jeudi 30 décembre 2010

Bases are the basis of modern perfumery... Notes on Jean Kerléo's conference at the Osmothèque

Back in the days when synthetics were still relatively new in the perfume industry, they weren’t served up raw, but presented in a setting that was really a mini-perfume, to make them less jarring and show off their potentialities. Those mini-perfumes were called bases, and they were the springboard of some of the greatest compositions of the 20th century. Without bases, we would have no L’Origan, no Nuit de Noël, no Knize Ten; none of the wonderful Patous re-edited in Ma Collection…  Some of the perfumers who composed them, like Henri Robert (Chanel N°19) and his nephew Guy (Madame Rochas), or Edmond Roudnitska who worked for De Laire before striking out on his own after the success of Femme, went on to make names for themselves.  Others, like Marius Reboul or Marie-Thérèse de Laire, will remain the unsung heroes of the industry…

Over thirty bases by De Laire, Firmenich (formerly Chuit Naef), Givaudan and Synarome, along with some of the perfumes in which they were featured, were presented at the Osmothèque on December 11th by Jean Kerléo, former in-house perfumer for Jean Patou, founder and ex-chairman of the Osmothèque, assisted by Pascal Sillon, perfumer at Symrise in charge of De Laire (which through a combination of mergers and acquisitions ended up as part of Symrise).

Smelling practically sixty different bases and perfumes in a little over two hours made it practically impossible to stop and ponder on the various compositions: it was all I could do to write down the names of the things and take a couple of notes… 
Among the bases presented, De Laire’s Ambre 83 was incredibly familiar: it is the note that pretty much invented what we call amber, though it was actually composed to “sell” vanillin.
The Cuir de Russie base, also by De Laire, has got nothing to do with the eponymous Chanel fragrance: with, possibly, birch tar and isobutyl-quinolin, it fairly reeks of the cobbler’s shop and was the core of the mythical Knize Ten by Vincent Roubert.
Marie-Thérèse de Laire’s fabled Mousse de Saxe, also built around isobutyl-quinolin, was presented alongside Caron Nuit de Noël but also Habanita, whose author remains a mystery even to the owners of Molinard, which is considered a variation on the Mousse de Saxe theme. As an aside, we learned that Caron no longer buys its Mousse de Saxe from De Laire’s owner Symrise…
A Givaudan base called Melittis (salicylates, coumarin, eugenol) made up one third of Patou Moment Suprême, by Henri Almeras. Moment Suprême itself is thought by Mr. Kerléo to be a variation on an obscure Rosine perfume called Habera (produced after Paul Poiret had sold off his house). It is also, says Mr. Kerléo, the probable template of Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass, composed in all likelihood by Henri Almeras as well, since he accepted commissions from other brands while working as the in-house perfumer of Jean Patou: Blue Grass is built around Melysflor, a Firmenich base that is the equivalent of Givaudan’s Melittis. Melysflor is also featured in Carven Vetiver and Yves Saint Laurent pour Homme (according to Raymond Chaillan, who composed it with Jacques Jantzen and was present at the conference). From Moment Suprême to Blue Grass to YSL pour Homme… bases are the DNA that allows us to trace perfume filiations.

Discovering those bases and seeing them pop up in different perfumes also made me realize that the heroic myth of the genius perfumer of the first half of the 20th century, churning out masterpieces in his ivory tower, was just that: a myth. These people were brilliant: they did turn out great perfumes, sometimes even masterpieces. But they were not the sole authors of their compositions, working in splendid independence. They knew how to assemble novel and seductive forms, but those forms sometimes owed much of their beauty to the talent of the perfumers who came up with the bases in the first place.
Take, for instance, the epochal L’Origan, by François Coty: at least six bases or specialties (i.e. molecules with a special twist that were exclusive to the labs that produced them) joined the jasmine, rose, neroli and orange blossom, as well and the infusions of ambergris, civet and musk: Bouvardia, Flonol, Foin Rigaud, Coralys, Dianthine, Iralia…

And therein lies the difficulty of keeping many classic perfumes in production, since several of the bases that went into them ceased being produced not only for reasons of price, regulations or availability of materials, but because as technicians retired, there was a “knack”, a certain way of heating balsams and resins, for instance, that wasn’t handed down. Much of the culture of perfumery is immaterial: oral knowledge, certain types of know-how. Skip a link in passing down that heritage, and it evaporates like a drop of perfume.

