Thursday, 20 August 2009

Fougère Royale, a long lost legend

I read Luca Turin's The Secret of Scent shortly ago and got some food for thought. For those who do not know, Luca Turin is a biologist interested in smell and in perfumes and he writes about these, including the popular Perfumes: The Guide, written with Tania Sanchez.One of the bits of food for thought was Turin's enthusiastic description of Fougère Royale by Houbigant. Created in 1882, it's the first perfume that used a synthetic ingredient, coumarin, and Luca Turin describes it thusly:
It does smell of coumarin, to be sure, but it is also fresh, clean, austere, almost bitter. This is the reference smell of scrubbed bathrooms, suggestive of black and white tiles, clean, slightly damp towels, a freshly shaven daddy. But wait! there's a funny thing there, something not altogether pleasant. It's a touch of natural cuvet, stuff that comes from the rear edn of an Asian cat and smells like it does. [...] Small wonder Fougere Royale was such a success. At a distance, he who wears it is everyone's favourite son-in-law; up close, a bit of an animal (1).

It sounded intriguing enough to me; I have a weak spot of perfumes gone for long. Some two weeks ago, I gave it a random try on eBay and there it was, a small bottle and only half full but for a price I could afford; the seller guessed that it may be from the 1940's and I must say that I have no clue, I'm not that much of a collector - there was indeed a relaunch of this fragrance after WWII so I'd guess it's from this time. Should anyone know better, feel free to inform me.
Anyhow, it was affordable so I bought it out of sheer curiosity; if it were awful or gone bad, I was quite sure that I could pass the bottle to a collector friend. Decent deal. On Monday, an envelope from France landed in my mailbox, containing Cœur Enchaîne by Honore Payan of Grasse (another brand of which I know nothing) and that Fougère. The latter leaked a tiny bit, spreading the bitter scent into the wrapping foil and around.

It is bitter. And bitter and bitter, in all imaginable shades, bergamot that bites your nose off from inside. There's that adstringent feel of very strong green tea (2), crushed spruce needles - no resinous smell, rather an olfactory rendering of the taste of spruce needles, a whiff of something indefinably sweet-ish but not sticky... and, well, that piece of clingy foil does smell of something animalic after being around for several days. With a touch of dirty sea water in a port, with all that ugly floating on it (3). There is something soapy all over, not that pink soapy smell of roses but the sort of soap one uses for weird and tough stains. Bathroom - no way, for me, it would have to be much more homely to resemble a bathroom. An outhouse at a summer cottage, with gusts of wind between the boards and quite a bit of nature nearby. There are no clearly discernible floral accords as far as I can say but I'd guess quite some bergamot, a touch of rose and I wouldn't exclude iris and carnation...
This is one of those perfumes that I cannot compare to anything - I suspect there's something similar somewhere out there of which I'm unaware...
... I looked around the internetz and someone somewhere mentions Covet being a modern fougère, fougère 'on crack' and indeed, there is similar sort of biting pungency I originally ascribed to an overdose of muguet and bergamot. I loved Covet from the first time I sniffed it at Stockholm airport and now it scored another point in sympathy. It's not exactly similar but there's that feel.

Houbigant doesn't exist as a house anymore, the name was sold in the early 1990's along with the formulas for the perfumes and all that remained is names so (4), alas, there's hardly any chance of a reissue of either Fougère Royale or anything else from the good olden days... sigh.

Fougère Royale by Houbigant, created in 1882 (some sources give 1881) by Paul Parquet
Erm, could've tried to search first.
Top notes: lavender, bergamot, clary sage
Middle notes: geranium, heliotrope, rose, orchid, carnation
Base notes: oakmoss, musk, tonka, vanilla (5)
I suppose there should be coumarin instead of tonka and civet added.

Next time, or some other time: Chanel No. 46
(1) Turin, Luca: The Secret of Scent: Adventures in Perfume and the Science of Smell, p. 22. Faber and Faber, London, 2006. ISBN 978-0-571-21538-6
(2) I do drink tea and I have some general idea about it but that doesn't mean that I'd cease to be a coffee person. Should you give me gifts of this sort, I still prefer Peets coffee. Unless the tea were really really good. Really. I can stand crappy coffee but I hate crappy tea.
(3) I dislike sea in general, not only when it gets stinky.
(4) Something more here
(last) After

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