One Thousand Scents

Friday, August 23, 2013

Intermission: Bal à Versailles EDT (vintage)

I'm kind of dreading sampling those last three Fueguia 1833 scents, so I'm taking a breather for a week.

One of the reasons the Fueguia scents generally aren't working well for me is that they're too simple: most of them have no body. They're generally thin, bloodless things with but a single thought on their minds. But it didn't used to be like that. Once upon a time (and not even that long ago, as late as the nineties), nearly every fragrance worthy of the name, with the usual exception of colognes and deliberately simple eaux de toilette, was constructed according to a framework, the olfactory pyramid, in which multiple elements, often a great many of them, were balanced and layered to create a perpetually evolving whole greater than the sum of its parts. Nowadays, all too many perfumes are based on a much simpler template, still nominally a pyramid but more like three Lego blocks: synthetic fruit that lasts a few minutes, a vague floral that lasts two hours, woody vanilla musk that lasts a few more, each a discrete object with no development, no complexity or shape.

Even if you don't consciously experience all the notes in a classically constructed fragrance (and you won't), they matter. They add overtones and complexities: they fill out the composition. This is yet another way in which perfumery is like music. Each individual instrument in an orchestra has its own set of overtones: no instrument makes a pure tone. When you mass them all together, you get an effect that is much larger and more multifarious than any single instrument (or even a grouping of the same instrument) could be by itself.

Bal à Versailles by Jean Desprez was launched in 1962, but it feels like something out of the thirties, in good company with 1932's Tabu, 1937's Shocking, and other gorgeously raunchy fragrances.

As Bal à Versailles shows, sexy-times perfumes didn't end in the thirties: even in the mid to late eighties, perfumers were still creating such amazing odes to carnal delight as Montana Parfum de Peau in 1986. The late eighties through the early nineties were a struggle between 1980s power scents and the new watery perfumes such as Calvin Klein Escape in 1991, L'Eau D'Issey in 1992, and Bulgari Eau Parfumée in 1993, and we all know which side won. If Angel in 1992 wasn't the last of the oversized kaboom orientals, it was the sign of a genre on its way out, not that Angel had anything to do with the sexy orientals of earlier decades: it was about as desexualized as an oriental perfume can be, meant to evoke the comforts of childhood rather than the pleasures of the boudoir. Big complex orientals and chypres weren't quite dead, but they were increasingly relegated to the back of the shelf (or drastically reformulated, as Opium was, to fit modern tastes), and I think that's the point at which the zeitgeist shifted and there was no looking back.

As a consequence, Bal à Versailles is going to smell hopelessly perfumey and old-fashioned to anybody born after about 1980, 'cause it's built — holy cow, is it ever built, like a Maserati. Civet may be a base note, but it has a way of making its presence known right at the beginning of a scent — there's no way to hide it — and so in addition to the herbal (slightly minty, to my surprise) and hesperidic opening, there's already the intimation of smutty sex, which continues throughout the life of the scent. The middle is a great mass of flowers, all the usual suspects such as rose, jasmine, orange-flower, and ylang, and still wonderfully thrumming with more and more of that dangerous, dirty civet. Eventually comes the climax: plush vanilla and suggestive leather tussling with that dense animalic base, for hours and hours. It's beautiful, but never for an instant is it just beautiful: from its first moments on your skin it's enticingly corrupt.

I wish I could be more certain of the date, but I think my little half-ounce bottle dates from some time in the late seventies to mid eighties, which means that it might have lost some of its top notes (I can't find any evidence it ever had aldehydes, though I feel as if it ought to have, for some reason) but is otherwise intact and probably very close to the original 1960s formulation. Bal à Versailles is still in production, but as usual, I have no idea what changes might have been made to it in the last sixty years: probably it's been madly tinkered with to appeal to today's tastes, but perhaps, contrarily, it's exactly what it used to be, a celebration of the animal in all of us.

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