The very capability of the Osmothèque to reproduce perfumes from the past will soon be compromised, as stocks of discontinued bases dwindle and companies stop making them, so that whole swathes of the history of perfumery will be irretrievably lost.
The prospect is, to say the least, alarming, especially since there's not much we can do about it. All the more reason to rush to the Osmothèque while we can still experience them directly. A New York branch is in the works, which will make the jaunt less daunting for American perfume history buffs. Patricia de Nicolaï is also keenly aware that a Paris branch – for now, we have to trek to Versailles, and it’s quite a hike from the train station – would give a boost to the institution.
I hope good news on that front comes in 2011. Every time I cross the Boulevard Périphérique, I get a nosebleed.

26 commentaires:

  1. It sounds like it was an incredibly revealing event. I don't know when my next visit to Paris will happen, but I do hope I find the time to visit Osmotheque.
    Thank you for describing the history of bases, I mever thought about how the people who produced them were ingenious themselves.

  2. Is there an organization that's fundraising/spearheading a Paris Osmotheque branch? I think a lot of perfumistas would get on board!

  3. Earlier this year, I was able to smell a selection of classics brought by the Osmothèque to a Milanese event. It was a revelation to discover how some historic scents smelled so incredibly modern and beautiful.

    This summer, I made quite a deviation in order to be able to stop at Versailles and visit the real thing. No mention of the Osmothèque on my guides, at the Versaillais tourist office I got only blank stares, until a kind lady popped up and told me ze Osmthèque iz clozed in the zummer. Bad planning on my side, but I was very disappointed nonetheless.

    BTW, isn't it possible to use current hi-tech devices to "reconstruct" the fragrant print of these disappearing building blocks?

  4. I wonder why the ephemeral parts of perfume culture weren't passed on? Didn't think that it was important (unlikely)? Generational lack of trust (oh, these young perfumers don't care about this....)? Secretive?

    Thank you for the reminder that perfumery, like many other arts, is collaborative.


  5. Thanks for singing. Marius Reboul and Marie-Therese de in my mind, too.

    I have been discussing a project with a friend about the hand and the they work in art...and your comments about the "knack" of literally handling the composition of a base just so have now been tossed into the mix. I have often suspected, and certainly believed w/o knowing, but it is good to gather this kind of reporting on the topic.

    De Nicolai spoke of a U.S. branch last fall; actually, the most passionate speaker on the topic was Christophe Laudamiel. I wish much luck to realizing both a Paris AND New York branch. For your nosebleed, and my strong by ill-funded curiosity.

  6. Doesn't this present an incredible opportunity for someone or a group to not only try to remake the old bases, but to create new ones? Perhaps it's more like artist's pigments - materials such a lapis and cobalt are harder to find and of course there's the toxicity fear-but there's a revival of older palettes now. Just say'in ..

  7. Fascinating - need to search out some of these scents to sniff out the bases! An NYC branch of the Osmotheque would make my decade.

    Thanks so much for investing your time and talents in this beautiful and thought-provoking blog, Denyse. I've learned so much, and found several true loves thanks to your reviews (e.g., the Calice Becker Kilians and Manoumalia). Wishing you and your delightful commenters all the best for 2011 ~~nozknoz

  8. Your reflection on lost bases makes me reconsider the ephemeral aspects of perfume. I appreciate the way we communicate experiences over time and regret that, outside blogs such as your, we lack a vocabulary for discussing our olfactory experiences. It is a loss and a shame that over time and generations we don't build on this knowlege. But my intro to the arts is dance and I guess this colors my view of perfume. I love the one-off nature of dance for the way it focuses on the moment. Granted dance can be filmed and thus documented in a way that perfume cannot. Still I love perfumery for that same experience of the moment, both in the individual wearing and the life-of-a-bottle timeframe.

