Synthetics are the bugaboos of the perfume world. Everyone knows that they make up the majority of the shades in a perfumers’ palette, most of us can name a few names: Cashmeran, Hedione, Iso Super E. Still, we resent them. We pine for a world in which lily means lily and jasmine means jasmine and not Cis Jasmone.
All nostalgia is misleading, though. Consider the heaviness of purely natural perfumes, they do not have the improbable gadgetry, the finely calibrated chemical structures of modern perfumery. Sometimes, when it’s badly done, this is merely repetitive: cheapo formulas with fifty molecules mimicking the action of fifteen hundred with predictable results, because this is chemistry pretending to be nature. At its best, however, synthetic perfumery has a delicacy lacking in more earthy formulations.
Consider for a moment the career of Pierre Bourdon who created Cool Water for Davidoff. The aromatic fougère scarcely existed before he came along with this formula, based on dihydromyrcenol. Before we moan and groan about substitutions (though in this case it’s difficult to say of what for which, since the entire smell of the genre is man made) we should remember that the fougère is predicated on Coumarin, a chemical.
This by the way, produced back in 1882, so that chemicals in mass perfumery are about a hundred and thirty years old. The scent of dihydromyrcenol has become ubiquitous, and it’s largely because of M. Bourdon’s work. So, from a purely commercial point of view he has been enormously successful.
He has been successful in the aesthetic world as well. It was Pierre Bourdon together with Christopher Sheldrake who created Feminite du Bois for Serge Lutens back in 1992, four years after Cool Water. It was such a masterpiece, with so many movable parts to it, that it was disassembled and reassembled in a number of reconfigurations that became the first perfumes in Serge Lutens’ range.
It’s this complexity that most marks the work of Bourdon. He creates what seems like a miniature universe of precisely engineered automata, delicate as gnats, all flying about in contraptions that would defy the imaginations of the Wright Brothers for haphazard wizardry. Everything is so detailed and so clear and yet so tiny in his aerial, wind-borne world, that it’s impossible to tell what just blew past you, the thistledown of a dandelion clock or the wreckage of a defeated aerial fleet, so small as to be undetectable to the naked eye?
This brings me to the subject of his late work which is sadly neglected. His lovely and sometimes very innovative scents for the Romea D’Ameor line, and Courtesan for the house of Worth, certainly one of the most complex and highly subordinated scents ever composed for women. It is rather like Cool Water in its basic structure but it is given a spicy tone by the use of something like cinnamon set against Bourdon’s usual unlikely line up of chemical suspects, generally masquerading as fruits. The whole thing comes off not as masculine or feminine, but as unbelievably complex, and extremely subtle.
He brings the same understatement to the Ameor line with Empresses of Japan, which is a re-think of Ferre de Ferre, and Iris Poudre, both his own compositions and a beautiful meditation on chocolate combined with fruit and caramel, in Inca Priestesses.
His lovely green floral for the line is The Mistresses of Louis XIV. This is one of the most elegant green florals ever, really. If you like Patricia de Nicolai’s Temps d’une Fête, then you owe it to yourself to smell this perfume. It takes all the spring flower scents everyone knows and combines them with a touch of incense so that they form a well integrated whole, but the floral amalgam is more than the sum of its parts. There is hyacinth, but it is not as strident as it’s usually allowed to be; there are daffodil, and lily of the valley, and narcissus, but the former are not allowed to be soapy clichés, and the latter is not permitted to go and be animalic all over the carpet. No, the entire orchestration is as disciplined as the gardens of Le Notre.
I’m afraid though that the public largely missed the Ameor scents, and Courtesan was not popular either. It should have been. Anyway, and while there is still a chance, go and marvel at these feats of nano-perfumery.