Le Galion's Parallel Universe: Sortilège & Snob
Le Galion was one of those French perfume houses whose departure from the scene was lamented by many at the time, though it has faded from memory today among younger fragrance customers who have never heard of it.. Unlike so many that had their brief glory days in the “golden age” of the Twenties and Thirties and then flamed out, it lasted well beyond its heyday as other, smaller and more obscure houses fell by the wayside in the wake of the ascendancy of bigger players such as Guerlain, Givenchy, Caron, Rochas and Jean Patou. At one time it enjoyed great popularity in the U.S. market, and its marketing strategy was a bit unusual; some of its perfumes were obviously in the style of other scents with much greater name recognition. One of these was the aldehydic floral Sortilège, an unmistakeable reference to Chanel No. 5; the other was Snob, doppelgänger to Jean Patou's Joy. That name was an obvious reference to the tag line for Joy being the “costliest perfume in the world.” Both were released in 1937 shortly after the great perfumer Paul Vacher bought the house from its previous owner and began to introduce his own creations.
Back in the mid-Eighties, my local perfume boutique was the first in the city to offer a truly broad range of the finest fragrances the world had to offer. From all the big names the owners had to choose from, the decision was made to showcase Sortilège. I was fortunate to be able to smell it at the time, but much to my regret I never bought a bottle, for not long after that the house of Le Galion was no more, so it was the only one I ever smelled until I began doing research on older perfumes over the past few years. (Many years later, the Irma Shorell purchased the formula for its Long Lost Perfumes line, but I have never tried it.)
Recently I have been hunting down what vintage scents I can lay my hands on, at least those that cost less than a month's rent, and I have acquired a few Le Galion perfumes, including some that I had not even known about before. The stunning Tubéreuse was a revelation, and Jasmin (1937) is the most marvelously heady and indolic thing a white floral lover could ever want. I even found a miniature of the rare and oddly named Cub, a tender and pure white floral of great beauty. (Its counterpart from the same year, 1953, is called Whip, so it would appear that both of them were meant to appeal to the foxhunting set. How times have changed!)
A tiny bottle of Snob Parfum de Toilette made its way to me and it is indeed very much like Joy. My bottle is showing its age just a little, but once it is allowed to breathe, it is nothing less than exquisite. I don't know when or if I will ever find more of it, so I ration it out like liquid gold. The same exotic essence found in Jasmin is fused with rose de Mai in the same seamless way of the Jean Patou classic. Obviously Paul Vacher knew what he was doing when he decided to try and capture some of Joy's market share. Snob is very difficult to find now, but you can always get Joy instead. It is perhaps just a notch below Joy in quality, but I can't really tell from sampling just one bottle since I never smelled it back when it was still being made; I would give anything to smell the Parfum strength of this one. There are stories about how the Jean Patou company tried to block the sales of Le Galion perfumes in the U.S., so that may be why it is so rare.
As for Sortilège, it is somewhat easier to find on well-known auction sites and established vintage perfume merchants, but if you want a truly pristine bottle you should be prepared to pay top dollar for it. I was very fortunate to be offered an unopened bottle of the Parfum de Toilette as a gift by a lovely lady who was looking for a “good home” for some collectible treasures. She had received it as a gift herself some forty-five years ago, and it had been stored in a dark trunk for all that time. I had no idea what I would find when I opened it, but in a testament to its quality and expert formulation, it was still in very good shape. The aldehydes on top were just a little off, but as soon as it hit my skin it became the warm golden haze of beauty that I remembered. Yes, there is a kinship with Chanel No. 5, but I liked it better back when I first tried and and I still do. Less powdery and more honeyed than its “twin,” it has peach and strawberry notes to round out the soft florals of hyacinth, orange blossom, rose, jasmine, lily-of-the valley and violet among others, resting on a base of vetiver, woods, Tonka bean, opoponax, musk and civet. It is one of the prettiest perfumes ever made, gentle and enveloping and truly feminine, yet its lady-like demeanor is a facade for the very sensuous quality of the animalic base; those now-illegal synthetic musks of the bygone era pack a punch like nothing used today, and the civet is very evident even in this lighter formulation.
I have also acquired a tiny bottle of the Parfum, and on those occasions special enough for wearing it I am struck by its sexy intensity, yet it never overwhelms or gives off too much sillage. This lady knows how to keep a secret to herself. Even one drop lasts for many hours of pleasure. It's one of the happiest, most light-infused of all the classic scents I have ever smelled, and somehow it's never too “bright” or intrusive in the way of other more modern floral bouquet perfumes. This is one of the fragrances that most represents classic French perfumery to me; effortless beauty and chic with a warm heart and a little mystery for good measure. For many people the ultimate is Chanel No. 5, but just give me Sortilège.
Image credit: The cover of American Vogue from February 1937 via 2blowhards.com; original source unknown.