nicola

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  17. Nicola, I'm wondering just now what that other old French perfume house revived by Mr. Dove was called... Pierre de something or other? I got that same stifling impression.

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  18. I always think with each post that you have out-done yourself with the illustrations, but these spooky photos so wonderfully fitting!

    Archeology is one of my passions, and I'm always wondering things like, "What did the ancient Egyptians smell like???" - or the women who walked the Art Nouveau drawing rooms, for that matter. The frustrating thing about archeology is that there is always so much more that one can never know than what one can. So I'm very much looking forward to sniffing these, wearable of not. ~~nozknoz

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  19. Nozknoz, Dominique Ropion re-created 6 historic perfume formulas for Annick Le Guérer in the book "Si le parfum m'était conté". Worth checking out... Sandrine Videault recreated the kyphi for the Cairo Museum, unfortunately I haven't smelled it!

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  20. I sniffed these in a cursory way and didn't really "get" the middle eastern sensibility you mention -- which ordinarily I'm a sucker for -- but there was probably too much going on at the Scent Bar on Saturday, with champagne and all ; ) I must go back with your post in mind -- here's another vote for a post about this sensibility. Love your writing as ever! Happy Hols dear girl!

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  21. Denyse, yes, I recently bought Sandrine Videault's Manoumalia because, in addition to being so beautiful, it is ethnographic.

    Samples of these Grossmiths arrived last weekend and I'm finding them interesting to sniff. Based on your principle of contrasting perfume and dress, I can quite imagine them worn with severely minimalist cutting edge fashion by smart young ladies descended from the original Grossmith patrons ;-) ~~nozknoz

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  22. I actually really liked one of them but I now don't remember which... the one that was Guerlain esque- old Guerlain obviously- and it's a romantic idea as you say

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