    New to you blog and enjoying your writing a great deal. Thanks.

  9. To JTD...

    One of the things that fascinates me about the vocabulary of dance, the attempt to lay down a historical record, is that no language yet exists. Choreographers rely on video sometimes, yes, and someone (Martha Graham? shall look this up) attempted a notation system, but as of now, no universal exists to communicate "this is what I did/this was the experience of that performance."

    I, too, enjoy the link between the ephemeral nature of perfume and that of dance. Have been enjoying letting the idea of vocabulary, notation, communication, and experience rumble around for a while--with no conclusions, as of yet.

    Perhaps I ultimately prefer the nature of things "in passing."

    However, I'm also going to be a person you see crying every now and then about the scents that are lost...if I knew more, perhaps I'd also be crying over never seeing Nureyev or Alvin Ailey in the moment. Unfortunately, these blasted vintage bottles give me a least a glimpse...

  10. Ines, if you do plan to visit the Osmothèque the next time you're in Paris I would recommend getting in touch in advance, the public visits need to be booked by appointment at specified times of the month and they only happen if there are enough people... And don't forget we have an appointment too, for coffee or a glass of wine at the Palais Royal!

  11. Marla, no there isn't. I'm afraid perfume lovers wouldn't be enough to finance such an endeavour, they'd need funds from the industry... I know Patricia de Nicolaï would very much like to get the project going.

  12. Zazie, I'm not sure about the technology, but I would imagine that it's not enough to know what's in a composition by submitting it to various methods of analyses, you need the actual physical materials to reconstitute it, and if the processes to produce them are no longer available it's not an option...

  13. Heidi, as far as I understand it, it's the same problem in all the industries that rely not only on technical know-how but also on things that are done "just so" by individual technicians -- i've heard it said about all the crafts related to couture, for instance. If there are no apprentices to transmit that knack to, if you skip a generation, the knack is lost. This is why Chanel bought the embroiderer, feather and flower makers that supply the house: to ensure that the line of transmission remains unbroken.

  14. ScentScelf, learning about the technicians whose know-how was lost was new to me too. I know that for instance at Art et Parfum, the company founded by Edmond Roudnitska where several independent perfumers get their perfumes manufactured, the process remains manual, both because they handle smallish quantities and because the materials involved are rare, costly and need a lot of careful handling.

  15. Onyxode, as far as I know the formulas of those bases are owned by the companies that make/made them: you can't commercialize Mousse de Saxe if you're not Symrise, the lab that now owns De Laire, for instance. But Pierre Guillaume of Parfumerie Générale says that he works with older technicians who reproduce those bases, so if the raw materials are available it's feasible.
    As for new bases, they are being composed all the time! Of course perfumers may not like to speak about them because they're not the authors...

  16. Nozknoz, thank you for you kind words and best wishes to you too! I do hope the NY Osmothèque gets off the ground, maybe there's more money in the US than there is in france for that type of project, and Christophe Laudamiel certainly seems to be very involved.

  17. JTD, I've often spoken with artists and art critics (and dancers) about the connection between perfume and dance via the performance/ephemereal angles. It all depends on whether you consider the perfume, as an artistic experience, to be a performance (the composition + the wearer + the time of wearing + the memory of it)or whether you consider the artistic gesture to be the formula... Always difficult to compare one art to the other... But definitely a fertile ground for discussion.

  18. ScentScelf, well, pretty much what I said above. I still feel it's scandalous that an artistic form where there *should* be a means of reproducing the experience (the formula) has been so neglected by the industry... But that opens up another line of discussion about the art vs. industry angle.

