A Curious Succession

Everyone remembers their mother’s perfume, and my mother’s favorite was Tabu.  It was very popular – musky and heavy and not at all what you would expect from a clergyman’s wife.  These days the scent reminds me of something that doesn’t generally happen in perfume: the gradual upscale progression of a singular idea.

Tabu was the creation of the great perfumer Jean Carles.  He used an enormous patchouli note as the modifier in that perfume.  In fact, in these days of focus groups and test marketing, it is doubtful that any such product would have been released at all.  Tabu was strong, it was the sort of thing that people dislike now.

The perfume was released by Dana in 1932 and was an immediate hit.  Possibly in deference to the Depression,  it was even sold in tiny one or two dose packets from bathroom dispensers. How this worked and whether or not this caused a certain amount of brand degradation I couldn’t say, but presumably while the male half of the daters hit the head for condoms,  the female half went to the ladies’ room for Tabu.  Maybe it was a precursor to the pill.

At some point, someone decided that the basic idea of Tabu was simply too good to leave to the five and dimers of this world.  That person was Estee Lauder who was in those days building her business on family recipes and a tireless attention to distribution. She wanted a fragrance and introduced it to her line as a bath oil.  The fragrance was a tweaked version of Tabu called Youth Dew.  It came then (and still does) in pretty pale blue bottles and had the similar heady smell of action on the tuck and roll upholstery of ’52 Chevys, but it appeared respectable.

That was the secret of Youth Dew. The scent was reasonably priced, but was also up market, and  was the sort of thing you could wear to church along with the fingertip veil hat, even if you had worn it to sin on the previous Saturday night.  Youth Dew became the first great hit Estee Lauder had and was probably responsible for putting the company on the map.  Youth Dew was, however – and keep your eye on the ball here – essentially the same perfume idea as down market Tabu: long lasting, slightly animalic ingredients added to a sweet oriental base.

The formula was to undergo a third and final transition that wafted through mansions as well as through its previous addresses, primarily at apartments and suburban tract housing.  It took the firm of Jean Desprez to do that.  Desprez owned his own company and though previously affiliated with the firm of Millot, for which he composed Crêpe de Chine in 1925, he had released his own compositions: Grande Dame and Etourdissant but he hadn’t created another money spinner after Crepe de Chine.  He took the same basic idea as Tabu and Youth Dew once again and transformed the result into the upscale classic Bal a Versailles in 1962.

Thirty one years had passed before Jean Carles’ formula was transmuted into something  worn by movie stars and socialites as well as college girls and waitresses.  The formula was re-stocked, mostly with naturals and the scent was heavy, long lasting, somewhat naughty, and to this day, popular.  For a time the favorite of Elizabeth Taylor, who, it seems, did share something in common with my mother besides transplanted English parents – a taste for woody/animalic perfumes.

Still, the point here is that Tabu was relaunched into the highest stratosphere of consumerism in the mid decades of the twentieth century, and that very seldom happens.  Usually what happens is the opposite.  Someone has a very good idea for a perfume formula and it becomes progressively weaker and more and more down market with each re-think so that the orbit gradually decays and eventually it falls to earth at Wal-Mart.  It might be nice for Carles to know that his formula, eighty years on is still successfully orbital.

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6 thoughts on “A Curious Succession

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  4. I see the progression clearly, and it strikes me as somewhat odd that while I despise Tabu and Youth Dew (and the other heavy balsamics like Opium and Cinnabar), I don’t mind Bal a Versailles at all. I don’t wear it often, and when I do it’s in teeny dabs from my parfum mini, but it’s nice. Possibly BaV is more floral than the others?

    • Agreed, and here is the funny part: Bal a Versailles smells like my basement. My basement smells better than just about any basement you have ever come across, and I don’t know why. My daughter who otherwise despises our current address breathes in the parfum de laundry room and says, “I shall miss this place!”
      Is the floweriness inherent in the earthy smell? Unborn flowers-as it were? Still haven’t figured that one out.

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