I love a vintage fragrance house. I mean a real vintage house, with dusty cobwebbed doors, crumbling damp walls, a bloom of mould, reeking of yesteryear, powdered ghosts roaming forgotten boudoirs and chapels reeking of fumy yesteryear. So many Houses either bury their past or fake and embellish the lineage, claiming false descendants, dubious provenance and elaborate reconstructions of past glories. Sometimes this is carried out with consummate brio, but there has to be full transparency and honesty about what it going on and the work being done with formulations and the olfactory genealogy otherwise the undertaking can seem pretentious and contrived.
I was alerted to the existence of Oriza L. Legrand by a friend and fellow perfume lover, Barry Wa. He has beautiful taste in scent and started a thread on Basenotes (as Prince Barry) about Oriza after finding there was hardly any info on the House out in the electronic ether. This thread grows week by week and really has raised the profile of this exquisite house. So I really have to thank Barry for sharing his love of Oriza with me.
There has been a resurgence in recent years of old fragrances house opening up their creaking vaults and re-launching their vintage style perfumes, soaps, creams and powders. Many old houses have died and taken their olfactory secrets to their powdered graves. Fashion and eras are fickle, taste is a brutal arbiter. In many ways this is how it should be, time moves on. A few truly inspirational and timeless behemoths survive through sheer force of adaptive will, modernisation, money, timing and sometimes luck. Chanel, Dior, Lauder, Guerlain, Caron (perhaps to a lesser degree) have seen off time and countless competitors to be with us today, still creating perfume that stands the test of time. Of course their work is different from originals, nothing is ever quite the same. But arguably the spirit remains.
Over time, smaller more unique Houses all over Europe have decayed into oblivion after years of fashionability, influence and popularity. Some of them, Floris, Creed, Penhaligon’s, Santa Maria Novella have survived into the modern era though, cautiously and not without problems and an erosion of credibilty.
Elisabeth de Feydeau, the French writer, lecturer and fragrance historian is credited by many for the resurgence in fascination with older lost houses, particularly French perfumeries. Elisabeth is an outstanding and illuminating writer, full of wit and charm, her knowledge of perfumery is both extensive and esoteric. Her book A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette's Perfumer, published in France in 2005 - elsewhere in 2006 - was a wonderful portrait of the life of Jean-Louis Fargeon, fiercely loyal perfumer to Marie-Antoinette. The work oozes with astute period detail but most importantly places the production of perfume firmly at the centre of the story. To coincide with the publication of the book, perfumer Francis Kurkdjian created a scent called Sillage de la Reine, inspired as closely as possible by Fargeon’s consultations with the Queen, trying to capture the scent of Trianon for her. Again working with and inspired by Elisabeth’s passion and research, Sillage de la Reine was assembled with notes of rose, iris, cut jasmine, tuberose and orange blossom enhanced with delicate touches of cedar and sandalwood. Tonkin musk and precious ambergris round off a deep and rich formulation. The project was a popular and critical success.
Elisabeth de Feydeau’s research and obsession with this particular period has allowed us to form a more detailed understanding of perfumery and the people whose passions and talents drove the early days of this most ephemeral and sensual of the arts. A good example is The House of Lubin, originally founded in 1798 and resurrected in 2004 by Gilles Thevenin after many years of decline, with the launch of the stunning Idole by Olivia Giacobetti, a dense blend of sugar cane, rum, saffron, cumin, doum palm and leather. By mixing new releases with re-orchestrations of vintage Lubin formulas, the house has successfully revived itself. The English house Atkinson’s re-launched itself recently, re-branding in the process but still retaining its quintessentially stiff upper lip playfulness. Other existing Houses such as Chanel, Dior, Guerlain, YSL plunder their archives and re-release classics, tweaking here and there and in some cases just overhauling the fragrances and creating an homage or variant of the original.
It is impossible to exactly recreate the original antique perfumes of yesteryear. And even if you could, the chances are, you would fall very foul indeed of IFRA, the body that regularly makes minute yet far-reaching pronouncements on what is to be used in the elaborate construction of the perfumes we choose to wear. We are all aware that exact replication is well nigh on impossible, but perfumery in the spirit of a certain time and place, using atmospheric and timely raw materials can still potentially yield heart-stopping and moving results.