  19. In reverse...YES, isn't it interesting that the formula is hidden? As if that were the art, and not the gesture of creation? Granted, you can't even attempt a gesture without knowing what you are assembling, but...interesting.

    What you tell me about the need for a manual process further reinforces my fascination with eye (as either imagination or observation) and hand (gesture or creation or "human element"). To what extent we can eliminate imagination and the need for a human hand does of course impact the conversation regarding to what extent perfume is an art. But it is still there...

    Meanwhile, yes, the long held question of whether art exists in the moment of completion/presentation, or the moment of reception. Is the significant gesture in the declaration "formula finished"? Is it when the aging and blending and whatnot are complete and the juice is in the bottle? Is it when a member of the audience spritzes and experienced that realized formula?

    Okay, I am now laughing at myself--I feel the need to recognize that one of the things I loved about perfume, when I found it, was that it allowed me to go "mmmmmmmm" without words. Thanks for giving my thinker a chance to express itself. :)

  20. ScetnScelf, your "mmm" moment is what I call "the Moan". However artful a composition is, that's still what we're looking for. The thinking can come later.
    As for the hand... what's at play here is not necessarily the gesture of the perfumer himself, since the blending (actually called "weighing") is done by technicians. There is probably a level of trial and error, of experience, but also something that is grounded not in the rational but in some sort of instinctive relationship to materials, and thus can only be transmitted, not taught. Perfumers may or may not have it, especially since in most cases they don't do the actual weighing. When I interviewed Bertrand Duchaufour he said he was convinced the evolution in his style came from the fact that he no longer worked with an assistant and was therefore in direct contact with his materials, in a more intimate relationship with them.

    About the stage at which perfume is considered art, I asked Michel Roudnitska about his father's point of view, since Edmond Roudnitska was one of the few perfumers who actually attempted to approach perfumery from a theoretical standpoint, and the answer was: it's the writing of the formula, and all that leads up to it, that is the artistic gesture. What the perfume becomes, its commercial destiny, is another matter.

  21. Sorry I'm only just getting to read this incredibly informative article, Denyse. There's so much here to learn. And yes, I'm putting the Osmothèque at the top of my "must visit" list for 2011.

  22. Dear Denyse, I have just noticed news on Cartier de Lune fragrance. I wonder if tried it already- love many of Mathilde Laurent's compositions and I am really curious about your impressions! With regards, Ela

  23. Jarvis, my only regret is that the conference was so short -- two hours seems like a lot, but not when you're discovering so many things! You definitely need to get to the Osmothèque this spring.

  24. Ela, I have already tried Cartier de Lune and will write a review shortly.

  25. Dear Denyse, Happy New Year to you! When we three met before Christmas I think you mentioned the Habanita/Nuit de Noel connection. I was only dimly aware of it then having only a drop of the reform NdN parfum as reference (agree with TPG - marrons glace, nice but.......)and a remembrance of Habanita. Then I received the sample of vintage NdN parfum I'd ordered and oh! Now I get it. I read up NdN in The Perfume Legends book (and Roja Dove's to be fair) and learned the name of Marie-Therese de Laire and gave thanks I had been able to smell something descended from her stunning creation. I will dig out the sample of Papyrus de Ciane (is that right?) by PG and sniff again with a "new" nose. Do you know who made the bases Germaine Cellier was so fond of using? Thanks for a fascinating post and for provoking such an interesting discussion in the comments. Nicola

  26. Nicola, Germaine Cellier worked for Roure, which was later bought by Givaudan, but I would imagine that then as now, perfume companies bought products from each other (though priority was certainly given to their own bases).

    About the Mousse de Saxe, Jean Kerléo mentioned it being used also in Le Chic by Molyneux, and possibly in Chanel Bois des Iles.
    Papyrus de Ciane does contain a re-creation of the Mousse de Saxe (not sold by De Laire, Pierre Guillaume said he worked with people who used to work there).