The Lost Symphonies: What Happened to all the Classic Florals? (And a Prize Draw)
I have always loved floral fragrances and putting forth the idea that the genre is in a decline might seem strange – after all, it is the most numerous group in perfumery, having reigned supreme over all others for at least two hundred years since the emergence of the modern perfume industry. The most popular one is Chanel No. 5, which is also the most popular fragrance of all, period. Many other greats are not far behind; Jean Patou’s Joy, Estée Lauder’s Beautiful, and Robert Piguet’s Fracas. However, if you think about it, many of the really great floral scents from major houses have been around for a long time, and modern masterpieces in this genre are not very common. Of course, niche and natural perfume houses release excellent florals on a regular basis, but when did you last see a big name mainstream launch of what I would call a classic floral – big, romantic, and unapologetically meant to smell like a massive bouquet? We get fruity florals that smell distinctly of plastic in the drydown, so-called “white” florals that seem to be made entirely of low-cost synthetics, hyper-sweet gourmand florals that reek of the morning after a Halloween sugar binge and the ones infused with so much “clean musk” that they smell like a bottle of fabric softener, only with a bigger price tag. We also get the timid, watery florals that seem to want to avoid being noticed at all costs.
Of course trends come and go, and we are still in the midst of the Orientalist influence that has been led by Serge Lutens, Montale and other high-profile prestige companies, and so many of our most sought-after fragrances are loaded with resins, amber, balsam, spices, woods, oud and incense. The other trend that I can’t believe is still going so strong is that of the gargantuan gourmand, beginning with Thierry Mugler’s Angel twenty years ago, and it resonates throughout the industry today from the most exclusive boutiques to the mall, where Angel and its Borg-like army of clones make life a misery for those who do not find the combination of chocolate, syrupy caramel, patchouli and huge synthetic woody-amber notes all played very loudly to be all that great of an idea.
I am talking about something else, a style that I love but which seems to have fallen out of fashion in recent years, the straight-up floral blend writ large. The concept of smelling ladylike, civilized, refined, elegant and so on seems to have fallen out of vogue – we want to smell sexy, edgy, shocking, avant-garde; we want to make a splash, an entrance, an impact. Of course this can be accomplished with the proper floral scent too – my bottles of vintage Lanvin My Sin and Corday Fame are deployed when such an effect on others is desired. After all, flowers are nature’s original temptresses, luring their willing victims with the siren call of scent and nectar for untold millennia. Yet floral essences can also be called upon to be something more by a skilled perfumer, a study in aesthetic balance, a striving for beauty for its own sake, and using all the materials and techniques available to build a balanced and pleasing composition that smells natural while not necessarily being photo-realistic; some of the most beautiful fragrances are abstract florals, blended so subtly that it’s impossible to pick out individual notes as they all work together in the best senses of the word “orchestrated.” I like to think of these fragrances as soaring for want of a better term – they are like clouds building, ever-changing and while developing seamlessly within the bounds of their respective structures.
Just which perfumes are these, you may ask? You don’t have to look back all that far to find some of the best of them, such as the original Lalique by Lalique, launched in 1992, the same year as Angel; would that it had been the harbinger of a pile-on trend instead! It would be hard to find a more elegant and delicately boned floral composition than this wonderful scent, authored by the great Sophia Grojsman (YSL Paris, Prescriptives Calyx, Lancôme Trèsor and many more). A multitude of floral notes including rose, peony, gardenia, orange blossom and more lightly accented with blackcurrant and mandarin on a mossy yet self-effacing base results in one of those fragrances that’s perfect for any occasion yet far from being a wallflower. I know that most modern perfumes have plenty of synthetics in them, but the good ones manage to smell as though they don’t, and Lalique smells like one of those huge yet impossibly stylish floral arrangements you see dominating the room in magazine layouts for upscale homes owned by art collectors or theatre people, constructed with obvious care and attention to detail.
Equally lush are some of the forgotten fragrances that were never all that popular in the first place. Does any one remember Madame de Carven (1979) or Intrigue (1986)? The house of Carven, known mainly for its great Ma Griffe and one of the best vetivers of all time for men, did some other very good perfumes back in the day, although many people might be surprised to know it. Madame de Carven is a rich floral with an unusual coconut note that is not in the least beachy, rather it just adds a little heft to a mélange of greens, peach and a bed of flowers highlighted by hyacinth. Intrigue is a highly pitched fresh green/citrus floral scent that is both exhilarating and a little soapy, in a good way. It smells like a day in spring when the sun has finally warmed everything up and the breeze is carrying the aromas of the garden to greet you as you step out the door in to dazzling brightness, the sweetness of blossoms tinged with zesty green.
Green florals are a particular weakness of mine and they just don’t make them like they used to. I recently rediscovered the fabulous Turbulences by Revillon from 1981, which is green and aldehydic but also just a little spicy with carnation and a touch powdery. It is one of those perfumes that makes you feel rich just dabbing it on, and it is aptly named; it swirls about the wearer in an ever-shifting pattern as the complex layers of notes tease and then retreat. Turbulences is one of those big Eighties “retro” florals of a style that is no longer popular, but I love it and I wish it were still around. Capucci’s wonderful Yendi (1974 was also very much in this vein, a green yet sweet and spicy floral; of course it too is no more. Don’t even get me started on Revillon’s long-gone Detchema (1953), an ethereally gorgeous fragrance with a hint of leather to ground it in reality. It is very hard to find now and it’s one I dearly wish I had bought by the case before it was discontinued. Speaking of discontinued, the entire Crown Perfumery line is no more but the house was known for its gorgeous florals such as Alpine Lily, Crown Bouquet and Maréchale; its hallmark was vivid, realistic feminine floral perfumes with an especially fresh and natural character that are well worth seeking out if you want to feel like you are standing in the middle of a meadow of blooming wildflowers; I know I do. Of course there are many more in this category, but listing them would turn this post into a book-length essay.
Among comparable perfumes available now, one of my favorites is one I have written about before, Joséphine by Rancé 1795. I fell for it instantly when it appeared on the scene in 2005, and my love for it continues unabated. Hyacinth is one of my favorite smells in the world, and this one plays it against pungent blackcurrant, May rose and warm Bourbon vanilla. There is nothing quite like it and it’s definitely a throwback – there is absolutely nothing trendy about it and that is exactly why I think it is a modern classic. Call me old-fashioned, but I wish there were more companies still making this kind of perfume. You just can’t go wrong with a great floral. Another is the shockingly little-known Lelong pour Femme by Lucien Lelong; the only new (1999) release from that company for decades feels like a vintage classic and is richly redolent of magnolia, lilac, orchid, jasmine and other florals underscored with an unusual ripe, sweet fig aroma that sets it apart from all the perfumes with astringent green fig notes. Even if I can’t have all the lost perfumes, there are some modern ones that work just fine.
I am offering a selection of samples of some of the perfumes mentioned in this post and a few surprises too (my choice, gambler’s luck for you) for one lucky winner, U.S.A. mailing addresses only please – if you would like to be entered, just say so in the comments, and if you wish, please mention your own favorite floral bouquet perfumes, old or new. I am always happy to take notes and add more to my list!
Image credit: “A Floral Symphony” painting by Eugene Henri Cauchois (1850-1911) via paintinghere.com
Disclosure: All of the perfumes described in this post are from my own collection, past and present.