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.
I am a writer and translator based in Ottawa, as well as the perfume editor for Citizen K and a writer for NEZ, the olfactive magazine. My book The Perfume Lover, A Personal History of Scent is published by Harper Collins (UK), St. Martin's Press (USA) and Penguin (Canada). The perfume linked to the book,Séville à l'aube, was composed by Bertrand Duchaufour for L'Artisan Parfumeur.