Oriza L Legrand has quite the scented history, going back to its foundation in 1720 under the regency of The Sun King Louis XV. Oriza was set up in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre by Fargeon the Elder, a cousin to Jean-Louis Fargeon, Marie-Antoinette’s famous perfumer. The name Oriza is a corruption of oryza sativa, latin for rice, a reference to the vast amounts of rice powder used in face and wig preparations of the day. Legend of the day has Fargeon learning his cosmetic and perfumed secrets from Ninon de Lenclos, a celebrated and seemingly ageless courtesan. This glittering association worked wonders for Oriza, making his name and products a byword for in-the-know luxury and glamour at court.
The house had a royal warrant and supplied numerous royal and imperial courts of the day. Louis Legrand took the reins in 1811 and moved the location of the perfumery to the Rue St Honoré where the Mulberry store is today. This was the major turning point in the history of he House. Antonin Reynaud later joined Oriza as an associate and Legrand eventually sold him the business. As a mark of respect Reynaud named his new perfumery Oriza L. Legrand and the House developed from a small-scale cottage enterprise into a fully fledged viable retail business with full industrial and manufacturing processes behind it creating everything from rice powder to perfume bottles.
The House moved again in the 1800s to 11 Place de la Madeleine, where Baccarat is now. Oriza L. Legrand was one of the first Houses to really exploit the concept of perfumed body lines, with each scent available in powders and creams as well as the House’s celebrated and patented solid perfume, Essence Oriza Solidifiée. Eventually by the 1930s Oriza was gone, run into the ground by economic exhaustion and bad management. The wars were not kind to perfumery. Many great houses suffered, smelling good was not a necessity of war. Such frivolities were considered almost blasphemous and yet ironically, bottles of perfume were items so sought after by soldiers returning home to sweethearts and mothers.
Oriza L Legrand was resuscitated by Franck Belaiche, a television and movie producer with a passion for fine fragrance and history of scent. He did extensive homework on Oriza and decided to take quite an olfactory gamble. Working with over eighty fragrance recipes, an extensive archive, some existing old bottle and lots of memories Franck set about re-orchestrating and reviving the scented fortunes of Oriza L Legrand. After three years of intensive work with perfumers, he decided to start the renaissance ball rolling with four fragrances created between 1900 and 1920: Déjà le Printemps, Rêve d’Ossian, Rélique d’Amour and Oeillet Louis XV. Since then, Les Jardins D’Armides (1909), Horizon (1925) and Chypré Mousse (1914) have been added to the collection.
I have been indulging in these fragrances repeatedly over the last couple of months, immersing myself in Oriza’s hermetic and oddly claustrophobic world of time gone by. As Franck and his colleague Hugo Lambert have both said on a number of occasions these are not exact replicas of the original formulae, this is just impossible. Times and tastes have changed so much and of course the larder of raw materials is vastly depleted and restricted since the House began. The best that can be achieved is capturing of the spirit and emotional heft of the original perfumes. This is still incredibly difficult, demanding time, research, dedication and a gut instinct that modern skins will appreciate such atmospheric and ancient beauty. The trick is to provide people with a scented window into the past. A highly romantisised window, rose-tined and sparkling. It’s a little like historical fiction, you reconstruct the parts that will hook the reader, dress the time to lure and seduce, avoid any real unpleasantness. The stench, rotting teeth, pestilence, death and body odour. Perfume and scented preparations were used to mask this reality.
We don’t want that though, just the sanitised edition, smelling of roses. Historical scented olfaction is difficult to balance; on the one hand there is a responsibility to the source material, a certain amount of fragrant honesty. On the other hand there is accuracy and what can be done with the best materials available. Many Houses claim ancient or vintage continuance whereas in actual fact the contemporary versions bear only a fleeting resemblance to their forbears. We are better off looking to perfumers like Vero Kern, Andy Tauer, Jovoy, Histoires de Parfums and Viktoria Minya for more imaginative echoes of the past.
I think on balance Oriza L. Legrand have got it right, the look of the brand, packaging etc are delicately rendered with loving attention to detail. My bottle of Rélique D’Amour arrived wrapped in its own matching paper with two long thin purse sprays and samples. The receipt seemed delightfully out of time and the box is made from a tactile textured card that adds layers of vintage precision to the experience of Oriza. The bottles and labels are original designs, tweaked a little to look sharper and more in tune with todays more aesthetic shopper. Vintage is huge business, and vintage boudoir even more so. The fact that the juices are fantastic is an added sweet smelling bonus.
