The 1912 Overture Part III

Parfums Caron date back to the year 1904, making it therefore a decisively newer house than Guerlain (1828).  Ernest Daltroff, the young entrepreneur who had founded the business was looking for a perfume that would put him on the map.

He’d had some success with a release called Chantecler (1906), but Daltroff knew that a modest boost was not what a fledgling business needed. It needed a blockbuster.

Then along came Coty’s L’Origan (1905), and Daltroff found an oriental focus for his thoughts about the unborn Caron hit.

Like Jacques Guerlain, Daltroff’s first instinct evidently was not slavish imitation of Coty.  He was content to let time go by until about 1911 or so, when Caron’s new perfume was ready for the market.  It was called Narcisse Noir.  What distinguished it from everything else then available, was a very curious structure.  Narcisse Noir was, like L’Origan, distinctly on the sweet side of the Oriental family, but only in its dry down.

What came before that was an unprecedented eau de cologne top.  This made Narcisse Noir doubly strange as a perfume, because its beginning was all freshness and sunniness, but its heart and its ending were all the dark mysterious resins of the East.  Many people down the subsequent century have sworn they smell the familiar Indian incense recipe Nag Champa in Narcisse.  I haven’t ever knowingly smelt Nag Champa and can’t speak to its presence in the perfume, but the distinct oriental nature of the scent predated its great competitor as Eau de Femme Fatale, Shalimar.

The bridge between these two seemingly unbridgeable notions was a Spring flower with a distinctly animalic overtone, the Narcissus.  This scent starts fresh but soon takes on a musky almost smoky quality that makes it an ideal material for passing from a fresh scent to a sultry one.  This transformation is the remarkable party trick of Narcisse Noir.  Unlike every other perfume before it, Narcisse Noir makes a transformation from one type of scent to another kind, that is diametrically opposed to the first.

Most consumers when  exposed to it are confused by this conjuring trick, but learn to like it.  It has, of course, made its appearances in literature, namely Sunset Boulevard, and the eponymously named Black Narcissus in which the young Asian prince taught English by a group of nuns drenches himself in the seductive Parisian scent before going to school every day.

To my mind, however, most users circa 1916 or so, might have conjured up the mental image of Mary Pickford, the wholesome blonde actress then known as America’s Sweetheart riding piggyback on Theda Bara, the heavily kohled proto-vamp, whose career in pictures has provided the template for Robert Pattinson’s,  some ninety years and one sex change operation later.  There is, Narcisse Noir reminds us not much new under the sun.

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3 Responses to The 1912 Overture Part III

  1. Mals says:

    I have only smelled the current version of Narcisse Noir, which unlike its original form is pretty and sweet and girlish, smelling mostly of jasmine and orange blossom. I enjoy narcissus very much, and to whoever at Caron was responsible for giving NN its current peroxide blonde character, I say BOO.

    Love the image of Mary Pickford on Theda Bara’s shoulders.

    • Blacknall Allen says:

      Ain’t it a shame about Narcisse Noir? But you know Narcisse Blanc actually smells much more Narcissusy than NN, and has for about ten years to my knowledge. As for really Narcissusful perfumes, do you know Cradle of Light from Christopher Brosius? That one is really narcissus, and the good stuff too.
      By the way where is your blog moving? I’d hate to miss it.
      Cheers Blacknall

      • Mals says:

        Must get a sample of Narcisse Blanc, then… Have not had much luck with any of the CBIHP scents, though, as they tend to smell – oh, unfinished might be the word for it. Flat? They just sort of… sit there on my skin not saying anything.

        I love love PdN Le Temps d’une Fete, though it’s more woody than strictly narcissus floral.

        New blog address: http://themuseinwoodenshoes.com

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