Le Trèfle Incarnat

“The Pink Clover” (trifolium incarnatum)  is the rough translation of this title and it refers to a perfume by the firm of L.T. Piver, “la plus ancienne maison de parfumerie francaise” produced, well, some considerable time ago.

Okay, to be specific, the year of introduction was 1896.  Well, ho hum, and why should we care about such a very old perfume so far removed from us now?  It was, in fact, one of the very first fougeres, which is to say that it was preceded by Jicky in 1889, and followed by Maia in 1925, and therefore occupies an interesting ground between the two.

What is fascinating about that particular genre of perfume is that it has not only survived all the way to our century, it has thrived and mutated into an almost entirely masculine associated scent. And yet, in its infancy, the fougere was not aimed at males, but females. (Consider the early history of Jicky, which was not a success until the dandies of Paris took up what their wives and sweethearts would not.) This may make the fougere one of the very first gender neutral families of perfume. It cannot have been outrageously floral, and it probably was pretty dry by our standards.

Of course, I’d never heard of it, but I read a book by M.M. Kaye called The Sun in the Morning about her childhood in India in the early twentieth century.  It transpired that her very young and very pretty American mother always wore Le Trefle Incarnat.  Everything of hers smelt like it, wrote Kaye, sixty years later – her scarves, her gloves and fans, the gowns she wore to the many tea dances of the era.  She ended the reminiscence wondering who L.T. Piver had been and whether the perfume was still to be found anywhere.

To the first question I can give an answer now. L.T.Piver was a French perfume house of the late nineteenth early twentieth century.  They have reappeared, and have a number of their perfumes back in production, although I doubt very much that it is the same as when Kaye’s father bought Le Trefle Incarnat for his wife.

I also know that it exists in its original form at the Osmotèque in Versailles, and that, I suppose, is the only way to smell it now.  Myself, I wonder if it smelt more like Jicky or more like Maia.  I’ve always liked Maia, an old standard that you can nearly always find gathering dust at your local Big Lots or Marshall’s, although it is a brisk seller in South America.  It’s very dark, if you’ve ever smelled it, very dark and rather herbal and extremely dry.

This may explain why a fougere was favored by a memsahib trying to cope with the extremes of the sub-continental climate almost a hundred years ago.  Florals would have been too much under such circumstances, cloying and uncomfortable, orientals even worse. Indian women of course, had a long and involved history with perfume, made even more complex by the Moghal conquests of the 16th century, when their Persian rulers imported their olfactory traditions.  But for the neophyte English of the nineteenth century, it was probably a matter of experimentation and improvisation.  There is a section in The Jewel in the Crown when one young Englishwoman enters the bathroom of an Englishman and finds a bar of Coty’s Chypre on the wash stand. It was merely a modern adaptation of a long tradition of sandalwood in India.

As for the fougere base at the time, I have only one clue and that comes from an old piece written by the perfumer Jean Carles.  He suggests that it was no more than lavender and tonka beans.  It doesn’t seem much for the beginning of a whole family now comprising Cool Water and so many Hugo Boss scents.  Still, you have to start somewhere, and wherever M.M. Kaye is now, I hope she’s gratified to know that back in the day, her father’s taste was impeccable.



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