Thursday, March 22, 2007

Making scents

When I was a little girl, my friend and I would collect fallen rose petals from the garden (or, if I’m honest, rip my mum’s roses to shreds) to make “scent”. We would steep the petals overnight in water and the next day, we would fish them out again and proudly dab the result behind our ears. It always, always looked and smelt like viscous dishwater but to us it was our very own Chanel N°5.




My tastes are a little more sophisticated now and there’s nothing I like better than going to the perfume counter at the Galeries Lafayette and dousing myself from the testers. French perfume has always had a whiff of wicked frivolity about it and here in France, nine out of ten women wear it as do one out of two men – and even babies have their own eau de toilette. It wasn’t always so. Before Julius Caesar arrived, the Gauls were a pretty malodorous bunch but the Romans soon had them smelling of roses. And with Christianity came incense and scented candles in the churches although later, Christianity would be responsible for a decline in the use of perfume and cosmetics.

In the twelfth century, the Crusaders brought back exotic scents from the East and from Spain, pots of fragrances used in the making of gloves. At this time, Grasse, in the south of France, was already known for its tanneries and the first French perfumers were known as the maîtres gantiers or Master Glovers. They were the only people authorized to sell perfume for gloves. By the end of the seventeenth century, they had become known as Master Perfumers and Grasse had become the largest production centre of the raw materials for perfumery: roses, jasmine and citrus trees that thrived in the Mediterranean climate.

The Renaissance was an era of frivolity and excess. Charles VIII and François I both had personal Master Perfumers and although François’s son, Henri II, did not share this passion his mistress, the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, did and she attributed her youthful appearance to a secret, fragrant beauty water. However, it was during the reign of Henri III that the nation’s love for perfume became an obsession bordering on madness. Henri was very effeminate and surrounded himself with like-minded courtiers who wore outlandish frilly clothes, make-up and jewellery and drenched themselves – and the dogs and parrots they brought to court – with heavy perfume.






By the time Louis XIV came to the throne, the air was more breathable. Louis did not dislike perfume but he preferred it to be discreet. Natural scents became popular and it was during his reign that eau de Cologne was created…by an Italian barber living in Germany. He mixed grape spirits, oil of neroli, bergamot, lavender and rosemary to “capture the essence of an Italian spring morning after the rain”. It was not only used as a fragrance - it was diluted in bath water, mixed with wine, used as a mouthwash, an enema and even injected directly into the body. The original cologne is now known as 4711, after the number of the house where it was being produced in the nineteenth century.

According to legend, when the French royal family tried to escape during the Revolution disguised as commoners, they were betrayed by Marie-Antoinette's distinctive perfume which revealed her true identity. Those brave Revolutionaries may have despised luxury and privilege but their love of perfume was not diminished and they eased their guilty consciences by creating perfumes such as parfum à la nation and parfum à la guillotine - a heady scent to be sure. Not surprisingly, they did not really catch on.

The Emperor Napoleon was a man obsessed with personal hygiene and it is said that he ruined many a uniform because he insisted on dousing them in his favourite eau de Cologne to get rid of the manly smell of his sweaty soldiers. While in exile, he was horrified to find he had run out of cologne. He could not do without his daily rub-down so he ordered his servant to rustle up something from the local flora. A French company claims to sell this authentic Napoleon eau de Cologne today…and according to their web site, they also sell the intriguing “Swimming-pool water fragrance”. Eau de swimming pool? On closer inspection it turns out to be a product that scents your pool water and not something to make you smell like the local baths on a Saturday afternoon. Phew.




Grasse is still the perfume capital of France today although the industry now relies more on chemicals than flowers and there are many products other than soap and perfume that require a scent. There are still a few fields of flowers but much of the raw material is imported and processed in the factories located in the countryside surrounding the town. Every factory employs one or two perfumers – or “noses” as they are known. They work at a perfume organ – a mini-laboratory that does indeed look a bit like an organ - surrounded by the raw materials which they mix and smell until they are satisfied, which can take months or even years.



Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to be offered a huge bottle of my favourite perfume for my birthday tomorrow but I suppose I’ll have to settle for a dog-eared card and an I O U as usual. Anyway, I could always nip round to the Galeries Lafayette for a really special occasion…

22 comments:

Louise said...

