This summer, Somerset House has played home to the first major perfume exhibition in the UK. The concept of Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent at Somerset House, curated by Claire Catterall and co-curated by Lizzie Ostrom aka Odette Toilette, was to create a multi-sensory exhibition featuring ten extraordinary perfumes and their pioneering creators, who have radically changed our perceptions of fragrance over the last 20 years.
The exhibition challenges the traditional way of experiencing perfume by placing them into separate rooms with objects and installations, forcing a visitor to interact with the fragrance in a way removed from the experience of sniffing in a department store perfumery. The results are varied, with perhaps the most successful being the flowing breeze carrying Olivia Giacobetti‘s beautiful En Passant, which is also impregnated onto linen that you can press to your nose as you sit on a bench with a projection of the perfumer’s description of the fragrance imposed over a blue sky.
As visitors enter the exhibition, they are presented with ten fragrances from the last century, one per decade. Two of the fragrances, marking both ends of the century, have been reconstructed and made available for visitors to experience: CK One presented in its ‘pre-regulation’ state (before the days of limits imposed by IFRA – if you are looking to understand more about regulation in the perfume industry read more here.), and a reinterpretation of Coty’s L’Origan, said to have launched in 1905.
Recreating CK One in its pre-regulation state was remarkably easy. Will Andrews of Coty tells me “Firmenich had the original formula on file – which was a welcome surprise as computerisation of formulae was uncommon even in the 90s” – a simple case of having the formula weighed and including the now banned materials. Comparing modern CK One side by side with the original, you find the current version to be more citrus and slightly less weighty than the original – which had slightly more warmth and floralcy.
Francois Coty showed incredible creativity and foresight at the turn of the 1900s. He embraced the new synthetic materials and bases made available from larger scent manufacturers. He was the first to recognise the importance of packaging in the desirability of perfume, working with Lalique to create exquisite bottles for his perfumes. Partnering with a chemist and one of the big ingredients companies, Coty created genuine novelties – scents that had never been smelled before in perfumery.
But why L’Origan? It isn’t as famed as Chypre, Emeraude, L’Aimant, La Rose Jacqueminot or even Ambre Antique. Andrews explained “it would have been obvious to choose La Rose Jacqueminot, as it was his first fragrance, but would a rose soliflore wow people enough?” he continues “Le Chypre would have also been great, but it’s so steeped in legend and well discussed that it may have been slightly hackneyed.” Andrews had himself fixated on recreating one of Coty’s early works, and whilst thumbing through Michael Edwards Perfume Legends found the answer in L’Origan. It made sense to open the exhibition with a fragrance that had so much impact – Floral Orientals remain one of the most popular feminine fragrance families in the UK – making L’Origan a perfect forerunner for the exhibition.
L’Origan is perhaps more important in perfume history than any of Coty’s other creations. It gave birth to the floral oriental (or floriental) family, based around the sweet powder of orange blossom and heliotrope with the spice of nutmeg and clove. Ostrom tells us in her book, Perfume: A Century of Scents, that “L’Origan was such a hallmark because, as well as being available as an extract and eau de toilette, it was used to fragrance numerous other products, becoming the smell of the persuit of beauty itself. In particular L’Origan went into an early deodorant powder […] and, later on, Coty’s famous Air Spun face powder.” It was the precursor to Guerlain’s beloved L’Heure Bleue, beloved by perfumistas around the world for its old-world magic.
According to perfumer and perfumery historian Will Inrig, the ‘origan’ accord is a combination of several key materials: bergamot, neroli, linalool, benzyl acetate, jasmine, methyl anthranilate, carnation (itself a base made of ylang ylang, eugenol and iso-eugenol), rose, bouvardia (a base of methyl ionone, cinnamic alcohol and hydroxycitronellal), and amber (resinoids combined with coumarin and vanillin). It was widely used in perfumery, much like amber, chypre and fougère accords. That is “until perfumers started calling the genre ‘floral orientals’ in the 1970s.”
