May 31, 2009

DSH Perfumes des Beaux Arts - Historical Fragrance Part 1

One of my favorite times of day is in the hot shower every morning. The luxury of abundant pure hot water is something we take for granted but the experience is one that is relatively new and rare in the context of history and the economy of nations, and all that jazz. I know that people in many countries, from northern Russia and Finland to Turkey and Persia and most of the Middle East, ancient Rome and also Japan developed a big bathhouse culture over time, and everyone would go regularly as a communal ritual, to enjoy the steaming hot water, and so were therefore quite clean even by modern standards. Many parts of England and Germany had ancient spas where the privileged would go to drink and take mineral baths from springs were were specially kept pure for health and beauty. But certain parts of the world, such as France, had to make do with other means, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not so much. Water was very impure, and drinking it or bathing in it was actually dangerous, and greatly feared. Alcohol was the purifier, and therefore was used commonly as the drink of choice in preference to water, and as a rubdown to cleanse the skin, in the form of cologne. Those who could afford it used it in huge quantities this way, while the peasants also used fragrant natural materials to drive away insects and for cleaning, and as antibacterial cleansers (though they didn't understand germ theory, people noticed that certain substances such as lavender assisted cleansing and healing and therefore were reliable beautifiers also, since health and cleanliness do so often equal beauty in many respects).

All this leads me to believe that French culture became perfume conscious and highly creative in the sense-genre of smell because of these very particular historical conditions. The culture has always encouraged the creative transformation of humble beginnings, such as fermentation into refined products like wine and cheese of great quality, and the people in France grew to respect the appreciation of sensual nuance, thereby turning necessities into pleasures.

Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, aka DSH, aka Parfum des Beaux Arts, shares my avid interest in fragrance history, particularly that of France in the 18th and early 19th century. I often wonder if people were really so different then. Probably they were, there are theories that even our emotions are often culturally influenced, but I believe that if a historically accurate formula for perfume is followed, that we will experience a close sensation to what people in the past experienced. A similar experience is listening to music played on historically accurate instruments. Dawn has studied the period, and created some interpretations, based on the materials, preferences and trends that are known to have been important in that time. As they are based on pre-industrial revolution formulas and ideas, they are of the natural, botanical type. They hold close to the body, and are subtle and ephemeral in duration, as all natural perfumes are.

I know that Napoleon used enormous amounts of eau de cologne as a substitute for water to bathe with while out on the military field, and Dawn has sent me her interpretation of this tangy clean stimulating scent, simply called L'eau. This must of been expressive of his Corsican Island past since this scent contained the classic Mediterranean aromatics of bergamot, lemon, lavander, neroli and rosemary.

His great love Josephine balanced and contrasted Napoleon's high energy with the sensuality of roses, which became a theme of her personal taste at her home, Malmaison. Her tropical island upbringing was known to have a great influence on her attachment for lushness in floral fragrance. She was one of the world's greatest patrons of roses, using much of her wealth from association with Napoleon in part to plant a specimen rose garden and commissioning portraits of her roses from Redoute. While Napoleon once famously requested she not bathe before meeting with him I am sure that did not preclude application of the transparent scents of the past which allow the individual scent of the body to come through. DSH Rose Imperiale comes on initially as a strong true botanical rose with a piquant carnation accent. It is a smooth clove-y scent that is allied to a clean skin musk, and quickly dries down to a soft tone that holds very close to the body, with an almost secretive quality to it. It would be sure to scent clothing worn on it, and objects of personal use. I imagine Josephine had diaphanous Empire shawls and neck ribbons and fans and writing paper that held her perfume.

I have received a set of DSH "Versailles" samples, which will be Part 2 next time. These scents are based on the preferences of the court of Louis XV and his favorites, M. de Pompadour and M. du Barry. There is also one called Cyprian, a wig powder scent, which I have been wanting to try ever since Dawn spoke of it. I wonder how it would be to spend the day with towering powdered hair....

The above portrait of Napoleon is a mutual favorite of DSH and mine, done when he was still a young uncorrupted-by-power genius, during the height of his romance with Josephine.
Painted by Gros in 1796, on display at the Louvre. He was probably emanating aromatic l'eau de cologne...


chayaruchama said...

A great favorite of mine, as well...
He was gorious, in that portrait.

Nothing excites me quite like the marvelous collaboration between kindred souls-
Dawn, you, so many of us-
Cross-pollinating, sharing information and materials with unbridled generosity.

I adore the linking of so many elements- history, science, art, music, literature.

Well done, you two !

Lucy said...


Yes, he is quite the inspired and romantic charismatic there. I believe it was painted after a famous, basically suicidal charge over a bridge in Italy, when he knew he was, as they say, a man of destiny, He saw he could get people to do impossible things for him.

As far as the collaboration you speak of, the generosity and knowledge I have found among those who love perfume has been so uplifting and refreshing to me. Especially yours.
Maybe those who get really turned on by olfactory beauty have also been triggering that beauty impulse in the brain or something...and then it comes out in all kinds of ways...

Mary said...

What a beautiful post, Lucy. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post--and am looking forward to Part 2. I tried DSH's Reinette from this series and it really is evocative of a different time and place. I really admire that passion you both have to look at the past and try to imagine what the fragrances really were like.

Off post--I hope you don't mind-- I thought I would update you on the raw argan oil issue I brought up a while back. It was a success! After your suggestions, I added some jojoba oil to the raw argan together with a few drops of frankinsense and rose and it's turned into a wonderful face oil for nighttime. Thank you for your help!


Lucy said...

Hi Mary and Jen,

Thanks for the encouraging words...
I have been reading up on 18th Cent. France once again and getting myself in the mode, as it were. Recently read in Antonia Fraser's bio of Marie Antoinette a detail, very telling, that when she arrived the powdered hair convention was in full swing, and the pomade and powder scent combination was very distinctive and pervasive. Those who had lived in the court remembered it nostalgically for the rest of their lives. Those that survived the Revolution, anyway.

Lucy said...

Jen, so glad you worked it out with the argan oil, I remember it well, you had the raw form -- and I see argan oil in the news more frequently these days.