Not every perfume released in 1912 was actively influenced by Coty’s decade dominating hits. Houbigant, which had left off the last century with an unprecedented perfume (Fougere Royale,1882) was due for another world beater.
Their business had begun in 1775. Jean Francois Houbigant had opened a boutique called A la Corbeille de Fleurs on the rue Saint Honore. Wigs were the fashion of the day (see The Powdering Gown), and for reasons that pass modern understanding, people insisted on powdering them – maybe it put off lice? Whatever the reason, Houbigant supplied the powder.
He also sold hair pomade, and floral essences, which gets us back on familiar territory. The making of him was the patronage of Madame du Barry, the equivalent of a thirty-dollar Good-time Girl, whom the aging king Louis XV had installed as maitresse en titre.
Du Barry adored Houbigant , and bought most of her perfume there. So too, did the young Dauphine, an Austrian blonde named Marie Antoinette, although she detested the Du Barry. In fact, the Corbeille de Fleurs may have been the very shop which filled the queen’s necessaire but spilled the beans about the royal family’s flight to Varennes during the French Revolution.
That revolution didn’t destroy the company, it continued on catering to the court of Napoleon, (Josephine was a customer) and during the rest of the 19th century to other courts, notably the Russian one with Le Bouquet de la Tsarine for the wife of Alexander the III.
In 1912 though, Robert Bienaime, then assistant to the perfumer Paul Parquet, developed a rich floral bouquet, usually said to be based on rose, lilac and orchid, with the unusual touch of tarragon in the head. It was named Quelques Fleurs and it was greeted with great success. It has never been out of production although for some time during the nineteen sixties and seventies, its formula was seriously debased. In 1985 the perfume was re-launched and it has continued on since then.
If you are one of those people who knew Quelques Fleurs back in the day and don’t like the new formulation, you have some choice. Near versions of it are in production, Montale’s Velvet Flowers is close and Sonoma Scent Studios does an extract strength variant called To Dream.
Myself, I think the new Quelque Fleurs is fine. More even than L’Heure Bleue, this one reminds me of Europe before the calamity of World War One. There is the golden warmth, the easy going flow of time, the sensuality of the old century, everything doomed to die in the trenches of 1914 along with a large proportion of Europe’s young men. Thankfully this perfume, one of the few survivors of the pre-war world era, lives on.