Five Nights in Paris: After Dark in the City of Light - John Baxter (2015)
NIGHT 4: SCENT
Chapter 28. Scent of a City
A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.
RATP, the agency managing the métro system, spends a fortune on perfume every year. How else to neutralize the odors of burning rubber, hot oil, and ionized air? Not to mention the smell of commuters in their hundreds of thousands, and the effluvia of the homeless who haunt the more remote stations, pissing into any convenient drain.
They first tried in the 1990s with Francine, a mixture of natural plant extracts: eucalyptus, lavender, mint. It flopped in trials. For their second attempt, code name Madeleine, they abandoned the “green” agenda in favor of those synthetic aromas used by most modern parfumiers: vanilla, jasmine, lily, citrus, rose. It did the trick. Since 1998, Madeleine has been poured onto métro stations at the rate of 1.5 metric tons a month.
I’m used to it now and only notice it when a polished look to the asphalt on the platforms shows that the cleaning crew has passed by in the night. Like the increasingly common announcements in French, English, Italian, and German to mind the gap and keep an eye on your belongings, it’s integral to the commuters’ daily equation of métro, boulot, dodo—métro, work, sleep.
France didn’t invent perfume but it refined it. In the Middle Ages, the French, born gardeners, became skilled at using steam and oil to isolate, extract, and concentrate fragrances. It took 440 pounds of lavender to produce just over 2 pounds of essence, but those who lived in the stinking cities of the day were glad to pay, while the rich didn’t hesitate to invest in the secretions of animal musk glands and ambergris, a waxy material excreted by sperm whales. Diluted and mixed with other aromatics, these produced fragrances of a carnal pungency appropriate to the courtesans of Versailles, which, under Louis XV, became “the perfumed court.” But the price of smelling good was a bad reputation. By the 1900s, for any woman to wear a scent other than a dab of lavender or rosewater marked her as “fast.”
This changed early in the twentieth century. The perfumer Jacques Guerlain, strolling on a summer evening by the Seine (or, in some versions of the story, along a country path), was struck by “the spectacle [of] nature bathed in a blue light, a profoundly deep and indefinable blue. In that silent hour, man is in harmony with the world and with light, and all the exalted senses speak of the infinite.” Supposedly this revelation inspired him to create the perfume known as L’Heure Bleue—the Blue Hour.
“There was a peculiar smell that emanated from the coffeehouse terraces of Montparnasse,” wrote author Frederick Kohner of Paris in the early 1920s, “and I only have to close my eyes to bring it all back to me; the rich mixture of cigarette smoke, garlic, hot chocolate, fine à l’eau [cognac and water], burned almonds, hot chestnuts, and—all pervading—the strong scent of a perfume that had just become the rage of Paris—L’Heure Bleue.”
Though his date is wrong—L’Heure Bleue first went on sale in 1912—Kohner is right that its arrival signified a fundamental change in the use of personal fragrances. The marketing of the perfume was as inventive as its fabrication. Painters and photographers had long recognized the “blue hour” when daylight becomes dusk as the moment when natural light is at its most flattering. But no distiller of fragrances, however masterful his technique, had ever claimed to capture anything so fleeting as atmosphere. What Guerlain saw in his epiphany was not so much a method of catching magic in a bottle as a way to make money.
Synthesizing such aromas as vanilla and jasmine cost far less than animal secretions and flower oils. Able to produce complex fragrances at a much lower price, perfumers could spend more on presentation. Guerlain enclosed a few spoonfuls of L’Heure Bleue in a molded and gilded flacon of Baccarat crystal with a stopper representing an inverted but hollow heart. Not accustomed to expensive receptacles, women enjoyed the container as much as the scent. Janet Flanner wrote of pioneer perfumer François Coty that he “perceived perfume as something in a lovely bottle rather as merely something lovely in a bottle. He presented scent as a luxury necessary to everybody.”
Guerlain used the L’Heure Bleue bottle for Mitsouko in 1919. Every manufacturer now grasped the importance of the container. The midnight blue bottles of Evening in Paris by Bourgois were soon familiar worldwide. Even Chanel bowed to the market and licensed her Chanel No. 5. Coty transformed the scent business by pioneering mass marketing. He hired glassmaker René Lalique to design his containers. At the same time, he expanded into low-priced soaps, powders, and eaux de toilette. Lalique’s designs, reproduced in enamel and crystal for the carriage trade, were adapted to paper and cardboard. Coty exported vigorously, in particular to the United States, with powders and colognes scented with such fragrances as L’Origan (oregano). Now that women everywhere could enjoy L’Origan at a modest price, its round orange boxes with their Lalique design became famous.
A new popularity of fragrances for men fed the market even more. While some nineteenth-century perfumes, such as Guerlain’s Jicky, were aimed at both sexes, men avoided accusations of effeminacy by using toilet water, eau de cologne, or aftershave—all diluted forms of perfume. A dash of bay rum, made from bay leaves and other aromatics macerated in alcohol, was thought manly, as was Old Spice, launched in 1938 and marketed through the Boots pharmacy chain in Britain.
No manufacturer, however, produced the dream of all perfumers—a scent that would attract all men. In 1937, Elizabeth Arden suggested her fragrances had male appeal because they made women smell like a rolling Kentucky landscape, but “outdoorsy” seems to attract only those types of men, largely the creation of advertising agencies, who appear in glossy magazines promoting scotch whisky and are seen either stroking a red setter with a Purdey shotgun over their shoulder, or lounging in a paneled library, crystal decanter at their elbow and leather-bound first edition in their lap.
Something more visceral was needed, a scent that reached down into the medulla oblongata and caressed the very core of maleness. Perfume historians Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez proposed the most convincing candidate. “After years of intense research, we know the definitive answer. It is bacon.”