mardi 12 août 2008

Coty L'Origan: L'Heure bleue without the Blues

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 Paris at nightfall. In 1917, Coty unwittingly invents a whole new perfume family with Chypre: a bergamot-labdanum-oak moss structure to prop up the floral composition. In 1919, Guerlain smooths it out by adding a marvellous, peach-smelling base, Persicol: he gets Mitsouko. As for Coty L’Émeraude (1921), its bergamot-coumarin-vanilla accord may have inspired Guerlain’s Shalimar (1925). We’ll never know.

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 Paris by storm; the kohl-rimmed gaze and hennaed mane of a Van Dongen courtesan.

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)

10 commentaires:

  1. One day I'll make it to the Osmotheque, in the meantime a million thanks for this piece of beautiful writing.

  2. You write like a dream. I have a vintage bottle of L'Origan (I am not sure what vintage - 50s or 60s?) because I wanted to try some old Cotys, and it is as stunning as you describe. L'Aimant I feel like I still haven't had a proper sniff of. I guess Emeraude used to really be something back in the day.

    PS I have your book, came today in the mail! I am not wild for the English cover but it looks wonderful.

  3. Silvia, for L'Origan, you needn't wait for the Osmothèque: it's still not so hard to find on fleabay. And thank you so much for the compliment...

  4. March, you'll make me blush... I haven't tried L'Aimant, but I want to: it was composed by Vincent Roubert, who did Knize Ten and Iris Gris, no mean feat.
    And, yeah, the book cover... Now you know why I display the French one on this blog! The selection was imposed by the US sales reps. Both the publisher and I hated it. Only goes to show, you should fight the marketing dept sometimes... Hope you enjoy reading it!

  5. Hello, Hello CC (may I call you that?); I'm a long time reader - first time commentator. Your beautifully artistic reviews and thoughts on perfumes here have been a great source of inspiration for me over the past few months, and I really do appreciate these great articles being posted up.

    Now, do please forgive me for this rather erratic message - but I'm in need of some help -

    A friend of a friend's is heading off to Paris for a week on saturday and he's been so generous as to offer to bring me back some Lutens exclusives; Now, I've selected 5 already - one of them being El Attarine, I'm just concerned as to whether or not it would be available for purchase by then yet (last week of august), so, if you could help shed some light on that it would be greatly appreciated.

    Another concern being the current price of the bell jars - as some sites say 110 euros and others 105 - including the Salons, it's a little confusing - if you could again help me to clarify this I would hugely appreciate it!

    Apologies for spamming on your blog and best wishes,

  6. Hi Renée! Thanks for the compliments. I'm happy you delurked! Of course you can call me CC, and this isn't spam at all!
    El Attarine will not be sold until September 1st, so I doubt your generous friend will be able to buy it before that date.
    The price of the bell jars is increasing by 5 euros, so that would be 110 euros *after* Sept.1st.
    Up to Sept. 1st, they cost 105 euros.
    Hope that clears up the confusion, and I hope to read you again!

  7. CC,

    Many thanks for your reply and help, and yes it certainly does clear up what I was concerned about.

    I'm abit disappointed about El Attarine - since my friend is leaving Paris before the 1st - but he makes very frequent trips to Germany (every few months) and often stops by Paris; So, I'm hoping it's not going to be too long of a wait for me...

    And I'm just curious as to what you think of Fumerie Turque - one of my favorites from Lutens - I love the effect of honey soaked crisp tobacco leaves in this; it's dry yet lush, warm yet cool, spicy but sugary...I find it great for wearing out in on a searing hot summers day just as much as a snowy, freezing winter's evening...I genuinely adore it (if you haven't noticed already)

  8. Renée, looks like you'll already have four Lutens to keep you warm anyway! Your friend might give it a try, though, you never know.
    I wore Fumerie Turque a lot when it came out and haven't really revisited it since. But I agree that many Lutens work amazingly well in the heat despite being orientals.

  9. Gosh you're prolific! Thanks for another fascinating piece of perfume folklore, my favorite kind of bedtime story! And another one to add under the heading "Smell at Osmoteque" but when??? XOXOX

  10. W., as I told Silvia, L'Origan is one scent you can get fairly easily on fleabay. Even the lesser concentrations, if you can find something that's pre-60s, are a knockout.