Bottling the Zeitgeist: 100 Years of Iconic Perfumes — Part 1

20 July, 2016

Jessica Murphy is an art historian with a passion for perfume and pop-culture. In two installments of our Truth-tellers & Troublemakers Salon, she gave us a comprehensive look at more than 100 years of the iconic scents that bottled the zeitgeist of their times. We caught up with her to talk about some of her favorites... and hear the stories behind some familiar (and not so familiar) fragrances. Here is part 1, from 1890 to 1950.

Jicky Ad (1)

Could you tell us a bit about the origins of modern perfumery?

Many fragrance experts agree that Guerlain’s Jicky brought perfumery into the modern era. When Aimé Guerlain composed it in 1889, he combined natural ingredients like lavender and rosemary with recently invented synthetic ingredients like vanillin. Instead of a single identifiable smell like musk or leather or a specific flower. Jicky’s hard to define: a bit herbal, a bit sweet. It’s more than the sum of its parts. Like Impressionist painting, which was happening at the same time in France.

What made them similar?

Instead of depicting the physical world in careful and realistic detail, the Impressionists were trying to capture how we view the world, the nature of perception itself. They wanted to evoke light and air, the way a landscape feels, not just how it looks. They were using new materials and synthetic pigments too.

So early perfumers had something in common with the era’s artists. Where else did they find inspiration?

In the ’20s, everything from furniture to jewelry to cigarette ads incorporated motifs inspired by Eastern cultures. The tomb of Tutankhamun was excavated in 1922, and silent films featured Theda Bara playing Cleopatra and Salomé. Guerlain's Shalimar, whose story is based on the historical romance between a Mughal emperor and his wife, was well-timed to coincide with a Western interest in all things “exotic.” It had a Baccarat bottle design inspired by the Shalimar Gardens, and warm, sultry notes that evoked a faraway place and time. It’s still popular with women (including me!) fascinated by all aspects of the Roaring Twenties. It’s also one of the best vanilla-based perfumes ever made, and the taste for vanilla scents comes back periodically.

Can you think of any other perfumes with that sort of staying power?

Chanel No. 5 was a best-seller from its launch in 1921 well into the ’50s. It was especially popular at the end of World War II, when soldiers stationed in France bought it as a souvenir for women at home.

Chanel ad 1950s

Chanel No. 5 is certainly iconic. Can you tell us something about its origins?

Chanel had asked the perfumer Ernest Beaux to create a long-lasting perfume that evoked the scent of a woman, not just the smell of flowers. She also wanted something that could be worn day or night — the equivalent of the “little black dress” that became her signature design. Beaux had actually been working on an experimental new perfume for a number of years, even before he emigrated from Russia during the revolutions of 1917. This was his chance to make it a reality, especially since Chanel allowed Beaux a budget that permitted him to use ingredients like the costliest jasmine absolute, plus a strong dose of the aldehydes that give No. 5 its modern, streamlined feeling.

Why was it called “No. 5”?

Beaux presented Chanel with multiple variations of his work in progress, and each sample was numbered. She chose the variation that happened to be labeled “5” and decided to keep the numeral as its name. That was an unusual choice at a time when perfumes had romantic and poetic titles like L’Heure Bleue (“The Blue Hour”) and N’Aimez Que Moi (“Love Me Only”).

The name hasn’t hurt its popularity. It’s remained a perennial favorite, hasn’t it?

Yes. But its success dipped in the ’60s, when it was seen as being out of step with counter-culture. It was also overexposed, since it was sold even at drugstores and discount stores. To counteract these perceptions, Chanel tightened distribution and refocused the advertising, featuring celebrities like Catherine Deneuve as the “face” of No. 5 and emphasizing its status as a luxury item.

Youth Dew ad 1960s

That’s one way to stay relevant. Have other scents followed suit?

Estée Lauder’s Youth-Dew is an interesting example, because it wasn’t the fragrance’s composition that was innovative, but the marketing that made it a stealth hit. In 1953, Lauder positioned the original fragrance as a bath oil that doubled as a “skin perfume.” Her theory was that American women were more likely to splurge on a bath product for themselves, whereas they often waited to receive a fine fragrance as a gift from husbands or boyfriends.

And how does that translate to the advertising?

In my research, I was surprised to find very little print advertising for Youth-Dew in its early years. The Estée Lauder brand allowed Youth-Dew to gain popularity through sales’ associates recommendations and word-of-mouth. It turned out to be a successful strategy. And when Lauder released an alcohol-based version of Youth-Dew a few years later, it was more concentrated and longer-lasting than most fragrances on the market, making women feel they were getting more for their money.

Fracas ad

So changing attitudes have also driven innovation in the field?

Yes. When Robert Piguet released Fracas in 1948, American and European women had just experienced nearly two decades of austerity, rationing, and shortages of many consumer goods, due to the Great Depression and World War II. They were ready to embrace anything new and opulent in perfume, as well as fashion. Fracas is an olfactory parallel to the couture designed by Piguet, Dior, and other designers of the “New Look” in the mid- and late-’40s: lush, luxurious, and hyper-feminine.

Are there any modern equivalents to it?

It’s still the iconic tuberose fragrance, although there are some more recent examples that have devoted fans and cult followings, like Frédéric Malle’s Carnal Flower, Serge Lutens’ Tubéreuse Criminelle, or Diptyque’s Do Son.

Fracas has been called the “anti No. 5.” Would you agree?

Not necessarily. It just occurs at a different moment in style and fragrance history. I think the writer for Into the Gloss who called it that described it as a “bad girl” perfume, but I don’t really believe in that kind of bad/good dichotomy, and even if I did, Fracas wouldn’t be the Piguet fragrance I’d name. I’d choose Bandit.

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Words by the Editors. Imagery kindly provided by Jessica Murphy.

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