For the Somerset House exhibition, Coty tasked Firmenich’s Daphné Bugey to reinterpret L’Origan. “Personally, I first discovered L’Origan’s composition in 2004 as I worked on reformulating 4 major historical Coty fragrances for the celebration of Coty’s first centenary” said Bugey (Coty created a coffret to celebrate the centenary of the house and the genius of Francois Coty) “My first work immersed me in the very beginnings of modern perfumery that were very different from our contemporary craft” Bugey tells me. “Formulas were very short, but extremely complex because they were already made of sophisticated compositions and some forgotten materials.”
Perfumery in the early modern era relied significantly on bases and materials that have since disappeared from existence, such as Tonkin Musk from the endangered musk deer. Finding suitable replacements was going to be an integral part of the task of reinterpreting L’Origan for the exhibition. And aside from the lost materials, in the early 1900s formulas were built with alcoholic macerations and infusions, Bugey explained, “nowadays, we blend the oils and only add alcohol at the final stage of the process. So I had to remove the alcoholic parts, and introduce new solvents transforming concretes into absolutes.”
The version Bugey reinterpreted was based on the L’Origan formula from the Osmothèque, the Versailles perfume repository which houses reconstructions of thousands of historic perfumes. The formula at the Osmothèque was donated by Yves Roubert, son of Vincent Roubert – Coty’s perfumer from 1926 until the 1950s – and was reconstituted by Jean Kerleo. The original formula is long since lost. Having initially reinterpreted the fragrance in 2004, Bugey set out to craft a new formula as closely as possible to the suspected original, using existing materials – including Firmenich bases Iralia and Dianthine. “I kept in mind the design of a contemporary formula made of available ingredients” – meaning that one day, it could be manufactured. Bugey argues that the challenges faced in reinterpreting such a historic fragrance cannot be compared to the creation of a new fragrance for a modern brand. It relies on a different kind of creativity – of finding new ways to fill in old gaps.
The Osmothèque formula differs significantly from a version from a factory compounding sheet dated 1962. From the Cité des Parfums in Suresnes, the compounding sheet is signed by J. Souilliart, Coty’s technical director at the time. “Finding an authentic L’Origan formula from Parfums Coty, with date and provenance, is problematic, to say the least” says Inrig “it is clearly a modification of the 1905 original, as it includes several products that did not then exist, such as the De Laire neroli base Flonol 166, released sometime after 1914, and the Naef opoponax base Coralys, launched in 1922 and replacing, I suspect, an earlier ambréine-type compound.” Inrig believes the formula from 1962 to be the most reliable – “despite its shortcomings” – as the Roubert version contains floral absolutes which did not exist at the time, and misses a key structural material present in vintage samples.
Whether Coty himself was the true perfumer of L’Origan, or indeed any of his fragrances, is still up for debate. In an extract from the new edition of Perfume Legends, to be released in June 2018, Michael Edwards writes: “Perhaps, it might be argued, Coty did not wish to promote himself as a perfumer; perhaps he was a genius creator who composed a masterpiece in his second working year; perhaps his varied style shows only his versatility. Certainly, no other perfumer ever claimed credit for any of the perfumes attributed to Coty, and that is the greatest evidence in his favour. In the end, whether Coty composed or merely selected L’Origan is another part of his mystery.”
Regardless, the exhibition itself brings scent to a wider audience, and the historic reinterpretation of L’Origan opens a window through time for them, over a hundred years into perfume’s long history. And really, we’ll never know just how close Bugey managed to come to the original.
Which fragrance from today would be recreated for a scent exhibition 100 years from now? Only time will tell.
This article would not have been possible without the help of Will Andrews of Coty Inc, and Michael Edwards of Fragrances of the World. Thanks also to both to Daphné Bugey of Firmenich and Will Inrig for their passion, insight and time, and making this article a joy to write.
Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is at Somerset House until 23rd September