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.