Have you seen the film 'Parfum'? Well worth it - I don't think it's on at the cinema any more - my son downloaded it for me on LimeWire (which is absolute c**p now, full of porn films - does anyone know a better P2P site?). Story of a 'nose' who, in the 18th century, tries to capture the smell of the human being - he himself having no body smell. It's a bit gorey as he goes around murdering women, but an interesting film...

Gigi said...

No Louise - I've never seen the film but I have read the book. I really enjoyed it - in fact, I think it's about time I read it again!

Louise said...

Whoops - we've had this conversation before, haven't we?

I used to make 'perfume' out of rose petals and water too - the petals would go all brown and it never smelt of roses - thank god for Guerlain!

CJ said...

What a lovely post! My favourite present was a huge bottle of "Joy" but that was long ago and far away, Sigh ;( I do hope you have a lovely surprise... Happy Birthday! :D

Louise said...

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GIGI!!

Mountain Dweller said...

Your comments about making "perfume" from rose petals brought back a lot of happy memories. You're right though - it did use to smell foul!

Gigi said...

Thanks CJ and Louise...I thought I'd treat myself to a cup of tea in bed this morning and a good book (The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg)...but I fell asleep over the book and my tea got stone cold :-( Doesn't say much for Melvyn Bragg, does it?

Anyway, the main thing is that I AM STILL IN MY FORTIES and I am clinging on to that knowledge like a desperate drowning woman while Life crashes over me in tidal waves. Howzat for a metaphor?

mountain-dweller - I wonder why all little girls seem to have made 'scent' from rose petals? Are we genetically programmed to do this, do you think? Even my own children did it and we didn't even have a garden! (So I have no idea where they got the flowers from...)

Louise said...

I love being in my fifties!

In my forties I was still married, in my fifties I no longer am and that suits me fine!

Sarah said...

I've never understood why anyone would want to cover their baby's smell. It's the most delicious thing in the world.

I also drowned rose petals in water. I now prefer 'Je Reviens'.

blueVicar said...

"...a heady scent"...oh, words are just a plaything for you, Gigi! I'm still giggling.

Sorry to have missed your official birthday; I hope you enjoyed a happy day!

Meilleurs voeux!!

Tinsie said...

Happy belated birthday!

I too remember making perfume from rose petals - I'm sure we doused them in white spirit rather than water, though. What a fantastic memory, I'd totally forgotten until I read your post :-)

I have to confess I'm not big on perfume. I have five or six bottles in my bathroom, but the only reason I have so many is because it's years since I last finished a bottle (does perfume go off)? My fave at the moment is Folli Follie - it's the only one anyone ever comments on when I'm wearing it (which I take to be a good thing, although I suppose maybe it isn't ;-)

Tinsie said...

Oh and I loved the Eau de swimming pool comment :-)))))))))))

angela said...

Great post, Gigi.
The rose petal perfume...yes did that too though lilac was better. Perfume smells like cat's pee on my skin so i do avoid it.

Happy Birthday. I hope you're having a special day and your girls are spoiling you.

Mlle Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mlle Smith said...

My favorite perfume, the only one that I wear, happens to be frenchie (figures): Amour de Cacao by Comptoir Sud Pacifique.

Makes me smell like a cocoa dream...divine. They also have "Vanile Banane" which is also delish, but I prefer my signature cocoa scent...

Chanel still uses actual flowers...they showed their method on a TV5 documentary and they even showed that organ you speak of!

Gigi said...

I'm a Boucheron girl myself...I just love girly smelly stuff.

The cocoa scent sounds good, too...

R* said...

great post! i love reading about perfume; it is so interesting!

Roads said...

A belated happy birthday from me, too.

'On your birthday in history ...'
1801 - Tsar Paul I of Russia is struck with a sword, then strangled, and finally trampled to death in his bedroom at St. Michael's Castle.

Hmmm. So let's hope that your day worked out rather better than that.

Gigi said...

er - thanks Roads...although I do sometimes feel like that's happened to me...:-)

Pam said...

A belated Happy Birthday and yes, Cheers to the forties!

Jeannemarie said...

Belated happy birthday!

I am and have always been a confirmed perfume addict. I've had over 70 bottles of mostly French fragrances. A few Italian.

I'm in my mid forties, have three grown daughters from 26 to 21 and an 8 yr. old son.

I tend to wear Molinard de Molinard. I have bottles more expensive, but I guess I would have to say that this is my favorite one.

I LOVE Serge Lutens. Anyone else??

Happy said...

I love different stories about perfume for women - but I've never tried to do that with roses:)