I liked all the fragrances. Rare for me, even the pungent medicinal Chypré Mousse which followed me round all day like a smouldering sexual forest. It was the Œillet Louis XV that really caught me first, powder on powder on gorgeous tumbling powder. A scent built around white carnation, carnation absolute, iris and white orchid. I imagined wigs towering through bitching rooms, the constant rustle and crack of taffeta and stain on the move. The whiteness is underpinned with the softest notes of honey, rice powder and white musks. It smelt like dusted sin.
I adore powder, softness like this, craving it like my lost cigarettes and champagne. It reminded me a little of Lann-Ael by Lostmarc’h, my Breton bed scent, apples, vanilla and cereal notes stirred with honeyed woods.
Les Jardins D’Armides was delicious too, I got quite addicted to the wonderful almond note wrapped up in musks, honey, tonka, carnation, violet and wisteria. It sounds VERY floral, in keeping with its name, the legendary gardens of the Damascene sorceress Armide who attempted to seduce the leader of the Crusaders by singing him into a perfumed sleep in her enchanted gardens. Her plan did not succeed, the city was sacked and Armide killed herself. The famous gardens became a kind of shorthand or symbol for floral beauty and majesty and used in music, fashion art throughout the ages, particularly during the Renaissance.
I was struck how playful and giddy the perfume was. Now I love my florals, throw in some powder and I’m a very happy Fox. But the execution must be good, there has to be delicacy and form. The almond/macaroon note is just delicious, I imagined running down pale blue corridors in a billowing white shirt, ragged bouquets of roses, shedding their petals behind me.
Then on a weirdly cold August morning as I felt fever in my bones I sprayed on Rélique D’Amour and rested.
Oriza describe the fragrance as the smell of old Cistercian abbeys, mossy stones, waxed wood, linseed, lamp smoke, the smells of veneration. I don’t disagree; many of these elements are there woven through an intensely complex series of sensory levels. There is divinity and calm, light and shadow, exalted beauty and a strange awareness of approaching death in the fibres and fabric of surrounding materials.
For me, Rélique D’Amour is a scent of mortality and intense searching contemplation. I am not the biggest fan of incense. Over the years it has become a very slapdash desultory note used as shorthand to the ecclesiastical, the holy, the quick fix religious atmospheric backdrop. It is a cold note and needs to warmed through with other more subtle and persuasive notes like vanilla, benzoin, myrrh, tonka, tobacco and hay absolutes. It can be bitter and harsh on the senses, pitiless. It needs discretion and a subtle artistic hand to create anything truly unique. The only great incense scent for me was Etro’s Messe de Minuit, dark and dolorous, it seemed to enter one’s very soul and take root, pulling down the sun from the sky.
Rélique D’Amour is a painting. Of a time and place, a mood pervades the canvas and the colours and tones shift and blur, coalescing into pictures within pictures, moods within moods. It is a scent of solitude and silence. The shock of crumbling damp wood and snuffed out flames creates a hush of tremendous beauty. Marrying the remnants of smoke with lichen-clan stones is a remarkable idea. In the centre of this are sleeping lilies, the symbols of purity, brought to Mary by the Angel Gabriel, oozing their indolic, funeral odours over stained waxed woods. The myrrh note is augmented by musk and pepper, reminding us that death is never far away. Used for embalming and funeral rites, myrrh has tremendous power in this scent, grounding the experience, filtering in the gaps between notes, sealing out the light. It’s not to say this is a particularly heavy scent, the fresh herbs and pine at the top set an oddly joyful initial impression like stumbling upon a massive hidden verdigris door and pushing it open. The odours that billow out mingle with the grass and trees behind you. Darkness beckons.
I am quite stunned by the beauty of Rélique D’Amour, I love the overgrown ruined feel of the notes on my skin, the mildewed echo of prayer and loss it brings to mind. I smell cells and closure, a shutting off of the mind. Sniffing again today I realised the lilies are a glowing reminder of carnality, just enough to light a flame under jaded senses. They will be forever my fetish flower, blooming on the border between swooning desire and purity. This is a perfume for fallen angels and lost boys and girls. I imagine a ruined emerald chapel buried deep in the woods, lost to time. A solitary man visits each day and lays a single white lily on the floor. The name he whispers is lost to the furred and glistening wall. He lights a candle and sits for a while, silent, fingers touching the stones around him with a lover’s caress. As night drops like a stone into a bleak well, he blows out the candle and disappears softly into the darkness.
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